Though 2010 was really a banner year for new restaurants in S.F., 2011's been no slouch. Between Nojo and Boxing Room and a new chef at Absinthe, Hayes Valley's had a total food makeover. North Beach has seen some new life with Park Tavern and Txoko. And the Castro's seen some refreshment too, with the recent opening of Canela and the early-summer opening of Criolla Kitchen. Meanwhile menus continue to be refreshed at mainstays like Flour + Water, Contigo, and Frances as summer fades slowly into fall. So allow us to suggest these twenty new dishes that might become your new addictions, most of them on the small-plates end of things, at twenty restaurants both new and not so new.
On the revamped bar menu at Absinthe, from chef Adam Keough, is this excellent mini-pizza with roasted and charred cherry tomatoes, smoked bacon, ricotta, arugula, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It's an awesome bar snack, especially with the now famous soft garlic pretzels with Vermont cheddar dipping sauce (also pictured), and perfect for soaking up one or two of Carlos Yturria's excellent cocktails.
Chef Ian Marks has been trying to take this one-time special off the menu — a braised rabbit and bacon stew over white corn polenta and herb salsa — for a couple of months now, but he fears a revolt among his loyal customers. "I go through twelve rabbits a week!" he tells us.
San Francisco Magazine critic Josh Sens aptly describes these as "Creole arancini," and they're basically fried balls of rice laced with chicken liver and ground pork shoulder, with a bit of spicy aioli for dipping. They're delicious for obvious reasons, and easy to fill up on — they're also a little heartier and more interesting than the hushpuppies, which are also good — but they make a great start to a meal at this new New Orleans-inspired restaurant from the Absinthe team.
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Brassica 641 Main Street, St. Helena; 707-963-0700
One of the most inventive small plates at Cindy Pawlcyn's brand new Mediterranean eatery in downtown St. Helena (in what was formerly her restaurant Go Fish) are these crispy frites made with spears of eggplant, dusted with za'tar and served with a spiced yogurt for dipping. It's fried eggplant made new, and almost feels healthy. And they're so good we're kind of surprised we've never seen this before.
Yes, there are plenty of non-fried items -- charcuterie, flatbreads, salads -- at this new tapas place in the Castro, but how can you beat a perfect croquette stuffed with Manchego cheese? Also, be advised, the kitchen stays open late (midnight on weekends), and we all know that fried food is just what the doctor ordered when you've been drinking.
They may specialize in pies, both the savory and sweet variety, but the bakers at Chile Pies & Ice Cream also seem to know a thing or two about cake. In checking out the newest location on Church Street, we happened to see this wedge of moist-looking cake glowing on its stand. And the slice of it we took home proved truly glorious — as rich, moist, and chocolatey as it looked, with a homemade-tasting buttercream that was just this side of too sweet. It's not available every day, but look for it as you pass by, and don't pass it up.
Chef Brett Emerson prepares this traditional Catalan salad with frisée, grape tomatoes, chopped tomato, cucumber, croutons, Bronx grapes, and a drizzle of cumin-garlic vinaigrette. It's a totally refreshing and unique summer salad that they'll be serving well into the fall, as long as the grapes and tomatoes still look good, and servers have taken to explaining it to diners as a "deconstructed gazpacho," even though it's not exactly.
The menu at this newest Mission watering hole (in the former Bissap Baobab space) leans heavily toward simple fare like burgers and sliders, and our favorite of the bunch are these mini-Reuben sandwiches, served with tater tots. If you're feeling really adventurous (and/or you enjoy pain), you can try the Ghost Burger, which comes with a ghost pepper sauce that you have to sign a waver for before eating.
Chef Melissa Perello recently added this delicious ode to late summer to the smaller-plates section of her menu, and it's as humble but perfect as everything else at the restaurant. The bowl is prepped with a quenelle of smoked-chili creme fraiche over a bed of roasted white corn, and lime-scented sea salt, and then filled in with a satisfying white corn soup. The result is satisfying, with a modernized nod to the 1980s and the southwestern flavors that came with early California Cuisine.
