As we come to the close of the year, I am in a reflective mood (color me Nike headband).
“What were your best meals of the year?” you ask.
Surely, you assume, they might have been Italian, for napaman spent two weeks in October traveling in Italy.
But if you assumed this, you’d be WRONG.
My best meals this year, despite domestic and international travels, were in San Francisco and Napa Valley.
You can’t dine better, you can’t drink better, and you don’t have to take off your shoes, or have some guy pat you down, to dine at these restaurants.
Moreover, I have gained a sense of family in these particular dining rooms because the staff are friendly, casual and thoughtful. Which is why these are my top restaurants of 2015:
Drum roll, please....
In San Francisco, you cannot dine better than at the two sibling restaurants Quince and Cotogna.
I will go out on a limb and say these are the two best restaurants in San Francisco right now. Maybe in the country. They are certainly where I have had my own best meals in 2015.
Ahhhh, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Your bar is stupendous, tended by several of the most accomplished bartenders in a city that is brimming with talented mixologists.
The servers at Cotogna, the managers at Cotogna, the bussers, the cooks, everyone here, has been trained to perfection by Chef Michael Tusk and his detail-oriented partner and wife, Lindsay.
Together they orchestrate authentic Italian, perfectly prepared food; they initiate an ever-changing menu, which is seasonally brilliant; individual dishes launch on the palate with amazing texture and finish with rich flavor. All through the chew there is culinary magic at work. Thank you chef, and thank you Lindsay, for this mealtime magic.
If I wanted to rent out a dining room for a celebratory evening in San Francisco, Cotogna would be my choice; this is my favorite casual restaurant in San Francisco right now. Period.
One of the rare shots of Chef Michael and Lindsay Tusk in the same frame; they operate Cotogna AND Quince. The photo is from 2012.
Like magicians pulling silk scarves out of a hat, Michael and Lindsay have invented the perfect counterpoint to their casual Cotogna; they have given us Quince, the best fine-dining room in San Francisco. Maybe in all of California. And while we’re about it, how about maybe in America?
I dined in the 3-star Michelin Le Bernardin in New York this year and despite that fact that my lunch tab was TWICE as expensive as a dinner at Quince, the food, service, ambience, and experience at Quince are FOUR TIMES BETTER.
Quince wine cellar
As a former professional restaurant critic (with an unlimited budget to dine in any 3-star restaurant anywhere in the world), and then as a patron of the table for the next 35 years, I can say with authority – and from experience -- that I have never had a better multi-course dinner with complementary wine pairings in my life than I had this year at Quince.
And I had this multi-course dinner TWICE at Quince this year, once in May, once in November. And each dinner was a raucous symphony of flavors and textures, and the presentations themselves were original, inventive and memorable.
Come to think of it -- Michael and Lindsay Tusk ARE magicians; I think of them as the Penn & Teller of fine-dining AND casual-dining because whichever restaurant of theirs you exit, you are filled with the same sense of wonderment, awe and joy as you are after a Penn & Teller performance... you walk out slapping your forehead, asking everyone around you, “How the hell did they do that....?”
Cotogna, 490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco. 415-775-8508
Quince, 470 Pacific Ave., San Francisco 415-775-8500
Spoiler Alert – Nasty comment coming up...
Quince only has two Michelin stars? This is a travesty. A great dining injustice.
What the fuck is wrong with Michelin?
This is a dining room which heartily welcomes guests; the staff actually smile at patrons, portions are flavorful and, for a change in a multi-course setting, sufficient in size to actually fill you up. And the complementary wines, chosen by knowledgeable and sensitive wine folk for both of my multi-course dinners, were so good that I actually sought some wines out afterward, purchasing them by the case for my own home consumption.
Only two Michelin stars? Quince merits four, you insensate Michelin inspectors! But you are so used to surly French waiters and servings the size of an M&M, (as evidenced by many of the restaurants to which you have accorded three stars) that in the case of Quince, you have failed to recognize culinary brilliance when it is visibly evident and thoroughly accessible by taste!
Quince is the best fine-dining restaurant in which I have dined in 2015.
Cotogna serves the best casual fare of any restaurant in which I have dined in 2015.
But I would be remiss if I did not add some other 2015 favorites, which readers must try. Let’s commence with Napa Valley highlights.
I became a regular at this Yountville dining haven this year, but I am making up for lost time given the recent frequency of my visits.
The fettuccine Bolognese here is better than ANY version of this dish I ordered in in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, last month – including a half-dozen restaurants in Bologna itself.
Chef Richard Reddington
There are mornings I wake up thinking about Redd Wood’s Bolognese ragu, which chef Richard Reddington created.
The pizzas here are among the best in the Bay-area, too. I’m crazy for the arugula-prosciutto pie.
And if you are ordering a main protein like chicken, salmon, steak or pork, be sure to order the flash fried fingerling potatoes (above) – they are proof that potatoes actually are a food group unto themselves... and you should have a serving like this daily to maintain proper health!
The wine list here is smart, as is the staff serving the wines. Put yourself into passive gear and ask your server, or the sommelier on duty, to recommend a wine to complement your food selection. THAT’S the smart move here.
Redd Wood, 6755 Washington St. 707-299-5030.
Other local restaurant favorites, which are also high on my list, and which need to be re-recommended to friends and visitors:
For more than 30 years, Cindy Pawlcyn has turned out consistently great fare here.
In many respects, Cindy is the arch-creator of California grill cookery, having brought to market a sensibility for fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepared in the quintessential California style – which is to say grilled.
