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Restaurant Critic Roundup: ZZ's Clam Bar Serves Expensive Food and Unexpected Ambience

Restaurant Critic Roundup: ZZ's Clam Bar Serves Expensive Food and Unexpected Ambience

This week in restaurant news, critic Alan Richman reviews ZZ's Clam Bar, a high-security, no-reservation-no-entry place, with a website that is equally unhelpful, providing no menu, no hours, and no days of operation. There is a phone number, however it may be a stroke of luck if they answer. The restaurant itself is also nothing you would expect: "It's tiny, with four small tables pushed close together. They seat 10, max. They're marble-topped and set with pearl-handled flatware. There are anthurium in small vases, a towering arrangement of bird-of-paradise flowers preening in a corner. One wall is old brick. The other is old wallpaper. The floor is black-and-turquoise tile, the turquoise a shade found in Istanbul museums. The music is lilting, uplifting, a playlist like none I've heard in New York. I've never been anywhere like this."

Near San Francisco, "seeing and being seen trumps privacy" at restaurant A16. Critic Michael Bauer elaborates, "a glass garage door in front gives diners a view of College Avenue and the burrito shop across the street. When it's rolled up, the line between indoors and out blurs further." "The vibe is so integrated with the neighborhood," he says, "that you'd think the business had been open for years, rather than debuting in June."

Near Denver, critic William Porter reviews restaurant Udi's Pizza Cafe Bar. "Udi's first put its name on the Denver dining map with bakeries that craft artisan breads," he says, and "while it is still in the dough business, it has branched into casual restaurants, including Udi's Pizza Café Bar in Olde Town Arvada." Of the pies, he comments, "these are hand-made pies, and your inner kid will grin at the élan with which the bakers shape, stretch and toss the dough, and marvel at the speed of the saucing and layering of ingredients."

As always, the ratings range from stars to bells to beans, but every review offers specialized insight into the food, atmosphere, and service of eateries in each city’s dining scene and the critics eating at them.

Restaurant Critic Roundup: 8/7/2013

CriticPublicationRestaurantRating
Alan RichmanGQZZ's Clam Bar3 stars
Gael GreeneInsatiable CriticFlat Top
Pete WellsThe New York TimesMP Taverna1 star
Michael BauerSan Francisco ChronicleA16Bomb
Jonathan GoldLos Angeles TimesChengdu Taste
Brad A. JohnsonOC RegisterGreat Maple
Tom SietsemaWashington PostBéarnaise
William PorterDenver PostUdi's Pizza Cafe Bar2.5 stars
Robert MossCharleston City PaperKitchen 208

Click here for The Daily Meal's "Top Chefs Review — and Rate — America's Food Critics."

Tyler Sullivan is The Daily Meal's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter at @atylersullivan.


Best Japanese Restaurants in Melbourne 2021

Japanese food is one of the most popular cuisines in Melbourne. Here are our best Japanese restaurants in Melbourne.

Kisume - Flinders Lane CBD

Kisume means pure obsession with beauty and it's the whole package that impresses indeed it's world class. We have enjoyed one soiree here and look forward to many more. A game changer in Flinders Lane. Iconic Chris Lucas has produced a distinctive restaurant different to Chin Chin et al, brimming with style and class overdrive. Kisume is a contemporary Japanese dining experience on the ground and basement levels, but its the Table at Kisume that steals the show on the first floor, a unique omakase-style dining experience seating just 12, two private dining rooms with a similar bespoke offering, plus the Chablis Bar, the first such bar in Australia. Table at Kisume is an exclusive experience of Japanese food and ambience at its best.

We love the lunch Bento Boxes out of this world. The foie gras option was a luxe touch of indulgence.

One top Australian critic told me this was the best sashimi he had ever tasted in the world. Guests can enjoy dishes that draw on the purity and exacting nature of Japanese food but are uniquely Australian (nearly 100 per cent of the menu features produce from Australia and New Zealand). Seafood is, of course, a highlight.

Wa Kenbo - Fitzroy

Wa Kenbo has captured the imagination since it burst onto the scene in 2018. The food does the talking, as there is little signage or fanfare surrounding this gem away from the main strip in Fitzroy. What critics are heralding is the use of produce from Chef Kenji Ito's private garden to feature in dishes, as well as the fine technique and element of fusion done well.

Kenji Ito is a chef of 23 years who first sharpened his knives at the renowned Tsuji Culinary Institute in Tokyo, and then went on to refine his skills in Akasaka and Ginza.

Sushi roll of grilled Anago eel, Mitsuba omelette, cucumber, buckwheat soy sauce is a fabulous sushi dish.

Kenji excels with the Ninmono Japanese pumpkin & ricotta wonton tortellini, pea smash, Tempura Ashitaba leaf, soy burdock cream sauce a great example of fusion.

Pan fried Hapuka, Sake poached mussel, Mozuku, Chinese cauliflower, snow pea, pink rice cracker, Ponzu butter sauce. The buttery sauce was exceptional.

Ishizuka - Bourke St CBD

Ishizuka Japanese kaiseki restaurant beautifully ties together design and the dining experience and features a kaiseki style of dining. The menu is top notch and is constantly evolving bringing in seasonality and access to the finest of produce.

The ultimate bento box? You can enjoy this limited edition (at time of writing) bento box using the freshest ingredients at home!

There's an intimacy about Ishizuka as it only serves 16 diners at night. A basement restaurant that is somehow conservative and radical at once. Even before entering the dining room, Ishizuka’s sense of place and occasion come to the fore with a large backlit lantern egg greeting diners, sweeping them in and signalling the narrative about to unfold. The interior is epic but muted, dignified, almost filmic, suffusing the restaurant with texture, tone and a sense of mystery.

One of Melbourne's best restaurants, let alone best Japanese restaurants.

Bincho Boss - CBD

Bincho Boss is a fabulous casual style Japanese izakaya restaurant that brings innovation and flair without the high end prices.

Tasty Smoked duck breast was delicious melt in your mouth, a feature of the Bincho concept, enhanced with an exceptional sauce.

Multi award-winning Executive Chef, Tomotaka Ishizuka and Head Chef, Keiji Ishida are the bosses of the kitchen. Both were previously at Kisume, so they bring a wealth of Japanese knowledge and authenticity to Bincho Boss. With this sort of pedigree it's no wonder the menu hits the high notes. The bincho factor comes into play in that a bincho is about grilling over high quality charcoal in their earthen konro grill.

Salmon sashimi is super fresh and a compelling dish.

Turkey meatballs were an unexpected highlight, perfect with sake.

Sreamed prawn dumplings were delicate and burst with flavour.

The highlight for me is the Salt crusted wagyu which comes with a touch of theatre as the crust is broken before you at the table. Melt in your mouth wagyu.

Bincho Boss is an absolute gem and one of the best Japanese dining experiences in Melbourne.

Sake - Flinders Lane and Southbank

Saké Restaurant & Bar has been a favourite in Southbank and recently brought its award-winning contemporary Japanese dining experience to Melbourne’s much-loved gastronomic destination, Flinders Lane. The World Loves Melbourne has enjoyed fine meals at Sake in both Melbourne and Sydney. Check out our Best Sushi in Melbourne. We enjoy the vibe in the Flinders Lane restaurant modern Japanese cuisine in a modern atmospheric environment.

The two-storey restaurant at 121 Flinders Lane has a vibrant street-level entry with a dramatic dining counter combining a sushi bar and spectacular robatayaki grill. The sweeping natural stone counter provides seating for more than 50 diners overlooking Saké’s world-class culinary team. This level seats over 125 customers and features intimate and communal tables.

The downstairs level showcases an expansive natural Japanese stone bar from which diners can watch a stellar drinks crew shaking, stirring and pouring signature and seasonal cocktails, as well as Melbourne’s largest selection of saké, shochu, Japanese whiskies and micro-brewed Japanese beers. This level also features a light-filled, modern terrace that accommodates outdoor diners and floods the restaurant with natural light during the day and provides romantic and atmospheric lighting in the evening.

National Saké Brand Culinary Director Stephane Chevet described the menu as bringing an innovative and playful twist to the signature Saké style and showcasing Victoria’s high quality local produce and ingredients.

“We’re looking at featuring dishes such as Nihon braised wagyu short ribs with seared foie gras, asparagus and caramelised onion slow-cooked abalone with garlic lemon soy and taro crunch southern rock lobster sashimi with ito togarashi, hijiki, and ume neri glaze and Himalayan salt-chilled seared snapper, with karazumi, lemon oil and dry soy,” he said.

Saké Flinders Lane will be the fifth restaurant in the Saké fold. The first Saké Jr., a healthy fast-fine restaurant that features create-your-own bowls, buns and rolls along with grab and go versions of Saké’s signature items, is also slated to open at 555 Bourke Street in May, further strengthening the group’s Melbourne foothold.

Urban Purveyor Group Chief Executive Officer Thomas Pash said the group was thrilled to have secured a prime dining spot in the much-coveted Flinders Lane.

“We’re excited to bring the iconic, multi award-winning Saké restaurant to one of the top dining precincts in Australia,” Mr Pash said. “Flinders Lane features some of the best restaurants in the country and Saké is another powerful name to add to the already impressive list of venues located there.”

Supernormal - CBD

Supernormal delivers when it comes to entertaining your international guests, in ticking all the boxes. We visited Supernormal on a Saturday night with our Canadian friends and expectations were exceeded. Check out our Best Restaurants in Melbourne .

Supernormal is about Andrew McConnells favourite dishes from trips to Asia, notably Shanghai and Hong Kong. The menu is set up well for groups - just share dishes from small to large offerings and you can cover a lot of ground. Start with the Raw bar and the Snacks and appetisers. The Tuna, ponzu & tagarashi above was a killer start with clean fresh flavours.

We were keen to try out a broad spectrum of the menu and should have gone for the great value set menu, but we opted to choose our own dishes, ordering several of each proving more expensive. Kimchi, cabbage & radish was a satisfying journey into kimchi. My mother in law is fastidious about kimchi having travelled much to Asia and won't rave unless she has to. Thumbs up were given to this tantalising appetiser.

Supernormal boasts a raw bar, a cool concept in itself. Smoked beef, mustard leaf, clam mayonaisse was a triumph of taste and texture with cream, crunch and silky beef. By now our Canadian friends and my mother in law were impressed with the class and broad taste profile at Supernormal. Andrew McConnell translates his Asian adventures into this one great culinary adventure at Supernormal.

