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Our Year In Seven Stellar Meals
An excellent rock cod, with cocktail, at Outerlands.

As we say goodbye to 2011, many food folks in town have been quick to say that 2011 was nothing compared to the heady days of 2010, when a new and excellent restaurant seemed to be opening every week and a crop of ambitious young chefs all, suddenly, came into their own. But this was a year of quieter discoveries and evolutions, a year in which last year’s newbies found their footing and matured, and a handful of terrific and stylish new restaurants emerged on the scene. Granted, we had nothing approaching the year this guy had, but we did our share of dining out. We remain fans of newcomers like Locanda, Txoko, and AQ, and we had amazing meals at Manresa, Bar Bambino, and Frances too. But a group of particularly notable dinners come to mind when we look back on 2011, and since this is the week of year-end roundups, we humbly offer up ours.

Earlier: Jonathan Kauffman Names Piccino’s Semolina Gnocchi and Bar Tartine’s Mullet Roe Toast as Favorite Dishes
The Year That Was: What Seventeen Local Chefs Will Remember About 2010

We were skeptical that we could still be impressed by Ubuntu, post-Jeremy Fox, but we heard nothing but good things about chef Aaron London’s first year in charge, and we had to give it a go. The audacity and inventiveness of London’s food made us quick fans, first with a “vichyssoise” with a light broth of artichoke, Rangpur lime, potato, and apple and garnished with Meyer lemon zest, miso-cured egg yolk, and some incredibly creamy smashed potatoes that were redolant of the garden. But most impressive may have been the simpler “garden-infused fiore” (pictured), a pasta dish that showcased height-of-the-season artichokes by using every part of the vegetable, including the leaves which were turned into a crispy tuille garnish. Like all great dishes, it was like rediscovering a familiar flavor through a new lens.   Ubuntu; 1140 Main Street, Napa; 707-251-5656
There’s an inherent theater to the presentation and service at Dominique Crenn’s small but showy restaurant in Cow Hollow. Our first meal there was nothing if not memorable, with more molecular gestures and painterly plates than we’ve been accustomed to in S.F. As the restaurant settles into its own (and into its first Michelin star), the dish that still sticks with us is this foie gras creation — more delicate than most foie gras dishes we’ve had, due in part to the unique preparation in which Crenn poaches the foie in milk and sea salt before freezing it and shaving it onto the plate. It was served with pickled morels, vanilla foam, tart kumquat crisps, pea leaves, and an almond crumble. It’s a gorgeous dish, and one of many that are still delighting people on Crenn’s complex menu. Some critics may complain that Crenn riffs too frequently on dishes by renowned chefs, but we say she’s a talented artist who knows one of the most important skills in art-making: borrowing just enough technique to get you inspired.   Atelier Crenn; 3127 Fillmore Street; 415-440-0460
Saison continues to grow in its Mission home, and some would say with their second Michelin star they’ve already outgrown it. Chef Joshua Skenes has nothing but luxury (and a third Michelin star) in mind in moving the place downtown to a new, as-yet-unannounced location near Jackson Square, but we are definitely going to miss the magic of their patio on a temperate S.F. night. Skenes’s menu has evolved week-by-week, growing to upwards of twelve courses these days. But still on the menu is his signature brassicas (pictured), a subtle but astounding dish of fire-roasted brassica leaves, toasted barley, and richly scented broth. Like Skenes’s sensual yet cerebral takes on local abalone, prawns, and game birds, it’s a dish that feels like the epitome of modern California food, in a restaurant that couldn’t exist in any other city but ours.   Saison; 2124 Folsom Street near 17th; 415-828-7990
