Category Archives: Favorite American restaurants

Grillades & Grits, Brenda’s French Soul Food (SF)

Like my earlier review, Brenda’s is the most authentic and delicious Creole and Cajun dishes I’ve found beyond Louisiana in seriously a long time. The fact they have grillades & grits for brunch, and all the dishes cost $10 or less…man, this is a little treasure indeed.

Grillades & Grits, Brenda's French Soul Food (SF)

Grillades & Grits, Brenda’s French Soul Food (SF)

Grillades can be made from beef round steak, or sometimes veal or pork, depending on the local corner store butcher who makes them…and they’re best made at family-run stores with butchery back rooms in Louisiana. The meat’s generally pounded a bit and cooked in a tomato and onion gravy (or local variations thereof) until very soft and tender. Then the meat & dark gravy’s hit with grits. One of the rare occasions when you can lay off the grits butter.

Detail: Grillades & Grits, Brenda's French Soul Food (SF)

Detail: Grillades & Grits, Brenda’s French Soul Food (SF)

The grillades (in this case, beef cutlets) are another awesome dish from Brenda’s. Paired with two unnecessary eggs and addictive, hockey puck-sized buttermilk biscuits that would be a wondrous meal unto themselves, the grillades & grits made my 45-minute brunch wait entirely satisfying. An incredible treat.

The Grade: Excellent / Awesome
The Damage: $10.50
The Tip: Brenda’s is CLOSED TUESDAYS and only open until 3pm
The Skinny: 
Brenda’s French Soul Food
652 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94102-3328
Phone: (415) 345-8100

Brenda's French Soul Food (SF)

Brenda’s French Soul Food (SF)

Chicken & Andouille Sausage Gumbo (Brenda’s French Soul Food)

BRENDA’S FRENCH SOUL FOOD, SAN FRANCISCO CA

Chicken, Sausage, Okra Gumbo (Brenda's French Soul Food - SF)

Chicken, Sausage, Okra Gumbo (Brenda’s French Soul Food – SF)

Like most sane people, I rarely eat Cajun food outside of Louisiana. I’ve had awful “Cajun” food in New York and Los Angeles, and even Cajun food in Texas and Mississippi can be suspect. I also think blackening fish is criminal, and chain restaurants with anything Cajun on their menu need some schooling. By schooling I mean an old nun with a cane cut from a pecan tree bent on a proper instruction, the kind one remembers for life.

But when somebody moves to a city from New Orleans or Lafayette or any little town in between, my interest is piqued. Brenda’s is just that: literally a hole in the wall run by a New Orleans transplant who puts out authentic Southern, Creole, and Cajun style cuisine.

Only open for breakfast and lunch, Brenda’s has a 45-minute wait at any given brunch time on weekends. Minimum. Definitely worth it, if you had some breakfast already. (Do the folks outside Brenda’s windows look like Tenderloin locals or very hungry hungry brunch-sters? Yep, you know it.)

So, with the caveat that I’m not on a gumbo run, I can authoritatively say this is the best, most authentic gumbo I’ve had east of Lake Charles in as long as I can remember. Seriously good chunks of smoky sausage, juicy chicken, and okra in a nice, moderately dark roux: that little bowlful is richer than it looks, y’all.

The Grade: Excellent / Awesome
The Damage: $7.25
The Tip: Brenda’s is CLOSED TUESDAYS  and only open until 3pm
The Skinny: Brenda’s French Soul Food
652 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94102-3328
Phone: (415) 345-8100

Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin (Fringale SF)

BACON-WRAPPED PORK TENDERLOIN

Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin (Fringale SF)

Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin (Fringale SF)

The pork loin at Fringale is about as good as any pork dish I’ve had at a restaurant all year.  Thick, hammerhead-sized slices of tender pork are choked by their semi-crisp bacon muffler and, with a swirl through the braised savoy cabbage and a semi-sweet caramelized onion jus, it’s simple and sumptuous. What a treat to get cabbage when it’s done so miraculously: tender, crunchy, and looks like little bits of braised apple in there to complement the pork. It’s a perfectly balanced dish.

