Sunday, May 30, 2010

Saké and Small Plates at Izakaya Sozai

Izakaya Sozai in the Sunset district of San Francisco opened just last February and is already packing it in nightly. On a lark, Amy and I walked in tonight without a reservation, jostled against the waiting crowd and got a table without a wait! It was meant to be.

Bamboo carafe of extra dry saké ($17) served chilled. Excellent start!

We can't resist this pair of yakitori specials. Grilled Pork Jowl with miso paste ($5.50) and Grilled Duck with port wine sauce ($6.50). Very tasty bar food. Gone in seconds

Ritsu Tonkotsu Ramen ($8) with pork belly ($2) and spicy miso ($1.50). Good, but we expected better, so a bit of a letdown.

Maitake Fritters with truffle salt ($7). Crunchy, rich, perfectly seasoned. Delicious, especially with the dry saké!

Yaki Onigiri ($3). We never fail to order onigiri when we see it on the list, this version is very good, already seasoned and tasty.

Tofu "steak" and Assorted Mushrooms ($7). Served on small sizzling plate. A brilliant concoction. Intense and "meaty".

Interesting restaurant, pretty hip. A Japanese take on the aperitivo habit, though izakayas have been doing it for a while. I'll be back for more. The Sunset corridor is a threat to the Mission scene. All good for sure!

Izakaya Sozai
1500 Irving
San Francisco, CA 94122
5:30pm - 10pm Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs
5:30pm - 11pm Fri, Sat
Closed - Tues

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Barolo Lessons

We celebrated a good friend's birthday last night with a Piemonte theme at a most Piemontese restaurant in San Francisco, Perbacco Ristorante.

To start, we uncorked a 2004 Spumante Extra Brut from Barolo legend Bruno Giacosa. The all Pinot Nero sparkler was magnificent, bone dry and full, it unfolded with a Chablis-like finesse. This was another side of Giacosa's greatness.

The evening's highlight, though, was a side-by-side treat of Giacomo Borgogno's Barolo Riserva 1958 and 1961. Both were great vintages and drank beautifully. We debated which was better. I initially preferred the '58, it was sweet, rustic, superbly elegant, and altogether just charming. At 52 years-old, one couldn't hope for more. But my fondness for the '61 grew, it was a completely different wine. More muscular, structured, upright, with the fruit showing a youthful brightness. Our sommelier pronounced it, "bello".

I flip-flopped between the two wines. In the end, I thought, no matter how great each wine is, it doesn't have what the other has. But together we had a complete experience! So the moral then is, don't drink just one great Barolo, drink two.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

California Cherries

Today I got very excited to see the first cherries of the season arrive at my local farmers' market in Millbrae. I always look forward to these two women, hardy cherry farmers, park their truck on Saturdays during spring. They don't have a lot of cherry trees so their crops sell out only after about five weeks or so.

The first ones out are the Burlats. Then the Rainiers and Bings follow. The sweet, golden Rainiers are the crowd favorites, but mine are the Bings--big, crunchy, and tart--I guess this reflects the same preference I have in wine, as I go for the crisp, mineral, high-acid Chablis, rather than for the buttery, oaky, sweet Rombauer-type Chardonnay.

After picking up my weekly ration of cherries, I head to my favorite vegetable farmer to grab sugar peas, fresh-cut onions, bokchoy, chinese lettuce, upo, and bunches of lemon grass, cilantro, and kangkong. What supermarket would have all these?!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Heirloom Café: The Mission's New Wine Bistro

The foodie-driven gentrification of San Francisco's Mission neighborhoods shows no letup. In the past century, it was writers and artists who colonized blighted urban corners at places like Greenwich Village, SoHo, and North Beach. Today, in San Francisco, young, inspired restaurateurs flock to the Mission to open up hipster food joints.

The latest in this parade is Heirloom Café, a project by Matt Straus, a young sommelier from L.A. who cut his teeth at Wilshire and Grace. I was there last night at a closed-door soft opening, and he mentioned that the new 48-seat bistro will open Tuesday, May 11th. What sets off Heirloom from other trendy food establishments in the Mission--Flour + Water, Bar Bambino, Beretta, Delfina--is it's definitely not, yet another Italian joint, but a wine bistro with a cuisine that's decidedly Californian-- fresh, local ingredients that are simply cooked. The menu recalls an Il Cane Rosso or even a Chez Panisse-light, with prices that are very, very reasonable. Apparently, the bistro's model is, whip up some nice, simple food but priced them low and make up the margins with the wines.

The main draw will be Matt's cellar, reportedly numbering over 3,000 bottles and consisting heavily of Burgundy, California, Italian, Loire, and German wines, with vintages stretching back several decades. He told me that it took him the past eight years to put together the collection for his dream restaurant. I didn't have the chance to look at the list of the collection but the regular list is not too shabby, with bottles and by the glass selections of Vineyard Gate faves such as the 2008 Muscadet, Pepiere ($34); 2005 Pouilly-Fuisse "Les Menetrieres", Ferret ($80), 2003 Carema "Etichetta Bianca", Ferrando ($81); and 2008 Coenobium, Monasterio Suore Cistercensi ($39) the luscious "orange" wine by Bea.

And speaking of Bea, Giampiero Bea was with us last night as we tasted his spectacular range of avant-garde wines (more on this in a separate post). Actually, I think us folks in the wine trade where the main crowd.

Curiously, the bistro's corkage policy is slanted: $25/bottle for 2003 vintage and younger, but just $10/bottle for 2002 and older! I may have to bring a few bottles from the old stash to this place. However, there's a two-bottle limit per party. Sigh.

My starter plate of "roasted asparagus, salsa rustica" ($6) was crunchy and tasty, perfect with the 2008 Santa Chiara from Bea. If you're not sure about what to pair with asparagus, I guarantee you an "orange" wine like this from Bea is a perfect match.

My main was a mound of "orechiette, sausage, rapini, yellow eye beans, parmesan" ($7). I love it for the generous portion of well-spiced sausage. It's a meal! I definitely favored the earthier and less lifted 2005, than the 2006, San Valentino from Bea with this dish. The wine is a blend of 70% Sangiovese and 30% Montepulciano and Sagrantino.

Owner Matt Straus and Giampiero Bea. And by the way, that's the plate of "roasted halibut, ramps, English peas, cauliflower puree" in front of Giampiero. It's part of the $25 3-course menu, with matching glasses of wine for the starter and the main.

The kitchen, tidying up after the first night of service.

I like the vibe of this new bistro. Casual and airy. The place, in a corner spot, where Folsom Street and 21st Street meet, has high-ceilings and plenty of room for just 48 seats, but it's definitely a noise chamber, especially if you're at the long table in the middle of the room. Parking is a challenge in this mainly residential neighborhood, but when you do get to the bistro all that is forgotten.

Heirloom Café
2500 Folsom Street (at 21st Street)
San Francisco, CA
Opening for dinner on Tuesday May 11th