One of the best ways to know a city is to taste it. During my second visit to San Francisco–one of my top 5 favorite cities in the United States–I decided that I wanted taste to be the prevailing sense that influenced my future memories of the city, so I sought out the best restaurant in San Francisco.
One thing that makes San Francisco a gastronomical niche is its abundance of farmers’ markets. Some of the best restaurants in San Francisco use the produce from the farmers’ markets to create their menus, which change weekly, or even daily. Two of the best restaurants in the city, which have rotating menus that depend on the freshness and variability of the farmers’ markets, are SPQR and Bouche.
The Best Restaurant in San Francisco for Italian
SPQR on Fillmore Street is fine-dining Italian at its best. The space is filled with charm, eccentric art, and an incredible selection of Italian wines. But the dishes, which change daily, are little works of art that pack in flavor and innovation.
A great way to begin a meal at SPQR is to try an antipasti like the sake-sized cups of soup or the artistically displayed vegetable plates. Despite being small, like most dishes at SPQR, the antipasti completely spun the way I’ve come to view edible roots. My winter vegetable soup featured a doughy parsnip fritter and my salad of sweet carrots, with crunchy lentils, looked like an artist’s palette, displaying various puddles of sauce and spreads, including a carrot hummus and vadouvan curry crema.
My favorite antipasti, however, was braised cardone, pig ear, pig belly, with cabbage, turnip, and blood orange gastrique. It was presented like a beautiful shish kebab sans stick. The pig belly was crisp on the outside and tender inside. One bite of belly almost mimicked a forkful of crisp pig ear and lush blood orange, (minus the sweetness of citrus).
SPQR really impressed me with their “primi” section with dishes like rigatoni in a rich cauliflower cream sauce that had thick shavings of black truffle the size of half dollar coins laying on top. But my favorite creation was the twenty-four layer muscovy duck lasagna. The chef’s family tradition insured that every lasagna recipe included two dozen layers. This miniature tower rose about five inches from a nasturtium pesto. Drizzled onto it was a rich duck heart sauce. Though it was only a few bites, it was the most delicious few moments I had ever spent with a lasagna (and that includes my friend’s Nona’s lasagna, which remains a hallmark of all fine Italian cuisine).
Though the “secondi” section included heartier Italian cuisine like the deliciously peppery, burnt-skinned guinea hen, which was served with winter squash, pumpkin seed, and a few drops of pumpkin seed oil–the waiter actually brought over an eye dropper and placed three drops onto my bird–I thought that the “primi” dishes were more complex in flavor.
What was most impressive about SPQR, besides the 24-story masterpiece and the pig belly, was Jeremiah, the house sommelier. As he announced the name of each Italian grape and spoke in adjectives that were more foreign than the jargon spouted in Napa, it was as if he were speaking three languages with each presentation. Though I was unable to comprehend his Italian/oenophile/English verbiage, his selections were brilliant and the wines paired perfectly with each bite.
The Best Restaurant in San Francisco for French Cuisine
Bouche is three things: incredible French cuisine, a cross between a relaxed wine lounge and fine-dining, and a place where the owner’s humor engenders discourse between strangers. Let’s work backwards through this list.
The name of the restaurant alone gives rise to laughter.
“What does Bouche mean?” I asked the owner, Guillaume. (Bouche is pronounced boosh, like the former US presidents.)
“It means mouth,” he said and cocked his head to the side, a glance that said think about this more carefully. My brain failed to work efficiently and I did not catch the pun. “Bouche is on Bush Street.”
“What’s the deal with the pigs?” I asked him. There was a boar head hung on the restaurant’s back wall and a gold pig posted on the bar above a directional that indicated north, east, south, and west.
There was a story behind the boar’s head–Guillaume had almost been killed, multiple times, by the wild animal back in France and his friend presented him with the head at Bouche’s December 2011 opening–and the golden pig on the bar was just a joke.
“Notice anything?” he asked, nodding up at the golden pig. I finally did. Guillame had changed the order of the directions. It was north, west, south, east. “I want people to come here and talk.”
The narrow first floor had fifteen stools, where women in their 20s and 30s enjoyed wine and appetizers. As the sun set, even more women started to enter Bouche. (Where were all the men to talk to these women about the pig on the bar? I wondered.) At first, I wasn’t sure if it was the wine, the dark and ambient space, the French food, or the charming Frenchmen who ran Bouche that drew the women.