Fringale’s been around for over a generation in restaurant years; doesn’t get the yelpies or real press it deserves; but retains a status as a SOMA neighborhood gem and still serves up awesome dishes like this one. The owner is often there and when he’s not, un autre bon ami amicably fills in, and they are great fun to hang out with at the bar. They’re good storytellers, manage a busy tiny space with calm and grace, and make you want to go back just for an appetizer and glass of wine.

Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin (Fringale SF)

Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin (Fringale SF)

And, not for overkill, but if the mood strikes…the potatoes gratin are wicked. See below for your personal ramekin of cheesy potato glory.

Fringale's got wicked au gratin

Fringale’s got wicked au gratin

The Grade: Awesome (highest grade)
The Damage: $19 (great deal for SF)
The Skinny: Fringale restaurant
570 4th St, San Francisco, CA 94107
Phone: (415) 543-0573

Braised Short Ribs, Annabelle’s Bar & Bistro (SF)

ANCHOR STEAM BRAISED SHORT RIBS

ANNABELLE’S BAR & BISTRO, SAN FRANCISCO

Anchor Steam Braised Short Ribs, Annabelle's Bar & Bistro (SF)

Anchor Steam Braised Short Ribs, Annabelle’s Bar & Bistro (SF)

Annabelle’s Bar & Bistro is a hidden gem in plain view, with a solid selection of all-natural meat dishes that are carefully crafted by Executive Chef Larry Piaskowy. The pork chop is great there, and the steaks are amazing. But I can understand whey the Anchor Steam-braised short ribs might be the dish diners would talk about.

The short ribs have about a 4-hour braising period in the Anchor Steam bath, as it were, and are crisscrossed with a benediction of horseradish creme fraiche. (I think the creme fraiche is probably the right amount from a chef’s perspective, but it’s so good I really wanted a few spoonfuls more.)  The ribs sit folded over a structure of green beans like thick, dark teepee flaps. Actually, it resembles a hiding place of the princess in Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress,” but that’s what you were thinking when you saw this photo anyway, right?

Braised short ribs - Annabelle's Bar & Bistro

Braised short ribs – Annabelle’s Bar & Bistro

These are fuzzy-looking mud flaps, quite unlike any braised short ribs you’re ever likely to see. And the meat’s texture is remarkably like velvet, again unlike the chunky, canyon-like renderings typically seen of short ribs. It’s an extraordinary feeling to the palate and the combination of the ultra-soft ribs in jus, crisp green beans, and a little horseradish pep makes this a really outstanding dish.

The Grade: Awesome (highest grade)

The Damage: $25

The Skinny: Annabelle’s Bar & Bistro
68 – 4th Street, San Francisco CA
Phone: (415) 777-1200
Website: http://www.annabelles.net/

Filet Mignon Steak Tartare

Filet Mignon Steak Tartare - Lark Creek Steak

Filet Mignon Steak Tartare – Lark Creek Steak

 Steak tartare has been such a rarity that its perennial status as a French delicacy seems even more elevated in recent years. Most places that serve steak tartare do it well, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better steak tartare than at Lark Creek Steak.

The steak tartare at LCS is made of filet mignon, so you’re in the Pantheon of tartare right away. It’s dolled up with capers, chopped onion, fleur de sel and the prerequisite raw egg yolks. It’s meat at its purest and finest, with just a bit of seasoning. It’s rich, meaty, salty, a bit fatty, and absolutely fantastic. This is a meat lover’s dream.

The crostini are likewise perfect, crispy, buttery little trowels to dig out fine chunks of filet mignon. The portion is generously sized to share between two, three, or four friends.  If you’ve never had steak tartare, treat yourself. You’ll love it.

