Appetite: 2012's top new restaurants brought surprise tastes, culinary depth
APPETITE The past year saw a number of openings I hope will be around for years to come — here is my list, in order, of my favorites. As ever, my goal is to include more affordable spots alongside midrange or upscale openings, considering range and uniqueness. It being December, I cannot strictly cover the calendar year so, with each choice open at least two months, the opening date range goes back to October 2011 for a full year.
The one California restaurant nominated for Best New Restaurant in the US at this year's James Beard Awards, AQ is my top selection for "the whole package." While I find the food at the next two restaurants listed below equally inspiring, AQ combines food from talented young chef Mark Liberman, reinvented in delightfully surprising ways (think flavors of a pastrami sandwich turned on its head as shaved lamb heart "pastrami" with zucchini bread and house Thousand Island dressing), alongside an inventive cocktail list and accomplished bar staff. I'm still dreaming of this summer's Maeklong Market Cocktail with a base of peanut-infused mekhong — a sugar cane, molasses, and rice-based Thai spirit — creamy with coconut milk, lime and kaffir lime leaves. As if this weren't enough, the wine list shines and decor is the crowning touch in a two-level space with sexy downstairs lounge for private parties, plus greenery, glassware, and a bar top that changes with the season. When I'm asked (constantly) where to go by locals and visitors, AQ easily fits the bill for delicious, forward-thinking cuisine with warm service: a destination for both food and drink, with thoughtful attention to the environs.
1085 Mission, SF. (415) 341-9000, www.aq-sf.com
2. STATE BIRD PROVISIONS
Since Bon Appetit named State Bird Provisions best new restaurant in America this year, none of us can get a reservation in the small, modest space with pegboard and stone walls (like dining in a funky family garage). What makes State Bird so special, besides efficient, engaging service and husband-wife team Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski's genuine welcome (they often greet diners themselves as they pass by the kitchen in the entrance), is that it's something truly different. Affordable, unique, and imaginative plates flowing out dim sum-style on carts and trays, ever playful and satisfying — a prime example of what makes SF's dining scene so exciting right now.
1529 Fillmore, SF. (415) 795-1272, www.statebirdsf.com
3. RICH TABLE
From another husband-wife duo, Evan and Sarah Rich's Rich Table could easily be number one for food alongside State Bird and AQ. All three restaurants boast an uncommon vision in their cooking — Rich Table's is one of an upscale nature in comfort food garb. Presentation can be exquisite, but the dishes gratify and assuage rather than feel fussy. Getting past the (worthy) din about those sardine-laced potato chips to start, pastas are unexpectedly one of the restaurant's highlights, a duck lasagne layered with braised duck, light béchamel, and tart Santa Rosa plums, easily standing out as one of the best dishes of the year. Though short and sweet, the 4-5 cocktails on offer (now being updated by brand new bar manager Jason "Buffalo" LoGrasso from Cotogna) are clean, simple-yet-vivid stars in their own right.
199 Gough, SF. (415) 355-9085, www.richtablesf.com