The Top Five San Francisco Dishes of 2010

I recognized it in the first bite of my first meal on the job at SF Weekly — that quality that lured me back to San Francisco after four years in Seattle. The dish, a squid and frisée salad at Baker & Banker, seemed relatively straightforward. But from the grill-charred satin of the squid to the evanescent crunch of cumin-dusted chickpeas and the elusive flecks of fresh mint, the salad demonstrated an exquisite sensitivity to detail, a quality that's rare in other cities and commonplace here.

I arrived at a marvelous time. A new generation of cooks and restaurateurs have come into their own this year, and more experienced chefs have shaken off the reserve that has dominated California cuisine for the past decade. I've encountered a creativity, a playfulness, that I haven't seen since the early 1990s — when, I might add, our food wasn't nearly as good.

The chefs earning the most excitement right now are the ones chasing an idiosyncratic, personal vision. That could mean opening a restaurant that serves sandwiches at lunch and prix-fixe dinners where the cooks have butchered, baked, and foraged almost everything they serve (Local: Mission Eatery in its first incarnation). It could mean chucking a successful restaurant career to buy a food truck and rethink Filipino classics (Hapa SF). It could mean melding formal French training, Korean snack food, and molecular-gastronomy hydrocolloids in a single dish (Benu).

Rather than recapping my 10 favorite dishes of 2010, this year it seemed more appropriate to list five of the year's most meaningful dishes, the ones that best represented the year in San Francisco restaurants.

1. Beef shank and marrow pot pie with a Pisco Punch at Comstock Saloon, 155 Columbus (at Pacific), 617-0071, www.comstocksaloon.com

One of the most romantic food-and-drink pairings I encountered all year. Where they could have built a theme park, Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger have instead created a timely, personal homage to San Francisco's Barbary Coast. They restored a magnificent 1907 bar, where the bartenders subtly refine 19th-century drinks like the Pisco Punch (Peruvian brandy, lime, pineapple gum), going so far as to make a fruit-infused gum Arabic syrup to give the drink a silky texture.

At the same time, Comstock's chef, Carlo Espinas, is refitting Barbary Coast recipes to the tastes of modern diners, who are used to lighter, farm-to-table flavors. A fork pressed into Espinas' meat pie shattered the lard crust, and a steaming, marrow-enriched beef stew flowed out. But for every bite of the rich pastry, the chef provided a counterpoint — a forkful of sharply dressed arugula leaves, whose sting scoured away the sense of excess.

2. Rack of lamb with chanterelles, mustard greens, and root beer jus at Sons + Daughters, 708 Bush (at Powell), 391-8311, www.sonsanddaughterssf.com

The high-end food I've felt most passionate about this year has, funny enough, not been free of flaws. This entrée, from Sons + Daughters chefs Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara, was a good example of the vibrant experimentalism that made 2010 such a fun year to be a restaurant critic. Sure, the dish included a sugary root beer syrup that had to be pushed aside, but oh! the rest of the dish: The lamb was slow-cooked sous-vide to the juiciest pink, then seared right for service. Surrounding the meat were tiny roasted chanterelles and pecans, which called out the nuttiness of the mushrooms, as well as a faintly scented chanterelle powder and the raw, earthy bite of mustard greens — grown in McNamara's mother's garden, like many of the herbs and vegetables the restaurant was serving this summer.

High-tech cooking and its associated gels and powders have been a hard sell in the ingredient-obsessed Bay Area. But by keeping the focus on seasonal, local ingredients, restaurants like Sons + Daughters (and Coi, Benu, Commis, Commonwealth, and the Alembic) are now able to get S.F. diners excited about the avant-garde. So if the cooks stumbles a little while they're working out this new culinary idiom, it's worth overlooking.

3. Grilled pork neck at Chabaa, 2123 Irving (at 22nd Ave.), 753-3347, www.chabaathaicuisinesf.com

Finding the off-menu pork neck at Chabaa — and then discovering its Thai-language menu of northeast Thai specialties — ranks as my favorite moment of the year. Chef Songla Sriprasom marinates the cut of meat (which Lers Ros calls "pork shoulder") in a soy-garlic marinade, then grills the meat until the exterior crisps and caramelizes. She slices the cut thinly so the meat has a springy, juicy texture. We swabbed each slice through a jaew (dipping sauce) throbbing with the funk of fermented fish, chiles, and toasted rice flour.

Chabaa is just one of a growing number of S.F. restaurants serving Isaan regional cuisine, and in the process hoisting Thai food out from its descent into Candyland. With its translated menu available to the public, Chabaa joins a broader, more welcome, wave of Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, and Mexican restaurateurs who are realizing they don't need to hew to a generic, Americanized menu to attract customers from outside their cultural community. And more and more San Francisco chefs from Sichuan, Shanghai, and Shandong are establishing their independence from Cantonese and Chinese-American cuisines.

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