THE GRADE: AWESOME (highest grade)
THE DAMAGE: $13.95 
THE SKINNY: LARK CREEK STEAK 

Westfield® San Francisco Centre
845 Market Street, 4th Floor, Ste 402
San Francisco, CA 94103

Phone: (415) 593-4100

Reservations: http://www.larkcreek.com/larkcreek_steak/index.html

Lunch:
Mon.-Fri. 11:30 am – 2:00 pm
Sat. & Sun. 12:00 pm – 2:30 pm

Dinner:
Mon.-Thurs. 5:30 pm – 9 pm
Fri. 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Sat. 5:00 pm – 9:30 pm
Sun. 5:00 pm – 9 pm

Filet Mignon Steak Tartare

Filet Mignon Steak Tartare - Lark Creek Steak

Filet Mignon Steak Tartare – Lark Creek Steak

Steak tartare has been such a rarity that its perennial status as a French delicacy seems even more elevated in recent years. Most places that serve steak tartare do it well, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better steak tartare than at Lark Creek Steak.

The steak tartare at LCS is made of filet mignon, so you’re in the Pantheon of tartare right away. It’s dolled up with capers, chopped onion, fleur de sel and the prerequisite raw egg yolks. It’s meat at its purest and finest, with just a bit of seasoning. It’s rich, meaty, salty, a bit fatty, and absolutely fantastic. This is a meat lover’s dream.

The crostini are likewise perfect, crispy, buttery little trowels to dig out fine chunks of filet mignon. The portion is generously sized to share between two, three, or four friends.  If you’ve never had steak tartare, treat yourself. You’ll love it.

THE GRADE: AWESOME (highest grade)
THE DAMAGE: $13.95 
THE SKINNY: LARK CREEK STEAK 

Westfield® San Francisco Centre
845 Market Street, 4th Floor, Ste 402
San Francisco, CA 94103

Phone: (415) 593-4100

Reservations: http://www.larkcreek.com/larkcreek_steak/index.html

Lunch:
Mon.-Fri. 11:30 am – 2:00 pm
Sat. & Sun. 12:00 pm – 2:30 pm

Dinner:
Mon.-Thurs. 5:30 pm – 9 pm
Fri. 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Sat. 5:00 pm – 9:30 pm
Sun. 5:00 pm – 9 pm

Prix Fixe Dinner – Michael Mina

MICHAEL MINA – RESTAURANT REVIEW – PRIX FIXE DINNER

With an atmosphere of contemporary elegance, plus excellent service and trays of succulent small bites coming in spectacularly focused trios, Michael Mina restaurant is certainly worth the special occasion splurge. Tables are distant enough for your group to feel safe and uncrowded. You enter the room–hidden within the Westin St. Francis Hotel on Union Square–by climbing a small flight of stairs, perhaps accurately representational of the culinary temple that Michael Mina has enjoyed since its inception.

Michael Mina has many offerings of multi-course (prix fixe) dinners. The standard three-course dinner sets you back $105. Expensive, to be sure, but it’s a wonderful experience. Six-course tasting menus are $135, and a great three-course pre-theatre meal is $55.

COURSE ONE – PASTA, BRAISE & CONFIT

Course 1 - Michael Mina SF  Prix Fixe Dinner - Pasta, Braise & Confit

Course 1 – Michael Mina SF Prix Fixe Dinner – Pasta, Braise & Confit

LEFT: Fettucine, Rabbit, English Peas

A beautifully rendered meaty pasta, rife and verdant with variegated greenliness. Few American chefs seem to really honor rabbits effectively; the chefs at Mina certainly do. Tastes like Spring and Summer in a dish; simply delicious.

TOP / CENTER: Orecchiette, Pork Short Rib, and Fava Beans

Perhaps the only faux pas moment of the meal. The potentially rich flavor of the pork short rib was nowhere here, and not supported by typically chewy orecchiette (ear-shaped, dense, and spongy pasta), and born-to-be-mild fava beans. Blah.

RIGHT: Ravioli, Duck Leg, Radicchio

Wow; utterly phenomenal. This is a little triumph: rich duck confit, sumptuous in its dark gravy, magical in its layered tones of smell and taste. If you go this season to Michael Mina, request your waiter if you can get a single large portion of this instead of the trio; I surmise they would oblige you. This is the best meaty ravioli I’ve eaten in 2009, and among the best meaty pastas of the year. I’d like to have a big bowl of it and a glass of Super Tuscan; that would be a perfect meal.

