The most notable restaurant and bar openings of September were Old Devil Moon, Nomica, Maybeck’s (essentially a renamed Spaghetti Bros.), Mezcalito, Evas Waterfront in Oakland and the delightful joys of Taiwanese snow at Powder. Here are my top three newcomers of the month… and why they stand out.
Two visits in, Nomica, from the venerable Sushi Ran team in Sausalito is primed at least initially to be one of the best openings of the year, serving inspired, creative Japanese dishes and drinks in a bustling, open, Cass Calder Smith-designed space where the seamless team of staff already give great service.
There are a few typical early day kinks (long pacing between dinner and dessert one night, which the staff made right), while some of the priciest offerings, like Dungeness crab donabe rice ($39/70), dont feel worth the price (comforting and traditional but not particularly notable compared to most of the menu). But the high points are some of the highest of any newcomer thus far this year: and more exciting (and a better value) than many modern Japanese restaurants Ive experienced from New York to Los Angeles.
Who: The Sushi ran team Yoshi Tome, Paul Quinn, Mynor Morales and Japanese chef Hiroo Nagahara (of Charlie Trotter and the incredible Narisawa, one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo), together with sous chef Adam Cruz, makes a stellar team, while Tome, Morales and Quinn warmly welcome diners as staff maintain the attentive but not obtrusive vibe.
Eat This: After two visits, I have almost tried the entire menu, with just a few dishes changing. Though larger, pricier items seem less worth the money than a combination of small to medium plates that are more innovative and flavorful, there is more than one wow moment here. A bread dish of three laminated, flaky brioche buns ($12) smeared with a divine beef-whipped jidori yolk as lush as any butter is a must.
Ditto the chicken & waffle ($22), which is essentially large karaage chicken cubes with Hitachino Nest Beer waffles in truffled maple syrup (you can order the chicken on its own for $14, but why would you want to miss those beer waffles?). But the accompaniments are almost as thrilling as the dish: a bright shiso bearnaise aioli is fantastic, cut with a clean turmeric daikon. Then there is matcha butter: grassy, silky, a bit of heaven.
A vegetarian Koshihikari rice risotto ($19), laced with grilled corn and vegetables in a jidori egg whip, is an entree standout, perfectly al dente and comforting. Perfectly seared seabass ($26) is elegantly laced with squid and red quinoa in black togarashi spices and smoked paprika. A five spice duck leg ($24) recalls French duck confit but with Asian ethos: duck fat rice and soy bean cassoulet dotted with lap cheong Chinese sausage.
While there are showier desserts like foie gras ice cream ($14), a seemingly simple coconut parfait ($10) leaves its delicate mark, a lighter-than-air bowl of tapioca pudding, aromatic with kaffir lime contrasted by peanuts.
Drink This: Nomicas long bar pours awamori (an Okinawan rice spirit), over 30 sakés in four flavor profile categories and wines from around California as well as from France, Germany and Spain.
After trying all cocktails ($10-12 each), only the slightly too sweet Floating World disappointed, while the rest of the menu offers a few standouts. The layered, savory-elegant Stray Cat Rock unfolds with lush Cognac, shiitake mushrooms, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, sherry, kummel (traditional caraway-fennel liqueur) and rosemary.
As a contrast, Maiko Matcha Milk (Spring 44 Old Tom Gin, matcha buttermilk, coconut, lime zest) is creamy, bright and clean, while Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation is a subtle lesson in balance, harmoniously combining Agricole rhum, pineapple, Junmai saké and yellow curry in a soft, lovely whole.
MEZCALITO, Russian Hill
A local chain, Andale, which many of us think of us for fast casual, airport Mexican food, may not seem like the obvious parent to the new Mezcalito on Polk Street, a lofty, wood-lined, Oaxacan-inspired, cocktail-centric restaurant that opened September 14th. But it is a vibrant Russian Hill newcomer. The down side (besides two TVs behind the bar)? No reservations, which means long waits and the inability to plan your night around a visit. But once seated, engaged staff serve vibrant, modern Mexican dishes with beautiful agave spirit cocktails and an expansive mezcal and tequila selection.
Who: Chef Julio Aguilera (of El Destilado in Oaxaca) worked with executive chef Matt DAmbrosi (formerly of Picco in Larkspur) on the small plates menu, while bar manager Guadalupe Jaques (formerly of Monsieur Benjamin and Barbacco) brings his deep cocktail knowledge and personable service along with some key staff from past positions, ensuring a tight team that already seemed to be working seamlessly together one week in.
