September 14, 2017


 It felt, at first, a little bit like flying first class. In part, because of our seats: comfy, caramel-colored leather cushions that would fit right in on row 2A. Then came the hot towels, followed by the soothing voice of our server inquiring whether we’d like something to drink.

Yes, please. The tightly curated beer list, minus the standard Sapporo, was calling. Then again, so was the sake. I started with the “72 Clocks” Daiginjo, which refers to the time it takes the Hiroshima-based brewery to polish the rice. It came in an earthy, mini-ceramic pitcher that emptied far too fast for $19, accompanied by a feather-light glass as delicate and clean as the sake itself.

Robin’s omakase-only menu bridges Japan and California as smoothly as an A380 Dreamliner, but otherwise any similarities to the in-flight experience ended as soon as the first dish (of at least a dozen) landed on the table. Airplane food this is not.

It’s the kind of sushi experience San Francisco has long lacked: one that’s neither austere nor Ace Wasabi. Where going out for serious fish doesn’t have to mean a boring menu, bright lights, and brisk service and an unpretentious, dimly lit, sexy scene doesn’t have to mean sake bombs and monster-sized, cream cheese-stuffed maki rolls named after aging rock stars.

Now my perfect sushi night — the perfect sushi night — can mean Robin.

It also means spendy. Robin charges $79 dollars (and up) per person for 15 or so pieces. Tack on an additional sea urchin dish — or five — and suddenly your tab goes from a $200 treat to an oops-we-just-spent $500 event.

But compared to other top omakase spots in the city, the procession of dishes is a solid value, especially when it includes a velvety A5 Wagyu, gently seared, and streaked with Half Moon Bay-cultivated wasabi (that’s been grated on shark skin, by the way), then showered with frozen foie gras “snow.” As well as a bowl of hand-pulled chilled sesame noodles blanketed with Australian black truffles. And uni. Lots of uni. Premium stuff, plucked off coasts everywhere, from Santa Barbara to Baja to Chile, to yes, Hokkaido.

Plus, it’s cheaper than therapy, which is also what my two tableside evenings at Robin brought to mind. In his calm, caring way, our sushi server felt more like our sushi therapist. He leaned in, stared into our eyes, and asked the hard questions: Do we prefer fatty and rich? Or lean and clean? What don’t we like? How do we feel about raw meat? And above all: Are we even uni fans?

I am. My friend was not. “Oh, Adam converts people,” he warned. (Not her: even the creamy, dreamy uni-topped wagyu tartare on a crisp, toasted nori chip with Asian pear, failed to win her affection.)

Adam, as in Adam Tortosa, Robin’s chef-owner who cut his toro in LA under Katsuya Uechi. (And keeps a framed, signed letter from him in the loo to let you know.) He spent the last two years honing his skills at Akiko (which is now my second favorite sushi place).

Robin’s sushi bar — a wide, beautiful slab of slate set just above the wood bar, so diners can watch the four-man team slicing and molding, tweezing and torching — is unlike most sushi bars of its kind. Most obviously because it’s run by a white guy.

One who looks like a younger, blonder Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer. And who has the utmost respect for Japanese tradition. He just isn’t wedded to it, as evidenced by his ingredients on display: hunks of fresh peaches; purees of Granny Smith apples; a tray of house-made potato chips; plastic containers of tomato confit and charred salsas; a lab-like line-up of squeeze bottles filled with ponzu and aged soy alongside heretical horseradish-based sauces. (“Why don’t sushi chefs use horseradish?” he pondered aloud. “It’s like America’s wasabi and no one touches it!”)

Also baffling to Tortosa: sushi chefs’ reliance on fish from Japan. “I don’t know why people don’t use the fish off our coast,” he said, slicing us the buttery-smooth belly of an albacore caught this morning on its way up to Canada. “I mean, it’s right fucking here!”

He laid a sliver of local fig across a steelhead from a sustainable trout farm up in Lassen. He spooned a serving of smoked white sturgeon caviar from Sacramento onto a ramp aioli-dipped house-made potato chip. He painted a fat, creamy slab of uni, from Fort Bragg, with a sticky-sweet, sunny-yellow shiro dashi-emulsified egg yolk that, together, tasted like I’d just dove into the ocean on a hot summer day. I wanted to do it again.

