SF: Top 3 October Openings

This article was first published here at Table8 where I am national editor.

The key restaurant and bar openings of October are The Morris, Rambler, Elite Cafe, Lao Table, fast-casual The Bird, Motze and Protrea in Yountville (Napa County) — more on a couple of these restaurants next issue. Here are my top three newcomers… and why they stand out.

The Morris crab porridge

The Morris crab porridge

THE MORRIS, The Mission

The Morris

The Morris

Paul Einbund’s vermouth menu at Octavia delighted me from the moment it opened, but he has been making thoughtful, inspired wine choices for years as sommelier at Frances, Slanted Door, Coi. On October 3rd, Einbund opened The Morris with Gavin Schmidt (former chef de cuisine at Coi and also at Campton Place and Blanca Restaurant in San Diego) — a neighborhood restaurant with quality food and superb drink in the longtime Slow Club. The remodeled space glows, with all aspects given personal touch, including the larger wine list book cover and denim coasters made by Einbund’s wife, Vanessa Yap Einbund. With informed, welcoming service, The Morris felt like a longtime favorite restaurant from opening week — no small accomplishment (and the bathrooms feel escaping into the peaceful nature scenes of your own arthouse film).

Eat This: With whole animal butchery practices and the bustling kitchen in full view of the restaurant, Schmidt’s food walks that fine line of being gourmet and inspired yet heartwarming and approachable.

The Morris' Muscovy duck

The Morris’ Muscovy duck

In my initial visit, it was ALL about the lush crab porridge ($16), brightened by lemongrass and slivered carrots, the crab delicately tempura-ed in expert Japanese fashion. The mains are $28 and under but it was fun to splurge on the one large-portioned (as two people, we could not finish it), juicy, beautifully smoked Muscovy duck (half $48, whole $96) with pomme rosti (recalling rosti from my Switzerland travels) and roasted root vegetables.

Drink This: Of course, the wine list is stellar and will thrill the wine geek as much as it offers easy drinking goodness for all, especially with $1.50 per centimeter, changing house red or white wine, a “pay only what you drink practice” you’ll see sometimes in Europe. They’ve got my number with the icy, bracing Chartreuse slushy ($10), which will change to a hot toddy on cooler nights. When asking for the full drink book, I tried to restrain a yelp of delight with the Madeira and Chartreuse collections dating back to the 1940s for the latter, or the 1800s for the former. There are affordable, biodynamic California wines and elegant rarities like a 2012 Cave des Tilleuls ($18/72) Pinot Noir from Switzerland.

Rambler's pork chop

Rambler’s pork chop

RAMBLER, Union Square

Rambler's Miyata Mule: Shinshu Mars Iwai Whisky, yuzu, Bleinheim’s Ginger Ale, Peychaud’s bitters

Rambler’s Miyata Mule: Shinshu Mars Iwai Whisky, yuzu, Bleinheim’s Ginger Ale, Peychaud’s bitters

From The Hat Trick Hospitality team (The Brixton, Sabrosa, Redford), Rambler opened early October in the Hotel Zeppelin with a complete revamp of Wolfgang Puck’s longtime Postrio space. Exposed brick, leather banquettes and metalwork outline the upstairs bar and tables, while the intimate downstairs dining room and bar soothes with book-lined shelves, lamps and neutral tones. The New American/Californian fare may sound like the usual on paper (pork chops, grilled octopus, croquettes) but is served with warmth and gourmet flair, riding that fine tension of appealing to tourists downtown as well as locals.

Eat This: Executive chef Robert Leva was the opening chef at Salt House, here utilizing that Postrio wood-fired oven on dishes like grilled octopus with chorizo or charred little gems and broccoli ($13), ideally enlivened with anchovy and manchego cheese dressing, pickled chilies and walnut croutons.

The cozy downstairs at Rambler

The cozy downstairs at Rambler

In an atypical move, entrees initially shine more than the still-good appetizers (like crispy fried sunchokes smeared in black garlic dip). Braised rabbit pot pie ($26) is packed with pearl onions, rabbit, carrots and fingerling potatoes under a buttery, flaky crust. A Kurobuta pork chop ($29) tastes like modern-day Germany, perfectly tender, brightened with pickled mustard seed and braised red cabbage.
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Drink This: Bar manager Simone Mims (formerly of Rich Table, Foreign Cinema) crafted a menu that stays blessedly elevated but not fussy. The low proof Phonecian Cobbler ($12) won’t please everyone, but is one of my favorites being among the most unusual here: a savory, dry refresher that stimulates the palate and takes a refreshing direction for a sangria-esque drink, mixing Cocchi Rosso, Parés Baltà sparkling wine, orange and a ras al hanout spice blend. The pricey ($25) Zeppelin Martini showcases expensive Monkey 47 Gin from Germany, a near perfect martini illuminated with Tempus Fugit’s Alessio Bianco vermouth and cucumber bitters.

