So many places opened in 2019; and so many places closed. Be it astronomical housing costs to an extremely tight labor pool and the rising price of ingredients, the Bay Area remains a challenging landscape for restaurants.
Still, they somehow manage to put their best forward day in and day out. Here are my favorite eats of the year (in no particular order) — the ones I still dream about, and the ones I’d race back for in a heartbeat. Enjoy! And cheers to even more delicious morsels in 2020.
At his Sushi Nagai on Union Square in San Francisco, Chef Tomonori Nagai may specialize in Edomae-style, considered the purest and one of the oldest forms of sushi, developed hundreds of years ago as a way to preserve fish in salt, vinegar or seaweed.
But he is not above putting his own spin on it with flair, wit and technique, as I found out when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant earlier this month. After all, where else can you get a play on a hot dog that’s fashioned from uni? But more on that later.
The restaurant, which is across the street from Macy’s, opened quietly in spring but is now having its grand opening.
San Francisco has seen a number of high-end omakase restaurants of late. Sushi Nagai joins that roster with menus priced at $200, $250, and $350-plus. Each comprises about 18 courses, with the more expensive menus featuring more premium ingredients and intricate dishes. At the media dinner I attended, we were treated to the $350 menu.
Growing up in the small coastal town of Iwaki, Nagai had wanderlust and thought the best opportunity to explore more of the world was to become a French cuisine chef. But after a stint at a hotel in Tokyo, where he ended up working the sushi bar because they were short-handed, he found his voice in his native Japanese cuisine.
After working at Morimoto in Honolulu, where he ended up serving sushi to then-President Barack Obama, and the Michelin-starred Shinji by Kanesaka in Singapore, he was recruited to head the new sushi restaurant in San Francisco.
If you’re a fan of Burma Superstar’s signature Burmese tea leaf salad, you’ll be glad to know it’s never been easier to make a version at home now.
No more hunting around fruitlessly for fermented tea leaves or any of the other specialty ingredients needed. Burma Superstar’s new Burma Love Foods Company has put together a Fermented Tea Leaf Salad Kit. It’s vegan to boot.
The kit, which should be kept refrigerated until used, comes complete with the already made fermented tea leaf dressing made with organic tea leaves, as well as Burmese Crunchy Mix, which is a blend of crispy yellow split peas, toasted sunflower seeds, fried garlic chips, sesame seeds and roasted peanuts.
The Kitchen in Sacramento offers a Michelin-starred dining experience like no other.
It is like fine-dining in the middle of a rollicking three-ring circus with Executive Chef Kelly McCown its ring leader, bellowing warm welcomes, directions for the evening, and goofy jokes the entire time.
Banish any thoughts of a starred restaurant being staid, stuffy, stiff or oppressive. This is as far from that as it gets.
Earlier this fall, my husband, his nephew and I decided to check out the restaurant, paying our own way. Although my husband and his nephew grew up in Sacramento, this was the first time for all of us to The Kitchen, which opened in 1991, and has long been regarded as one of the Capitol’s best restaurants. We figured there was no time better than now, when the Michelin Guide expanded this year to encompass the entire state of California, and awarded Sacramento’s only star to The Kitchen.
Nothing quite prepares you for this singular experience, though. Dining at The Kitchen is like dinner and a show — all in one.
The dining room is taken up by the open-kitchen that has seats all round it. Around the perimeter of the room, there are more tables, all bar-height — all the better to see the kitchen that’s akin to a theater stage, only with flames and the most delicious smells.
Immediately, you’re encouraged to walk around most anywhere — through the wine cellar, into the courtyard, into the open kitchen, and into the back production kitchen.