The Alembic, located in San Francisco's Upper Haight district at 1725 Haight Street, has been serving up some of the city's most sophisticated and carefully sourced cocktails for ten years. Their very tiny gastropub kitchen has also provided guests with a bevy of small, often unusual plates--think sweet breads, pickled quail eggs, duck hearts--to accompany the libations. After nearly a year in the making the restaurant has built out an expanded dining area in the former Red Vic Movie House, directly next door. Executive chef David Faro (Campton Place, Verbena, Google) joined Alembic as a sous chef in 2015 and is now offering a new and expanded menu of both small and large plates, including a 4-course chef's tasting menu for $48.
Photos by Eric Wolfinger
Whether you stop in for a cocktail and a small bite or a full dinner do not miss out on the jerked-spiced duck hearts with pickled pineapple and thyme salt. Not only is it unusual to find duck hearts on a menu but the flavors work so well with the cocktails, particularly the bourbon-based drinks. Once you try these you will order them every time! Another very good and small starter is the sprouted lentil croquettes with yogurt and Calabrian chili. The bone marrow will also not disappoint and--if you are looking for something heartier and stick to your ribs--the fried chicken with collards and sausage gravy will fit the bill.
I love the idea of a 4-course tasting menu as the dishes are all small in size and you are able to try chef Faro's creations without being overwhelmed or overfed. The menu changes frequently but may include notable dishes such as first-of-the-season asparagus (braised pine nuts, meyer lemon, parmesan), Liberty Farms duck (black trumpet mushrooms, young broccoli, chestnuts) or sweetbreads (gochujang, turnips, charred scallions).
Jerked duck hearts with pickled pineapples
Chef Faro has also taken on the very ambitious endeavor of curing 8 different types of charcuterie in-house, including spicy capicola, nocciola, cotechino, smoked house sausage, mortadella, country pate and misozuke duck. Most are very good while some--like the mortadella--do not stand up to their counterparts imported from Italy. It's the sign of a young and very zealous chef taking on a lot of work! I would humbly suggest perhaps focusing on a few types of charcuterie to begin with and doing them very well.
The cocktails--under the stewardship of head barman Jacob Racusin--are as great as they have ever been and are now classified into two categories: “New School” – where every drink incorporates ingredients made in-house, and “The Canon” – featuring timeless drinks that fit the season. Faro and Racusin maintain a 1,000 square foot garden at the back of the restaurant to supply ingredients for the bar and kitchen. Alembic is open seven days a week. For hours of operation and more details see www.AlembicSF.com.
Sprouted lentil croquettes
An exciting new eatery focusing on craft beer is now open at 1735 Polk Street at Clay, an area of the city that has experienced a real dearth of new restaurants. Owners Ted Kim, Quinn Wong and Gil Hoh have partnered with chef Tim Luym (Poleng Lounge, Attic) to create a playful menu of mostly small plates to compliment the rotating list of 40 beers on tap.
The large and sleek, industrial space is filled with curious antiques and SF collectibles including a vintage typewriter at the entrance with a typed missive that explains the “buffalo theory.” Buffalos cull the weak in their herd, thus making them stronger as a whole. Drinking beer and alcohol kills off the weaker brain cells first and in theory makes for better cerebral function…at least we can aspire to this. There is a lounge area with two comfortable leather banquettes where guests can mingle and wait for a table or a seat at the 10-person bar. Prominently featured is a custom art piece of a buffalo by local artist Luke Stevens.
Photos by Kelly Puleio
Executive chef Tim Luym was a Chronicle rising star chef in 2007 and won many accolades for his Filipino-inspired food at the now shuttered Poleng Lounge. Mr. Luym has come up with a very creative menu celebrating dishes from the likes of Italy, Spain and Japan to name a few, each melded together with a foundation of Filipino and Asian ingredients. Take for example the brilliant “Aranchino,” a play on the Italian deep-fried risotto rice balls. Luym takes panko-encrusted Asian sticky rice with mushrooms, shrimp and Chinese sausage and marries them beautifully with an X.O. aioli. Another not to miss dish is the beer braised short rib Shepherd’s pie with Japanese curry, seasonal vegetables, mashed potatoes, Japanese yam and English peas. Lighter fare includes a yellowtail tosazu crudo (wakame seaweed, Japanese cucumber, furikake, lemon zest) and crispy chicken wings with a classic adobo glaze. There is even a play on Spain’s white bean stew from Asturias—La Fabada—that includes braised Iacopi fava and gigante beans, longanisa sausage, pork and saffron. The staff is very knowledgeable about the selection of beer and can make fun recommendations and pairings. However, if beer is not your thing there is a very good selection of wine. Buffalo Theory is open daily for dinner.