Over at this 32-year-old vegetarian mainstay overlooking the Bay there is a brand new happy hour up front at Greens to Go, featuring $5 wine specials and new small plates like these hearty little corn cakes, emphasis on the corn — there's just a light eggy batter holding together a lot of fresh kernels. They're served with sour cream, salsa, and a tangy green-olive salsa verde.
There's a lot to like about the new Mexico-meets-Japan, tequila/sushi bar and izakaya called Hecho, in the former Midi spot at the Galleria Park Hotel, but our favorite item by far is this slightly fusion-y plate of fried chicken nuggets, exquisitely seasoned, and dressed with lime juice and sliced raw jalapeno. The jalapeno and lime bring this traditional Japanese drinking snack full circle back to the tequila-bar end of things, but the dish still somehow tastes Asian — probably because of a soy kick in the fry batter, but we can't be sure.
Deviled eggs are kind of a thing lately, and the best we've had in town are the "Caesar salad" deviled eggs (at left), laced with plenty of anchovy, that are part of a trio of varieties on offer from chef Adam Carpenter at Jasper's. The other two (romesco, and garden vegetable) are fine and well seasoned, but nothing beats the garlic-mustard-anchovy kick of those Caesar salad ones, topped tiny croutons.
The newly open, Yucatan-inspired restaurant in downtown Healdsburg, from former Dry Creek Kitchen-turned-pop-up chef Mateo Granados, features much of the homey food that made his Tendejon de la Calle pop-ups a success. These fine empanadas, topped with raw goat's milk feta, are shown here with one of bar star Scott Beattie's creations for the tequila- and mezcal-driven bar program: a savory salsa fresca margarita with cucumber, jicama, lime, and cherry tomato.
One of the tastier treats on the two-month-old bar menu at Michael Mina is this dish of haute-fusion-style tacos, featuring braised duck leg, pickled onions, and a drizzling of smoked-tomato crème fraiche. We gather the traders like to land at the bar after the markets close, around 3:30, and order these things and the sliders by the dozen.
Chef Greg Dunmore knows his way around yakitori, and his California-touched, Japanese small plates are all inspired and photo-worthy. But we wanted to call your attention to this humble but astonishing rice cake, grilled and seasoned with a deft hand, which should form the beginning of any meal at Nojo. It's a worthy tribute to the country from which it comes, and it's as soulful a dish as any we can think of.
Much like the menu at little sister restaurant Marlowe, the stuff at the newly open Park Tavern is pretty much all good. The smaller-plates end of the menu is divided into three sections: Raw, Fried, and Smoked. And from the fried section, a highlight has to be these amazingly crisp, creamy, fried green tomatoes, wedged rather than sliced, that manage to be molten-fresh and tomato-y in the middle without sogging their crusts. And they're served with a tasty, smoky aioli with a Tabasco kick.
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Prospect 300 Spear Street at Folsom; 415-247-7770
Everyone knows by now that the food at one-year-old Prospect is solid, and that the bar can be a major scene most weeknights, sandwiched between the Financial District and the ballpark. But one of the best things on their newly launched bar menu are these house-made beer nuts, which are quite seriously addictive, well spiced, and delicious.
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Wild Fennel Pollen Pappardelle
Trace W Hotel, 181 3rd Street at Howard; 415-817-7836
One of the most surprising dishes on the simple but slyly inventive, farm-to-table menu at the newly opened Trace is this pasta dish, which features charred cherry tomatoes, roasted corn, fennel pollen, and artichoke chips. The pasta was perfectly cooked, and the sauce had a virtually meaty complexity from all the components — particularly the char on the tomatoes and corn, we think. It's a satisfying and luxurious vegetarian dish.
We like a lot of the pintxos from chef Ian Begg at this new North Beach tapas place, but probably the most addictive is this flaky wild mushroom empanada, filled with tasty chanterelles, hen-of-the-woods, and portobello mushrooms. Try it with a glass of sherry, or one of their fine and original cocktails, like the Fatty Arbuckle: bacon-infused Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon, lemon-verbena simple syrup, and tobacco tincture.