"It’s like entering the narthex of a culinary cathedral," the Chronicle’s food pope Michael Bauer writes in this week’s review of Bellota. And this cathedral was apparently built in honor of soccarat, the patron saint of caramelized rice which appears, as if by some miracle, at the bottom of a paella pan. If it is soccarat you seek, then Bauer recommends you make your pilgrimage to the Absinthe Group’s latest and "most ambitious" endeavor immediately, because "Bellota is the pinnacle" of perfectly crusted rice.
Of those paellas, Bauer recommends the top-shelf, $45 version with Iberico pork shoulder and squash blossoms, although he also makes a point to highlight chef Ryan McIlwraith’s riff on Rice-a-Roni where the rice is blackened by squid ink and topped with "shrimp, squid and well-seared scallops." Before dipping into the holy paella communion, Bauer also recommends any of the charcuterie or the decadent seafood options that top the land-and-sea tower. On the other hand, he found a few dishes like the "mushy" yogurt-braised chicken meatballs and the tortilla Espanola needed to go back to confession to punch them up a bit. On the bright side, "anything kissed by flames is fully realized," so diners cant go wrong with anything from the hearth.
When Bauer finally looks up from his paella dish, he finds the space to be as carefully considered as the cathedrals he keeps comparing it to. The decor is subtly Moorish and the bar has "a smooth, powdery feel" as he rapturously runs his hand along it. With a couple of Spanish gin tonics, loaded with "a big corsage of herbs," the only things Bauer doesn’t seem to like are the
altar boys servers, who can occasionally "become a little too enthusiastic." Three stars for Bellota, Absinthe Group’s "best" restaurant yet.
Meanwhile, up in Napa, Bauer took a vacation on the Chronicle’s dime to re-re-review Solbar in Calistoga. When Bauer last visited in March 2015, he seemed to enjoy the place, but felt the kitchen was "still settling in" to its million-dollar redesign. (Even though chef Brandon Sharp has been there for all nine years since it opened.) Although it was a short turnaround for an update review, Bauer is ready to give that last half-star to "one of the most impressive outdoor terraces in the valley." Solbar is now in the three-star Bauer club.
Unfortunately for our local alt-weekly, Pete Kane's review of In Situ is sure to be outshined by the Grey Lady’s own early scoop on chef Corey Lee’s ambitious new SFMOMA spot. With two full-time critics chiming in now, it seems impossible that the food is anything less than great, and both critics agree that between Lee’s expertise and plenty of instruction from the chefs contributing their dishes from around the world, the execution is nearly flawless. Despite being "prententious as hell," Kane says, "almost without exception, everything I ate was excellent, and one or two things were genuinely mind-expanding." All in all, Kane has a whole world of positive vibes for a restaurant that "might be almost as significant" as the new museum itself.
Teni East Kitchen
For East Bay Express critic Luke Tsai, the kale that shows up in Teni East Kitchen’s version of tea leaf salad is "a testament to how far Burmese food has come in terms of mainstream acceptance here in the bay." In other words: we’ve reached the point where Burmese food can easily meld with California cuisine and not feel forced (or worse: fusion-y).
At Teni East, Burmese melds with other California, Southeast Asian, and even Ethiopian influences to create what Tsai says is "one of those places you couldn’t imagine existing anywhere else." Teni’s chef-owner Tiyo Shibabaw is of Ethiopian descent herself, but ran the front of house for two of Burma Superstar locations in the East Bay. So, she knows her way around the flavors, but she offers "a distinctly Californian version of Burmese cooking" that comes out in dishes like that kale tea leaf salad, sweet potato samosas, or the sticky, "fruity-hot" fried chicken wings tossed in Burmese chili oil and tamarind sauce. As for the real standouts, Tsai’s picks very towards the "intensely savory" beef cheek curry or the "vaguely Thai-style" cumin pork belly stir-fry. While Teni "isn’t a perfect restaurant," Tsai still believes it is churning out better and more interesting food than the Burma Superstar mothership.