December 17, 2013

December 17, 2013

The exterior of Leader House (in the Payne Mansion). Photo: ©


One of Leader House’s private dining rooms. Photo: ©


Xiang-style squid with chives. Photo: ©


Hunan steamed fish head with chile sauce. Photo: ©


Xiang-style sautéed potatoes. Photo: ©


The bar area. Photo: ©


The front dining room (being set for a banquet). Photo: ©

Last week, I had the opportunity to tour and experience a preview meal at ~LEADER HOUSE~, the somewhat mysterious new project opening in the former Payne Mansion on Sutter Street. It’s a beautiful and grand building, built in 1881—perhaps you have attended an event there (it has most recently been used as a private event space). The new owner is Jing Yao, who explained the unusual name stems from their original property, the Leader Hotel in Changsha (the capital of the Hunan Province), the same city where Chairman Mao Zedong began his political career. Yao further explains: “Leader is our company name for over 20 years. The original Chinese meaning 立达人 dates back to the Song Dynasty and originally stood for the art of mentoring staff to be both warm and hardworking. These virtues create the truest sense of hospitality.” Let me tell you, Ms. Yao just isn’t saying these things—the team really takes the art of hospitality very seriously. The Leader Hotel has three different restaurants, so this isn’t the team’s first time running a restaurant either.

Walking into the building is a jaw-dropping experience. There is no dining room in the city like this one, and it’s a unique intersection of a high-end Chinese restaurant in a historic mansion. Dining in a ballroom, why not? The kitchen and private dining rooms are on the basement/ground level (the Peony and Lotus rooms each have room for 18), while the main dining room (with room for 150) and bar/lounge area are on the first floor.

The Payne Mansion is so spacious that there are 10 luxury suites on the third and fourth floors, each with their own look, from Japanese-inspired to French colonial, with different carpets and wallpaper in each room—all have top-of-the-line beds. The Yorbarn investment group was originally looking at the project as solely a hotel investment, but ultimately decided to open a restaurant in the space as well. Yao said they spent $4 million on the update, and since the building is a landmark, you can only imagine everything they had to go through permit-wise.

So, the cuisine. The kitchen is led by the charismatic executive chef Leo Leong, who has a background in restaurant management as well as a chef (specializing in French and Italian), spanning eight years at the Westin St. Francis, plus running his own restaurant in Macau, and doing R&D for Sky Chefs. The primary chef, chef Chen, is 52 and from Hunan, and has been cooking since he was 16 (he even cooked in Germany). The menu includes Hunanese and Cantonese dishes, 100 in all, with 40-50 entrées (take a look at the “Taste of Hunan” menu here). There will be three kinds of whole fish (black bass, black cod, and red snapper), and a tank for live fish. Some Hunanese elements include aging proteins for three weeks—there’s a dish with three steamed “preserved” meats (fish, chicken, and pork). Look for lots of pork on the menu, and the chile sauce fish will be a trademark.

I experienced a preview tasting menu that included some Cantonese dishes (like a delicate fish maw and crabmeat soup and fried duck jaw with Maggi sauce), and some brilliant Hunanese dishes, including a steamed fish head with chile sauce and black beans (the head is marinated and then hot oil is poured over it; you won’t believe the incredible texture and flavor of this dish, which wasn’t too spicy—it was juuuust right), steamed spareribs (check out the bird in the pic) that are cooked and served in a bamboo trunk (I so enjoyed the thick, flavorful sauce), Xiang-style squid with chives and sesame oil (probably some of the most tender squid I’ve ever had), and the Xiang-style potatoes (I kept returning to these—so simple in their flavor, but so satisfying). The kitchen also sent out some onion cakes with pork, and steamed bao stuffed with pork, shiitake, and ginger. It was such a delicious meal I can’t wait to return and experience a banquet meal with friends.

One thing that really struck me was how gracious everyone was. It bodes well for the experience dining there—the team was warm and accommodating, and are very eager to please. During the soft opening, prices will be discounted a notch, and there will also be some special offers for neighbors. Follow their Facebook page for updates.

Beer and wine will be served for now, and full liquor will be coming later. Leader House will be open for lunch 11:30am-2:30pm, happy hour 4pm-7pm (10 items will be available on the menu, like the onion cake and duck jaw, get both), and dinner 5:30pm-10:30pm. Soft opening is Friday December 20th, starting with lunch service. For the first two weeks, Leader House is reservations only (no walk-ins). 1409 Sutter St. at Franklin, 415-352-2222.


