From Sonoma duck ragout to creamy chestnut soup; culinary cheer for the chills
APPETITE As we arrive at the end of 2011, here are a few dishes of soothing comfort for a winter's night from four under-the-radar places.
EGG NOODLES IN A JAPANTOWN CULINARY RESPITE
Bushi-Tei (1638 Post, SF. 415-440-4959, www.bushi-tei.com) has long been one of my underrated restaurant picks. There's much to love in the two-tiered space lined in rugged Japanese woods, with 18-foot communal table, and ever-sure conversation starter: Japanese toilets in the bathrooms (air dryers and seat warmers!)
When I heard new chef Michael Hung Jardiniere and pastry chef Yuko Fujii of Fifth Floor were coming aboard, I hoped the refined French Japanese cuisine would remain intact. I was delighted after a couple visits to see Hung has married comfort and intricacy, inventiveness and tradition. Tasting menus are $55, or $8-18 starters, $17-27 main courses.
Tak and Keiko Matsuba thankfully still run the restaurant: they're among the most adorable husband-wife teams I've met. They bring a gentle passion to each aspect of the place, including Tak's thoughtful wine pairings, like an Alsace Riesling with fish or sake with noodles.
There's a Sunday brunch offering elegant bowls of egg noodles in Sonoma duck ragout or Haiga rice porridge laced with salt-roasted albacore tuna and a poached farm egg. A small serving of grilled Monterey calamari ($8) in a ginger bourride (a stew made with egg yolk and garlic) impresses with nuanced sauce and juicy squid.
Memorable dinner dishes include tataki of Hawaiian albacore ($12), a delicate, sashimi-style starter over black sesame aioli. Handmade egg noodles ($17) steal the show from worthy entrees like roasted Kurobuta pork Nabemono (Japanese stew). Hung makes his egg noodles with egg and soda, and at a recent dinner tossed them in brown butter cauliflower and hatcho miso, a miso from South Central Japan.
Fujii shows her skills in a unique dessert of Kabocha squash and matcha mochi dotting a coconut tapioca broth. Dense and warm, it is thankfully unsweet and richly satisfying, its three lush bean pastes — red bean, green tea, squash — the shining finish.
Post-dinner, Tak offers a pour of Denshin "Yuki" Junmai Ginjo sake brewed by Ippongi Kubohonten Co. He spoke of its cowboy boot, kimono-wearing sake maker whose area of Japan, Fukui, was hit hard by the recent earthquake. Matsuba loves to support such producers, welcoming them when they are in the States. We're lucky to have this haven of pristine East-West cuisine in our city.
EGG YOLK AND RICOTTA RAVIOLI AT A COZY NOB HILL SPOT
Seven Hills (1550 Hyde, SF. 415-775-1550, www.sevenhillssf.com) is one of those neighborhood favorites many outside the 'hood aren't aware of. An Italian spot run by French natives(?), it's a mellow respite for conversation with caring service. I enjoy the pasta most, especially in the form of a signature ravioli uovo ($9.50) filled with ricotta, spinach, and oozing Full Belly Farm egg yolk. In a light pool of brown butter and white truffle oil, it flirts with decadence. Spaghetti ($9.50/$19) is a heartwarming bowl (conveniently in two sizes) dotted with French Grandpa George's recipe of plump fennel sausage, caramelized onions, and bell peppers in tomato sauce.
CHESTNUT SOUP IN A TINY FRENCH BISTRO