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Fresh Eats: Our weekly roundup of SFoodie news 

Wednesday, Oct 6 2010

At L'Osteria del Forno, Small Is Still Beautiful

By Jonathan Kauffman

When Wally Tettamanti and Susanna Borgatti opened L'Osteria del Forno in the early 1990s, it was a curiosity. A restaurant with only an oven? An Italian place that barely served pasta? And what was this milk-braised pork the owners kept recommending we try? Still, the house-baked focaccia — a basket of it brought to your table, warm and crisp, flecked with salt — was a revelation to many, and the prices matched the scale of the minuscule space.

Tettamanti and Borgatti tried running a larger restaurant at 16th and Guerrero for a time, but closed it after three years. L'Osteria, like the Dude, endures.

The pictures, maps, and copper pans on the wall haven't moved in 20 years. The yellow walls are exactly the same shade. There are still the same mix of tourists and locals who regard the place as an insider's secret. Menu prices have definitely risen, but many of the same dishes that I remember eating in my early 20s are still there — beef carpaccio, roasted peppers, baked polenta — all served humbly, without the slightest attempt to make them look like special-occasion food.

The milk-braised pork wasn't on the menu when I showed up for lunch recently, but my old favorite, roasted radicchio wedges wrapped in prosciutto, was. It's a little pricey these days ($9 for three wedges) but still wonderful: The heat softens the leaves of purple chicory, bringing out an earthiness you wouldn't anticipate if you'd only encountered them raw in a salad mix. The prosciutto aids the transformation, shrinking and crisping into a meaty shell, and so does the herb-flecked mayonnaise we swabbed the radicchio through.

A salad of tuna and white beans could have used more salt and lemon, but the lunatico sandwich (salami, roasted peppers, lettuce and tomato) was just as appealing as ever, due primarily to the airy, crisp focaccia. It was a good sandwich, nothing more — but nothing less. Which is why I've been going to L'Osteria for almost 20 years.

L'Osteria del Forno: 519 Columbus (at Stockton), 982-1124.

Cheap Wines That Don't Suck: 2009 McManis Viognier

By Brant Foehl

The sheer number of crisp white wines capable of cooling an Indian summer day can be overwhelming, sometimes expensive, and not always rewarding. As much as the Cakebreads, Duckhorns, and Sancerres of the world delight the palate, they tend to depress the wallet. But there are alternatives to shelling out $25 to $50 a bottle to beat the heat. Take Runquist winemaker Jeff Runquist's second label, McManis, which offers several varietals of exceptional quality.

McManis' 2009 Viognier is perfect for enjoying a bottle (or five) with friends on the patio. Coming in at a price point less than $10, it edges out the competition with crisp apricot and floral notes, and ripe citrus that seamlessly mingles with expressive acids and subtle minerals. It's 100 percent stainless-steel fermented, with a vibrant acidity that's an ideal complement to much of the food we eat in this city with guiltless abandon: Thai, Chinese, even sushi. Plus it's among the few wines that could enhance Indian food, without serving as a vehicle merely for quelling spice.

It's an easy find, a marvelous value, and an impressive release. So save your dollars for an extra order of chicken tikka masala.

2009 McManis Family Vineyards Viognier: $8.99 at the Wine Club, 953 Harrison (at Oak Grove); $9.99 at the Jug Shop, 1590 Pacific (at Polk).

Croissant Wars: Sandbox vs. Pâtisserie Philippe

By Jonathan Kauffman

As ubiquitous as croissants are in San Francisco, a stellar one is still hard to find. For a time in the 1990s, La Boulangerie was putting out pastries so flaky you held your breath around them for fear a stray exhale would make them collapse, but they haven't been the same since the bakery launched its Boulange de... chain. After that, a man who couldn't make it across the bay to La Farine would have to content himself with the stalwart, though often overbaked, croissants at Tartine and Delessio.

Two newish pastry shops have shown real prowess with laminated doughs: Pâtisserie Philippe, on Townsend and Eighth, and Sandbox Bakery in Bernal Heights. I drove from one bakery to the other recently to compare croissants side by side.

Visually, there was no contest: the Pâtisserie Philippe pastry ($2) was a mess compared to the precisely formed Sandbox croissant ($2.25), whose glossy layers were so clearly defined you could create a topical map of their heights.

In terms of taste, the competition was much closer. Both pastry chefs have impeccable credentials: Philippe Delarue is a Paris-trained pastry chef who opened his own place in 2007. Sandbox Bakery's owner, Mutsumi Takehara, started off at La Farine, then served as the pastry chef at Slanted Door for a decade before opening her own place this winter.

The nutty scent of browning butter was a shade more prominent in Delarue's croissant, the crack of teeth breaking through the outer shell a decibel louder. But in the end, the care that Takehara expended on rolling her croissants affected the way they tasted, too. Both pastries contained a swirl of air bubbles with tissue-thin walls, but Sandbox croissant was a half-inch loftier, and I could sense the individual layers more distinctly. Hell, I could see them — and feel them crackle and snap each time I bit into the croissant. It took a few seconds' more labor to brush the crumbs from Takehara's croissant off my lap. And for that reason, Sandbox gets the win.

EAT THIS: Rice Balls from Onigilly

By John Birdsall

Young dudes Kan Hasegawa and Koji Kanematsu noted Americans' bottomless appetite for the rainbow roll, but wondered why onigiri — seaweed-wrapped rice balls fused with fillings — were hard to find. So the Japanese expats gave birth to onigiri business Onigilly, nursing it to health through La Cocina's incubator program.

Onigilly graduated to toddler steps last week, as the two soft-launched their six-day-a-week pushcart in Justin Herman Plaza, part of Rec and Park's initiative to site food vendors on city commons.

On offer recently were Onigilly's three signature rice balls ($2.75 each, or two for $5), configured in the Lunch Set ($7): one with delicious slips of hijiki soaked in sweet soy, another with mashy-textured eggplant, and a third with bits of chicken thigh turned nicely vivid from grated ginger. Also in the box: quarter-wheels of pickled daikon and firm, small-bean edamame.

Tasty. And if anyone needs convincing that mobile food has the power to enhance public spaces while giving small entrepreneurs a wheel up? Just about the best argument the city could make now sets up daily (Sundays excepted) just across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building.

Onigilly: Justin Herman Plaza (Market and Embarcadero), Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

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