February 1, 2022

February 1, 2022

Trio of caviar. Photo courtesy of Birch & Rye.


An updated borscht presentation. Photo courtesy of Birch & Rye.


Spelt khachapuri coming out of the wood-fired oven. Photo: Mark Rywelski.

Last week, I was thrilled to have a long conversation with Anya El-Wattar, the chef and owner of the soon-to-open ~BIRCH & RYE~ in Noe Valley. After traveling throughout Russia with my father for three weeks during World Cup, my eyes were really opened to so many incredible dishes and ingredients and deep culinary history. I’m excited to continue my culinary education (and enjoyment) at this new restaurant, which is going to be a unique addition to our scene here.

This is El-Wattar’s first restaurant, a project her past catering clients and friends have been asking her to do for years. She received her formal culinary training at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute, and studied at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, and has also worked at Greens—you can see her strong connection to ingredients and health. Her “modern Russian kitchen” menu will feature dishes from various eras and regions, and traditional Russian ingredients, but will also have a seasonal California influence and lightness. She is very in tune with the land and nature and farming, and this will all shape her menu.

Anya grew up in Moscow, and came to the United States when she was eighteen, but fondly and vividly remembers her summers in the country at her grandparents’ cabin, about 90 minutes outside of the city. For three months, she would be immersed in nature, and forage for mushrooms and berries, make preserves, learn how to tap birch trees for sap, and get water from the well. She said in the summer, every inch of their quarter-acre lot was planted. These memories are so firmly implanted in her memory, and she envisions the menu as an expression of her summer house experiences and memories. All the pickles and preserves tie back to memories of her grandmother, and how they’d need to preserve food for the rest of the year. Every dish on the menu has a story, and she wants her customers to feel like guests at her summer house—she is tapping into and sharing the soul of Russian food and cuisine, and wants to treat the food, staff, and guests with honor and respect.

You can take a look at a preview of the dinner menu, which begins with bread service (including spelt khachapuri, a traditional Georgian cheese bread, served with an egg yolk on top that you mix into the cheese, it is heaven on earth—and it’s going to taste extra-special coming from the wood-fired oven, a holdover from the space’s earlier incarnation as Contigo).

The zakuski (“little bites”) feature small plates like a reimagined version of Olivier, a potato salad that was a staple in the Soviet Union, and you’ll see traditional berries like sea buckthorn with the cured salmon, and black currants with the Liberty Duck liver mousse (Anya is working with an organic berry farm in Vermont, which planted five varieties of sea buckthorn, a berry I am obsessed with). Caviar service features blini made with einkorn, the oldest and original wheat, which also appears in the pelmeni (served with herbed chicken, bone broth, Tokyo turnips, and dill oil—sounds like a dream). Borscht will get body and creaminess from a roasted cauliflower base, with the soup poured tableside over roasted vegetables, fresh herbs, and smetana, a type of cultured cream that you will see elsewhere on the menu. There will be a few main dishes, including a wild mushroom Stroganoff with einkorn noodles and a sauce with fennel oil. Dessert includes birch sap jelly with gooseberries, Siberian caramelized pine nuts, and flower petals. It all sounds like a dreamy walk in the forest!

There will also be a special Sunday brunch service, with dishes like a rye waffle with sour cherry compote, whipped smetana, and maple syrup; duck egg salad with petite rye, kaluga caviar, pickled cucumber; and a roasted buckwheat bowl topped with nameko, winter squash, chestnuts, and jammy eggs. One of everything, please.

There’s also a full liquor license, and consultant Jennifer Colliau (Small Hand Cocktails) has been infusing vodkas with ingredients like horseradish or fig-anise or linden flower, which can be served neat as well as be used in a variety of cocktails. The wine list—from GM/beverage director Maria Agostinelli—features a diverse list of wines from California, Georgia, and France, with a number of sparkling wines, and an extensive offering by the glass, with some extra-special pours (thanks to Coravin).

The space was renovated by Jim Maxwell and Cindy Beckman of Architects II, who styled it with natural colors of white and grey, with handblown glass light fixtures, illuminated images of a rye field, stained wood, and silver-blue leaf banquettes. The feeling is of minimalist, organic luxury, echoed by the understated but quality plates from Portugal. The back terrace is now enclosed, and features a birch mural, ferns, and flowers, giving it the feeling of being in the forest. There’s also a chef counter flanking the open kitchen, with six seats where you can interact with Anya and have an extra-special experience (look for this in the reservations options). A curbside lounge will be constructed out front, where you can enjoy a cocktail while waiting for a table.