And on a beautiful Matsukawa starry flounder from Japan, he placed a pinch of grapefruit and a single shred of opal basil. Somehow, its slight spice belonged — with the mild, firm fish, and the tart citrus, and the sweet ponzu — as if basil has been a sushi staple for centuries.

The unlikely herb was at home atop a New Zealand king salmon, too, which was almost as red as its sweet tomato confit and layered with a silky whipped tofu.

In a way that’s not tacky or tasteless but subtle and seamless — and respectful of his painstakingly sourced product — Tortosa manages to combine improbable flavors and textures to make each nigiri something more than just a piece of fish.

Every dish was a work of art, worthy of the ceramic vessel it was served in. Each piece is handmade in Richmond by Jered’s Pottery (aka the new Heath). Apart from the pinch-pot chopstick rests that looked like my kids could’ve made them, it was impressive to see how much effort went into matching tableware to ocean fare.

A smooth bone-colored bowl was ringed in the same soft yellow hue as the diced galia melon with magochi sashimi, its delicate flavor enlivened by thin slices of Serrano. I especially loved the smooth, palm-sized bath my ‘onsen Jidori egg’ came in. A single egg cooked sous vide to a pudding-like consistency when swirled, popping with trout roe and chives and floating alongside meaty strips of maitake in a rich, dashi-soy broth. We slurped the broth, somewhat awkwardly, with wooden spoons that were a little too deep, like shrunken versions of the ladles worshippers use to wash their hands before entering a Shinto shrine.

Really, the only let downs came toward the end of each night. Once, I opted to finish with an albacore and grilled onion hand roll. It wilted into something resembling a flattened tube of tuna toothpaste and became chewy to the point of almost choky. I tried to “eat it before the nori melts,” like our sushi therapist advised, but apparently I couldn’t eat that quickly.

So the next time, I went for a real dessert, the only dessert: soft serve. (I love soft serve. But enough already, San Francisco!) Even if it was made with sake lees from Bayview and scattered with pistachios and blueberries, it was bland. Plus, I’d rather drink my sake.

Oh, and then there was the bill. Also not a highlight, as it was high, especially for a mellow Monday night. But, like a first class ticket on a transpacific flight, if you’ve got the money . . . it’s most definitely worth the splurge.


City Counter

I will do breakfast, dinner, after-work drinks with anyone, anytime. But that whole “Wanna grab some lunch?” thing? Eh, no thanks. Like most office types these days, I prefer to grab and go. And eat solo — #SadDeskLunch style.

No offense. It’s not you. It’s just… lunch, the least fun meal of the workday. It’s hard to have a good time with meetings and deadlines looming. Moreover, the standard downtown fare is rarely worth the time it takes to eat it anyway. A three-hour, three-martini outing would be a blast, but who really does that on a regular basis anymore?

I’m not alone in my anti-lunch sentiments: Americans ate 433 million fewer midday meals out last year; 2016 was the lowest lunch traffic in four decades according to market research firm NPD.

Delivery is up, and company cafeterias are taking over. Still, the “meet-me-at-Mixt-at-noon” monotony was clearly in need of a makeover.

Enter City Counter, which opened in May in the old Standard Oil building, in San Francisco’s Financial District. By bringing contemporary (organic, local, sustainable) ingredients to the classic lunch-counter model, first-time restaurateur Harper Matheson hopes to revive a dying tradition: the lunch date.

City Counter’s tagline, “Quality Luncheonette” — scrawled on every plate in an evocative cursive — rings true. The cozy, old-school feelings it purports to conjure up, though, not so much.

Matheson wrote on her Kickstarter page: “I don’t want to just serve you a delicious, satisfying sandwich. I want to make you feel the way I did when my mom took me to lunch after we got my prom dress in Union Square.”

