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Best Californian cuisine?

Hi, i live in NYC but grew up in the bay area, and will be visiting soon. what are the best suggestions for Californian cuisine, and any other suggestions that are specific only to the SF/CA area? (i will definitely be eating a lot of burritos, chinese food, ITS-ITS and stocking up on Sees candy) Any where from SF to Palo Alto is appreciated. thanks!

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    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Skip the link above, here's an updated version of that post.

      To me, "California cuisine" means relatively simple cooking driven by fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. It's basically a local version of the kind of simple rustic cooking you find throughout rural Italy, France, and Spain, and was pioneered in the U.S. by Chez Panisse.

      In that sense you could say Alice Waters and her collaborators "invented" California cuisine, but she herself has always given full credit to her European role models. Chez Panisse was the first U.S. restaurant to have a forager on staff spending full time sourcing superior ingredients from farmers, ranchers, and artisans, and deserves substantial credit for the radical improvement in quality of produce, meat, bread, etc. over the past 30 years not just in the Bay Area but in the country as a whole.

      To my taste, Chez Panisse is still tops in the field it started, maybe tied with Oliveto. Other places that do that sort of thing exceptionally well include Zuni, Incanto, and Pizzaiolo.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        I've had the pleasure of dining at Chez Panisse once. Imagine my surprise when I see on the menu roasted pork loin served with corn and limas (of course presented in tantalizing menu speak). I remarked to my husband that I didn't come across country to eat pork and succotash, a common and homey dish here in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Of course it was all fresh, lovely, and delicious. After chatting with our server about this, he shared our remarks with the cooks, 2 talented young ladies from Pennsylvania. So how are we defining Caifornia cuisine?

        1. re: wandasue

          Mostly by what's in season locally.

          We raise plenty of corn and lima beans here.

          Pork, not so much, but the still-growing national market for natural, humane pork started when Bill Niman wanted a source for superior pork, and Marsha McBride (then at Zuni, now chef-owner of Cafe Rouge) put him in touch with her Peace Corps buddy, Paul Willis, an Iowa pig farmer.

    2. Aziza. Won't find anything like it anywhere.

      6 Replies
      1. re: rworange

        Are suggesting that green lentils, medjool dates, kefta & grape skewers, couscous, claypot, tagine, and toasted cayenne-cumin almonds are hallmarks of California cuisine?

        1. re: Paul H

          From the website ...

          "aziza's menu presents inventive takes on california influenced, mediterranean & moroccan dishes, all enhance with western style service, beverages & desserts – adapted to a fine-dining setting. organic & locally produced ingredients"

          So yes ... from the current menu
          - star route farms baby lettuces, flying disk ranch derrie dates, humboldt fog cheese, young walnut

          - county line harvest arugula strawberries, crème fraîche & extra vecchio balsamic, almonds

          - hoffman ranch chicken couscous

          - grilled prather ranch lamb chops braised white peacock kale, chickpea purée, mint sauce

          - pistachio cardamom cake, moscato d'asti poached dried apricots, orange crème fraîche

          etc
          http://www.aziza-sf.com/dinner_&_...

          Yeah ... I'dl call that Calif cuisine. Just as I would call Slanted Door and Piperade California cuisine. IMO, hyphenated cuisine Cal-Morrocan, Cal-Vietnamese, Cal Basque is California cuisine.

          What is classic Cal cuisnine, anyway but Cal-French.

          1. re: rworange

            I'd call Aziza Cal-Moroccan.

            It's very good and so far as I know absolutely unique, but not as hardcore about sourcing superior ingredients as Chez Panisse, Oliveto, or Incanto.

            1. re: Morton the Mousse

              Aziza's current menu features Niman lamb shank.

              I prefer the flavor of Niman's ribeye and prime rib to that of their more politically correct competitors. Several chefs have said the same thing in interviews.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                So, the menu posted on their website is incorrect?

                Niman's beef is fine. Beef is tricky, because of the whole grain finished vs grass finished debate. People who are accustomed to the flavor and texture of a grain finish will usually prefer Niman to Marin Sun Farms. Personally, I've found that a grass finish is preferred for stews and braises and the grain finish works better for steaks and chops. Consequently, it make sense that Aziza uses Marin Sun.

                Niman's pork and lamb consistently underwhelms me.

                1. re: Morton the Mousse

                  Niman's pork is superior to almost all other pork on the market, but there's a reason that Rouge, Fatted Calf, Incanto, and Pizzaiolo are using Berkshire and other "heirloom" pigs when they can get them--they taste better.

                  I expect Niman may eventually push their suppliers in that direction.

      2. While folks are correct about Alice not inventing it, there is some sort of Italian/local/fresh/artisanal type of food many of us think of as California. I say Italian because it is simple, not a lot of fussy sauces such as often happens in French food. For example, Olivetto in Oakland, Chez Panisse of course, both up and downstairs, and Baywolf in Oakland are some east bay thoughts.