The famous New England Lobster Roll could not be denied so we ordered several of these. Generous portion of lobster and a killer sauce and sweet brioche, is a cacophony of flavour. Andrew McConells take on this New York snack was developed for his Golden Fields restaurant in St Kilda (now Luxembourg) and he sold 60,000 of them there. And he says he's sold 18,000 more of them since opening Supernormal. Chart topper dish.

Supernormal served up rewarding Prawn and chicken dumplings, chilli and vinegar sauce, with 6 in a serving. The skin was slightly sticky and the fillings first class. The chilli and vinegar sauce is a must, and I found myself spooning sauce all over the dumplings.

Supernormal has picked up on some trends in Melbourne, bringing its own twist. What I love is that it's a unique offering in Melbourne, not a copy of another, or indeed predictable. This is exciting modern food built on traditional roots and stories. Fried chicken has been a Melbourne obsession and Supernormal served up a teriffic compelling rendition.

Supernormal largely caters for shared dining and the Slow cooked Szechuan lamb, spring onion pancake, coriander paste was a highlight. The slow cooked lamb was delectable but it was the sauce that arrested attention. And we love a good spring onion pancake.

The ambience at Supernormal is of a buzzing restaurant with an element of quirk. This is not an ostentatious fit out by any means. Almost a sophisticated cafeteria feel about it. The bar is sleek and modern and the tables pleasant enough, but the ceiling and pillars suggest a once humbler setting. Exposed brick and polished concrete floor. Can we call it semi industrial?

Supernormal has been captivating since it opened. Next time we might launch into a few numbers in the downstairs karaoke bar. Highly recommended.

Minamishima - Richmond

Minamishima is about sushi fine dining, with a set menu to show you what the chef can do. Sushi is showcased with delicacy and skill of a master.

At the heart of the omakase offering from sushi master Koichi Minamishima lies not only 25 years of experience, but also an increasingly rare culinary art form. The World Loves Melbourne loves the goal - to fill each diner with joy through the art form of sushi.

Tucked down a one-way street in Richmond is Minamishima, the most intimate Japanese dining experience in Melbourne. Omakase involves placing faith in the integrity of the chef. There is no a la carte menu this is a journey through a progression of courses with the utmost focus on texture, balance and appearance – as decided by the chef.

Minamishima's omakase is produce-driven, focusing on raw ingredients as they come into season. There are two dining options. At the sushi bar a seasonal entree is served to whet the appetite, followed by sushi presented to the diner one piece at a time. Broth and a traditional dessert follow.

In the dining room and private area that can accommodate up to eight people, the focus extends to the cooking method, from steamed through to grilled. Sushi is also presented but in harmonious groupings, via traditional table service. Sake and wine pairings are also available.

Mr RYU - Balaclava

Mr RYU is impressive with its high quality and affordable Japanese cuisine in Balaclava. The World Loves Melbourne was invited along to experience an "omasake" selection of dishes including the lunch set box Teishoku. Mr RYU is located in a busy strip of Carlisle Street in Balaclava, a well known foodie precinct. We feel Mr RYU stands out with a touch of class and one of the best value for money options in Melbourne.

Tacos dreams at Mr RYU with two kinds of delicious tacos Spicy tuna taco and a Prawn nori taco.

A highlight of the Teishoku was the fresh quality Salmon sashimi, as well as tender Chicken katsu with obvious high quality cut of chicken, tangy Miso soup, refreshing pickled daikon, generous bowl of rice, a surprise element of Onsen egg cooked at 65 degrees, and finally a superb a sexy Green tea panna cotta.

Japanese gyoza are plump, juicy and delicious at Mr RYU.

Pork katsu sando is a standout, and one of the best in Melbourne. Bread crumbed and a generous 200g pork loin cooked to perfection, with tang of mustard and BBQ sauce, this is a superb dish for a reasonable price. The thick pork loin has a good amount of fat and is juicy, perfect against the soft white bread.

A joyous Japanese dining experience at excellent prices.

Tokosan Melbourne - Prahran

Tokosan is more a casual fun style of Japanese dining, and has opened it's doors in Melbourne following the huge success of Toko in Surry Hills Sydney. The Prahran and South Yarra "creatives" are giving it the thumbs up. The World Loves Melbourne was invited along to experience this modern stylish Japanese cuisine. Toko Group has had its sights set on the south for some time with previous Toko Melbourne located in a prime precinct at 142 Greville Street Prahran.

Tokosan is a place for fun and playful dining.

Gaijin Japanese Fusion - South Yarra

Gaijin Japanese Fusion is a popular affordable Japanese restaurant in South Yarra that is full of soul and character and impresses with its playful top notch cuisine. Gaijin serves up Japansese cuisine with a twist. The World Loves Melbourne was invited to sample the menu, particularly six standout dishes that have stood the test of time.

The word "gaijin" means "outsider" or "foreigner" - we wondered if this applies to the fusion cuisine. In any case Gaijin is open for dinner seven days a week, and is developing a presence in the CBD serving lunch.

The menu is extensive at Gaijin, at times playful with the fusion, and is unique in Melbourne. Try to find a list of places that are Japanese fusion (I can only think of a few). Gaijin shows flair and is happy to bring on the spice, with several dishes featuring its own spicy mayo. Gaijin also offers an "all you can eat" special from Monday to Thurday that has proved popular, featuring sushi and sashimi.

Sushi is king at Gaijin. Gaijin impresses with the Big Bang dish, surprising due to the level of fusion, featuring crab stick enoki mushroom and cream cheese rolled in salmon slice then baked with spiced mayo. This dish was one of my favourites of the night. The inclusion of cream cheese was unusual but worked wonderfully. The balance of flavours is perfect with a hit of mushroom and salmon and the cream cheese bringing it together. The spicy mayo sets the dish off. A stunner.

Quality of produce is top notch and it won't break the bank.

Gaijin is one of the few restaurants I know with a relatively low staff turnover and consistency in the kitchen and in service. These chefs have been with the restaurant for several years and its given Gaijin some excellent momentum. The locals love this place and Gaijin often satisfies requests for functions, celebrations and even baby showers!

Gaijin continued with the crunch and the spice with the Crunchy spicy salmon special. Not only is the raw salmon inside the sushi but is also placed on top for double effect. Again the Gaijin spicy mayo is unique and brings a wonderful spicy dimension. Served with wasabi and ginger on the side, I loaded up on spice and heat and loved the experience. I could really get into this crunchy theme.

Gaijin is an attrative restaurant that is welcoming with warm colours and minimalist decor including select artwork, gold curtains at tables by the window, and a Hello Kitty doll. At night the ambience is intimate with candles.

Gaijin is a restaurant we fell in love with and is a fun excellent dining experience at affordable prices. Highly recommended.

Nobu - Crown

Ok so it's been a little while since I've visited Nobu in Crown. Come here to experience the influence of the legendary master chef Nobuyaki Matsuhisa . The World Loves Melbourne visited Nobu for a special dinner wanting to impress interstate visitors, and we were amazed by the coming together of Peruvian and Japanese fusion. We know there are other Nobu establishments elsewhere in the world, and The World Loves Melbourne was taken by the one in Dubai. Robert De Niro connections are impressive. Although many celebs are to be seen here.

So you walk down the stairs into an ambience of sophistication, the fit out here is lavish and well appointed. And you are met by a super chic waiter who escorts you to your table…

For first timers it takes a few minutes to work out the menu - don't let fusion become "confusion"! Amid the general noise in the place you need to listen very carefully to your waiter who will explain the state of play. We enjoy the ambience and whole backlit thing going on. Mood lighting impressed our interstate guests – there's a great sense of occasion here. (Photo above and below courtesy of website).

The World Loves Melbourne is a big fan of the signature black cod miso, cod that has been prepared for days, marinated, and glazed with miso. A tender amazing dish. The wagyu rib eye with red pepper miso, ponzuy and anticucho sauces, also packed a punch and was happily shared.

Then for dessert the amazing bento box action with the gold leaf featured a superb Hot chocolate fondant! With the killer combination of yummy green tea icecream! The flavours work incredibly together with the sweetness of the fondue and the balancing green tea, which is not overly sweet. Had to take a photo with my smartphone (sorry, the lighting is ultra dim). Presentation at Nobu is second to none. We enjoyed perfect food and company in a sensational restaurant, albeit it will make demands on your wallet.

Izakaya Den - CBD

Japanese sensation in a basement. Open for lunch and dinner Izakaya Den is a cool uber chic dining experience. The concept of a izakaya is like a Japanese tavern with small meals to enjoy with drinks.

So I journeyed down the stairs to the basement and came upon a non-descript door with a curtain across it… Aha! This was like an episode of Lord of the Rings – would I stumble upon this treasure of a restaurant? After a while I made out the word “DEN” on the door and knew I had arrived!

I then walked in to the most amazing chic cool place in Melbourne. Long and narrow, dimly lit with cool décor and a long bar. Admire the benches and tables. Cool to have the menu projected on the wall. Enjoy the chefs doing their masterful work in the open kitchen.

While sitting there eating I was enjoying the ambience of Izakaya Den. The place was buzzing on a weekday evening. We love the "counter culture" concept with sushi featured on occasion, with skillful Executive Chef Kentaro.

Kenzan - CBD

Kenzan is a super popular lunch destination for professionals on Collins St, an icon since 1982. Come here for the spider sushi featuring sumptuous soft shell crab. Imbibe fresh sushi from the sushi bar or at the tables. If you have the opportunity order the large sushi and sashimi platter, in the conversation as one of the best in Melbourne.

The name for the restaurant has been chosen to honour the renowned Edo period potter, Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743).

Hihou - Flinders Lane

Located on the corner of Spring Street and Flinders Lane, Hihou (meaning secret treasure) is a Japanese restaurant bar above Simon Denton’s Kappo. We love to visit this intimate bar/restaurant.

With a sophisticated minimalist layout, Hihou has an understated and intimate feel with the right level of sophistication. A feature is the long black marble group table that's surrounded by stools with mood lighting.

Mr Miyagi - Windsor

Mr Miyagi is a playful and eclectic Japanese restaurant in Windsor that delivers on food savvy and brings loads of technique to the table. Mr Miyagi is appealing for all but is 18-35 yr old heaven, with choice music, funky cuisine with a twist and chic wait staff traversing the floor attending a patronage of young and trendy. Mr Miyagi hums and sings. It needs to be understood for what it is - that is turning formal Japanese dining on its head and serving Japanese cuisine with a twist. The World Loves Melbourne was invited as guests of Mr Miyagi to sample its dinner menu with some new options. We enjoyed the new shared dishes presented artistically and full of flavour, technique and concern for texture and balance. After establishing itself Mr Miyagi still has its mojo, and is in fact ever evolving.