Elite Cafe's muffuletta chopped salad (during the first visit)

Elite Cafe’s muffuletta chopped salad (first visit)

ELITE CAFE, Pacific Heights

Elite Cafe's frozen Irish coffee in a proper Nola "go cup"

Elite Cafe’s frozen Irish coffee in a proper Nola “go cup”

I will begin by saying, I was delighted when I heard Sidecar Hospitality took over the longtime The Elite Café. The group did a fine job of maintaining the history and spirit of Schroeder’s when they reopened it in 2014, while bringing fresh life and modernity to the German food and beer hall. Other than Meetinghouse biscuits (originally from a restaurant I still miss, The Meetinghouse), Elite Cafe wasn’t ever really about excellent food. It imparted a New Orleans vibe with those cozy booths (thankfully still here) — a neighborhood fixture since 1981 — but I always wished the food and drink might remotely reflect the great city of New Orleans (Nola).

That promise is here in this new iteration, if not yet quite consistent. The bar pretty much kicked off with seamless cocktails and wine offerings from day one. However, over two initial visits, the food alternated between heartwarming and Nola-spirited to lacking focus or veering bland. I so want this one to succeed and find its equilibrium.

Who: New Orleans native and chef Chris Borges oversees the kitchen, cocktails are spearheaded by the group’s bar director, Kevin Diedrich (of Sidecar’s new P.C.H.) and bar manager Brian Nelson, and Sidecar’s Beverage Director, Mauro Cirilli, created the approachable wine list.

Eat This: Joanna Karlinsky’s rightly-famed Meetinghouse Biscuits are still a highlight and, honestly, for someone who adores and is regularly exploring the food of the South, remain among the best biscuits in the US. You can get them solo (best option) with butter and jelly but ham hock, fried chicken or blackened catfish biscuits (2 for $12) please.

First visit jambalaya took me back to New Orleans with its sticky, meaty comfort

First visit jambalaya took me back to New Orleans with its sticky, meaty comfort

A Nola sampler ($21 for 3) — or the always smart offering of two entree sizes — is the ideal way to try gumbo, jambalaya and other classics. I was beyond disappointed to see Boxing Room chef Justin Simoneaux — with the best and a proper (duck) jambalaya I’ve ever had outside of New Orleans — recently move back to Louisiana. On my initial visit to the new Elite, Borges’ chicken leg confit jambalaya ($12/21) promised to be a worthy stand-in with rice properly tinged with a bit of stickiness. But by the second visit, the rice was on the mushier side, tasting more like an average rice dish than the glorious texture that is unique to authentic jambalaya in Nola. Alternately, I couldn’t taste uni butter in the solid crawfish étouffée the first visit, but the dish was more lush and gratifying upon my return.

Muffaletta chopped salad ($10/17) is a genius idea, combining the spirit of Nola’s iconic muffaletta sandwich with the dense goodness of a chopped salad (a favorite in my Jersey days). First visit, the salad struck a fine balance between being true to the original with a heavy dose of meats and cheese marked by California lightness. On visit #2, it was limp and drenched in vinaigrette. While I love plump Gulf shrimp, the shrimp and blue crab remoulade salad ($12/19) was nothing like my favorite versions in Nola, more like an overly chilled tomato and lettuce salad with drizzles of remoulade and scoops of crab and shrimp.

Second visit, the jambalaya had a lot more liquid, fell apart & was like a soft meat & rice dish more than jambalaya

Second visit, the jambalaya had a lot more liquid & fell apart

There are strengths throughout the menu, however, and when it’s good, it’s quite good, filling a much-needed void for authentic New Orleans’ cuisine on the West Coast. Here’s hoping the kitchen tightens up over time.

Drink This: Nelson ensures Diedrich’s menu of house cocktails and Big Easy classics, like a balanced frozen Hurricane or one of my rare, all-time Nola favorites, Absinthe Suissesse (here dubbed Absinthe Suisse for easier pronunciation), is executed expertly. Frozen Irish Coffee, served in a proper plastic “go cup,” is an improved version of Nola dive bar Erin Rose’s beloved slushie Irish Coffees.

Among the house cocktails there are a number of standouts, from the dry yet lush contrast of 1st Ward ($14), combining reposado tequila, palo cortado sherry, banana, acid phosphate and bitters, or the smoky elegance of International Smoke ($13), a mix of Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky, citrus, coconut and a peaty float of Islay Scotch.