An Ideal Meal

Assemble your own from a buffet of the year's best dishes

Since the superb editor Adam Moss took over New York magazine, there's been a cute little addition to the restaurant reviews. Tucked into the box at the end of the piece that contains hours and prices is a brief list titled "Ideal Meal," which sometimes sounds ideal indeed ("Organic duck egg or potted suckling pig, hand-torn pasta with crushed tomatoes and anchovies, venison or squab, warm Valrhona chocolate panettone"), sometimes unbalanced ("Tonnarelli with tomato, pancetta, and fresh bay leaves; veal ravioli with Sicilian pistachio sauce; Illy cafe panna cotta"). I would be loath to suggest an ideal meal, not knowing your taste. But at the end of another year of voluptuous grazing, what I would love to do is assemble a huge, Las Vegas-style buffet, from which you could pick and choose your own.

In the starters section, there would be the salty fried olives stuffed with melting fontina cheese from Sociale (3655 Sacramento, 921-3200), and two takes on octopus carpaccio: Brindisi Cucina di Mare's (88 Belden, 593-8000) translucent, briny slices sparked with arugula and chewy black olives, and Winterland's (2101 Sutter, 563-5025) squares of octopus, not actually raw, but blanched, still chewy, dusted with paprika and garnished with Asian pear and crunchy sea beans. And a bowl of Tamal's (1599 Howard, 864-2446) superb tuna seviche with minced mango, peppers, lime juice, soy sauce, and ginger, and a platter of the miniature Dungeness crab empanadas. And some of Ino's (22 Peace Plaza, Miyako Mall, 922-3121) fresh uni. Sea Salt (2512 San Pablo, Berkeley, 510-883-1720) would contribute smoky grilled squid in an habanero and pumpkin seed sauce. Next to them, there'd be a huge dish of Café Bella Vista's (2598 Harrison, 641-6195) silky white anchovies, along with an assortment of seafood salads from Andrew Jaeger's House of Seafood & Jazz (300 Columbus, 781-8222): shrimp rémoulade made with both fried and boiled jumbo shrimp, snowy crab Louis, a tart crawfish salad with olives and capers, and a tangle of briny black seaweed capped with Louisiana caviar. Mamacita (2317 Chestnut, 346-8494) would add petite rounds of cornmeal-crusted local calamari and even smaller discs of jalapeño, nicely fried.

There'd be tureens of beautiful soup: Brindisi's acqua povera, a "poor water" full of rapini, white beans, bright green peas, and chunks of fried bread; Tamal's gazpacho, a thick white almond purée, stiff with garlic and topped with halved green grapes; from Cinderella Bakery and Café (436 Balboa, 751-9690), a delicate spinach soup with hard-boiled egg; Winterland's satiny roasted white corn soup, improved with vanilla oil, flaked Dungeness crab, and huitlacoche; O'Reilly's Holy Grail's (1233 Polk, 928-1233) sweet corn and oyster chowder, with huge oysters and cubes of salty, smoky house-made ham; and from Capannina (1809 Union, 409-8001), the exciting zuppa de lenticche con gamberi e fegato d'oca, a purée of green lentils with whole lentils, prawns, and foie gras.

Bravely (after such an abundance of pottage), there'd be just one salad, but a terrific one: Oola's (860 Folsom, 995-2051) sublime Caesar, a stack of crisp romaine leaves drenched with a bold dressing sharp with anchovies and salty with Parmesan, crowned with slippery white anchovies and oily croutons.

There would be an astonishment of pork (and other meat) products: Jack Falstaff's (598 Second St., 836-9239) twice-cooked pork belly with a salad of frisée with pistachios and julienne of strawberry and rhubarb in balsamic vinegar; Rubicon's (558 Sacramento, 434-4100) chunk of seared foie gras, along with a short-rib terrine, garnished with white asparagus, roasted pear, and horseradish; O'Reilly's Holy Grail's terrine of "crubeens" (shredded pig's feet), set off by bright cabbage slaw and a sharp mustard vinaigrette; Chenery Park's (683 Chenery, 337-8537) braised pork belly graced with plump, sweet muscat grapes. Zuppa (564 Fourth St., 777-5900) would supply a platter of affettati (cured meats): best-quality prosciutto, Milanese salami, speck, coppa, and mortadella studded with pistachios.

Zuppa would also show up in the pasta arena, with trenne con crema de cavolfiore, an unusual dish of homemade short tubular pasta in a rich cauliflower sauce dusted with mollica (bread crumbs). Also Range's (842 Valencia, 282-8283) goat cheese and sorrel-stuffed ravioli under lime butter and snipped chives. And Cinderella's pelmeni, sturdy beef-filled dumplings, in chicken broth, with fresh dill and sour cream. And next to them Shanghai Dumpling Shop's (3319 Balboa, 387-2088) famous soup dumplings, called Shanghai steamed dumplings.

Just a few pizzas: deep-dish sausage from Little Star (846 Divisadero, 441-1118); Rosie's farm egg, nettle, and lamb sausage, from Pizzetta 211 (211 23rd Ave., 379-9880); and a fig, Gorgonzola, roasted onion, and rosemary variety from COCO 500 (500 Brannan, 543-2222).

Are we ready for main courses? How about seafood: There'd be Jack Falstaff's delicate pan-roasted Alaskan halibut covered with bay scallops in a green garlic glaze, atop sautéed peas and pea shoots in a light saffron aioli. Also chewy grilled squid from Kyo-Ya (2 New Montgomery, 546-5090), scored in squares, fragrant with fresh ginger. La Folie (2316 Polk, 776-5577) would furnish plump, juicy sautéed frog's legs with a snowy garlic purée and bright green parsley coulis. There would be amazing lobster and green pea dhosas (crepes) from Tallula (4230 18th St., 437-6722) adorned with lemon beurre blanc. We'd have Louisiana bouillabaisse from Andrew Jaeger's House of Seafood & Jazz, full of tiny black mussels (still in the shell), scallops, oysters, shrimp, squid, crawfish, and slices of okra. There'd be chunks of grilled local wild king salmon dabbed with dill and pine nut pesto from COCO 500, and Range's delightful oven-braised pollock with runner beans, cabbage, and fingerling potatoes in a pancetta-enhanced broth.

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