The buffalo meatballs
Despite the playful name upon opening, this swanky yet approachable new Marina eatery located at 3213 Scott Street at Lombard has become a beloved dining destination. Chefs and owners Erik Lowe and Aaron Toensing (Bix, Fog City) took over the former The Republic bar and transformed it into what they call a fine dining restaurant with cocktails that doesn't take itself too seriously. While Lowe and Toensing’s reimagined American classics are fun and even playful at times the focus on top ingredients, technique and refinement is clear. While some guests understood the intention behind the name many remained confused. And so in recent months the establishment was renamed to Maybeck's, in homage to one of San Francisco's luminaries and famous architects. Bernard Maybeck designed the Palace of Fine Arts and was a major contributor to the arts and crafts movement of the early 20th century.
Photos by Sloane Morrison
The space was overhauled by designer Michael Guthrie and architect Mark Topetcher and includes seating for 120 guests. There is a 20-seat, copper-topped bar and a lounge with mocha leather banquettes. The main dining room is quite posh with classic white tablecloths and Thonet bentwood chairs with beige leather seats and tartan-upholstered backs. One can imagine Don Draper and Roger Sterling from Mad Men entertaining clients at Maybeck's in high style and with plenty of stiff drinks.
Scallop and uni crudo
Start off your night at the bar for a negroni—there are several to choose from and then make your way to one of the cozy tables. Noteworthy starters include the crudo (true American snapper, lemon, chili oil). The spaghetti (black pepper, sweet butter, Parmesan) with local uni butter is ethereal in its simplicity as is the orecchiette mac and cheese (mornay cheddar, green chili salsa). A dramatic, not-to-be-missed dish for the table is the Flannery dry-aged prime New York steak (creamed spinach, delicata squash gratin, l’entrecote sauce, rosemary frites). Dishes change regularly but I'm happy to say the radiatori pasta (with smoky pork Bolognese & chile oil) is back on the menu! The restaurant also does a special beef wellington every Wednesday--aka "Wellington Wednesdays"--that is sliced at 7pm until sold out. Maybeck's is open daily from 4:30pm until 11pm, closed Mondays.
Chef & owner Erik Lowe working the Josper grill at Maybeck's
A year ago one would be hard-pressed to find much Cajun cuisine in San Francisco outside of the Elite Cafe and the Boxing Room, both well established restaurants. Meet your new best friend, Alba Ray's. Named after owner Alvin Garcia's son's middle name and chef/partner Adam Rosenblum's daughter, Alba Ray's is one of the most playful and inspiring new restaurants this writer has seen in a long time. Located at 2293 Mission St. at 19th in the old Hapa Ramen space Alba Ray's is somehow quintessentially a San Francisco restaurant and yet also imparts the open and often raucous hospitality inherent to a typical eatery and drinking establishment in New Orleans.
The 100-seat, 2,400 square foot restaurant was designed by Oakland-based Arcsine (Duende, Calavera) and features ornamental iron arches clad in ferns, vintage chandeliers, handmade Fireclay tiles and low-lit sconces. There is a hand-painted mosaic floor mural and fleur de lys wall art by specialty painter Caroline Lizarraga, giving the space an eclectic and unique vibe. The zinc-topped 16-seat communal table in front of the open kitchen is sure to become the place for large, festive celebrations.