Hmm. Admirable, except the vibe feels more like “I just got an iPhone.” All white, from the tile to the 30 stools lining the 40-foot-long counter to the two-tops set against a wall of windows, City Counter looks more 2017 Apple Genius Bar than 1940s Woolworth’s lunch counter — mixed with 1980s bat mitzvah DJ. “We Are Family” and “Got to Be Real” blare overhead at a decibel level that’s a little too much for lunch. Then again, maybe Matheson is just trying to up the “fun”?

She’s done a bit of a better job upping the food, giving the sandwich the love and attention that, oddly enough, very few downtown lunch spots — other than Dennis Leary’s take-out window, the Sentinel — do.

Consulting chef Sean Thomas, of Blue Plate, came up with nine sandwiches that defy the typical grilled turkey-and-cheese scenario. All are made-to-order yet magically served within minutes (key for any successful lunch spot).

And some are noticeably better than others. Like the Mezzogiorno: a fatty, fabulous hot mess of pistachio-studded mortadella, roasted pork loin and belly, smoked mozzarella, and hot cherry peppers on toasted Acme white bread. The tuna melt, closed-faced on toasted sourdough, with red onion, pickled celery, and a gooey, delicious three-cheese fondue, reminds me that tuna melts, when done right, deserve some respect.

The roast beef is stuffed with slow-cooked tri-tip, on the rare side and sliced thin, with spicy pickled carrots and red peppers on a roll smeared with garlic aioli and a house-made pimento cheese spread that I was happy to see again, as a $1 addition to the deviled egg salad sandwich.

You’ve got to be a real deviled egg lover to love that one. As just a deviled egg liker, I was overwhelmed by what seemed like a carton’s worth crammed between two slices of soft, unapologetic white bread. I was lured by the promise of “crushed salt & vinegar chips” inside the sandwich. A brilliant idea, but unfortunately, there was barely any crunch.

I’m also a beet hater. Blasphemy, I know. But from across the table (the only table in the long narrow space, by the way, that fits a trio and comes with chairs), I could appreciate the beauty of the Reubenesque: smoked red and golden beets pressed between thick slabs of perfectly toasted rye, with pickled cabbage and sharp cheddar that oozed like strawberry swirl. I tried one bite and it tasted like… beets, as beets do; my friend devoured the rest. He declared the beets to be a little too flimsy. I declared I wish City Counter had a real Reuben. Or at least a patty melt.

It would no doubt be better than the Counter Club, which was too bready and bulky to determine if there was indeed anything counter about it.

The salads, however, were crisp and creative. Despite the fact that they were so overdressed they’d make a Chez Panisse chef shiver, they beat any I’ve ever brought back to my office. The fresh peas and dried raspberries in the chopped spring pea were drowning in an otherwise tangy masala yogurt dressing. Purple and orange carrots, just pulled from the ground, were almost unidentifiable due to an abundance of a kaffir lime tahini in the roasted carrot. And the crispy chickpea and tuna: chunks of fresh tuna, cherry tomatoes, and (addictive) garlic peanuts came in a pool of Thousand Island dressing so deep, even my grandfather — who ate it by the bowl — would’ve disapproved.

But everyone’s grandmother — as well as non-gluttons of all ages — will applaud the aptly named Grammy Sammy: a single piece of white bread, spread with “counter sauce” (a mild garlic-Worcestershire aioli) and folded over a slice of mortadella and smoked cheddar. The menu states the Grammy Sammy “changes daily,” but it’s been the same since they opened, the smiley woman behind the iPad said.

No matter. It’s simple and sustaining and half the price of a latte at Blue Bottle next door. A decent $3 sandwich is a welcome addition to downtown San Francisco.

As is City Counter itself. It’s neither a power lunch nor a pathetic lunch, but a proper lunch. One worth occasionally ditching your desk to sit and eat, elbow-to-elbow, at a counter crowded with compatriots — perhaps even sip a root beer float — like people used to.


As the first San Francisco restaurant critic for Eater, I published reviews every other week. 