Birch & Rye opens on February 9th for dinner, but reservations are already getting pretty booked up. Brunch begins Sunday February 20th. Hours will be Wed-Sat 5pm-9pm and Sunday brunch 10am-3pm. 1320 Castro St. at 24th St.


The Quadraro pinsa at Montesacro. All photos: © tablehopper.com.


Montesacro is opening a location in the former Karaweik Burmese Cuisine in the Marina. Photo courtesy of Montesacro.


The poetry of a meal at Poesia. Instagram photo via @poesiarestaurantsf.


Little Jane is opening on Grant Ave. Instagram photo via @littlejaneongrant.

Some exciting expansion news for SF restaurants, starting with the Roman ~MONTESACRO~, which is opening a second location in the Marina in the former Karaweik Burmese Cuisine. Known for bringing pinsas to the city (and their fantastic wine list), this latest Montesacro has a full kitchen, so they’ll be able to expand the menu offering to include pasta dishes and Italian brunch on the weekend. While there will be some classic Roman dishes on the menu (like carbonara, oxtail), they’ll be featuring traditional dishes and ingredients from other regions as well, like ribollita, pasta fagioli, and a special pasta al burro e Parmigiano, with high-quality French butter and 36-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano Vacche Rosse (think comfort food with elevated ingredients). There will also be some vegan entrées, and Jacopo Rosito is working on some non-alcoholic cocktails (they’re opening with beer and wine, and may look into full liquor down the road). It’s going to be more like their awesome location in Brooklyn, which is also expansive in its offering. They’re planning to open in the springtime, after a remodel. There will be 75 seats or so, including outdoor seating. 3317 Steiner St. at Chestnut.

Some additional updates: owner Gianluca Legrottaglie has bought out 54 Mint partner Claudio Ricciolini (he retired and moved back to Umbria), and is bringing chef Mattia Marcelli and bar manager extraordinaire Jacopo Rosito into partnership. They’ll be working on the new Montesacro Marina together, as well as converting ~54 MINT WALNUT CREEK~ into a Montesacro (they’re joining forces with partner Daniele Carsano on that project, who is also behind the popular Casa Barotti in Berkeley). The Walnut Creek location will start a remodel in four-six weeks, and then construction should last for a month or so if everything goes according to plan. This location also has outdoor seating, and will have Jacopo and Mattia’s touch on the food and beverage menu development. Exciting times for the team. In bocca al lupo!

Another popular Italian restaurant is expanding: Hoodline has the details about ~POESIA~ in the Castro, which is taking over the recently closed Réveille Coffee next door and opening Poesia Café. Owner Francesco d’Ippolito will be opening a café, serving coffee and pastries in the morning and sandwiches and salads at lunch, which customers will be able to enjoy on Poesia’s attached back patio. In the evening, starting at 5pm, the café will offer overflow seating, and be a place to grab a glass of wine and a bite (they’re going to get a beer and wine license for the space). D’Ippolito also decided to redo the interior of the café and the 13-year-old restaurant at the same time since both needed an update—the restaurant reopens this Thursday February 3rd. Look for the café opening in mid-March. 4076 18th St. at Castro.

Opening this Thursday February 3rd in Chinatown is ~LITTLE JANE~ from Amanda Michael of Jane the Bakery and Jane cafés. This teeny-tiny, Deco-tiled location is going to be more like an outpost, offering coffee, pastries, cookies, bread, packaged goods like their granola, tea, and coffee, and exclusive items baked just for the shop, like persimmon puffs and caramelized pineapple kouign amann (these items will rotate seasonally).

Michael grew up above the Broadway Tunnel, and loved exploring the Chinatown neighborhood. With so many dark storefronts due to the pandemic, she was approached by a building owner to open a location in the neighborhood, and is excited to help be part of building back the neighborhood she deeply adores. Since the baking team won’t be on-site in this tiny location, they’ll be represented in a mural by a local artist in the space. It’s too small for seating, but she hopes people will grab lunch or a treat and go sit in the park (or head back to their desk, once the Financial District starts to pick back up). Hours will be Thu-Sun 10am-6pm to start—she wants to see how to best serve the neighborhood and make adjustments. Follow their Instagram for updates. 752 Grant Ave. at Sacramento.

Kevin Lieu, owner of the chicken-rice joint ~GAI~ in the Castro has expanded to Mid-Market, opening in the former Homeskillet space. Look for both an expanded menu and seating. Read more here. 1001 Market St. at 6th St. [Via Hoodline]


CP’s No. 3 banh mi from Chuck’s Takeaway. Photo courtesy of Chuck’s Takeaway.

