contigo san fransisco

San Francisco: Contigo

There are many things to admire about Contigo, Brett Emerson’s Catalan-style restaurant in the Noe Valley neighborhood, from the small-but-not-crowded interior full of reclaimed wood to the lovely covered patio and kitchen garden, but it is the brightness of the food—the vividness and freshness of Emerson’s flavors—that stands out the most. A quick glance at the menu, divided into pica-pica (small dishes) and platillos (larger plates), reveals Emerson’s commitment to his sourcing, as does a fastidious list of purveyors on the back of the menu. Sautéed fava greens, whose flavor is deeply redolent of the bean itself, replace spinach in the classic Catalan pairing with pine nuts and raisins. Oxtail croquetas offer some welcome indulgence. Ramps are strewn across a delicious wood-fired coca (flatbread) alongside artichokes, green garlic, and rosemary. The organic, wood-roasted chicken, whose crisp skin is suffused with aromatics, may even prove a rival to Zuni Café’s vaunted brick-oven masterpiece. My family’s appraisal of a restaurant often rests on the quality of the simplest green salad. (Full disclosure: I’m the daughter of Alice Waters and grew up in Chez Panisse.) I’m happy to report that Contigo’s little gem, adorned with fried garlic and piquillo peppers, was just right.

Contigo 1320 Castro St., San Francisco (415-285-0250;

Chicago: Sunda

Sunda can pack over 200 guests into its whimsical, sexy dining room. And yet even a restaurant of this size, and with these good looks, can’t compete with the attention garnered by its proprietor Billy Dec. A successful nightclub and sports bar owner, Dec is known around town for his uniform of dark jeans, blazer, and, most notably, a Chicago flag baseball cap. And guess what? About half of the guys I saw walk into Sunda on a recent evening were dressed the same way. It’s sort of sad, actually, because both designer Tony Chi’s room and chef Rodelio Aglibot’s pan-Asian food deserve a little more respect. There are a few misses on the enormous menu—the Thai fried chicken was soggy, as was the exterior of a deep-fried carrot cake, aptly named “ridiculous.” But most dishes were a success: a salad composed of rich, crispy duck and fried egg; hot shrimp toasts spread with a cool tuna “jam”; sweet char siu barbecue pork; and sumptuous bao buns stuffed with roasted duck. This isn't the most nuanced food around—in terms of flavor, Aglibot seems to think that bigger is better. But you can’t really blame him for that. After all, Billy Dec didn't get where he is by being a wallflower.

Sunda 110 W. Illinois St., Chicago (312-644-0500;

Seattle: Anchovies & Olives

Who could resist ordering sausage-stuffed red mullet? The waiter at Anchovies & Olives, the latest in the Ethan Stowell empire, didn’t let on that the succulent fish would be served with the head on, or that digital manipulation would be required to extract meat from bones and bones from mouths. Not that I’m complaining—this is a salmonless-in-Seattle seafood restaurant for grownups, and as much as I enjoyed the stuffed mullet and the miner’s lettuce and beets with anchovy dressing, the real draw here is the Esca-esque raw plates. Five slices of tender scallop support diced piquillo and serrano peppers and morsels of ruby grapefruit—a perfect composition. The rich Jack Crevalle (aptly described by the waiter as “like hamachi, but more so”) is paired with ultra-tart pickled leeks. Plus, A&O has the hottest thing in bivalves (no, seriously): Shigoku oysters.

Anchovies & Olives 1550 15th Ave., Seattle (206-838-8080;

London: Ba Shan

British-born food writer and Gourmet contributor Fuchsia Dunlop is an outstanding communicator of Chinese food culture to westerners. Her books on the regional cuisines of China, including her seminal first book, Sichuan Cookery and the recent Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, clean up at award ceremonies, but any involvement with restaurateurs has until recently been a small sideline. In 2006, she worked as a consultant to a leading Chinese restaurateur, Shao Wei, in an effort to bring the real cooking of Sichuan to London. The result, Bar Shu, created a storm of interest and critical acclaim, and understanding of Sichuan food in London improved massively. Her pioneering work continued with the little dumpling bar Baozi Inn in 2008, but the third collaboration may be the best yet. Ba Shan has a long menu of short eats from several regions of mainland China, all produced with exquisite care. Bowls of spicy handmade noodles can be eaten alongside Sichuan filled flatbreads, which look a little like hamburgers. Many dishes surprise and titillate, such as tiny dumplings that are colored purple with red cabbage juice; or the “strange-flavor” peanuts, which aren’t so much strange as incredibly hard to resist. Prices are only mid-range, but the cooking here is a world apart from the dozens of Cantonese restaurants in neighboring Chinatown.

Ba Shan 24 Romilly St., London (+44-20-7287-3266)

Paris: Yam’Tcha

Though it’s being lionized by the French press, Yam’Tcha, the hottest new restaurant in Paris, is actually more of a pussycat than a ferocious beast. Tucked away in a side street off of Les Halles, this tiny dining room—with a Zen decor of dark wood tables and linen runners that starkly contrasts with the ancient stone walls outside—is the perfect expression of the delicate balance struck by the Franco-Asian tasting menus that 28-year-old chef Adeline Grattard prepares in her galley-sized, glass-walled kitchen. Grattard trained with Yannick Alleno and Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance before doing a stint in Hong Kong, where she met her husband, Chiwah Chan, who works as the restaurant’s tea steward (yam’tcha means “drink tea,” and every course is served with a different brew). Her menu changes daily, but a recent $60 “discovery” menu ran to an amuse bouche of slivered broad beans with pork and sesame-seed oil; grilled scallops on a bed of bean sprouts in emerald-green wild-garlic sauce; whole rougets served on Chinese cabbage with enoki mushrooms; Citeaux cheese with toast; and a sublime dessert that winked at the avocado-loving Pascal Barbot—homemade ginger ice cream with avocado slices and passion fruit.

Yam’Tcha 4 Rue Sauval, Paris (01-40-26-08-07)
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