Here's a romp down memory lane. Or maybe we should call it forget-me-not lane, because as soon as I write about a splendid serving of food, I have to consciously stop obsessing about it, in order to have an open mind (and palate) for the next delicious thing that I hope will be set before me.
Otherwise it can lead to such danger as what's happening with my current best dish obsession: the antipasti at SPQR (1911 Fillmore, 771-7779, www.spqrsf.com). I'll be sitting in front of a mediocre $6.95 sandwich and thinking, "For the same amount of money I could be eating sweetbreads at SPQR." The little dishes — about two dozen of them — are separated into three categories: cold, hot, and fried. Man, oh, man, SPQR chefs can fry up an amazing assortment of sweetbreads, chicken livers, brussels spouts, and cauliflower, four dishes whose siren call I am hearing on a daily basis.
There are, however, many more delicious and memorable starters around town. I love a plate of salumi or charcuterie, and thanks partly to the many good Italian places that have opened in San Francisco lately, that's a frequent option. My favorites were at CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen (1666 Market, 437-1770, www.cavwinebar.com), featuring silky chicken-liver mousse and rabbit rillettes; Gialina (2842 Diamond, 239-8500, www.gialina.com), featuring Fra'Mani salamis; Bar Bambino (2931 16th St., 701-8466, www.bambino.com), where the meats are on display behind glass; Ducca (50 Third St., 977-0271, www.duccasf.com), which adds house-cured pickled veg; and Spruce (3640 Sacramento, 931-5400, www.sprucesf.com), which makes all its charcuterie in-house.
In another mood, I love a bowl of warm, comforting soup. The superlative included the bay-leaf-scented, green-onion-topped clam chowder at Weird Fish (2193 Mission, 863-4744, www.weirdfishsf.com); the brandy-enriched creamy lobster bisque at Pres a Vi, served, alas, in a shot glass (One Letterman, 409-3020, www.presavi.com); the rich, buttery lobster bisque freighted with chunks of meat at the North Beach Lobster Shack (532 Green, 829-3634, www.lobshack.com); the white-corn soup dotted with sorrel at Spruce; the divine wild mushroom soup featuring a tangle of roasted oyster, cremini, and shimeji mushrooms at Palmetto (2032 Union, 931-5006, www.palmetto-sf.com); and the pan-cooked local seafood chowder with clams, calamari, oysters, and a whisper of smoked bacon at Fish & Farm (339 Taylor, 474-3474, www.fishandfarmsf.com).
It was a good year for sardines. I loved the sardele in saor a la veneziana, fillets in a sweet-and-sour marinade with glazed onions and raisins at the Albona Ristorante Istriano (545 Francisco, 441-1040, www.albonarestaurant.com); the roasted sardines dotted with an eggy, pickly sauce gribiche at Maverick (3316 17th St., 863-3061, www.sfmaverick.com); and the silvery whole agrodolce sardines set on a fennel salad at Spruce.
Wonderful first courses included the crunchy hot ricotta fritters at CAV Wine Bar; the capuzi garbi con prosuto e luganega, an Istrian take on German braised sauerkraut with chunks of prosciutto and sausage, at Albona; a salad of ginger-marinated beets with avocado and dried beet chips and another of fried baby artichokes sprinkled over arugula at Maverick; a lemony, custardy goat-cheese tart at Nua (550 Green, 433-4000, www.nuasf.com); the three ceviches (mahimahi with cucumber and soy; octopus with scallops, slivered olives, and capers; and ahi with orange, avocado, and mint) at Mexico DF (139 Steuart, 808-1048, www.mex-df.com); the panzanella salad of juicy peaches, tart sorrel, chunks of toasted bread, and rosy slices of prosciutto at Ducca; and the juicy lamb meatballs and the squid stuffed with spinach, bulgur, pine nuts, and raisins, bedded on fresh tomato sauce, at Sens (4 Embarcadero Center, 362-0645, www.sens-sf.com).
Sliding from starters into main courses are the possible-in-both-categories pastas and pizzas (and one stellar risotto). At Albona, I enjoyed the unusual chifelletto di mia nona, crusty pan-fried gnocchi in thin meat sauce scented with cumin, and an equally unusual strudel of tender pasta rolled up with prosciutto and cheese and baked in creamy tomato sauce; and a creamy polenta topped with Dungeness crab and minced garlic chives astonished at Pescheria (1708 Church, 647-3200, www.pescheria-sf.com). I loved the fresh tagliatelle with a wonderful chicken liver Bolognese at Universal Cafe (2814 19th St., 821-4608, www.universalcafe.net); ravioli filled with fromage blanc and Meyer lemon confit at Maverick; the rich trenne with zucchini fritti and basil at Bar Bambino; the tiny Parisienne herbed gnocchi with wild mushrooms swimming in nutty brown butter at Nua; the risi-bisi-style risotto, with English peas and cauliflower florets, at Ducca; the sublime mandilli al pesto (handkerchief pasta soaking in classic basil pesto) and the pansotti al sugo di noci (tortelli filled with ricotta and basil) in a walnut-cream sauce at Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana (3560 18th St., 565-0360, www.farinafoods.com); the golden potato gnocchi entwined with bitter greens and drenched in lemony cream at Spruce; and Sens' manti, ravioli-like Turkish dumplings stuffed with puréed squash and chestnuts. The best pizzas were at Gialina: one with asparagus, green garlic, pancetta, and Perlagrigia truffled cheese, topped with an optional egg, on a thin yet flavorful crust; and the dessert pizza, whose puffier crust was heaped with warm chocolate-hazelnut Nutella, amaretti crumbs, and sweetened mascarpone. The foccacia di Recco, a Ligurian specialty whose pizza-like slab of crisp dough is topped with stracchino cheese and rovagnati ham, delighted us at Farina. The build-your-own pizza on the kids' menu at Puccini and Pinetti (129 Ellis, 392-5500, www.pucciniandpinetti.com) wasn't as delightful to eat as it was to watch, as my nephew carefully spread tomato sauce, draped ham slices, and sprinkled cheese on unbaked pizza dough, which was then whisked away to crisp in the oven. Big fun.