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Eat This: Youll find the expected ($9 mashed avocado, basically guacamole) and the unexpected (a buttery, $19 lobster roll on brioche). But just because something looks predictable, like a ½ dozen oysters ($18), doesnt mean it is typical. A smoked mignonette served with what might be creamy, plump Washington oysters (selection changes) makes the oysters sing, even better with a shot of mezcal.
A salad ($11) of diced sweet potato, avocado, ricotta, sunflower seeds, cumin and shiso is refined as it is nurturing, while an octopus tostada ($18) most recalls Oaxaca in a complex peanut salsa. Tacos, whether Baja-style, beer battered ($12) or confit pork belly taco ($12), are another standout. Thankfully, chef DAmbrosi is turning out creative versions for Taco Tuesdays every week (watch for his killer fried oyster tacos).
Drink This: Look for Mexican wines and beers (like Cerveza Faunas Mala Vida) and fantastic mezcal flights. Jaques cocktails ($12 each) shine, from the subtle bitter backbone of Aperol with Mezcal Union, ginger liqueur, lime and bitters in the Colibri, to a tart, bright, silky Maracuya Sour, inspired from a Peruvian pisco cocktail of the same name, combining Siete Misterios mezcal, maracuya (passionfruit) puree, vanilla agave, lime juice, egg whites and Peychauds bitters. My initial favorite is the Fresita De San Felipe, a balanced vinegar beauty mixing Botanist Gin, a house strawberry jalapeno shrub, ginger syrup and lime juice.
OLD DEVIL MOON, Bernal Heights/Outer Mission
Of the three top newcomers this month, Old Devil Moon (aka ODM, open August 30th) is the one that is a neighborhood hangout, comfortable any night, where you can fill up on po boys, soak up a bit of New Orleans spirit, drink quality cocktails at a great price ($9-11) and choose from 20 rotating beer taps, curated and served sans attitude from a staff boasting no less than three cicerones. The spacious bar is decorated with Nola flair and quirk (think candles and skulls, a fireplace and plenty of wood), leading to an inviting back patio, which will be ideal when brunch kicks in.
Who: The laid back team of certified cicerone Chris Cohen, a former lawyer and homebrewer (founder of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild), certified cicerone and BarSmarts Advanced cocktail guy, Andrew Kelly, certified cicerone Ericka Schell, accountant William Marshall, and former attorney and a playwright, Carson Beker. They all bring a love of beer and New Orleans to their dream neighborhood bar.
Eat This: Consulting chef Charlie Kleinman (formerly of Wexlers) sources ingredients from nearby neighbors (like pickles from Paulies Pickling, tasso ham from Avedanos Meats and seafood from Gulfish), trained the kitchen on the menu and created their house barrel aged, vinegar-based hot sauce. While the bread recipe is still being dialed in to get a bit more of that properly crusty Nola po boy quality, the po boys do recall New Orleans in massive heartiness (at $14-15 each, these sandwiches are big enough to take some home) and soulful flavors.
While classic roast beef in debris gravy or fried Gulf oyster po boys delight, house recipes threaten to steal the show: first, a smart twist on a fried oyster po boy but done Oysters Rockefeller-style ($15), with crispy tasso ham in absinthe spinach butter. The oysters have that right mix of creaminess and fried crunch. The other house great is a housemade bologna ($14) po boy smothered in yellow mustard onion slaw. Ive sang the praises of Brendas Meat & Threes house bologna sandwich, slathered in pimento cheese. But both places pay homage to the Southern classic in different ways. ODMs meat is gratifying, ideal with that bright mustard kick and slaw crisp.
Drink This: The custom, wood and tile-lined draft system pours 20 rotating taps of direct-from-brewery kegs, offering rare barrels from good NorCal friends, like Almanac Beer Co. (recently, they poured their Truthful Statement bourbon barrel dark sour), Rare Barrel or Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, alongside European beers. They also have a robust rum selection (and serve rum cocktail classics like a Ti Punch), plenty of American whiskey, classic New Orleans cocktails, Mint Juleps on draft, Red Whale nitro coffee and two wines from Treasure Islands Conduit Winery. House cocktails, like the Bonbon or Ignatius J. Rye-ly, feature the nitro cold brew. Or there is the straightforward but crowd-pleasing Alcachofa ($10), a balanced mix of reposado tequila, Cynar and grapefruit bitters.