This week's tablehopper: pedal to the metal.
Caramel cake at Fremont Diner.
This week has been a category three hurricane of eating, like a private tasting event Sunday night at Saison highlighting Robert Mondavi Winery’s To Kalon wines (along with sniffing soil with Laura Parker—sounds hardcore but I promise, it wasn’t that kind of party), a white-tablecloth lunch at Thermidor, a late-night dinner at Café des Amis (great to see the place positively buzzing at 10pm on a Wednesday night), and then an all-day road trip on Thursday, starting with lunch at Fremont Diner, then a delicious wine tasting at Robert Sinskey Vineyards, followed by my happy hour event at Bardessono, and then a late-night dinner at Morimoto in Napa.
It was a gorgeous evening in Yountville last night—thanks to everyone who so kindly came to the event! The Charbay cocktails hit the spot, and chef Sean O’Toole’s hors d’oeuvres make you challenge any shred of self control you have to eat just one. And Morimoto? Wow, that restaurant is really something special—am still thinking about the spectacular presentations, the taste of the custardy tofu they make tableside, and what a cool scene it was.
Yeah, talk about over-fed—restaurant booths have become my own personal veal fattening pen. Fortunately I’ve managed to get some exercise in every day so I don’t turn into el gran blimpo—things are already precarious. Like the hurricane category level states, “Devastating damage will occur.” To be honest, I am thrilled to have a home-cooked meal with my parents this weekend. (And it’ll probably be my favorite meal of the week.)
But one other meal of note is coming up this Sunday October 3rd: the eighth annual CUESA Sunday Supper. There’s a cocktail reception, with over 30 hors d’oeuvres stations and wines, and then the big feast, served family style in the Ferry Building’s Grand Hall, including a whole-beast tableside carving and 60 chefs who are contributing their talents to this meal. So whatcha waiting for? Get your tickets here and help contribute to a great organization.
One last thing to note: I’ve made a stylistic decision here at tablehopper regarding my restaurant reviews. From here on out, they’re going to be a quite a bit shorter in order to cover more places. While I enjoy writing longer-form reviews, there are just too many places I eat at and want to share with you, so it’s hard to be limited to one big review each week. So, it’s shorty time. I’ll just try to cover the salient points: why you want to go there (and when), what to order, why the chef rocks, and any other important things you need to know, like, are the bartenders hot?
So, let’s get this week started with a hardhat about the upcoming Twenty Five Lusk, and two, count ‘em, two capsule reviews of affordable and mighty tasty places in the Mission. I hope you enjoy the new review format.
See ya on the treadmill,
New Restaurant Reviews (I'm looking for somewhere new to eat)
Mission Chinese Food
Excuse me, what? My eyes are tearing up so much that I can’t hear you. No, I don’t know why that is happening. All I know is I can’t get enough of the tingling sensations I get every time I eat at MISSION CHINESE FOOD, and I’m not talking about the Good Vibrations kind. It’s more about the magically numbing Sichuan peppercorn making appearances in the vast majority of the deeelicious menu items here, along with fragrant star anise, cumin, and coriander in the kitchen’s trademark spice mix. There is nothing shy about the flavors coming out of the kitchen, so buckle up.
Chef Danny Bowien and business partner Anthony Myint expanded their previous twice-a-week Mission Street Food venture held at the Lung Shan restaurant—a dingy and sleepy Chinese restaurant—into a nightly venture that is unlike any other setup I’ve heard of, because there is one kitchen but two teams and two menus: the Lung Shan menu, and Mission Chinese Food’s (with about 13 dishes in all). Bowien has basically taken a variety of Chinese dishes, executions, and ingredients, and given them a San Francisco top-shelf spin, like using Benton’s bacon for the thrice-cooked bacon ($9). The menu changes so often that I hate to get you too excited about any one particular thing, and the kitchen is just about to get an upgrade, so I expect even MORE changes.
But some past faves include the slow-cooked and fatty char siu pork belly ($8.50) over silky rice noodles (my friend and I wanted to eat two servings of this dish); and the ma po tofu ($8.50) with Kurobuta pork and fermented black beans brings out the total masochist in me—I can’t stop eating it, even when I can barely feel my face anymore (you can “cool off” with bites of the salt-cod fried rice, $10, rich with chunks of Chinese sausage, black cod, and egg).