The former Verbena’s front door. Photo by Carmen Troesser.


A carrot dish. Photo by Carmen Troesser.


The interior at Verbena. Photo by Carmen Troesser.

Due to open on Wednesday December 18th is ~VERBENA~ in the former Marbella/Rex Cafe space on Polk. The project is from Berkeley’s Gather team, with chef Sean Baker leading the kitchen. You can look at the contemporary and seasonal California menu here, which has some bites ($5-$7), an extensive vegetable section (with six choices, $10-$13), and both smaller and larger seafood and meat dishes ($15-$28), like sardines, quail, swordfish, and duck meatballs. Yup, this is a perfect place for vegetarians and carnivores to coexist nicely at the dinner table. You’ll also notice the gorgeous pottery: most, but not all, is custom from Jered’s Pottery, as is one of the chandeliers.

Michael Ireland (French Laundry, Quince, Meadowood) is behind the producer-driven (and international) wine list; you can look at his initial by-the-glass selections here. There is also a full bar, with cocktails ranging from $11-$12, and four beers on draft (including Green Flash West Coast IPA and Linden Street Urban People’s Lager).

The space was designed by Abueg Morris Architects (Nopalito, Comal, Hi Lo, Roam), with room for 58 in the dining room (including bar seating). There is also an upstairs mezzanine with room for 12 guests, plus seating for 16 at sidewalk tables, weather permitting. There’s an exposed brick wall, plenty of wood, and a splash of bright cobalt on the back wall. You’ll also notice quite the stash of backlit pickled items on the wall flanking the bar—no trying to sneak up the ladder to get your own, okay?

Verbena’s hours will be Sun-Wed 5:30pm-10:30pm and Thu-Sat 5:30pm-11:30pm. Weekend brunch will begin in the spring of 2014. 2323 Polk St. at Green, 415-441-2323.


The very first pizza to come out of the oven. Looking good, guys. Photo courtesy of John Miles.


A look at the soon-to-be-finished space. Photo courtesy of Frank Bumbalo.

Yesterday I had a chance to swing by the about-to-open ~PRESIDIO PIZZA COMPANY~ that’s opening in the former Frankie’s Bohemian Café space, and they had just passed their inspections. Which means this new pizza spot will be opening for business this Thursday December 19th at 11am! I already mentioned a bunch of details in my previous piece, but here are the basics again for you: chef-partner Frank Bumbalo and the neighboring Fishbowl owners, Kevin Kynoch and John Miles, are behind this East Coast-style pizza shop. You’ll be able to get three kinds of pizza: thin-crust New York (Neapolitan round) style, Sicilian style, and grandma pizza, with roots in Long Island. You can take a peek at a preliminary menu here. Working with Bumbalo is Chris Norton, who was previously a line cook at A16.

Whether you want to come in and sit down at a table or just grab a slice and hang out at the ledge, you can do either here. There are three pretty standard beers on draft, but the bottle choices are a little more interesting (which include Ballast Point pale ale, Deschutes Mirror Pond, and Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’). There will also be some wines on tap (a chardonnay, pinot grigio, pinot noir, and malbec) plus a few Italian numbers available by the bottle.

Hours will be Sun-Wed 11am-11pm, Thu 11am-12am, and Fri-Sat 11am-2:30am. 1862 Divisadero St. at Pine.


The exterior of 701 Haight St. Photo courtesy Haighteration.

The Lower Haight is getting a new microbrewery, called ~BLACK SANDS~, according to Haighteration. The new venture is from Robert Patterson, co-owner of shops Revolver and Voyager, as well as the Mission’s Ken Ken Ramen. Some brewing friends of Patterson’s will be assisting with the project, and it sounds like the brewery will offer a variety of choices, including mead and an IPA. A kitchen will offer Japanese-style small plates, and you’ll also find coffee from Potrero Hill roaster Front.

Right now, Patterson hopes to open in about six months, but the space is a former laundromat and will need a lot of work to become a brewery. When it does open, the interior will feature concrete counters and dark wood surfaces, and eventually outdoor seating. 701 Haight St. at Pierce.


Michael Black’s chirazushi at Local Mission Market. Photo courtesy of David Dranitzke.


Fideo seco on the brunch menu at Sabrosa. Photo from Facebook.