Guillaume warned me when I entered that his chef, who was newly hired by the restaurant, happened to be out sick. His statement made me wonder if this experience would be akin to watching the All Star Game without any All Stars. Still, on that day, it was one of the best food experiences I had ever had. All of the dishes were exquisite and Guillaume knew French wine the way that an obese American knows French fries from all the fast food joints.
The fish appetizers at Bouche were unreal. The best was a melange of marinated mackerel, sweet beets, slivers of blood orange, goat cheese mousse, and crunchy pine nuts. The mackerel, which was not fishy at all for mackerel, was perfectly complemented by the beets. The plate was also a work of art. Purple beet puree with a fried beet leaf rising from the sauce resembled a fat, purple carrot that had sprouted from the ceramic plate–all of which were created by Guillaume’s artistic wife.
Another incredible starter and work of art was Bouche’s signature dish, the one creation that is not controlled by the offerings of the farmers’ markets. Smoked salmon sat like a rose flowering above a hidden poached egg in a crispy nest that seemed to sail on a creme fraiche. The crispiness was in deliciously sheer contrast to the salmon and egg, both of which were the consistency of butter at different states.
Though I was already full from the appetizers, I managed to find room for the entrees, which included a 12-hour roasted veal blade served with dessert-like cippollini onions in a creme mushroom sauce. My favorite was the duck. Thick, lean cuts were laid out on braised cabbage. It was joined by duck rillette–a pate topped with chutney. Both entrees went phenomenally with the cream polenta.
What’s great about Bouche, is that diners can experience the quality and feel of a fine dining restaurant at reasonable prices. (Appetizers are less than $15.00 and an entree costs between $18.00 and $26.00.) You could even go out for a romantic evening for two, spend about $100.00 on two entrees, an appetizer, a bottle of wine, taxes, and tip, and walk out satisfied. The last point cannot be said of SPQR, which serves up much smaller portions. (There are a few tables lofted above the bar for a more intimate atmosphere.)
The Sushi in San Francisco
Right before flying home, I visited the Sushi Zone, where customers line up outside of the 16-seat restaurant to make sure they get a spot when the doors open at 5:00 pm. One sushi chef worked behind the bar, serving up the freshest sushi that I had ever tasted.
A great starter is the baked bass. The fish, smeared with spicy mayo and sprinkled with tobiko, blankets a bed of mango, which sits in the shell of a mussel. The sushi, however, is the real draw. Normally, I can comfortably eat four rolls, four handrolls, and a few pieces. But at Sushi Zone, the cuts are so thick, almost as thick as a quality steak, that I could only manage to stuff two and a half rolls and eight pieces in.
The $8.00 rolls of spicy mango with salmon, spicy albacore tuna, and spicy scallop were equal in the court of my taste buds. For some variation to the normal roll, try the Hawaiian Roll #2–albacore tuna, mango, sprouts, cucumber, and an added topping of macadamia nuts.
Most importantly, the fish was as buttery as Bouche’s.
The Best Restaurant in San Francisco for Breakfast
My favorite brunch place was in the Noe Valley. Chloe’s, which is only open until 3:00 pm, gets packed. Their best dish is Croissant French Toast topped with fresh strawberries from the market. I loved their coffee, too, which was a blend of dark coffee from California, Peru, and Papua New Guinea.
Though the coffee was great at Chloe’s, try Phil’z, which is a few blocks away, and order Jacob’s Wonderbar. It is one of the finest dark roasts that I’ve ever imbibed.
The Best Burrito in San Francisco
For the best burrito, visit the Mission. When I first arrived in San Francisco it was after 9:00 pm and the majority of the delicious burrito shops had closed, except for the newly famous Papalote Mexican Grill. Papalote gained attention after Bobby Flay had his Throw Down with Papalote’s chef and lost. Upon the advice of the cashier, I ordered a carne asada burrito, which was accompanied by the house’s creamy hot sauce and chips. It was less than $10.00.
The one place that I wanted to try in the Mission, but my schedule did not cooperate, was La Taqueria. Rumor has it, the tongue taco is something to talk about (for those still with a tongue).
Disclaimer: Some of the restaurants hosted my meals. Also, I would not have discovered some of these spots without the help of Rylan and Ari, two of San Francisco’s great foodies.
Photos by Ari Skapinker and Jai Singh