SF Chefs: My Top Ten

It’s been a little quiet around here, but that’s only because I’ve been hanging out at Lick My Spoon posting recaps of San Francisco’s annual four-day feast that is SF Chefs. As Lou Ann over at Oyster Food and Culture predicted, it was indeed incredible, and a definite must-do for any lover of food and wine.

Any bon vivant, if you will.

After all, how else are you going to get all of the Bay Area’s finest and emerging chefs in one place, showcasing their creations and sharing with you their techniques and inspirations behind each nibble? It’s as close as one can get to observing them at work in the kitchen, and even then, you’re not guaranteed of a running commentary of why this and not that, where does this come from, how is this done…..and so on.

As a Silicon Valley suburbanite, I had a real blast matching dishes to chefs and restaurants whose names that I had only seen bandied about in the Twittersphere up until then. Now that the cocktails have been drunk, the food reminisced over and the recaps published, there are those dishes that I’m still raving about, because of the ingenuity of flavor pairings, the simplicity of the dish, or my discovery of new cooking methods and techniques.

So, in no particular order, here are my favorite creations from this year’s event.

1. Ame (Orlando Pagan)

At the Hog In The Fog Opening Party where pork was everywhere to be found in varying stages of preservation and numerous consistencies, Orlando Pagan turned tradition on its head with his Uni and Lardo Crostini: a generous slice of sea urchin roe blanketed under finely mandolined strips of smoked pork fat finished with a squeeze of lemon and sprinkling of sea salt. I couldn’t get enough of this mix of ocean and earth on the palate, in contrast to the guy next to me who, unfortunately, discovered his strong aversion to the slimyness of uni with his first bite.

2. Luce (Dominique Crenn)

This über-chic, Iron Chef-winning, French chef didn’t hold back on her illustrious credentials with the two dishes she created for the event. The first, a Corn Textures and Foie Gras dessert for the Sugar Party, was as polarizing as Orlando Pagan’s Uni and Lardo crostini.

Photo by David Hua

Silky corn custard smothered a disk of foie gras, finished with nuggets of popcorn and a generous drizzle of truffle powder – genius pairings, in my mind. Her love of foie gras inspired this dish, but being a fan of goose liver isn’t going to guarantee satisfaction from this dessert – two of my tasting companions stopped at the first spoonful, unable to finish their plates.

Her next creation for Sunday’s Grand Tasting was a small cup of Tomato Water Consommé with Pickled Peach and Basil Oil. The product of many hours of patient straining and waiting, this was deliciously light and refreshing, considering the many tomato gazpachos that were on offer that afternoon. It was my first taste of tomato water in this form which really blew me away (although it’s nothing new) and after Saturday’s foie gras and corn dessert, Luce has topped my ‘must-dine’ SF restaurant list.

3. Aziza (Mourad Lahlou)

Photo by David Hua

The Sugar and Spice Parties were smaller tasting events where a handful of chefs created tastings based on a theme. At the first of these, the Spice Party, Aziza’s Mourad Lahlou shone through with what was effectively a plate of creamed corn and roe with his plate of Corn, Vadouvan, Roe and Tomatoes. Sweet, tender kernels of corn contrasted with bubbles of salty roe while gently roasted cherry tomatoes cleared the palate for the next bite. You could hardly taste the vadouvan, in stark contrast to the other dishes on offer that seemed to over-emphasize the spices used.

4. Sons & Daughters (Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara)

Teague and Matt, the duo behind eight-week-old Sons & Daughters offered not so much a dessert or dish in itself as an exploration of flavor combinations. In this case, it was Blueberry, Coffee, Vanilla Powder and crispy Quinoa. When asked about what their restaurant and cooking philosophy was about, they bashfully replied that it was a question they struggled to answer. “We just try to have fun, really”.  If “fun” means a cup of unconventionally paired ingredients that meld into each other on the palate, each taking its turn to surprise the taster, I’m not complaining.

5. Contigo (Brett Emerson)

Ahhhh, who doesn’t love Contigo?? The heart and integrity of Spanish cooking served with a Northern Californian sensibility that’s a delight to feast on. With their Montadito of Roasted Corn, Bacon, Chanterelles and Manchego this adaptation of a classic Spanish snack vanished pretty quickly, which is to be expected when you layer sweet corn, mushrooms, bacon on cheese on a cracker.

6. Namu (Dennis Lee)

Of all the wraps that were on offer (from Betelnut and E&O, among others), Namu’s Braised Pork in Lettuce-Seaweed Wrap made a lasting impression. Perhaps it was the umami-ness of the seaweed that added more complexity to the dish, or the juicy chunks of pork it encased, or the kimchi tomato topping, but whatever the case, Dennis Lee‘s wrap managed to reinvigorate an otherwise boring and over-hyped Asian dish.

7. Perbacco (Staffan Terje)

Mmmmm, BEETS!!! Hardly a natural response to this misunderstood root vegetable, but until you’ve tried Perbacco’s Roasted Formanova beets with Horseradish Stracciatella and Jamon Iberico, don’t give up on it just yet. Roasting is just about the best way to prepare beets and it’s a matter of finding the right companions to accentuate their natural sweetness and convince the most die-hard of beet haters that it’s not too late to switch camps.

8. Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery (Matt Kerley)

The marked absence of an array of tasty offerings in this image bears testament to the immense popularity of Matt Kerley‘s creation: Smoked Trout Mousse on a wafer-thin Potato Crisp garnished with pickled mustard seeds. Simple party food, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon in front of the TV or while you’re ploughing through a blog post, it’s easy to see why I’ve included this versatile, any time snack on this list.

9. Dosa (Anjan Mitra)

Upping the heat was Dosa’s Anjan Mitra, with his South Indian Lamb Koftas with Tomato and Spinach sauce, Raita and Cilantro chutney. Oooh boy, he sure doesn’t hold back on the heat, which is exactly what I’m looking for (and crave) when diving into South Indian cuisine. Anticipating our reactions, Dosa’s bartenders were on hand, whipping up two tasty gin cocktails which no doubt helped the crowd find their groove and dance moves at Saturday night’s Fork It Over party.

10. Cavallo Point (Ethan Howard) and RN74 (Nick Flores)

Because I’m an indecisive Libran, I’ve tied two restaurants from Saturday afternoon’s Sugar Party to round out this list. It was a venerable dessert paradise, an all-you-can-eat, satiety-busting, waistline-expanding buffet of sugars, creams and jellies. RN74’s Nick Flores assembled a self-sufficient plate of Blackberry Crème, Kaffir Lime panna cotta, Coconut sorbet with lime meringue, Blackberry macarons and Dark chocolate. Each part was delicately nuanced, if rich, save for the meringue which exploded with a fury that only a concentrated shot of lime could do.

Next to Nick’s stand was Ethan Howard‘s (Cavallo Point) Flufferberry: Marshmallow ice-cream with peanut butter macarons, peanut butter buttercream and strawberry preserves. Classic Americana on a small serving dish that probably brought many people back to their school lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Me? I was swept up with the sweet-savory play between peanut butter and strawberry preserves punctuated by the soft crunch of peanut butter macarons. Heaven.


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