Exciting news from Charles Phan: he’s emerging from the pandemic bunker with a new banh mi and sandwich shop running out of the front of his commissary kitchen in the Mission: ~CHUCK’S TAKEAWAY~. Eater reports he has been working on the perfect baguette roll for years, and is going to launch with a half-dozen sandwiches, with every ingredient housemade (as he does).

I reached out to the team, here’s the menu: sandwiches (all $16) include JO JO’S BOLLITO: toasted bun, braised beef belly, salsa verde; CP’S NO. 3: VN baguette, pate maison, pork cha, chicken liver pate, shallot mayo, soft herbs, cucumber, jalapeño; WURSTER HALL: VN baguette, eggplant, yuba cha, shallot mayo, mushroom pate, soft herbs, cucumber, jalapeño; TUNA BY DESIGN: sourdough boule, Olle’s olive oil tuna, pickled shallots, wild arugula; CHUCK’S EGG SALAD: milk bread, pastured eggs, mustardy mayo, celery, chives; and MOM’S MEATBALLS: pork meatballs, tomato sauce, cilantro. There will also be housemade spritzers ($6), coffees and espresso ($5), teas ($4), and cookies ($2). Opening Monday February 7th, hours will be Mon-Fri 11am-3pm. 3332 18th St. at Capp.

I was thrilled to see a post on Nextdoor that announced Mustapha Hakkou, the former owner of ~CAFÉ DU SOLEIL~ in the Lower Haight (who was forced to close after 15 years of business back in 2020, due to failed lease negotiations) is going to be reopening in the former Thep Phanom space, just across the street (interesting). The post said, “Not sure of the opening date, but he already has his furniture in. I ran into him one day and he said that all of his old employees are coming back as well, so we can expect the same great service and friendly neighborhood vibe. Welcome back!” A commenter said he’s targeting mid-February. 400 Waller St. at Fillmore.


The longtime Sai’s Vietnamese Restaurant in FiDi (since 1985). Yelp photo by Michael M.


Cambodia Dirt lemongrass pepper seasoning from Shlap Muan.

Nothing like starting the week (and Lunar New Year) with the horrible news (via KRON) that longtime, family-run ~SAI’S VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT~ in the Financial District was being pushed out by their landlord, SHVO, after 37 years in the location, with just 30 days of notice. Vile!

You can read more details in this follow-up piece in SFGATE: owner Inmy Chi says, “They emailed us on Jan. 5 and asked if we wanted to renew the lease. We emailed them back on Jan. 20, but we didn’t hear from them. We called and called and on Jan. 25, they answered and said they wanted us to leave. I still have to process this. I think it unethical.”

So much for giving them time to find another location and keep their staff employed (why not give Sai’s a month-to-month lease while trying to relocate?), after suffering through two abysmal years of the pandemic in a ghost town part of the city. Sai’s has been a favorite of many a downtown worker since 1985, and they deserve much better treatment and respect than this, from a developer who is probably going to leave the space vacant for months before trying to push through their plans for the location (SFGATE mentioned: “developer Michael Shvo bought the Transamerica Pyramid for $650 million, which is just around the corner from Sai’s”). Based on this Instagram post, Shvo owns the entire block. Come on, Gordon Gekko—why not let the business exit in a way that doesn’t destroy the livelihoods of everyone working there?

Was happy to see supervisor Aaron Peskin’s tweet: “Truly awful. Thanks to @sfgate reporting + elevating the plight of Inmy Chi. I’ve now been able to connect with Inmy as a result of @SusyGuerrero3 help, and my team and I are working on resources to help where we can. First up: nominating Sai’s to the Legacy Business registry!”

In the meantime, the family launched a GoFundMe to help raise funds to support their staff and move, hopefully to another location in the neighborhood. Will keep you posted on what’s next. For now, Sai’s has to vacate by February 28th. I really hope this date gets pushed. 505 Washington St. at Sansome.

GREAT NEWS/UPDATE 2-2-22: After Supervisor Peskin got involved, the landlord (SHVO) is now going to assist Sai’s with their relocation, and allow them to stay open and operate in their current location for now. Even better: according to a tweet from Peskin, they get to stay rent-free until it’s time to vacate the space (for demolition)! Big sigh of relief all around.

Was sorry to read on Instagram that the couple behind ~SHLAP MUAN~, the awesome Cambodian fried chicken wing joint in the Crocker Galleria, are closing the restaurant on February 25th. It ends up they have a baby coming, awwww, that’s great news, so they’re going to be moving to Southern California. Stock up on one last wing order, their hot sauce, and Cambodian Dirt pepper (which was in the recent hopper holiday gift bag!) before they leave! Best wishes to their new family. 50 Post St. 65A at Kearny.