The vibe here is perfect for that catch up or romantic soiree. Pop art, even a splash of neon, exposed brick walls, chic ceiling, sexy booths, polished cement floor, and long bar and naked bulbs, make Mr Miyagi fashionable. Even on a Wednesday night Mr Miyagi swings. Of course we remember Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid movies, bringing his sage like wisdom to the younger generation.

Mr Miyagi brings the colour and vibrancy to your evening, with a touch of theatre. Spider Crab Taco is spectacular.

The Sashimi and sushi combo will blow your mindset of sashimi merely presented on a plate - with this spectacular offering featuring spherical ice, flashing lights and a broad range of sashimi including Kingfish, King George Whiting, Salmon, Blow torched Wagyu, Calamari and Fish Cakes to name a few. Of course served with wasabi and delightful pickled ginger. Again this was a play on textures and flavours.

A showstopper is the Nori Tacos. This was revolutionary. Grilled salmon belly, vinegar rice, spicy nappa cabbage, Japanese mayo and chilli oil. The combination of tastes and textures is compelling, and presentation spectacular. For us this was a great rendition of a fish taco, with technique and flair. With a hint of chilli these tacos have a bit of kick.


Restaurant Critic Roundup: ZZ's Clam Bar Serves Expensive Food and Unexpected Ambience - Recipes

Feb. 1, 2018 By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Photography by Times staff

A prediction: The next time Zagat or Food & Wine publishes a list of the country’s best food destinations, Tampa Bay will be there. Charleston, S.C. Seattle Denver and Richmond, Va., have had their day in the sun, and for good reason, but the stars have aligned for us and we are ready for our closeup.

What makes a great food city or region? It’s food at every price point that is fearless and fresh — street food, mom-and-pop ethnic spots, fine dining and at every level in between it’s dishes that reveal a new, even defiant take, without ever losing sight of the national dialogue about what’s current. It’s a place that showcases its indigenous dishes and culinary history, celebrates its farms and seasonal ingredients, and yet is not mired in “this is the way we do it because this is the way it has always been done.” It’s food that honors tradition but values creativity more. It’s food that comforts but also has the freedom to surprise.

How did we get here? The stage was set. Craft beer arrived, which is often galvanizing, igniting consumer interests but also begetting other forward-thinking and “artisanal” food and drink businesses. Compared to many other metro areas, there is still relatively inexpensive real estate to be had. And demographically things are just right: Millennials grew up, moved away and went to college, then came home and started businesses, many of those related to food.

From the young’uns to snowbirds, there’s a lot of disposable income in these parts, which supported the 2017 debut of dozens of new independent restaurants in places like downtown St. Petersburg, downtown Tampa, Seminole Heights and the exurbs to the north of Tampa. (Take a look at Wesley Chapel these days.) Great food cities like New York depend upon demographic diversity, partly because it means a single table can be turned multiple times per evening (early birds and tourists, then regular folk, then those crazy Europeans who eat around the time I’m donning pajamas).

In March, I will have been the food critic at the Tampa Bay Times for 10 years, and each year I’ve done some version of a top restaurants story. This list reflects the incredible dynamism the area has experienced — there may be places you’ve never heard of, there may be beloved places that didn’t make the list. You won’t find a lot of steakhouses, although there are plenty on Boy Scout Boulevard and elsewhere doing a fine job. This is because steakhouses tend to be fairly static and frequently don’t reflect the vision of a single authorial voice. (Also, I’m telling you, steakhouses, you’re going to have to figure out how to market to millennials, roughly 22 percent of the population and extremely reluctant to plunk down $50 on a protein. They will spend the money, but they like to do it in smaller increments.)

“Audacious” was a word I found myself using frequently, especially within the Top 10 (a word the paper’s crackerjack copy editors helped me excise). Many of this year’s Top 50 are not fancy, some are downright humble, but they almost invariably have something to teach us.

Restaurants play an increasingly large role in our lives: We spend more money eating out than we do cooking at home. There are a million restaurants nationally employing nearly 15 million people. In 2017, restaurant sales reached almost $800 billion. Restaurants are entertainment, safe haven, home away from home. Herewith is this year’s list, from which I hope there are a few new places you can call home.


Tasty fish tacos, made with cod and tempura batter, set on grilled tortillas, bulked up with avocado, cilantro, shredded cabbage and mango-black bean salsa, is a favorite dish at Schafer's Restaurant in Port Jefferson. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Heather West won season two of "Hell's Kitchen," Gordon Ramsay's high-decibel abusefest. The new chef at Schafer's, she now faces a bigger challenge.

This sprawling downtowner offers a harbor view and a postcard look. There's a sense of the site's history, starting with the big photo near the bar showing Schafer's most notable predecessor, the Schooner restaurant, and vintage Port Jeff.

Visit on a busy night and you'll see how hard it is to turn an old boat around. Schafer's barely earned a one-star rating in 2012. So far, West's efforts get it just beyond that.

The problems start with the service, from a sullen maitresse d', unconcerned that your 40-minute wait will go on a little longer to the frazzled waiter, who acts as if he's juggling nitroglycerin. On a quieter night, the dining room staff is less pressured, and in a better mood.

When the crowd shrinks, the food improves, too. A satisfactory crabcake is decorated with arugula, roasted corn salsa and cilantro-lime cream. The creamy L.I. clam chowder, with roasted corn and jalapeño bacon, is respectable, along with the modest lobster bisque. Same for the shrimp cocktail.

But the "twisted" shrimp cocktail, served in a cocktail glass, with chopped shellfish submerged in a Bloody Mary sauce, makes you wince. And a trio of miniature lobster rolls on little croissants manages to be both overorchestrated and underseasoned.

Your meal improves with the tasty fish tacos, made with cod and tempura batter, set on grilled tortillas, bulked up with avocado, cilantro, shredded cabbage and mango-black bean salsa. The salsa also buttresses rosy tuna Serignese, set on wasabi-ignited mashed potatoes. Fish-and-chips is a dependable main course, with enough crunch, snowy cod and lemon-horseradish aioli. Tinted scarlet seared scallops: good, with potato-parsnip puree and a shaved fennel- and-arugula salad.

The generous chicken rustico, marinated in white wine and grain mustard, rests on whipped potatoes and broccoli raab. Pan-seared filet mignon arrives tender and cooked to order. The hefty braised short ribs flake on cue.

"Broken down s'mores" is the prettiest dessert, a three-part production with chocolate cake, a huge toasted marshmallow and candied pieces of Graham cracker. Pistachiolis pack ice cream into cannoli shells to playful effect. But ice-cream sliders mean overdone, mini-waffle sandwiches and the bourbon bacon brownie sundae is worse than it sounds. The warm doughnut holes, with coffee ice cream and hot fudge, suggest zeppole but no feast.

Gordon Ramsay said West earned her TV accolade, in part, because of her determination.


D-DINING DIRECTORY

Restaurant rating can be a highly arbitrary process. These listings have been compiled not only from our own experiences, but also from evaluations solicited from a cross-section of the city’s epicures. The listings are not meant to be conclusive, but are designed to convey an idea of what to expect. Visits by our critics are made incognito to avoid preferential treatment.

Restaurants, of course, change. These listings will be revised and supplemented periodically to reflect those changes. To that end, opinions and comments from our readers will receive careful consideration.

These restaurants represent the best in Dallas dining. It is implicit, then, that we recommend them highly. Where criticism is imposed, it is as a service to our readers, indicating that in a particular area of service or cuisine a restaurant does not fully meet the standards of excellence expected of it. If and when those negative conditions improve, we will happily note the change for the better in the listings. Inclusion in this directory has nothing whatever to do with paid advertising.

The pricing symbols used are categorical, not precise. They are intended only to indicate a general range.

$-Generally inexpensive. Usually indicates a good value.

$-Middle ground and very general. Usually indicates a menu with a wide price range.

$$-Expensive. You can expect to spend more than $8 for a complete meal.

Unless otherwise noted, all restaurants have full bar facilities.

Credit card notations: MC-Master Charge/ BA-BankAmericard/ AE- American Express/ DC-Diner’s Club/ CB-Carte Blanche/ “All Credit Cards” indicates that all of the above are accepted.

These recent arrivals to the Dallas restaurant scene are not necessarily recommended (yet), but are listed just to indicate where they are and what they’ve got.

Piya’s India House. A most welcome arrival: a restaurant specializing in Indian and southern Asian specialties, all touched with great, authenticity – as one might expect from the two chefs direct from India. At last there is a place to enjoy fine curry dishes and, even more rewarding, some unusual specialties. The standout is the chicken Tandoori, a marinated delight and one of the most attractive dishes you’re ever likely to see – said to be the royal dish of India. For a first visit, the Shahi house dinner offers a bountiful and varied sampling of Indian cuisine ($17.95 for two). If you order a la carte (the prices are amazingly low) be sure to try some of the horsd’oeuvres (all excellent) and the wonderful condiments-especially the achar, either mango or lime. As might be expected in this shopping center location, the decor is contrived motif, but not at all offensive. The staff is most helpful in guiding you through the extensive menu. The lunch specials – at $1.85 – are a bargain. (5422 E. Mockingbird / 823-1000 / Lunch: daily 11:30-2:00, Dinner: Sun-Thur 5-10, Fri & Sat till 11/Reservations/ MC, BA, AE/$)

Ports of Spain. The first serious attempt to bring real Spanish cuisine to Dallas is a nearly successful one. Paella, of course, heads the menu, and it’s the real thing – loaded with lobster, shrimp, clam, chorizo, chicken, ham, and other goodies. Other specialties include two chicken dishes and a couple of selections displaying an enticing assortment of seafoods all are expertly prepared, seasoned, and garnished in authentic Spanish style, but all are notably lacking in Iberian flair and exoticism. And they’re expensive. Surprisingly, there are no veal or pork specialties. Be prepared for some confused service in the early going, but things should smooth out – the effort to please is apparent. Lunch is a strange holdover from the delicatessen which previously inhabited this location (same owner) and offers both Kosher and Spanish foods (try a delicious “tortilla”-the traditional Spanish omelette). The dining room is elegant, the bar (“membership”) has live entertainment. (Carillon Plaza, 13601 Preston Rdl661-5596 / Daily 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 6p.m.- midnight / Reservations / MC, BA, DC / $$)

Monthly notes of special treats in special places.