Okay, time for more damage, like the freaking HOT fried chicken wings ($8) that come under a blanket of dried peppers (you kind of have to dig around in there to find all seven wings). And the next foggy or sick night, order the tingly lamb noodle soup ($9) for a hearty dish of thick, handmade udon-like noodles, (er, slightly tough) bok choy, and a potent broth that is practically 100-percent lamb drippings. Slurp.
There are also some vegan and vegetarian options, but do note the menu is very meat-driven. Everyone should order the feisty pickles ($3).
And get this—they deliver. All day and night (Mon-Sat 11am-10:30pm, Sun 12pm-10pm). All over the city. And in biodegradable containers, thank you. Granted, I’ve had a few dishes show up a bit lukewarm, but a quick turn in the pan and that creamy Taiwanese eggplant ($8) is on point.
This under-the-radar place reeks of a casual and gritty Mission aesthetic, with most diners looking like they’re straight out of central casting under the glow of Christmas lights, drinking copious amounts of Tsingtaos. A meal here is a steal considering the quality ingredients and technique (and portions), and feels like a wonderful secret. But it shouldn’t be a secret. It’s like the next wave Chinese food I’ve been waiting for. Bring. It. On.
Oh, and let’s not forget a very cool fact: 75 cents from each item is donated to the SF Food Bank.
Mission Chinese Food - 2234 Mission St. San Francisco - 415-863-2800
Pica Pica Maize Kitchen
Whenever I’d venture up to Napa, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to go to Oxbow Public Market, stocking up on spices from the Whole Spice Company, charcuterie from Fatted Calf, and of course stuffing my face with a porchetta sandwich from Roli Roti (which is sadly no longer there). But one day I took a break from the rotisserie pig to try another kind o’ puerco: the pernil arepa from PICA PICA MAIZE KITCHEN. Imagine a juicy and deeply seasoned pork chuck, nestled into a white corn cake that is about the size of your standard pita bread, but fluffier—more like a fat and sturdy pupusa. And then stuff some tomatoes, cheese, avocado, and aioli in there, and you have one hell of a sandwich. (Yeah, where do I sign?)
This Venezuelan outpost has opened a second location in San Francisco, a bit off the main Valencia Street drag at the corner of 15th Street (where Mi Lindo Yucatan used to be). It’s a fast-casual joint: you order at the counter, and bring a number to your table.
You can choose an arepa ($7.99), a grilled corn flatbread; a “maize’wich” ($7.99), a grilled sweet cornbread; or a cachapa ($8.99), a sweet corn pancake—and then you take your pick from 10 different fillings. (Gluten-free diners, rejoice at all these wheat-free options! Go nuts.) The arepa has a crunchy exterior with a soft filling and is cut open like a pocket, while the cachapa is sweet and folded like a quesadilla once you choose your filling. The maize’wich is like a bastard child of the two: it has the cake-y texture of the arepa, but the sweeter corn base of the cachapa. (My preferred meat delivery vehicle was the arepa since I’m more into savory than sweet.) Oh, and you can add a soup, and side or salad for only $3.25.
It takes a little while to figure out what to order since the ingredients will feel unfamiliar (you will ask yourself questions like, “Should I have the chorizo in an arepa or maize’wich?”). The folks at the counter are happy to make suggestions and steer you—don’t worry, there won’t be a pop quiz at the end.
Of the fillings, the pabellón, with shredded skirt steak, sweet plantains, black beans, and cheese, ended up becoming my new favorite. Definitely a slutty combination. There are a couple chicken options, like catira (with cheese) or the pepeada, a creamy avocado-chicken salad that would work well for lunch. There are also specials, like one evening there was the complete opposite of the pabellón (the yoga, teacher, if you will): a healthy and light mix of arugula, carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, goat cheese, and garlic spread. Actually, there are plenty of vegetarian options (vegan too, just ask); but go for the bean-based fillings—we found the tofu needed some TLC (and flavor). One more quibble: the cheese was never melted enough on the ones that came with cheese.
