table of contents   This week's tablehopper: something's fishy.

the chatterbox
the word on the street
the regular
it's about time we met
the wino
in vino veritas
the socialite
the starlet
no photos please


DECEMBER 19, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO Holiday cheer is all over the place (including my hips); latkes and good Champagne and heavily spiked eggnog, oh my! Just wanted to let you know there won't be a 'hopper showing up in your inbox next week—I'll be enjoying a little break with my family, including feasting on some seriously good seafood on Christmas Eve. Southern Italians know how to do it right: we'll be eating dishes like my dad's cold calamari salad, stuffed clams, and baccalà two ways, and don't even get me started on the breadcrumb and anchovy pasta.

But please don't be tooooo jealous: you can actually experience an urban version of the "Vigilia"/Feast of the Seven Fishes at Incanto this Christmas Eve if you're looking for a fish fest of your own. And I included a write-up of some of the best fish you can find in the city in the regular this week. (There's even a reference to fish in the chatterbox.)

And since it's been mighty frisky out, I suggest you warm up with this week's treat in the wino.

I wish you all a very happy, healthy, and hearty holiday. (And Buon Natale to the paisanos out there.)

Ho ho ho! (yo!)

the chatterbox

DECEMBER 19, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO Big news in North Beach: ~ENRICO'S~ has been taken over by Christina Deeb (one of the owners of Bambuddha Lounge, plus Nob Hill Café, Venticello, and the former Maroc in the Haight). Chef Seamus Cronin of Venticello Ristorante will also have some involvement in the project. Enrico's will be offering an American bistro menu, and in the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" style of thinking, they will also be keeping the jazz tradition alive. The space is going through a serious freshening up, with design being handled by Iris Fuller, formerly behind the much-beloved Fillamento on Fillmore. The look will be vintage modern, "with a classic aesthetic and an articulate point of view." The look will refer to the "nostalgia of old days, with the vitality of the new." They are scheduled to open in March—stay tuned! Dinner nightly to start, and then lunch and a jazz brunch soon thereafter. 504 Broadway at Kearny St.

Here's more North Beach landmark news: moving into the former La Felce space in North Beach will be the second incarnation of ~AVENUE G~ (this project's first home closed earlier this year on Clement Street). Chef Grant Schley is partnering up with Frank Bumbalo, who will be acting as the GM—they both met back in culinary school. Schley is keen to continue his concept of "San Francisco cuisine," highlighting the staple dishes from a variety of cultures, plus paying homage to North Beach and adding some Italian on the menu as well. The interior is being spruced up with a new paint job, refinished floors, drapes, banquettes and booths, and other touches to keep it a warm atmosphere with a 1940s-1950s vibe. (The staff and friends even got together to do a photo shoot for black and white pictures of them jaunting around San Francisco, all spiffed up in black suits—the photos will be hung on the walls.) They are hoping for a mid-January opening. Dinner to start, Tue-Sun, and eventually lunch and weekend brunch will kick in too. 1570 Stockton at Union St., 415-989-0399.

An update on the Bulow/Maktub empire: David Bazirgan has returned to ~BARAKA~ as executive chef. He left Baraka (he was also overseeing the kitchens at the former La Suite and Chez Papa) earlier this year to pursue a restaurant project of his own, but that project has been delayed. He will continue working at Baraka with Ereme Passado, who was the chef de cuisine who took over upon Bazirgan's initial departure. Bazirgan is busy working on a new seasonal menu and a great New Year's Eve menu as well.

~AURA~ in Bernal Heights closed last Wednesday—it was originally Chez Maman, and then morphed into a Pan-Asian restaurant under the direction of Executive Chef Mike Yakura (formerly of Le Colonial). Bulow plans to sell the space (located at 803 Cortland at Ellsworth)—any takers? You can still find Yakura over at Sutra on the Embarcadero.

