SAN FRANCISCO ― If the restaurants I sampled on a six-day jaunt to San Francisco are any indication, the food scene there is on fire. Every meal I had was noteworthy. Either I was very lucky or there’s a whole lot of good cooking going around there ― and I got to sample only one of the newish places in the East Bay, an area that is coming into its own.
What are the chances of picking six really good restaurants in a row? In my experience, slim. But it happened on this trip. The even better news is that many are quite affordable, fun and blessed with an exuberant and bright spirit.
I caught up with old friends in Oakland at Plum, the East Bay outpost from Coi’s Daniel Patterson, a few blocks from the Art Deco Paramount Theatre. The walls are blackened steel. The ring of lights overhead suggests a carnival. Giant paintings of plums on a grid are weirdly wonderful. At the bar, couples swirling wine face a team of exuberant young cooks. Except for a single table in the front window, the seating is communal at massive wooden tables and benches.
Plum’s menu is small. So are the plates. The four of us ate practically the entire menu, starting off with panisse (chickpea fritters) deeply colored with wild greens, ready to dip in a pool of housemade yogurt. Long, snaky onion crisps the texture of chicharrones and dosed with sea salt and black pepper disappear in seconds.
Crinkly speckled lettuces scattered with squiggles of crunchy fried pig’s ear, fresh mint and a little pecorino make a terrific salad. Delta asparagus comes with creme frache flavored with the ash of burnt scallions. And we gobbled up Plum’s signature oyster and potato stew with the oysters blanketed under a potato cream laced with tiny, crispy croutons. For sheer comfort, go with the smoked farm egg with farro and halved Brussels sprouts in a delicious clear consomm.
Monterey squid is served with smoked lentil, artichoke and blood orange at Plum in Oakland, where the menu changes daily. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)
I’m completely smitten until we reach dessert, cheesecake in a jar. Smothered in whipped cream, it resembles the puddings I used to whip up as a kid.
I had to call a month ahead to get a table at Cotogna, the newish Italian restaurant in the Financial District from Quince chef-owner Michael Tusk. Worried about traffic, we arrived early for our reservation. No problem, Quince and its elegant bar is right next door. Order a seductive Quince martini made with chamomile-infused gin, Dolin vermouth and bergamot tincture while you wait.
Cotogna is casual and rustic where Quince is formal and sophisticated. They’re a good pair: affordable versus splurge. We started with one of the trio of pizzas from the wood-burning oven at the back of the plain room. Pizza alla puttanesca is glorious, a smear of tomato sauce with olives, the occasional salt tang of good anchovy or capers, and on top, delicate squid rings just barely cooked through. We ordered up warm ricotta, bubbled and browned on top, with salt-roasted onions and tender artichoke. Grilled sardines on a bed of tondini beans with celery and lemon was delicious too. There’s rabbit ciccia ― say, what? Rabbit cooked in duck fat. Say no more.
How’d Tusk do with the pasta test? Brilliantly. I’ve always loved his pasta dishes at Quince, but these are more straightforward. Postage stamp-sized agnolotti al plin are as tender as any made by Piemonte’s late queen of the genre, Lidia Alciati. A Heath Ceramics bowl holds al dente rigatoni and an earthy sauce of pork sausage, tomato and nettles.
We shared a few main courses too, including a soulful spit-roasted pork loin with fennel and red chili peppers. All in all, a wonderful meal. Believe me, I’d sign up for a permanent table if I could.
Over in South of Market, Bar Agricole takes cocktails very seriously. Two of the partners, Thad Vogler and Eric Johnson, are well-known mixologists. They make their own bitters and, out front, grow herbs for the bar and the kitchen in raised planter beds. Behind the impressively long bar of repurposed timber, bartenders in striped denim aprons make cocktails with clear, focused flavors and hair-trigger balance. Sipping an El Presidente (Haitian rum, farmhouse curacao, grenadine, orange bitters) or a tequila cocktail (tequila, sweet vermouth, stone fruit bitters and orange) gives time to take in the restaurant’s dramatic design, all concrete, wood and glass and soaring ceilings.
Bar Agricole in San Francisco is bright and spacious, but the tall booths provide intimacy for diners. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Benu, in the Mission District, may have been the most anticipated S.F. restaurant opening in recent memory. That’s because chef-owner Corey Lee worked closely with Thomas Keller as chef de cuisine at the French Laundry for close to a decade. Benu, though, is not the French Laundry redux. Lee is Korean American, and Benu’s menu is mostly Asian in influence. The food is spare, elegant and sometimes stunning.
Almost everything on the table is custom-made ― the ceramics from South Korea, the silverware rests, the chocolate box. Scaled-down forks and knives make you feel like Alice who swallowed the pill that made her larger. The color scheme is neutral, the better to show off the food. But the restaurant isn’t solemn; Motown plays softly in the background.
Patrons enjoy fine dining in an intimate setting at Benu in San Francisco. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)
I went with the 12-or-so-course tasting menu at $160 per person. Only the main ingredients are listed, so the form the dish takes is a complete surprise. With so many courses I can hit only a few of the highlights. I loved the cloud-like housemade tofu served in a small lidded bowl in a light savory broth just ever so slightly thickened and with wisps, like charcoal lines, of moss suspended in the broth. Lee is brilliant with textures. A dish described as “caviar, bone marrow, lobster” turns out to be a lobster cracker topped with caviar, finely diced bone marrow and flakes of edible gold leaf, a wonderful evocation of flavors with texture and crunch that’s sheer magic.
Sea urchin in a hot and cold vichyssoise is another spectacular dish, with the faintest dusting of black truffle on top. One of my favorites was a long, slender cigarette of absolutely crispy brik (thin pastry) with a strip of eel inside, to dip in creme frache brightened with lime. Two finely pleated soup dumplings in the most fragile wrapper explode in the mouth with the flavors of foie gras and pork. And then there’s a soup with Dungeness crab and black truffle custard garnished with faux shark’s fin ― which are actually gelatinous threads made from the broth ― that look exactly like the real thing.
Lee goes against the trend for more casual dining with this high-end restaurant. The food may not be to everyone’s tastes. It’s more intellectual than lustful, exquisitely balanced and perfectly executed. A fine wine list from sommelier Michael Ireland and a quietly elegant room add up to one of San Francisco’s most exciting new fine dining restaurants.
If you go:
Bar Agricole, 355 11th St., San Francisco; (415) 355-9400; www.baragricole.com. Cocktails, $10; food, $5 to $18.
Benu, 22 Hawthorne St., San Francisco; (415) 685-4860; www.benusf.com. Small appetizers, $12 to $14; pasta with truffles, $22 to $35; main courses, $24 to $32; tasting menu, $160 per person, beverage pairing $110.
Cotogna, 490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco; (415) 775-8508; www.cotognasf.com. Pizza, $15; antipasti, $10; primi, $16; grilled items, $20 to $24; three-course fixed-price menu, $24.
Plum, 2214 Broadway, Oakland; (510) 444-7586; www.plumoakland.com. Snacks, $4 to $8; starters, $9 to $12; other plates, $12 to $20.
By S. Irene Virbila
(Los Angeles Times)
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)