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.
Ironwood BBQ (Golden Gate Golf Course, 47th Ave. and Fulton,751-8987, www.goldengateparkgolf.com/ironwood) offers excellent chicken, brisket, and pulled pork in an unusual setting. Macao Friends (2240 Irving, 665-7888) has a lovely ginger and green onion beef hot pot, as well as excellent crispy chicken wings. At family-style Joey & Eddie's (1652 Stockton, 989-7800, www.joeyandeddies.com), the platter of pork braciole, pork ribs, sausage, and meatballs made with veal, pork, and beef in tomato gravy is enough food for an army.
The golden-skinned roasted half-chicken at Arlequin Cafe (384 Hayes, 626-1211) is as good as any in the city. The slow-braised lamb shank at Aperto (1434 18th St., 252-1625, www.apertosf.com) shared its juices with a mixture of shelling beans and fresh corn. At Nettie's Crab Shack (2032 Union, 409-0300, www.nettiescrabshack.com), a delicate chunk of salmon-colored Arctic char under a mantle of subtle egg sauce came with new potatoes and Brussels sprouts flavored with bacon and onions.
At Pagolac (655 Larkin, 776-3234), the seven flavors of beef (bo 7 mon), which includes do-it-yourself cooking at the table, is a bargain at $16 a person (minimum two). Marnee Thai delights with a mild coconut-milk chicken and baby eggplant curry; a fabulous pan-fried halibut topped with crunchy fried garlic atop stir-fried water spinach; and prawn and scallop phong ka ree with lightly scrambled egg and yellow curry sauce. At Taishan Cafe (1125 Clement, 668-0838; 4401 Cabrillo, 668-1888), long-cooked lamb in a dark succulent sauce tastes almost more French than Chinese, and the delicate chunks of fragile salt-and-pepper frog could not be more expertly fried. At tiny, hip Halu (312 Eighth Ave., 221-9165), kara age (lightly battered and fried chicken) comes in a woven basket, our favorite the yakitori with smoky grilled asparagus, scallops wound with bacon, and chicken thighs with shiso. The panko-coated shrimp kushi katsu skewers are among the best shrimp tempura ever.
Yes, we ate well in 2008, and even rather affordably. In fact, one of the most unforgettable single meals of the year was wildly interesting and amazingly reasonable — a feast at Shanghai House (3641 Balboa, 831-9288) for seven or eight of us. It featured Shanghai steamed baby dumplings, fried silver threaded roll, salt-and-pepper pig's knuckle, mushroom and winter melon clay pot, vegetarian goose (actually mushrooms in puff pastry), sautéed shrimp, meatballs with vegetables, braised fish in rice wine sauce, garlicky sautéed string beans, baby bok choy, and long, barely-sweet crullers called Chinese doughnuts. The memory of this meal was so irresistible that we booked a table for Christmas Eve, for a dozen people this time. We wanted to eat everything we'd had before – and more.