SFBA: 2019, The year in review

Your favorite meals, restaurant or home-cooked? Restaurants open and closed? Local trends to watch? What stood out for you in 2019?

Nari! I need to write a report for that meal. But that level of thai is just not seen elsewhere in the Bay Area.

Wrong topic? But please, tell us about the Thai place.

2019 in review:
Pucquio/Oakland . Tiny and slow service, but the only Peruvian restaurant that dares to go beyond the standard empanada/ceviche/lomo saltado blah blah etc. etc. menu everybody else has (for the standards, we are most fond of LiMA/Concord and Barranco/Lafayette). Interesting dishes, beautifully plated – just be patient. It’s a true labor of love.

Cook/St. Helena . I can’t believe it took us so long to visit. What wasted opportunities we passed by! (bangs head on tabletop) Wilmoth is doing some beautiful Italian cooking.

Prime Wine Bar/downtown Napa . Prime’s 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville was a bargain – yes, a bargain – at $68. It’s smooth drinking now but will age beautifully for the next several years. A really exceptional cab.

Gatehouse @CIA Greystone. Any time we’re in Napa and Gatehouse is open, we’re there. It is the Napa Valley’s best bargain. Whenever we plan to visit, it’s the first website I check.

Xiang Yuen Xiao Long Bao/San Leandro. The best XLB within reasonable distance from Oakland. We ignore everything else on the menu. The other food is just okay. But the XLB are what everybody’s eating. Don’t order more than 2 trays at a time; they get cold too fast. Soooo juicy and thin-skinned. The waitstaff is barely competent, unfortunately.

Rio California/Oakland. It took us forever to try this place, but it’s delightfully mellow and deservedly popular. The empanada is forgettable (stick to LiMA/Concord for those), but the Creamy Lemon Sea Food Risotto is quite good, the fresh cilantro salad dressing on the lettuces is phenomenal. But it was the feijoda that wowed us. It’s the first one that tastes like the feijoda our Brazilian friend used to make.

Oliver’s Market/Cotati . We came in here to waste time and came out lamenting there is nothing like this in the EBay where we live. We would shop here every week if we could. Rotisserie prime rib roast in the deli? Brie Fermier – the most rare, delectable, amazing Brie of all? It’s as if Market Hall merged with Piedmont Grocery but had a bigger parking lot.

Walter Hansel/Santa Rosa . We had not been back to WHB before the new chef took over, and he has our thumbs up reco. His Beef Wellington was PROPERLY executed, with goose liver paté instead of the common cop-out of duxelles. And a veal chop! A real, honest to God veal chop! We are in love with WHB again.

Trabocco/Alameda. Always a fav with us (although Belotti is our #1 Italian love for its exquisite Northern Italian cuisine), owner/chef Nacarelli added oxtail ravioli to the menu and we swooned over it. My spouse even preferred it to his gnocchi with Del Trabocco sauce (a special order the chef allows us if they’re not busy).

Sasa Kitchen/El Cerrito. Cantonese food has been in a funk for decades, a victim of price-cutting wars and a lack of appreciation for its emphasis on freshness, subtlety and seasonality. Sasa isn’t the answer, but at least they have excellent tofu and egg custard dishes. The Kobe Beef dish, which comes with either tofu or egg custard (depending on which they have on hand), is very good and possibly unique to Sasa, or at least in the EBay. We love their seafood tofu, both braised and custard-style, although the seafood itself isn’t that great (odd for a Cantonese place).

Long Branch (aka Longbranch)/Berkeley . Paisan & LB share a kitchen. The mozzarella and ricotta are made fresh here so any dish using them is outstanding. LB makes fried cheese curds that are amazing, along with two housemade tomato jams equally so. And the meats are simply prepared, but excellent. We also love the Acme levain, which I prefer to Tartine’s much-hyped loaf. It’s served properly, with Straus sweet butter and a small mound of sea salt on the side. There is nothing more ridiculous than restaurants that serve you a crock of sweet butter, heavily sprinkled with salt crystals! What’s the point?

Aisle 5/Oakland. We adore fried chicken. But we’re not lovers of double-dipped, overly-crusty, impermeable batters that smother a piece of chicken to make it look twice as big as it really is, while serving to glop up sticky-sweet sauces better suited to an ice cream sundae. We enjoy Minnie Bell’s fried chicken in the Emeryville Public Market when it’s freshly fried, but sometimes…it isn’t. When it’s fried too long (brown instead of golden brown) and sits around for a couple of hours, Minnie’s chicken slides down to just “good”. And you realize great fried chicken is more ephemeral than you thought. Aisle 5 gave us a lunch order of amazing fried chicken wings: big, juicy, crisply yet lightly battered, fried fresh and drained for that important five minutes before being served. We’re not sure if they’ll be consistent about it, especially at peak times on weekends; but damn, those wings were the best fried chicken of 2019. And we eat a lot of fried chicken, since it’s one of those dishes I absolutely refuse to make at home.