Pizza. Most people either love it or hate it. But if you’re a pizza lover, you’ve probably learned the hard way that to argue over “the best pizza in town” is an exercise in futility. Mainly because there is no set standard tor great pizza. Some like a thin, flaky crust others like a thick doughy crust. Some like it in the sparse traditional style of Naples (its original home) with just cheese and maybe a hint of sausage others opt for the Americanized everything-but-the – kitchen – sink – and – don’t – cut – the – ancho -vies version. Whatever your tastes, there are two local species that you might want to try, if only to broaden your pizza perspective.

The first may horrify most traditionalists and all Italians: a Mexican pizza. Called the Pizza Vacquero, it’s available for $3.95 at the Spanish Village (3839 Cedar Springs just off Oak Lawn). A 12-inch flour tortilla is fried uutil crisp and topped with refried beans, taco meat, onion, melted cheese, and jalapenos. And in the middle sits a mound of guacamole. Your appreciation of this half-breed will be in direct proportion to your infatuation with Tex-Mex, rather than with pizza. This is surely Tex-Mex carried to its ultimate extreme.

Returning to the real thing… A visit to Pietro’s (5722 Richmond just off Greenville) will reward you with what must certainly be the most lovingly prepared pizza in town – their special Sicilian pizza. You won’t find it on the menu (though you will find their regular pizzas, long regarded as some of Dallas’ finest). The Sicilian model has to be ordered by phone (824-9403) early in the day to allow the necessary five hours for the specially prepared crust to rise to its ultra-thick climax (about 1/2″-3/4″). Unlike some other thick-crusted varieties, this one is very light, not doughy. It comes in 10″ (medium) and 13″ (large) sizes, but be forewarned: the medium expands to about 15″ and is plenty for two average appetites. Your choice of all the standard “extra ingredients” price ranges from about $4-$10 accordingly.

These restaurants provide a complete dining experience – consistent excellence in cuisine, service, and atmosphere. They are generally, though not always, characterized by extensive menus, attentive staff, and tasteful surroundings.

Arthur’s. Superb food and a classy but warm ambience make this restaurant always an enjoyable experience. The prime beef, Arthur’s trademark, is still the best around. But there are other impressive options, such as the double lamb chops or the calf’s liver. Tasty salads and an excellent house dressing. The wine list features American vintages only and you’ll find some interesting surprises (try the Krug Zinfandel to see how far American wines have come). The service is attentive and efficient, though it would be helpful if the sommelier would converse more about wine selections. The bar is the kind of place you can spend all evening – one of Dallas’ best. Entertainment nightly. (1000 Campbell Centre/ 361-8833/ Sun-Fri 11:30-2, 6-11 Sat 6-midnight/ Reservations/ All credit cards/ $$)

Bagatelle. So pleasant and comfortable are the surroundings-a relaxed “French country style” atmosphere replete with softly cushioned chairs – that fingers are being kept crossed in hopesthat the cuisine will eventually match the comfort. Despite a well-qualified staff and an interesting menu of continental preparationsleaning towards the simple rather than theextravagant, Bagatelle has not yet lived up toexpectations. The beef toumedos or the Roquefort Pillow Steak can provide a nice meal, butthe biggest drawing card at present is the bar- very attractive and currently featuring somefine jazz by Paul Guerrero and his group. ASunday buffet brunch offers made-to-orderomelettes, your choice of many ingredients.Service has also been a letdown – very friendly,but erratic. (One Energy Square, GreenvilleAve at University/ 692-8224/ Lunch, dailyexcept Sat 11-2 Dinner, Sun-Thur 6-10, Fri &Sat till 11. Bar till 1:30 a.m. nightly/ Reservations/ MC, BA, AEI $$)

Bellmaster. One of the more enjoyable experiences in Dallas dining is lunch at the Bellmaster. A mood of comfortable elegance food of consistently high quality. The same excellence of cuisine holds at night, though the prices are higher and the atmosphere, including live entertainment, becomes a bit slicker. Expertise is especially apparent in the sublime sauces which grace most of the entrees, such as the veal scallops in a rich cream sauce with whiskey. Other fine selections include the whole baby flounder, the Boudreaux shrimp appetizer (in another superb sauce), and a delicious gumbo-truly Creole. For the big appetites, the gargantuan portions of frog legs or double lamb chops make a filling feast. Bar “by membership.” (Carillon Plaza, 13601 Preston Rd/661-9353/Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-midnight Sat 6:30 p.m.-midnight bar till 2 a.m. Fri & Sat Sun brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m./ Reservations /MC, BA/$$)

Blooms. The setting is a little old frame house, redecorated with plants and graphics and refurbished hardwood floors. The menu features three or four light continental entrees that change daily. The food is usually excellent, though entree portions are a bit small. The trimmings, notably the fresh vegetables, usually show more care than most restaurants are willing to give them. Especially delicious are the soups – vichyssoise with real cream or the smooth fresh mushroom. A major drawback: the restaurant has no waiting lounge and an ever-increasing clientele, so frequently you will be faced with people waiting to sit down who stare at you if you linger over coffee. It can make for rushed service and a noisy atmosphere during crowded hours. The bar serves call brands only, and the wine selection is very good. Now if they just took reservations…. (2917 Fairmount off Cedar Springs/ 745-9571/ Lunch: Tue-Fri 11:30-2, Sun brunch 12-2 Dinner: Sun, Tue-Thur6-10:30Fri&Sat till 12/ No reservations/ MC,BA/$)

Chateaubriand. For some reason, this restaurant has an image problem. Maybe it’s the European decadent-posh atmosphere that leads some diners to continue to characterize this restaurant as “overrated.” If you’ve heard that kind of talk, don’t believe it. Almost everything on this widely-varied international menu is likely to be rewarding – not sensational, but certainly satisfying. Servings are more than ample, and at moderate prices. The Greek selections are a pleasant surprise. A fine menu of medium-priced luncheon specials. Live entertainment nightly. (2515 McKinney/ 741-1223/ Mon-Sat 11:30-midnight/ Reservations/ All credit cards/ $)

The Chimney. The “new” Chimney – now a full-fledged continental restaurant – has maintained the reputation for excellence achieved during its former days as a popular luncheon room. The menu offers traditional continental specialities ranging from a nicely prepared chicken Kiev to very fine prime rib. The “Seafood Imperial” is a wonderful appetizer of shrimp and crabmeat. Two intimate dining rooms in classic early American decor – hardwood floors, brass and pewter chandeliers. Outstanding service. (Willowcreek, 9729 N Cen Expwy at Walnut Hill/ 369-6466/ Tue-Sat 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 6.12 p.m./ Reservations/ MC, BA, AE, personal checks / $$)

Enclave. A relatively new restaurant thus the usual problem of inconsistencies. But careful selection from the very enticing menu can reward you with a varied and interesting meal from the realm of continental haute cuisine. Most of the hors d’oeuvres are quite good – try the mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat in a luscious cream sauce (or, for a splurge, treat yourself to the elegant beluga caviar). Onion is by far the best of the soups and all of the salads are dehciously dressed. The filet of lemon sole is nicely done, but the meat entrees are dominant items here. The veal cdtellette en papillote is a seldom seen bone-in veal chop in brown sauce – an excellent dish. The filet mignon is garnished with an artichoke bottom filled with an outstanding béarnaise sauce. Vegetables and desserts are weak spots. Wine selections in the moderate price range are lacking, but the rest of the selection is very good. Decor is “traditional fancy” – flocked walls, smoked mirrors, chandeliers. Service is very dependable. (8325 Walnut Hill/ 363-7847/ Lunch, Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30 dinner, Mon-Sat 6-11, bar till 12/ Reservations/ MC, BA, AE, DC/ $$)

Ewald’s. Interesting continental specialties, consistently well-prepared. Though noted for his fine veal dishes, Ewald also serves a pepper steak that may well be the best you’ll find in Dallas. A quiet and gracious atmosphere very plain except for one unusual feature – an observation window through which you can watch the work in the immaculate kitchen. (5415 W Lovers Ln/ 357-1622/ Mon-Fri 6-10:30, Sat 6-11/ MC, BA / Reservations / $$)

The Grape. One of Dallas’ most popular restaurants, a European-style cafe with a menu as crowded with various cheeses as the tiny one-room establishment is each evening with patrons. The cheese-wine format is supplemented with an array of fine homemade soups (mushroom is the specialty), and a selection of three light entrees (omelettes, quiche, etc.) which change daily. This place is almost without exception very busy, creating a nice, boisterous bistro atmosphere but often slow, and even lackadaisical, service. A most interesting selection of wines. (2808 Greenville Ave/8230133/ Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30. Dinner: Tue-Sun, 6-10:30, open later on Fri & Sat for wine and cheese only/No reservations/ No credit cards/ $)

Ianni’s. Two menus and the first one – all appetizers – steals the show. An incredible array of Italian tidbits from baked oysters Mosca to roasted peppers – and they’re all good. Since you can’t eat them all, try for starters the broiled homemade Italian sausage (there’s no better in town) or the Spiedini (a miniature veal roll stuffed with crabmeat, cheeses, and herbs). But save room for the big menu. The pasta dishes are average, but the specialty dishes are impressive, the best being the veal scallopini Ianni with prosciutto and mushrooms in an Italian brown sauce and the chicken cacciatore with fresh mushrooms. The scampi are also good. (A side note: all the specialties come with spaghetti – we recommend the excellent butter sauce instead of the tomato sauce.) Top it all off with their standout dessert specialty, the Profiterole de Gelati Cioccolato, an eclair filled with Italian ice cream and topped with fudge sauce. The atmosphere, unfortunately, is noisy. (2230 Greenville/ 826-6161/ Daily 5:30-11:30/ Reservations/ MC, AEI $)

I1 Sorrento. Classical Italian cuisine of very high quality, from the most ambitious Italian menu in town. You can hardly miss, but especially good are the dishes with homemade flat pasta, including the fettucine and the tagliatelle, both prepared at your table. The service is frequently as lavish as the Italian street scene decor, complete with strolling musicians. (8616 Turtle Creek/ 352-8759/ Daily 5:30-11, Sat till midnight/ Reservations/ All credit cards/ $$)

