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Chief Food Critic Josh Sens Picks His 10 Favorite Meals of the Year

From micro-seasonal tasting menus to perfect pita and classic cooking that speaks for itself.

SLIDESHOW

The first course in a meal at
SingleThread, “Early Summer in Sonoma County,” presented on a bed of moss and rocks.

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SingleThread’s kitchen team in action.

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A stir-fried noodle dish sizzles on the flattop at Nyum Bai, a Cambodian food stall at the revamped Emeryville Public Market.

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Nite Yun, Nyum Bai’s chef-owner.

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Read more from the August 2017 Food Issue here.


As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart
once said of hardcore porn, I can’t define precisely what makes greatness in a restaurant, but I know it when I see it. I care relatively little about “handcrafted” cocktails (a good old old-fashioned is good enough for me) and even less about trendy atmospherics. I’m no happier in a farmhouse eating foie gras than I am in a dim basement slurping pho. Innovation’s nice, but even the wildest culinary pyrotechnics are rarely more appealing than a classic dish done extremely well. In general, I’ve found, the shorter the menu, the better the food. The same laws of simplicity apply to service. Fancy can be fine, but when exchanges with waitstaff become white-tablecloth formal, I’d rather take a number at the counter. I’ve got a soft spot for mom-and-pop shops, but that doesn’t mean deep pockets can’t produce sweet places—so long as they’re smart enough to hire an impassioned chef. For every rule, of course, there are exceptions, which means that I should stop blathering and reframe my definition as a list: Here, my 10 favorite restaurants of the past year.

1. SingleThread
Just as there are microgreens, so are there micro-seasons—72 of them, to be precise. So says Kyle Connaughton, the exacting chef—nay, the year’s best chef—whose menu shifts in sync with the fleeting natural cycles that his wife, Katina, observes at the restaurant’s nearby farm. Ingredients captured at their short-lived peak become the building blocks of an 11-course prix fixe that is at once intensely local and deeply influenced by Japan (and, at $225 per diner, exceptionally expensive). In the midst of constant change, what holds throughout the year is Connaughton’s reliance on clay pots called donabes, with which he makes such subtle wonders as slow-roasted black cod with romanesco, leeks, and slivered matsutake. Though some moments struck me as unintended satire—for a wagyu beef course, a server offered me a choice of steak knives made with steel recycled from a 1968 Volkswagen—mostly what I felt was astonished admiration. 131 North St. (at Center St.), Healdsburg, 707-723-4646

2. The Morris
A lot of us lump restaurants into one of two categories: destination dining or neighborhood haunt. The Morris qualifies as a bit of both. On the one hand, it’s as kick-back as your favorite corner hangout, with a terrific house-ground burger that isn’t on the menu but is always in the offing; you simply have to know to ask. On the other, this is cooking I’d be happy to cross town for, prepared with playfulness and precision by Coi veteran Gavin Schmidt. His distinctive dishes include chicken-and-foie-gras dumplings ($3 each), delivered in a shallow pool of dashi; shrimp-and-avocado toasts touched with fresh tarragon ($5 each); and a smoked and roasted duck for two or four people ($48/$96) that is rightly regarded as the kitchen’s calling card. Throw in a 4,500-bottle collection amassed by sommelier-owner Paul Einbund, and the Morris deserves its own category: the kind of destination restaurant every neighborhood should have. 2501 Mariposa St. (near Hampshire St.), 415-612-8480

3. China Live
Given that the build-out cost owner George Chen a reported $20 million, I’m not sure that this grand culinary market (the Eataly of Chinese food, some have called it) will pay off. But I know that a meal here is money well spent. Operating at the scruffy edge of Chinatown, the thrumming restaurant at the heart of China Live provides a superb primer on an ancient and boundlessly diverse cuisine. There are lots of ways to go—dim sum, braises, stir-fries, roasts—but if I were going back tonight, I’d start with the preserved “century” egg ($8), adorned with roasted red peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, before moving on to steamed dumplings ($9) that are like translucent purses stuffed with gingery pork. With a menu that ranges from Peking duck ($19) to a bracing scallop-and-cuttlefish tonic ($25), the restaurant strikes a nimble balance between comfort and adventure. 644 Broadway (near Grant Ave.), 415-788-8188

4. Nyum Bai
Some 20-odd years ago, when I was a cub reporter working in a nearby office, the Emeryville Public Market was where I went for Southeast Asian food and indigestion. In the decades since, this once-forlorn emporium has come a lot farther than my career. Of its chic new stands, my favorite is this sharply focused Cambodian outpost, where Nite Yun conjures the sweet and tangy contrasts and opposing textures of the home cooking she enjoyed as a kid. Her concise menu rotates often but routinely features the likes of short rib curry and a refreshing lime-and-fish-sauce-seasoned chicken salad ($11), tossed with a garden’s worth of cilantro and mint. One item hasn’t changed: kuy teav Phnom Penh ($11), a rice noodle soup with pork, crispy garlic, and a terrific limey twang. A nostalgic dish for Yun, it makes me wish I were still working in the hood. 5959 Shellmound St. (at Powell St.), Emeryville