Duck Confit Ravioli, Radicchio - Michael Mina SF

Duck Confit Ravioli, Radicchio – Michael Mina SF

COURSE TWO – BRANDT FARM BEEF and SPRING VEGETABLES

At first, the tiny bites of steak on the tri-partite plate seem light. But the incredible flavors from each steak made every bite fulfilling, worth enjoying slowly. Each of the three steak dishes was excellent.

Course 2 - Steak & Spring Vegetables - Michael Mina restaurant

Course 2 – Steak & Spring Vegetables – Michael Mina restaurant

COURSE TWO, LEFT:  FILET MIGNON with Sauce Bernaise, Sacramento Delta green asparagus

Beautiful little stacked portion of filet mignon with a perfect bernaise sauce, paired with slivered green asparagus. Cleverly piled like a double-stack…not sure if this is a wink on a double burger but it was great, either way.

Filet Mignon with sauce bernaise - Michael Mina, SF

Filet Mignon with sauce bernaise – Michael Mina, SF

COURSE TWO, CENTER:  DRY AGED RIBEYE, wilted spinach, morel jus (plus potatoes)

If you’ve ever wondered why people pay so much money to get dry-aged beef, wonder no more. This is a tiny piece of steak that packs a wallop of flavor. Another perfect presentation, and a great piece of steak.

Dry aged ribeye steak, Michael Mina SF

Dry aged ribeye steak, Michael Mina SF

COURSE TWO, RIGHT:  BRAISED TRIO, young leeks, horseradish vinaigrette

Our waiter described this as “Tongue and Cheek,” so there’s beef tongue, beef cheek, and something else equally tender and delicious. A great balance of the beef parts with the earthiness of both the leeks and the brightness of the horseradish vinaigrette.

Braised Trio (beef and cheek), Michael Mina - SF

Braised Trio (beef and cheek), Michael Mina – SF

COURSE THREE: CHEESES – GOAT, SHEEP, COW

For my last course, I opted for the cheese plate and it was again a small triumph of three. Savory with sweet, earthy and salty; everything well paired.

• Minuet, Pear Purée, Hazelnuts

• Pecorino Ginepro, Port Cherries, Juniper Balsamic Vinegar

• Pianoforte, Porcini Syrup, Puffed Wild Rice

There are some great options for sweeter things, but I like cheese to finish a languorous meal. Mina’s renowned for amazing desserts, and anything you order will be pretty great.

THE GRADE: AWESOME (highest grade)

THE DAMAGE: $105

THE INSIDE TIP: Get a very similar three-course meal at Michael Mina for $55. (Each course will be single, not trio, servings but most of the dishes for the regular prix fixe will be available at the beginning of dinner service for the lower price.) Make your reservation for between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m. for their special pre-theatre dinner price. Go-go, early birds.

Free reservations at Michael Mina via OpenTable.com

THE SKINNY: MICHAEL MINA

Inside the lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel

335 Powell Street, San Francisco CA 94102

Phone: (415) 397-9222

Website with menus: http://www.michaelmina.net

Hours: Dinner: Tuesday – Thursday 5:30pm – 9:00pm, Friday – Saturday: 5:30pm – 10:00pm

Buttermilk Fried Chicken (Town Hall, SF)

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Buttermilk Fried Chicken - Town Hall, SF
Buttermilk Fried Chicken - Town Hall, SF

There’s a reason that Town Hall has had buttermilk fried chicken as a menu staple since their inception. It is just awesome. It’s the best fried chicken you may have in the last year, or perhaps your lifetime. It is simply that good. Perfect batter crunch, and sweetly tender inside, the fried chicken comes with smashed potatoes slurred with a fantastic country bacon gravy. (A colleague who had it reckoned it was the best country gravy she’d ever tasted.) The veggies are seasonal: either collard greens or, here, a chop of summer squash and tomatoes. At mid-year, Town Hall’s buttermilk fried chicken is the best fried chicken of 2009, and gets our highest grade (awesome).