The char-broiled gulf oysters
Photo by Zak Wu
Mr. Garcia and Mr. Rosenblum are both partners in the very popular Causwells in the Marina and Popson's Burgers downtown. Garcia has had a love affair with New Orleans for some time and Rosenblum has actually cooked at Herbsaint, a beloved dining destination in NOLA. New to the team is chef de cuisine Matt Woods (Schmidt's) who is originally from New Orleans and has worked at many of that city's iconic establishments. Start out the evening with a Sazerac cocktail (Rittenhouse rye, bitters, sugar, absinthe rinse) from bar manager Mike Henderson (Delarosa) and a platter of shucked oysters. The next dish to follow these pristine, raw bivalves is the char-broiled gulf oysters with herbed butter and Romano cheese. The accompanying, house made white bread is the perfect foil for soaking up all the deliciousness. Another not-to-miss starter is the crispy boudin balls with house creole mustard aioli. At this point hopefully you are on your second cocktail or glass of wine and are ready for a feast. There is really something for everyone and many of the plates are quite small so indulge and order to your heart's content!
The Gumbo with Andouille, chicken & crispy okra
Photo by James Stolich
The blue crab salad (green tomato, avocado, herbs) is light and a refreshing palate cleanser. The rabbit stew with milk biscuits is small, perfect for sharing and very rich in flavor and goes perfectly with a side of dirty rice with pork and liver. It is, perhaps, one of the kitchen's best dishes. Other signature items include the gumbo (chicken, Andouille, crispy okra) and the smoked eggplant and carrot jambalaya, though I'm not sure the abundant amount of shiktakes are really at home in this latter dish.
If you are feeling indulgent, order the excellent mac and cheese and be sure to spoon some of the jus from the gumbo on top! And if you didn't order the blue crab salad go for the escarole version and be generous with the Crystal brand hot sauce, stationed on every table. Finish off the night with the deep-fried beignets and another cocktail. Alba Ray's is open daily for dinner with lunch service planned for the near future.
Beignets with powdered sugar & chocolate sauce
Photo by James Stolich
El Paseo--the iconic restaurant from former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar--has been serving food and drink in a historic building in downtown Mill Valley for a number of years. And now with a full liquor license in place Mr. Hagar has launched The Passage Bar, tucked away along the beautiful brick passageway leading into the restaurant.
Photos by Hardy Wilson Photography
Bar Manager Steve Gizzi has designed six flagship cocktails featuring top-shelf spirits, including Sammy's own brands: Cabo Wabo Tequila, Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, and the recent launch of Santo Mezquila – his newest agave product in partnership with Maroon 5 frontman and fellow Grammy winner, Adam Levine..
The space itself is incredibly intimate and is sure to become one of Mill Valley's hot spot hangouts any day of the week. Chef Henry Cortez has crafted a menu of small bites focusing on California ingredients, inspired by Spain's tapas. Some of the dishes include a tortilla de patatas, prosciutto-wrapped pineapple, fried chicken with pimenton honey and the Passage bocadillo (burger). A must try cocktail is the Santorito that incorporates Sammy's newest agave product "Santo Mezquila" with lime juice, orange juice, Damiana Liquer and chili salt. The Passage Bar is open daily from 4pm until close. Every day there is a "bubbles & bites" happy hour from 4pm to 6pm.
Founded in 2011, Salt & Straw is a chef-driven ice cream shop based in Portland with outposts in Los Angeles. Owners Kim and Tyler Malek found the perfect SF location at 2201 Fillmore and California Streets (home to the former site of the short-lived Starbucks subsidiary Evolution Fresh) to showcase their community-centric Portland style.
Photo by Brian Doben
The Maleks make all of their ice cream by hand in small batches, five gallons at a time, using only all-natural dairy with the best local, sustainable and organic ingredients. To make the San Francisco versions of their ice cream even more local and custom they are partnering with several Bay Area farmers and organizations like La Cocina, Teranga Juice, Sightglass Coffee, Dandelion Chocolate and many others.
This writer was both excited and surprised a few weeks back when a special delivery arrived from Salt & Straw, packed under a big block of dry ice! What I love about this ice cream is that it's high in butterfat, low in air and low in sweetness. While all of the flavors were really good (I got to try 6!) the sea salt with caramel ribbons was my favorite. Chef Malek uses Guatemalan Fleur de Sel from world-renowned salt purveyor Mark Bitterman (he is the author of "Salted" a James Beard award-winning book) to create a sea salt ice cream and then ribbon in housemade hand-burned caramel. Salt & Straw is projected to open some time in April, 2017.
