Starting 2017 off with a slew of newcomers, the most notable restaurant and bar openings of January were The Halal Guys (first SF location), Khai, Coin-Op Game Room, Almanac Beer Co., Contrada, The Gastropig in Oakland, Uma Casa, The Korean Kitchen (good for takeout they do a great seafood pajeon), The Riddler, Homegrown, Alba Ray’s, Kinjo, Pausa in San Mateo.
Given the volume of openings and my continual travels I have four of these restaurants still to visit but have been to all the rest. While there are strengths at each, here are my top three newcomers and why they stand out.
Top New Bars
1. Kinjo, SF
Fresh off the heels of its intimate sister restaurant on Divisadero, Ijji (one of my top 12 openings of 2016), Kinjo opened in January as yet another hardcore, Edomae-style, nigiri-centric restaurant in SF. This time it’s on Polk Street and though still small, is livelier and bigger than Ijji, offering $120 omakase menus but also a full a la carte menu ($6-24 per dish/nigiri).
WHO: Kinjo is a partnership from chef-owner Billy Kong of Saru in Noe Valley and chef-owner Kuo Hwa Chuang of Seiya in San Carlos. Behind the sushi bar is sushi chef Takatoshi Toshi, formerly of Sushi Ran.
EAT THIS: The nine-course omakase menu actually includes one to three nigiri or bites in each course and is exquisitely crafted in keeping with other Edomae-style sushi restaurants. The menus are (obviously) ever-changing based on what is flown in fresh from Tsukiji Fish Market that week, but I love a decadent “caviar” start of kushi oysters and Hokkaido sea urchin during a recent visit, on to a cold smoked fish course of three nigiri served under a glass dome: ji kinmedai (golden eye snapper from Chiba, Japan), sagoshi (young Spanish mackerel from Kagoshima, Japan) and zuke sake (white soy-cured king salmon from New Zealand). Dessert perfection lies in a fluffy gyoku/organic egg custard with local spot prawns from Santa Cruz in the batter and salty-sweet unagi (freshwater eel) hand rolls.
DRINK THIS: With the same beverage director as at Ijji, saké is, naturally, queen. Look for a range of elegant to umami-laden sakés served in wine glasses.
2. Alba Ray’s, SF
I am always longing for more Cajun/Creole cuisine inspired by my beloved New Orleans: Alba Ray’s opened January 23rd from owner Alvin Garcia and chef-partner Adam Rosenblum (Causwells, Popsons Burgers, Nola’s Herbsaint), bringing laissez les bon temps rouler spirit to the Mission, right down to tableside jambalaya, future seafood boils, absinthe fountains, Gulf seafood from Gulfish and a fern and iron arch-lined dining room.
EAT THIS: While the traditional is adhered to (Creole praline bark or fried boudin balls, for example), this is not by-the-book Creole/Cajun. Creole chicken and pork jambalaya ($17 per person there is also a vegetarian version) is not exactly the sticky, tomato-laden, soulful perfection found in Nola at places like Coop’s. More paella-like and prepared tableside, Alba Ray’s jambalaya still may be the best dish on the menu. They do right by a spanking fresh blue crab salad and avocado ($17.75) over fried green tomatoes, a comforting rabbit stew ($19) dotted with mini-milk biscuits or a not-too-sweet cinnamon bun bread pudding ($7.75) drizzled with a ultra-sweet creme anglaise and rum sauce.
DRINK THIS: The bar is lined with absinthe fountains (offering absinthe service) and is centered around classic New Orleans cocktails from the Sazerac to the Hurricane, Ramos Gin Fizz to Vieux Carre, plus off-menu classics like a Brandy Milk Punch, a Nola brunch favorite. Stay tuned for a frozen Irish coffee inspired by New Orleans’ dive bar Erin Rose, akin to what Elite Cafe is doing.
3. Contrada, SF
Bringing a slice of Italy to Cow Hollow, Contrada opened January 4th with a wine garden and back deck and chef Jason Tuley (formerly of TBD, Clift Hotel, Picco) cooking rustic Italian comfort food with more than a little influence from his numerous trips to Tuscany.
EAT THIS: Contrada’s menu reinvents no wheels: rustic-modern-meets-traditional in house pastas and wood-fired pizzas to meat and fish entrees. But it’s all done well, resulting in a quality neighborhood Italian restaurant. Of all the pizzas tried, a local clams pizza ($20) laden with Calabrian chili, wild nettle, cured lemon and tomato sauce stood out, equaling the great clam pie at Fiorella in Outer Richmond. Another standout is farrow-juniper campanelle ($24), the height of comfort in Barolo-braised wild boar sugo and aged pecorino cheese. Having had hundreds of baccala (salt cod) dishes over the years, from Italy to Portugal, Tuley’s frittele di baccala ($14) stand out, oh-so delicately fried and salty, cooled in Meyer lemon aioli.
DRINK THIS: Shawndra McCrorey (A16, State Bird Provisions) consulted on the wine list, featuring sixteen changing California wines on tap and a bottle menu of small-production, sustainable Italian and Californian wines.