Food writer Virginia Miller introduces her new weekly column in the Guardian -- and gives us her favorite restaurant openings of the year
Internationally, I've fallen in love with black pudding in Ireland, extreme spice in Thailand, Tyrolean food in the Italian Alps. I've explored wine chateaus in Bordeaux, agave fields in Mexico, gin distilleries and cocktail labs in London, whisk(e)y houses in Scotland and Ireland. I've frequented restaurants, coffee havens, bars, chocolate shops, farmers markets everywhere. I sample obsessively and comparatively. Rather than one single review, I prefer to cover a mixture of highlights in any given week. I'm opinionated, yes, but don't care much for snark, flippancy, or jadedness. Though honest assessment is crucial, rather than rip apart the few not doing it well, I'd rather focus on the many having fun with or perfecting their craft.
My "holy trinity" of US cities for food and culture, though, consists of New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Travel is one of life's greatest gifts, yet when I cannot afford to go, I am able to travel in my own city. Authentic foods transport me back to the place in which that food was illuminated — anchovies on the coast of Italy, bastilla in Morocco, Creole cream cheese in New Orleans, or bahn mi in Vietnam. It helps to live in a place as international and cosmopolitan as SF. But even in nondescript towns, I uncover gems. The hunt is a key part of the thrill.
Besides travel, you'll notice I also write about drink... a lot. Whether coffee, spirits, and cocktails (my first love), wine and beer (the ultimate food accompaniments), my knowledge of drink grows along with the culinary. Even at 21, I wanted a grown-up atmosphere in which to imbibe, detesting noisy, crowded "scenes." Drink, for me, is similar to food: it's about quality, artistry, and adventure, not buzz or quick consumption. A memorable meal isn't complete without the right sip to begin, pair, or end with.
As with food, Northern California was instrumental in furthering my taste for fine drink, though global explorations have shaped my standards of comparison. It started with cocktails years ago as SF (and, of course, NYC) lead the way in reviving classics, and creating experimental, culinary drinks. The artistry and history behind these drinks intrigued me, connecting to my Old World, retro, jazz-loving self.
Delving into cocktails inevitably led to my great love of craft spirits, many of our country's trailblazers and innovators being based right here. (Thank you, St. George, Charbay, Germain-Robin, Anchor Distilling, et. al.) Our local Wine Country and craft beer pioneers like Fritz Maytag likewise have shaped the world, while local personalities such as Kermit Lynch and Rajat Parr in the wine realm are experts on global glories in drink.
What makes a great meal? Service, setting, and, of course, food are crucial. Ultimately, I see eating as a communal ritual. A thoughtfully-prepared meal surprises and nourishes the body and spirit. We engage (or should — put those cell phones away!) over a meal, reflect on our day, truly taste, actually look at and listen to each other. Expect me to share with you the best tastes and backdrops from these moments.
While I don't expect our tastes to be the same, I do look forward to embarking on delicious adventures together throughout the food realm. *
BEST NEW OPENINGS OF 2011
In the spirit of ushering in my print column, I recap the year with my list of 2011's best new openings, realizing we still have a few weeks worth of openings left:
Wise Sons Deli www.wisesonsdeli.com. Although not getting a brick and mortar location until 2012, this pop-up deli (every Tuesday at the Ferry Plaza) was one of the year's great new delights, filling a gaping vacancy of quality Jewish food with excellent babka, bialy, and corned beef.