Buttermilk Fried Chicken (detail), Town Hall SF
Buttermilk Fried Chicken (detail), Town Hall SF

The Grade: Awesome

The Damage: $22

The Skinny: Town Hall

342 Howard Street, San Francisco CA
Phone: (415) 908-3900
Website: http://www.townhallsf.com/

1/2 Squab (Canteen, SF)

1/2 Squab

Half-Squab (Canteen, SF)

Squab (pigeon) is a funky fowl that’s favored by the French. On an episode of last season’s “Top Chef” where contestants had to cook for culinary masters, Jacques Pepin confessed his passion for squab and how it resonated with pleasant boyhood memories of growing up in France. Certainly when squab is done well, it’s a nice, tasty bird, and we have to assume Pepin’s had his share of great squab. It’s just not the sort of dish you see much in the US.  Squab’s not the kind of meat that sits politely atop anything; it looks awkward, no matter what you do. It looks like a little dead bird. Which, you know, it is.

But Chef Dennis Leary of Canteen recently pulled off the rare squab masterpiece. It’s a half squab roasted in an apricot-cumin glaze. The crisp skin was slightly smoky and sweet, and the bird rightfully juicy inside. An Indian mound of lentils beneath brought some earthiness to the earthy-toned squab meat, and a swirl of vinegar syrup rounded the plate for an additional palate tease. Visually, he couldn’t escape the dead bird on a plate fate of squab, but the tones of brown on the plate made for a clever, edible, monochromatic sculpture.

The squab was roasted to perfection, and the variance of flavors provided continual surprises. A nice birdy treat from King Leary. 

The Grade: Excellent

The Damage: $11.50

The Inside Tip #1: Canteen’s website is updated with their daily menu.

The Inside Tip #2: Canteen’s not on OpenTable.com; you have to leave message for reservation, so reserve well in advance.

The Skinny: Canteen

817 Sutter Street (at Jones)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: (415) 928-8870
Website: www.sfcanteen.com

Steak Frites (Monk’s Kettle, SF)

Steak Frites

Steak Frites - Monk's Kettle, SF
Steak Frites - Monk's Kettle, SF

A good steak frites is the French man’s answer to hungry lunching. It’s a simple dish, the French bistro take on meat-and-potatoes, get-the-job-done. Monk’s Kettle serves up a very tempting steak frites, with a giant leafy forest of greens.

This skirt steak’s a juicy little Angus (Nature Well), cooked to order (medium-well or bust), and nicely portioned. But red wine shallot butter and demi-glace give the beef quite a pronounced pounce. This steak frites has a bit more attitude than most; it’s an excellent version. The fries are thin and crisp, nicely done, reminiscent of the addictive, McDonald’s variety.

Steak Frites (thick detail) - Monk's Kettle, SF
Steak Frites (thick detail) - Monk's Kettle, SF

The Spot: Monk’s Kettle

Aside from a lovely steak frites, Monk’s Kettle is one of the best places in San Francisco Bay Area to sample an astounding array of beers. Their 24 draught taps change 3 to 5 times weekly. The beer menu itself is 6 legal-sized pages listing (and explaining) a worldwide variety of familiars and odds, with prices that range from your low-budge suds (PBR and such) to party-like-a-rock-star froth (including champenoise-style beers that set you back between $45 and $60 for 12 oz.). The staff is authentically friendly, very knowledgeable about the beers they have, and enjoy helping folks match their flavor palette or dare into new territory. If you’re no pork chopper, just go by for a beer sometime.

Get your Belgian beer on: Monk's Kettle
Get your Belgian beer on: Monk's Kettle

The Grade: Excellent

The Damage: $21.50

The Skinny: Monk’s Kettle

3141 – 16th Street, San Francisco (between Valencia & Guerrero Streets)
Phone: (415) 865-9523
Website: http://www.monkskettle.com