For his big review this week, Bauer starts at the end of Ju-Ni’s 12-course omakase menu, where a gold-flaked piece of "hot fish" (Unagi) popped into his mouth and felt "like descending into a warm bath while being tickled by a silk curtain billowing in the breeze." While Bauer was off in the bath, chef Geoffrey Lee and his business partner Tan Truong were off worrying about all of the minute details that make Ju-Ni a serene and intimate experience. And judging by Bauer’s trancelike descriptions of seafood, they’ve done an excellent job. The rice arrives in "orbs" or "fenced in" with sheets of nori. A spoon of cured salmon roe — something of a signature dish for the five-month-old restaurant — comes topped with "a brown snowfall" of monkfish liver that crashes down on Bauer like "a tsunami in the mouth."
While the critic's heavy-handed sushi metaphors might be a little stale, the accoutrements on Lee’s fish are the opposite: light, fresh and designed to accent each piece without taking away from the overall bite. "There’s no place to hide," in a menu like this Bauer says, so Lee’s careful hand with things like tiny Japanese Whiting, lightly cured Spanish mackerel or seasonal firefly squid with "delicate brininess and a distinct pop" are the restaurant’s biggest selling point. The only drawback? Those same skills Lee has honed at Sushi Ran and Akiko’s apparently haven’t quite trickled down to the rest of his chefs just yet. But, to be fair, Bauer does mention he’d still be impressed even if they did misplace a single dab of soy sauce. Three stars for Ju-Ni and a plea for Bauer to please never describe his bath time in a review again.
For his midweek review, Bauer continues his recent tour of Marin at Larkspur’s Picco, where the 10-year-old restaurant is now in the capable hands of chef Jason Turley (Gitane, Parlour). The menu is broad with "nearly 30 dishes" ranging from "a good version" of kampachi crudo to "Grandma-inspired pork and beef meatballs," but nothing is worth so much as a negative word from our critic. Instead, the review is a list of hits: the interior is "handsome," the cocktails are "great," the fries are "another winner," and the risotto "waits for no one." With a parade like that, it’s three stars for Picco, which seems like a great place to eat even if it’s less than exciting to read about on the internet.
Leo’s Oyster Bar
For July’s San Francisco Magazine, Josh Sens is the latest to get swept up in the "bygone glamour" of Leo’s Oyster Bar, where restaurateur Anna Weinberg et al have been lobbying hard to bring back the three-martini lunch. While Sens is skeptical that San Franciscans will drink before sundown, he does find the place to be a well-executed fantasy world, "one that’s fun, frequently delicious, and—in contrast to its throwback milieu—priced to evoke 2016 San Francisco."
Working our way past a few Mad Men and vodka-soaked Herb Caen references, and we arrive at a menu that Sens finds to be "probably more ambitious than it needs to be," but which "more than holds up." Above all, Leo’s is an oyster bar, and Sens correctly distills it down to one that’s "fueled by bracing blasts of booze and briny boosts for your libido." The rest of the menu is just piling on the decadence, to the point where it can feel like a joke. A roe-topped, broiled trout is "so salty it comes off as a prank" and Sens admits the $5 oysters Eloise are "the most I’ve ever laid out for raw oysters." Like Bauer, who has a worrisome sodium deficiency, Sens agrees things can get a little too salty around Leo’s, but the drinks, paired with Puccio’s deviled eggs and a "velvety" clam chowder more than make up for the misses. Three stars from Sens for the "old-money downtown hangout updated for the Instagram age."
Testing another newcomer in the city’s suddenly crowded seafood market, Pete Kane tries out ATwater Tavern, executive chef James Versfelt’s 180-seat Pier 50 monster. While the outdoor seating is plentiful, the seafood actually sounds mediocre here. Kane weirdly skipped the raw bar, only to find the barbecued oysters were "unbalanced and peppery" and the crab flavor in the Dungeness crab cake was "buried deep."
The turf-based menu items fared better though: the bone-in lamb frites are "entombed under a monster pile of fries" and the pork chop is "the definition of a homey square meal," but both suffer from ballpark-adjacent pricing. ($33 and $26, respectively. Also: the pork chop was an off-menu special.) Likewise, the wine list was "pretty good" and there’s a cocktail called the Bauer’s Old Fashioned allegedly named for the Bauer’s limo service that shares the pier with the restaurant and not the critic. By the time Kane is swirling the last of his Simi Valley Sauvignon Blanc and feeling weirded out by all the cops dining (in uniform) alongside him, the verdict is a fairly clear meh. It’s nice, but there are cheaper oysters down the street.
In the East Bay, Luke Tsai has temporarily paused his "eternal search for the new and the obscure" this week, eschewing the food trucks and pop-ups and divey new Mongolian places for an old classic: Oliveto in Rockridge. In the 30 years since it opened, Oliveto has kept the white tablecloth, Grandma’s-in-town vibe, and while they still serve "some of the most stunning" (if pricey) pasta dishes in the East Bay, it’s actually the new "rosticceria" "program" that our critic is most interested in this week.
For the uninitiated, a rosticceria is a sort of Italian analog to the American barbecue joint or the Peruvian rotisserie, service a couple options of roasted meats with a few choices of sides. And with dinners clocking in at under 20 bucks, the new format is right in Tsai’s wheelhouse. Highlights are the "luxurious" spit-roasted pork shoulder, a "surprising" take on ghormeh sabzi Persian chicken stew, and house-made Tuscan sausages. On the other hand, a spit-roasted chicken was a "chewy and flabby" disaster. While the white tablecloths, the cafe menu and the restaurant’s well-loved pizzas are still present, Oliveto is clearly trying to find new ways to capture the Rockridge audience amidst a flood of new restaurants, which would explain why the cafe is suddenly turning out three-dollar slices of toast. All told: the hip upgrades a success and, according to our critic, "it’s very, very good toast."