A Pre-Covid Dining Retrospective: Remembering my top 10 dining experiences of 2019


I can be a harsh critic for what I consider to be a great food experience. The quality of ingredients, method, and originality are only part of it. The truth is, not every restaurant is worthy of revisiting or remembering... even if they have an illustrious M-star attributed to them. And during these times of sheltering in place due to the pandemic, I'm finding myself reminiscing these experiences and awaiting my return.


The restaurants I will revisit delighted and excited throughout every course, and didn't fall flat at dessert. Most importantly, their team seemed to put their best food forward, and demonstrated a love for what the restaurant is trying to achieve.


1. Sushi Hon in the Mission District, San Francisco.


On Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, Sushi Hon served up a 23-course Omakase [mic drop] that you can read more about in my in-depth review.


IMO, it's among the best sushi restaurants in the city. It's fresh, clean, inventive, carefully and precisely curated, and has incredible sake and service at a fair price.


2. La Costanera. Half Moon Bay, California.

Contemporary Peruvian Cuisine is right! La Costanera served impeccably prepared seafood in a colorful demonstration of vivid violets, golds, and greens fitting of Miami Beach rather than a foggy Bay Area coast (although Half Moon Bay is special, don't get me wrong). The main dining hall offers a first-class view over the Pacific wherever you're seated. And they offer a swoon-worthy menu that I've dreamed of revisiting.


For starters, the octopus [pictured above] was the second best I've ever had in my life. And that's a tall order considering Greece holds the number one spot. It was served with ube (a purple sweet potato), and a vibrant huancaina sauce that was, for lack of a better word, lickable. I didn't, because... manners.


For the main, I enjoyed their Ají de Mariscos [pictured above], containing the freshest of seafood dancing in an ají amarillo and turmeric sauce. Be sure to swap the jasmine rice for coconut [also pictured above]. The dish was the freshest, most delightful interpretation of a cioppino I've seen, and made for a truly sensational dining experience.


3. Paloma. Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Santa Fe really is "The City Different," and completely lives up to the recommendations.


It's a city founded in 1607, making it the third-oldest in the U.S. You can distinctly see and taste the various identities that comprise the city's diverse cultural and culinary roots: colonial European, indigenous people, Mexican, American pioneer and New Southwest. The magic of Paloma is that everything-- and I mean everything, is done well. In three consecutive days, I sampled nearly the entire menu, out of pleasure and necessity.


Their cocktails and agave spirits menu is otherworldly, and the chic, organic styling of the space categorizes it as upscale casual, meaning it's ready to play among digs you'd see in SF, Lower Eastie or Brooklyn, without a doubt.


Here's some of my favorites lifted from Paloma's dinner menu:


wild mushroom tlayuda

Black bean, quesillo, & salsa escabeche


Half Chicken

Mole poblano, winter squash, refried black beans & cebollitas


butternut squash Quesadilla

Roasted poblano, manchego & pumpkin seed salsa. The pumpkin seed salsa tasted like it was stone-ground by hand, and like an ancient, 1000 year-old recipe was being shared with me.

Cauliflower Taco

Golden raisin, Spanish olive, & sweet pepper-almond salsa. I've experienced the Spanish olive-sultana combination before with beef and lamb Argentine empanadas. The briney and earthy-sweetness are a winning flavor pairing. And there are ample marcona almonds served in the mix. Need I say more?



Smoked Brisket Taco

Salsa guajillo, pickled onion, and poblano rajas made this taco so incredibly rich and savory, you may just need only one.


4. Lowell's. Sebastopol, California.


I was shocked to learn when Lowell's closed in October 2019, just two months after I visited. It was an institution in Sebastopol, a known gem in Sonoma County beloved by many. I traveled from San Francisco with an itinerary just to dine there. So, consider this review a posthumous homage to Lowell's.


Its operators ran a farm, which gave an authentic meaning to farm-to-table dining. But from what I found, they opened couple of new, more modern fast-casual concepts in recent years.


The house offered a collection of diverse small plates to be shared, including root vegetables and farm fresh legumes to twice-cooked octopus with housemade pickled vegetables, each served on the most beautiful Heath Ceramics. The starters were complemented by a large wood-fired pizza piled high with a mountain of fresh, spicy arugula and shaved parmesan. We closed the evening with the most fudgy midnight chocolate ganache flourless cake, the kind that moves you to vow to come back again.


My meal was memorable and meaningful. All I can say is if you experienced Lowell's, you know what I'm talking about; and if you haven't, then stay tuned for what they do next.


5. Havana Harry's. Miami, Florida.


If you're visiting Miami for any length of time, GO TO HAVANA HARRY'S! It's a large restaurant that doesn't take reservations, and that edges on smart casual. The service is excellent, and portions are gigantic. Your food arrived by the platter, not plateful, and their menu boasts inventive and heavenly flan and tres leches desserts. My favorite, the tres leches cake is served with a mountain of whipped, toasted meringue, and enough for four hungry adults to share. I opted for the best of both worlds, and favorite their cuatro leches--flan on the bottom and tres leches cake topped with meringue.


It, along with Miami, is a spot I'm yearning to spend more time once travel resumes.













6. La Nacional Restaurant. Greenwich Village, New York.


Their food is about as cool as their history. Founded in 1868 in a corner that used to be known as "Pequeña España", the Spanish Benevolent Society has helped Spanish nationals transition to NY, serving as a boarding house, community and social club. The famous poet, Federico García Lorca, even wrote there!



They still operate as a social club connecting Spanish immigrants to the city, participating in cultural exchanges and hosting events and classes. I felt their modern restaurant really celebrated beautiful and classic Spanish food and wine with the spirit of gathering. It was a magnificent dinner and worth the trip to this historical enclave.


I can't help but feel connected to this place a little, maybe because of my Basque heritage or Master's studies in Spanish literature, or both. When I'm able to go to NYC next, I'll be visiting.




7. Blue Heron at Sunrise Springs. Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Sunrise Springs Resort was a most magical retreat that I can't wait to revisit; its natural spaces for meditation, breathing, and yoga was enhanced by its fresh food, and crisp farm apples curated around the resort for guests...appearing just when you're craving one. Their 5-star menu was affordable, extremely healthy and the ingredients were incredibly fresh.


In just two days, we experienced a guided meditation with clay, made a succulent terrarium, took a Qi Gong breathing class, enjoyed the ethereal Spa and booked a private hot mineral soak outdoors, complete with my own wood burning fireplace. I also had a limpia, or cleansing, performed by a curandera while onsite. It was transformational. Whether you're into archery, puppy playtime, blue corn salt scrubs or pottery-making, Sunrise Springs offers a multitude of diverse experiences for pressing play or pause.


I recommend at least a two-night stay at Sunrise Springs, and do yourself a favor and book a spa treatment and private soak. And, try their blue corn pancakes for breakfast (pictured below). I'll be returning as soon as I can book another trip.



8. Navio at The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. Half Moon Bay, California.


If you're looking for an escape to the coast for fine dining cliffside, head 30 minutes south of San Francisco to Half Moon Bay's Ritz. Navio served up an amazing meal and most memorable dessert, described below.


There's so much texture diversity and depth of flavor brought to Navio's interpretation of strawberries and cream [pictured left]: strawberry crémeux, lemon olive oil cake, and basil ice cream enhanced with dehydrated basil crumble, basil gelee, and meringue. The portion was incredible and the vibrant color and flavor harmony with wild strawberries made it the best dessert I had all year.




The Ocean Terrace seaside bar and patio is perfect for lounging and enjoying a more casual interpretation of a seafood tower, complete with prawns, dungeness and king crab, and oysters. While it's definitely the more approachable of platters I've enjoyed, given the price, I do feel like I've gotten a lot more for my money in swankier environs in NYC (Soho's Blue Ribbon Brasserie, open till 4am and known around the city for their bone marrow) and Boston (notably, Row34 and Boston Chops), which often includes lobster, caviar, and just a bit more of everything. Living in New England for 10 years, I know the importance of oyster liquor to remain in the halfshell. These were shucked fresh, and although tasty, served somewhat drained. Ultimately, a seafood tower is a splurge, and I probably wouldn't do it a second time. Overall, I'd grade it a 'B-' for delicious crab, okay oysters, light on size while heavy on price.



9. Piccola Cucina. SoHo, New York.


This is the best Italian restaurant in NYC. And SF. And Boston.


I'm comfortable saying this because I know the pasta, sauces, bruschetta, staff and ambiance won't be better anywhere else. It's this combination that makes the restaurant special, and I hope they're still thriving amidst the difficulties that NYC has been facing with the pandemic. Once while living in Boston and heading to NY for a work thing, I went so far as to get takeout for two before heading to JFK to catch my flight home. My husband and I enjoyed dinner from Piccola Cucina later that night, once I got home. That's how serious I am about this place.


Every time I've dined in it's very intimate space, diners are serenaded with exuberant song and music from the staff- Cher, Michael Jackson and some 80s classics. Your table kisses other guests' tables and it's that intimacy that makes it a party. Their portions are ample, pastas fresh, meats and seafood cooked to perfection, and wine humble but perfect. Plus, their bruschetta is literally the best I've ever had. Anywhere.


If you're able to get curbside delivery from them now, get their daily special (doesn't matter what it is, it'll likely be grand), a classic bruschetta, a nebbiolo to-go, and tirimasu. You're welcome.


10. Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. St. Helena, California.


As the venue for the wedding celebration of the year, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone had to top my list for 2019. Imagine 50 of your closest friends and family from all around the world, reveling over a 5-course meal with wine pairing in a a wine country castle's historic barrel room (okay, maybe not a real castle, but it was definitely modeled after one). The best part? Because it's a culinary school, they could source any ingredient and execute expertly.


The Culinary Institute allowed me to share my concept for the menu, and bring all my own wine for each pairing. They surpassed in every category; and the service team simply made the event.

Our menu was a fusion of Basque and Northern Indian cuisine; during tapas hour we served all French wine and champagne to pair with our tapas- vegetable samosa and bacalao (salted cod fritters).


To start dinner, we planned a surprise amuse bouche: glazed fig dusted in marcona almonds.

Photo Credit: Diana Rothery Photography


FIRST COURSE

Smoky Quail and Chorizo Paella with Duck Confit, or Paella Vegetariana (v)

PAIRING: 2018 Calluna Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc et Sémillon, Chalk Hill, Sonoma


SECOND COURSE

Salmorejo Soup, Dungeness Crab Salad & Crispy Jamón Serrano, or Salmorejo Soup with Trumpet Mushrooms (v)

PAIRING: 2017 Viognier, Pride Vineyards, Spring Mountain, Napa



Photo Credit: Diana Rothery Photography


MAIN COURSE

Tandoori Marinated Cod, Fenugreek Cream, Zucchini Onion Fritters & Dahl, or

Jamon wrapped Beef Tenderloin, Parsnip Pear Puree, Herb Salad & Red Wine

Sauce, or Cauliflower Steak, Pine Nut Relish & Dahl (v)

PAIRING: 2016 Merlot, Amizetta Vineyards, Howell Mountain, Napa



DESSERT

Gateâu Basque, withcréme semifreddo and brandied cherries


PAIRING: 2013 Chateau Les Arroucats, Cuvée Virginie, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, France

Photo Credit: Diana Rothery Photography



And the Honorable Mentions go to... Avatar's in Sausalito and Elsy's in San Francisco's Mission.


There's no restaurant on this list with more heart than Avatar's.


Starting in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Eve, Avatar's, with the help of dozens of volunteer friends-of-Avatar make and serve free dinner to the Sausalito community until closing. The restaurant offers a heaping plateful of either a curried turkey or pumpkin burrito with basmati, complimentary beer or wine, and enough good cheer to go around threefold. Donations are appreciated, but not at all sought.


According to volunteers, the tradition began decades ago with the restaurant's founder and namesake, to give thanks to the community for their patronage. The gratefulness festivities spill into the parking lot where extra large tables foster community and conversation, next to an outdoor dance floor with a DJ spinning Bollywood remixes. It's worth venturing over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, if not for the delicious and free fusion dinner, then the new friends you'll make along the way. I'm proud to have been doing my part to support this community bedrock.


Also this year, I discovered Elsy's, a humble Mission gem serving up savory pupusas and classic Salvadoran fare. It deserves an Honorable Mention simply for its delicious dishes and superior value. Elsy's is homey... just as it should be, without the façade or frills.


There's not many [read: any] restaurants in SF where you can delight in a tasty, filling, homestyle dinner for under $7. The two-pupusa platter of your choice comes in at just $6, and offers complimentary curtido (pickled cabbage) and salsa.


My go-to pupusas are the revuelta, zuquini y queso, and frijól y queso. And do yourself a favor and get a side of beans. They're so exceptional you'll be placing an extra order to-go.


If you're in these locations and able to support these restaurants that are open, please consider doing so. Until then, I'll be looking forward to revisiting these gems to create new and even better memories.

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© 2020, Alexandria de Aranzeta