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Omnivorous 

In 2006, San Francisco is still a marvelous place to eat (stop the presses!)

Wednesday, Dec 27 2006
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My inscribed copy of Michael Pollan's gracefully written, compelling The Omnivore's Dilemma reads "Vote with your fork!" I know Pollan means that we should choose foods that are good for us, and good for the environment. In New York magazine's recent "Year in Culture" issue, David Zinczenko, the editor in chief of Men's Health, calls The Omnivore's Dilemma the best book of the year, continuing, "We all ought to think more about what we put in our mouths. Everything we eat is a moral choice."

Well, I doubt that I could actually think much more about what I put in my mouth (since I do it before, during, and after: anticipation, upon the tongue, and then reflection). But in remembering the best dishes I'd eaten in San Francisco over the last year, it seemed that my favorites were often immoral choices: creamy, buttery, meaty, decadent. My omnivore's dilemma is that I rarely get to taste these delights a second time. I list them here so that you can try them — as often as you like.

Despite my father's oft-repeated warning, "Don't fill up on bread!" when we were kids eating out, I find certain baked goods irresistible. Capturing my vote: the tiny hot cheese biscuits doled out like jewels at Scott Howard (500 Jackson, 956-7040); the fresh-baked (you see them being pulled from the oven), impossibly rich, buttery brioche buns at Canteen (Commodore Hotel, 817 Sutter, 928-8870); the baked-to-order gougeres, little peppery spheres of cream-puff pastry flavored with Gruyère and thyme, at Bar Tartine (561 Valencia, 487-1600); the adorable miniature versions of biscuits and cornbread muffins, served with homemade huckleberry preserves, at farmerbrown (25 Mason, 409-3276); and Dosa's (995 Valencia, 642-3672) crisp, highly peppered papadum chips.

Soup or salad? Yankee Pier (286 Magnolia Avenue, Larkspur, 924-7676) features a mug of lushly creamed and baconed New England clam chowder, topped with one of the dill drop biscuits mentioned above, and I also had a superb New England clam chowder, the simplest blend of clams, chunks of potato, and lightly thickened cream, at the Woodhouse Fish Company (2073 Market, 473-CRAB or 2722). Pure-cream deliciousness informs the potato-and-leek soup at Rue Saint Jacques (1098 Jackson, 776-2002). The chicken matzo ball soup at the California Street Delicatessen & Cafe (3200 California, 922-DELI or 3354) eats like a meal: excellent chicken broth with sweet carrots and beautiful big pieces of poached chicken, with tender matzo balls. Medicine Eatstation (Crocker Galleria, 161 Sutter, 677-4405) offers an unusual salad of stacked slices of shaved lotus root, simmered shiitake and wood ear mushrooms, and slivers of crisp apple, in a creamy sesame dressing. Two salads at a late-night supper at Globe (290 Pacific, 391-4132) shone: one of radicchio with Bosc pears, candied pecans, and a maple-and-balsamic vinaigrette, the other, somewhat daintier, sparkling with shaved fennel and black radishes with ruby grapefruit. More unusual was the colorful chopped salad of seared watermelon, red peppers, purple onions, olives, and shredded white cheddar offered at Brick (1085 Sutter, 441-4232). Whether you try one of the set salads (a classic Cobb, a Southwestern-accented Cowboy salad) or choose your own ingredients at Mixt Greens (120 Sansome, 433-MIXT or 6498), the resulting dish will be all organic and well dressed.

I love to start a meal with the clean briny flavors of the sea. There are few dishes more spectacular than a lavishly put together cold seafood platter, and I feasted on several in 2006: a rather austere but sparkling assortment of oysters, littleneck clams, prawns, and ceviche at the Yankee Pier; the smallest version of three offered at Yabbies Coastal Kitchen (2237 Polk, 474-4088), plenty generous with oysters, spicy steamed mussels, littleneck clams, prawns, half a cracked Dungeness crab, and the ceviche of the day; and the dazzling chilled seafood sampler for two at Joe DiMaggio's Italian Chophouse (601 Union, 421-5633), which billowed steam from dry ice over a spread of a small split lobster, oysters, clams, mussels, a couple of huge shrimp, and ceviche.

Other stunning seafood starters included an unforgettable dish at Scott Howard: sea urchin mated with fatty toro and rich, suave avocado. I've never tasted a crab salad quite like the brilliant one at Canteen: a genius combination of the biggest lumps of Dungeness, paired with a seriously hot vinaigrette and a cooling ball of cucumber sorbet. Nopa (560 Divisadero, 864-8643) thrilled us with a heap of tiny, hot, crackling fried fish, served with crisp fennel and a garlicky romesco sauce. At Kiss Seafood (1700 Laguna, 474-2866), the exquisite sashimi and sushi are not starters, but the focus of the meal. At our omakase feasts, the sashimi assortment featured Thai snapper, giant clam, toro tuna, amberjack, shrimp, and halibut, all faultless, some velvety, some crunchy; and sushi included succulent yellowtail, wild salmon, lovely oily mackerel, marinated maguro tuna, and halibut laid over a tiny bit of chopped pickled clam and a shiso leaf.