5. August 1 Five
Currents washing north from Silicon Valley have had a profound sway on our dining scene, resulting in the rise of hyperefficient fast-casual restaurants and meal delivery services aimed at busy bees who like to pretend they know how to cook. But the Valley’s influence isn’t all bleak. Consider what we owe to Hetal Shah, the ex-Googler behind this modern Indian restaurant with a menu as bold as its peacock-themed decor. Shah is not a chef, so she outsourced those duties to Manish Tyagi, an Amber India vet whose disruptive dishes include rice-lentil-and-goat-cheese arancini ($11) and tandoori sea bass swathed in lemon foam ($34). With flavors as bright as the presentations, this is food as good to eat as it is to Instagram. 524 Van Ness Ave. (at Redwood St.), 415-771-5900

6. Khai
If you often find prix fixe dining a shade too precious, let me suggest a place whose offbeat charm calls to mind a scrappy pop-up, in part because that’s kind of what it is. By day the address functions as a soup-and-sandwich shop. But at night Khai Duong arrives, pulls a curtain across the room, and prepares a 10-course tasting menu ($95) that turns a modern lens on his native Vietnam. You sense you’re in for something special when the first dish arrives—a white seaweed salad trapped, snow globe–style, in a tiny bell jar—and that suspicion is confirmed as the parade continues: smoked beef tartare with kumquats, grilled butterfish with sautéed dill and scallions, and on toward a dessert of crepe-like coconut wraps stuffed with durian paste. The pride that Duong expresses while presenting dishes (“I make this food with very special flavors”) is all the more endearing because I happen to agree. 655 Townsend St. (near 8th St.), 415-724-2325

7. Reem's
The pocket bread that supermarkets try to pass off as pita is the baked-goods version of a taxidermy trophy: It looks the part but lacks the vital quality of the real thing. I was reminded of this at Reem’s, an Arab bakery near the Fruitvale BART station. Here warm, pliant pita is plucked straight off the saj, a domed griddle. Pop one open and out wafts its yeasty essence. The aroma stirs your senses like a pleasant dream. The saj is also the source of a flatbread called man’oushe, which is delicious on its own but more magical still when dipped in housemade hummus, or dusted with za’atar, or wrapped around roast chicken with sumac and onions or Armenian beef sausage and mozzarella. These are counter-service meals you can’t soon forget. 3301 E. 12th St. (near 33rd Ave.), Ste. 133, Oakland, 510-852-9390

8. In Situ
Before I had my brush with this brainy concept in the remade SFMOMA, I worried that it might be like a lot of modern art: fawned over by sophisticates, but too enigmatic for a simpleton like me. Those hesitations vanished with my first bite of a spicy pork-and-rice-cake combo ($24) that originally appeared at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York but had made its way west like a traveling exhibition. As dreamed up by Corey Lee, the French Laundry alumnus who went on to launch Benu, In Situ doesn’t merely pay respect to great chefs around the world. It copies them outright, replicating their dishes and announcing them on menus that are printed in the style of a museum brochure. What sounds dangerously contrived turns out to be delightfully approachable dining. Take a contemporary work like Octopus and the Coral ($24), an entrée first created by the Peruvian maestro Virgilio Martinez, who represents coral with squid ink crackers and dehydrated egg-white crisps. Aficionados could spend entire evenings discussing such a dish, but all you really need to say is “Damn, that’s good.” 151 3rd St. (near Natoma St.), 415-941-6050

9. Nightbird
I’ve followed Kim Alter for a long time, tracking her moves from esteemed Manresa in the South Bay to the underappreciated Plate Shop in Sausalito, then on to Plum and Haven, a pair of Oakland restaurants owned by Daniel Patterson. In this silly age of celebrity chefs, Alter has carved a nicely contrarian path, going about her work with quiet confidence, respected by her peers but widely unrecognized by spotlight watchers, content to let her cooking speak for itself. Nightbird is her long-awaited solo project, and it’s a sweet expression of what she’s all about. Throughout her five-course prix fixe menu ($125), Alter turns out elegantly understated dishes like tomato-and-oyster salad splashed with dashi and rabbit roulade, wrapped in smoky bacon and then garnished with grilled peaches and goosed with vadouvan. Every now and then, the chef emerges from the kitchen to serve dishes herself, pausing here and there for brief, hushed conversations. She cuts a shy profile, but Nightbird is in many ways the boldest of projects: a very worthy restaurant that doesn’t try to call attention to itself. 330 Gough St. (at Linden St.), 415-829-7565 

10. The Kebabery
No disrespect to haute technique or highfalutin kitchen training, but it’s hard to do much better than grilled meat on a stick. What I like about this counter-service spin-off from the folks behind Camino is the way it sticks so purely to its primal strength: skewers, cooked over a charcoal fire. There are only three to choose from—chicken, lamb, or king trumpet mushroom—along with a short list of well-considered sides, like shredded carrots, mashed beets, and shoestring fries. Your kebab comes with two salads, pickles, yogurt, and a tangle of fresh herbs, as well as your pick of lentils or flatbread. The chicken tastes of lemon. The mushrooms are earthy. And the lamb, a ground mix of shoulder and belly, is shot through with traces of ginger and cumin. There are craft beers on tap and great seats at the counter, from which you can watch the cooks tending to the flames like cavemen gone to culinary school. 4201 Market St. (at 42nd St.), Oakland, 510-922-1601

  

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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