For his big review this week, Chron longtimer Michael Bauer took the advice of his close personal friend the legendary Cecilia Chang and went looking for some Chinese food to potentially mix in with the paper's annual Top 100 list. His search brought him to Chinatown's low-key Sichuan spot Z & Y Restaurant, where Chef Li Jun Han has actually been running the place with his wife and front of house personality Michelle Zhang for more than eight years.
Over the course of four visits, Bauer was able to navigate the "sometimes-sticky" 150-item menu, picking out favorites like the chicken with explosive chile peppers, an appetizer of shaved bitter melon, and the whole fish with hand-pulled noodles — a dish that "tricks the palate by going in sweet before the buzz saw of peppercorns numbs, tickles and fires up the mouth."
In fact, chiles and peppercorns seem to abound here. From the review:
The more fiery dishes, which comprise about half the menu, are marked with a red chile pepper and include the popular ma-po tofu ($12.95) with its cubes of soy curd, ground pork and fire-engine red sauce with an intense, slightly smoky heat. Han also produces a steamed dumpling, fat with ground pork ($7.95) doused in an oily red sauce filled with hundreds of chile seeds and mounds of chopped garlic. At first the dumplings don't seem all that spicy until the peppers do their rumba across the tongue.
All those tongue-rumbas add up to a saucy two and a half stars. (Three for the food, one and a half for atmosphere.)
Elsewhere, Bauer returned to James Shyabout's Commis to update his 2009 review from "too minimalist" to "simply stunning." Where Bauer kinda slept on Commis in the earlier review, giving it just 2.5 stars because "it felt uncomfortably pretentious," he's now completely feeling the warmer vibe, the larger kitchen staff and the new full liquor license. "Every element is now in sync," he says, "and the intent is clear: This is a destination." Three and a half stars.
As for the non-Bauer folks in print this week: the Chron's own Esther Mobley likes the late night scene at the new Mission upscale hofbaru Starboard, where the food menu goes until 3 a.m. Meanwhile, Anna Roth was pained to learn that Soma's new Taco Bell Cantina has "no beer, no sangria, none of the boozy Mountain Dew slushies that they serve at the flagship Cantina in downtown Chicago," thanks to a liquor license dispute with the neighbors. The result is, disappointingly, is just a regular Taco Bell.
At SF Weekly, Pete Kane hit up Chef David Lawrence's Black Bark BBQ, where his verdict is quite simple: "It's good."
Finally, from the East Bay Express, Luke Tsai rode into Antoinette, Dominique Crenn's new big-name restaurant in the Claremont Hotel that actually just parted ways with it's biggest name. As you might expect from a hotel restaurant named for the luxuriating Queen of France, the place serves "hotel food for the one percent" like a $165 duck and "basil-fed escargot," which Tsai says "sounded like a Portlandia joke until I read up on how that particular diet is meant to foster tenderness and a clean flavor." Unfortunately the end result is drowned in fluffy white, pesto-flavored foam that "was downright unappetizing from a textural standpoint." Lucky for the Claremont, the restaurant has already started a complete menu refresh and is relaunching without Crenn or her chef Justin Mauz, which might explain why they refused to answer Tsai's calls when he followed up to fact-check.