After seasoning a lamb dish spectacularly, my leftover ras el hanout had been languishing forlornly in my pantry.
Remnants of this aromatic and punchy Moroccan spice blend were badly in need of a purpose and home.
Thankfully, the ideal one arrived in the form of “Chewy Ginger Spice Cookies with Ras El Hanout.”
Ras El Hanout is Arabic for “top shelf.” Like liquor at a bar, it connotes the best a mixologist or spice shop owner has to offer.
It’s a blend that can consist of more than a dozen spices, including cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, coriander, peppercorns, paprika, fenugreek, turmeric, fennel seeds, aniseed, and galangal.
I’ve always associated it with savory cooking. But this clever cookie recipe demonstrates just how well it takes to sweet preparations, as well.
When you enter Nisei in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood, you may experience a little deja vu if you’ve dined at Michelin two-starred Californios in SoMa.
The walls are a dramatic dark charcoal, just like at that daring, high-end Mexican restaurant. Both establishments were designed by Carolyn Cantu, co-owner of Californios, to create a cloistered yet elegant atmosphere. Some of the plateware are rough-hewed. minimalist matte gray at both, too.
And of course, there’s also an uncanny banana-caviar dish at each that will leave you talking long after you’ve taken the last bite.
It’s all not by coincidence, but in tribute, as Nisei Chef David Yoshimura was formerly the chef de cuisine of Californios. He opened Nisei in August to spotlight washoku cuisine or Japanese home-cooking that has deep reverence for seasonality and purity of flavor, and is often centered around rice.
In other words, don’t come expecting California rolls and chicken teriyaki. In much the same way that Chef Val Cantu doesn’t do burritos necessarily, but has broadened the definition of Mexican food, Yoshimura, who also worked at New York’s cutting-edge wd-50, does so with Japanese-American food, serving a 12-course tasting menu for $184.
Nisei does not offer outside dining, though its Bar Iris next door, which serves up Asian-inspired craft cocktails and small bites, has a parklet. If you dine inside at Nisei, the host will carefully check your ID and proof of vaccination before seating you. When I was invited in as a guest of Nisei recently, the restaurant actually let my husband and I sit by ourselves in the private dining room — with its own portable air filter system off in a corner — since the room wasn’t otherwise booked.
While the main dining room is adorned with brightly colored murals, the private dining room is more sedate with a gorgeous kimono hanging on one wall, and a unique triptych on another that’s over-layed with gold leaf designed to flake off over time, altering the work’s composition naturally. Fleetwood Mac and other classic rock tunes play over the sound system to impart a casualness to it all, despite the room’s inherent grace.
One of the few Indonesian restaurants in the Bay Area, Warung Siska opened with a splash this year in downtown Redwood City, providing a real pop of joy in this dismal pandemic.
The space was formerly Nam Vietnamese Brasserie, which was opened by restaurateur Anne Le Ziblatt just weeks before the pandemic hit. Rather than reopen as is, Le Ziblatt decided to team with Chef Siska Silitonga and Ervan Lim, managing partner of Napa’s Live Fire Pizza, to start anew with an entirely different concept.
Perhaps it was kismet that the Indonesia-born Silitonga and Lim would join forces with Le Ziblatt, who fled Vietnam with her family and wound up in a Jakarta refugee camp, where local Indonesian families would help sustain them with homemade food.
Warung Siska is a tribute to the warmth and vivacity of the culture and cuisine, serving up Indonesian dishes full of big, bold, unforgettable flavors you’ll find yourself craving time and again.
The restaurant has no outdoor seating, and requires proof of vaccination to dine indoors. However, if your preference is takeout instead, you’ll be glad to know that the food travels quite well, which I discovered when the restaurant invited me to sample a to-go order recently.
When I interviewed Le Ziblatt for a story in the Nob Hill Gazette earlier this year, she told me one of Silitonga’s dishes that absolutely blew her away from the get-go was the bakwan (corn fritters, $13). I heartily agree. These golden, crisp and lacy fritters, each the size of my entire hand, are chock full of corn kernels, okra, and green onions. Makrut lime leaves give them an irresistible perfume and floral-citrus note. Best yet, they actually stayed crisp until I drove home with them nearly 40 minutes later.
I’m sure I’m not alone in mourning the 2019 closure of Michelin-starred Commonwealth in San Francisco due to a rent dispute. With its laid-back vibe, skillful ingredient-driven cooking, and a tasting menu with a price that didn’t leave you shell-shocked, Commonwealth was the kind of place every city would be glad to have.
Its chef-owner Jason Fox moved on — in a big way. He went from overseeing one restaurant to three when he was scooped up by The Proper Hotel in downtown San Francisco. As its executive chef, he now oversees Villon restaurant, the trendy Charmaine’s rooftop bar, and La Bande, formerly a coffee shop that he’s since turned into a tapas place.
Fox’s arrival was to have been heralded with a big splash. But because it occurred in January 2020 — two months before all restaurants would be forced to shut down due to a worldwide pandemic — that never really came to fruition. Instead, he was left to deal with navigating an ever-changing roster of health mandates.
With the Bay Area in a much better place than it was last year, Fox has now been able to roll out the plans he had all along.
A couple weeks ago, I was invited in as a guest to enjoy an overnight stay at the hotel, as well as dinner at the newly revamped La Bande, a compact yet cozy space resembling a Spanish mercado with a few indoor seats, as well as tables outside, which is where my husband and I dined.
How fortunate is San Francisco to have the only Michelin two-starred Mexican restaurant in the world?
Now, chances are that in your lifetime, you’ve had more than your fill of tacos and tostadas.
But not the way they and other dishes are interpreted at Californios.
This is Mexican cuisine that is elevated, elegant, exhilarating.
Last year, Californios relocated from its snug spot in the Mission District to a roomier property in SoMa, which formerly housed Bar Agricole. Following a remodel and the throes of the pandemic, it opened its doors earlier this spring.
While Bar Agricole didn’t really make use of its sizeable front patio, Californios certainly has. High walls encircle it, painted deep, matte charcoal gray like the restaurant’s interior. Steel beams run across the top, from which large light fixtures dangle. In case of rain, there is a retractable roof, with space between it and the top of the walls to allow for air flow.
My husband and I sat at one of the white tablecloth-draped tables outside, which had heaters both above it and to the side to provide ample warmth, no matter how chilly the evening. Done up with potted plants, the patio has a chic starkness to it.