Globe fed us a superb pizza, the puffy, thin crust topped with melty mozzarella, excellent soppressata, and two sunny side up eggs with still-soft yolks. Hard to choose between the linguini with clams as served at Yabbies, with chili flakes, whole roasted garlic cloves, chopped pancetta, and topped with 30 tiny clams in the shell, and the one offered at Joe DiMaggio's, a dozen big clams in the shell on pasta with tomatoes, basil shreds, and chunks of linguisa in a light white wine sauce. I loved the pale-green house-made nettle linguini with garlic topped with salty, fishy botarga di tonno (dried tuna fish roe) at Globe. Suzu Noodle House (1581 Webster No. 105, 346-5083) makes its udon, soba, and ramen fresh daily, and serves them in such alluring combinations as the mabo ramen, in a mildly spicy broth topped with custardy tofu and crumbles of ground pork.

Most of the offal I enjoyed in 2006 came in the form of charcuterie, such as Bar Tartine's plate mating silky chicken-liver pâté with divine pork rillettes, which we enjoyed alongside the kitchen's superb roasted marrow bones served with sharply dressed arugula. Scott Howard offered lovely sweetbreads with smoked bacon on potato purée with truffled Madeira sauce. At the Front Porch (65 A 29th Street, 695-7800), I was insanely happy with my massive portion of deep-fried chicken livers on brioche toast, saturated with onion gravy.

Best fish dishes? Tasmanian sea trout with saffroned leeks and Hama Hama oysters at Scott Howard; the lobster rolls and the fish and chips at both Yankee Pier and Woodhouse Fish Company, where we also enjoyed simple boiled lobster and Dungeness crab; the prawn coconut masala at Dosa; a nice oily slab of sturgeon, pan-seared and adorned with asparagus, peas, artichokes, and tarragon, at Nopa. South Sea Seafood Village (1420 Irving, 655-8210) amazed with lobster stir-fried with garlic, sea bass steamed under cilantro and scallions, scallops with sugar snap peas and pine nuts, salt-and-pepper squid, and crab baked with ginger. Will's House (708 14th Street, 861-2682) offers a succulent Vietnamese crab roasted in the shell with much garlic. But I dream of the spicy Dungeness crab and sweet white corn grit porridge, touched with lemon juice and shallots, as invented by the Front Porch.

Memorable meat included rarely seen grilled lamb riblettes at Globe, where there's also a thick juicy pork "Porterhouse" sided with baby turnips and mustard greens. Très Agaves (130 Townsend, 227-0500) offers two long-cooked meat masterpieces, a melting-soft version of carnitas, and a brothy Jalisco beef dish called carne en su jugo. Dosa shines with Tamil lamb curry with a tomato sauce flavored with fennel and poppy seeds. Several people could be fed with one order of Rue Saint Jacques' cassoulet, a cast-iron skillet filled to the brim with white beans, duck confit, lamb confit, pork sausage, boudin blanc, and bacon. Tajine (552 Jones, 440-1718) features lamb couscous, the fluffy grain topped with nicely gamy-tasting lamb chunks, carrots, zucchini, and potatoes. Canteen offered an untraditional "pot au feu" of the tenderest braised veal filet, slightly firmer peppered beef brisket, and decadent collops of foie gras. Brick's braised short ribs came with delicious creamed spinach topped with diced marrow.

Why call it fowl when it's as delicious as Tajine's chicken bastilla, phyllo dough enfolding shredded chicken, ground almonds, and eggs, or chicken tajine with preserved lemon and olives? Canteen did sauteed quail garnished with sweetbreads, golden raisins, and endive, and spring chicken daringly scented with ginger. We loved the braised duck at Nopa and both the roasted duck and squab at South Sea Seafood Village. And new contenders for San Francisco's best fried chicken are being served at farmerbrown and the Front Porch.

Both vegetarians and carnivores (hey! Omnivores, too!) would be thrilled with Medicine Eatstation's sesame tofu and its eggplant broiled with sesame oil and miso paste; Dosa's paneer and peas uttapams, lacy thin pancakes made with a batter of rice and lentils; Nopa's aromatic Moroccan spring vegetable tagine asparagus, zucchini, beets, onions, and more, in a cumin-scented tomato sauce dotted with lemony yogurt and almonds; and South Sea Seafood Village's mustard green bulbs with black mushrooms.

Sweet teeth will thrill to Yankee Pier's butterscotch pudding; Medicine Eatstation's shaved ice topped with seasonal fruit and yuzu syrup; Canteen's classic vanilla soufflé and unclassic coffee ice cream with thick salty caramel and whole almonds; Nopa's doughnut holes served with warm orange honey; and Brick's wacky white chocolate mousse with mango, olive tapenade, goat cheese, and kumquat marmalade. Bar Tartine lets you choose from a list of a dozen interesting cheeses, garnishes them with fruit, honey, and nuts, and serves them with excellent bread, of course.

Close readers of Eat will note two restaurants that opened in 2006 that I loved whose dishes go unmentioned in the exhaustive (if not exhausting!) list above: Coi and Terzo. Chef Daniel Patterson offers exquisite prix-fixe meals in Coi's main dining room. Mark Gordon's alluring menu at Terzo features lusty-flavored small plates. And virtually everything I ate at both places could find a home on this list. Impossible to choose. Call it the true omnivore's dilemma.

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Meredith Brody

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