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Editor-at-Large Rebecca Flint Marx Picks Her 10 Favorite Meals of the Year

From smoky carrot lox to vegan ramen to roasted cauliflower in beet hummus—these restaurants know their way around a vegetable.

SLIDESHOW

A roadside lunch stop at Dad’s Luncheonette might feature a hamburger or mushroom sandwich, a seasonal salad, and puffed-rice-topped mac and cheese. 

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Rooh’s version of bhel, an Indian street snack. Here it’s made with tuna, togarashi, and tamarind. You can enjoy it with an apricot cocktail.

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The bar area at Rooh, where both the food and the setting are gorgeous to look at and have a smart, modern sensibility.

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Read more from the August 2017 Food Issue here.


It’s been an odd year in Bay Area dining
. Conversations tend to revolve around restaurant closures (farewell, Rose Pistola, AQ, Range, and on and on and on) instead of openings, while the most notable debuts have tended to fall on the extreme ends of the economic spectrum: either nosebleed-high or fast-and-furious casual. The middle, as they say, cannot hold, if only because no one seems to know what, exactly, “middle” means when a neighborhood joint can serve $30 entrées and still be thought of as a neighborhood joint. Personally, I’m a little tired of trying to figure out what goes where; I’m more interested in restaurants that are purely delightful, more than a bit idiosyncratic, and perhaps not entirely built for today’s bottom line. And as someone who eats meat only when my profession demands it, I’ve also been most drawn to chefs who find ever more creative ways to employ members of the plant kingdom (hello, carrot lox at the Drawing Board). This year’s best restaurants follow no drummer but their own, right past the considerable obstacles in their paths to destinations that are both unexpected and inspiring, and that I want to visit again and again.

1. Dad's Luncheonette
What happens when a former Saison chef de cuisine finds a historic train caboose on the side of Highway 1? If he’s Scott Clark, he sets up shop and starts slinging the most inspired roadside grub in the Bay Area. Since last December, when Clark and his partner, Alexis Liu, opened Dad’s Luncheonette in a Half Moon Bay parking lot (the kitchen is inside the caboose, while the seating is an outdoor patio), they have been blessing drivers with grilled hamburger sandwiches ($12) on white bread, hyper-seasonal soups and herb salads, a hen-of-the-woods mushroom sandwich ($11) so good it could inspire a religion, and gooey cast-iron blondies ($3.50) that speak in flavors like matcha and miso. Clark’s deceptively simple food tastes like coastal California (everything but the cheese comes from local farms) and, more than anything, of the freedom of the open, endless road. 225 Cabrillo Highway S. (near Kelly Ave.), Half Moon Bay, 650-560-9832

2. Nightbird
In an era when concept is king, it’s rare to find a restaurant that’s not trying to be anything but a restaurant, much less a self-possessed one. So thank goodness for Nightbird, a restaurant that knows exactly what it is: a smart, understated meditation on pleasure from Kim Alter, the chef who can be found helming its kitchen every night. Alter serves a tasting menu that, at five courses for $125, will neither immobilize nor bankrupt you. It also doesn’t present itself like a series of postcards from the chef’s ego; Alter’s food is assured and technique driven, but it’s also playful and surprising. You might find oysters paired with tomatoes and seaweed, or warm Parker House rolls tucked in burlap, or a corn ménage à trois. A grown-up restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously? This is a rare bird, and it soars. 330 Gough St. (at Linden St.), 415-829-7565

3. The Drawing Board
Ariel Nadelberg was once the chef at Seed + Salt, a scrupulously health-minded vegan haunt in the Marina. If Nadelberg’s food there showed her impressive capacity for creativity within a strict set of parameters (eggplant bacon!), her menu at the Drawing Board, an airy, high-ceilinged restaurant that opened in Petaluma in January, shows how far her imagination can travel when she’s free to roam. Yes, there is vegan fare: Nadelberg’s smoky carrot lox ($10), set atop cashew cream cheese on a slice of toast, is a winning if disorienting twist on an established narrative. But there’s also braised lamb shank, a roasted marrow bone, and poached halibut served in a puddle of postmodern chowder. There is, in short, something for everyone, and, particularly in these fractious times, Nadelberg’s paean to inclusivity is something to celebrate. 190 Kentucky St. (at Washington St.), Petaluma, 707-774-6689

4. Tartine Manufactory
With its towering ceilings, broad beams of heavenly light, and lines of culinary pilgrims, Tartine Manufactory can feel less like a bakery than a Lourdes for the food obsessed. But piety is no match for visceral pleasure here, not when there are brawny porchetta sandwiches ($16), ethereal buffalo milk soft serve, and Elisabeth Prueitt’s redoubtable fleet of pastries to be reckoned with. Perhaps the best part about this Thunderdome version of Tartine is that these pleasures now extend to dinner, when Chad Robertson’s bread serves as the starting point for opening chef Sam Goinsalvos’s menu of lusty seasonal food. You may find yourself dragging asparagus through ramp butter, unable to stop, or wondering why more restaurants don’t let lardo dance with strawberries and chili on a slice of bread. And you will likely find yourself uttering a prayer of thanks. 595 Alabama St. (at 18th St.), 415-757-0007

