I have had the great pleasure of eating at some fabulous restaurants. I will update irregularly, with new ones added at the top. Here are a few favorites:
Home (Soquel, CA): Yeah, I am totally at Home at this place. Their specialty is their HOME-cured meats (OK, the HOME-theme stuff gets a bit much, but I cut them slack), and they are shockingly good. Home is tucked into a residential neighborhood and is the former location of Theo’s, another good-but-departed restaurant. There is nothing on this menu that doesn’t look and sound fantastic. You can share a bunch of small plates, order larger plates from their highly local/seasonal daily options, have a nice glass of wine from their well-selected cellar…whatever suits your fancy that particular night. The menu always has oysters, duck, lamb and rabbit, and often a whole fish of some species, served with seasonal sides procured from farmers markets and local purveyors. I am just about ready to crown Home as the best restaurant in Santa Cruz County. Seriously, you have to go over the hill to Manressa in Los Gatos to find food equally as good.
The Simone: The Simone is a very small, highly personal restaurant in NYC on the Upper East Side. We discovered this place because my daughter lived across the street. To get a reservation, you have to call them, then they write your name with a device called an ink pen in a thing called a “book”. The food is as local/seasonal as humanly possible cooked in the French style. The Simone is at once casual and elegant, high-end without pretense or stuffiness. The menu is varied, but not large. It changes every night. The wine list is impeccable, with some nice modestly priced bottles available. If you want to drop $500 on a bottle, you can do that. I don’t.
The Simone IS expensive, although not close to being the priciest in town. Entrees are typically in the $35-50 range and you will probably spend $100/person, not including wine. I don’t recommend this place to anyone who doesn’t care much about food much, hoping that dining there will somehow inspire them. This is a restaurant for people who are already a little over the top about eating. If that is you, The Simone is actually a tremendous value.
Le Bernardin (redux): I need to re-post on “Le Bern” based on a recent meal there, a three-course lunch in the Lounge which I believe may qualify as the best bargain in fine dining going. Three course tasting menu for $55 per person (of which $5 goes to City Harvest, a major NYC foodbank). My wife and daughter went along and the menu consisted of a first course of either Scottish salmon with candy-striped beets shaved paper thin or barely cooked yellowfin tuna with citrus/soy sauce and an arugula salad; Second course was choice of striped bass in a saffron bouillibase or a merluza (hake) on a mattress of eggplant. Dessert was a praline cake with praline ice cream. We added a lobster carpaccio with shaved truffle and tuna tartare. How does Chef Eric Ripert get such fresh fish? And how do they manage to never, ever seem to screw up a dish, everything is cooked to perfection. $45 a plate is admittedly not cheap, but if you make it your main meal of the day, it’s worth a splurge if you appreciate a kitchen working at the top of its game. Dinner in the main dining room can run you $200 a plate, so yeah, it’s a bargain.
Loulay, Seattle, WA: Thierry Rautureau’s new restaurant on 6th Ave in the old Alvin Golfarb Jewlers space. Everything about this place is pure class. Had the great opportunity to speak with TR for a few minutes when I saw him at the bar at Luc and he was bubbling over with enthusiasm for the opening in December 2013. Now I know why. The décor is tremendous – swanky without being pretentious. As Thierry describes the place it is a step down from Rover’s and a step up from Luc. The concept is similar to both – great local NW ingredients, products and produce cooked with exacting technique owing to the rustic country French tradition that Thierry grew up with. Result is outstanding. I am gradually eating my way through the menu at this place.
Place Pigalle, Seattle, WA: Place Pigalle has been around so long it is easy to forget about them. PP is a small bistro perched on the edge of Pike Place Market. The view itself is killer and worth the price of admission. It’s a cozy place with only about 15 tables, checkerboard tile floors and a well-rubbed wooden bar. The kitchen barely holds two cooks, but the food that emerges is both reliable and a couple of cuts above the norm. This is not cutting edge cuisine, it is better described as tried and true. The other day when I went back to PP after having not been there many years, I noted that everything on the menu looked good to me, literally everything. Duck and rabbit are always on the menu, not to mention fresh seasonal seafood and French classics cooked with a lighter touch.