The empanadas ($3.99) had four different tasty fillings, but ultimately were way too oily for me to handle. The side of sweet plantains came in a paper cone, topped with a salty queso duro; I preferred the crisp and lacy yuca (their spelling) fries instead—also dripping some oil, which I tried to ignore because they tasted so good. You get your pick of a salsa, seven in all (I liked the spicy cream version). There’s beer, wine, or sangria to go with your meal, plus some cool Venezuelan drinks, like the coconut-lemonade granita.
The owner, Adriana Lopez Vermut, has worked closely with her father, Leopoldo Lopez Gil, and family friend Luis H. Sosa on building this unique business. While all the signage and bright colors border on feeling a bit chain-ish, the staff is friendly and helps maintain a personable vibe. It’s a busy establishment, so it’s not really a restaurant to linger in—people will be hawkeye-ing you for your seat. It’s more about getting a quick bite, and offers a break from the neighborhood’s usual taqueria fare, while being equally filling, savory, and in a much-appreciated under-$10 price point. Now, about that pop quiz…
Pica Pica Maize Kitchen - 401 Valencia St. San Francisco - 415-400-5453
Project Sneak Peeks (watch your step)
Twenty Five Lusk
This section is written by Erin Archuleta, half of the talent behind local outfit ICHI Catering, the newly opened ICHI Sushi, and ICHI Lucky Cat Deli (at 331 Cortland in Bernal Heights). For updates, follow @ICHISUSHI on Twitter. Outside of the foodie world, Erin works full-time championing kid literacy at 826 National. Keep up with her @erinarchuleta.
Burnished, scorched bricks create the backdrop for San Francisco’s new fine dining destination, TWENTY FIVE LUSK. Taking over the former Ogden Packing and Provision smokehouse, culinary school best buddies Matthew Dolan (executive chef) and Chad Bourdon (general manager) have come together as managing partners of this tucked-away South Park/China Basin find: a building abundant with character, oodles of space (9,800 square feet!), and a rich story. Peeking in from Townsend—between 3rd and 4th Streets—is an alley with old (by San Francisco standards) architecture and huge windows with light filtering through antique glass to tell you that you’re already on a path to another time, 1917 to be exact.
The two friends had been on a location hunt for quite some time before settling on this antique industrial gem. They had toured 22 properties before it, from the seedy and sad to buildings that were nice first dates but weren’t ready for marriage. When they walked into the old Ogden space the day after it went on the market, they knew that they had found their restaurant. Chad used to live in the neighborhood, and sensed the location’s possibility. They liked its “hidden gem” mentality.
To elevate the space, and diners’ experiences, Matthew and Chad brought in acclaimed architect, and San Francisco Arts Commissioner, Cass Calder Smith and his firm, CCS Architecture. (You might know his work from other restaurants like LuLu, Perbacco, DELICA, or Terzo.) His elegant and organic style combines the warm elements of smoked brick and large Douglas fir timbers with cool, sleek black glass and white Venetian plaster, creating tucked away pockets of space and continual moments of discovery within the building. Since both friends knew they wanted to emphasize fine and private dining, Twenty Five Lusk’s raw space instantly drew them in with its potential for creating intimate dining and lounge areas.
There will be two levels in Twenty Five Lusk. The upper level will be reserved for à la carte dining, showcasing a seasonal contemporary American menu, with a whopping 120 seats! The lower level has been carved out for a variety of private dining opportunities, a 17-seat bar (offering selections from the menu upstairs), along with cozy lounge spaces surrounding two suspended Fireorb fireplace fixtures that will burn clean alcohol-gel. (Think: The Jetsons fireplace you soooo dreamed of having when you were seven, albeit much classier. And, now: with cocktail options!) Plus CCS crafted incredible options for two stories of temperature-controlled wine storage by taking advantage of an old service elevator shaft.