Another restaurant empire check-in: it ends up ~SNEAKY TIKI~ will not be reopening after all. I ran into Greg Bronstein this weekend, and he said they decided to sell the business instead of reopen it again. Again, any takers?

~SHUNA FISH LYDON~, fruit-inspired pastry chef and thoughtful writer behind the oft-poetic blog Eggbeater is returning to Aziza to be the pastry chef (she was originally there in 2003-2004). Her menu will be up, with desserts plated by her, starting this Wednesday, the 20th.

At last, ~PICCINO~, the petite pizzeria/café/lunch spot, opened yesterday in Dogpatch. They probably won't have their wine and beer license until later in the week, so consider this week a soft opening for now. One of the partners is an alum from Pizzetta 211, and the other is coffee obsessed (Blue Bottle in the house!), so you know it's gonna be good—check it out! Hours are Mon-Fri: Blue Bottle Coffee and pastries starting at 7am; lunch (pizza, panini, soup, salad, and house-made desserts are offered) 11:30am-3pm, and weekends: Blue Bottle Coffee and pastries from 7am-noon. Weekend lunches and seven-day dinner service expected to start in February. 801 22nd St. at Tennessee St., 415-824-4224.

Speaking of coffee, there are some "stirrings" happening over at ~CAFÉ ORGANICA~, according to a post on Chowhound. Once part of the trinity of coffee here (Blue Bottle and Ritual are the other two in my book), the new owners are being trained by Eton, and they hope to open in January. Woo hoo! 562 Central Ave. at Grove St.

I have never quite thought about starting my day with a margarita (oh, wait, that's a lie) but just the same, ~TRES AGAVES~ has started serving weekend brunch (Saturday and Sunday 10:30am-3pm). You can scarf on dishes like chilaquiles de Jalisco, huevos rancheros, or huevos con bistek, plus $3 margaritas and "Bloody Marias." 130 Townsend St. at 2nd St., 415-227-0500.

Seems there has been a fun evening scene lately at ~LAST SUPPER CLUB~—some late night music, in fact. Marcus Shelby has been playing (it helps that he's a roomie of a manager there), usually from 10:30pm-2am on Friday and Saturday evenings. 1199 Valencia St. at 23rd St., 415-695-1199.

Okay, cupcake-phreeks, ~KARA'S CUPCAKES~ will be opening a second location in Ghirardelli Square at the Fairmont Heritage Place in spring 2007, along with the opening of ~MARCHÉ ON THE SQUARE~, a specialty food market offering fresh, prepared and gourmet foods, in addition to health-oriented and conventional grocery lines, with meat, poultry, and seafood products delivered daily from local purveyors, and a wine bar brasserie.

Last week I mentioned ~MENU FOR HOPE III~ (yes, it is THE hot topic on all the food boards and blogs right now) and I wanted to highlight a few of the local prizes that have a restaurant/gourmand component to them and are quite cool:

Hangar One will create a designer spirit just for you—a one-of-a-kind, small-batch, craft-distilled liquor.

$350 gift certificate for The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton

Dinner at Delfina with the Restaurant Whore

Brett Emerson, chef at soon-to-open Olallie offers a choice of:
An Intimate Dinner Party for 4 in Your Bay Area Home or A Cocktail Party for 10 or a $200 Gift Certificate to Olallie, his upcoming restaurant in SF

A plate signed by Alice Waters

Want to see more? Check out the entire list here. Raffle tickets are only $10 each. Bidding closes on this Thursday, the 22nd, at 6pm PST, so hop to it! Raffle winners will be announced on January 15, 2007. Over $25,000 has been raised so far, way to go!

