This is the fifth annual “best things” column, and sadly it will be the last appearance for the wonderful food of Carlo Middione, who has made the list each and every year. On New Year’s Eve, Middione – in my opinion the Bay Area’s best regional Italian chef and San Francisco’s best classic Italian chef – closed the doors of his venerable establishment, Vivande (see “Editor’s Note,” page 3), also closing an important chapter in my own culinary history.
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, and, in a few rare instances like Middione’s creations, dishes that I dream of. Also like Middione’s, some things are so good that they make the list every year, and in a few sad cases, they disappear – as with the bacon, eggs and toast at Silks or the crispy confit of chicken at Cafe Majestic – along with the chef who created them. And then there are dishes like across-town favorite Chez Papa Resto’s tartine of Parma prosciutto and coppa with pungent Cambozola that unceremoniously and inexplicably exit the menu despite rave reviews – at least from me.
As in past years, some of the dishes are complex, others humble, but all are delicious. Here, in alphabetical order, are the best things I ate in 2009:
A5 New York: 5A5 Steak Lounge
244 Jackson Street (at Battery), 415-989-2539, www.5a5stk.com
5A5 Steak Lounge is offering Japanese A5 Wagyu (the world’s highest grade of beef) in a clever way: instead of having to buy a steak at a set price, you can order it per ounce. It’s still pricy – the minimum order is four ounces, and the New York, at $18 per ounce, will set you back $72. But if you’re in the mood to splurge, this is the way to do it – the velvety, highly marbled meat imparts a delicate, incomparable flavor and melts almost instantaneously on your tongue. It’s really not fair to compare it to other beef since it is more akin to foie gras.
Asparagus and quail egg salad: Da Flora
701 Columbus Avenue (at Filbert), 415-981-4664, www.daflorasf.com
Of all the delicious things I have 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.
Barbecue shrimp ’n creamy grits: 1300 On Fillmore
1300 Fillmore Street (at Eddy), 415-771-7100, www.1300fillmore.com
Every time I eat at 1300 On Fillmore, I am reminded that there isn’t a single dish on the menu I don’t like. Chef-owner David Lawrence whips up some of the creamiest grits outside of South Carolina’s Low Country and tops them with crunchy shrimp, peeled except for the tail, which serves as the perfect handle. With his sophisticated but soulful flair, Lawrence manages to lighten it up and still do this Savannah staple proud.
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. Another of those rare dishes dreams are made of, Bobo’s consistently produces the best filet I’ve ever tasted.
California roll: Takara Japanese Restaurant
22 Peace Plaza, Suite 202 (near Laguna), 415-921-2000
America’s most popular incarnation, the California roll, first appeared in the late 1960s at the premier Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles, Tokyo Kaikan. The creation of chef Ichiro Mashita, contrary to popular belief it was not an attempt to introduce American palates to sushi, but rather came about as most regional cuisines do, out of necessity – Mashita had trouble obtaining fresh fatty tuna belly on a regular basis, but avocados were readily available by the truckloads. Since avocados are full of fat, he saw the savory fruit as a good substitute. He served it traditionally with the ingredients and rice inside nori (seasoned seaweed) to his Japanese customers as a reminder of the fatty tuna back home. The only way I like a California roll is temaki style (hand roll) with fresh crab, preferably snow crab, mixed with just enough mayo to bind it. That’s exactly what you get at Takara, along with crunchy cucumber and creamy avocado, wrapped in the highest grade of temaki nori (it has glasslike crispness that keeps the seaweed from turning soggy and chewy as lower grades do).
Cassoulet: Le Central
453 Bush Street (at Grant), 415-391-2233, www.lecentralbistro.com
Le Central has been serving French bistro fare in the Financial District for nearly 40 years, and their cassoulet – a robust stew of duck confit (duck leg salted then cooked and preserved in its own fat), pork chunks, sausage, and white beans – rates as one of my all-time favorite meals on a blustery winter’s day. Cassoulet is said to date back to the 14th-century siege of Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years War, and while Le Central’s hasn’t been around that long, it has been cooking for over 12,000 days. A common practice in pastoral European kitchens, the intense flavor comes from simmering the remains of the previous day’s stew with fresh ingredients. Some of the best soups and stews I’ve ever had came from this method, and Le Central’s cassoulet is no exception.
