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.
We have all heard about certain restaurant spaces being cursed. No matter how good the concept there is something about the venue or location that simply does not attract customers. And yet other locations seem to have no trouble at all such as the Chinatown building now occupied by the new Mister Jiu’s that over the last century housed two highly successful eateries. There is no magic formula to opening a restaurant; it’s always a gamble. Take restaurateur Franck LeClerc who has successfully transformed a challenging FIDI location that housed Hecho, Midi and Perry’s into a wonderland of mid-20th century Paris. Why did his concept work and the others failed? Will Mister Jiu’s live on for a hundred years? Time will tell.
Three years in the making, the highly anticipated Mister Jiu’s is now open in a historic 1880s Chinatown building at 28 Waverly Place. The multilevel structure has only housed two restaurants in the last 136 years: the very popular Four Seas, and before that the legendary Hang Far Low—long considered the “Delmonico’s of Chinatown.” Taking over such a prominent spot is no small undertaking. The 10,000-square foot space (redesigned by Boor Bridges Architecture) includes massive brass lotus chandeliers and filigreed lighting fixtures from the Four Seas. The bright, midcentury-style dining room features several round teak tables fitted with ubiquitous Chinese lazy Susans, as well as a 20-foot-long black-and-white landscape piece created with graphite, beeswax and rice paper by artist Afton Love.
Photo by Patricia Chang
Chef and co-owner Brandon Jew (Quince, Bar Agricole) and his all-star team are focusing on Cantonese cuisine articulated through a San Francisco lens, sourcing seasonal ingredients from local farms. “My family’s Cantonese food is really cleansing and pure, but people don’t have that association with Chinese food,” says Jew. He and sous chef Sara Hauman (Huxley) and pastry chef Melissa Chou (Aziza, Mourad) are offering a five-course banquet menu served family style. Diners choose one dish from each of the five categories: salad, soup, rice and noodles, vegetables and entrees. Jew and his team make almost everything in-house, including the noodles, dried seafood and pickled vegetables.
Not-to-miss items include the Devil’s Gulch pig head salad and the Cheong Fun rice noodle roll with Mendocino sea urchin and sprouts. The memorable Liberty Farms duck is made from 12-day aged duck that’s been smoked with lapsang souchong black tea and is presented with pancakes, peanut hoisin, chopped liver, breast, confit legs and gizzards. In homage to the history of the building, Jew has an updated version of the Four Seas’ crispy whole chicken (his grandfather clipped the recipe out of an old copy of the Chronicle). Jew presents the roasted bird with pounded ginger and sorrel, shrimp chips, cilantro, Calabrian chili and hot mustard. Mister Jiu’s is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
When restaurateur Franck LeClerc (Café Claude, Gitane) opened Gaspar two years ago in a space attached to the Galleria Park Hotel at 185 Sutter St., it was seen by many as a risky move. The address had seen more than a few restaurants come and go. The stunning two-level space was designed by LeClerc and Consortium Design, and features a variety of vintage chandeliers, textural wall finishes and a rich color palette of deep reds, dark browns and gold. There is a small, cozy bar downstairs: upstairs is the epitome of swank with a hand-painted ceiling, sexy lighting, brass railings and red leather banquettes.
Photo by Aubrie Pick
New in the kitchen is executive chef Adam Nichol (Wayfare Tavern, AQ) who has been quietly reworking the classic French menu for the past several months. Start off with a cocktail at the intimate Cognac bar adjacent to the dining room. When available do not pass up the Louisiana fried frogs legs with tartar sauce. Other noteworthy dishes include the pristine white prawns with fresh horseradish and cocktail sauce and the harissa-spiced yogurt lamb tartare. One would not go wrong with the perfectly prepared steak frites or the comforting Poulet Rôti half chicken with wild mushrooms and albufera sauce. Gaspar is open daily for lunch and dinner.
How does one create a restaurant that is green and sustainable on every level and even helps reduce our carbon footprint? It only seems natural that such an ambitious movement should start in San Francisco with a new breed of restaurant called The Perennial. From there we move from the future to an oasis in the Tenderloin and a true shrine to gin. Meet Whitechapel and be transported to a Victorian-era distillery inside an abandoned London Underground station.
After two years in the making The Perennial opened earlier this year in the bustling Mid-Market corridor at 59 9th Street. Owners Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz (Mission Chinese Food, Commonwealth) have embraced the lofty goal of creating a restaurant that has minimal impact on the planet, adheres to sustainable practices for every component of food and beverage service—including sourcing meats and produce from growers who engage in carbon farming—to create a platform for others to follow that could ultimately reverse climate change. A 2,000 square-foot aquaponic greenhouse is underway in the East Bay that will provide the restaurant with most of its produce.
Photo by Alanna Hale
The 105-seat industrial space was designed by master woodworker Paul Discoe (Ippuku, Greens) and features many reclaimed elements such as the two long slabs of Douglas Fir that make up the L-shaped bar and the woven redwood ceiling tiles from a tunnel in Marin County. In the dining room a rug made of 100 percent recycled fibers lies beneath a sea of poplar chairs and cypress tables with views of the expansive open kitchen. Head chef Chris Kiyuna (Mission Chinese, Noma in Copenhagen) has created a “progressive agrarian” menu and has shifted the focus of meats and other proteins to more the role of accompaniment. Start off with the delicious Kernza—a new perennial grain that counteracts climate change—bread with house-made butter and lamb ciccioli with pickles. Perhaps the most emblematic dish is the potato confit with clams, aquaponic radishes and their greens and a flavorful bagna cauda made with the clam’s generally unused abductor mussels. The Perennial is open for dinner Monday through Saturday.