Here's another thing that earned over $25,000: yes, last week's fundraiser for ~BAR CRUDO~! Is that a thing of beauty or what? I love this town. If you didn't get a chance to swing by and donate, you can still do so here on their website. And have you gone over for dinner yet? (I'm just saying…)

the regular


517 Hayes St.
Cross: Octavia St.
San Francisco, CA 94102


Tue-Sat 6pm-close

Nigiri $5-$9
Maki $4-$14
Sashimi $12-$19
Small plates $3-$12

DECEMBER 19, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO Ahhhh, hello, young grasshopper. What is that you have been eating? Spicy tuna hand rolls? Farmed salmon in April? Seattle Seahawk rolls? Maki with cream cheese? Ankimo that has been frozen for lord knows how long and then served to you like it's made fresh? The sushi travesties in this town blow my mind. Mediocre sushi places continue to rampantly open all over the city, like bad cafés, doing terrible things to fish and rice.

I remember in my twenties I was just wantonly indulging my burgeoning love of sushi (and perhaps a few other things too), happily floating along in my No Name/We Be Sushi/Ebisu state of complete and utter ignorance, losing precious hours of my life trying to score a table at Sushi Zone. I practically earned a Purple Heart for surviving countless sake bombs.

And then I had my first omakase experience sitting at the counter at Sushi-Gen in Los Angeles, and everything changed. It was one of those rare transcendent dining moments that keep me chasing the dragon. I didn't know nigiri could be so tender, and delicate, that you could actually fit the entire piece gingerly into your mouth without fear of choking (or looking like a chipmunk), or having to bite some tough fish in two. I also learned what good rice tastes like, and that it can't be clumpy, or egad, too warm. That uni is actually quite delicious, and should not taste like you are licking the bottom of the sea floor off the coast in Mexico. I was ruined and saved, all at once in a moment of toro bliss.

Now, we all love a bargain. But when it comes to sushi, really, just spend the money, because you truly get what you pay for. And for the record, this is one time when bigger is NOT better. Buying cheap sushi is like taking some sick pleasure in wearing cubic zirconium stud earrings or spraying on Designer Impostors ("If you like Giorgio, then try George!") when you have more than enough cash in your wallet to enjoy the real thing (unless you're a tranny, and it's just a way of life).

I know, sometimes all you want is some simple tekka maki and a California roll, and I say that's fine! We can't always lay out the cash and go first class. (And hell, sometimes you just want to slum it.) But if you're ready to saddle up for a top drawer sushi experience, then ~SEBO~ should make its way onto your "to do" list (and no, I am not talking about your list with the hot bartender and your mechanic on it).

Some folks will remember Michael and Danny from the Midori Mushi era, back when they were slicing and dicing in the Days Inn tower just around the corner on Grove Street. But the formerly zany style and quirky sushi names have graduated into this sleeker, more sophisticated space, one with muted lighting, trapezoidal tables that nestle cleverly next to each other depending upon your group size, and a dimly glowing room rich with woods, from the reclaimed mahogany sushi bar, trim, and tables to the teak floors. Many of the beautiful dishes and pottery actually come from Michael's family, and some are eighty years old, so no Greek plate smashing here, 'kay?

The sunken display case for the sushi is like a glam jewelry box, showcasing shimmery stingray and pearlescent shimaaji. A funky vibe still prevails with the music, which on one night included Beck and A Tribe Called Quest ("Escargot, Lucien, you eat snails? Hey yo Tip, what's wrong with snails?").

Ideally you'll be able to nab a seat at the intimate sushi bar, which was designed to make you feel like you're sitting at your friend's place, watching them craft their fish art and cook while you drink up all their tasty sake (Beau Timken of True Sake crafted the list—wait until you read his descriptions—some include tasting references to PEZ and "flavored nothingness.").

If it's your first time, definitely consider going for the omakase "chef's choice" option and see what kind of a sushi portrait they'll paint for you (your custom menu could cost in the $60-$80 range, just so you know). Admittedly, both Michael and Danny are a little soft-spoken, so don't expect any Japanese greetings to be yelled at you when you walk in, but don't be afraid to ask questions either—there's a lot you can learn here.