Celery root and potato soup with chive oil: Luella
896 Hyde Street (at Green), 415-674-4343, www.luellasf.com
Chef Ben deVries changes the menu at his Russian Hill gem with the seasons, and winter brings one of my favorite soups of all time. Celery root, also known as celeriac, has a bold, grassy flavor somewhat like parsley that plays beautifully against the earthiness of the potato, and deVries finishes it with a drizzle of chive oil that marries the flavors together.
Classic Joe’s Special:
659 Merchant Street (at Kearny), 415-781-7058, www.alfredssteakhouse.com
Alfred’s is classic San Francisco at its best. They’re famous for real steaks and real martinis (even at lunch), and I am a huge fan of both. But one of the dishes I crave at Alfred’s – the classic Joe’s Special – is becoming as hard to find as the classic San Francisco joints that serve it. Original Joe’s, the late, lamented Tenderloin jewel, claims to have invented the dish, though other less credible “Joe’s” restaurants also make the claim. Whatever its origin, Alfred’s makes a great version of this hearty, satisfying combination of ground sirloin, scrambled eggs, spinach, onions, and mushrooms.
Crab cioppino: Sotto Mare
552 Green Street (near Grant), 415-398-3181, www.sottomaresf.com
Everything at Sotto Mare is delicious, from owner Gigi Fiorucci’s mom’s recipe for baccalà to the best white clam chowder I’ve had in recent memory, bursting with tender, juicy clams and thickened just enough (with potatoes, not flour). You’ll also find $1 clams and $1.50 oysters on the half-shell, crab or shrimp salads and cocktails, and fish so fresh it practically swims onto your plate (my favorite is the sand dabs, brought straight from the boat daily – firm, sweet filets lightly floured and grilled – the crunchy tail is like a potato chip from the sea). But Sotto Mare makes the list this year for its stellar crab cioppino, San Francisco’s signature seafood stew. Sotto Mare’s pot of messy goodness features mussels, clams, fish, and a generous heap of Dungeness crab in a rich marinara sauce. Unlike many versions, the seafood is not overcooked and the sauce doesn’t overwhelm the ocean flavor. Just thinking about it makes me want to don a bib and get crackin’.
Crab Louis: Fishermen’s Grotto NO. 9
2847 Taylor Street (at Fisherman’s Wharf), 415-673-7025, www.fishermensgrotto.com
If you think a true San Franciscan avoids the Wharf, you couldn’t be more wrong – a true San Franciscan appreciates the history, the beautiful views, and the great food you will find if you know where to look, including the freshest Dungeness crab anywhere in the City. The Grotto has the only Crab Louis I’ve found where you have to dig through the crabmeat to find the lettuce. Over half a pound of sweet, fresh-picked Dungeness (including meaty legs and claws) 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 crustacean followed by a generous drizzle of the thick, sweet, tangy dressing. I grew up running around the bottom level of Grotto No. 9, and as an adult I head upstairs to get my fix of fresh crab while soaking in some of the best Golden Gate views in San Francisco.
Fish and Chips: Piccadilly
1348 Polk Street, 415-771-6477
Flaky, white cod is dipped in batter and dropped into the oil before your eyes, and the proper thick-cut chips are double fried (partially cooked and then dipped in oil to brown just before serving). If you take it to go, they wrap it in newspaper the jolly ole England way. Two pieces of fish with chips, a drink and some super creamy house-made slaw will set you back around 10 bucks. The place won’t win any beauty contests, but it does take the prize for the best fish and chips in town.
Fresh fettuccine: Vivande
2125 Fillmore Street (at California) – CLOSED
Chef Carlo Middione used his fresh-daily fettuccine as the base for the majority of his comforting pasta dishes. While fresh pasta is commonplace in restaurants these days, it wasn’t when Middione started doing it 30 years ago. If you’re thinking, “Fresh fettuccine? What’s the big deal?” I am sad to say that you never had a chance to taste the best fettuccine in town – silky, paper-thin ribbons cooked just long enough to wilt into one of Middione’s fabulous sauces, from the velvety butter, cream and Parmesan-based Romana to my childhood favorite, aglio e olio (garlic, red pepper flakes and olive oil). And while it may have been delicate, Middione’s fettuccine managed to stand up to heartier sauces too, like the salsiccia (which made this list last year), with house-made fennel sausage (a family recipe), roasted bell peppers, and Middione’s magnificent marinara sauce. I still haven’t gotten over Vivande closing, and I doubt I ever will.
