We're already halfway into 2014 (?!) and as with any other year in the Bay Area, there's no shortage of dishes we're still thinking about weeks, even months, later. Many of these are still on menus, while all point to the skill and surprises abundant in restaurants both new and old, from the East to the South Bay, and of course, all over San Francisco.
Aveline's Egg-Yolk Beignet
Why We Love It: A real showstopper, this giant, warm beignet ($25) arrives oozing egg yolk and wrapped decadently in thin sheets of Wagyu beef and silky-fat lardo dashed with trotter sauce. A visionary, extravagant dish...and maybe the most drool-inducing.
TBD's Uni-Potato-Jalapeño Dish
Why We Love It: This combination ($18) has haunted us since we ordered it (more than once) at the beginning of the year (note: TBD just switched over to a prix fixe-only format). With silky uni (sea urchin) draped over dry-farmed purple and brown potatoes, it's a meeting of earthy comfort and briny luxury. If that weren’t brilliant enough, the dish comes vividly to life in a jalapeño and scallion sauce that sends it into the stratosphere. Thank you, chef Mark Liberman.
Smokestack's Beef Brisket
Why We Love It: The Magnolia beers and cocktails are draws in themselves, but when it comes to the food at this BBQ newcomer, it's all about the brisket. We've road-tripped for weeks through the South to "study" regional barbecue and sauces, and though chef Dennis Lee (also chef-owner of Namu Gaji) takes as many cues from Asia as from the American South, his brisket made from top-quality (and pricey) Wagyu beef is appropriately fatty and fall-apart tender, with a perfectly crusted skin. We can't help but sigh in delight with each bite.
Why We Love It: As much as we crave cured meats, we've wearied over ubiquitous boards of the stuff for years...until Trou Normand revived our interest. In its remarkable program, chef-butcher Salvatore Cracco produces the house charcuterie (platters run $19, $38, $57) from Mangalitsa pigs raised exclusively for the restaurant by Devil's Gulch Ranch. There's rich fat and aspic to spread on rustic bread, and a riot of memorable meats including lush rabbit-pork-nutmeg pâté, pork tongue and cheek pâté and pork spleen mortadella.
Iyasare's Ocean Umami, Berkeley
Why We Love It: Chef Shotaro Kamio makes more than one standout dish at this Cali-meets-Japanese beacon to those on either side of the bridge. Doubling as artwork, Ocean Umami ($16) leaves the biggest impression. Succulent Hokkaido scallops are topped with uni and sweetened with dots of ume plum and piquant, pickled wasabi leaf. Nori ponzu sauce and the bright pop of salmon roe complete the flavor-rich, nuanced dish.
Oak & Rye's Scotty 2 Hottie Pizza, Los Gatos
Why We Love It: Excellent pizza is (thankfully) a dime a dozen in the Bay Area. But of the many newer spots around, Oak & Rye is well worth a detour to the chilled-out town of Los Gatos, with strong cocktails and stellar pies from Angelo Womack, of famed Roberta’s in Brooklyn. The red sauce is a sweet-savory triumph, while the crust walks that fine line of bubbly char and chewy depth. We're hooked on the Scotty 2 Hottie pizza ($16), despite its silly name. Tomato, basil and mozzarella undergird a sensational trio of meaty soppressata, honey and hot pepperoncini oil. Sweet, spicy, savory...it's the trifecta.
Stones Throw's Sweet Corn Soup
Why We Love It: Usually soup doesn't take the spotlight. But when it does, you remember it. Chef Jason Halverson's sweet-corn soup ($12) not only shines with bounty of summer fresh off the cob, it balances that sweetness with a stream of bright red piquillo pepper sauce and cool cream, with grounds of smoky chorizo and scallions adding more flavor and texture. If this weren't notable enough, a doughy corn croquette is like a floating treasure on this lively sea.
Sent Sovi Lounge's Stir-Fried Rack of Lamb
Why We Love It: Behind Sent Sovi's cottagelike dining room is chilled-out Sent Sovi Lounge, showcasing chef-owner Josiah Slone's favorite changing dishes and shareable plates with French and California wines. Though you'll lose it over savory gougère cupcakes, we were blown away by his tender stir-fried rack of lamb tossed with spring onions, peas, asparagus and porcini mushrooms, an Asian-style wok dish with French finesse. We'd consider driving back down to Saratoga just for this. Call ahead and make sure they're serving it — you won't be sorry.
Why We Love It: While their superior version of a Northern Thai sausage, Sai Ua+Namprik Noom ($15), was a contender for this list, it's owner Pim Techamuanvivit and chef de cuisine Michael Gaines's scratch curries that made the cut. With more than 15 ingredients in Khun Yai's Green Curry ($22) — lush with coconut milk, Thai eggplant, Thai basil and pristine rabbit three ways (loin, saddle, and herb-laden meatballs) — it's enough to make you want to leave behind mediocre versions everywhere. Though more expensive than your typical curry, the portion is plenty for two to share.
Quince's Tortelli alla Cecilia Chang
Why We Love It: Splurging on Quince's spring menu (a $40 supplement just to add this dish on) meant the chance to be wowed by the Tortelli alla Cecilia Chang, a decadent pasta named for the great Chinese restaurant legend and SF local. The tortelli pasta is filled with smoked sturgeon and potato, marked by dill and generous dollops of caviar.
Gaspar Brasserie's Le Fraisier Pour Deux
Why We Love It: After our early peek at both food and cocktails, we've been back another three times to Gaspar and can't help it: pastry chef Chucky Dugo's Le Fraisier Pour Deux ($14) is one of the best things on the menu — and one of the top desserts in the city right now. A dense yet fluffy circular pistachio cake (beautifully showcasing the green nut) is adorned with slivers of roasted strawberries around the perimeter, with caramelized meringue its crowning glory.
Dirty Habit's Ginger Churros
Why We Love It: Whether you lean sweet or savory, it doesn't matter. These ginger churros ($8) filled with litchi ginger and dipped in miso caramel are a whirl of flavors, but it's the dreamy texture that lingers in memory. Not just warm, soft and crispy like the best churros, these ooze a liquid center and nearly dissolve on the tongue.