When the very talented Chef Nate Appleman departed San Francisco's beloved A16 restaurant in 2009 for the glitz of Manhattan, San Francisco Bay Area foodies gasped, fell into a deep funk, and believed the world had come to an end.
I exaggerate -- but not by much.
But A16 did a very smart thing. For his replacement, the restaurant looked within. It promoted Liza Shaw to top toque. Shaw not only helped open A16 in 2004, but worked her way up through every station, and contributed to the recipe development and food styling of the award-winning A16 Food + Wine cookbook. In her hands, the restaurant has remained every bit as strong and consistent.
On a blustery night when I was invited to dine as a guest, the long, narrow restaurant, a short drive from the Laurel Inn, was as crowded and boisterous as always.
It was my first time dining on a Monday night -- "Meatball Mondays'' was in full swing. The juicy, tender meatballs are served as a special every Monday night as either an appetizer or entree. The meatballs, braised in wine, are a mixture of pork, beef, and 40-percent breadcrumbs, which is what makes them so wonderfully light in texture. One bite and you'll know why regulars caused a ruckus when the restaurant once tried to discontinue the meatball tradition.
A starter of roasted Monterey sardines ($11) was surprisingly mild tasting for this often-strong oily fish. A hit of citrus, fennel and plump green olives gave the sardines even more character.
The pizza remains one of the best in the city. The funghi pizza ($16.50) was strewn with roasted mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, Grana, garlic, oregano, and wild peppery arugula. The center was not necessarily shatteringly crisp, but it didn't matter because the crust itself had so much developed flavor and nice, airy edges.
Pastas comes in your choice of full or half portions. We opted for the latter for two pastas.
First up, the bucatini ($10) -- strands of pasta tossed with a simple, yet beguiling mixture of walnut, Meyer lemon, and anchovy pesto.
Second, the squid ink cavatelli ($10) -- midnight-hued, quill-shaped pasta the size of mussels -- tossed with house-made baccala (salt cod), cheery tomatoes, green olives and chiles. It was a dish infused with the deep flavor of the sea.
A flourish of rustic desserts followed. First, a zippy scoop of green apple-basil sorbet ($3) that couldn't have been more refreshing.
Next, the chocolate budino tart ($8.50) drizzled with sea salt and olive oil that was oh-so rich and satisfying.
And finally, the crespelle ($8), tender crepes folded around stracchino (a creamy, Italian cow's milk cheese) and oozy dark chocolate. They were served with a faintly pink-purple scoop of gelato made with the Italian wine, lacrima, full of bright berry flavors.
Appleman may have flown the coop. But fortunately for those of us in the Bay Area, A16 in still very much in good hands.
-- Carolyn Jung of FoodGal
Second and third photos courtesy of the author