Even though Sebo sadly closed, fans of Michael Black’s talented touch with seafood will be happy to know he’s involved at ~LOCAL MISSION MARKET~ as the fishmonger, and he just launched chirazushi (some say “chirashi”) on Mondays and Wednesdays for lunch. You’ll get a serving of “scattered sushi” over seasoned rice, and here’s the kicker: everything is local, from the sustainably sourced seafood to the rice, vinegar, and seaweed. Monday’s selection included cured trout, trout skin, trout roe, Dungeness crab, and uni (if I didn’t already have lunch plans, I’d definitely be picking that up for lunch on Wednesday, hubba). The selection will vary and costs $14-$20. 2670 Harrison St. at 23rd St.

Sean Lackey is back with his pop-up ~BITE ME HAPPY HOUR~, this time at Tank18. It’s this Friday December 20th from 4pm-9pm. On the menu are luxurious and rib-sticking vittles like Liberty duck liver mousse and Tank18 zinfandel boeuf bourguignon. Oh yeah. 1345 Howard St. at Dore.

Here’s another spot for your morning radar. ~SABROSA~ in the Marina is now serving brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am-3:30pm. Here’s the menu; check out the raw bar offerings, two different chilaquiles varieties and fideo seco (fried angel-hair pasta) with shrimp and egg. And yes, they’ve got that full bar. 3200 Fillmore St. at Greenwich, 415-638-6500.

It looks like the ~ALLEGRO ROMANO~’s space is for sale. The listing mentions that their lease goes until 2018, and the restaurant itself doesn’t appear to be on the market. Let’s file this one under developing. 1701 Jones St. at Broadway, 415-928-4002.

A couple readers wrote in to tell me it looks like ~TATAKI~—the sustainable sushi place on California Street—is expanding into a much bigger space two doors east (at 2827 California). My call in to the Tataki partners remains unanswered, so I’ll update you once I hear back. 2815 California St. at Divisadero, 415-931-1182.

According to their Facebook page, ~THREE TWINS ICE CREAM~ has opened a new shop in Fisherman’s Wharf. Hours are Mon-Fri 12pm-10pm and Sat-Sun 11am-10pm. 79 Jefferson St. at Mason, 415-391-8946.

Eater has word that there’s a new spot in the former Zog’s Dogs space in the Financial District: ~STREET FOOD DOJO~, an Asian street food fusion place. The menu includes kimchi fried rice, a chicken katsu curry, and a Dojo dog with wasabi aioli, apple slaw, and furikake. Hours are Mon-Fri 10am-6pm. 1 Post St. at Montgomery, 415-361-6610.

As reported back in May, ~LITTLE BAOBAB~ suffered a fire and closed for several months. But now they are reopening, and you can help! They are trying to raise $125,000 through an Indiegogo campaign, and anything helps. Plus, the higher-level payments include a trip to Senegal. Check it out, and help these guys out. 3372 19th St. at Mission, 415-643-3558.


The view at Ferry Plaza Seafood. Yelp photo by Paige B.


Water damage at Coit Liquor. Photo by Michele Mandell.

We received word that ~FERRY PLAZA SEAFOOD~ will be closing their Ferry Plaza Marketplace location on the eve of Sunday December 22nd. They are planning for a late spring/early summer 2014 opening at their new location at 653 Union Street, where construction has already begun.

Castro Biscuit caught the news that Korean restaurant ~K-POP~ is closing after just over a year in business. A liquor license transfer points to a new taker for the space already: ~GYRO XPRESS~. 499 Castro St. at 18th St.

North Beach restaurant ~CAMPANULA KITCHEN & BAR~ has closed, according to Eater. Apparently, it was being cleared out this weekend, and both the phone and website are down. 701 Union St. at Powell.

Just around the corner, the building that houses ~COIT LIQUOR~ unfortunately had a fire on Sunday morning. The fire was in apartments in the top floor, and the shop suffered water damage, but should be back up and running in two weeks. No one was hurt, thank goodness. Nearby Rogue Ales was also affected but is back open. 585 Columbus Ave. at Powell, 415-362-4444.


Bob Kantor at Memphis Minnie’s. Photo from Facebook.

This is some very sad news: Bob Kantor, the founder and owner of ~MEMPHIS MINNIE’S~, has passed away. He apparently died of a heart attack while scuba diving with his wife in the Caribbean last Monday, so tragic. Minnie’s Facebook page has the announcement, and Haighteration has a nice piece on Mr. Kantor and his restaurant. The manager at Minnie’s, Tom Campbell, says the team is working hard to move forward and keep the restaurant open in his absence. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and the whole crew at Memphis Minnie’s.


Mmmmm, biscuits! Photo from Sweet Jo’s Chili & Biscuits.


Jo’s fantastic chili. Photo via Facebook.