During our first meal at three-year-old Bar Tartine after chef Nick Balla took the helm (and after he had installed his California-meets-Eastern Europe menu), we knew this place was going to be a game-changer. We don’t feel hesitant in saying that this is our favorite restaurant in the Mission, and one of the most unique and exciting restaurants in the city right now. Balla continues to push his crew not only to make their own rules, but also their own cheese, charcuterie, spices, and sour cream. The pickles are insane. The langos (fried potato bread) will never go out of style. Balla does wonders with blood sausage, fish stew, and anything involving fish roe. But the dish we keep coming back to is the grilled tripe — a sort of Hungarian-ized version of a similar dish Balla did during his brief stint at Nombe, with a similarly umami-rich broth — if only because we never, ever thought tripe could taste this good. Bar Tartine; 561 Valencia Street; 415-487-1600
Outerlands didn’t open this year, but it took us until this year to hoof it out to the Outer Sunset to try it out. The bright and satisfying plates being put out by former Coi and Saison sous chef Brett Cooper are complemented by a concise but cool wine list and a nightly changing selection of well-crafted cocktails by owner and resident mixologist Dave Muller. Our excellent, mid-summer meal included some pan-fried sardines with quinoa and pole-bean salad; a perfectly cooked piece of rock cod (pictured) with roasted corn, walla walla onions, friarelli peppers and a smoky potato purée; and a confit duck leg with garnet-red beets, vadouvan, charred onions, roasted grapes, and sorrel. It was a meal befitting a much fancier place, but of course it’s the weathered, driftwood-like paneling and the distant-neighborhood feel of the place that are its biggest charms. You may end up waiting, cocktail in hand, for one of a handful of tables, but the whole time you’ll feel like you just escaped to a small, foggy beach village on the Lost Coast, without ever leaving town.   Outerlands; 4001 Judah Street at 45th; 415-661-6140
We could have easily included a dinner at Marlowe on this list, because the first effort by owner Anna Weinberg and chef-partner Jennifer Puccio remains as solid as when it opened (we still dream about the poulet vert). But when the duo opened their new, four-times-as-large, North Beach brasserie, it was obvious we had come face to face with S.F.’s next restaurateur to be reckoned with. Puccio’s food, now with a slightly larger palette of ingredients and a longer menu, is as witty as it is faithful to bistro traditions. Our meal of anchovy-rich deviled eggs; tangy, well seasoned, smoked fish dip (pictured); a light and clever twist on a Waldorf salad; a succulent, thick pork chop; and “birthday cake” (a new, multi-layered cake appears on the menu each month, in honor of an employee’s birthday, which when we were there was a perfect coconut cake with at least four layers), was a casual and comforting thing. And it’s the kind of suave casual that only the most skilled chefs can pull off. This is a restaurant that feels like an instant landmark, and that’s no small feat.   Park Tavern; 1652 Stockton Street at Union; 415.989.7300
Closing out the year we returned to one of our favorite places, and one that we’re always recommending to friends from out of town as the sort of tiny, modest but astonishing little place that S.F. is so rich with. What we found was that Dennis Leary’s first solo venture (he’s since opened Sentinel, Golden West, and taken over the House of Shields), in a former hotel coffee shop, is as great as we remember. You’re greeted by the smell of the extra-buttery Parker House rolls (pictured), and you can’t go wrong with anything on the well-edited, three-course menu. They’re now doing prix-fixe dinners on Tuesday and Saturday, but we were there for a mid-week, à la carte dinner, beginning with an incredibly rich and perfect chestnut soup garnished with rabbit confit; then on to a deceptively light boneless veal short-rib served atop yellow peas in a wintry broth, and garnished with a modified sauce gribiche of chopped egg, mustard, and capers; and finishing with the signature vanilla soufflé, which is just as fluffily heart-warming as always. But that veal short-rib … we’ll keep remembering that until we can hopefully have it again next winter. It spoke to Leary’s great strengh: a seemingly effortless balance of texture, depth, and acid that takes a rustic dish and turns it into something artful and, above all, memorable.   Canteen; 817 Sutter Street; 415.928.8870
Our Year In Seven Stellar Meals