In many categories I loved discovering dishes that were improved with an egg: CAV Wine Bar's poached egg with pancetta and Meyer lemon hollandaise on semolina polenta, and the Alembic's (1725 Haight, 666-0822, www.alembicbar.com) barbecued pork belly on creamy grits with greens and deviled hardboiled duck egg. Pescheria provided an Arctic char atop celery-root purée and sautéed mustard greens crowned with a poached egg, while the Universal Cafe offered grilled asparagus topped with a sizzled farm egg and salsa verde. Hime's (2353 Lombard, 931-7900, www.himerestaurant.com) tsukune, plump little glazed meatballs, came with a cold poached egg whose liquid yolk served as a dipping sauce, as did the poached egg served atop the long, thin brandade fritters with stewed peppers and onions offered at Fish & Farm.
I dream of two vegetable sides: the Presidio Social Club's (563 Ruger, 885-1888, www.presidiosocialclub.com) mashed peas with mint butter, and Mexico DF's fresh corn sautéed with green beans and purslane.
I barely have room left, both literally and metaphorically, to celebrate main courses: Weird Fish's beer-battered fish and chips; the baseball-shaped filet mignon at Lark Creek Steak (Westfield San Francisco Centre, 845 Market, 593-4100, www.larkcreeksteak.com); the homey braised chicken at Modern Tea (602 Hayes, 626-5406, www.moderntea.com); lomo de cerdo (rotisserie pork) at Regalito Rosticeria (3481 18th St., 503-0650, www.regalitosf.com); the chicken claypot, cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab, and beef bavette with leeks at Out the Door (Westfield San Francisco Centre, 845 Market, 541-9913, www.slanteddoor.com); Peking duck, drunken chicken, and suckling pig at Koi Palace (Serramonte Plaza, 375 Gellert, Daly City, 650-992-9000, www.koipalace.com); the naked lobster roll at the North Beach Lobster Shack; black cod with roasted garlic sauce, trout with ramps, and fried chicken at Maverick; lesso rifatto con porri, shredded brisket and short ribs (yum), and maiale al latto (milk-braised pork, also yum), at Bar Bambino; braised hare in olive-and-onion sauce at Marrakech (419 O'Farrell, 776-6717, www.marrakechsanfrancisco.com); "the red lobster," tender pink lobster with fresh corn and peas at Spork (1028 Valencia, 643-5000, www.sporksf.com); Hime's sparkling sashimi and sushi; the bone-in filet mignon at Bobo's (1450 Lombard, 441-8880, www.boboquivari.com); the carnitas and goat tacos at Mexico DF; the juicy Moroccan chicken at Spruce; Tinderbox's (803 Cortland, 285-8269, www.tinderboxrestaurant.com) olive-oil-steeped black cod with zucchini blossoms, and grilled sirloin with horseradish-marrow butter; the stunning roast bluefoot chicken served for two at Palmetto; Fish & Farm's sautéed sablefish with mustard-braised cabbage; and the succulent lamb burger with feta and harissa aioli at Sens.
I have just enough room for a few desserts: CAV's coconut pot de crème; Lark Creek Steak's luscious almond panna cotta topped with caramel sauce and chopped malted milk balls; Modern Tea's citrus buttermilk pudding cake and cookie plate; Out the Door's spicy ginger tapioca pudding; Kara's Cupcakes' (3249 Scott, 563-2253, www.karascupcakes.com) caramel-filled chocolate "Fleur del Sel" cupcake; Bakesale Betty's (5098 Telegraph, Berkeley, 510-985-1213, www.bakesalebetty.com) strawberry shortcake; Nua's chocolate soufflé with mint crème anglaise; almost anything on Farina's list, including sweet milk fritters with citrus salad and panna cotta layered with blackberry purée; and Ducca's airy ricotta cheesecake with orange caramel sauce.
And last but certainly not least, Spork's freshly baked dinner rolls served with honey butter were so delicious that I requested a second round as my dessert.