Italian Pavilion. A “penthouse” restaurant atop the Le Baron Hotel. A subdued, almost informal, elegance creates a most pleasant setting. The Northern Italian cuisine is equally impressive, distinguished by homemade pasta cut and cooked to order. The veal dishes are among the best in town, most notably the unusual scal-lopini Gaetano with provolone and prosciutto or the Speciale di Polio e Vitello, a veal and chicken dish cooked in egg batter and served with a lemon cream sauce. The saltimbocca is also a worthy selection. Still a relatively new restaurant, the service is uneven at best – expect a long stay. Extensive Italian wine list. (Le Baron Hotel, 1055 Regal Row at Carpenter Frwy/ 634-8550/ Mon-Sat 611 p.m./ Reservations/ All credit cards/ $$)

Marcel’s. A real French feeling has. made this a long-popular spot with Dallas diners. While some of the gourmet touches have diminished in recent months, there are a few features which make Marcel’s always worth a visit. Foremost is the beef Wellington – Marcel’s specialty and so beautifully prepared that it overshadows everything else on the menu. One of the best buys in the city is the complete table d’hote dinner for only $5.85, which includes all the hors d’oeuvres you can eat. And if you can’t find the dish you’re looking for on the menu, ask for it anyway a menu note claims “we will prepare any classical French cuisine upon request”-and they will. Relaxed and quiet dining. (5721 W Lovers Ln / 358-2103 / Sun-Thur 5:30-10:30, Fri & Sat till midnight. Closed Mon/ Reservations / MC, BA, AE, DC / $)

Mario’s. Elegant and refined, to be sure, and, on a good night, capable of Italian specialties as interesting and rewarding as any of the best dishes in the city. But consistency in both food and service has faltered lately. Recommended: saltimbocca alla Romana, manicotti, fried zucchini. The veal with artichoke hearts and mushrooms is famous and deservedly so. And no matter what precedes it, the spumoni for dessert is always a delight. (135 Turtle Creek Village / 521-1135 / Daily 6-10:45, Sat till 11:45 / Reservations / All credit cards / $$)

Mr. Peppe. As relaxed and comfortable a place as you’re ever likely to experience such fine French cuisine. Unfortunately the touch of informality leads to occasional shortcomings in service. But the food is almost always on a par with the best in town. The pepper steak is locally renowned, the rack of lamb is divine, but so is most everything else – including a Black Forest soup and a creamed spinach preparation that leave fond memories (though it should be mentioned that a few reports of substandard offerings from the kitchen have occurred lately – hopefully not a trend). The breads and pastries, chef Albert’s specialties, are almost too good to be true – the crowning touch to a superlative meal at a price that is right. (5617 W Lovers Ln/ 352-5976/ Mon-Sat 6-10/ Reservations/ MC,BA,AE/ $$)

Old Warsaw. One of the most illustrious names in Dallas dining, Old Warsaw does not always live up to its glowing reputation. While it is a truly elegant restaurant and very European in its appeal (complete with handwritten menu), the food preparation has shown some inconsistency. A dazzling array of entrees, all French specialties, still ranks this with the best restaurants in the city, with two consistent standouts being the rack of lamb Provencale and the duck Bigarade. It’s with the trimmings that your meal may fall short of expectations. But for a lavish evening the Old World luxuriance still prevails. One of city’s finest wine lists. (2610 Maple/ 528-0032/ Daily 6-11, Sat till midnight! Reservations/ MC, BA.AE/ $$)

Oporto Oyster Bar. Dallas’ best seafood restaurant (but still a long way from Boston). The things they do well they do very well others can be a letdown – so be selective. Sure to please are the Boston schrod, broiled red snapper, whole baby flounder, and broiled Maine lobster. For bivalve lovers, the oysters on the half shell are succulent and delicious. Service varies widely the atmosphere is casual and comfortable. The bartending is among the best in town, boasting some very impressive after-dinner drinks. (2929 N Henderson/826-2553/ Daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m./MC, BA, AE/$)

Oz. Unless some unforeseeable disaster occurs, this lavish monument to haute cuisine should become one of the finest restaurants in the region, or the country for that matter. A thorough continental menu as staggering as the futuristic, chrome-and-glass interior. The food and the atmosphere feel somewhat incongruous, but once you sink your teeth into the striped bass, the pheasant with grapes, the bouillabaisse, or any of the other exquisite entrees, you’ll forget the neon and mirrors. A fine selection of appetizers, including an unforgettable paté in puff pastry. The chef and staff read like a Who’s Who of fine dining. A wine list for both neophytes and connoisseurs. Go prepared to spend a lot of money. A private club, memberships are $25 per year or $5 for a temporary (3 day) membership. (5429 LBJ Free-way / 233-5755/ Tue-Sun 6-11 p.m.,temporarily/ Reservations only / MC, BA, AE / $$)

Patry’s. A name that often arises whenever there’s a “best-restaurant-in-town” discussion. In terms of cuisine, the French specialities here certainly rank it as a worthy contender. The real jewels of the menu are the exquisite hors d’oeuvres, highlighted by the stuffed leeks in cream sauce and the paté Rilletes. The fact that this is a family-run operation adds a nice personal touch to the service and is one of the reasons Patry’s has established such a loyal clientele. The only real shortcoming here is the loud and bright dining room – a little toning down would greatly enhance the mood in this otherwise excellent restaurant. (2504 McKinney / 748-3754/ Tue-Fri 6-11, Sat till 11:30/ Reservations/ MC, BA, AE, DC / $$)

Peking Palace. The Mandarin and Szechuan specialties rank with the best in town, and they have perhaps the most extensive variety of any Chinese menu in the city. Try the fried dumplings for openers. The spiced shredded beef and the Nanking and Seshun pork dishes are all excellent. The chefs special shrimp, not listed on the menu but available on request, is delicious, but very spicy. More expensive than most Oriental cuisine and definitely better at dinner than lunch. (4119 Lomo Alto/ 5221830/ Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30 Dinner: Mon-Thurs 5-11, Sat & Sun till midnight, Sun 1210/ Reservations on weekends/ MC, BA, AE/ $)

Pietro’s. from the family-operated kitchen, Pietro and his Sicilian relatives turn out some great southern Italian home-style cooking. The specialty pasta dishes are the highlights here: the manicotti and cannelloni take top honors but the fettucine alla Romana and the lasagne with meat sauce are also excellent. If you must have spaghetti, the marinara is as good as any in town. So is the pizza. And the garlic bread, freshly baked on the premises, is superb. All very reasonably priced, right down to the giant frosted schooners of beer for 75*. Or if you’d rather stay in the spirit of things, try the Segesta, a Sicilian wine. Often crowded so we suggest you visit on a weekday. (5722 Richmond, off Greenville/ 824-9403/ Tue-Thur 5-10:30,Fri & Sat till 11:30/ No reservations/ No credit cards/ $)

Pyramid Room. All in all, this is currently the finest restaurant in Dallas. And the most expensive. Truly gourmet. Recommendations are superfluous, but the Grand Marnier soufflé is masterful. Usually a paragon of service in an atmosphere of affluence. The luncheon buffet has been replaced by a limited menu of lighter, smaller-portioned entrees in the $5-$8 range-all excellent. (Fairmont Hotel, Ross & Akard/ 748-5454/ Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30-2, Dinner-Daily 6-midnight/ Reservations/ All credit cards/ $$)

Raphael’s. A new arrival on the scene, this place can hardly miss. It’s got everything going for it: excellent Mexican cuisine, a lovely setting, and a friendly and diligent staff. The location is the original home of Arthur’s on McKin-ney, a cozy place of old steakhouse-style wood beam interior with a touch of Mexico in the flowers and paintings. The standard Mexican fare (enchiladas, etc.) is far above average, including sensational chicken/sour cream enchiladas, crispy, light, puff-style tacos and guacamole that is unmatched anywhere in town. But the specialties are the thing here-delicious chile rellenos and a wonderful shrimp enchilada preparation. Also chicken mole, flautas, alambres (Mexican kabob), and more. Prices are on the high side (though not unreasonable), but the luncheon specials are much less expensive. Full bar, Mexican beers. Alma-den wines only. (3707 McKinney/521-9640/ Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m./ Reservations/ MC,BA,AE/$)

Royal Tokyo. I t is fortunate that with so tew restaurants in Dallas serving Japanese cuisine, Royal Tokyo does it so well. Don’t be misled by the exterior motif facade that characterizes the rash of new restaurants in this area, often offering more on the outside than on the inside. There is authenticity on the inside here in the form of excellent Japanese specialties. Recommended: Ton Katsu (batter fried pork strips), Kobe beef, shrimp tempura, shabu-shabu, and prime rib teriyaki. Delightful green tea, saki (served warm), plus Japanese beer and whiskey. A quiet, subdued atmosphere. Service varies – at times slow, but always gracious. (7525 Greenville Ave/368-3304/ Daily, 11-2, 5:30-11:30/MC,BA,AE/$)

South China. On a good night, this modest restaurant serves some of the best Mandarin cuisine from one of the more exotic menus in town. Fine “package” dinners for two, four or six persons. For the more adventurous, a wide selection of a la carte dishes: the best Moo Shi pork in town, any of the items with black bean sauce, and all of the chicken dishes. For lighter eating, the soups and appetizers are also superb, especially the bean curd and pork soup, the sizzling rice soup, shrimp toast and very unusual steamed dumplings. The seafood entrees don’t measure up to the others on the menu. Cordial service. (5424 E Mockingbird!’826-5420/ Lunch: Tue-Sun 11:30-2:30,Dinner: Tue-Thur5-ll, Fri & Sat till 12, Sun till 11/ Reservations!MC, BA, AE/ $)

Trader Vic’s. There are many Trader Vic’s around the country – some are good, some are not-so-good. This one has been dependably good for a long time. A voluminous menu of Polynesian and other generally Oriental delights. Excellent hors d’oeuvres (the “Cosmo Tidbit” platter will give you a good sampling or try the fried chicken livers) and the limestone lettuce salad is a must. The best entree choices are the pressed almond duck, the lobster Cantonese, or the Indonesian lamb roast. Exotic dessert drinks are their specialty. (Hilton Inn, 5600 N Cen Expwy /827-3620/Daily,5-12/Reservations/All credit cards / $)

Trattoria De Meo. The little handwritten menu of five entrees (changing periodically) characterizes this small, unassuming Italian restaurant. A nice mood of refinement without lavish-ness is beginning to attract a loyal clientele to this still young establishment. The pasta dishes (cannelloni, manicotti, lasagna), while not extraordinary, are light, uncomplicated, and nicely prepared. The best current offerings are the two fine specialty dishes: a tenderloin with scallions and the chef’s special sauce and the chicken with lemon butter sauce. A cordial and diligent staff (again no unnecessary frills) add to the refreshing simplicity of the place. Very limited wine list and, as of now, no mixed drinks. (5601 W Lovers Lnl 350-0238/ Mon-Sat, 610/Reservations/ MC, CB/ $)

Zodiac Room. Luncheon delicacies as wonderful to look at as they are to eat. The stunning buffet table is highlighted by the salads (try the fresh fruit with their famous poppy seed dressing) and the desserts (try any of them – you can’t miss). Always crowded, so plan for a leisurely lunch. A dinner buffet is served every Thursday. Luscious Danish pastries are served in the morning between 9:30 & 10:30. Wine and beer. (NeimanMarcus, downtown/ 741-6911 /MonSat 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Thur dinner, 5-7 p.m./ Reservations/ Neiman-Marcus charge card only, checks accepted/ $)

These restaurants represent the best of Dallas’ offbeat, funky, or somehow out-of-the-ordinary dining spots. They are generally characterized by specialized cuisine, distinctive decor, or unusual special features (and often by bargain prices).