As good as the fare has been here for 30 years – it has never been better than it is right now.
At lunch, I recommend everyone try the calamari slaw appetizer, followed by the pulled pork sandwich.
At dinner, Cindy’s hanger steak defines this dish and has become my personal benchmark for “hanger steak,” whenever I see it on another menu. And it’s NEVER as good as Mustards Grill’s hanger steak. NOT EVER.
Mustards Grill, 7399 St. Helena Highway, just north of Yountville. (707) 944-2424.
Bistro Don Giovanni
Ever since I moved to the valley 18 years ago, I have dined regularly here. Giovanni and his capable lieutenant Neno, and their dedicated team of cooks and servers, make dining here a real treat.
I have dined at Bistro Don Giovanni more than 400 times and always walk away with a broad smile; the room, the food, the service, all work together to provide guests a sensational experience.
Bistro Don Giovanni, 4110 Howard Lane, Napa. (707) 224-3300.
I have written about this small, intimate, narrow dining room in St. Helena before; it is time to remind readers just how good the food is here.
This is probably the only restaurant on this page at which I have a difficult time deciding what I am going to have for dinner – because EVERYTHING ON THE MENU AT MARKET IS PHENOMENAL!
I have so many American favorites here that I would run out of digital ink naming them. Just go, scan the menu and order many different dishes for the table and share.
Among my favorite appetizers are: lobster rolls wrapped in rice paper, Crispy Calamari, and who can say No to Market’s ceviche, Caesar salad, or extravagant chopped salad?
I often order the appetizer portion of pepper-crusted steak, served with a huge mound of truffled, shoestring fries, as a main course.
For dessert, there is no option: Resistance is futile. You MUST order the fabled butterscotch pudding, which I previously opined on these pages was – and remains - the best dessert in Napa Valley.
Yes, Cindy’s Mile High Lemon Meringue Pie at Mustards Grill is a Best Dessert rival, as has been the strawberry shortcake at the soon-to-close Tra Vigne. But Market’s butterscotch pudding has stood the test of time and is still, again in 2015, my choice as Best Dessert in Napa Valley.
Market, 1347 Main St., St. Helena. (707) 963-3799.
Goose & Gander
Once a week, I crave a burger and the one served at G&G is, without question, the best burger in Napa Valley.
Yes, Gott’s Roadside has its fans, Mustards Grill, too, and even Bistro Don Giovanni serves a sensational one. But the champ is still the burger served at G&G.
The cocktails here are also worthy of a detour. We love everything they concoct, but our favorites are the Manhattans and Martinis.
Goose & Gander, 1245 Spring St., St. Helena. (707) 967-8779.
Now let’s look at some sensational San Francisco dining rooms,
which should command your attention:
This small restaurant is a sublime destination for Asian fusion cookery, which never comes close to con-fusion cookery, as so many mixed-ethnic cuisines do.
For the record: I have dined so many times at The House that I have become a friend of owners Larry and Angela Tse -- but they should not be punished and left out of my best-of-2015 restaurant list because they are friends.
The single best sandwich I ate this year was the Ahi Tuna BLT, served at The House at lunch.
I have had this sandwich three-dozen times and the sandwich always makes me vocalize the same line:
“This is the best sandwich that I have had this whole year.”
Dinners at The House are filled with tasty surprises; there are sensational noodle dishes, superb fish-based specials. The House, a tiny gem, merits a spot on the National Registry of Best Restaurants in America, if such a thing existed, because it truly is a national culinary treasure.
When the Japanese/Asian/fusion restaurant Ochame, in Berkeley, closed a few years ago, I felt my left arm had been cut off; it was an outpost of delicious, original, Asian fare. If The House were ever to close, I would feel I’d lost my other arm, as well as my heart.
The House, 1230 Grant (at Columbus). (415) 986-8612.
Perbacco and Barbacco
These two restaurants are immediate destinations when I crave Italian fare and don’t wish to head crosstown, or fight for a parking space, at Delfina, Locanda, SPQR, or A-16, each worthy of being on my list of sensational Italian San Francisco restaurants. I love every one of these restaurants and recommend them highly.
But this year, Perbacco and Barbacco, ably operated by Umberto Gibin, just feel “new,” alive and worth special attention.
You want a luxe experience? Try the white-clothed Perbacco.
Want something a bit more casual, a great wine list by the glass, sensational appetizers, rich pastas and happy-go-lucky staff, who know what everything tastes like? Then Barbacco is your choice.
Perbacco, 230 California St, San Francisco, (415) 955-0663.
Barbacco, 220 California St., San Francisco. (415) 955-1919.
Chef/owner Michael Chiarello, who has many Italian successes behind, beside, and in front of him (several new places opening soon – napaman is obliged to not say where or when); but his attempt at creating a GREAT Spanish tapas experience has paid off in spades. I LOVE THIS RESTAURANT.
The bar is superb – cocktails rock – and the selection of small dishes is overwhelming. One favorite I order every time is the truffled-honey, smoked salmon – I dare you to stop at one order!
I love the selection of Spanish white wines; service is keen, focused, and the waitstaff can ably assist you to choose wines that complement your selection of tapas dishes.
The room is a hoot, the food is superb. Why this isn’t a one-star Michelin restaurant shocks me. Further proof that the Michelin inspectors are brain dead – or maybe they are just insensate from eating too much foie gras?
Coqueta, Pier 5, The Embarcadero, San Francisco. 415-704-8866.