When you eat out professionally, your meals tend to run together. I ate hundreds of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in San Francisco restaurants over the past year — some great, some terrible, most of them somewhere in between. But within those, there are a few memorable dishes that drift to the surface of my memory when I close my eyes and think about my year in eating. Whether they were consumed at new restaurants or just restaurants new to me, all of them helped shape my culinary life.
A few necessary caveats: This is not a comprehensive guide to the best dishes in the Bay Area, nor is it even a comprehensive guide to every good thing I ate last year. It's just a list of 10 very delicious things, in no particular order. It will no doubt reveal some obvious biases. I didn't spend nearly as much time in the East Bay as I should have (one major New Year's resolution is to remedy that in 2014). And though I wracked my brain for perfect, composed vegetable dishes, mostly what I remember is meat. Finally, a few of these items are sadly not on menus anymore and live on only in my memory — a reminder that the only constant in our seasonal, market-driven restaurant world is change.
Crispy Milk-Braised Celery Hearts at Hard Water
Charles Phan's expansion into Southern cuisine was in full-force at his Embarcadero restaurant and temple to bourbon, but what I remember most is the crispy celery. Deep-fried celery hearts are apparently a New Orleans tradition, but I'd never encountered them before, nor thought that boring old celery could be transformed into something so delicious. The vegetable was braised long enough to break down its fibrous nature, and then dredged in bread crumbs, fried to a crisp, and served with an Old Bay aioli. It was the perfect foil to the bar's strong, tasty whiskey drinks. Pier 3, The Embarcadero, 392-3021, hardwaterbar.com.
Lion Heart at Trick Dog
Scotch and mango do not sound like a tasty combination, but sometimes what makes an item the most memorable is the element of surprise. That's how I felt about the Lion Heart cocktail at Trick Dog, a sunny drink that managed to combine Black Grouse Scotch, mango puree, pepper tincture, lemon juice, and a preserved strawberry garnish into something tropical and magical-tasting. Paired with a side of pork cracklins, fried with brown sugar and dusted with sweet-salty spices to become something between chicharron and pork belly, I was a very happy customer. 3010 20th St., 471-2999, trickdogbar.com.
Ceviche at Cholo Soy
A friend told me about this small Peruvian lunch counter in the Mission, and was then a little put out when I wrote a rave review of it, worried that popularity would ruin his secret spot. I understood his reaction, but I also knew why he'd shared it with me in the first place: Ceviche this good deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. It's certainly the best I've ever had, vibrant and zesty and fresh-tasting, with a lively red chile sauce to accompany it. The original version is great, and the alternate version, with bright yellow aji amarillo pepper, is even better. The best news: At $5 a plate, you can afford to get both. 2301 Mission.
Kouign Amann at B. Patisserie
Imagine a croissant, a buttery, flaky, perfect croissant. Now imagine it made with salted butter instead of unsalted, and with plenty of sugar folded into the pastry along with the fat, which caramelizes as it bakes. This is the kouign amann, a Breton pastry that's taken San Francisco by storm the past few years. I fell in love with it at Belinda Leong and Michel Suas' bakery, B. Patisserie, which opened 10 months ago in Pacific Heights. Their version of the pastry, piled high in the display case, has a soft, sugary, almost custardy center, and plenty of caramelization on the edges. It's stupidly delicious. 2821 California, 440-1700, bpatisserie.com.
Boat Noodles at Zen Yai
Food writers are more adventurous than most when it comes to trying new things, but we're also not born loving everything that comes our way; that comes from experience. And the boat noodles at Tenderloin Thai spot Zen Yai were notable to me because they were the first time I'd ever enjoyed eating blood. Blood is the foundation of the broth in these soupy noodles, named for the vendors in Thailand who sell them from boats, and it adds a rich, unctuous layer of flavor without any of the metallic flintiness I usually associate with it. Beef, soft noodles, bitter greens, and pork cracklings contribute to the soup, making this off-the-menu order the only thing you must get if you visit. 771 Ellis, 885-0725, zenyaithai.net.
Dirty Hippie and California Creamsicle shots at Rich Table
It's good luck for my taste buds and bad luck for my bank account that I happen to live around the corner from Rich Table, and I had many great meals at the bar there this year. But the thing that stands out most in my memory is the shotglass-sized items that Evan and Sarah Rich sometimes serve. The "Dirty Hippie" is a layered shot of buttermilk panna cotta and wheatgrass puree, topped with buckwheat, various seeds, and daikon sprouts. Its healthy appearance belies its richness — the buttermilk plays beautifully off the verdant wheatgrass — and it's a distillation of the kind of haute California cuisine that the Riches do so well. As is its dessert counterpart, the layered California Creamsicle shot made with citrus curd, yogurt mousse, citrus ice, and a bit of sorrel. 199 Gough, 355-9085, richtablesf.com.
Duck Larb at Lers Ros
If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, the duck larb at Lers Ros would be a strong contender. I was on a Thai-food kick all year, and I craved this locally famous dish at least a few times a month. Basically, it's a salad of chopped duck — with an equal ratio of crispy skin and moist, musky flesh — livened up with lime juice, cilantro, red onions, toasted rice, and Thai chiles. It has the lightness of a salad with the satisfaction of something much heartier. Lers Ros' popularity speaks for itself, and with the recent announcement that it's opening a Mission location in 2014, I have no doubt that the duck larb will continue its reign as one of the best dishes in the city. 730 Larkin, 931-6917 / 307 Hayes, 874-9661; lersros.com.
Uni at Swan Oyster Depot
Raw sea urchin stepped in this year to fill the vacuum that foie gras' banishment left behind, and though I ate uni in many variations in 2013, from pastas to potato dishes, my favorite encounter came during a lunch meeting at old-school Swan Oyster Depot. The sea urchin was delivered in its spiny shell, its buttery orange innards exposed, ready to be spread on sourdough or just eaten on its own, with no distractions from the impossibly smooth texture and undeniable taste of the sea. 1517 Polk, 673-2757.
Lamb Poutine from The Whole Beast
Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the weed, but the lamb poutine from meaty pop-up The Whole Beast was not only the most memorable thing I ate at Outside Lands, but also one of the most memorable things I ate all year (a follow-up taste at Eat Real only confirmed this). My god, it's good — starchy wedge fries are cooked in lamb fat and covered in lamb gravy, sheep's-milk cheese, shreds of rare lamb meat, and other little crispy bits. 2013 might have been the year we reached Peak Poutine, but hopefully this dish will carry through in years to come. thewholebeast.com.
Stir-Fried Pork Jowls and Radishes at Mission Chinese Food
It's been on the menu for a few years now, but I always overlooked the pork jowls and radishes in favor of the more obvious pleasures of ma po tofu, thrice-cooked bacon, and tea-smoked eel. What a mistake that was. On first glance, this looks like a vegetable dish with pork as a mere garnish, but once you start eating, you realize that it's deeply meaty and savory. The rose-skinned radishes, greens still attached, come fork-tender, and are soaked in a luscious, almost gravy-like sauce made with pork fat, fermented black-bean paste, and garlic. I feel very, very fortunate to live in a world (and a neighborhood) where such amazingness can be ordered for delivery. 2234 Mission, 863-2800, missionchinesefood.com.