You may think me a little late to the party, but I prefer to think of it as fashionably so. I'm talking about all the lists of Best Meals and Best Restaurants of 2005 that have been published in print and online over the last few weeks. I've really enjoyed reading everyone's year end summaries and, since I'm not usually much for retrospection, here's my version of the list: current favorites (new or not) and dying-to-try spots. (Disclaimer: this was written after hours, not days, of exhaustive research, so it may not be totally complete. Forgive me.)
A16 Crisp Neapolitan pizzas with toppings like broccoli rabe and sausage or just plain mozzarella and basil are what hooked me, but the hearty pastas, incomparable burrata and and incredible wine list with never-fail recommendations from sommelier Shelly Lindgren are anything but second string.
Americano Other than Vivande, the restaurant we visited most in 2005. From my new seat in Egg Allergy Hell, I now recall the stracciatella "torn rags" Italian egg-drop soup with more than a touch of sentimental fondness. A bowl filled to the brim with broth, al dente pasta, earthy escarole, rough hunks of crouton, Parmesan cheese, and eggs is just the thing on a winter's day.
Burma Superstar I would drag my body over hot coals, through crushed glass and past hordes of sweaty Russian babushkas thrashing birch twigs at me in the sauna for another plate of nan pia dok, flat noodles in a creamy coconut-curry sauce with tender chicken, cabbage and spicy peppers. Luckily, all I have to do is hop on the #2 bus.
Chapeau! An all-time favorite that Mr. Food Musings and I visited too few times last year. Owners Philippe and Ellen Gardelle are the nicest people on Earth, I tell you, and their cozy boite of a bistro out in the Richmond is worth the drive for creamy oysters in mignonette, salmon three ways (smoked, tartare and roe) with waffle chips to scoop it up, and soulful cassoulet. Mr. FM always enjoys his conversations with Philippe about wine, and we've never drunk a bad drop there.
Coco500 Every time I tell someone I adore Coco500, I surprise myself. I think it's because it's one of the few restaurants who let me down at first, but when I gave it a chance at redemption, it bruised its knees praying fervently at the pew before serving up its soul to me on a platter. The truffled squash blossom flatbread must never be allowed to leave the menu. Ditto the tempura-fried green beans and dense, chocolately marbled "brownies."
Lemongrass Thai Delicate curries, melt-in-your-mouth tofu, and some of the best soups this side of Thailand enthralled me at first sip. The fact that they deliver sealed it. They're my Thai place now and forevermore.
Little Star Pizza Lazy as we are, we now cheerily forego delivery for a bite of the deep dish with sausage, peppers, onions, and a thick chunky layer of the world's best tomato sauce. (sigh)
Luella Though I've only been twice, it's one of my favorite places. I love the restaurant, which manages to be chic but not trendy. Silky salt cod brandade, velvety artichoke soup, pasta tossed simply with fresh zucchini and herbs, and the best dessert I had all year: deep-fried ricotta dumplings drizzled with honey.
Manresa I always struggle with how to describe Kinch's genius, and usually give up, merely listing the nearly non-stop parade of perfect dishes. His ability to synthesize disparate ingredients like abalone and pigs trotters; his whimsical, yet studied presentations (crab and coconut soup in the sea urchin shell just vacated by the previous course of sea urchin, served with oyster in a gelée of sea water) and stamina -- 20+ courses is not unusual -- have made us consider a move to the South Bay. That's got to be desperate passion talking, since the South Bay was recently coined by one Bay Area restaurant critic as the "valley of the Olive Garden."
Mijita It must say something that, with only two opportunities to feed my parents on a recent trip (we were off to Hawaii the next day) we chose this Ferry Building taco joint for one. What's more, my parents talk about it every time we see them -- more than they talk about Americano. Was it the tender carnitas, heap of creamy guac or the authentic Mexican Coca-Colas? I'd wager all three.