Like a number of places around town that have a seasonal focus, Sebo is no different. Because so many kinds of fish are farmed and available year-round, or just sitting around frozen forever, people don't realize fish is seasonal, and there are certain fish that may only have a peak season of a couple weeks. So if salmon isn't on the menu, then it's because it's not wild salmon season; don't fuss—there are plenty of other fresh choices that will enchant you.

We started with sunomono ($6), a refreshing salad with flavorful and meaty leaves of wakame (seaweed), thinly sliced cucumber that still managed to have a little crisp to it in a balanced vinegar dressing, and some scored shimaaji layered on top. Another small plate was the pan-seared hirame (fluke/$9) dusted with Japanese shichimi/seven peppers, and resting in a subtle dashi that deepened and became all the more peppery as the fish sat in it, mingling with the flavors of barely-blanched asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, and grated yuzu.

My dining partner christened the sashimi of honmaguro (wild bluefin tuna) "fish beef," while the presentation of hirame was like a rose, with bright orange shoyu ikura (salmon roe) spilling around its "leaves" of sliced avocado (and one real leaf of shiso)—it was downright romantic. The texture of ikura popping in our mouths was deeply satisfying, almost like popping nature's bubble wrap. We lost it over the barracuda, lightly torched on one side while scrumptiously raw underneath, striking the balance of a perfect black and blue steak.

On our visit, there were 19 different types of nigiri offered. Okay, first things first: the saba ($8) here will completely shift your opinion about mackerel. Cast your previous saba experiences overboard and order it up. It's not the typically greasy and overly fishy Norwegian saba you'll find in most places that is heavily pickled in vinegar—here they prepare wild Japanese saba that is flown in every couple of days, and only sees vinegar for a couple of minutes. Wait until you see the deep ruby red of the flesh—never seen anything like it, or tasted saba like this before. Sorry, it's going to totally make you a spoiled sushi brat (I can think of worse things to be).

The iwashi (sardine) nigiri ($7) was another fish treasure—fatty and dense. There was also kohada (Japanese shad/$8) and kanburi (winter yellowtail/$8). Seriously, go for the exotic here if you can—while ebi (shrimp) and tako (octopus) are lovely, this is a great place to experiment.

The dish that will officially ruin you is the ankimo (monkfish liver/$7). Instead of the stuff that is frozen into rolls and defrosting at a sushi counter near you, here they poach it for several hours, resulting in the sweetest, smoothest ankimo in town (although Ino at Japantown supposedly prepares it the same way). It comes topped with festive ribbons of bonito, and some daikon and shiso underneath. Meet the foie gras of the finned world.

So, a few useful notes: Sebo has a very subtle entrance (i.e. no flashing OPEN sign), and odds are good you'll walk right past it, so be sure to take the address with you or you very well may be left aimlessly wandering Hayes Street. Also, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are their busiest nights, while Wednesdays and Saturdays seem to be slower. If the restaurant is totally slammed and all full, they will take your number and call you when your table is ready.

And here's a little more advice: please don't drown your fish in shoyu, and dump in a pile of wasabi (although it is fresh-grated) unless you are having some sashimi—just savor the fish in all its pristine purity, and trust that Mike and Danny are seasoning it perfectly for you (they care like that). And hey, bon voyage—this little gem is truly a place unto itself, with nary a caterpillar roll in sight.

the wino

H. Joseph Ehrmann


DECEMBER 19, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO H. Joseph Ehrmann on Irish Coffee

H. Joseph Ehrmann, better known as H., started his career at fifteen years old as a cook on the beaches of New Jersey. Many positions, restaurants, and bars later, he renovated one of the oldest saloons in San Francisco and reopened it as Elixir. The bar has won numerous accolades for its cocktails, marketing programs, and atmosphere. Beyond running Elixir, H. is currently designing his next venue, consulting spirits companies, and creating a cocktail program for Ford's Filling Station in Los Angeles. He can be found in Elixir just about every day of the week.

