Pier 5, The Embarcadero (near Pacific), 415-704-8866, www.coquetasf.com
Coqueta means “infatuated” in Spanish, and I have been infatuated with chef Michael Chiarello’s newish restaurant since the day it opened. This is Secret Asian Man’s kind of place: A Spanish joint run by an Italian chef who makes better rice than my Chinese mom. Don’t miss the octopus — tender, smoky, and grilled to perfection. The whole branzino (European sea bass) has delicate, crispy skin and the flesh is toothsome but flaky. The Gaucho ribeye for four is a behemoth of a steak, aged and cooked to rival the best steakhouses in the country. The signature dish, though, is the Iberico Secreto (see recipe, page 14), slices of medium-rare pork from the free-roaming, acorn-eating Iberico species native only to Spain.
199 Gough Street (at Oak), 415-355-9085, www.richtablesf.com
Chef Evan Rich always uses the very best seasonal ingredients, and the menu changes frequently so I never get bored (even when I visit multiple times in one week). When available, I always order the sea scallops — large and plump, seared to caramelized perfection and cooked just beyond translucence inside. The pasta is house made, including one Rich created and named for himself, the Richilini, sort of a fettucine with notches down the sides. The sardine chips (a whole sardine enrobed in a house-made chip and then fried) is as addictive as it is clever. The New York strip consistently rates as my favorite version of a New York steak in San Francisco; so simple, but it’s an impeccable piece of meat. This is also my first-date-go-to place (ask to sit at table 11 — it’s the most romantic in the house).
431 Bush Street (at Claude), 415-397-3218, www.akikosrestaurant.com
As long as it’s sustainable, owner Ray Lee Lee gets every exotic seafood from Japan you could imagine (he could probably get Godzilla sashimi if you asked for it). Even a common Japanese classic like tempura is special in Lee’s talented hands. Everything is seasonal, but when available try the ikura marinated in truffles; unprocessed Hokkaido uni (Japanese sea urchin simply cleaned and put back in the water it came from); the sous vide monk fish liver; and the 28-day aged Japanese wagyu beef dusted with autumn truffle.
1077 Mission Street (at Sixth), 415-431-1826, www.tbdrestaurant.com
The owners of TBD named their first restaurant AQ. Two stupid, uncreative names in a row would be unforgivable if the food weren’t so ridiculously creative and delicious. The tables have pullout drawers that hold napkins, silverware, and a menu (a nice touch). The best dishes: ribeye steak topped with pastrami; roasted potatoes topped with uni and slices of jalapeno; and beef tartare served with raw mustard greens (you roll it up like a lettuce wrap).
22 Hawthorne Street (at Howard), 415-685-4860, www.benusf.com
For special occasions like Valentine’s Day, you must check out the 13-course extravaganza from chef/owner and James Beard award winner Corey Lee at Benu. Formerly chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s renowned French Laundry, Lee is a master of innovative, visually striking dishes with equally stunning flavors. The thousand-year-old quail egg is a take on the ancient Chinese tradition (but much better); the lobster xiao long bao — Lee’s version of a Shanghai soup dumpling with lobster filling and a rich, warm broth inside that explodes when you take a bite — is a must; but the faux shark fin is probably the most unique item. Though Lee serves the “fin” other ways, my favorite preparation is in a soup with black truffle custard and crab meat.
Keiko à Nob Hill
1250 Jones (at Clay), 415-829-7141, www.keikoanobhill.com
Keiko is one of the few restaurants left in the city offering a truly romantic fine dining experience replete with patrons dressed to the nines and black napkins so your date won’t get white fuzz on her little black dress. The tasting menu changes frequently, but after over a half dozen visits, every course has been memorable. My favorite is the caramelized onion mousse with Osetra caviar, sea urchin, scallop tartare, and dashi gelee served in a clear glass vessel filled with cherry blossom smoke.
2821 California Street (at Divisadero), 415-440-1700, www.bpatisserie.com
I grew up with Belinda, so I was lucky enough to grow up eating the pastries that would eventually lead to jobs at top restaurants like Gary Danko and Manresa, critical accolades, and finally a bakery of her own. If you’ve gone all the way to Union Square for the pastries at Tout Sweet or schlepped to the Mission to the trendy Craftsman and Wolves, don’t bother — the best bakery is right here in the Northside. Her kouign-amann (pronounced “kwee nwa-man”) — a round, crusty cake made with bread dough containing layers of butter and sugar folded in and then slowly baked until the butter puffs up and the sugar caramelizes — is hands down the best you’ll ever eat, but even more common pastries like croissants and scones are elevated.
Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
1570 Stockton Street (at Union), 415-835-9888, www.tonyspizzanapoletana.com
In my opinion, Tony Gemignani makes the best pizza in the Bay Area, but some of the best dishes aren’t even pizza. I love the giant meatballs made with veal and beef, as well as the house-made pastas. For pizza, the classic Margherita is a great place to start, and the honey pie made with honey from Tony’s own rooftop beehives, Calabrese peppers, scallions, mozzarella, and caramelized onions is completely unique. I know you’re wrinkling your nose (“Ewww! Pizza with honey?”). Trust me, it works.
631 Larkin Street (at Eddy), 415-345-1355
The trendy Vietnamese favorite Turtle Tower has moved down the street, and it seems they left their quality ingredients behind with the new occupant, Golden Lotus. Not only is the food better at Golden Lotus, the prices are far more reasonable, the place is clean, and the service is fast and friendly. Northern style phở uses a slightly wider rice noodle, and while Turtle Tower’s broth lately seems watered down, the broth for both the beef and chicken versions at Golden Lotus are rich and redolent with spices like clove and star anise. Phở gets much of its flavor from the bones, and because the owner is a butcher, he uses the best cuts of Wagyu beef and free-range chicken, which is unusual for most hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese spots. The lotus root salad with pig ears and shrimp and the grilled pork rice rolls with cilantro are also hits.
154 McAllister Street (at Hyde), 415-551-7332
Former Fairmont Hotel chef Marc Passetti serves up an elevated twist on the rustic Italian food he grew up with. He buys a whole pig each week, which is spit roasted and used to make, among other things, his signature porchetta sandwich — unctuous loin and belly rolled around herbs with a golden brown, crisp exterior on a light, airy Acme ciabatta roll topped with a citrusy salsa verde, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be there on a day when he tops it with crunchy chicharrones. Passetti likes to change things up, often on a whim (I wish he’d bring back the lampredotto sandwich, which
was the best thing on the menu), but there are still plenty of seasonal dishes worth a visit, like the crispy pork salad with grilled nectarines; roasted red potatoes; and lightly battered and fried fresh calamari replete with the best part — the tentacles. The daily pasta is also a winner, especially the squid-ink fettuccine with calamari and clams in tomato sauce.