SF Chronicle January 2, 2011Michael Bauer
In its January 2011 issue, Food & Wine magazine calls Los Angeles “the best place in the country for chefs to experiment with new ideas.” San Francisco isn’t even mentioned in the three cities featured in the “Where to go next” article.
That’s a surprise. After talking to colleagues around the country, I’d be hard-pressed to name another place generating as much excitement as the Bay Area. On both ends of the price spectrum, it feels as if trends are starting here that will eventually show up in other parts of the country.
When we look back in a couple of years, I think we’ll realize that 2010 was pivotal.
I’m in my 25th year writing about food and restaurants in San Francisco, and I truly believe this is the best year for openings. That’s doubly amazing in this struggling economy, yet the economy might be part of the reason the scene is so vibrant – with a strong dining culture, restaurateurs have been forced to focus and create something that makes their places stand above the competition.
It’s never easy to pick my annual top 10 new restaurants of the year. Many times I have 13 or 14 places that I’d like to include, but this year I initially wrote down 25 places I could justify putting on the list. That’s half of the new places I reviewed.
As I started to get serious, I realized there were some reasons to kick a few to the curb, including Boot & Shoe Service, Charlie Hallowell’s well-regarded follow-up to Pizzaiolo. Boot & Shoe Service is an excellent spin-off, but doesn’t necessarily advance the dining scene.
For the same reason, I didn’t include Barbacco. It’s one of my favorite places, but it’s the little sister to Perbacco. Same with Zero Zero, Bruce Hill’s follow-up to his Picco Pizzeria in Larkspur. And as good as Morimoto Napa is, it’s not a Bay Area original. Neither is Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak.
I love the feel of Wayfare Tavern. Tyler Florence has stepped out from behind the camera to prove himself a formidable chef. Yet, although I think Wayfare will be a San Francisco favorite for a long time, it’s still a work in progress. The interior is wonderful and the food is mostly excellent, but there are a few kinks to work out.
Baker & Banker, which took over the old Quince spot, is a terrific new restaurant, yet it doesn’t break new ground. Baumé, Bruno Chemel’s high-class restaurant in Palo Alto, is certainly on the cutting edge of techniques, but on my visits the menu was too similar, making it a once-a-year indulgence.
Still, despite what Food & Wine says, the Bay Area dining scene is unparalleled – exciting like no other. On that note, there was no way to get my best new restaurant list down to 10. So, taking a cue from the classic movie “Spinal Tap,” this year it goes up to 11.
If you haven’t already eaten at them, the following restaurants are ones to try in the new year – 11 for 2011. These places are guideposts for the trends that will eventually reshape the dining scene. Major changes are being incubated here, especially in the use of ingredients. No longer is there simply a farm-to-table connection; now chefs forage key ingredients or grow them on their own.
In years past, chefs looked to the Mediterranean as the touchstone; now, with places like Michael Mina and Benu, chefs seem focused on Asia.
There’s also a continuing casualization of restaurants; the way things are going I don’t think I’d invest money in a linen company because tables are bare, and chefs are forgoing the fine china for more rustic or artisan approaches to table setting.
This approach has led chefs such as Jason Fox to cook four-star-caliber food in a storefront Mission setting, at relatively low prices, too. It’s also led bartenders such as Thad Vogler to open cocktail-centered restaurants that fuse the line between dining and drinking.
All of the following restaurants were reviewed in 2010, but a couple opened in 2009. Because of The Chronicle’s reviewing policy – we wait at least a month before making the first of three or more review visits – it takes several months to complete and publish a review.
That’s also why promising places that opened late last year – Cotogna, for example, from the owners of Quince; Florence’s other restaurant, Rotisserie & Wine in Napa; and Douglas Keane’s Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg – haven’t yet been reviewed. After they are, they’ll be eligible for the 2011 list.
Here are my picks for the top new restaurants of 2010, listed in the order in which they were reviewed.
Daniel Patterson uses the same vegetable-based sensibility at his Oakland neighborhood restaurant, Plum, as he does at his much more expensive San Francisco restaurant, Coi.
He and his crew scour the farmers’ market for the best ingredients and treat them with care, but here the most expensive item is $18. Produce is organic, meats are pastured, and poultry and eggs come from small farms.
The interior incorporates black walls, high ceilings and rows of communal tables and benches that at first look monastic but are actually reasonably comfortable.
His menu includes four dishes in each of four categories: “Snacks,” such as deviled eggs; “To Start,” which includes a beautiful oyster and parsley root soup fortified with wheatgrass; “Vegetable and Grains,” including young carrots with brown butter, pickled garlic and purslane; and “Animal” – roast pork with spicy squash puree.