Calluaud Traiteur. Everything at this small (and consequently jammed) cafe is superb, and no wonder: the chef, Guy Calluaud, is a former Pyramid Room chef. If you can wait out the lines at lunch, treat yourself to one of their individual quiches, a salad (the cucumber salad is particularly fine), and one of the luscious little fruit tarts. Or have the luncheon special-large portions at low prices. Or the paté, or the rata-touille, or… well, anything. They also do takeout orders and catering for parties. The house wines are rather ordinary. Dinner is served Thursday evenings only. (Quadrangle, 2800 Routh/748-7459/Mon-Sat 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Thur till 8:30/No reservations/No credit cards/$)

Campiei’s Egyptian Restaurant. Don’t expect to find rare Egyptian delicacies (whatever those might be) – the only thing Egyptian about the place is the curious name. What you will find is some of the best pizza in Dallas and crowds of people who know it. Always a packed house on weekends and very popular for late night, after-the-movies snacks-try the basket of crab claws. The rest of the Italian menu is average fare. (5610 E. Mockingbird/827-0355/ Mon-Fri. 11 a.m.midnight, Sat till 1 a.m., Sun noon-midnight/No credit cards. Checks accepted/Reservations for 6 or more/$)

Celebration. Good ol’ homestyle cooking. Choose from the five entrees (very ordinary, nothing fancy the pot roast is the best). With it they’ll serve you bowlfuls of vegetables and salad- help yourself, family style, and eat to your heart’s content for $4.50 or less. Great little homemade biscuits and wonderful fruit cobblers (dessert costs extra). A young staff and a loyal clientele-you may find yourself waiting on the front porch on weekends. Very casual. No bar – bring your own wine. (4503 W. Lovers Lane/351-5681 /Mon-Sat 5:3011, Sun till 10:30

Chiquita. An alternative to the Mexican “cafe circuit,” Chiquita might be described as “Mexican haute.” It has maintained a loyal clientele with a menu of unusual dishes. Order from the right side of the menu and learn a delicious lesson about real Mexican food – such as the pescado bianco marinero (rolled whitefish with a spinach stuffing and a shrimp and oyster sauce) or camitas tampiquenas (broiled pork strips). The Tex-Mex preparations here are no better than average. Simple, comfortable, low-key atmosphere. (3325 Oak Lawn/521-0721/ Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m./No reservations/ MC, BA, AE/$)

La Creperie. A delightful courtyard patio, made very French by the traditional Cinzano table umbrellas and heavily-accented waiters, contributes to the lunchtime popularity here. The popularity contributes to the slow service-but on a nice day you won’t mind. You can while away some of the wait by reading through the lengthy list of some 50 varieties of crepes stuffed with most everything imaginable. Omelettes and dessert crepes are also served. (Quadrangle, 2800 Routh/6510506/Mon-Wed 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m./ Reservations recommended/ MC, BA, DC /$)

La Esquina. A real change of pace for the Mexican food fan – New Mexico style. From recipes originating in Albuquerque come such “oddities” as enchiladas that are stacked rather than rolled, using beef or pork chunks rather than ground beef. Excellent sauces – choose between the smooth rich red sauce or the extra spicy green sauce. Sopapillas are a specialty, either stuffed for an entree or as plain pastry for dessert. The setting is a spacious old house the atmosphere is casual. The New Mexico style prices are on the high side, with everything a la carte. (2815 McKinney/826-2950/Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30-1:30, Dinner: Mon-Thur 6-9:30, Fri & Sat till 10/Reservations not needed! No credit cards. Checks accepted/$)

Goldfinger. While Dallas still waits for a truly fine Greek restaurant, Goldfinger fills the void with more success than others. Much of the success is due to the festive nightclub atmosphere featuring live musical entertainment – usually of very high quality – and belly dancing. The very standard menu ranges from a mediocre stifado to a fairly tasty moussaka (though it suffers from the common local affliction of beef in place of lamb). The house specialty – a combination of souvlaki and large shrimp – is your best bet, and the dolmas are the best around. Very crowded on weekends. (2905 Cri-delle/350-6983/Daily 11:30-2, 611 Fri & Sat till midnight/Reservations on weekends/ MC, BA,AE/$)

Health Nut. Be good to your system and to your taste buds at Dallas’ most appealing health food restaurant. Most all preparations are full of flavor and should correct any misconceptions you might have of “health foods” as bland. The fresh fruit salads are a summer treat, as are the smoothies. Their wheatberry bread is wonderful – try it as a homemade cream cheese or avocado sandwich. Servings are less than bountiful, so don’t visit if ravenous. Casual and comfortable and, naturally, no smoking. (4220 Oak Lawn/526-4050/Daily 11-9/No reservations/No credit card$/$)

Hungry Hunter. The only game in town. While other restaurants occasionally offer “wild game,” Hungry Hunter is the only place where you can always satisfy your craving for buffalo, mouflon, or wild boar. Though the preparations are not of superior quality, it’s more the fun of the exotic that provides the attraction. Of less fun but higher quality are the excellent brace of quail and Long Island duck. Attentive service in an atmosphere of hunting lodge chic. (Keystone Park, 13931N. Cen. Expwy/690-8090/ Lunch: 11:30-3 except Sat, Dinner: 6-11, Fri & Sat till midnight/Bar open till 2 a.m. / MC, BA, AE / $$)

Khalil’s Beirut. The Lebanese cuisine is generally good at what is certainly one of very few places in Dallas to serve creditable Middle Eastern food. Recommended are the lamb kabob and the kibbee tartar (though the waiter may try to scare you away from it – it’s raw lamb). Unfortunately the place has shown inconsistencies, especially in service, and the evening offerings are far better than those at lunch. But when everything is right, it’s a nice place for a change of pace. (31 Highland Park Village/526-5600/Mon-Sat 11-10/Reservations for 6 or more/MC/$)

Kirby’s. Dallas’ original steakhouse and still one of the most dependable restaurants in town. No frills, no overbearing motif – a refreshing absence of steakhouse gimmickry. Excellent steaks – the filet and rib eye are particularly good values. Mr. Kirby is still in charge and his staff is efficient, as always. (3715 Greenville/ 823-7296/Tue-Sun 5:30-10:30, Fri & Sat till midnight/Reservations/All credit cards/$)

Kuby’s Sausage House. The sausages are a house product of this deli-restaurant and they’re excellent – served with either hot potato salad or sauerkraut, and the choice between the two is a maddening one. Sandwiches – try their pastrami – are thick and delicious, and the soup of the day is a meal in itself. Such heftig German food needs beer, but alas, Kuby’s is in a dry area. Excellent pastries make this a nice place for a coffee break, but make it a mid-morning one: the noon crowds decimate the desserts. (6601 Snider Plaza/363-2231 /Mon-Sat 11-2:30, sandwiches till 5:30/MC/$)

Magic Pan. It’s a difficult choice when faced with the impressive selection of crepes – some ordinary, some unusual, and all delicious. Be sure to save room for the outstanding dessert crepes. A very popular place: if you want to avoid the shopping crowds, visit for a Sunday brunch. Note: there is a $1.50 per person minimum, so don’t stop in for a cup of coffee. (NorthPark – New Mall/692-7574/Sun-Thurs 11-midnight, Fri & Sat till I/No reservations/ MC,BA,AE/$)

Maison Orleans. The fare is French and Creole, the flair is New Orleans. The French specialties are adequate, but it’s the Cajun touch that shines here. Great gumbo, red beans and rice, shrimp “Maison” (barbecue style) and crawfish. Sunday special: all the shrimp and crawfish you can eat for $4.75. A bright and cheerful dining room with overhead fans and white latticework. For summer snacks and cocktails, there’s an outdoor garden patio. (7236 Greenville Ave/363-2992/Mon-Frill:30-ll,Fri till 2, Sat 5:30-2, Sun 4-10:30/ Reservations/ MC,BA,AE/$)

sonny Bryan’s. The best barbecue in town: It may well be, but it’s a close race. The other two contenders are Smitty’s on McKinney and Salih’s in Preston Center. All have similar menus and luscious barbecue in generous portions. Sonny Bryan’s has the most authentic “smokehouse” atmosphere and great onion rings. Smitty’s has the most comfortable dining room, but it’s open only for lunch. Salih’s has the best prices, but no beer. So the deciding factor may be which one is closest to you. (Sonny Bryan’s, 2202 Inwood/357-7120/ Mon-Sat 6 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun 11-2/Smitty’s, 2720 McKinney/ 823-03691 Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m., closed weekends/Salih’s, 8309 Westchester/ 3611684/ MonSat 11-7:45/ No credit cards/$)

Southern Kitchen. Feast in the style and tradition of the Old South. And a feast it is – the “Deluxe” dinner is an assortment of fried chicken, smoked chicken, fried shrimp, fried trout, and deviled crab, plus shrimp cocktail, crab-meat appetizers, and many other trimmings, all for $7.95. Additional servings of everything at no extra cost. None of the preparations (except for the luscious homemade cinnamon rolls) could be called extraordinary, but the magnitude of the meal is impressive enough. The two locations, East and West, have identical menus, but the West has a more handsomely appointed plantation-style atmosphere, including waiters and waitresses in period cos-tume. (West, 2356 W. Northwest Hwy. 352-5220 /East, 6615 E. Northwest Hwy, 368-1658/ Mon-Sat 5:3010:30 p.m., Sun 510 p.m./Reservations for 5 or more / All credit cards/$)

