The 23 Best things I ate in the Northside last year
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
Every year I sample hundreds of dishes at restaurants all around the Northside, and there are inevitable standouts – the ones I remember a year later; the ones I find myself craving even when I’m not on the clock. Some are complex, others humble, all are delicious. Here, in no particular order, are my favorites from 2008:
Crispy confit of chicken:
1500 Sutter Street (at Gough) in the
Hotel Majestic, 415-441-1280,
Rising star chef and French Laundry alum Louis Maldonado has a gift for making the ordinary extraordinary. His confit of chicken wings – crispy, juicy, tender, and just salty enough – are a perfect example. (Think of the best Chicken McNuggets you’ve ever had in your life.)
Asparagus and quail egg salad: Da Flora
701 Columbus Avenue (at Filbert), 415-981-4664, www.daflorasf.com
Of all the delicious things I sampled at Da Flora, it is the roast asparagus with quail egg salad that I’m still dreaming of on a nightly basis. The egg is whipped into a decadent, almost deviled-egg mixture, spooned over the tender spears of asparagus, and finished with a restrained drizzle of white truffle vinaigrette.
Crab Louis: Fishermen’s Grotto #9
2847 Taylor Street (at Fisherman’s Wharf), 415-673-7025, www.fishermensgrotto.com
The Grotto is the only place I’ve found where you have to dig through the crab to find the lettuce. Over half a pound of fresh-picked Dungeness is piled on a bed of crisp iceberg and garnished with hard-boiled egg, tomato, black olives, and beets cut into little stars. My ritual begins with a squeeze of fresh lemon over the crabmeat followed by a generous drizzle of the rich and thick, sweet and tangy dressing.
Fried chicken: Hard Knox Cafe
2448 Clement Street (at 25th), 415-752-3770, www.hardknoxcafe.com
Last June, when Northside S.F. columnist GraceAnn Walden was guest-hosting KGO’s popular Saturday morning radio show, Dining Around with Gene Burns, she invited me to talk about soul food in the City. I said that while the sides and the service were sub par, the fried chicken at the Hard Knox – piping hot with a thin, crispy batter that envelopes moist, juicy meat – was well worth a visit. Over six months later, nothing’s changed.
Pasta strudel: Albona
545 Francisco Street (at Taylor), 415-441-1040, www.albonarestaurant.com
The pasta strudel is a perfect example of why Albona is still packed night after night after 20 years: jelly roll-shaped fresh pasta filled with thin slices of baked prosciutto and Lappi (a semisoft, semisweet cheese from Finland), baked bubbling hot in a casserole with toasted bread crumbs and a creamy béchamel tomato sauce.
Fettuccine con salsiccia: Vivande
2125 Fillmore Street (at California), 415-346-4430, www.vivande.com
Vivande is my favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco. Carlo Middione’s Sicilian comfort food takes me back to my childhood, and no dish does it better than his house-made, paper-thin fettuccine tossed with hunks of his famous, ground-daily fennel sausage in a rich, slow-cooked sauce of bell peppers, garlic, tomato, and white wine.
Boudin blanc: Spruce
3640 Sacramento Street (at Spruce), 415-931-5100, www.sprucesf.com
I’ve been a fan of Mark Sullivan’s accessible, beautifully crafted cuisine since day one (Spruce was named best newcomer in Northside’s “Best of Food & Wine 2008”). Sullivan’s creamy house-made boudin blanc manages to be luscious yet light (because of the milk and bread in the sausage mixture). It’s grilled to achieve a caramelized exterior that snaps with each bite.
Whole roasted crab: The Franciscan
Pier 43½ (at The Embarcadero), www.franciscanrestaurant.com
Each Dungeness grab is over two pounds and arrives on an iron skillet sizzling with chef Andrea Froncillo’s secret garlic-butter sauce. There are many imitators, but this one rocks the boat.
6 Claude Lane (near Kearny), 415-788-6686, www.gitanerestaruant.com There’s a lot to like about downtown’s newest hotspot, but I love the bastilla – light, crisp pastry filled with a sweet and savory mixture of duck, chicken, raisins, almonds, and Moroccan spices, with a drizzle of orange gastrique.
Pail of steamers: Nettie’s Crab Shack
2032 Union Street (at Buchanan), 415-409-0300, www.nettiescrabshack.com
Nettie’s terrific Sunday night crab feast is blowing up the blogs, but having spent my childhood summers in New England, I know a great steamed clam when I taste it. These aren’t the soft-shell steamers of my Rhode Island memories, but they are plump, tender, juicy little Manila clams served the way they should be – naked, caressed in their own sea-scented broth (hoard the bread so you can sop up every last drop) and served with a side of drawn butter.
Oysters Rockefeller: Alfred’s Steakhouse
659 Merchant Street (at Kearny), 415-781-7058, www.alfredssteakhouse.com
The Rockefeller at Alfred’s is as classic as the restaurant itself – briny oysters topped with creamed spinach, breadcrumbs, butter, a dash of Pernod, and broiled in the half shell. The oysters are cooked just until they’re done so they remain plump and juicy.
Sugar egg puffs: Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa Street (at 34th), 415-387-2088
No matter how full I am of xiao long bao and the hot and spicy beef stew in noodles, I never pass on the sugar egg puffs, essentially giant doughnut holes. Fresh from the fryer and buried under an avalanche of sugar, the softball-sized wonders are airy and warm, with a moist, eggy center.
Prime rib French dip – Houston’s
1800 Montgomery Street (at Kearny), 415- 392-9280, www.houstons.com
Once you have this French dip, you’ll never be able to eat another one of those stale rolls full of leathery, steamed, brownish stuff. At Houston’s, a generous pile of medium-rare, daily-roasted prime rib is loaded into a soft, house-baked roll and served with a bowl of au jus to soak it in. Be sure to ask the server to bring a side of creamed horseradish to add a little tang.
