In 2012, Michael Bauer called three-star Bar Tartine his own “personal benchmark,” giving every other restaurant in town a roadmap for how to impress our local food critic. Two years later, Bauer downgraded Bar Tartine to two stars, saying Nick Balla and Courtney Burns’ experimentation in the kitchen had caused the restaurant to lose some of its balance. Unfortunately for Balla and Burns, Bauer seems to think their latest experiment Motze is yet another step in the wrong direction. If you’re up for being “a human guinea pig,” Bauer says, then Motze’s daily changing tasting menu “will hold your attention,” but diners will be disappointed if they are just on the hunt for a satisfying meal.
Although the service is “quick and efficient,” Bauer never found a single dish that he looked forward to seeing again, even though he admired the chefs’ integrity and devotion to making everything from the miso to the soy sauce in-house. On the one hand, a green chile stew was a surprising winner when he found a steamed baby turnip hidden in the broth, but a smoked potato pancake “looked like an irregular pizza” topped with seaweed and roe. A “substantial” rice pot course was actually hampered by the fact that its ingredients change nightly, so that it varied from soupy to risotto-like. After a puzzling dessert course, Bauer says he was full, but unsatisfied and filled with “long-forgotten” memories of bad health food. One and a half stars.
Albona Ristorante Istriano
Meanwhile, over in North Beach, Bauer revisited Istrian-Italian mainstay and longtime Chronicle Top 100 spot Albona Ristorante, where the menu hasn’t changed in at least a decade and “some of the food has grown staid.” Original owner Bruno Viscovi sold the restaurant to Chef Samuel Hernandez in 2008, and while Hernandez has tried to preserve the traditional roots, Bauer sounds satisfied but not exactly impressed. The pork loin Bauer once loved was “slightly off,” and a squid dish was “rubbery” but with predictably good marinara sauce. Likewise, Bauer says the tiny dining room was “easily handled” by one efficient waiter, but the place “felt hollow” without its frontman Viscovi there to liven it up. Two stars.
For the February issue of San Francisco Magazine, Josh Sens headed north to Healdsburg’s newest destination restaurant Single Thread and almost immediately finds culinary bliss in some matsutake mushrooms and the brief “micro-season” that spawned them. Chef Kyle Connaughton changes his “intensely farm-to-table,” Japanese-leaning tasting menu every five days, and on Sens’ visit those matsutakes formed part of the dashi broth that “invoked an ocean wave washing across a forest floor.”
While the restaurant’s attention to detail can border on parody, as it does when a server delivers a box of steak knives made from a recycled 1968 Volkswagen, that meticulousness is reflected in Connaughton’s cooking. Case in point, the first course, a “snapshot of Sonoma County,” arrived with 11 composed bites ranging from Dungeness wrapped in tofu skins to egg shells filled with savory custard. Since it would be pointless to describe such fleeting dishes in a magazine review (and repeat visits would threaten to bankrupt the magazine), Sens gives us just a snapshot, but it’s one he is confident will be repeated, “regardless of which micro-season the restaurant is observing when you visit.” Three and a half stars.
In Rockridge, SF Weekly’s Pete Kane discovers unassuming fine-casual date spot Duchess. There’s a cozy neighborhood vibe, Kane says, but the restaurant clearly hopes to attract a wider audience with items like a $17 “famous chicken sandwich” or a 55-hour pastrami sandwich that he thinks could compete with a New York deli. The fries — which come in decadent options like truffles or Dungeness crab — were “golden-brown without fail, every time,” and Kane implores us to order “The Donut” filled with chicken liver mousse and huckleberry compote. At $12 a pop, the cocktail list “punches above its weight,” and though the interior’s DIY feel “might not be altogether regal,” where else are you going to find a friendly spot to dine out with a game of Settlers of Catan?
Mississippi Catfish and Lilly's New Orleans Cafe
In the East Bay, Luke Tsai headed north to find Southern food in Richmond for a double review of Mississippi Catfish and Lilly's New Orleans Cafe. The former, which shares a wall with a smog inspection station, “is as quaint and cozy as any country general store” and serves some of the East Bay’s “most exceptional plates of fried seafod.” The titular catfish “came out greaseless and almost too hot to pick up,” but the fried shrimp and “wholly savory” hushpuppies stole the show.
At Lilly’s, Tsai found a hardworking one-man kitchen cranking out six different po’boys and excellent cheese corn cakes inspired by Red Lobster’s cheese biscuits. But the real crown jewel is the okra-less seafood gumbo with shrimp, beef sausage, Dungeness crab, and an “earthy and Licorice-y” addition of filé powder. When it’s available, it’s worth the trip north.