Myth I don't know anyone who's been and didn't fall head over heels. From sweetbreads to beef cheeks to tamer fare like scallops, it's all good (except desserts -- have they gotten better?)
Oola Where else can you eat foie gras ravioli or Asian spare ribs while sipping on an expertly made pomegranate martini and tapping your feet to the techno beat? Okay, plenty, but this is the best.
Pizzeria Delfina I'm on a pizza kick, so sue me. So is the rest of the city, and Delfina's little sister dishes up some damn fine pies.
Saha A bold claim after only one visit, but one taste of the fouel, a soup dip or a dippy soup of fava beans, peppers and zaatar and I decided it was my new desert island food. Ahi tuna wrapped in knaffe (shredded phyllo dough similar to kataifi) is lightly fried and plopped down with a sweet and spicy carrot salad. Mushroom ravioli play with sweet and sour, and shrimp come just grilled in a sauce of cilantro, mint and rosewater. I hear from trusted sources that some of the flavor combinations don't work, but our meal was faultless. Unless, of course, you consider that the chef came out and chatted up the wrong table. I guess in the flickering light he didn't recognize his newest fan.
Silks Hotel dining room ambiance aside, it was the surprise hit of the year. I can't forget our final dessert course, a teacup of rich cocoa and a shot of cold beer. One of the most fun and enlightening combinations I've ever had.
Vivande Porta Via My safe haven. Despite singing its praises at the top of my lungs, I can still nab a seat any night of the week and gobble up cannelini beans with pancetta, housemade pasta with Bolognese or peppers and sausage, and chicken cooked under weights with a bit of balsamic reduction. Inexpensive Italian wines and, when there's room, white palle di neve cookies beckon nearly everyw eek.
YaYa Cuisine My first introduction to Middle Eastern fusion. I love the sultry music as well as the food, traditional Mesopotamian cuisine updated with modern ingredients and techniques. Falafel pizza, delicate grilled eggplant with pomegranate sauce, and dolma so amazing I begged (and got...) the recipe. I never pass up having my coffee grounds read by Yahya Salih, the most affable, down to earth chef there ever was.
Yuzu Sensei and his team will soon have other sushi chefs committing hari-kari from shame. My dreams are now filled with buttery otoro sashimi, real wasabi, rolls that go beyond spiders and dragons, and desserts like tiny poached pears and housemade sorbets.
Zuni Café Another all-time favorite for their copper-topped bar, expert cocktails, impeccable raw bar and finger-licking frites. The one place in the City guaranteed to stump me at least once with an unfamiliar ingredient, which keeps it fun.
Dying to try
Blue Jay Café It's debatedly some of the best fried chicken in the City, and who can be bothered to deep-fry at home? Besides, it's close by.
Inn at Victorian Gardens This may be on the list forever. The last time I called for a reservation, in January, they had two openings...all year. I love Mendocino County with its cold gray waters crashing against the cliffs, and the idea of paying a prix fixe to be fed whatever the Italian chef is cooking, then walking upstairs to go to bed, sounds more appealing than another trip to Hawaii. (Well maybe not Hawaii. Let's say Paris.)
Masa's My first meal there was the one that opened my eyes to what food could be. It's probably the first time I ever wrote down what I ate, but after Ron Siegel left, I figured why bother? Word on the street is that the chef who's finally taken over is doing the place proud.
Range I worry about the loud din, but what's not to love about cooking locally, seasonally and all that jazz?
Scott Howard If you're bold enough to put your name on a restaurant, it better be good. I'm not a big fan of deconstructed plates but I'm willing to try and overcome my bias.
Sushi Sam's Thomas Keller drives to San Mateo to eat there. 'Nuff said.
Thanh Long I keep hearing about their garlic noodles and roasted Dungeness crab, and this will be the year I go. Dammit.
The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton Universal swooning from many, many trusted friends, plus my aforementioned appreciation of Ron Siegel, means the only reason I haven't been yet is I keep spending all my cash at Manresa.