Irish Coffee
I have always been a fan of the Irish Coffee, but have long lamented the difficulty in finding one that meets my standards (hazard of the trade). The best I've had was at my local Irish pub when I lived in Madrid. The problems I generally encounter are that they are usually too small for my taste and are made with sub-par ingredients. But times are changing in American cocktail culture, and the Irish Coffee is starting to reemerge in parallel with the newly increasing conviction for a better cup o' Joe.

Legend has it that the drink was first created in 1940's Ireland by a Shannon Airport bartender named Joe Sheridan, and then brought to San Francisco's Buena Vista by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter named Stanton Delaplane. The "BV" has since served countless Irish Coffees, featuring its private labeled Irish whiskey to tourists and locals alike, this barkeep included (though I've heard rumor that they recently switched to a major brand… I'm due for a visit).

While the classic interpretation of this magical mixture is fairly simple, this version is based on my own beliefs, experiences, and palate, having passed an exceptional number by my lips in my travels. If the perfect cocktail is made the way the customer likes it, consider me the customer here.

As with food recipes, the core of any good cocktail is a combination of high-quality ingredients and care in creation. If you were to say that to me in an interview, you'd be on your way to a job.

To start with, let's look at the ingredients. Two core issues in an Irish Coffee are the Irish and the coffee. Use a good Irish whiskey, not some sub-par well swill. Make sure it is from Ireland and barrel aged. I prefer Jameson, but Bushmills, Powers or the like will do. There's no need to go to a higher level like Red Breast or Black Bush, as the coffee and other ingredients are going to mask the complexities of more aged whiskeys. Some people like to burn the whiskey in the glass, claiming that it caramelizes the sugars and adds to the flavor. I disagree with this practice, as all you are doing is burning off the alcohol… and what good is that?

Next, use good coffee. This is a coffee after all, and in this caffeinated society, we all know that bad coffee is simply not worth drinking. Most bars keep cheap, undrinkable coffee on hand. It sits in a drip pot with the warmer on all day until, by the time it touches your nice whiskey, it is nothing more than burnt heartburn in a cup. If you want to test a bar's Irish Coffee, try their coffee first. Just ask for a taste, as you might with a draft beer. I recommend a Vienna roast—it's not as hearty as a French roast, and it pairs well with the characteristics of Irish whiskey. If you can, use a French press. You'll get the best quality brew (about two tablespoons for one cup).

Now that we have the core covered, let's look at the supporting players.

First, use real cream. Heavy cream. Thick, gooey "my grandmother used to make everything with this" cream. Half and half doesn't cut the mustard, nor does it whip well, and this cream is gonna get a whippin'. For the diet conscious or less gluttonous, try light cream. It will whip well and still give you a nice drinking experience, sip after sip. Secondly, use brown sugar. It gives a richer taste than granulated white sugar. Finally, use a large mug. Sure, there are valid arguments that a "real Irish Coffee" has its own glass, a dainty little cup on a stem, but this is my recipe and I like a full mug.

Now, for the ceremony of preparing it properly. Put a bar spoon (teaspoon) of brown sugar at the bottom of your mug. Add a shot of Irish whiskey (1.5 oz is normal, but tweak it based on your taste). Fill the mug with hot, fresh coffee until about a half inch from the top. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.

In a cold metal container, whip about 1-2 ounces (a shot) of heavy whipping cream, just enough so that it thickens with fluidity but doesn't quite harden like Cool Whip. In the bar we use a mixing cup and a commercial milkshake whipper. You can use a bowl and a whisk at home, or they now sell these funky little AA battery-driven whippers in many kitchen stores. Do not sweeten the cream. You've already added your sweetener to the coffee. Now rest your spoon, face down, on the ridge of your mug and slowly pour the whipped cream over the spoon so that it rests on top. The resulting drink will look a bit like a pint of Guinness. A true work of art.

