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Pre-Retirement, Michael Bauer Liberally Applies His Final Stars

He’s singing praises for Avery and Birdsong, while Pete Kane gets comfy at Kantine

Patricia Chang

Pearl

On Eater SF, Rachel Levin believes Pearl has revived the art of neighborhood dining out in the avenues. The vibe is “Hamptons beach house meets New Orleans meets... mid-Richmond,” Levin writes, with freshly shucked oysters, a cheery staff, and a house martini with that skyrocketed to the top of the best-of list. Come for the seafood, but stay for the handmade pastas and “hefty” pork chops. Three stars.


Avery

Chef Rodney Wages and his front of house man Matthew Mako have created a “well executed” and “coherent” tasting menu at Avery, Michael Bauer wrote in July and the experience is one he’ll remember “long after I pay off the credit card.” [nb: Bauer is, of course, speaking metaphorically here. He doesn’t pay his own review meal tabs.] In fact, Bauer steers diners to the shorter, more budget-friendly seven-course menu that showcases the kitchen’s Japanese-via-California technique just fine, while the pricier menus felt “padded.”

“Less is often more,” Bauer says after a five-paragraph introduction about San Francisco’s current tasting menu trend, and Wages’ best dishes reflect that. A starter course of simple, salty grain broth set the mood for Bauer’s first dinner with “an explosion of flavor” that led into more highlights: oysters swimming in “a buttery slurry,” Lobster curry, tortellini filled with cultured butter and mushrooms, and the standout cheese course: a candy cap mushroom tart topped with Harbison cheese. On the expanded menu, Bauer felt Wages and company were still working up to the four-star level, and some items like a potato draped with iberico ham were just “clumsy or awkward to eat.” The caviar bump — a cheeky menu add-on beloved by off-duty sous chefs and Instagram mavens — “tasted good but felt self-conscious.” Three and a half stars.


Birdsong

If Avery is mid-century modern, then chef Christopher Bleidorn’s Birdsong is “primal,” Bauer writes this week. A wine cooler from the restaurant’s former life as AQ has been converted into a “morgue for animals” with whole muttons, a side of water buffalo and “more duck carcasses than you can count.” Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Bleidorn’s “centuries-old techniques” create “intense, earthy overtones” — as in a dish of morels stuffed with lamb and activated charcoal that pays tribute to last year’s fires in Wine Country. This “huntsman style” feels like a mix of Saison and Atelier Crenn, Bauer notes, appearing to learn mid-review that the chef spent a significant amount of time working at both.

For $168, the 10-course menu celebrates ingredients from the Bay Area to the Pacific Northwest like trout wrapped in cedar paper, cured duck with liver and gizzards, and wild boar flavored by pine and eucalyptus. As an added bonus, you get to watch the kitchen staff work to a soundtrack of Billy Joel and the Counting Crows. The experience, Bauer concludes, is unique and “not easily forgotten; one that feels like a hike in the woods.” Three and a half stars. For those keeping score at home: that’s four 3.5-star reviews in a row from Bauer. Is the critic formerly known as “Mikey Two-Stars” saving all the best restaurants for last, or is he just more comfortable dishing out near-perfect ratings knowing he’ll never have to file a review update again?


Kantine

In the mid-Market/Castro hybrid area around Laguna Street and Guerrero, Pete Kane visits the smørrebrød and herring joint Kantine for more woodsman-esque vibes. If you like rye bread, you’ll be in heaven, Kane says, but “surprisingly winning” salads, “profoundly generous” savory porridges and unexpected dishes like “luscious” curried herring are the best examples of Kantine’s “unexpected angle” on comfort food.


Queen’s Cajun Seafood

In the East Bay, Express critic (and new Eater SF contributor) Janelle Bitker explores the intersection of Vietnamese and Cajun cooking at Queen’s Cajun Seafood. While most of the bay areas Viet-Cajun spots tend to focus on boiled crawfish and fried sides, Queen’s Cajun steers towards a more comprehensive Texas-style menu that includes highlights like an “ideally salty and soothing” turkey neck stew or jambalaya “leaned toward fried rice” rather than the traditional seafood and rice stew you might find at Louisiana-style joint.

Queen’s Cajun also knows how to fry their seafood “exceptionally well,” Bitker says, and the fried alligator tasted like “pleasantly chewier” popcorn chicken with a side of gravy that “deftly straddled the American South with Saigon.” Fried catfish — that old Southern standby — retained its crisp skin and flaky flesh until the final bite. While the all-important crawfish were bigger and meatier than the ones you usually find at California’s seafood shacks, the sauces were disappointingly bland compared to “the nostril-clearing stuff” you might find at a backyard mudbug boil.


Shabu House & Hancook

For her latest, Bitker has a shabu shabu double feature that covers the traditional Japanese and Korean styles of hot pot dining. At San Leandro’s “immaculate” Shabu House, “you’ll get a sense of how shabu shabu is truly meant to be experienced,” Bitker says. There’s plenty of table space, smart cooking features, and “flawless,” “beautifully marbled, radiantly hued” cuts of meat. The downside: the broths were “bordering on bland,” aside from the spicy miso.

Further North in Temescal, Bitker says she ultimately preferred the “deeply flavored” soup bases and pre-meal banchan at Hancook. With extensive protein options, a wide range of seafood selections and “very reasonable all-you-can-eat pricing,” the Korean shabu shabu experience won out, even if Hancook’s interior was “slightly more haphazard.”


Birdsong

1085 Mission Street, , CA 94103 (415) 369-9161 Visit Website

Avery

1552 Fillmore Street, , CA 94115 (415) 817-1187 Visit Website

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