Why It’s Time to Return to Salt House, Dirty Habit & Alembic

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

Just like the four “best kept secret” restaurants I recently told you about, these three San Francisco restaurants have garnered new chefs in recent months, and with them, fresh life. All three are worth a revisit as their chefs innovate and serve damn great dishes. Here’s what’s exciting at each:

Salt House’s cavatelli verde


Salt House’s salmon

At just over 10 years old, it’s easy to forget about Salt House. As a restaurant that has always been good, this city is packed with excellence so “good” doesn’t cut it. But quietly becoming chef de cuisine in February 2015 and rolling out fresh menus in recent months, talented chef Evan Gotanda makes Salt House worth considering again when it is not on the radar of nightly diners like myself.
WHY: I’ll tell you why in two words: cavatelli verde ($15). This dish alone is worth a visit and best shows off Gotanda’s vision and possibility. Lamb sausage, cavalo nero (lacinato kale) and hazelnuts play with cooling tomato sorbet over housemade pasta to sweet-savory, chewy-soft-crunch, hot-cold effect. A play in contrasts and flavors, it’s a prime example of how exciting “fusion” can be.
EAT THIS: But Gotanda goes on with mushroom pate ($12) contrasted by wild pecans, salmon chicharrones (yes!), bonito cream and apple puree) or silky King salmon ($27) with grilled sushi rice in a soy broth laden with mushrooms and daikon. In a welcome mash-up of textures and East-meets-West flavors, I look forward to seeing what Gotanda will do next.
DRINK THIS: Wine pairings work with each dish, like a lush 2011 Mas de Daumas Gassac Vin de Pays De L’Herault Cabernet blend from France’s Languedoc region ($17 glass/$68 bottle) paired with meaty short ribs for two ($65) over harissa-carrot puree — there is also an orange wine bottle section that will please wine geeks. Stay tuned for more on Gabe Cothes’ cocktails ($13 each), particularly Dr. No, in my upcoming March Liquor.com 11 top national cocktails piece. Why not drink your dessert with his Monkey Flip: Gosling’s Rum, Fernet Branca, charred banana and whole egg dusted with toasted sesame powder?

Alembic’s seared scallops with cauliflower, blood orange, saffron, radishes


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Alembic’s Dungeness crab & avocado

Celebrating its 10 year anniversary in 2016 — and the one place I’ve ever bartended at — Alembic has run through up-and-down seasons since bar manager pioneer Daniel Hyatt and longtime (and underrated) chef Ted Fleury left. But since the space expansion in 2015 when David Faro (formerly at Aqua and Campton Place) moved from sous chef to executive chef, new management has come on board along with head barman Jacob Racusin. All this equates new life for an SF institution that needed it.
EAT THIS: A steal of a $45 four-course tasting menu elevates the experience at Alembic, drawing attention to its kitchen which has often gotten lost behind the bar’s hype. Josey Baker bread is on the menu, alongside reinvigorated versions of classic Alembic small plates like the jerk-spiced duck hearts ($8) and sprouted lentil croquettes ($10). Faro newcomers shine, like ultra-fresh Dungeness crab artfully lined up like a sushi roll/maki punctuated with grapefruit, avocado and nori (seaweed). Or there is tender, fall-apart lamb over a carrot puree accented by kale and walnuts. For dessert, the Baked Haight ($9) is a mini-Baked Alaska twist of pistachio cake and avocado ice cream, accented by Meyer lemon.
DRINK THIS: Racusin’s drinks cover a nice range, from a creamy horchata-mezcal sipper to a rum-amaro drink touched with sourdough (yes, sourdough). Mount Aso ($14) is the immediate standout with its savory combo of Iwai Japanese whisky, Mirin, kabocha squash, spices, lemon and smoked carrot dashi/broth, as is the simple but ideally balanced combo of Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin, Cheery Heering and citrus in the The Communist ($12).

Dirty Habit’s crab dumplings


Dirty Habit’s Bonzai cocktail: Suntory Toki whiskey, orgeat, grapefruit, lemon, matsu tea

Another place that needed new life after bar and chef greats Brian Means and David (“Baz”) Bazirgan left, Dirty Habit is back with just-launched food and cocktail menus from new executive chef Thomas Weibull (formerly at Clift Hotel and a Philly native) and bar manager and Mexico native Raul Ayala, who worked his way up from bar back under Means since 2014.
EAT THIS: Having trained in French technique in Stockholm and cooked his way around SF, Weibull is bringing fun, fresh, East-meets-West inspiration to his dishes. I’ve had dozens of lamb tartare over the years but his version ($18) is uniquely lively with pickled beets, potato, marjoram and coconut. His Dungeness crab dumplings ($14) are almost irresistible, meaty with ham hocks and black bean. Again, having eaten beef tongue in countless iterations, Weibull’s version ($16) is insanely tender, marinated in miso onion sauce, slow-cooked sous vide, then grilled, with the miso and pickled mustard seeds making it pop.
DRINK THIS: Though some cocktails can run a touch sweet (like the Smoked Bohemian or King of the Castle), others intrigue like the drops of chili salt oil enlivening Southern Atmosphere ($13), a drink of Wahaka espadin mezcal, Lustau fino sherry, annatto seeds, blood orange, lime and cucumber bitters. My initial favorite from Ayala’s menu is the tart-savory Tom Yum Sour ($13), inspired off the traditional Thai soup, mixing Spring 44 Gin, tamarind, galangal root, kaffir lime, lemongrass, lime and aquafaba (garbanzo bean water for silky texture) to vibrant effect.

Salt House