Gnocchi: Firenze by Night
1429 Stockton Street (at Columbus, 415-392-8485
Firenze, like Vivande and Albona, is another San Francisco classic often overlooked by food critics, and I can’t understand why. After more than two decades, you will still find chef-owner Sergio Giusti in the kitchen proudly sending out the Tuscan recipes he brought from his native Montecatini (he makes a mean limoncello, too). Giusti’s award-winning gnocchi is beloved by his regulars (many hailing from Italy) for the pillowy, light-as-air texture (no gummy, doughy nuggets here) and rustic potato flavor. Tossed in a bright tomato cream sauce and sprinkled with fresh Parmesan cheese, you won’t find a better gnocchi in the City.
Hot coppa and roast turkey sandwich: Lucca Delicatessen
2120 Chestnut Street (at Steiner), 415-921-7873, www.luccadeli.com
Family owned and operated since 1929, Lucca is my favorite San Francisco deli for its wide array of meats, cheeses and house-made Italian specialties. From ravioli and cannoli to frittata and grissini (bread sticks), you can eat at Lucca for a year and never eat the same thing twice (they also have a fantastic assortment of imported Italian items). My favorite sandwich there has always been hot coppa, but on a recent visit the clerk recommended his own creation – hot coppa with Lucca’s fresh-roasted turkey. It sounded odd, but he explained that the turkey mellows the coppa just a bit. Piled on an Acme sweet roll with mozzarella, shredded lettuce, tomato, and a swipe of mayo and mustard, the hot coppa-turkey is my new favorite.
Ipswich clams: Woodhouse Fish Co.
1914 Fillmore Street (at Wilmont), 415-437-2722, www.woodhousefish.com
There are only a few places in the entire Bay Area that offer Ipswich full bellies – whole soft-shell clams lightly battered and fried. The ones at Woodhouse Fish Company, flown in fresh from Maine, are plump and juicy with a mineral-flecked flavor that blows away the chewy, tasteless frozen clam strips West Coasters are used to. Their oil is always fresh (not always the case even at Maine clam shacks), which keeps the coating golden and the briny flavor as fresh as the Atlantic.
La Jota (Triestine bean and sauerkraut soup): Albona
545 Francisco Street (at Taylor), 415-441-1040, www.albonarestaurant.com
On a recent Saturday night, Albona, the only Istrian restaurant on the West Coast, was packed. This North Beach jewel, opened in 1988 by Bruno Viscovi as an ode to the food he grew up with, serves some of the most interesting cuisine you’ll find because Viscovi’s childhood home, Albona, is a hillside town overlooking the Istrian Peninsula, southeast of Trieste on the borders of Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, and the cuisine incorporates flavors from all three. After 20 years, Viscovi passed the torch to his nephew, Michael Bruno, and longtime chef Samuel Hernandez. The menu of favorites remains, from the signature braised rabbit to the pasta strudel (which made this list last year), but the pair has also incorporated some recipes of their own. On a trip to Trieste, Bruno fell in love with la jota, a hearty peasant soup made with cranberry beans, pancetta, potatoes, and sauerkraut. While it may sound strange, the combination is actually quite subtle – the sauerkraut adds a tangy, bright note to the beans and potatoes, which add the texture and creaminess, while the pancetta brings a smoky edge that ties it all together in a bowl of pure heaven.
Macaroni salad: The Real Food Company
3060 Fillmore Street (at Filbert), 415-567-6900, www.realfoodco.com
There are only five ingredients – pasta, mayonnaise, black olives, green onions, and pimentos – but as with most deceptively simple recipes, it’s all about the ratios. At the Real Food deli counter, they use just enough black olive slices to give it an appealing minerality, just enough green onion to give it a fresh crunch, and just enough mayo to hold everything together. The macaroni is perfectly al dente, while the soft bits of pimento add a lovely sweetness.
Pail of steamers: Nettie’s Crab Shack
2032 Union Street (at Buchanan), 415-409-0300, www.nettiescrabshack.com
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 briny broth, and served with a side of drawn butter. You’ll need extra bread to sop it all up (and an elbow to push your friends out of the way).
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, starchy concoctions of leathery, steamed, brownish mystery meat. 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.
Wonton soup: Dragon Well
2142 Chestnut Street (near Pierce), 415-474-6888, www.dragonwell.com
With an emphasis on fresh, healthful ingredients (at least as far as Chinese food goes), I think Dragon Well makes the best wonton soup in town – plump dumplings filled with pork, scallion and cabbage swimming in a light chicken broth and topped with slices of fresh mushrooms and bright green spinach. This is one of those dishes that I crave – especially during cold, rainy winters like the one we’re having this year.