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Where To Eat Now: 2013
Josh Sens | Photo: Eva Kolenko | July 25, 2013
Critic Josh Sens plows his way through the Bay Area's newest, hottest restaurants and delivers his annual buffet of estimable eats.
Cocktails Are for Dinner
A few weeks back, I dropped by Hard Water (Pier 3, at the Embarcadero, 415-392-3021), Charles Phan’s Southern-inflected outpost on Pier 3, for a bowl of gumbo and a bourbon cocktail. Or was it the other way around? Judging from the menu, which ranges ambitiously from baked oysters to braised rabbit with buttermilk dumplings, you expect the place to function as a restaurant. But based on the operation—no table seating, bartenders serving food (that gumbo took a long, long time to arrive)—Hard Water has other ideas. I understand. Androgyny is in. Is it a restaurant with a bar, or a bar with a serious food program?
You see the same hybrid trend in boozy restaurants like Steins Beer Garden (895 Villa St., at Bryant St., Mountain View, 650-963-9568) in Mountain View and the Tribune Tavern (401 13th St., at Franklin St., Oakland, 510-452-8742) in downtown Oakland, which match Cal-Med pub menus with encyclopedic drink lists. But its clearest expression is probably Trick Dog (3010 20th St., near Florida St., 415-471-2999), that cocktail-happy outpost in the Mission, whose most obvious trick seems to be hiding the fact that it serves food at all. Stepping through the unmarked entrance, you’re hit by a pounding eclectic soundtrack. There are white cloth–covered tables on the mezzanine level, but no one is around to seat you, while the ground-level bar—the main attraction—is stacked two-deep. With some struggle, you snag a superb cocktail—the Alligator Alley, built around green Chartreuse and olive oil–infused gin. You wouldn’t mind a burger (on a hot dog bun) or a piled-high kale salad, but where would you put it? How would you eat it? Is Trick Dog in the midst of an identity crisis? It feels more like youthful rebellion—as if sitting down for dinner were no longer cool.
Ramen Keeps Rising
Philosophical question: If a dish comes into fashion, and a Chez Panisse veteran isn’t around to make it, is it still a trend? Posed another way: Had Sobo (988 Franklin St., No. 186, near 9th St., Oakland, 510-832-7626) been the only ramen spot to launch in the past year (it’s in Oakland’s Chinatown, and its take on tonkotsu ramen, with a deep-fried pork cutlet on the side, is an upgrade on the ramen that this neighborhood has known), would anyone be saying that noodles are in? What made the fad official and the stuff of national headlines was the Ramen Shop (5812 College Ave., at Oak Grove Ave., Oakland, 510-788-6370) in Oakland, which was saluted by the New York Times’ T Magazine (and made the cover of this one) the instant that it opened. A new project from ex-Panissers Jerry Jaksich, Rayneil de Guzman, and Sam White, the Shop is a reminder that a link to Alice Waters still ensures a crowd on opening night—and also guarantees the intense scrutiny of skeptics.
I’ve heard some people diss the place as precious and pricey, but the Rockridge nook, which blends fetishistic sourcing with a Tampopo-esque pursuit of noodle-house perfection, produces an array of complexly flavored ramen (my first choice: the shoyu Meyer lemon ramen with spit-roasted pork) that’s worth the few extra bucks you pay. The intimate space, a crush of reclaimed wood and close-set bar seating, is suggestive of a thousand Tokyo ramen shops, and the noodle-making machine on display in back is like a loom at Ardenwood: a museum piece that still plays a practical role. Not that all you get is ramen. Sparkling starters, from wok-smoked black cod salad with shaved radishes and oranges to kampachi tartare with Little Gem lettuce and beets, are great, gourmet ghetto–ized additions, rounding out a restaurant that is more than simply soup by way of Chez Panisse.
If the Ramen Shop is Japan through a California lens, Roku (1819 Market St., at Pearl St., 415-861-6500)—my favorite new Japanese spot in San Francisco—feels like Tokyo through and through. Ramen can be had here, but this is an izakaya, a classic late-night outpost for eating and drinking, not necessarily in that order. In keeping with the genre, the offerings are eclectic, the printed menu bolstered by dozens of paper listings on the walls. From the salted mackerel to the skewered chicken hearts to an udon carbonara that may be the city’s finest hangover cure, the food is all booze-friendly and served by an appropriately rainbow-haired staff. At the Ramen Shop, you’re riding the culinary currents. At Roku, you feel as if you’ve arrived by Tokyo subway on your way home from a karaoke bar.