For those of you who remember the amazing Meetinghouse biscuits from years ago, the talented maker of them, Joanna Karlinsky, has been going through a rough time lately. Yeah, the big C tried to take her down in the form of a very rare and usually fatal sarcoma on her forearm. Well, Jo is as tough as her biscuits are pillowy. The tumor was recently removed, but she has another three months of treatment ahead of her (more radiation and another round of mother-trucking chemo). And then, to quote Joanna, “I hope to be back with a vengeance!” Damn straight, woman.

So, here’s the deal. She stocked her freezer with her biscuits (to sell) in case she wasn’t going to be able to use her arm. So let’s clear out her freezer, shall we? The biscuits heat up like a dream. They’ll be so welcome at any Christmas table or holiday shindig you’re throwing. They’re $30 a box (24 inside), and you get free delivery in SF ($5 to Marin, Peninsula, and the East Bay). Folks can also save Jo the delivery and come by her place (near the Lower Haight) after you arrange for a pickup time. Just email her directly with your order (her web store is unfortunately down) or call 415-336-9473.

One more thing you’ll want to pick up: her awesome chili, either beef or vegan. Perfect for New Year’s Day when you want something warm and belly-filling but don’t feel like cooking or waiting two hours for delivery. Yeah, you better get a quart.

Let’s all support this wonderful lady. And I can’t wait for her pop-up to return when she’s feeling up to it again. Eat biscuits, people! And get better, Jo. We’re all rooting for you.


Volunteers for Food Runners pick up a donation. Photo courtesy Food Runners.

With the holiday season upon us, we’re all enjoying a lot of little luxuries and some culinary excess. But it’s also a good time to remember how fortunate we are, and to think about passing on some of our bounty to others in our community. ~FOOD RUNNERS~, an organization started by Tante Marie’s Mary Risley 25 years ago, takes excess prepared and perishable foods from restaurants and delivers it to area shelters. Many local restaurants participate, as do farmers’ markets, grocery stores, food photographers, and event planners. With all the holiday parties happening right now, it’s a great resource to prevent waste and help others.

If your business has prepared or perishable items you would otherwise throw away, give Food Runners a call and they will pick up your items for free. For guidelines on how to donate, go here. Give ‘em a call at 415-929-1866.

If you’re up in Marin County, you can also donate your prepared food! Based on the model of Food Runners, new nonprofit ~EXTRAFOOD.ORG~ is offering a similar service in Marin County. They are also looking for volunteers to pick up and drop off food items, if you’ve got some time to spare. For more details on donating and volunteering, head here or call 415-997-9830.


A free cupping at Counter Culture Coffee. Photo by Christy Baugh, courtesy Counter Culture.

Here is some excellent news in the caffeinated world. Durham, North Carolina-based ~COUNTER CULTURE COFFEE~ is opening their very first West Coast training center in Emeryville. The new spot will join eight other training centers, with classes for professional baristas and home coffee brewers. They will also offer free weekly cuppings that are open to the public. The training center should open in spring 2014. Later in 2014, they will begin roasting at the new location, too, making it the company’s second roastery outside of Durham. The new space should also allow the company to offer their coffee to more West Coast restaurants and coffee shops. 1329 64th St. at Doyle, Emeryville, 888-238-5282.


The Benedict at Barkada. Photo from Facebook.

East Bay Express caught the news that ~BARKADA~ is now offering brunch on weekends from 8:30am-3pm. The menu highlights housemade bread and pastries, including burgers and sandwiches on house bread, an eggs Benedict, and granola. There are lots of gluten-free options as well. 4316 Telegraph Ave. at 43rd, Oakland, 510-601-7314.

Food truckers ~KOJA KITCHEN~ have softly opened their brick-and-mortar location in Berkeley. The new Korean-Japanese place is fast-casual and designed for takeout, with their signature burgers available. For now, hours are Mon-Fri 5pm-10:30pm and Sat-Sun 11:30am-10:30pm, if you want to check them out. 2395 Telegraph Ave. at Channing, Berkeley, 415-992-7394.

Oh dear. This is so sad: according to The E’ville Eye, ~CAFÉ AQUARIUS~ has been forced to close. It appears the issue is with the landlord and a lease renewal (the annual increase in rent is 25 percent). Reportedly, the owners put a great deal of money into improvements to the building, and now the landlord won’t renew their lease in hopes of getting a higher-rent tenant. There is also a petition on protesting the rent increase. 1298 65th St. at Hollis, Emeryville, 510-655-2782.