Restaurants aren’t entirely unlike people. Each one is unique, striving to forge its own identity, place, and purpose in a crowded city. Some you grow close to; others you eventually drift away from. And when, like an old friend, a restaurant falls off your radar, years later you might reflect, fondly or otherwise, and wonder what’s become of it.

That’s what happened with me and Walzwerk. Last time I was there, in the early aughts, I’d had a fight with my boyfriend and then never went back; something to do with birthdays and bad habits and too much beer. Because at Walzwerk, which pours only Germany’s best, it’s easy to drink too much beer.

Tucked among tire stores and auto-repair shops on an otherwise desolate stretch of South Van Ness Avenue, Walzwerk isn’t the kind of restaurant that gets much foot traffic. Or online traffic. (A San Francisco restaurant without its own Instagram page? Heresy!) In fact, after 18 years, Walzwerk doesn’t get much attention at all.

Which is why it’s the kind of restaurant you might easily forget about. Until one day, for no reason whatsoever, you’re waiting for Muni and suddenly think: Hey, whatever happened to Walzwerk?

Fueled more by nostalgia than a hankering for herring, I decided to find out.

Honestly, I’d assumed the place had closed, like most out-of-sight, out-of-mind midlist restaurants you never hear of anyone going to anymore. But a quick peek at Yelp revealed it was “Open now.” I rang to see about availability for that night, a Thursday, and heard something rarely uttered by a reservationist in this town: “Just come in anytime,” said a woman with a thick German accent. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

True enough, around 6:30 p.m., as I pulled open the heavy wooden door — marked with a multilingual metal sign that read, “You are now leaving the American Sector” — Walzwerk was indeed empty, save for two dudes with steins of Köstritzer Schwarzbier and plates heaped with enough food for Thanksgiving.

Like the time warp Walzwerk aims to be, it looked just like I remembered: a scattering of sturdy, mismatched tables straight out of a 1950s accountant’s office; vintage cushioned metal chairs, some still scrawled with black Sharpie on their backs; framed albums of 1970s German disco stars; and life-size black-and-white posters of Lenin and Marx presiding over the dining room.

Plus, a hodgepodge of vintage tableware pillaged from flea markets over the years by owner Christiane Schmidt, who opened Walzwerk in 1999 with the goal of bringing a true East German restaurant to the Bavarian-heavy Bay Area. “This is one of my favorite plates,” said the smiley, bespectacled expat of a delicate floral pattern as she set down two irresistible appetizers: silky house-cured salmon with horseradish cream and dense “fitness bread” and a trio of lightly crisped potato pancakes with applesauce and chive sour cream. Then there was that herring, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise — pickled matjes in a sweet, lively sauce of sour cream, apples, and onions on a bed of butter lettuce.

As the sunlight that had been streaming in through the front windows began to fade, Christiane came around to light the little candle on every table. And more people began to pile in. These people, you could tell, had been here before: a motley crew of a dozen or so bound for the private room in back; a cute couple who beelined to the tiny, four-stool bar; graying parents who sat sipping their chilled German wine while they waited for their son and his girlfriend to arrive.

Rare is the San Franciscan who’d opt to eat heavy German food every week, let alone every month, which makes choosing among entrees especially hard. Pork schnitzel? Smoked pork chop? Bacon-stuffed tri-tip? Really, at Walzwerk, you can’t go wrong. Especially if you go with the jägerschnitzel, an unbreaded pork schnitzel on a bed of spätzle, topped in a rich mushroom cream sauce reminiscent of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup in the very best way. It’s been on the menu since day one, Christiane said with due pride, and has remained the most frequently ordered dish ever since.

The schnitzel — be it pork loin or chicken breast — is pretty much perfect. Pounded thin and coated thoroughly with breadcrumbs, it’s fried without tasting greasy and comes with buttery-smooth mashed potatoes — or boiled if you prefer — and a delicate cucumber salad that’s a refreshing counter to the schnitzel’s heft.

The grilled bratwurst, made with veal and pork, might be the best bratwurst in town. It’s so well seasoned and flavorful that it barely needed the accompanying spicy mustard and house-made sauerkraut, both of which (note to Walzwerk) were so good, they should be bottled.