Ikaros/Oakland . Greek food is in decline in the SFBA, but there are a couple of reliable and excellent dishes we discovered this year, worth returning for. Owner/chef George has a deft hand with grilling kebabs. Ask for the lamb medium-rare and he nails it. But my fav is the pork kabab (he only does it well-done, but you can beg for medium-well and he’ll generally give it to you). The favorite meat in Greece isn’t lamb; it’s pork. But just try finding a pork kebab anywhere else – we’ve only seen it here. And his pastitsio is lovely – almost as good as my homemade, and I don’t say that lightly.

Henry’s/Berkeley . We missed ordering chef Kronner’s burger, which was clearly a mistake since everybody else, and I mean everybody else in the dining room, had ordered it. The food was erratic. The two salads were creative and delicious, but the two mains were stunningly mediocre. And of the two desserts, one verged on being disgusting – dry as dust and not a single ingredient complementing the others. BUT – the vegan chocolate dessert was absolutely stunning. It was as exquisite as anything we’ve had from Melissa Chou when she worked at Aziza/SF. I don’t know who created that dessert, but that was a definite five-star creation (especially compared to the awful one I got!).

New Dumpling/El Cerrito. We tried the much-praised eatery a couple of months after they opened but found them erratic, overwhelmed by their instant success. It’s likely things have settled down for them, but the only thing we would have gone back for was the roti. Their roti was exceptional quality and perfectly executed. Otherwise we’d return to Banana Garden/Dublin, whose roti was almost as good but served with a spicy brown curry dip that was wonderful. Unfortunately almost everything else at BG was terrible.

Banana Garden/Dublin. In lieu of the uncomfortably cramped quarters of New Dumpling, Banana Garden’s roti is not quite as high quality, but it is very, very close. And the dip is more interesting; everyone else uses the standard yellow curry. BG uses a spicy, complex brown curry instead. Unfortunately we didn’t like anything else much except the vegetable dishes. They marinate all their meats for too long, and the meat acquires that slight bitterness and chemical aftertaste from the sodium bicarbonate. Stick to being vegetarian here, especially their eggplant stir-fry with curry leaves, which was delicious and not so greasy as most Asian restaurants make it. This is a large restaurant with plenty of parking.

Middle East Market/Berkeley. New mgmt. took over in 2018 and the takeout food is a little better. We don’t find their kebabs as good as the Greek and Afghani restaurants, but what we do like is that Napoleon pastry. My spouse adores Napoleons but 99.9% of them are simply terrible. ME uses filo pastry instead; in the proper “3 multiple-ply layers separated by 2 filling layers”. The cream is not classic but it works: mostly heavy whipped cream stabilized by meringue powder. The pastry layers are thin and crisp, the filling just sweet enough but not cloying. The clerk told us it was his favorite, and now it’s ours, too.

Duo Grill House/Albany. Chef Bo has finally given up trying to find a winning formula, and new owners have taken over to turn this into a B/L/D diner variant. The menu is limited – there’s a burger, for example; but only one and your customization is limited to what they keep on hand. But within those limits they do a very good job. One dish that really stands out is the Brussels sprouts salad. Instead of the grilled-to-death, halved sprouts everybody else gives you, this is a generous serving (enough for 2–3 people) of separated baby leaves, tossed with a mild, delicious bacon dressing. There’s caramelized onions and some chunks of hard-boiled eggs added, too. Any hipster bistro would give you one-third as much and charge you the same price. BTW, their French fries rock – true Russet variety potatoes.

Mayflower/Dublin. Open since 2014 but new mgmt. took over late last year. We had stopped going but tried it again on the good recent reports. The reports were right; the food is back up to a higher level. We’ve gone twice but the weekday lunch was slightly better than the weekend lunch. The sticky rice in lotus leaf is particularly good, as was the crispy custard-topped char siu bao which wowed our friend so much, she ordered a second plate to take home. For comparison’s sake, we are not fond of Koi Palace/Dublin – I loathe their ordering system, the crowds, the tiny print menu. Service at Mayflower was distinctly better – in fact, almost as good as East Ocean/Alameda (which has the best service of any dim sum restaurant, with waitstaff that has mostly been with them for many years).

Looking forward to reading about other foods people loved in 2019!

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold