Sunday, August 28, 2011


After the success of A-16 in the Marina with it's regional Italian food of Campania , I was looking forward the same team's take on the food of Lazio at their new venture, SPQR. It only took one mouthful to know that they had earned another notch on their Italian leather belt. I believe they are taking more liberties with classic dishes of the region, but that point becomes moot when you've tasted such delicious and interesting food; case in point, the fried pigs ears with pickled peppers.


Italians are well documented for eating offal, so pig ears are not a stretch, but you would be hard pressed to find pickled jalapenos in a classic recipe. It matters not, however,  because this antipasto was outrageously delicious. So good in fact that I have sought out pigs ears in other restaurants without ever being satisfied with the result. Admittedly, even SPQR itself cannot compete with this dish. On a subsequent trip to the restaurant I tried the fried pig ears with melon salad and it was a mere shadow of its former presentation, even with the red pepper added for heat. I preferred the small ears served whole, rather than sliced, since the original dish seemed to contain more of them. When sliced the pig ears became more of a condiment on the newer version of the dish. Kudos to a restaurant that's innovative and changes offerings with the seasons, like a good Italian menu should, but I hope to see the first version at the restaurant again. I suspect it was on their spring menu.


That's because I ordered it on the same evening that the pasta above was ordered. Fave herald spring in Italy, along with artichokes, and peas. So seeing even one fresh fava in this photo gives a clue to the time of year.  This was my first experience with buckwheat pasta which was so subtle in flavor it seemed to be used exclusively for color. There was nothing special to recommend it, but it seemed appropriate that it was used with a wild boar sauce that had some unusual spices in the recipe and if memory serves me, some cocoa powder too. The taste cannot be described adequately, but it was very rich and seemed more likely to come from the Northern Italian tradition rather than from the south. Venice is the place to find cinnamon and cloves in traditional sauce recipes, as well as the place where you can always find "bigoli" a Venetian pasta made from buckwheat . If the Roman Emperors ate the best food in the empire, the inspiration for Lazio recipes could have come from anywhere originally. Hopefully we will not see peacocks or mice, great delicacies of the Roman Empire, on the SPQR menu anytime soon.


Again, I've seen more squid ink risotto in Venice than anywhere else, but that did not stop me from eating this arancini, definitely a Southern Italian antipasto, filled with sea urchin and the squid ink risotto. This briny tasting fried morsel went into flavor overload when it was dipped into the earthy tasting truffle aioli. This recipe was so modern and inventive.

Here's another modern interpretation of Italian cooking, or in this case French; Kobe Beef Tartar with fingerling potato chips, fried oysters, strands of agretti, a fleshy, slightly sour tasting vegetable, cornichons, and a gelee that I don't recall even seeing at the time. There's a lot going on with this recipe, but it was very enjoyable.

Dining with friends who enjoy sharing their food is an experience that all of us should be fortunate enough to enjoy. Luckily, many of my friends are willing to do this and that suits me, since it allows for a broader tasting of different dishes offered by a restaurant. These days two courses are about all I can handle. Many of the reviews here contain only a starter and a main course, but this was a special occasion. We each had three. The pastas, as you see them left to right, are a buccatini with pork ragu; potato gnocchi with pork meatballs, and a butter sage sauce; and a semolina gnocchi (gnocchi  in Lazio is traditionally made exclusively from this flour and contains no potatoes at all) with pancetta, corn and green beans. All were very good and we enjoyed sharing tastes of each.


Desserts were more traditional than anything else on the menu. The caramel flavored gelato had a nice texture and was accompanied by biscotti, as was the cantaloupe granita. The granita had a course, but consistent texture that made it sparkle like glass beads rather than ice. As fascinating as it was to look at, the flavor seemed a bit watered down. Tiramisu, the cake, coffee and mascarpone "pick me up", was the best and richest tasting. Its deconstructed presentation was, as was most of the food we ordered, very modern and inventive.

SPQR Website

1911 Fillmore St
San Francisco CA
(415) 771-7779

Monday, August 22, 2011


This restaurant really transports patrons to another place in time. Located in an alley in what was once called The Barbary Coast, Bix could easily have been a speakeasy during Prohibition, especially in light of the brisk business being done at the bar. The singer and her accompanist on piano were engaging, performing light jazz and what were affectionately known as “standards” by the WWII generation. This enjoyable dining experience became punctuated with a sultry mood and sophisticated style that was unexpected and also unforgettable. Service was excellent.

I cannot identify with 100% accuracy all the drinks in these photos except for the Bellini, which I personally ordered and nursed throughout the evening. The bartenders were flying and preparing all sorts of lively, colorful concoctions. It seemed a great place to stop by just for a drink and hors d’oeuvres. The drink in the Martini glass may be the Bix Perfect Manhattan or the Sazerac, and the Bix Rickey is the last drink based on the lime.

The caviar and creme fraiche on little pillows of shredded and deep fried potatoes would be my first pick for hors d’oeuvres. They deserve a vintage champagne, but my Bellini worked well enough. Since four come in the order, they are easy to split with your dining companion.

It was no surprise that bread was hand delivered to your plate by the waiter, and not unceremoniously set down at the table in a basket. It tasted like a sweet baguette and came with sweet butter. The salad composed of romaine lettuce with a blue cheese dressing worked nicely with the bacon and tomato, but it is not the reason to dine at Bix, but the chilled seafood might be.


The ceviche with Jalapeno and Habanero chiles was outstanding with spectacular flavor and texture, The avocado helped calm the tongue after eating the chiles, and the cilantro oil was vibrant and fragrant. Toasted corn nuts accounted for the textural contrast to the buttery fish and avocado, while herbs and micro greens rounded out the flavor profile. This made me want to start a micro green garden.

For all the romance and sophistication of the restaurant space, it seemed odd that something as common as a burger would be on the menu. Bix has elevated the humble burger by using Kobe beef, premium cheeses and serving it with a trio of sauces including an aioli and a barbeque sauce. The sauces were also well exploited by using them with the truffle fries.


The chicken hash was worth a try with its buttery Mascarpone and Sun Gold tomato “sauce”. Its mild flavor was accented by the fresh sweet corn included in the mix. The creamed spinach was everything we’d hoped and rivals any we’ve had at well regarded steak houses around town. All in all, this was a restaurant worthy of repeat visits.  The bar can get noisy, but the booths under the balcony were pleasant for conversation not requiring you to raise your voice.

56 Gold Street
San Francisco CA 94133-5103
(415) 433-6300

Open Mon-Wed,Sun 5:30pm-10pm; Thu,Sat 5:30pm-11pm; Fri 11:30am-11pm


Sunday, August 21, 2011



Aziza, the Moroccan restaurant with a modernized, reinvented, classics menu had piqued my curiosity for a number of years before my first reservation was ever made. Experience with two other, older Moroccan restaurants in San Francisco was the reason it took so long ,because there was little difference between them and what they offered on their menus. There was also  the fact that I was still reeling from the loss of El Sombrero, my old standby, Mexican restaurant that had previously transformed this same building into a  hacienda. It was a surprise to see the hacienda transformed into a souk with very little effort, or so it seemed.

The first item served was a small roll that reminded me of a brioche with a bagel crust and a pretzel finish of sea salt. I wanted more and was now interested in any Moroccan bread I could get my hands on. Then came the olives and blanched almonds in olive oil with herbs and red pepper. Those two items could have made a fine snack that left one satisfied, but now I was determined to try more of this delightful food.

Unfortunately the brie soup with foie gras is not on the current menu, but hopefully it will be resurrected one of these days. Soups as well as basteeyas seem to change seasonally. It was rich and made one grateful that it was a small amount, but still remarkable and every drop was savored. The foie gras was a bit overdone, but that didn’t diminish the taste. The side dish of spicy garbanzos and couscous proved to be a nice filler, but less remarkable than the other food served.


Speaking of basteeya, and I was, it’s always my favorite dish in a Moroccan restaurant. In fact, it is the primary reason I eat Moroccan food, usually wading through everything else so I could get to it. Aziza doesn’t serve it as part of a meal but it can be ordered separately. That should be such a big plus and push Aziza over the top as my new favorite Moroccan restaurant. However, that was not the case. This particular chicken basteeya was a real let down for me. It was really overloaded with egg and the almonds were ground so fine, I couldn’t even identify them as being one of the ingredients. There was also such a lack of cinnamon that I asked the waiter if they even used it. He assured me they did, but if that was so, the subtlety was such that it was imperceptible. I’d rather go back to El Mansour  and wade through courses that didn’t interest me to eat their basteeya, rather than order this again at Aziza. That being said, the duck confit basteeya on the current menu might just get me back into the restaurant.


The lamb served three ways almost made up for the poorly executed basteeya. It was of high quality and the wine braised piece was fork tender, while the tenderloin was so beautifully rare. Each piece had a different sauce and although they all tied together, each piece was distinct and worked well on its own merit.


5800 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 752-2222

Open Mon,Wed-Sun 5:30pm-10:30pm

Friday, August 19, 2011

Bar Crudo Revisited Yet Again

I’m a fan of Happy Hour deals and I don’t care who knows it. In today’s economy, Bar Crudo is reeling in the patrons with $1 oysters and mussels on the half shell and $5 bowls of their deservedly famous seafood chowder, a rich creamy concoction of cooked seafood at its best. On any Tuesday through Friday, if you walk in between 5p.m. and 6:30 you receive a Happy Hour menu along with their standard dinner menu. If you need a decent dinner at a low price this is the perfect restaurant during the early evening. They even list some beers for $3. The best thing about it is the quality on items offered through both menus is identical, excellent, but the Happy Hour offerings are in smaller portions.
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Let’s just start with the oysters sold by the dozen or half dozen. On this particular night they were Miyagi oysters with a light, briny, clean taste. I’ve been there when Pt Reyes, a normally larger oyster than Miyagi, was available. I’m still waiting to find Kumamoto oysters. Offering the smaller oysters of each variety that comes in, at this lower price point is a very smart move. It makes fresh oysters available to anyone who is watching their spending and attracts die hard bargain hunters who may not otherwise try the restaurant. It also rewards regulars and makes a return visit that much easier.
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Whether eaten with a mignonette or seafood sauce, 6 of these make a nice start to your meal. If you add a beer you might even decide to stop ordering more dinner after one more menu selection. We asked for Gulden Draak, since this dark beer went so well with the shellfish on our last visit, but it wasn’t being offered. Our waitress asked if the Gulden Carolus would work, so we gave it a try and were happy with it.
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It was beautifully golden, and tight little bubbles were making their way up the side of the glass. Full bodied, rich, spicy and very slightly sweet, it earned the title of “refreshment” and we stopped thinking about the Draak after the first sip.
For $10 the fresh uni on a baguette with avocado was easy to share, since it is composed of two pieces sitting atop a mixed green and chicory salad. We’ve ordered this before and I noticed that there was less avocado and no flaked salt this time. Insist on the salt as it perks up the mild sea urchin and contributes to the brine flavor. Once savored, you will not be able to walk into this restaurant without again ordering this cold starter.
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Just look at that bowl thick with fish, shrimp, squid and bacon. No potatoes to bulk it up and keep the cost down while the profit goes up. Stock, cream, herbs and I suspect some saffron rounded out the flavor and made a very favorable impression. At $5 for the bowl, this was not a bargain as much as it was a gift from the restaurant. We walked away from this meal for under $40 for two and were completely satisfied. Since we merely wanted to try the chowder, we only ordered one bowl, but next time we’ll need two.
655 Divisadero St
San Francisco CA 94117