Food writer Virginia Miller introduces her new weekly column in the Guardian -- and gives us her favorite restaurant openings of the year
APPETITE My adventures in food and drink have been the subject of my SFBG Appetite column for nearly three years online at SFBG.com. As of last month, you now also find me in print every week. Many have asked where I am going with this column — some expecting a formal weekly review, others a mix of subjects and directions. The latter is true. I cannot replace former Guardian food critic Paul Reidinger's eloquence and decades-long experience as a food writer (and I'm glad to say we will continue to hear from him in various articles). I take this opportunity to explain where I've come from and my philosophy in covering the edible world.
First and foremost, I bring to the table passion. From mostly Italian and German stock, I've eaten heartily since early childhood in Oklahoma and Missouri, 16 total years of my youth in Southern California and New Jersey (just outside LA and NYC respectively), and travel over five continents. As an incessant reader and writer since girlhood, books first opened me up to the world, though I dreamed of having my own adventures to write about. Moving to San Francisco a decade ago, I was wowed not only by its unique, radiant beauty, but by the consistent quality of food, spending spare dollars eating out constantly. Though SF wasn't the immediate love affair for me New York was, it is a love that has only increased each year, the home I would happily end up in. This city still takes my breath away.
Patricia Unterman's original San Francisco Food Lover's Guide was my food bible in those early days. I connected with her quest for the authentic, no matter the cuisine. I ate my way through neighborhoods, marking up her book (and all my dining guides) until I had been to every single restaurant, market, and bar in its pages. Eventually, requests asking me where to go and what to eat reached a fever pitch, so my husband (and partner in taste and travel) helped create my own humble website, The Perfect Spot, to share my reviews and finds. I've been sending out a bi-weekly newsletter for nearly four years based on my writings for the site. I also write for an ever-increasing number of magazines and websites.
"Diet," "lowfat," and "hold the cream" are words you'll never hear me say. My hunger for food as adventure means I make it a goal to have no food prejudices. Many say, "I'll try anything once," but my philosophy is to keep trying anything I don't like until I do. The food may not have been prepared properly; it was perhaps of poor quality; maybe the palate wasn't quite ready for it — dishes still deserve to be known at their best. I spent years trying to overcome my aversion to uni (sea urchin), for example. Eating chef David Bazigran's brilliant uni flan at Fifth Floor early this year was a revelation. I realized it was uni's texture, not its of-the-sea flavor, turning me off. I've enjoyed uni ever since, though only when ultra-fresh. From personal experience, I know one can change one's abhorrence of a food, and in so doing expand one's horizons another inch, uncovering another of life's simple delights.
Sometimes fear arises around unfamiliar foods — and the unfamiliar in general. Without variety and a vast range of expression, the world loses it color — and its joy. While sameness can be comforting (and there's a time for that), it is entirely boring. To go through any part of life bored or complacent is simply lazy. As with music or books, one can discover unknown lands with a few new ingredients, enlivened by the hands of a gifted, caring chef. Whether food cart or fine dining, there's no reason to settle for mediocrity, not with the unreal produce, vision, and talent surrounding us.
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.
Hot Sauce and Panko 1545 Clement, SF. (415) 387-1908, www.hotsauceandpanko.com . With an impressive array of hot sauces from around the world, addictive chicken wings in a crazy range of sauces (tequila-chipotle-raspberry jam!), this quirky take-out also has a hilarious blog.
Mission Cheese 736 Valencia, SF. www.missioncheese.net . Mission Cheese serves not only lush cheeses and wines, but some of the best grilled cheese sandwiches around in a chic cafe setting.
Bar Tartine 561 Valencia, SF. (415) 487-1600, www.bartartine.com . Though not a new opening, I refer to the complete revamp and Eastern European-influenced menu under chef Nick Balla that happened this year. Unusual dishes, Hungarian and beyond, and Balla's impeccable technique make this menu unlike any other.
Boxing Room 399 Grove, SF. (415) 430-6590, www.boxingroomsf.com . It's refreshing to get some New Orleans breezes in SF from a Louisiana chef making his own Creole cream cheese and frying up fresh alligator.
Nojo 231 Franklin, SF. (415) 896-4587, www.nojosf.com . We've had a glut of izakayas open over the past few years, but this one stands above in warm, hip atmosphere and consistently delightful food.
Park Tavern 1652 Stockton, SF. (415) 989-7300, www.parktavernsf.com . From the owners of Marlowe, this immediately feels like the buzzing destination restaurant of Washington Square Park for satisfying American food with gourmet edge.
Jasper's Corner Tap 401 Taylor, SF. (415) 775-7979, www.jasperscornertap.com . All things to all people: comfortable meet-up spot with perfect cocktails, craft beers and wines aplenty, and the food is consistently heartwarming.