Los Amigos, Federal Way, WA: a non-descript family place in a former burger joint, nestled in next to a Payless Shoes and an Office Max, this place has the most amazing menudo and posole. The menudo is studded with fresh tripe, a power food for the ages. The posole comes complete with a knuckle or two of pigs feet. Both come with fresh garnishes (onion, jalepeno, cilantro, radishes, lime) and tortillas. No chips. If the world were fair, the lunch taco special would put Taco Bell and Chipotle out of business
Ristorante Avanti, Santa Cruz, CA: Farm-to-table before it was trendy. Sure, I like things like “sustainability” and “organic” and “humanely raised.” But for me, the biggest aspect of doing your part is respecting the food enough to make great tasting meals. Enter Avanti. Avanti was the first restaurant I ate at in the Cruz (lunch when job interviewing) it’s still #1 on my list in Surf City. California crossed with Spain/France.
Al’s Breakfast: world’s best blueberry pancakes. Hands down. My homemade hollandaise is modeled after Al’s. Minneapolis. I mean Dinkytown.
Le Bernardin: I have eaten at Le Bern twice. Oh. My. God. A culinary experience that soars beyond eating. Eric Ripert is a fvcking genius. NYC
San Sebastian: spent one week in SS that was easily the most inspiring food week of my life. Impossible to single out even just a few places. Every taberno had the most eye-popping pinxtos imaginable. Squid in its own ink, Basque fish soup, pulpo, calamari, hake, the list goes on and on. The center of the culinary universe today.
Pacific Grill, Tacoma, WA: I am biased because Chef Gordon Nacarrato is a dear friend and let me volunteer in his kitchen, it is only a 5 minute drive from my house, and the food is fabulous. Plus, it is a swanky space.
Frontera Grill, Chicago: I am a Rick Bayless disciple. His flavors verily pop on the palate. This place in Chicago is packed nightly for good reason. Allow 8 weeks for a reservation, or come in early, get on the walk-in list and come back in a couple hours. It’s that good.
Tamarind Tree, Seattle: Tucked behind a hideous looking strip mall on Jackson in Seattle is this gem. Cheap, fabulous Vietnamese fare in an atmosphere that is at once casual and swank.
Wild Ginger, Seattle: I liked the old space more, but listing here for two reasons: a) my daughter Claire loves it and 2) the Fragrant Duck.
HerbFarm: Your best bet is to book a room at the Willows. Multiple courses of inventive, seasonal cuisine (often foraged) expertly paired with NW wines. Allow 4 hours and don’t even think about driving home. $175 per person and worth every penny.
Walrus and the Carpenter: ode to an oyster. This Ballard bivalve joint was one of Bon Appetite’s best new restaurants of 2011 – and for good reason. Its casual vibe is spot-on Ballard, and the food is small-plate perfection. In season, expect at least 15 different oyster varieties, plus a varied menu of small plates. If they have chantrelles with poached quail egg, don’t ask questions, just get it. Want cocktail sauce with your half-shells? Forget it. Fresh grated horseradish and mignonette only.
Serious Pie: I am a huge Tom Douglas fan and this is perhaps my favorite of his places. Amazing gourmet pizza. I once had the chanterelle and truffle cheese pie and went to heaven. Thank you Jesus.
Cafe Campagne: Now that Campagne is closed, we make due with the rustic cafe below the original place. Pate de campagne with a bloody mary might be the most perfect breakfast ever.
Boulevard: This San Francisco restaurant knocks it into McCovey Cove every time. Just incredible food in an energetic atmosphere.
Clarke’s: Chef/Owner Sally Clarke is an Alice Waters protege gone abroad. Her restaurant and adjoining store/bakery on Kensington-Church Street in London is pure farm-to-table genius.
Spring Bistro: Daniel Rose’s new, trendy digs on the Right Bank just off rue du Rivoli are more spacious than the original Spring, which means you only have to call for reservations a month in advance now, rather than a year. There is no menu and substitutions are rare. This is not your place if you have food allergies/sensitivity. Eight courses of pure culinary bliss. We took two 16 year old girls and they were blown away by the inventive flavors. Everything at Spring is perfectly executed.
Pleasure Pizza: This hole in the wall used to be just down at the end of my block when we lived in Santa Cruz. A surfer hangout with ‘za that can only be described as “most righteous”. Snag a beer around the corner at the mini-mart and gnaw on your slice (recommend jumbo shrimp with pesto) outside as the neoprene-encased dudes and chicks amble by with their longboard on their way to the Hook.