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.
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.
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.
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.
In a year when the most interesting restaurants are the ones telling quirky, personal stories, Danny Bowien and Anthony Myint are 2010's Italo Calvino, almost impossible to describe in a single sentence. Mission Chinese Food is a restaurant within a restaurant that serves regional Chinese dishes so reworked through the lens of formal California technique they mutate into strange, spicy, unrecognizable creations. The sizzling cumin lamb, for example, rethinks a Xinjiang classic by braising lamb belly until it barely holds together, then coating it in cumin and chiles, stir-frying the meat with onions and peppers, and serving a bowl of soy-pickled long beans on the side. The aroma: ineffable. MCF is so convoluted a concept you either hate it or you find yourself a restaurant critic who returns, off the clock, to marvel again over its WTF-ness. Oh, and the restaurant delivers.
This is the year of the hard-to-find specialist. The ramen popups, each with a limited menu, that occasionally take over an existing restaurant. The street-food roundups that resemble outdoor food courts, with each truck selling a few signature dishes. Anthony Mangieri may have opened a permanent restaurant, but like other romantic obsessives of his generation, he doesn't make it easy for diners to drop in for a quick bite. Una Pizza Napoletana is only open four days a week, and when it's open, Mangieri makes only five pizzas (no apps or desserts, even), staying open until he runs out of dough. The wait for a pizza can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as two hours.
Given the hoo-hah, why did I like Una Pizza Napoletana so much? I've eaten my weight in pizza this year — there's enough “artisanal” pizza out there now to make North Beach Pizza look unique and exciting again. And when I consider the dozens of decent-to-great pies I've eaten, Mangieri's margherita, made with naturally leavened dough cooked in a wood-fired oven, continues to stand out. (Perhaps I was ravenous by the time it arrived.) Blackened and airy, alternately crisp and doughy, each margherita I tasted was its own thing, the flavors and textures beautifully balanced but never in the same way.
Ten More Favorites
1. To Hyang's doenjang jjigae, or fermented-soybean-paste stew
2. The Sandbox Bakery croissant (really, two-thirds of the entire bakery case)
3. Pork belly with preserved vegetable at Hakka Restaurant
4. Ling cod with braised daikon and bacon dashi at Commis
5. Goat tacos from El Norteño
6. Barbacco's braised chicken thighs with green olives and almonds
7. Chicken neck skewers at Ippuku
8. Cured foie gras with umeboshi puree and nori toast at Commonwealth
9. Dry-fried vegetable of the day on the Ruchi lunch combo
10. The rediscovery of my beloved pan con chicharron at El Perol