Marcello Mastroianni in "Divorce Italian Style" (1961)
by John Mariani
by John Mariani
As NYC and London wage war to see which city can open the greatest number of restaurants per month during a bad economy, San Francisco always seems to have a few good new ones opening throughout the year, more often than not these days fairly small, often storefront places run by individuals one or two owners or chefs who put their heart and soul into the kitchen rather than the dining room. The finest restaurants in the city endure, even thrive, like Gary Danko, Boulevard, Fleur de Lys, and Ame. Here are some of the newest that have impressed me.
Italian food is usually good enough, and when
things go a bit too fancy, some of its soul may
get lost in translation. A good middle ground occurs
when a San Francisco chef like Michael Tusk
develops a feverish passion for the food, so that
even if his grandmother wasn’t Italian, he tries
to cook like one while adding everything that
Northern California can offer in terms of meats,
seafood, and vegetables. Seven
years ago Tusk opened the still red hot Quince,
but Cotogna is far more rustic and downright
chummy; every bottle on the wine list is just $40. And—get out!--a
three-course fixed price menu runs $24?! The
pastas are all radiant, from the most delicate fagotelli
with ricotta and flowering blossoms to the triangoli
with corn and chives. A fearsome grill/rotisserie
turns out sizzling Gulf prawns with a watermelon panzanella
salad. And for dessert there’s a peach crostata that
would make Alice Waters weep with pleasure.
Open Mon.-Sat. for
lunch and dinner, Sunday for dinner only.
Antipasti $12, pastas $15, main courses $22-$24;
fixed price menu $24.
I was delighted to be back in this
airy space, lighted by the soft, foggy San
Francisco sun, that had long been Aqua, which Chef
Michael Mina had helped open back in 1991. Since
then Mina has built an empire of mostly high-end
restaurants from Atlantic City to Vegas, from
Detroit to Seattle, not least four Bourbon Steaks,
a rampant expansionism that caused me to lose
interest Mina as a working chef. So Mina’s
return to his roots, at this stylish flagship
where he swears he will be cooking most of the
time, was promising news. After visiting the new
restaurant, I realized what San Francisco—and
I--had been missing all those years he was away.
dinner nightly. Appetizers $17-$28; $34-$98.
25 Lusk Street
need not be rapturous. At 25 Lusk, in the
fast-developing South of Market/China Basin,
Chef-restaurateur Matthew Dolan and partner Chad
Bourdon found a huge 1917 smokehouse and meat
packing building and utilized all its massive
industrial timbers and exposed brick to create a
shadowy, two-story restaurant of daunting size and
cool, casual elegance. The two men met in
culinary school a dozen years ago, and with a
solid training on both sides of the kitchen door,
they opened this grand venture last year, and it's
been a hit and catalyst for the neighborhood.
25 Lusk is open for dinner and for weekend brunch. Dinner appetizers run $12-$18, main courses $23-$48.
12 Fourth Street
The Fifth Floor is located, as you’d expect, on the fifth floor of the Hotel Palomar, and for about a decade now it’s been one of the top restaurants in the city, under several chef changes. The newest is David Bazirgan.
The 195-room hotel, located off bustling Market Street and near the Moscone Center, is actually on the fifth to ninth floors, and the design is built around geometric forms and formulas, with deep colors in the fabrics and polished wood, with a vaguely art deco feel. This is a Kimpton Hotel, so it contains one of its signature Mind.Body.Spa program (including in-room), featuring complimentary yoga basket. They also promise to be pet and child friendly, and they deliver live goldfish to your room throughout your stay, not, apparently, to be eaten as a snack but simply to calm your nerves.
Which may be needed if you book a room on the Market Street side, because, thanks to San Francisco’s indulgent city fathers, street musicians are allowed to play all day until nine p.m., and outside my window was a guy—every day—who played a full set of drums that was as disturbing as if they’d put a jackhammer out there. Ask for an interior room or one facing away from Market Street.
Every evening the hotel hosts a wine
hour from 5 PM-6 PM on the Fifth Floor Lounge, a
nice way to start before dinner (which may also
save you from spending money on aperitifs at the
restaurant). Although some reconfiguring of space
and décor has been done in the restaurant,
which was once oddly broken up, now modern, with
good lighting and semi-circular chairs, and a
definite romantic cast good for a first or tenth
date, as well as 25th anniversary. The Fifth Floor
is a serious restaurant but it manages to convey
that Northern California sense that you shouldn't
take the experience too seriously but relax and
enjoy yourself, perhaps putting yourself in
Francisco has always drawn the cuisines of the world
to its belly, though it’s not exactly awash in Cajun
Boxing Room fills that need well and does so within a
fine-looking, big open room with a very popular
28-seat counter where you can just drop in and eat in
front of the open kitchen where Chef Justin Simoneaux
works his spicy magic. He’s a Southern Louisianans
native who grew up eating—and sometimes catching—the
food of the region, and began cooking at 15,
eventually moving to California to attend the California Culinary Academy in 2005,
then worked his way around the Bay Area.
is open daily for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
At dinner appetizers run $8-$13, main courses
Down in San Mateo,
about thirty minutes from San Fran proper, Chef Sachin
Chopra and his lovely wife Shohana (who herself helps
run her family's vineyard, Wolff & Father Wines,
in the Santa Cruz Mountains), working out of a
charming western Victorian house, have married a
North Cal sensibility to Indian food culture with
dazzling, novel results. The place is so pretty, inside
and out, very truly like a home, with fireplace,
small, trim rooms in bright colors and trim, and a
sense that you really have been welcomed to the Chopra's for a
home-cooked dinner. But the menus go much
further than the usual Indian menu of mulligatawny
soup, samosas, and lamb vindaloo. Mr. Chopra
does do a vindaloo, but it is a short rib with molten
goat’s cheese, baby bok choy in a roasted onion,
fennel, ginger sauce.
All Spice is open for dinner Tues.-Sat. Appetizers $8-$14, main courses $13-$25.
are some food writers who will always lament the
quality of the restaurants on the Upper East Side,
despite the existence in that affluent stretch of
real estate of first-rate restaurants like Daniel,
Café Boulud, Café Sabarsky,
Caravaggio, David Burke Townhouse, JoJo,
L'Absinthe, The Mark by Jean-Georges, Park Avenue,
and others. Too often the criticism is aimed
at minor eateries that a certain type of UES
crowd has tended to favor, lackluster places
like Nicola and Swifty's, where the food is never
the point and money no object. It is easy
enough to satirize such people--just page through
any issue of the New
Yorker's cartoons--but I think it's
sufficient to say that if that's the kind of food
they want to eat and the prices they will pay for
a Waldorf salad, let them munch away. All
NYC restaurateurs should be so lucky.
is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly.
THAT'S IT? FIVE PERCENT????!!!
MAYBE THE PLANET URANUS?
"Earlier Kinch told me,
`When the Savoy cabbage is ready, we're prepared to
use it, because it's been growing in my head...,' and
again he trails of. At first you think he is
apprehensive about questions and answers, and then you
sense he is not completely present, that he listens
and speaks, he physically takes up space, but he is
actually somewhere else, in a secret world he explores
and from where he files little reports from time to
time, as menus."--Charles Bowden,
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