Flight of Beignets: Brenda’s French Soul Food
652 Polk Street (at Eddy), 415-345-8100, www.frenchsoulfood.com
How could anyone mess up fried dough, you ask? Easily. Since beignets have become the dessert du jour all over town, I’ve had some pretty awful ones. But chef-owner Brenda Buenviaje, a New Orleans native, knows her French soul food and her platter of beignets – two sweet and one savory (molten Ghirardelli chocolate; Granny Smith apples with cinnamon-honey
butter; and savory crawfish with scallions, cheddar and cayenne) – is as swoon-worthy as her mouth-watering, buttery biscuits.
Bone-in filet: Bobo’s
1450 Lombard Street (at Van Ness), 415-441-8880, www.boboquivaris.com
While the better steakhouses dry age their beef up to 21 days, Bobo’s has its certified Prime dry aged four to six weeks for a steak that cuts like butter and is melt-in-your-mouth good. Pan searing with a hint of garlic and rosemary creates a crispy, caramelized exterior that keeps the juices, and the flavor, locked inside. It is consistently thick, sizzling hot, and perfectly medium rare. A cut seldom seen in restaurants, the bone adds immense flavor to the filet, setting it apart from its boneless brethren.
Chawan mushi of spiny lobster, uni and foie gras: Yoshi’s
1330 Fillmore Street (near Eddy),
Chawan mushi is traditional Japanese custard, but executive chef Shotaro Kamio’s version is as decadent as it gets with chunks of lobster, creamy sea urchin, and unctuous foie gras. The menu changes with the seasons, so the chawan mushi isn’t always available, but every dish I’ve had at Yoshi’s is superb. Kamio is a masterful craftsman of elegant, refined Japanese cuisine – if you haven’t been to Yoshi’s, you’re missing something special.
Barbecue shrimp ’n creamy grits: 1300 Fillmore
1300 Fillmore Street (at Eddy), 415-771-7100, www.1300fillmore.com
As with next-door neighbor Yoshi’s, I’ve never met a dish at 1300 Fillmore that I didn’t like. Chef-owner David Lawrence whips up some of the creamiest grits outside of South Carolina’s Lowcountry and tops them with crunchy, thankfully peeled shrimp. With his sophisticated but soulful flair, Lawrence manages to lighten it up and still do this Savannah staple proud.
Slow-cooked farm egg with green faro, chard and brown butter-Parmesan sauce: Coi
373 Broadway Street (at Montgomery), 415-393-9000, www.coirestaurant.com
Named one of my top three restaurants in Northside’s “Best of Food & Wine 2008,” I’ve been drinking star chef Daniel Patterson’s pink grapefruit and tarragon Kool-Aid since he opened a little more than two years ago. His tasting menu is a dazzling experience for all of the senses, and the earthy, slow-cooked farm egg is Patterson at his best. The grassy flavor of a farm egg is nothing like the usual supermarket variety, and cooking it for a long time at a low temperature gives it a silken texture that juxtaposes wonderfully against the chewy grain.
Risotto: Emporio Rulli
2300 Chestnut Street (at Scott), 415-923-6464, www.rulli.com
Master chef Angelo Auriana’s Tuesday night, multicourse “chef’s surprise” dinner is a must for gastronomes. His signature is his risotto – not the mushy stuff many Americans are accustomed to, but rather your grandmother’s risotto (if you’re lucky). Like everything else in Auriana’s kitchen, it is made-to-order (the way risotto should be) and cooked so the rice is creamy but still has a nice chew. Sometimes he makes it with shreds of Friarelli peppers and young leaves of stinging nettles, other times with Maine lobster and skate cheeks – that’s the surprise part.
Caramelized Brussels sprouts: SPQR
1911 Fillmore Street (near Pine), 415-771-7779, www.spqrsf.com
I still maintain that Brussels sprouts are one of the most under-appreciated vegetables on the planet. At SPQR, A16’s Roman-inspired little sister, Nate Appleman and crew elevate the bite-sized cruciferous cabbages to must-order status by frying them with garlic, capers, parsley, and a squeeze of lemon.
Macaroni salad: Real Foods deli
3060 Fillmore Street (at Filbert), 415-567-6900
I usually choose potato over macaroni, but I actually crave this stuff. (You may have seen me pacing in front of the deli’s glass case mumbling to myself on the days they run out.) Crunchy green onions, black olives, red bell pepper, and a liberal sprinkling of ground black pepper tangle in the hollows of the al dente pasta; they throw in some Dijon for zip and use just enough mayonnaise to bind the ingredients together.
817 Sutter Street (at Jones), 415-928-8870, www.sfcanteen.com
Chef-owner Dennis Leary makes the best soft scrambled eggs in all of San Francisco, and the chupacabra (named after the mythical creature) is one of my all-time favorite brunch dishes. Braised, spiced pork (or sometimes house-made chorizo), black beans, chunks of perfectly ripe avocado, and bell peppers cradle the eggs, which are topped with salsa.
Beef Wellington: Luella
896 Hyde Street (at Green), 415-674-4343, www.luellasf.com
I made beef Wellington for New Year’s Eve – it’s labor intensive even for an experienced cook, which is why you rarely find it in restaurants. Chef-owner Ben de Vries of Northside favorite Luella does a riff on this British classic by searing a filet, swaddling it in a puff pastry shell (he props the top on the side like a pumpkin), and drizzling it with bone marrow butter. It’s plated with horseradish cream and three petite Yorkshire puddings. Decadent can’t begin to describe it, and it’s worth every calorie.