Look Back in Hunger

We can't know what tomorrow may bring, but 2008 offered a lot of swell eating.

I approached the ritual of extracting the most memorable dishes from a year of dining around town with a certain amount of trepidation. Twelve months ago, we were in a recession (a conclusion that was agreed upon about 20 minutes ago), but from this vantage point it seems a much more innocent time when "investment dressing" still might have meant a designer outfit, not something you would pour on your salad.

The media likes to complain about the current hard times for restaurateurs almost as much as it complains on behalf of car manufacturers and venture capitalists, but there's little that can lift your spirit these days the way a good meal can, whether it sets you back $10 or $100.

It was actually the last week of 2007 when I dined at South Food and Wine Bar (330 Townsend, 974-5599, www.southfwb.com) and tasted a memorable dish named for its creator, chef Luke Mangan. Luke's licorice parfait with lime syrup, an unlikely but delicious combination, was an early candidate for best dessert, and still is. I remember it with pleasure, as I do South's excellent pavlova.

As one Ernestine Ulmer once said, "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first," so we'll continue with our sweet memories. Marisa Churchill didn't wow 'em on Top Chef, but she wowed us with her desserts, first at Yoshi's Jazz Club and Restaurant (1330 Fillmore, 655-5600, www.yoshis.com), where we enjoyed a deconstructed lime tart with yuzu lime curd, a tart yogurt semifreddo atop papaya shiso sauce, and fat beignets with Suntory whiskey cream. At Zaré at Flytrap (606 Folsom, 243-0580, www.zareflytrap.com), she concocted a magical version of churros called torrijas, fried milk-soaked brioche served with a rosewater-scented chocolate sauce.

Another churro-like confection we enjoyed was roti, a lacy, sweet fried dough served with coconut ice cream at Marnee Thai (1243 Ninth Ave., 731-9999, www.marneethaisf.com). In the same building as Yoshi's at 1300 on Fillmore (771-1700, www.1300fillmore.com), we had an unusual sweet-potato soufflé garnished with a syrupy relish of parti-colored sweet potatoes. And we've never had a better lemon meringue pie than Serpentine's (2495 Third St., 252-2000, www.serpentinesf.com) Meyer lemon tart with toasted-marshmallow meringue and blood orange segments. Bar Jules (609 Hayes, 621-5482, www.barjules.com) is famed for its version of the River Cafe Chocolate Nemesis, the apotheosis of the flourless chocolate cake, but we also loved its extraordinary nectarine tart, the fruit laid atop a thick rich pastry cream. Old-fashioned pies with superb flaky crusts dominate the dessert menu at Mission Beach Cafe (198 Guerrero, 861-0198, www.missionbeachcafe.com).

We skip back to the best beginnings. Salumi, pâtés, terrines, and other charcuterie are among our favorite ways to start a meal (or can serve as the meal itself). An excellent assortment at Laiola (2031 Chestnut, 346-5641, www.laiola.com) included La Quercia prosciutto, house-made Catalan headcheese, and sturdy lomo de cerdo (cured pork loin). At Uva Enoteca (568 Haight, 829-2024, www.uvaenoteca.com) you can compose platters from a dozen kinds of cured meats, including orange and fennel salami from Boccalone and mortadella from the Fatted Calf.

Soup can also serve as a starter or a full meal. Pho Clement (239 Clement, 379-9008) offers 25 versions of pho, a revivifying broth with thin rice noodles and your choice of ingredients (beef, chicken, or vegetarian), with fresh herbs, lime wedges, and bean sprouts. We liked the #7, tai nam gan sach, with rare steak, well-done flank, tendon, and tripe. Anchor and Hope (83 Minna, 501-8900, www.anchorandhopesf.com) served a lovely creamy chowder featuring minced littleneck clams, bacon, and white corn kernels.

Unforgettable starters included the savory bread pudding at Serpentine, which featured nettles, roasted onions, and Swiss cheese. Also at Serpentine, you might find roasted buffalo bone marrow, full of slightly gamey, buttery fat; and cornmeal-crusted asparagus paired with fried Hama Hama oysters. I dream about Anchor and Hope's unusual warm sea urchin, a spiky shell filled with a mixture of urchin roe, Dungeness crab, and mashed potatoes. Anchor and Hope also fries up a nice mess o' smelts, alarmingly called "fries with eyes," served with pale-pink remoulade. The Oregon bay shrimp salad at Mission Beach Cafe was layered with shaved celery root, mashed avocado, and pink grapefruit in a tangy yogurt dressing. The best single dish at Orson (508 Fourth St., 777-1508, www.orsonsf.com) was the smoked tempura-fried egg, lightly battered, with a still-runny yolk that thickened its scallion broth filled with bright-green favas.

We love eggs, whether they're atop a casserole full of roasted wild mushrooms dusted with breadcrumbs at Laiola, or topping the homey, satisfying bowl of steak and potato chunks sautéed with shallots and parsley, a Swedish dish known as pytti panna, served at Local Kitchen and Wine Merchant (330 First St., 777-4200, www.sf-local.com), or part of the massive Irish breakfast served at the Village Grill (160 West Portal, 681-5299), that also includes Irish bacon, two kinds of sausage, home-style potatoes, baked beans, and warm Irish soda bread.

After a breakfast like that, it may be a number of hours before you're interested in protein again. But when you are, there's a lot to choose from. We remember Laiola's tripe with garlicky white beans and its pork belly with Brussels sprouts, cipollini,and quince aioli; and Yoshi's exquisite shrimp-and-shiso-leaf tempura, and its unusual battera sushi topped with mackerel and salty shaved bonito. Then there are Serpentine's wonderful long-braised short ribs on a bed of parsley-root purée and the luscious prime rib at Epic Roasthouse (369 Embarcadero, 369-9955, www.epicroasthousesf.com), as well as the best single side of the year, Epic's truffled cauliflower, served in one big thick slice. We loved the classic coq au vin, its shiny sauce redolent of onions, thyme, and bay and full of mushrooms, lardons, and pearl onions, at L'Ardoise Bistro (151 Noe, 437-2600, www.lardoisesf.com), as well as its duck leg confit served with irresistible pommes landaises, thick-cut potatoes fried in duck fat.

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