Michael Bauer returned to 1998’s most important restaurant AsiaSF for an update review this week. Eighteen years after opening, Bauer finds the place has modernized only slightly in these post-Caitlyn Jenner times: the performers are no longer all Asian, and they’ve dropped the "gender illusionist" terms in favor of something a little more contemporary. While the vibe is still as fun and welcoming as ever, Bauer thinks the food hasn’t quite kept up now that the chef Matthew Metcalf has left the kitchen. The format has changed to a three-course pre-fixe that’s relatively cheap at $39 to $59 depending on the night, but the execution "has strayed from the precision I remember," Bauer wrote.
His criticisms are relatively minor — some grilled shrimp were greasy, some mussels were too small, etc. — but it’s his dining companion who sums up the menu: "I feel like I’m eating food from the first-class cabin of an airplane." In other words, everything is good, but nothing to write home about. But no one comes to AsiaSF for the dinner, they come for the ladies who are, in Bauer's opinion, "always outgoing and fun." Three stars for atmosphere, but only two for the food and two stars overall.
On Valencia Street, Pete Kane tries out Barzotto’s "fine casual" Italian and right off the bat concludes, "I’m not sold on it." While chef Michelle Minori makes five different pastas fresh daily, "the eventual dishes they become vary in quality." Most of the dishes veer toward the smaller side and in some cases there are "too many add-ons, too little spaghetti."
That said, Kane liked the brassy strozzapreti alla puttanesca and the shareable, "moist" half-chicken, as well as the brunch porchetta and a bowl of baked eggs. But what’s really holding Barzotto back is the counter service scheme that speeds up the whole "fine" part of the concept and — most importantly — makes it harder to order a second glass of wine when you have to hop back in line to get it. Overall though, the staff are attentive and the kitchen pushes out dishes fast, even if it makes the dinner feel "rushed to the extreme." While the service model is awkward, the "fine casual" designation, Kane concludes, is "basically the oxymoron it sounds like."
In the East Bay, Luke Tsai strayed from his usual family-run vibe and heads to the latest outpost of robot quinoa store Eatsa in Berkeley. Eatsa’s human-free dining experience has been covered at length, but just steps from the UC Berkeley campus, Tsai discovers it’s a popular takeout stop for hungry Cal students (and, with only one counter seat in the restaurant, the only place to actually eat is on the campus itself).
But "once you strip away all of the techspeak and space-age trappings," Tsai says, what you end up with "is an affordable lunch that’s healthier and, for the most part, better-tasting than many of the grab-and-go options out there." Tsai was surprised to find how filling and "reasonably tasty" the quinoa bowls were and seems to like the Smokehouse Salad bowl and the warm Bento Bowl. "At worst," he says, the food resembles something you might put together at the prepared foods bar at Whole Foods, but "of a slightly better quality" and for slightly cheaper. Overall: a positive take, even if there aren’t really robots in the kitchen.
Pete Kane shovels shaved snow at Powder and gets buzzed at SoMa’s Buzzworks. Anna Roth hits up Korean truck Kokio Republic.