Now, for the drinking experience. This is possibly the most important part and the key to true Irish Coffee enjoyment. Do not use a straw. Sip from the edge of the glass, drawing in the hot, sweet, earthy, roasted, malty cocktail tempered by the cool, rich cream. You'll get a great tasting drink with every sip, right down to the last.

San Francisco has a proud, if exaggerated history with Irish Coffee, yet there are only a few places known for this great winter warmer. Stand up for your rights and demand a better cocktail. As the clouds roll in and moisten our Northern California skies, try a well-made Irish Coffee instead of that half-caf soy latte. Before you know it, the sun will be shining and you'll find yourself a summertime Irish coffee drinker as well. Slainte!

the socialite

New Year

New Year's Eve Dinner
Sunday, Dec. 31, 2006
Various locations

DECEMBER 19, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO So yes, ~NEW YEAR'S EVE~ is coming, and while I am fortunate to be hosted at a friend's place for dinner this year, I have to say I totally relished my dinner out with friends at Winterland last year (obviously not a possibility this year). I have been drowning in press releases about who is doing what for New Year's Eve, so I thought I'd share my top five picks for New Year's Eve dinner if I were dining out:

This deal is tough to beat: ~RANGE~ is offering a set menu for $65.

Unless you are ~AZIZA~, who is offering a five-course prix fixe for $49. The meal will begin with soup and a choice of appetizer, followed by the Moroccan specialty of basteeya, and then the guest can choose their entrée and dessert (which is certain to be fantastique since the new pastry chef, Shuna Fish Lydon, will be making it).

~A16~ will offer two seatings at $120, and optional wine pairings for $70. What's crazy is it's a seven-course meal, including scrumptious numbers like crab sformato, chestnut ravioli with ragu bianco and pecorino, and slow-roasted rib eye. Like, buon apetito!

~SCOTT HOWARD~ will have seatings from 5:30pm/7:30pm and 8pm/10:30pm, and serving only small-plate prix-fixe menus in the dining room. The early seating will offer two five-course prix-fixe menus, one for $75 and one for $80. The late seating will offer two seven-course prix-fixe menus, one for $95 and one for $100. Late seating small plate highlights include caviar, veal sweetbreads, Maine scallops, short ribs, black truffled risotto, poached lobster, seared foie gras, roasted monkfish, and Kobe beef loin. Complimentary party favors for everyone and champagne toast at midnight. And there will be a DJ starting at 11pm.

~CORTEZ~ has open seating from 5:30pm-11pm, and is serving a five-course prix-fixe menu for $90, or $115 with wine pairing. Entrée choices include Painted Hills Farm rib eye, hazelnut-crusted Long Island duck breast and roasted New Zealand rack of lamb. The prix-fixe menu includes a glass of champagne to start the meal, and a choice of dessert, plus some treats on the house. There will be DJ starting at 10:30pm.

Some other festive spots around town that sound good: Frisson, Perbacco, COCO500, XYZ, Incanto, Bong Su, Americano, Boulevard, Jack Falstaff, Plumpjack Café, La Folie… the list goes on. Pretty much anyone who serves food will be open on New Year's Eve, so take your pick (and take a cab).

the starlet

DECEMBER 19, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO Ron Thal (aka Bumblefoot) and Frank Ferrer of Guns N' Roses were spotted at Azie.

Adam Curry (yes, the former MTV VJ) was having lunch at South Park Café.

Although the Union Square lounge Vessel is not slated to open to the public until '07, Leonardo DiCaprio, his gal (model Bar Rafaeli), Orlando Bloom, Salma Hayek, Kevin Connelly, Lukas Haas, and Gael Garcia Bernal (purr) got a VIP tour of the space after they all attended the Global Green "Gorgeous and Green" event. The crowd stayed until the wee hours, listening to music and chatting about the environment (yup, this is how we do it in SF). Earlier in the evening at the event, Orlando Bloom reportedly loved H.'s cocktail at the Square One table, the Rainforest Green-Tea-Ni, saying, "This is fabulous." Or would that be ecofabulous?