My Top 10 Eats of 2021
What a year. On the downside, normal is still far more of a concept than a reality. But on a bright note, my favorite eats this year are not comprised solely of takeout foods. I actually was able to dine outside at restaurants, and a couple times even indoors when the situation felt especially safe. So, there is that.
Whether you are comfortable dining indoors, only outdoors or just through delivery or takeout orders, please continue to support your local restaurants, which still need you more than ever.
To stoke your appetite to do so, here are my Top 10 eats of this year, in no particular order:
- Basuku Cheesecake. If you’ve never tried one of these dreamy Basque-style cheesecakes, you owe it to yourself to wake up early, drive to the appointed pickup spot, get in line and jump through whatever other hoops it takes to lay your hands on one. Trust me, it’s worth it. So worth it, that after you try one, you’ll gladly do this all over again, just to enjoy another one. What makes this cheesecake so exceptional is its deeply burnished top that gives it an incredible burnt caramel taste, not to mention its uncanny texture, which starts out firmer on the edges and turns softer as you move inward until nearly creme caramel-like at its very center. It’s hard to be thankful for much during shelter-in-place, but if anything, it’s that it gave owner Charles Chen the time and impetus to perfect his Basuku cheesecakes.
2. Grilled banana and caviar with savory dulce de leche at Californios in San Francisco. Few dishes sear themselves into memory for all time, but this one certainly does. Who has the audacity to try pairing sweet banana with salty caviar and a savory version of caramelized milk jam? And who actually makes that unlikely trio work with boldness, balance, and sheer cleverness? That would be Chef Val Cantos of the only Michelin-starred Mexican cuisine restaurant in the world. This dish is seductive and voluptuous. It is warm and cold, sweet and savory, and velvety yet with pops of crunchiness. It expands your horizons and takes your palate on a moonshot ride.
3. “Spinach, chickpeas, and blood sausage” at La Bande at The Proper Hotel in San Francisco. I never thought I’d get this excited about garbanzo beans. Not that I don’t appreciate nutty-tasting chickpeas. It’s just that a bean dish never hit me over the head quite like this one did. It’s an assuming jumble of chickpeas, spinach, raisins, pine nuts, and diced blood sausage. But wow, does it hit every taste bud and offer up a playground of textures in every bite. It’s savory, nutty, sweet, and porky-rich — a satisfying meal in and of itself, if you so choose. And it heralds the return of Chef Jason Fox, late of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Commonwealth, back at the helm of a restaurant in top form.
4. Yam stones at Be.Steak.A in Campbell. There are many things to like about this upscale steakhouse that Chef-Owner Jeffrey Stout opened during the pandemic — from the award-winning decor to the handmade pastas, luxe small bites, and delightful cocktails. But the one dish that I won’t ever be able resist ordering is the yam stones. The name doesn’t give much of a clue as to their unique quality. These are no ordinary roasted sweet potatoes, but mashed yams combined with mochiko (sweet rice) flour to create gnocchi that are crisp on the outside and playfully chewy within. They are perched atop truffled sour cream and dusted with fennel pollen. Seven come to an order, and I guarantee you’ll be arm-wrestling for the last one on the platter.
5. Pork steamed bun at Abaca in San Francisco. Initially, my husband suggested we share one pork bun at Chef Francis Ang’s beautiful, new upscale Filipino restaurant. Good thing I went with my instincts and ordered two instead. Because these are so sublime you will want an entire one to savor all to yourself. The house-made steamed bun can’t be missed, not with its charcoal-colored hue. It’s pillowy soft, caressing a thick, melty slab of pork belly that fairly squirts fatty juices at the first bite. Its richness is offset by bright, tangy, and just spicy enough pineapple kimchi. Pork buns may have fallen into the realm of the mundane these days, but these soar righteously to a new level of deliciousness.
6. Bakwan (corn fritters) at Warung Siska in Redwood City. After more takeout food in two years than I’ve probably ever had in an entire lifetime, I’ve learned that when you get fried foods to-go, you take a big gamble that more often than not doesn’t pay off. After too many limp fries and fried chicken breading that softens and flecks off, my expectations have plummeted. These corn fritters restored my faith. Big time. Even after a nearly 40-minute drive home, they held up remarkably well, eliciting an audible crunch when I bit into these deeply golden fritters. Chef Siska Silitonga’s large, lacy Indonesian fritters are made with sweet corn kernels, okra, green onions, and aromatic Makrut lime leaves. Enjoy them dunked into a spicy, tangy, umami-filled dipping sauce. The are so addictive that they might just become your new favorite takeout food ever.
7. Aged Sonoma duck at The Matheson in Healdsburg. With everything from specialty pizzas, house-cured charcuterie and nostalgic push-up pops to a sushi counter overseen by a master Japanese chef and an expansive 88-bottle cuvee wine wall, this three-story restaurant-come-playland for foodies made a dazzling debut this year. Chef-Owner Dustin Valette has created a restaurant that appeals to varying appetites and pocketbook-sizes. It’s impressive on many levels, not the least of which is this duck dish. I’ve eaten a lot of duck this year — from ones cooked at home to others ordered to-go. None has matched the depth of flavor of flesh and crackling crispiness of skin as this one. With supporting players that included caramelized persimmon, slices of juicy duck-pork sausage, and an Okinawan sweet potato so beautifully smoky and charred it looked like a roasted beet, this dish sang of fall-winter like nothing else.
8. Goat curry at Amber India at Santana Row in San Jose. It’s only on the menu at the San Jose location of this venerable upscale Indian restaurant. Even then, it sometimes disappears from the printed menu, though, you can usually still get it if you ask your server for it. Believe you me, the goat curry is worth requesting, too. The goat is slow braised until it practically falls off the bones by itself. The luscious meat is enveloped in an aromatic blend of chilies and spices, including fenugreek, and a shower of fresh slivered ginger. If you’ve never had goat before, don’t fear. It’s not gamey or aggressive-tasting. It’s simply the epitome of a comforting, homey dish that still manages to excite.
9. “Old Delhi-style butter chicken” at Saffron Indian Bistro in San Carlos. If you order to-go food from this sister restaurant to Michelin-starred Rasa in Burlingame, you have two different choices for butter chicken: “Saffron’s Famous Butter Chicken” and “Old Delhi-Style Butter Chicken.” If you eat at the restaurant, though, you only have the option of the latter. And that is all just fine because the “Old Delhi” version is the one not to miss. Don’t get me wrong, the creamy, buttery “Saffon’s Famous” version deserve its accolades. But the “Old Delhi” one will stop you in your tracks. A recreation of a beloved childhood favorite of Owner Ajay Walia, this one is technicolor orange-red in color with a bold personality to match. Rather than a glug of heavy cream, this one doubles-down on the tomato instead to create a rich, deeply flavorful sauce that gets a huge dose of smokiness from the chicken that’s first charred before being added in. You’ll find yourself mopping up every last drop of sauce with any bread you can get your hands on.
10. Garlic-cheese pull-apart roll from BakeSum in Oakland. A former pop-up in Berkeley that now has a brick-and-mortar in Oakland, BakeSum turns out imaginative Asian-inflected pastries with impeccable French baking techniques. You’re sure to be pleased no matter what you get. But if it’s available, do treat yourself to a garlic cheese pull-apart roll. It’s as crisp and flaky-layered as a croissant, but because it’s a pull-apart, it has far more edges, ridges and corners with which to turn caramelized and crunchy. It is pungent with roasted garlic and nutty cheesiness. In short, it is a palm-sized piece of heaven.