Last year, San Francisco buzzed over the luxe restaurants launched by two established stars, George Morrone and Gary Danko. Twelve months later, Morrone's Fifth Floor and the eponymous Gary Danko are still hot tickets, but food-crazy locals are now talking about four new places, all opened by stunningly self-assured chefs in their thirties.
Not one of these establishments is a multimillion-dollar extravaganza in a high-rent location. Each is a personal statement in an offbeat neighborhood, and in a space small enough to allow hands-on control. These chefs work at their stoves and wood-burning ovens night after night, using hand-picked produce and artisanal ingredients, executing their menus with great discipline. Not surprisingly, all four practice the Northern California religion (fresh, local, seasonal), but each interprets the scripture differently, with an inventiveness that marks them as true originals.
A Self-Taught Talent
Julia McClaskey came to Dine from the Universal Cafe, where she performed with nothing more than a countertop oven and a couple of burners. These restraints forced her to develop a style of profound simplicity; her signature dishes use only a few ingredients but are startlingly delicious. I have never tasted a salad as thrilling as her combination of wilted escarole, barely softened Sierra Beauty apples and warm mountain Gorgonzola, dressed with a mingling of pan juices and sherry vinegar. She pours steaming mussels on toasted Tuscan bread slathered with sautéed onions and grilled radicchio; she sears chicken livers and tosses them with applewood-smoked bacon, organic greens and pomegranate seeds. Her crisp-skinned young chicken stuffed with Parmesan-enriched orzo and topped with a scattering of fried sage leaves has become a new classic in town. Each dish brings a new twist that seems inevitable after one bite.
What's amazing about McClaskey is that she's pretty much self-taught, apart from a stint with the talented Palo Alto chef Donia Bijan. She's a natural, and her decision to locate her romantic, redbrick restaurant on a pioneering block of Mission Street, only half a block from the Yerba Buena Center and the Museum of Modern Art, suggests that her instincts are just as canny outside the kitchen (662 Mission St.; 415-538-3463).
A Tenderloin Pioneer
Most people in town thought Paul Arenstam was crazy to open Belona smart, blond-wood brasserie with a long oyster baron the edge of the seamy Tenderloin district. But he had found an empty niche in an overcrowded restaurant market: Just a few blocks from Union Square and the theater district, Belon offers a casual alternative to, say, Campton Place and Postrio, which have better addresses and correspondingly higher prices. A young crowd pours in late at night for oysters and martinis; the serious eaters come after the pretheater rush for Arenstam's cooking, a marriage of classic technique and the free-spirited San Francisco way with ingredients. Each night brings a different plat du jour, a universal favorite being Saturday's spicy braised pork shoulder with cumin, red peppers and onions on top of creamy polenta. Juicy skate wing melts into braised cabbage, piquant with sherry vinegar and capers; local petrale sole gets Arenstam's "Véronique" treatment, with sliced grapes, braised celery and a sauce of fruity verjus.
Arenstam, who has been cooking professionally for 15 years (though he barely looks old enough), worked with Traci Des Jardins at Rubicon for almost three years. Eventually he decided he wanted his own placeeven if it had to be in a challenged location. But the landscape of San Francisco is changing so fast, and Arenstam's cooking is so appealing, that people who would never have set foot on this seedy corner a year ago now stroll over as if they were taking a walk in the park (25 Mason St.; 415-776-9970).
The Chef As Artist
Fourth Street and Brannan has turned into South of Market's own little restaurant mecca, with Fringale, Bizou and now Cafe Monk all within a block. The designer who founded Limn furniture, Dan Friedlander, transformed a high-ceilinged artist's studio into a mysterious restaurant that makes a statement about the affinity he sees between the introspective lives of artists and those of monks. Thelonious, Meredith, Rasputin and the Dalai Lama (among others) stare down from a row of portraits above the banquettes, taking in the long mahogany refectory table.
Thank goodness Friedlander found Randy Windham, who may not be a monk but is unquestionably an artist in the kitchen. This 32-year-old chef seems to have been born with a timeless and nearly flawless sensibility, but he did work with two masters, Judy Rodgers at Zuni and Paul Bertolli at Oliveto. You can see Windham in his high-tech open kitchen, throwing wood into the oven he uses to cook everything from clams, parsley, garlic and red-chile flakes on thin slices of crispy levain to pork sliced over a ragout of chestnuts and brussels sprouts. Prosciutto with a scattering of persimmon, fennel and jewel-like pomegranate seeds, all drizzled with balsamic vinegar, shows the Judy Rodgers influence, but toasted-bread-crumb salsa tossed over grilled albacore, white-bean puree and a grilled gypsy pepper is spectacularly original. Windham never adds an extraneous ingredient; his pared down, monkish cooking tastes utterly complete. All I can say is that I'm glad monks, and artists, still have to eat (564 Fourth St.; 415-777-1331).
A Small-Scale Virtuoso
Daniel Patterson is not quite a discoveryF&W named him one of 1997's Best New Chefs when he was at Babette, in Sonoma, Californiabut his move to San Francisco has brought him a fresh audience. In his youth, he played football and honed a 100-mile-an-hour tennis serve. Now he's at Elisabeth Daniel, the restaurant he opened with his wife, Elisabeth Ramsey, and his prix-fixe meals reveal that this athlete has a poetic soul. Inspired, perhaps, by Thomas Keller's witty, two-bite dishes at the French Laundry, Patterson has developed his own repertoire of small-scale wonders, each exploring a different cooking technique, kaiseki-style. Tiny ovals of rare tuna, suspended in lemon-black pepper gelée, shimmer like sushi. A warm foam of butter and black truffles conceals tender sweetbread ravioli. Seared scallops are nuggets of sweetness in a ginger-, lemongrass- and cilantro-infused carrot broth.
The food is gorgeous, even if the service and the understated storefront setting feel a little naive. But the cramped quarters, across from the Transamerica Pyramid, are roomy enough for Patterson's needs. Like McClaskey, Arenstam and Windham, he is an exacting young chef in love with cooking who has found the ideal place to articulate his vision (550 Washington St.; 415-397-6129).Patricia Unterman is a restaurant critic and the author of Patricia Unterman's Food Lover's Guide to San Francisco.