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Travel Tip: San Francisco Dining

Harvey Steiman reports on three new standouts in the Bay Area restaurant scene

Harvey Steiman
Posted: May 29, 2012

With its vast natural resources, international influences and vital population, San Francisco, and the surrounding Bay Area, is one of the most exciting and evolved areas in the U.S. for fine dining. Wine Spectator editor Harvey Steiman checks in, with reports from AQ, El Paseo, and Keiko à Nob Hill. Although these three restaurants share connections, they could not be more different. Where AQ's exposed brick walls create a casual, boisterous atmosphere for precise cuisine, the rambling setting of El Paseo evokes a bygone day in both its atmosphere and food, while Keiko à Nob Hill aims for quiet elegance. Each one adds another welcome layer to the Bay Area dining scene.

1085 Mission St., San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 341-9000
Website: www.aq-sf.com
Open: Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday; brunch, Sunday
Cost: Entrées $25
Corkage: $25 per bottle, waived per purchase of bottle from list; limit 3 bottles
Credit cards: All major

What makes AQ San Francisco's most compelling new restaurant goes beyond the approach, which pushes seasonality to its limits by changing not only the menu but also the decor four times a year. It goes beyond the menu format, which prices all the appetizers the same—likewise first courses, main courses and desserts. No, it's the clarity, finesse and sheer deliciousness of chef Mark Liberman's food.

AQ opened on a remote stretch of Mission Street, in the shadow of the U.S. Courthouse, in November (with "Autumn"). On a late January visit, cardoons, cauliflower and kohlrabi spiked the "Winter" menu. Each element on every plate had clearly received loving care, each plate assembled with an eye to balance of color, shape, texture and flavor. Liberman uses modernist techniques such as sous-vide and gels, but his plates look utterly natural.

The roast chicken could give Zuni Café's legendary version a run for its money, sharing a plate with red kuri squash and black truffle. A first course, Parsnip Glazed with Maple, Day Boat Scallops, Caraway Seed and Mushrooms, presented a whole roasted parsnip, its sweetness matching three creamy scallops, as the mushrooms added an earthy contrast that made this dish work with red wine.

Sommelier Jesse Becker's wine list of 225 selections, mostly under $100, centers on California but touches on Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand, as eclectic as the ingredients on the menu. Liberman, who has manned stoves for Joël Robuchon and Daniel Boulud in Las Vegas and for Roland Passot at La Folie in San Francisco, likes to focus on underutilized ingredients. "I want to focus on items that aren't on other menus," he says. "Every restaurant in San Francisco does seasonal dishes, but we wanted to take it a step further."

El Paseo
17 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley
Telephone: (415) 388-0741
Website: www.elpaseomillvalley.com
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $17-$40 
Corkage: $25 per bottle, limit 2 bottles; $50 per bottle after that
Credit cards: All major

At El Paseo, chef Tyler Florence has fashioned a traditional approach, appropriate for a restaurant that dates to 1947. Located in Mill Valley, a Marin County bedroom community, El Paseo had become a serious wine destination over the years, holding a Wine Spectator Grand Award from 1987 to 2005. Florence and his wife, Tolan, who grew up in Mill Valley, partnered with rocker Sammy Hagar and his wife, Kari, who live there now, to buy the property in 2009. It took two years to restore the restaurant, which sprawls through a chain of cottagelike rooms around an open breezeway, to its original look. The chophouse menu, executed by chef Preston Clark (son of the late Patrick Clark) probably is more in keeping with founder Edna Foster's original than was the French cuisine of the past couple of decades.

The clear flavors at El Paseo emphasize local ingredients. The dishes also tend to be rich and hearty, as you might expect in a chophouse. Among my favorite dishes were Oysters Rockefeller, which combined sweet, creamy Pacific oysters with a spinach topping spiked with fennel pollen, and a beautifully braised beef short rib, a small mountain of meat over celery root puree. High marks to the creamed spinach and a smoky mac and cheese, too.

The extensive wine cellar departed with the previous owner, but Hagar, a wine collector himself, seeded the 200-wine list with older bottles from his personal stash, including magnums of Heitz Cabernet from the 1980s, Vega Sicilias back to 1987 and a tempting Ducru-Beaucaillou 1982. Most of the list focuses on classic names from California, such as Stony Hill and Kongsgaard, and France, such as Leflaive and Beaucastel, all at markups a bit steeper than most restaurants' these days.

Keiko à Nob Hill
1250 Jones St., San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 829-7141
Website: www.keikoanobhill.com
Open: Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost: Seven-course menu, $85, with wine pairings $170 and up; lounge menu, entrées $15-$24
Corkage: $40 per bottle, limit 2 bottles
Credit cards: All major

A goodly part of the old El Paseo wine list, as well as chef Keiko Takahashi, who earned a Michelin star for her work at El Paseo before it was sold, can now be found at Keiko à Nob Hill, which opened in late 2011. Chefs Ron Siegel and Melissa Perello both made their first big splashes in this space when it was Nob Hill restaurant. Keiko hasn't altered the look, still a cocoon of upholstered walls and a hushed, clubby atmosphere, and the chef's finesse is reminiscent of Siegel's and Perello's.

Whether it's a still-life salad of winter vegetables separated by black truffle slices, or a signature dish of seared foie gras with espresso sauce, offset by sweet potato puree, Takahashi sends out carefully crafted food that balances a sense of daring with the humility to keep it all in line. The extensive lounge menu, which has à la carte items ranging from sushi to fried chicken or beef tongue, offers a more casual alternative.

This food is catnip for wine, and the long list emphasizes older vintages over recent bottlings, not just of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but also California Cabernet and Chardonnay and California and Oregon Pinot Noir.

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