Monday, May 31, 2010

Recent restaurant favorites

I've been to some wonderful new (to me) restaurants in the past couple weeks, and I wanted to spread the word...

BAR JULES (San Francisco)
Before every concert in our San Francisco Symphony series, my friend Laura Eklund and I go out to dinner. (I wouldn't go so far as to say the concert provides the pretext for a nice meal out, but it certainly provides the opportunity!) Our last concert (and dinner) of the season was a couple of weeks ago… As we talked over this past year, we agreed that only three of our six meals had been particularly memorable (i.e., definitely worth a return visit): Zuni Café, Absinthe Brasserie, and Bar Jules. We'd delayed checking out this last place because they were not taking reservations. However, this policy has recently changed — although they have not yet updated their website.

We ate simply at Bar Jules: Laura had a salad and a cheeseburger; I had soup and salad. But everything we ordered was pretty much perfect. My asparagus soup was simple and delicious: a lovely clear chicken broth with rice, sliced asparagus spears, and shreds of prosciutto. The salad of fresh-picked greens was lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, tossed with fresh fava beans, and sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese. It's the kind of food that makes you feel like you're doing something good for your body — especially your taste buds.

Their desserts were spectacular. Even Laura, who doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, agreed that they were worth every calorie. We didn't leave a crumb of the "chocolate nemesis" (a flourless but surprisingly un-heavy chocolate cake) or the buttery, not-too-sweet frangipane tart topped with strawberries and whipped cream. That's right: we got two desserts — and they were both shockingly good.

Recommendations: Go. Remember to make a reservation. And save room for dessert.
I had dinner at Dametra Café with my sisters last Saturday night. My sister Shannon had been to Dametra a couple of times before, and what had struck her particularly on previous visits was the warmth and effusiveness of the staff. We had the same experience that night. The tiny place is very popular and was quite crowded: new parties were still coming in when we left about 10:30. But they made the most of the available space, frequently asking diners to shift their tables so as to accommodate newcomers. But everyone was so friendly and the mood so hospitable that the limited elbow room made the place feel homey and cozy, rather than uncomfortably tight.

Dametra is very popular, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine (pizza, pasta, Greek and Middle-Eastern specialties). The food is fresh, simply prepared, and reasonably priced. Most memorable dishes:
  • the spanakopitas were the best I've ever had, with a flaky pastry that had more texture than the usual filo dough — don't miss!
  • wonderful Greek salad with feta cheese mixed into the vinaigrette
  • excellent chicken souvlaki: moist and flavorful
Recommendations: Make a reservation. Be prepared to rub elbows with the other diners! And dress in layers: it was quite warm in the restaurant the night we were there.
VIOGNIER (San Mateo)
On Sunday, Lisa Sherman treated Judith Bishop and me to a wonderful dinner at Viognier in San Mateo. It is situated above Draeger's Market (the fanciest grocery store I've ever visited!), and the easiest way to find the restaurant is to go through the market, which makes for an entertaining detour.

You create your prix-fixe meal by choosing any three items from their menu. All the offerings sounded so good that we had a hard time choosing (of course, I always have a hard time choosing!). Fortunately, our waiter was able to give us helpful suggestions, including wine pairings. Every dish we tried was beautifully prepared and presented. These were my favorites—yum!
  • house-made ricotta cavatelli (a dense pasta somewhat reminiscent of gnocchi) with mushroom ragout and spinach cream
  • house-smoked pork belly (a large chunk of meat, surprisingly lean) glazed with harissa and served on a bed of tiny French lentils with just-tender cauliflowerets
  • beef short ribs with creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed baby turnips (my leftovers made a great sandwich the next day!)
  • orange soufflé with hazelnut-chocolate sauce
  • an interesting selection of cheeses, including a Utah cheddar crusted with coffee and lavender
Wonderful wines we tried:
We were astonished at the end of the evening to realize we'd been there for nearly three hours! The relaxed and leisurely pacing of the meal allowed us to savor all the dishes.

Recommendation: This would be a great choice when you want a special meal in an elegant but unpretentious setting (and you happen to be in San Mateo...).
Price: expensive but worth it ($55 prix fixe for three courses; $85 for a four-course tasting menu)
Service: excellent and attentive; our knowledgeable and helpful waiter made great recommendations of both food and wine
Ambiance: white-tablecloth elegant and very quiet on a Sunday night

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