Up-and-coming Northern California cuisine.
At Thomas Keeler's Ad Hoc there's a set meal every night, along with whatever came out of Keller's gardens that morning. Photo courtesy Ad Hoc.
San Franciscan and Los Angeleno foodies will argue forever as to whether Northern or Southern California has a richer gastronomy, but, despite my kudos to So Cal for innovations of dazzling culinary style, I have to give No Cal the nod for the breadth, depth, and consistency of its food culture. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the viticultural riches of Napa and Sonoma Valley in your backyard.
Every year I find a slew of exciting restaurants opening in Northern California, from San Francisco to Marin County, from San Jose to Sacramento. The diversity of immigrants from Asian and Latino cultures has given the region an evolving vibrancy that allows for visitors to find some of the best Thai and Vietnamese food just storefronts away from a terrific Mexican restaurant and a first-rate Indian restaurant.
In the latter category, Neela Paniz has set a very contemporary and colorful Indian restaurant, Neela’s, in the city of Napa, where she draws from many regions of the subcontinent’s vast gastronomy, including wonderful chaat (street food) like karari bhindi, crisp strands of okra seasoned with dried green mango powder; lamb kebab sliders served with goat cheese and tomato chutney; and a California Tandoori salad of chicken tikka on romaine lettuce dressed with cilantro and cumin.
Of course, every gourmet knows about Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, heralded for more than a decade as one of the finest restaurants in the world, with three Michelin stars. Tough to get into on short notice and very expensive, The French Laundry is worth the effort, but Keller also runs a darling French bistro called Bouchon and his newest contribution, Ad Hoc, a proudly American eatery serving a set meal every night for $52, which you should pray will include the best fried chicken you’ve ever eaten, along with whatever came out of Keller’s gardens that morning.
Napa Valley’s other star chef, Michael Chiarello, with numerous cookbooks and TV shows to his credits, opened Bottega, also in Yountville, where he contends, “The ingredients available today are twice as good as they were in the 1990s, so the dynamic has really changed.” In this large California casual dining room, with a great bar lounge, Chiarello is presenting a sumptuous encounter with Cal-Ital food, from the Italian sushi called crudo to the house-cured prosciutto and salumi. His pastas are nonpareil, like the lasagna layered with sweet-sour eggplant and goat cheese with a red pepper tomato sauce, arugula salad, and basil oil.
San Francisco is certainly the epicenter for Northern California’s marvelous food culture, much of it displayed in splendor at the Ferry Building Marketplace, where you can find the finest foods of every description, from Cowgirl Creamery’s Artisan Cheese Shop to the Hog Island Oyster Company, Prather Ranch Meat Co., even the Far West Fungi store, which carries every seasonal mushroom, along with truffles.
The city is also home to an increasing number of regional Mexican restaurants like Nopalito, located in a small parking lot and serving the kind of urban fare enjoyed in Mexican homes, with nothing costing more than $15 on the menu. Chefs José Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman grind their own masa and make fresh tortillas to go with the Taco de Pescado al Pastor of sturgeon with ancho chile, orange, and salsa de morita y tomatillo, and the Quesadilla con Flor de Calabaza filled with squash blossoms, zucchini, jack cheese, queso fresco, cilantro, and salsa de tomatillo y chile puya.
One of the biggest new restaurants in San Francisco is surely its smallest: Frances, named after chef-owner Melissa Perello’s grandma, is a tiny corner dining room with simple furniture and next to no décor, but it is packed nightly with locals and visiting foodies who come for the ever-changing menu of wholesome, delicious nibbles like her chickpea fritters and bacon beignets; appetizers like white corn soup with chanterelles and tomato; and entrees like her Lucky Dog Ranch bavette steak with squash and baked ricotta.
In the still scruffy Mission District, you’ll find the small plates storefront eatery Nombe (a Japanese word for a foodie, though in slang it also connotes a tippler) with a vast array — more than 90 — of sakes. Best thing to do here is just point to any item and lots of them, maybe grilled shishito peppers with tuna roe or grilled pork spare ribs with fiery Napa cabbage kimchee, maitake mushroom, and scallions. Or try the agemono fried dishes like Japanese eggplant with miso sauce, or the addictive chicken wings with honey and bite-back serrano chili sauce. You’re just not going to go wrong and you’ll probably learn a lot about sake if you’re up to it.
