Both in numbers and quality, 2006 has been a stellar year for new restaurants.
Though the San Fransciso/Bay Area’s strength remains the moderate-priced bistro, trattoria or grill, several high concept places launched and took root, nurtured by a bouyant local economy. The resurgence of the Internet industry, the tail of the real estate boom, an exploding financial services sector and an upswing in tourism all helped fill high-end, high-profile seats.
But new neighborhood restaurants also prospered, especially in the Mission with Dosa, Bar Tartine, Front Porch and nearby La Ciccia. The Richmond got a wonderful and refined Turkish place in Troya, and Hayes Valley embraced Modern Tea as the mid-Market corridor did Cav Wine Bar. The Jewish Community Center reopened with two strong neighborhood newcomers, the California Street Deli and (415), a sexy pan-Asian concept.
The Elite Cafe on Fillmore changed hands, now owned by biscuit maker extraordinaire Joanna Karlinsky, and Jay Foster’s super cool Farmer Brown gives Golden Gate Theatre-goers and hipsters alike a place for spectacular fried chicken and martinis. Eccentric Miles O’Reilly established his church of Irish food and booze, The Holy Grail, on lower Polk Street. The amazing Myth Cafe brings joy to Jackson Square/Financial District lunchers and the great Oliveto in Oakland is sailing along happily with new chef Paul Canales. It took me four years to discover Manresa in Los Gatos, a destination restaurant of the highest level, and six years to return to Aziza, a soignee California/Moroccan cafe that does everything right.
After much soul-searching and teeth-gnashing, the following are my picks for the top 10 new restaurants I reviewed in 2006.
Call me crazy, but Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc is my favorite of all his restaurants. The kitchen prepares a single, four-course, $45 prix fixe family-style meal five nights a week. Rarely has a concept fit a location more perfectly. Everything is wine-country hearty and fresh: huge wooden bowls of juicy salad; main courses such as fried chicken or divine roasted monkfish with leeks, romesco sauce and buttery saffron rice; hunks of interesting cheese with dried fruits and nuts; and an uncomplicated dessert.
6476 Washington St., Yountville
Thoughtful chef/writer Daniel Patterson stays true to the Bay Area’s collective belief in pure and local ingredients but creates highly original, poetic, scent-inspired modern dishes that use cutting-edge culinary technologies. A meal in Coi’s serene little dining room — decorated with Andy Goldsworthy-esque artifacts — awakens the senses. Opt for the $75 prix fixe menu and be swept away by a progression of fragrances that never overpower. Service is exemplary.
373 Broadway, San Francisco
Chef Doug Keane and manager/partner Nick Peyton have mounted a destination restaurant in Sonoma’s wine country that also attracts locals. Patrons can indulge in elegant, multicourse prix fixe dinners with lots of intriguing choices starting at $58, or sit in the bar, sipping cocktails inspired by ingredients from the farmers market and eating from a bar menu. Either way, everyone eats and drinks brilliantly, awed by the quality and imagination of the cooking. Order foie gras, no matter what.
29 North St., Healdsburg
When Cindy Pawlcyn, the impish chef behind such classics as Mustards and Fog City Diner, opened this sprawling, new-wave fish house, she must have made a list of all her favorite fish dishes and put them on the menu. You can get sushi, sake, wine, cocktails, po’boys, tuna melts, shrimp Louie, grilled fish and French fries, to name a few of the possibilities, and they’re all smart and good. Sushi and sashimi from master chef Ken Tominaga especially sparkles.
641 Main St., St. Helena
Nopa, which stands for north of the Panhandle, didn’t mean anything until this big, booming, super-popular restaurant put it on the map. A reasonably priced, compact menu particularly strong on small plates such as lamb riblets, fried sardines, wood-baked runner beans and baked goat-cheese dip keeps the place packed late into the night. Reservations are only taken on the afternoon of the day you want to eat. Most people just drop in and wait with a drink at the long bar.
560 Divisadero St., San Francisco
Perbacco, a northern Italian trattoria that just squeaked open last month, has already become a fixture in the Financial District. Customers come all day for chef Staffan
Terje’s delicate noodles with five-hour pork sugo, house-cured salumi and melting pork shoulder braised in milk. His partner, Umberto Gibin, an expert in northern Italian wines, makes people feel welcome. These two pros have created an instant San Francisco classic — right next to Tadich Grill, no less.
230 California St., San Francisco
At Redd, wunderchef Richard Reddington’s breezy, thrilling new restaurant, serious eaters can opt for tasting menus and wine pairings or the insouciant a la carte menu. Reddington sees the plate as a canvas for breathtaking dishes that taste every bit as gorgeous as they look. Have his incomparable “fish tacos” at the bar or settle in for a lapidary-like foie gras trio or a haunting fish stew in saffron curry sauce.
6480 Washington St., Yountville
With uncompromising standards — they never, ever, use frozen fish — and a keen eye for the choicest local and flown-in seafood, Michael Black and Danny Dunham improvise a swooningly luscious five-course $60 omakase meal available only at the sushi bar. Most people order from a small, well-conceived sushi and small-plates menu at hip, trapezoidal wooden tables. Sake comes from the True Sake shop across the street.
517 Hayes St., San Francisco
Tamarindo is a smart, exciting
small-plates concept in redeveloped Old Oakland, run by several generations of the Dominguez family. The open kitchen puts out stunning and complex Mexican tapas based on fresh masa with an array of different fillings, salsas and cremas. Check out the juicy grilled steak mulitas, any of the crisp and lively tostaditos, and soft sopecitos surtidos. The glory of Tamarindo is that each little dish looks and tastes distinctive, and the sleek, airy surroundings, designed by the 28-year-old architect son, look like a million bucks.
468 Eighth St., Oakland
Chef Mark Gordon’s cooking grabs me. I could eat his clean, sparkling small plates every day, starting with juicy boudin blanc sausage with tender erbette chard, perfect arugula salad with pecorino and pine nuts, braised fennel with chopped eggs and olives, and grilled fish on a bed of chickpeas with a relishy romesco. Stop me, please. He loves the Mediterranean but isn’t averse to the richness of roasted marrow bones or a green garlic souffle. And, he has a way with cheeses, matching them with fruits, nuts or vegetables that draw out their character. The Cass Calder-designed dining room only adds another layer of pleasure.
3011 Steiner St., San Francisco