There’s a new crop of bright, upright and unpretentious restaurant offerings in Northern California. Gone are the gimmicks, and what one can expect is food that is simple and straightforward with wine lists that will keep diners coming back again and again. Everywhere, one sees as well The Alice Waters Effect: Vegetable lovers can rejoice, for if it’s in season, it’s sure to be on the menu at these new, smart spots.
One of the newest is Ame, set in the recently opened Saint Regis hotel in San Francisco. Chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani have already proven their talents and the highly successful Napa Valley restaurant, Terra, in Saint Helena. At the couple’s new Ame (French for “soul”) one can expect serious, sublime fare in a warm, elegant, setting in tones of chocolate and white.
The food here has a clean, crisp edge, deftly touched by Hiro’s Japanese sensitivity and solid footing in America, France, and Italy. I loved the unusual octopus “carpaccio,” (really thin slivers of cooked octopus), layered with tiny slices of fingerling potatoes, equally lean slivers of caper berries, all punctuated by little dollops of a perky lemon aioli.) It’s a dish I’ll repeat at home, for sure. An equally good starter is the fricassee of Miyagi oysters, leeks and forest mushrooms, all tangled in an artful architectural form, bathed in a soothing sauce beurre blanc.
Main courses range from grilled quail served with sautéed forest mushrooms over a Fontina cheese polenta; red wine braised beef cheeks and sweetbread cutlet in a Cabernet Sauvignon sauce with cauliflower purée; and grilled Kurobuta pork chops from the Japanese breed of pig, with roasted winter foot vegetables and Dijon verjus sauce.
I opted for a broiled, sake-marinated Alaskan black cod – which tasted at though it leapt from the waters only hours before – floating in a delicate shiso broth and teamed up with light, feathery shrimp dumplings. The perfect wine for this dish was Joël Gott’s Sauvignon Blanc, offering equally bright, clean, flavors and a fine balance of fruit and acidity, and well-priced at $30 a bottle. Aged in stainless, as all good Sauvignon Blanc should be, the wine offered a fine balance of fruit and acidity.
The pair always surprises us with new takes on old classics and their unusual spaghettini “crabonara” prepared with fresh, seasonal Dungeness crab was a delight, rich with crab flavors and soothingly satisfying.
Desserts range from black currant tea crème brûlée on tea shortbread with Huckleberry ice cream, to a pleasant warm Bartlett pear crisp with pecan streusel and gingersnap ice cream.
689 Mission Street at Third Street
San Francisco, Ca
Telephone: 415 284 4040
Web: www. Amerestaurant.com
Open daily. From $45 to $55 per person, not including tax, service, or wine.
Napa Valley’s Yountville has waited with anticipation, as chef Richard Reddington, formerly chef at the famed Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, California was set to open his own restaurant. We dined there right after the opening, and though I loved the food, I did not love the dining room, or the overly casual look of many of the diners (read torn blue jeans.) Something does not sit right when a bevy of well-outfitted waiters are there serving diners wearing clothes I would not even wear to take out the garbage.
The newly refurbished dining room reminded me of a wedding reception hall, all hard edges and no personality or sense of purpose. But thank goodness there was personality on the plate, and plenty of it in certain dishes.
I don’t think there is any dish that’s more of a gamble, almost anywhere, than risotto. Most often it is disappointing, either too soupy or too dense, and almost always you have that sinking suspicion that it was not made to order. Well chef Reddington can make risotto for me any day: His Carnaroli risotto with Maine lobster, lemon confit, and watercress is a work of art, creamy, steaming hot with rich, real lobster flavor, scents of the sea, laden with large pieces of lobster with almost every bite. The main course was a nice match for the 2004 Lewis Cellars Russian River Chardonnay (not inexpensively priced at $67), a wine with a nice balance of fruit and acid, a big wine but not marred by an overlay of heavy oak.
Equally brilliant was his marinated yellowfin tuna, paired with beets, radishes, and lemon oil. I never would have thought to combine them all, but they were at home together, a fine contrast of flavors, colors and textures. There they were, silken, thin slices of red raw tuna, topped with sweet and glistening baby red beets, thin lengthwise slices of radish, with just a touch of lemon oil. And each element was expertly seasoned.
His autumn salad hit the spot on a rainy fall weeknight, combining fall fruits, endive, and walnuts with a creamy Roquefort dressing. There were some strange and less than satisfying dishes, such as the Maine crab and tangerine salad with avocado and fennel bathed in a citrus vinaigrette, studded with strange bits of tangerine jelly. Equally disappointing was the sautéed skate – without flavor – awkwardly paired with butternut squash, wild mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and sage. The dish appeared to be more of an afterthought, or perhaps conceived in a cleaning-out-the- refrigerator spree.
Homey and wholesome was the superbly simple roasted chicken with a carrot and salsify ragout and potato purée surrounded by a simple juice prepared with the giblets.
6480 Washington Street
Yountville CA 94599
Telephone: 707 944 2222
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily, and Sunday brunch. From $30 to $50 per person, not including tax, service, or wine.
The only problem with Fish, a lively fish shack on the waters of Sausalito just north of San Francisco, is that it is so far away from me. I’d like it in my backyard. What is there not to like about the freshest and simplest of seafood served right on the water?
The place is casual with a capital C (place your order at the cash register and they’ll bring the fare to your table.) Indoors there are a few tattered tables next to a fireplace, while outside, there are plenty of picnic tables for waterside dining. If it’s chilly, blankets are supplied. The menu is vast, and hard as we tried to make a dent in it, we couldn’t do it justice.
Favorites include their autumn ceviche, a mix of local, fresh white fish cured in a blend of citrus, red onions, and tangerines, with a welcome hit of cilantro and jalapeno. With plenty of crusty bread from Acme bakers in Berkeley, the feast is in the making.
We arrived the first day of crab season in early December, and quickly devoured both the simple, roasted crab, gorgeous and incredibly rich, its claws laden with sweet, alabaster meat; as well as the can’t-stop-eating-it spicy crab with Asian noodles, a meal on its own, laced with hot peppers, cilantro, garlic, and of course more of those sweet crab claws.
If it’s on the menu that day, don’t pass up the fish and chips, one of the best versions of this classic I’ve ever sampled. Bright, cloudlike chunks of fresh halibut are deftly breaded and fried, with the chunkiest, most wholesome of fries.
You can wash everything down with sips of crisp, grapefruit-like Australian Redbank Sauvignon Blanc, served casually (too casually for me) out of small Ball canning jars.
350 Harbor Drive at Bridgeway
Sausalito, CA 94965
Telephone: 415 331 3473
Open daily. Cash only. www.331fish.com Prices range from $4 for a cup of chowder $24 for a whole Dungeness crab or a baker’s dozen of oysters.