Only the sauerbraten sounded better than it was: fat slices of beef marinated in a thick, sweet sauce strewn with golden raisins and paired with a duo of matzo-ball-sized mushroom bread dumplings that were dry and disappointing. The red cabbage it came with, however, had a subtle spice and was so delightful, we ordered an extra side. Same with the spätzle, light and eggy, gently browned little lumps that deserved an unadulterated bowl of its own.

There are a handful of other German spots in San Francisco, more popular German spots where every night is Oktoberfest, complete with groups guzzling from Das Boot. But if Suppenküche is a big, boisterous party at a Wirtshaus in Munich, Walzwerk is an intimate dinner party at the home of your best friend’s friend in Berlin.

An evening at Walzwerk truly is transportive, as the sign on its front door warns. “Leaving the American sector,” if only for a supper, is especially appealing these days. Leaving the current San Francisco sector occasionally is too. Walzwerk represents a return to a simpler time. A time before the ubiquity of Tolix stools and $16 cocktails and OpenTable (if you do want to make a reservation at Walzwerk, you’ve got to — gasp — call.) A time when I could drink too much Schneider Weisse and feel totally fine the next day.

As for the old boyfriend I last came here with, that relationship eventually died. As most restaurants do. Not Walzwerk. Walzwerk, I’m pleased to report, is very much alive.


A Mano

It’s a quiet Tuesday night in Hayes Valley, the kind of blustery, cold, blah Tuesday night when you’d expect people to stay in and order pho from Caviar or cook up their latest Sun Basket creation. There’s nothing going on at the nearby Nourse Theater, no symphony performing at Davies, no pricey shoe boutiques still open. There’s no reason, really, for anyone to be out and about. And strolling by old-timer Cafe Delle Stelle (plugging free bottles of wine with bills over $60) and newcomer Nightbird, it looks as if, indeed, they’re not. Apparently no one is in the mood for a heady $125 five-course tasting menu.

But round the corner to A Mano, and suddenly: crowds, Saturday-night-level crowds, visible through a wall of glass as squeaky clean as the spanking-new condos above. There are people seated at every one of the 90 seats; people crammed into the sliver of a bar sipping Negronis; people spilling onto the sidewalk as a perky host quotes hour-long waits.

Everyone, it seems, is in the mood for a $14 bowl of rigatoni.

A Mano (Italian for “by hand”) opened in early May with the goal of bringing affordable handmade pasta to a city where mint tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms has tipped toward $22. It aims to be the everylady’s Locanda. Or Cotogna. Or Tosca. Or La Ciccia… The list of San Francisco’s rustic Italian treasures goes on.

A Mano is the latest “concept from prolific restaurateur Adriano Paganini. And it’s a smart concept, if not an entirely new one. Pasta Pomodoro ring a bell? That was Paganini’s idea, too, back in 1994. At its peak, the chain had 40-something outposts, mostly throughout California, the last of which, under new ownership, closed last year. No big loss. It was a cheap, easy place to eat something edible and Italiany. It had no scene and it wasn’t supposed to.

But ever since, Paganini has been all about scene, or perhaps the proper word is packaging. In 2008, he turned his attention to pizza and figured out that if he enhanced the ambience and added exceptional cocktails — in a killer location — he’d be onto something. And he was: Beretta, on a sunny corner of Valencia Street, was an insta-hit, further popularizing the blistered crust-broccolini contorni trend that was already well underway.

Starbelly (Castro) and Delarosa (Marina) followed. He then wisely branched out to burgers, hawking humanely raised hamburgers for a reasonable $7.75 at Super Duper, which has 10 locations and counting around the Bay. And now — after adding a Belgian brasserie, tacos, and an Argentine steakhouse to his quiver — the Milan-born restaurateur has gone back to his roots: pasta.

The funny thing is, though, as I slid onto my stool, squeezing into the tightly packed communal table, my first thought was: This place reminds me of Pomodoro, just with sleeker digs and duck-liver mousse. And that was before I’d realized Paganini had anything to do with it.