The various private dining configurations available here are the new premieres on the San Francisco dining scene. Nooks from the original smoke rooms make for 15 to 35 seats in the private dining area, and 15 to 60 seats in the semi-private dining area (with sliding fabric partitions), all carved out in Cass Calder Smith’s slick vision that integrates the upstairs with the lower level and plays with angles and vertical space. This custom-created ambiance is a deft opportunity for these guys to show off their polished service skills in a warm space.
Cool tones do get the chance to play up a sense of balance against all of the warmth already existing in the space. For instance, on my visit, there was a team laying 4’ x 24” slate floor tiles, and we discussed how the tabletops will all be ebony. No linens. No, ma’am, no sir. This is San Francisco’s comfortable take on the high life in a congenial atmosphere.
Working with Cass and his team, Matthew and Chad were able to craft a space that fulfilled their fine dining vision: two kitchens (one upstairs and one for the private diners below), and two bars (one for service up top and one for lounging below).
Matthew’s cooked in a number of noted kitchens: New York’s Café des Artistes, Emeril’s flagship restaurant in New Orleans, and he then went on to become chef de cuisine at Ravintola Demo, where he and his crew took a Michelin Star. Most recently, he entered the San Francisco food scene at Garibaldis as executive chef. Now, in carving out his own kitchen, Matthew collaborated with Cass to create a European suite with a U-shaped line where the cooks face each other. One side has a flattop cook surface and the other, a mixed, exposed burner offering up more flexibility in creating the menu. This set-up also ensures that the chef is the last one to touch a dish—insurance that each plate is a match for the original menu’s vision. He also insisted on putting in some of his own dream equipment, like a 40-quart Swiss braiser.
Chad’s career started at the Cranwell Resort in Lennox, Massachusetts, where he led the private dining program and managed the fine dining room. Prior to launching Twenty Five Lusk, he presided as general manager at Farallon. In talking about kitchen and dining room design, both Chad and Matthew agreed that they would have bread warmers, and serve room-softened butter. A large piece of stunning millwork will provide a roomy wait station, and smoked black glass will block the view (and the noise) of the kitchen and the dish room. Furniture will be custom-built for comfort. Pullman-style booths are carved out into the main space, and a “Bruno” chair is featured as homage to Mies van der Rohe’s classic modern original. Overall, the design team is seeking to create a look that’s new and unexpected for San Francisco diners.
Also on the team is wine director Cezar Kusik (well known from his Rubicon days), who will oversee Twenty Five Lusk’s initial wine list of 220 selections; the bar and cocktail concept will be created by bar consultant Michael Musil.
Twenty Five Lusk will make its fine dining mark with a strong friendship based in food and service, showcased in a space that allows us to discover a different dining experience with each visit. The guys’ project, which started back in September of 2007, is slated for completion and will be opening to the public on October 16th. Something tells me that there will be a serious bottle of bubbly popped to mark the start of this new South Park/China Basin destination.
the sugar mama
Enter to Win Tickets to the SF Chocolate Adventure Contest Launch Party!
You know about the Chocolate Adventure Contest, right? With $20,000 in prizes, you certainly should! This year, this inventive recipe competition is all about cupcakes. TuttiFoodie.com and Scharffen Berger chocolate invite you to create a cupcake, using at least 1 of 14 adventure ingredients—from stout beer to beets, from bee pollen to coconut cream—in combination with Scharffen Berger chocolate.
The San Francisco kickoff party with Elizabeth Falkner at Orson is Thursday eve, October 7th. Imagine: special adventure ingredient cocktails and cupcakes (all complimentary), along with other delicious treats, plus exciting blind tasting contests. This invite-only party is normally reserved for media guests and friends of the contest, but this year they’re extending 15 invitations to 15 lucky tablehopper readers.
All you need to do to enter is forward today’s tablehopper newsletter to two friends (but even more would be so very fabulous), and add a note to your friends about the Chocolate Adventure Contest, then Cc: or Bcc: me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I know you sent it—I promise I won’t use anyone’s email address. The deadline to enter is Monday October 4th by 11:59pm. I will notify the 15 winners on Tuesday the 5th. Good luck! We hope to see you at the event!
Feel free to submit your cupcake recipes to the Chocolate Adventure Contest, which launches today, October 1st, and runs through January 2nd!