5. The Charter Oak
Since its announcement, the Charter Oak has been hailed as a Michelin-starred chef’s foray into the realm of the casual (or what passes for casual in St. Helena). But really, Christopher Kostow’s first restaurant outside of Meadowood should be celebrated as a place that understands the wonder of the dessert cart. The one making the rounds here is made of perforated metal, topped with leather, and laden with earthly delights. The desserts aren’t showy—there’s an endearingly plain date cake, bowls of chocolate pudding, and snowy meringues waiting to be turned into pavlovas—and they don’t need to be. The sight of them being ferried across the dining room, like a ship steaming to your rescue, imbues them with all the magic they require. 1050 Charter Oak Ave. (near St. Helena Hwy.), St. Helena, 707-302-6996

6. Rooh
Contemporary Indian food has been gaining a foothold in San Francisco over the past year, and it’s about time. The breadth and vibrancy that make Indian cooking so versatile and agreeable to modern updates are on particularly compelling display at Rooh, a plush SoMa spot where chef Sujan Sarkar is creating food that is as beautiful as it is smart. Sarkar gooses his tuna bhel ($15) with togarashi and tamarind as surely as he partners pickled kohlrabi with paneer chili. The parmesan mousse that accompanies his malai broccoli ($14) makes an airtight case for cross-cultural understanding, while his carrot halwa cake presents an excellent argument for eating dessert. That said, there aren’t really arguments to be found at Rooh; if anything, it’s a place that speaks a language of harmony and possibility. 333 Brannan St. (at Stanford St.), 415-525-4174

7. Navi Kitchen
An all-day café serving sandwiches and salads sounds routine enough—particularly in a day and age when fast casual is not so much a concept as a mandate—until you factor Preeti Mistry into the equation. At Navi Kitchen, the younger sibling to Mistry’s Juhu Beach Club, the chef is taking traditional Indian ingredients and finding highly enjoyable new applications for them. Breakfast at the sunny Emeryville spot brings the Mumbai Morning Burger ($8.45), an egg sandwich set aflame with ghost pepper chutney, while lunch means tikka masala mac and cheese ($7.25/$11.50) and a meatball sub ($13.75) anointed with curry-leaf tomato sauce. And then there’s the pizza (or thus far the promise of pizza): thin-crust pies topped with the likes of fenugreek pesto and keema (a ground-meat sauce) with kale. Don’t call it fusion; a more accurate descriptor is “more, please.” 5000 Adeline St. (at 47th St.), Emeryville, 510-285-6923

8. Duna
Let’s talk about borscht. Or let’s talk about the “chilled beet soup” ($11) at Duna, Cortney Burns and Nick Balla’s new Eastern Euro–centric spot in the Mission. It looks for all the world like borscht—an unbearably comely one at that—but, in the manner of most food made by Burns and Balla, it has a few surprises up its sleeve. For the chefs have spiked their soup with kvass, kefir, and almonds, creating a kind of borscht that is somehow capable of telegraphing peasantry, superior gut health, and hedonistic abandon all in one spoonful. It also tells you—if you needed reminding—that Burns and Balla, late of Bar Tartine and then Motze, continue to be some of the most thought-provoking chefs around. You never quite know what they’ll do next, but chances are that it will leave you wanting more. 983 Valencia St. (near 21st St.), 415-484-1206

9. RT Rotisserie
When Rich Table chef-owners (and spouses) Sarah and Evan Rich announced they were venturing into rotisserie territory, visions of chickens slowly roasting over a spit quickly followed. And while those dreams are very much a reality at RT Rotisserie, which the Riches opened in May, it’s the counter restaurant’s cauliflower ($9), not chicken, that fuels my personal fantasies. The Riches know how to treat a cruciferous vegetable right: Here, they serve cauliflower whole, roasted until it’s crispy and creamy, and plopped atop a shallow pool of beet hummus. You saw at it like it’s a carcass, then drag its florets through your choice of sauces—the chipotle yogurt and the chimichurri should be sold in pint form—and revel in your bloodless savagery. The Riches show a similar aptitude with their chopped salad, a concoction teeming with leaves of kale and handfuls of fresh mint and parsley, all buried beneath a snowfall of pumpkin and nigella seeds and cotija cheese. It’s a wild, wondrous thing, the rare salad capable of putting lust in your heart. 101 Oak St. (at Franklin St.), 415-829-7086

10. Hinodeya Inodeya Ramen Bar
If the Bay Area ramen boom of the past couple of years has been synonymous with hours-long lines, it has also meant a biblical flood of pork broth. But the waves of tonkotsu haven’t reached the shores of Hinodeya Ramen, a Japantown newcomer that traffics in dashi-style broth made from preserved skipjack tuna. While the place isn’t quite a pescatarian fever dream, it’s that rare ramen shop that goes an extra mile for dazed and confused herbivores. The firm spinach noodles of its vegan ramen ($15) are submerged in an impossibly rich and creamy soy-milk-and-sesame-based broth and embellished with fried kale, acorn squash, and thick tofu-vegetable cakes. It is vegan ramen to put hair on your chest, or at least further convince you that no matter how many ramen shops open in the Bay Area, there is always room left for innovation. 1737 Buchanan St. (near Sutter St.), 415-757-0552

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

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