The story of Babu Ji chef Jessi Singh and his wife Jennifer’s migration from a mini-empire in Melbourne to New York and finally to San Francisco has been told before, but once Michael Bauer gets through the introductions he jumps right into the NYC-SF comparisons. Bauer dined at the East Village Babu Ji in December and he’s ready to declare that the Bay Area’s storied produce has made Singh’s modern Indian cuisine “brighter, with complex layers that unfold with each bite.” Case in point: the “fresh, prickly heat” in the seafood coconut curry, the “earthy nuances” in the black lentil dahl and the “sweet-spicy punch” in the Colonel Tso’s cauliflower.
But to get the most out of Babu Ji, Bauer recommends the $62 tasting menu with its “main event” — nine rotating dishes like Punjabi kadhi, duck curry and others inspired by Singh’s market finds. Likewise, the “laborious preparation” behind the 24-hour marinated whole rainbow trout adds up to a big payoff. While the Singh’s are hoping the playful vibe will carry over to their new location on Valencia Street, Bauer is confident Babu Ji will at least shake off the bad juju that afflicted Plin, Nostra Spaghetteria and the others that occupied the space before it. Two and a half stars.
For his update review, Bauer checked up on Bar Agricole for his first critical evaluation since Seth Stowaway took over the kitchen from Melissa Reitz last year. Stowaway has brought “some of that meaty sensibility” over from sister restaurant Trou Normand and expanded the menu with charcuterie, “expected” snacks, salads that “shine” and a radish presentation “that would make Alice Waters proud.” (Who doesn’t love a good radish presentation?) Bauer recommends the fried crab (“so good” despite being “a tad overcooked”), the wet brined roast chicken and basically anything from the exemplary cocktail menu. Three stars for the continually “high bar.”
At Tenderloin garage-turned-Japanese bathhouse Onsen, Pete Kane finds “a paragon of elegance” and a tiny kitchen churning out some “outstanding” food. Two people can easily work through the entire menu of smaller plates, but Kane highlights the “sensuous soft-egg custard” with crab and shiitake mushroom, the “stunning” rice porridge topped with a quail egg and the “bordering on ridiculous” (in a good way) lamb skewers.
Of the bigger plates, Kane says “everything was truly excellent” aside from one “generic” bowl of udon, but the most interesting dishes were the charred brassicas and the earthy mushroom dumplings in katsuboushi broth. After a good soak and a flight of sake, our critic is “giddy” about such a unique and well-executed hybrid restaurant.
In Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood, Luke Tsai gets a whiff of “the most pungent thing I've eaten in the past several months” — a slow-cooked, fermented mackerel from the newly arrived, upscale Daughter Thai Kitchen. Like Chowhaus before it, Tsai applauds Daughter Thai for taking such culinary risks in a “lily-white” neighborhood.
Co-owner Iing Chatterjee calls the cuisine a “new generation” of Thai food (see also: sister restaurant Farmhouse Kitchen in the Mission) and Tsai has a lot of praise for the pork belly meat salad yung moo krob, the Hat Yai Thai-style fried chicken or the 24-hour beef noodle soup with it’s prehistoric-looking bone-in short rib. But for a truly challenging dish, the “earthy and pungent flavor” of the gang tai pla fish curry that set off his review is both immaculate and hard to love in it’s “completely uncompromised” form. Still, Tsai thinks Daughter Thai’s audacity should be enough to break the Montclair crowd out of their pad Thai comfort zone.
Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chalupa
Just a reminder that the SF Chronicle critic also paid a visit to Taco Bell Cantina, to review the Naked Chicken Chalupa.