Photo courtesy Salt & Straw Facebook page
If you are feeling peckish after an afternoon of wine tasting while in Napa stop by the Bruschetteria Food Truck, located outside the Clif Family Velo Vino tasting room at 709 Main Street, St. Helena. Executive chef John McConnell serves up a seasonal menu of bruschetta, spiedini, porchetta, farm fresh salads and rotisserie chicken, all from inside a cheerful, bright green truck. The bruschetta is absolutely delicious and is served on lightly grilled bread sourced from nearby artisan Model Bakery. 707-301-7188. You can eat outside or take your food into the Clif Family tasting room and imbibe a few more vinos.
Photos by James Stolich
If you are craving house-made pasta at home and don’t have time to trek across the city to eat at Cotogna, Barzotto or Locanda--to name just a few--consider popping into The Italian Homemade Company shop. In addition to their North Beach location at 716 Columbus Avenue they have now opened a second outpost at 1919 Union Street, offering a daily selection of fresh pastas and raviolis to go, sauces and Italian dry goods.
Photo credit: Yelp
You can also opt to dine in and they do offer a selection of wine and beer. Think of it like a "tavola calda" in Italy, essentially a small grocery store or market that also offers a rotating selection of daily specials cooked on the premises. If you call with at least 24 hours notice you can usually special-order items such as rabbit & pork agnolotti. The Italian Homemade Company is open Tuesday through Sunday.
Chef David Lawrence (1300 Fillmore) and his wife and business partner Monetta White (a Fillmore native) are intent on bringing back the tradition of barbecue to their beloved neighborhood. After years of research, travel, recipe testing and remodeling Black Bark (the smoky exterior of slow-cooked barbecue) is open at 1325 Fillmore Street at Eddy. The dining room is modern and bright with seating for up to 56 guests and the open kitchen provides a glimpse of the very impressive indoor BBQ pit. On warm days there is additional seating for 15 in the patio and beer garden.
Photo by Gamma Nine
Lawrence brought on barbecue expert Edith Cheadle from Dallas to consult on the menu. While not focused on any one particular style Lawrence’s and Cheadle’s menu leans toward Texas with dry rubs and also looks to the Carolinas and Kansas City for inspiration. According to Lawrence the barbecue that inspired San Francisco's style was originally imported from the South, as workers traveled West to work in the shipyards. "San Francisco has always been the wild wild West and that's how its barbecue has developed," said Lawrence. "I want to have my own style, with a dry rub. It's a Texas-style brisket with a San Francisco sensibility." In addition to brisket there are ribs, a half chicken, hot links, pulled pork, turkey legs and a rotating pit master special. Sides—many of them based on recipes from Cheadle—include baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, collard greens and sweet potato fries just to name a few. Of course the best strategy is to order a couple of meats and a side or two to make a plate. There are also a variety of salads to balance things out. Be sure to try Lawrence’s take on a Carolina mustard sauce that he's dubbed "California Gold." Black Bark BBQ is open daily for lunch and dinner, closed Tuesdays.
Photo by Gamma Nine
The Financial district has two exciting new drinking establishments with bar bites and small plates from acclaimed chefs—a seeming new trend where the food compliments the cocktails but takes a second seat to the act of imbibing fun libations. And Hayes Valley has what is perhaps our city’s first and highest quality fast food casual concept. Happy eating and cocktailing!
Now open in the nexus of the busy financial district at 115 Sansome St. at Bush is a new watering hole and eatery called The Treasury. Located in a historic Beaux arts building constructed in 1912 as one of the original headquarters of Standard Oil Company, the project comes from industry veterans Arnold Eric Wong (Bacar, EOS, E&O), Phil West (Bacar, Range, Third Rail), distinguished bartender Carlos Yturria (Bacar, A16, Range, Absinthe) and partner Steven Werney of Teutonic Construction (Twenty Five Lusk). The stunning interior was designed by Geremia Design (Hogwash, Coffee Bar, Churchill) and features double-height ceilings, marble tables and leather seating. The long and striking bar is composed of beautiful black soapstone and winds its way around to a Victorian style sitting area with a red leather banquette. The entire space feels like a European bistro with its massive chandeliers and brass finishes.