Photo by Helynn Ospina
Owners Martin Gate (Smuggler’s Cove) and John Park (Novela) wish to transport gin and spirit lovers to a Victorian-era distillery. The stunning interior has a barrel-vaulted ceiling that feels like a London tube station. To the right of the long bar are crimson banquettes that provide cozy seating and marble-topped tables. Toward the back is the Gin Palace with its own bar and ornate wallpaper in the style of the public houses in the 1820s that created different brands of gin. All said Whitechapel has the largest collection of gin in North America. Go early before the crowds arrive and ask for a brief and fun education and tasting. There are over 100 cocktails showcasing the history of gin and the bar regularly offers special classes.
Photo by Kelly Puleio
Inside the kitchen is chef David Murphy (Austin’s Uchi) who has crafted a menu of British, Dutch, and Bangladeshi influences. Start off with the Welsh rarebit served over pumpernickel with tickler cheddar and beetroot chutney or the steak and oyster pie with confit carrots and royal trumpets. If you are with friends and hungry go big and order the Haunch and Flagon, a 36-ounce dry-aged tomahawk steak with Yorkshire pudding, potatoes and blackberry. Whitechapel is open daily for dinner.
Photo by Kelly Puleio
Finding real Spanish cuisine in SF has always proved challenging. While there are several very good “Spanish-inspired” restaurants they typically do not embrace many of the classic and beloved dishes one finds while traveling through the regions of the Iberian Peninsula. Allow me to introduce you to Bellota (refers to the acorn diet of the “pata negra” pigs) a stunning new project from The Absinthe Restaurant Group. From there we will explore MOMA’s In Situ where chef Cory Lee (Benu, Monsieur Benjamin) painstakingly recreates famous chef dishes from around the globe.
After three years of planning, research and design Bellota is now open in a historic building located at 888 Brannan Street in SOMA. The 170-seat, 5400 square foot space was designed by Sagan Piechota Architecture and features a level of design detail not seen in many restaurants. Upon entering guests are greeted by a massive glass wall displaying dozens of the highly prized Jamón Ibéricos as well as 2,500 bottles of Spanish wine. The bar and main dining room have tabletops and counters crafted from California bay laurel with Costa Brava blue leather chairs and booths. Moorish details abound throughout in the form of saffron-colored, tufted leather walls, stencils and brass table lamps.
Photo by Kelly Puleio
The best place to catch all the action is at the bar surrounding the open kitchen with its wood-burning oven, open-hearth grill and custom Hestan 12-burner range. Executive chef Ryan McIlwraith (he was opening chef at Coqueta and has worked with Gordon Ramsay and Jose Andrés) offers diners a multi-regional tour of the Iberian Peninsula. Start off with Spain’s cocktail of choice, the “gin tonic,” and the pan con tomate on Spanish-style ciabatta. There are a variety of cold and hot tapas to share. The perfectly creamy clam and sea urchin croquetas are a must order as well as the Xato, a delicate Basque dish with poached sablefish, trout roe, orange and romesco. While all of the paellas are fantastic—and precisely cooked to order—two dishes from the wood-fired hearth that stand out are the cordero or slow-roasted, Moorish-spiced lamb with flatbread, cherry salsa and ember-roasted, marinated eggplant and the classic Asturian dish known as La Fabada. The latter—now popular all over Spain and rarely seen in the States—is a stew of Astorga white beans with chorizo, morcilla, pork belly, grilled pulpo and charred cabbage. Bellota is open for dinner Monday through Saturday.
The recently renovated Museum of Modern Art has a new restaurant led by chef Corey Lee. It’s more of an art installation than an actual restaurant, serving guests iconic dishes from a cadre of famous chefs from around the world. The talent represented is staggering and includes the likes of Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se), Hisato Nakahigashi (Miyamasou, Japan), René Redzepi (Noma, Copenhagen), Juan Mari and Elena Arzak (Arzak, Spain), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana, Italy), Wylie Dufresne (wd~50, Alder in NYC) and locals like Alice Waters (Chez Panisse) and David Kinch (Manresa, The Bywater).
Photo by James Stolich
Given the complexity and disparity of the dishes this could be a challenging restaurant for diners were it not inside an art museum. It is a rare intellectual opportunity to try so many creative international dishes without stepping onto a plane. The kitchen is still ramping up so some countries such as Spain are not yet fully realized but will appear on the menu in the months to come. Perhaps the most beautiful and emblematic dish of the moment is The Forest. Created by Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco for his restaurant Mirazur in Menton, France the dish is homage to mushrooms and all things with an earthy texture. A bounty of wild mushrooms is served over a quinoa risotto with parsley “moss” and soft-boiled potatoes. In Situ is open daily from 11am until 4pm.
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