Even while it was happening, most of us who monitor San Francisco's restaurant scene recognized that 2010 was a peak year. The city's tepid tolerance for avant-garde flavors and techniques gave way to enthusiasm, and it became clear that Bay Area chefs were synthesizing a more innovative approach to Californian cuisine.
So I wasn't surprised, looking over my reviews from 2011, to find it resembled the settling-in period that inevitably follows a new romance — that point when the endorphins aren't pinging around your body and marathon dates give way to comfortable routines. While higher-end chefs continued to think through this new California cuisine, it was also a big year for burgers, barbecue, ramen, and fried chicken. The food trucks that began dominating blog posts and Twitter feeds in 2010 continued proliferating, as did popups, crêpe-and-boba dessert cafes, and self-defined izakayas. The year's greatest pleasures may have been quieter ones, but they were no less satisfying. Here are five of the dishes that lodged in my memory.
5. Veal tongue salad with celery and olives at Locanda
557 Valencia (at 17th St.), 863-6800, www.locandasf.com
When braised forever and sliced just so, tongue can be one of the most elegant parts of the body, culinarily speaking. Take, for instance, Anthony Strong's impeccable Roman-inspired tongue salad. Paper-thin shavings of close-grained, silky meat undulated across the plate, intertwining with thinly sliced celery and tiny purple olives. The meat was drizzled with just enough salsa verde to give it a bright, herbaceous shimmer. The delicacy of the dish, and its ubiquity on tables across the dining room, offered proof that offal's transgressive, black-metal reputation has finally faded. It's not a dare, it's dinner.
4. Apricot-cherry pie from Butter Love Bakeshop
Pie will never be the new cupcake. Too humble for most high-end places, too difficult for restaurants without pastry chefs to produce, it's a dessert meant to be mastered at home — which is why pie is the perfect dish for small-scale bakers. The best of a new crop of pie-bakers appearing at popups and on street corners is Butter Love Bakeshop's Esa Yonn-Braun. She bakes pies for delivery only, arriving at your office while the box is still warm and the juices beading up through the holes in the crust still glisten. Her apricot-cherry pie wasn't just memorable for its crust, which dissolved into molecule-thin flakes of pastry each time I cut into it, but for its vivid filling, as descriptive of mid-June as a page from the Farmers' Almanac.
3. Clay pot rice with Chinese bacon and spareribs at Ma's Dim Sum Cafe
1315 Powell (at Broadway), 788-3532
In June this year, I began a column on SFoodie, SF Weekly's food blog, titled "Rice Plate Journal," for which I've been canvassing Chinatown, block by block, bakery by dim sum shop. The goal is to survey a restaurant scene dismissed by many San Franciscans, who argue that the best Cantonese food has moved out to the Avenues and the suburbs. I can't say yet that the detractors are wrong, but at least once a month I come across a dish like the clay pot rice at Ma's Dim Sum Cafe. Most of the restaurant's customers wait 15 minutes for one of the clay pots, then spend another half-hour slowly eating their way from the tender spareribs on the top down to the crust of rice baked onto the sides of the pot. My favorite version is perfumed with Chinese bacon, whose fat melts into the rice and coats the grains, and a soy-and-wine sauce that you squirt onto the top just before eating.
2. Piccino's semolina gnocchi with roast summer squash, olives, and a farm egg
1001 Minnesota (at 22nd St.), 824-4224, www.piccinocafe.com
If the naughts were the decade of the pig, where lardo and trotters became as familiar to American diners as they are in Shanghai and Modena, the tens belong to the vegetable. Some of the best dishes I've eaten all year have been entirely vegetarian, or so focused on produce that the meat was an afterthought. Rachel Silcocks, Piccino's new chef, is composing vegetable-centric dishes so delicately balanced it's no slam to say that salads are some of her top dishes. There was a roasted cauliflower, farro, and roasted almond salad, for instance, that's haunted me more persistently than a Rihanna song. But Silcocks' signature dish right now is her semolina gnocchi, a square of a baked wheat porridge smothered in oven-caramelized roast squash, a pungent olive sauce, and an egg whose yolk gilds and enriches the dish wherever it flows.
1. Smoked mullet roe on buckwheat toast from Bar Tartine
561 Valencia (at 16th St.), 487-1600, www.bartartine.com
When I think of the menu that most piqued my curiosity this year, it would have to be the one at Bar Tartine, now that Nick Balla has taken over the kitchen. The former chef at Nombe and O Izakaya is now mining his memories of a youth spent in Hungary for inspiration, yet Balla's chicken paprikas and sour-cherry soup are as unfamiliar to Hungarians as they are to the rest of us, infused as they are with his Japanese training and the near-infinite varieties of local produce. Balla's house-cured mullet roe may be the dish I remember most distinctly, with thick slices of translucent gold roe that the chef's uncle ships him from Florida. Dense, creamy, and tinged with a faint minerality, the roe was cosseted by a thick smear of unsalted butter and checked by the biting crunch of fresh radish coins and the deep char of toasted buckwheat-laced bread — baked by Bar Tartine owner Chad Roberston, of course. It's some of the most personal and innovative food around, an interesting life translated into fascinating food.