Photo by Tory Putnam
The cocktails—while both sophisticated and playful—are designed to be served in a quick fashion as opposed to the last trend of drinks so complicated they needed a 10-minute lead time. Start off with the classic Standard Oil (Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Dolin rouge vermouth, Drambuie). Other favorites include the Glass Ceiling (Absolut vodka, bergamot, Manzanilla sherry) and the Bamboozled (Pommard de Normandie, amontillado sherry). There is also an excellent rose wine on tap and a selection of bubbles to cleanse your palette between libations. The kitchen is focused mainly on bar bites rather than full entrees. The chilled white gulf shrimp (“Bloody Mary cocktail sauce & little gem lettuces) is one of the best renditions of the ubiquitous and usually not very good “shrimp cocktail.” There is an excellent chicken liver mousse (giardiniera, cornichon & toast), Treasury pigs in a blanket (savora mustard) and the Louisiana blue crab roll (Pinkie’s poppy seed roll, cabbage and fennel). The Reggiano parmesan gougeres make for the perfect light bar bite with lots of flavor. The kitchen also offers several types of caviar service as well as a daily rotation of oysters on the half shell. The Treasury is open daily from 3pm until midnight, closed Sundays.
Leo’s Oyster Bar
Just a few blocks over from The Treasury is another newcomer to the financial district. Located in the former Wexler’s space at 568 Sacramento St. at Sansome, Leo’s Oyster Bar hearkens back to the glamorous 1950s era. Co-owners Ana Weinberg and James Nicholas (Park Tavern, Marlowe, The Cavalier) hired designer Ken Fulk and Jon de La Cruz to design the 40-seat space. Inspiration came from a specific episode of Mad Men where Roger Sterling and Don Draper spend hours in a NYC restaurant sipping martinis and indulgently downing oysters. The jewel box-like space features a long onyx-topped bar that is lit from below, casting a glamorous orange glow throughout the space. The main dining room has leather banquettes, rich mahogany paneling, hanging ferns, gilt scallop shell sconces and a hammered brass raw bar.
Photo by Patricia Chang
Chef Jennifer Puccio’s seafood-centric menu of mostly small plates is designed to compliment the cocktails and Champagne. Start off with Leo’s deviled egg with wing-dried oyster or the tasty oyster carbonara with crispy pancetta. There are a variety of playful bites such as the house-made tater tots (brandade and tapenade) and the French fries with “Marlow” burger dressings. Other must try dishes include the sea urchin toast (ginger, soy, scallion) and the fluke crudo (celery root, apples, preserved lemon and celery). If you are looking to make a more substantial meal there are a few larger plates including a very delicious New England style lobster roll with French fries. Leo’s Oyster Bar is open daily from 3pm on, closed Sundays. Lunch service will start soon.
Hayes Valley has a new fast-casual concept located inside a brand new building at 400 Grove St. at Gough. The project is from Eric Lilavois (former COO at the Thomas Keller Group), chef Dave Cruz (formerly chef de cuisine of Ad Hoc) and John DiFazio (CFO). The food is focused on farm to table N. California cuisine and showcases ingredients from prominent family farms like Marin Sun and 5 Dot Ranch. All of the dishes are free of dairy, gluten and refined sugars. The 2,000 square foot industrial space was designed by Boor Bridges Architecture (Sightglass, Trou Normand) and has floor-to-ceiling windows and Douglas fir wood chairs made by Treasure Island-based Four Quarter. All of the wood for the bar, shelves and ledges comes from a single reclaimed American elm tree in Marin.
Photo by Kimberly Hasselbrink
Cruz’s menu allows guests the freedom to build their own dishes from a selection of vegetables, grains and potatoes, meat and fish or choose from chef-composed plates such as the King of Hayes (King Salmon, red quinoa, kalamata olives, almonds, wilted spinach, lemon scallion vinaigrette). Two dishes that really stood out in terms of freshness, taste and presentation are the red quinoa and avocado salad (Belgian endive, frisee, pickled red onions, lemon and olive oil) and the grilled trumpet mushrooms on Rancho Gordo beans and rice with Tuscan kale and a tomato-bacon stew. Little Gem is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
James is a food writer and Bay Area chef who owns and runs a private dinner party and cooking class business specializing in regional Italian and Spanish cuisine. See CookWithJames.com