El Taxco. There may not be a better dining value in all of Dallas – dependable Tex-Mex food at amazingly low prices. Their style is subtle and not so highly seasoned as most, making it an especially good spot for wary and hesitant newcomers to Mexican cuisine. The chicken enchiladas are particularly noteworthy – an unusual and tasty chicken filling with peas and tomatoes. Refried beans in authentic Mexican style – a rarity. Friendly, casual, and comfortable. Beer only. (2126 N. St. Paul/ 742-0747/ Wed-Sun 10:30-9, Mon. 10:30-8, closed Tue/No reservations/MC/ $)


A Guide to the Best of Southern California’s Menus : DISHING

This is not a list of the great restaurants of Southern California. Because, if the truth be told, we don’t have very many of them. A restaurant, after all, is more than just somewhere to eat. A restaurant is a place where people go to prove their good taste, be pampered, be impressive, be impressed. A great restaurant requires great service--and you won’t find a lot of that in this part of the world. What you will find here, in abundance, is the best food in America. Over the past few years, Southern California has become a paradise for adventurous eaters who go out to eat simply because they are hungry. They know that we are living in a culinary cornucopia filled with great dishes from many cultures--and that you need not be rich to taste them. Choosing the Top 40 dishes in Southern California wasn’t easy there were literally hundreds of candidates. After eating my way through dozens of menus, I narrowed the list to these favorites--in no particular order. And then, because I am almost always hungry, I added 10 more great places to eat. I’ve called them Quick Bites, you’ll find them in the margins of the magazine, and they are perfect for those times when you are feeling both hungry and hurried. I know I’ve left a lot of delicious dishes off the list. If I’ve missed something you really think is wonderful, I’d like to know about it.

The world’s best pizza is found at a place called The Blue Moon on the wrong side of the tracks in South Norwalk, Conn. You probably don’t agree, but then our tastes in pizza tend to be primitive we spend our lives yearning for the first one we ever ate.

The next best pizza, in my opinion, is pizza Napoletana ($9) at Pazzia. It’s a thin-crusted creature, so the flavor of what’s on top comes shining through. And what’s on top is a bit of sauce, good cheese--and, for me, anchovies. The result is an amazing marriage of taste and texture: the perfect snack.

Before the perfect snack, you’ll want to have an antipasto plate and a glass of wine. Afterward, you’ll want a dish of the best gelato on this side of the Atlantic. By then, you’ll be glad that you’re on the right side of the tracks.

755 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood (213) 657-9271.

STEAMED DUMPLINGS 369 Shanghai Restaurant

Most of the really good Chinese restaurants in California are Cantonese--be they noodle shops, seafood palaces or dim sum specialists. But this little storefront restaurant specializes in the food of Shanghai, and the cooks excel at lunchtime dishes such as dumplings and pickles.

The steamed dumplings ($3.25) come piping hot in their own metal container. Each is a neat little mouthful you dip it into a mixture of soy, ginger and vinegar, then pop it into your mouth, where it explodes with a hot rush of steam and flavor.

Other dishes to try here: the extraordinary cucumber-and-chile pickles, pan-fried Chinese chive cakes (a sort of sandwich made of a thin chive pancake wrapped around a filling of ground pork and garlic), Shanghai-style fried dough (thick, fat, oval noodles sauteed with pork and vegetables) and pork ribs steamed with rice crumbs.

1277 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra (818) 281-9261.

A few years ago, spa cuisine was all the rage, and we started seeing some pretty silly dishes as chef after chef tried to persuade us that he or she could work alchemy in the kitchen and create fabulous food with no calories.

This dish is different. There are no tricks, no sleight of hand. Chef Patrick Healy has concentrated the flavors of a few low-calorie foods and combined them into this simple soup ($5.50 at lunch $6.50 at dinner). The result is 150 calories that really pack a punch. It’s no more than you’d expect from one of L.A.'s most dedicated young French chefs. Healy and his wife, Sophie, have invested Champagne with the charm of a good restaurant in the French countryside and one of the most varied menus in Los Angeles. Those not on a diet may want to try rustic specialties (great cassoulet ), haute cuisine (classic pate de foie gras ), modern French dishes (crispy salmon)--or simply a large and satisfying steak served with a mountain of rich mashed potatoes.

10506 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles (213) 470-8446.

Risotto has recently become so trendy that it is served at restaurants all over town. But it is not really a restaurant dish because it is tricky and demands constant attention someone must stand and stir for 25 minutes so that the rice develops the proper consistency--slightly sticky on the outside while still resilient at the core. Once made, it won’t wait it turns into just another leftover.

There is only one restaurant I know of that consistently turns out first-rate risotto: Valentino. In the fall, this is the place to go for the luxury of white truffles shaved over white risotto (about $30). At other times of the year, the kitchen does different things: I have had superb black risotto made with squid ink ($15), an amazing risotto that included corn ($13.50), a surprising radicchio version ($15)--and an absolutely classic risotto Milanese ($15), fragrant with saffron. All shared one quality: Each was so wonderful that you instantly understood why someone would be willing to stand over a hot stove to produce it.

3115 W. Pico Blvd., Santa Monica (213) 829-4313.

Spinach is the most maligned vegetable on the face of the Earth. You’d think that something that took this much trouble would get more respect, but most cooks spend so much time agonizing over the washing of it that they get annoyed and take it out on the poor vegetable. They overcook it. They over-cream it. They fill it up with spices. By the time they’re finished, they have a dark and dreary mess.

Maple Drive is different somebody in the kitchen must love spinach. It arrives at your table as silky leaves of emerald green, each buttery and delicate and absolutely delicious ($3). Add some of the restaurant’s terrific mashed potatoes, and you have a dish that even kids will eat.

What to eat with it? Meat loaf, of course: Maple Drive makes the best in town.

345 N. Maple Drive, Beverly Hills (213) 274-9800.

SALMON PAINTED DESERT Saint Estephe

Long before the rest of the world discovered blue corn and started putting it into everything from madeleines to cherry pie, John Sedlar was thinking of ways to combine his Southwestern background and his classical-cuisine training.

When he first put dishes such as ravioli stuffed with carne adobada in a chevre sauce on his menu, most of his customers thought he was insane. Ten years later, his French-inflected Southwestern menu seems not only sane but downright sensible: Sedlar’s dishes are uniquely his own.

I like many of his dishes: tamales filled with mushroom duxelles , piquant lamb in chile sauce, blue-corn crepes with pumpkin ice cream--but I am particularly fond of this gorgeously simple slice of steamed salmon in three sauces that looks like a Navaho sand painting ($25). It’s one of the most beautiful plates of food you will ever see, too beautiful to eat. Almost.

2640 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach (213) 545-1334.

Hot-fudge sundaes are the quintessential American dessert: an aggressive contrast of salt and sweet, hot and cold, black and white.

Unfortunately, a good hot-fudge sundae is hard to find. The most famous sundae in Southern California has been, since 1906, the one served at C. C. Brown’s on Hollywood Boulevard. Unfortunately, its reputation has outstripped reality. The last time I had one, it was a sad shadow of the real thing.

Fortunately, DC3 has stepped into the breach. Its sundae ($6) is a faithful replica of the one formerly served at C. C. Brown’s: vanilla ice cream in an icy silver goblet topped with a modest mound of unsweetened whipped cream and a blizzard of chopped (not sliced) almonds. There is no cherry. The hot fudge, served in a pitcher on the side, is the kind that tastes like the world’s best chocolate bar, melted. It hardens ever so slightly when it hits the side of the cup.

2800 Donald Douglas Loop North, Santa Monica (213) 399-2323.

Peking duck is one of those flashy dishes that tastes best to me when served with fanfare in elegant restaurants. I think The Mandarin does it right.

For one thing, the restaurant has the proper oven in which to cook it--a bird emerges every 15 minutes. When it arrives at your table, the skin has been lacquered to a fine mahogany hue. The great brown bird ($35) is triumphantly presented, and then, with much ado, the skin is sliced and wrapped around pieces of meat, which are tied into elegant packages with slivers of scallion. When you bite in, there is a great crackling of skin before your mouth is flooded with the rich flavor of the duck.

Beforehand, you might have an assortment of little dishes from the restaurant’s extensive choice of dumplings afterward, you will want something simple, such as silver noodles with spinach.

430 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills (213) 272-0267.

Caesar may have been invented in Mexico, but it’s become the all-American salad, and every restaurant tries to make its own version.

Some turn the salad into a show, mixing and tossing right at your table. Others torque up the garlic until you can’t taste anything else. Some serve it with whole anchovies, others serve it with whole leaves of lettuce. There are those who dress up the croutons and those who throw in so much cheese that what should be a salad turns into a protein-filled meal.

The Grill does none of these things. This dish--like everything else here--is understated. Its salad is a powerful plate of romaine lettuce so delicious that you instantly understand why people all over America are crazy about Caesar ($11.50).

If you start the meal with a shrimp cocktail (The Grill’s is great) and end it with rice pudding, you will have eaten a small, simple meal that gives American food a good name.

9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills (213) 276-0615.

Considering that we are a nation that loves dips, it’s hard to understand the anonymity of this dish. In the wonderful world of dipping foods--guacamole, hummous , baba ghannouj , taramasalata , bagna cauda , onion soup with sour cream-- mouhammara stands out.

This deep-pink puree of smashed red peppers and walnuts has a flavor unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. With the first bite, you can pick out cumin, peppers and the elegant overtone of walnuts. With the next, the flavors begin to reverberate in your mouth, creating new and unique tones. This mouhammara ($4) has enough pizazz to make cardboard taste appealing eaten with vegetables or fresh pita, it is devastatingly delicious.

At Caroussel, a small, friendly Armenian restaurant, you will want to eat enormous amounts of mouhammara , followed by stuffed grape leaves, shish kebab and rice.

5112 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles (213) 660-8060.

You walk in the door to the music of patting hands--slap, slap, slap--and the sizzle of meat hitting the grill. In the air is a pleasantly pungent aroma edged by the sharp sting of chiles. It is instantly clear that this is food made from scratch--from tacos to salsa--and that it is very, very good.

There are taco stands all over Southern California, but La Super-Rica is the queen of them all.

The menu here is enormous, and everything is good. But it is in the very simplest dishes that you get a true sense of the quality of the food. The beans are especially good: While they are creamy, each bean is distinct. When you take one of the warm, hand-patted tortillas, roll some beans up into it and slather salsa across the top, you have, in my opinion, the very best Mexican food in the state--for $1.25.

622 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara (805) 963-4940.