        1. Well you can get a piece of fresh fish layered with potatoes, wasabi and topped with young arugula almost anywhere now, not just in California. This brings up a good question what is uniquely SF? Fusing fresh local ingredients with other regional flavors is everywhere, but what restaurants do this, have ever changing menus and feel uniquely SF to me would be…. besides some of the places already mentioned and the classics like Chez Panisse, Zuni, Postrio, Rubicon (sorta a classic) :

          Myth- has a Calif/French fusion going on and the food is very good. It’s located in a neighborhood that has an interesting history and the interior feels very SF to me, great service, good wines.

          NOPA- Not innovative but more urban, rustic, California style, using fresh local farmed ingredients and ever changing menu and seasonal cocktails as well. This to me is the new SF institution, feels very SF. Converting an old building with a past and making it into a modern barn, loft and urban chic space.

          Universal Café- has been around for a while but I think this place is uniquely SF. They are more into organics now and the menu changes all the time. The space has not outdated itself it still look good. I had a recent dinner there and thought it was excellent, great service.

          Bar Tartine- Well I am not sure which chef was there when I was there last, this place has had its chef turn over in such a short time. However, I liked the food, the vibe, the space… so the whole package based on one visit was very SF to me and would like to go back.

          Others that come to mind-Scott Howard maybe not that unique (have not been), Gary Danko (not that interested in trying) Coi, Canteen unique in concept

          4 Replies
          1. re: Lori SF

            Postrio's a Wolfgang Puck operation, not wildly well-regarded or even much noticed on this board. I'd skip it and visit one of his L.A. flagships next time you're there.

            The original chefs (who with Puck constituted the trio in Postrio) left years ago to start Hawthorne Lane, which recently metamorphosed into TWO.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Is TWO still the same people, or did it completely change hands when the name changed?

              1. re: sgwood415

                Same people. Just reinvented and remodeled.

              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                Yes I mentioned it really as an example, I have not been there for a decade and a half. On the Puck note I was lucky enough to had several amazing dinners made by him for special parties.

            2. thank you all for your great suggestions!!

              if i had to pick 4 places, would these be a good, balanced group? (i'll probably won't head over to the east bay, so no chez panisse or oliveto this time)

              Zuni
              Nopa
              Universal Cafe
              Two

              which of these 2 are better for lunch, which 2 are better for dinner?

              thanks so much!

              4 Replies
              1. re: lilnugget

                Nopa doesn't serve lunch. I would do Universal and Zuni for lunch.

                1. re: lilnugget

                  I recommend Zuni for lunch, NOPA only has dinner. I have not been to Two, Universal Cafe you could go either way.. I recently has a nice dinner and I like the buz at night, they also do a very nice Brunch.

                  1. re: Lori SF

                    Universal indeed does a fan-frickin'-tastic brunch; I don't know whether OP will be here on the weekend, and, if so, whether s/he is a sensible person (i.e., brunchophile), but some excellent Cal-cuisine brunches include Zuni, Foreign Cinema, and Universal. As Homer Simpson would say, "mmmmm . . . brunch."
                    I note that folks haven't included Foreign Cinema in the above discussion; oversight or considered omission? Based on my 3 or so dinner visits, I would surely rank them with or ahead of Nopa, and in the same league, though probably not as good, as Zuni. And of course it's a great, unique space/experience.

                    1. re: readingstand

                      Funny reply I like it. Yes, Foreign Cinema has the unique space/experience which puts it into the special SF place. I have not been there for quit some time so cannot comment on the food at this point. However, I experienced many hit and miss when I did frequented, it was the place that my friends choose for large group gatherings.

                2. Personally I don't like Universal Cafe as much as Zuni and Nopa. Zuni is a great fit for lunch. Nopa and Two are both great choices for dinner. Other good "Cal" fits - Coco500, Canteen for dinner; Hog Island Oyster Bar for lunch.

                  1. Why hasn't anyone mentioned Delfina? Do people not consider that California cuisine? I do, and I think that other than Zuni, it is the best of the bunch. I would skip NOPA and go to Delfina instead. NOPA is a glorified "neighborhood" restauarant and certainly not worth your time if you are coming in for only a few days from NYC - restaurants like NOPA are a dime a dozen in NYC, whereas you won't find anything like Zuni or Delfina out there

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: evangross

                      Strongly second Delfina -- was just afraid of sounding like a broken record.

                      1. re: a_and_w

                        I agree (as with Zenki's insightful comment above re an Italian orientation meshing better with the "Cal cuisine" ethos than a French orientation). There's an exchange on a recent "Italian restaurants" thread (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/390807) re just how much Italian, and just how much Californian, Delfina is. But I think any sensible person would agree that it's some degree of hybrid, and a very high degree of good.