 Aesthetically, it’s much cooler than that. The space is airy and oversized, with those floor-to-ceiling glass windows fronting the sidewalk, presumably chosen so passersby can peer in and see how much fun the hipsters are having.

Which they are. Filled with awkward first dates and rowdy tables of eight, everyone chatting, laughing, eating affordable food — which flies out of the open kitchen at a fairly rapid clip — A Mano feels like an adult cafeteria with cocktails. Call it arestauteriaa growing breed of eatery where essentially everything costs $16 or less; the kind of place that boasts all the accoutrements of a beloved San Francisco restaurant — but somehow lacks the soul of one.

There’s a muted red-white-and-green theme going on (Italy and all); bottles of Aperol and Campari lining the bar like artwork; track lighting (which they fiddled with throughout each night to get it right); and an especially warm, well-trained staff. Still, emotionally… A Mano feels kind of cold.

And, unfortunately, so did my pasta.

Not cold cold, in which case I would’ve just sent it back. More lukewarm, with pockets of varying temperatures, like a lake in summer. The problem, perhaps symptomatic of a slammed kitchen still finding its rhythm, plagued not just one pasta, but almost every pasta I had. (The agnolotti dal plin — rich, buttery pillows of pork, roast chicken, and chard — came out piping hot.)

The cauliflower bagna cauda was my favorite antipasti, roasted with garlic, lemon, torpedo onions, and chiles. The Monterey squid, too, which came in a tomato-rich stew of chickpeas and romanesco one night, summer corn another. Both were good, albeit not as good as similar iterations elsewhere.

There’s always a nightly special, like the Tuscan fried chicken with braised black kale, which was crisp and juicy and, at $20, the most expensive item on the menu. (If you really want to splurge, there’s a $95 bottle of brunello.)

The pizza at A Mano is not the focus. (Nor, after trying one topped with asparagus, green garlic, and anchovy, did it seem to me that it should be: the crust was doughy, and the asparagus mushy.) Which is why there are only two or three pizzas per night. And perhaps why, mysteriously, one evening around 7:30 p.m., we watched a delivery guy from Patxi’s, holding a box high above his head, work his way through the throngs to someone in the back.

The focus here, per Paganini’s plan, is on pasta. It’s handmade daily with durum, a finer ground semolina flour, under chef Freedom Rains, who cooked at Flour & Water and Incanto before heading the kitchen at Belga. He does seven generously portioned pastas nightly. They change frequently and always with the seasons.

Over three separate nights, I tried almost all of them. That agnolotti was the best of the bunch and probably what I’d order if I ever went back. (And I would, if I wanted more of a scene than, say, Souvla, before seeing Pop-Up Magazine or City Arts & Lecture.)

The spaghettini, tossed with clams and breadcrumbs, was firm, if dry, but flavorful enough to not render it a total mis-order. But while the pesto tagliatelle with pine nuts, fava beans, and English peas screamed spring — and was clearly made with fresh ingredients — the pasta itself tasted mealy. And the pesto was bland, as if Rains was told to play it safe.

Only the campanelle with broccoli di ciccio, a sweet heirloom broccoli, had any kick — and that’s because it was scattered with chile flakes. I actually witnessed more than one table request a side of chile flakes for their pastas mid-meal.

It’s what my rigatoni pork sugo needed, too. Like the others, it arrived sort of warm. While hearty, with hunks of braised meat, it lacked the depth and richness of a truly memorable sugo.

Therein lies the problem with a place like A Mano — there’s just too much in this town to compare it to. With every bite of my bucatini all’Amatriciana, I kept hoping it would become more like Locanda’s. (It didn’t.)

Paganini was quoted last year talking about what drives a successful company. “Why does someone open up one little retail store and somebody else becomes the Gap?” he said. Replace Old Navy with Super Duper and Belga with Banana and, hmm, maybe the Gap with A Mano, and Paganini has, in fact, built the edible version of the fashion empire —one that aims to please everyone without wowing anyone.

A Mano’s not going to win San Francisco’s heart, but when the bill comes around, suddenly a so-so sugo becomes a little easier to stomach.

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