Across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley is a new restaurant I find fascinating for its direct appeal both to vegans and the rest of us, meaning that chef Sean Baker of Gather — whose roomy banquettes are made from discarded leather belts stitched together — offers one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve ever eaten, called the Artisanal Plate, a lavish assortment of exceptionally flavorful vegetables dressed lightly to bring out their pure essence — baby Yukon gold potatoes with celery and beans; a tomato sandwich with smoked garlic mayo; Tuscan rose eggplant with cashew “ricotta” and spicy puttanesca sauce with fennel pesto; and roasted corn on the cob with leeks and chili. All the veggies at Gather are extraordinary, but die-hard carnivores will eat just as well here, chowing down on grilled petrale sole, a burger with Sierra Nevada cheese and fries, and a terrific pizza with guanciale ham, roasted corn, jalapeño, ricotta, and mozzarella.
Ad Hoc: 6476 Washington St., Yountville, 707.944.2487, www.adhocrestaurant.com
Bottega: 6525 Washington St., Yountville, 707.945.1050, www.botteganapavalley.com
Frances: 3870 17th St., San Francisco, 415.621.3870, www.frances-sf.com
Gather: 2200 Oxford St., Berkeley, 510.809.0400, www.gatherrestaurant.com
Neela's: 975 Clinton St., Napa, 707.226.9988, www.neelasnapa.com
Nombe: 2491 Mission St., San Francisco, 415.681.7150, www.nombesf.com
Nopalito: 306 Broderick St., San Francisco, 415.437.0303, www.nopalitosf.com
Frankie’s Peanut Brittle
Frances, San Francisco
2 cups sugar
1 cup white corn syrup
1/2 cup cold water
1 teaspoon butter
3 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups raw peanuts
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Butter a cookie sheet and set aside.
In a large, heavy saucepan, bring sugar, water, and corn syrup to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil until mixture reaches hard-ball stage or 295 degrees on a candy thermometer.
Add peanuts and cook until deep golden brown — don’t scorch. Remove pan from heat. Add butter and vanilla extract. Add baking soda, stirring just long enough to mix.
Pour mixture onto buttered cookie sheet and spread into an even layer. Let cool, then break into pieces and store in a tin can.
Beet Tartare with Almond-Horseradish Purée
For Beet Tartare
2 large beets
1 tablespoon parsley
2 teaspoons dried dill
2 teaspoons dried mint
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced red onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
For Almond-Horseradish Purée
1 cup almonds, blanched and sliced
1 cup water
¼ cup raw horseradish, shaved
1 teaspoon yeast
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roast beets in a baking dish with 2 cups of water, covered, until tender (about 45 minutes). Remove from baking dish, peel with knife, and set aside.
Once beets are cool, place in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Place beets in a mixing bowl and add herbs, minced onion, vinegar, mustard, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
To make almond-horseradish puree: In a food processor, grind almonds and horseradish. Add water, yeast, and lemon juice and purée until smooth.
To assemble: Place almond-horseradish puree on a plate and spoon beet tartare on top.
Honey and Togarashi Chicken Wings
Nombe, San Francisco
2 cups toasted Japanese short grain rice
3/4 cup cornstarch
3/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 pounds chicken wings, separated
1 quart buttermilk
1½ cups honey
1½ cups fresh lime juice
¾ cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
½ cup mint, torn
½ cup scallion greens, chopped
½ cup serrano chilis with seeds, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon ichimi togarashi (Japanese hot pepper) or red chili powder
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
3 tablespoons salt
To make rice flour: Grind rice in a food processor until it is a fine powder. Mix together with cornstarch, flour, and salt. Set aside.
Soak wings for 12 hours in buttermilk inside refrigerator.
Mix all remaining ingredients except mint and cilantro.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drain the buttermilk from soaked chicken wings and allow wings to drain for 10 minutes in a strainer.
Toss wings with rice flour mixture, then immediately place on sheet pans covered with parchment paper.
Bake wings in oven for 20 minutes or until they are cooked through and flour mixture on the outside of the chicken is dry. Allow wings to cool to room temperature after cooking before placing in the refrigerator for storage (the wings can be kept for 4 days — freezing is not recommended).
To serve the wings, fry in a deep fryer at 350 degrees for 3 to 4 minutes until the outside of the wings is golden brown and crispy, and the inside is hot. Toss with the sauce and herbs in a mixing bowl.