Wine Bars Step Up Their Game
Wine bars used to be such a bummer—like bistros without food or bars without the fun. They promised marked-up pours, pedantic tastings, and, if you were hungry, a forlorn ring of grapes around a yellowed wedge of brie. Time for a rebranding, anyone? This year, fortunately, brought a number of fresh takes on the form. Bartavelle (1603 San Pablo Ave., near Cedar St., Berkeley, 510-524-2473) in Berkeley, in the old Café Fanny space, offers sweetly prepared crostini and rillettes, paired with sharp selections from Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant that add to the sense of European charm.
Wine Kitchen (507 Divisadero St., near Fell St., 415-525-3485) is another wine bar that won me over. Its owners, Greg Faucette and Jason Limburg, came to wine through cooking (at Commonwealth, Bar Tartine, and Per Se, among others), and the balance of their pairings (a coastal Oregon pinot to complement fried gnocchi with wild mushroom ragout) reflects their belief that the two belong on equal footing. They’ve done their work so well that I’d rank Wine Kitchen a close second to my top choice of the year, 20 Spot (3565 20th St., at Lexington St., 415-624-3140) in the Mission, from Bacchus owner Bodhi Freedom. See a name like his, and you worry about Deadhead posters and patchouli. But with help from Wylie Price (who designed Trick Dog and the Presidio Social Club), Freedom has refashioned the former record store into Don Draper–like digs, with Eames rocking chairs in a lounge out front and orange globe lights glowing above the bar. From a small, stoveless work space, chef Anthony Paone (formerly of Sea Salt) turns out elevated bar-appropriate fare (the bottarga-dusted, flower-garnished deviled duck eggs deserve special mention) its own in many of the city’s finer kitchens. You can call the place a wine bar, but it’s more like a very good restaurant that has some very nice things to drink.
Rockridge is Waking Up
Sure, Healdsburg has some new flavor (Pizzando, Bravas), and even Marin is experiencing an uptick in good food: Farmshop (2233 Larkspur Landing Cir., at Lincoln Village Cir., Larkspur, 415-755-6700), Belcampo Meat Co., the ever expanding Sol Food (401 Miller Ave., near La Goma St., Mill Valley, 415-380-1986). But Oakland is really seeing a surge. And no, I’m not talking about the Temescal district. Funny thing is, as Temescal took off—recently acquiring Juhu Beach Club, (5179 Telegraph Ave., near 51st., Oakland, 510-652-7350), from Preeti Mistry, whose vindaloo chicken wings with blue cheese and raita reflect her feisty treatment of Indian street food — Rockridge became known for upscale somnolence—a neighborhood that goes to bed at 9 p.m.
But Rockridge has finally started revving up. In addition to the Ramen Shop, College Avenue has welcomed cocktail-centric Toast (5900 College Ave., at Chabot Rd., Oakland, 510-658-5900)—a tequila cocktail with that salumi plate?—and the Trappist Provisions (6309 College Ave., near 63rd St., Oakland, 510-594-2339), a spin-off of the popular downtown Oakland beer hall, where the craft beer and ale flow freely well after dark. There’s also the latest offshoot of A16 (5356 College Ave., near Manila Ave., Oakland, 510-768-8003), the Southern Italian–inspired hit that began in the Marina, spread to Tokyo, and now qualifies as Oakland’s toughest seat. The menu centers on pizza and pasta, but there are also salt cod fritters, roasted asparagus dusted with bottarga, and a good-size list of seasonal, Cal-Med entrées (king salmon with radish agrodolce) to match with a nifty selection of old-world wines. And now there's word of more stirrings to come. For starters: Box and Bells (5912 College Ave., near Chabot Rd., Oakland), from Commis’ James Syhabout, is set for summer, its menu stocked with pork terrine, côte de boeuf with a fricassee of snails, and other staff meals Commis kitchen. If things keep up on the culinary front, Rockridge may soon acquire its own new label: Temescal du Nord.
Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco