The San Francisco restaurant scene is sizzling. So many new openings, so many worthy older places to eat. Here's a quick guide to some gorgeous bites up north.
Oxtail and chickpea fritters at Alta CA in Mid-Market. The casual new restaurant from Daniel Patterson of Coi features a surprisingly beautiful dish of oxtail and chickpea fritters with artichoke hearts dressed with charred onion aioli. The oxtail is cut into baby block-sized cubes and deep-fried, while the chickpea fritters, flecked with green, are something like all-star falafel. To start or as a bar snack, try the beef tendon puffs, a delicately beefy version of chicharrones. To note: It's possible to order a 1978 Pinot Noir, Groffier "Bonnes Mares," Grand Cru Burgundy for $705 from their cellar selections at lunch. Some guy in a hoodie just might do it.
Alta CA, 1420 Market St., San Francisco; (415) 590-2585; http://altaca.co.
"CA state bird with provisions" at State Bird Provisions in the Western Addition. The bird in question is quail, fried crisp and succulent to the max. Marinated in buttermilk, it's rolled in pepita breadcrumbs, fried and accompanied by silky white onions cooked ever so slowly in butter, rosemary and Meyer lemon juice with a touch of sugar. A dish I could eat again and again at this dim sum-style restaurant from Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski. (It won last year's best new restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation.) For dessert, grab a bowl of hachiya persimmon granita on ginger tapioca pudding as it flies by. And if you don't have a reservation, plan on getting in line by 4:30 p.m.
State Bird Provisions, 1529 Fillmore St., San Francisco; (415) 795-1272; http://statebirdsf.com.
Crispy pig tails at Tosca Cafe in North Beach. New York chef April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman (The Spotted Pig, the Breslin, etc.) have taken over the landmark Tosca Cafe and reopened the kitchen for the first time since the '50s. No reservations here, so you may end up, as I did, hoping for an opening at the bar, where the full menu is also served. With a perfect Negroni (Beefeater Gin, Campari and Antica Formula), nibble on two-inch chunks of crispy pig tail, melting tender at the center. Follow with a plate of lumaconi pasta cloaked in cream, accented with salty-sweet prosciutto, bitter Treviso and crunchy lemon breadcrumbs. Save up some quarters for the jukebox still stocked with the same records and bearing handwritten labels. The very lucky — or the very early — may score one of the red leather booths and an order of the roast chicken for two, served with the feet on.
Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus Ave., San Francisco; (415) 986-9651; http://toscacafesf.com.
Stuffed mushrooms in sauerkraut broth at Bar Tartine in the Mission. The menu at this restaurant owned by Chad Robertson and Elizabeth Prueitt of famed Tartine Bakery changes practically every day. On a recent evening it included just a few of the Eastern European dishes that have won co-chefs Nick Balla and Courtney Burns such acclaim. Other dishes brought in Asian elements (Balla used to cook at an izakaya restaurant). But mushrooms stuffed with a rough-cut pork sausage in a rich, slightly tangy sauerkraut broth stood out for me on a blustery winter night. Don't miss the gorgeous toasted buckwheat bread served with creamed herring and ribbons of pickled onions.
Bar Tartine, 561 Valencia St., San Francisco; (415) 487-1600; www.bartartine.com.
Brassicas and grains at SPQR in Pacific Heights. Wildly inventive chef Matthew Accarrino (opening chef at Craft in Los Angeles) lays out a landscape of brassicas (baby Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli leaves) and grains (quinoa and two kinds of farro) with a scoop of creamy loose burrata, a dab of green goddess dressing, and a dehydrated broccoli/kale chip bound with nuts and seeds. The waiter drizzles over olio nuovo (peppery new olive oil). Beautiful to the eye, each bite has a different texture and flavor. Though Accarrino is known for pushing pasta to the limit, this dish unexpectedly caught my attention. Terrific with a COS Rami Bianco from Sicily on Shelley Lindgren's fascinating wine list.
SPQR, 1911 Fillmore St., San Francisco; (415) 771-7779; www.spqrsf.com.
Orange cardamom kouign amann at b. pâtisserie in Pacific Heights. Belinda Leong has worked at David Kinch's Manresa in Los Gatos, and trained with some of the top pastry chefs anywhere. And at b. pâtisserie, she shows off what she can do with laminated doughs. Her croissants shatter with one bite yet still have that ineffably yeasty quality. I've never had as good a kouign amann anywhere. Glazed with sugar, the buttery Brittany pastry comes plain, with chocolate, or in a marvelous orange flavor perfumed with cardamom. The Viennoiserie may be posh, but the shop itself has an inviting neighborhood vibe.
b. pâtisserie, 2821 California St., San Francisco; (415) 440-1700; http://bpatisserie.com.
Lamb shank with barley, pumpkin, pomegranate and arugula at Aziza in the outer Richmond. Mourad Lahlou may be the only Moroccan chef in the country with one Michelin star, yet this is very much a neighborhood restaurant. Have the trio of spreads with a fragrant grilled flatbread and then his signature duck confit basteeya with a thin veil of sugar on top. You can have lamb a couple of ways. Most satisfying: the succulent braised lamb shank with barley and pumpkin. Another time the chef, author of "Mourad: New Moroccan" cookbook, might pair barley with prunes and saffron.
Aziza, 5800 Geary Blvd., San Francisco; (415) 752-2222; http://www.aziza-sf.com.
Dungeness crab grilled in the fireplace at Camino in Oakland's Grand Lake neighborhood. Just about everything here is cooked in either the wood-fired oven or over hardwood charcoal or a fire in an immense nine-foot-wide fireplace at the end of the room. While I adored the duck giblet confit toast and the king trumpet mushroom parcel with sheep's milk ricotta, smoky lentils and wood oven-roasted artichokes, I could have eaten two orders of the Dungeness crab. Grilled in the fireplace, it's served with a vibrant radish salad and herb mayonnaise. Chef/owner Russell Moore cooked at Chez Panisse Café for two decades, and it shows. His food here is more rustic and direct. If you want to learn more about fireplace cooking, check out Todd Selby of the Selby's story on the restaurant. I especially like the chef's drawing of his fireplace cooking setup.
Camino, 3917 Grand Ave., Oakland; (510) 547-5035; www.caminorestaurant.com.