Ten Memorable Meals

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Between eating my way across the Southwest, final recipe testing for my cookbook, and divulging my favorite places in San Francisco’s Mission district, I’ve had a lot of food these last few months. So much so that even my loose jeans aren’t quite as comfortable as they once were. But it was worth it. Ten meals in particular were total package experiences with attentive service, inspired food, and a welcoming ambiance. By no means the newest kids on the block, but by all means noteworthy, here are the ten meals worth a bookmark.

Northern California

Benu

The impeccable service, food, and drink at Benu made for a memorable experience. It was my most special occasion meal of the year (so far) — we headed there for a group birthday celebration — so I decided to go all out with the multi-course prix fixe menu. It went on for hours and lasted 18 bite-sized plates, yet I was sad to see it end. Unlike other high-end meals, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the amount of food and left respecting Chef Corey Lee for how deftly he combines seemingly contrasting foods without risking flavor fatigue.

Cotogna

I have a confession: Until now, I hadn’t made it to Quince or the sister restaurant, Cotogna. That’s pathetic seeing how long Quince has been around and how many accolades both restaurants have received, but it just hasn’t happened. That changed a few weeks back when I got over to the Italian-focused Cotogna. It was the height of short-lived nettle season and they celebrated it with a handmade pasta topped with a nettle-laced cream sauce that I dreamt about for days after.

Ippuku

The izakaya trend has so taken over during the last few years that it’s hard to believe there’d be anything more to talk about. But Ippuku breathes new life into these Japanese pub-style restaurants by bridging traditional Japanese techniques with the Bay Area philosophies of local, fresh, seasonal flavors. They’re known for the yukke chicken among other forms of raw chicken, but they were out of it when we went. So I settled on some charred yakitori shisito peppers, an intriguing fiddlehead fern tempura, and an adventurous natto-stuffed yuba that I enjoyed so much I all but forgot about the chicken.

Spoonbar

Healdsburg is one of my favorite parts of Northern California wine country because it has a quaint town square, outstanding vineyards, well-stocked antique stores, and a few fabulous restaurants. The latest great meal was at Spoonbar. It took me walking in to realize many people had recommended Spoonbar to me, telling me how much they thought I’d like it. They were right. It has a chic but cozy decor, fun but attentive service, and food that’s as solid as the cocktails are strong.

Southern California

Genwa Korean BBQ

I’ve been spending more time in LA, so I’ve made an effort to explore the extensive local ethnic food scene. Growing up, I knew the area had particularly good Korean BBQ, but I moved back to find many of my standby Korean joints had become greasy, dingy, and downright disappointing. Then my fellow food friend introduced me to Genwa Korean BBQ. Naysayers claim is too Americanized, but I’d like to loudly disagree. Not only because they give you enough banchan (sides) to make a meal out of, but also because the food is just really freaking good. To date, it’s my favorite bimbimbop in the area.

Lukshon

Yes, my friend works here, so I am a bit biased. But I can say with full confidence that even if I didn’t know anyone at Lukshon, I’d still be a fan. It’s a high-end pan-Asian concept by Sang Yoon (known for Father’s Office), that has as much going on for it in decor as it does service and food. I sat at the bar next to the wok-dominated kitchen and was entranced as I’d watch ingredients jump about in the screaming hot woks only to land on my plate moments later. I tried so many dishes it’s hard to remember every detail about each one, but I distinctly recall eating the chicken pops and chang mai noodles with abandon.

Sushi Yuzu

Los Angeles claims to be the town for sushi and, while I’ve found fresh fish and some quality omakase menus, nothing seemed all that original until I came across Sushi Yuzu. It has a big following (read: constantly packed) but it’s worth the wait. I ended up there for a lunch meeting and had resigned myself to a meal of ho-hum sushi until I saw the menu. The food commits some serious sushi blasphemy — adding asparagus and peas to miso soup, spicing up their hamachi with jalapenos, and adding pine nuts to their lemon roll — but what it lacks in tradition, it makes up for in taste.

Texas

Food Shark

Our Southwest road trip was one cheese-laden food coma broken up by the occasional somewhat healthy meal, like that at Food Shark in Marfa, Texas. Perhaps it was the restored retro trailer or the fact they serve fresh, Mediterranean food in the midst of nowhere, but this place won me over instantly. The vibe of Food Shark is like that of the rest of the alterna-town of Marfa, Texas — hip yet approachable — so I felt right at home though I’d never been there before. The best part of the hybridized Med-Texas menu was that I could order tamarind Mexican soda along with my Middle Eastern falafel plate. A few sips and forkfuls in I realized, as I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t before, that they go swimmingly well together.

La Condesa

My road trip buddy, Gaby, talked up La Condesa pretty much all the way from Los Angeles to Austin. Not that I hadn’t heard good things, but she hyped it with such enthusiasm that I feared it would never meet my expectations. But it did and then some. No doubt my meal was made all the better by my company — fellow food bloggers attending the IACP conference –and, true to food-lover form, we gushed about the food as we ate it. The most talked-about dishes where the funky, earthy huitalcoche huaraches and the oak-roasted beet salad that blended a bit of Texas bbq smokiness together with authentic Mexican flavors.

Uchi

For all the times I had heard about La Condesa, I heard about Uchi three times more. But it took until my latest Austin trip to finally get a chance to try the food. It wasn’t at the restaurant but at a quiet, intimate event at the Hotel St. Cecilia where I was able to talk up Chef Tyson and understand Uchi’s food philosophy. Though they only served three dishes, they were all outstanding. Each of them was esoteric yet approachable and effortlessly combined impeccable technique with playful platings (one of our dishes was handed to us in a makeshift sardine can). So, you can imagine then how disappointed I was when work brought me back to LA the very night I had booked my Uchi reservation.

photo courtesy of Cotogna

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