BIGOLETTI WITH THREE BEANS

This rustic plate of pasta topped with lentils, chick peas and red beans ($8.95) is about as far from spaghetti and meatballs as it is possible to get and still be eating Italian food.

The beans--cooked separately--come together into an intensely tasty sauce whose earthiness is emphasized by whispers of herbs and garlic. This is a simple and satisfying sort of food that was impossible to find in America until the recent Italian restaurant revolution.

Before the pasta: slices of marinated artichokes mixed with shavings of cheese. After: chicken, grilled under a brick, which arrives at the table as a flat, crisp disk. Then, as you drink tiny cups of espresso, look around at this warm, crowded and cozy room, and be grateful that in Southern California, Italian restaurants now serve real Italian food.

8638 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles (213) 274-1893.

Some people judge their barbecue by the sauce I think that’s a mistake. As far as I’m concerned, so long as the sauce is hot, it’s the meat that matters.

And Mom’s has great meat. You can smell the smoke blocks before you arrive at this little rib shack, and when you put the ribs in your car the air gets so thick you think you’re in a cabin in the country. The ribs themselves are smoked down to the bone so that you get the good flavor of true barbecue with every mouthful. And the meat has bite: Unlike a lot of other barbecue, this is meat you need teeth to eat. It actually sticks to the ribs.

I like the links at Mother’s too--they are grainy and spicy and when you’re finished eating, you are left with lips that sting.

The food here comes with the usual accompaniments: potato salad, coleslaw, beans--none particularly spectacular. As for the ambience--that’s not very spectacular either. But there aren’t many rib joints with seats worth sitting in: Barbecue tastes best outdoors. 1050 W. Imperial Highway, Los Angeles (213) 756-8405.

Tamale is a wonderful word that generally masks a terrible dish. At their best, most tamales are leaden and sticky at their worst, they are a complete bore. I never understood why tamales were appealing--until I had the ones at Border Grill.

When you unfold the banana leaves, you discover a cornmeal pastry of amazing delicacy. This is all the more remarkable because it gives off the unmistakably earthy aroma of lard, the heaviest substance known to cooks. Somehow, the chefs have managed a kind of alchemy: mixing cornmeal and lard, they have created lightness. (The secret, they say, is whipping air into the mixture until it floats.) Inside this incredible crust is a mixture of shredded chicken, raisins and olives held together with a sauce of peppers and achiote. The flavor is simultaneously familiar and exotic, and it makes you realize how extraordinary Latin American food can be when it is made with care and attention. Guatemalan tamales are served as an appetizer for lunch ($6) and as an entree on the dinner menu ($9).

1445 4th St., Santa Monica (213) 451-1655.

When gefilte fish dreams of being elegant, it imagines that it is a quenelle on a Limoges plate in a restaurant overlooking the Seine. But when a fish dumpling dreams of something more exotic, it wants to be hor mok .

Hor mok are irresistible little fish balls concocted from shrimp and squid and steamed in a sauce of lemon grass, basil, coconut and chiles so that their flavor is alternatingly sharp, sweet and hot ($9.50). They come in their own absurd-looking steamer--a ceramic contraption with indentations topped with pointed caps.

All the food at this cool Thai restaurant is filled with fresh, clean flavors. Try the pad Thai , the marinated ginger duck and perhaps the naked shrimp in all their clear simplicity. 9043 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood (213) 275-9724.

Roast chicken is, as any cook will tell you, the acid test. It seems simple, but it is hard to roast a chicken crisp on the outside while leaving it juicy within. Versailles passes with flying colors. The chicken here is not only brown, crisp and juicy, it is also served in citrus-scented sauce with lots of garlic that makes the rice irresistible. Add the creamy black beans and then alternate with bites of soft, golden pillows of sweet, fried plantains. A flawless combination of flavors, and only $6.45.

The restaurant serves other dishes. But for me--and the hundreds of people who line up with me at Versailles’ two humble outposts-- they might as well not exist. Versailles and roast chicken are synonymous.

10319 Venice Blvd., Culver City (213) 558-3168. Also 1415 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles (213) 289-0392.

The women who ply the carts at Ocean Seafood, an enormous, airy Chinatown restaurant, wear a proprietary air. Each seems intent on making certain that you try her wares. “Giant clam,” says one, holding up translucent slices and waiting for your nod before she plunges them in boiling water. They are delicious. “Har gau,” says another, lifting the lid on a little metal steamer of the shrimp dumplings ($2.60) and proffering it for you to inspect. Take it: These are the best har gau on this side of the Pacific.

All the dim sum at Ocean Seafood are superb, from the spare-ribs in black bean sauce ($1.50). But the seafood varieties are especially impressive, and the chow fun--large, soft sheets of rice noodles wrapped around freshly sliced shrimp ($2.60)--are the best I’ve ever had.

747 N. Broadway, Los Angeles (213) 687-3088.

PLANTAINS, BLACK BEANS AND CAVIAR

Michael Roberts seems to spend his time conjuring up mixtures that nobody else would even consider.

The menu at Trumps has, over the years, been filled with examples: duck with black beans and pumpkin chutney, fried catfish with grapefruit, quesadillas with Brie and green grapes, guacamole made with frozen peas. Then there is Roberts’ combination of goat cheese with potato pancakes, which has been so successful it’s been copied all over the country. But none of his dishes work quite so well as this $12 quintessential culture clash.

The plantains, fried, become a sort of cracker, and the mashed black beans become the perfect intermediaries for the sharp, salty fish eggs. A little dollop of sour cream is the final touch.

You might want to eat this in the trendy bar liquor is taken seriously at Trumps, and a margarita--or even a daiquiri--is just right with this dish.

8764 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood (213) 855-1480.

Pascal Olhats is in love with Chilean sea bass. Long before other chefs had discovered the sweet, soft flesh of this fish, Olhats was wrapping it up in a crust of fresh thyme and bread crumbs and serving it in a puddle of sauce. Or simply sauteing it crisply in butter and plunking it onto a bed of pasta. Or serving it in a tomato coulis . . . or in a sauce made of Champagne. Since then other cooks have discovered the wonders of this seductive fish, but nobody cooks it so well as Pascal.

Sea bass ($11.95 at lunch $18.95 for the dinner version) is always on the menu here, in one form or another. After the fish, you might want to try a selection of cheeses this cheerful, informal shopping-center restaurant is one of the few in Southern California that takes the trouble to buy unpasteurized cheese directly from France. After the cheese, end your meal with the impressively astringent lemon tart.

1000 N. Bristol St., Newport Beach (714) 752-0107.

Sometimes someone invents a dish that is such a perfect combination of ingredients that it becomes an instant classic.

Legend has it that, in a desperate moment around 1918, Philippe Mathieu dipped the top of a roll into some stray meat juices, piled on the beef and handed it across the counter to a customer.

The customer discovered that there is something quite magical about the combination of gravy-soaked bread, crisp crust and thin, slightly fatty slices of meat. It is now served all over the world, but the French dip ($3.40) never tastes better than it does in this dim room filled with the well-aged perfume of sawdust, pickles and beer. Have some coleslaw with your sandwich, wash it down with beer--and finish your meal with a homemade doughnut and the last 10-cent cup of coffee in town.

1001 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles (213) 628-3781.

To watch people eat in this Vietnamese restaurant is to understand one of the fundamental truths of Southeast Asian dining: It is a participatory art. The chef starts the dish, but you must finish it.

Pho , which falls somewhere in the middle ground between soup and salad, arrives as a big bowl of broth containing whatever you have ordered. Pho dac biet , my favorite ($3.75), comes with slices of brisket that you plunge into the broth, thereby completing the cooking process. It also comes, as does all pho , with a heap of bean sprouts, leafy herbs, sliced chiles and quartered limes. On top of that, the table is cluttered with various hot sauces. Using these ingredients, you create your own private combination, eating thoughtfully and slowly, adding a bit more lime juice, some more chiles, perhaps a few leaves of basil as you go.


TOP 100 BAY AREA RESTAURANTS, L-Z

1 of 6 Owner Kenji Seki, right, and sushi chef Masahiko Takei serve the dinner crowd at Le Poisson Japonais in Palo Alto on Wednesday evening. Photo by Jeff Chiu / The Chronicle. JEFF CHIU Show More Show Less

2 of 6 Bartender Jethrie (CQ) Fox (r), can be seen chating with customers, Geoff Bolton and Julia Nichols, of San Francisco reflected in the mirror behind the bar at Merenda a new restaurant in San Francisco. SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE PHOTO BY KAT WADE KAT WADE Show More Show Less

4 of 6 Patrons of the Cafe Plouf enjoy lunch in the alley where Saturday, July 14, 2001, many in San Francisco's french quarter will celebrate Bastille Day. (Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle) CARLOS AVILA GONZALEZ Show More Show Less

5 of 6 D09SPOON3-C-29NOV01-DD-JO Spoons Resturant 2209 Polk St. San Francisco Dining out photo. Chef and copartner Eric Hopfinger in the kitchen photo/John O'Hara John O'Hara Show More Show Less

LA FOLIE
Roland Passot served modest French food in his charming neighborhood restaurant when it started in 1988. Over the past few years the restaurant has been remodeled and Passot has refined his elegant combinations to compete with the best in the city. The refurbished interior, with a whimsical court jester theme, is an elegant backdrop for the menu, which gets more expensive each year. Cuisine: French
Specialties: Lobster salad with fresh shaved hearts of palm and albacore tartare parsley and garlic soup with snails and shiitake mushrooms roasted venison loin vegetable tasting menu discovery menu
Seats: 79
Prices: $34.50-$42.50
Noise:
Parking: Valet $10
Vitals: 2316 Polk St. (near Union), San Francisco (415) 776-5577. Dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

L'AMIE DONIA
Donia Bijan creates the food that many Westerners crave: veal stew with pearl onions, guinea hen with spaetzle, rich onion soup. The dishes seem rustic, but Bijan has a refined style. She's always at work, head bent toward the counter, cooking and arranging every plate that comes out of the kitchen. The interior of the restaurant, in downtown Palo Alto, is casual and inviting and includes a lively open kitchen. It can seem a bit cramped at peak hours. Cuisine: French
Specialties: Menu changes seasonally, but look for French onion soup steak in red wine sauce with french fries apple tart
Seats: 69
Prices: $18-$28
Noise:
Parking: Street (sometimes difficult) nearby lots
Vitals: 530 Bryant St. (near University), Palo Alto (650) 323-7614. Dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

LALIME'S
Lalime's, open since 1985, developed a cult following through an insiders' newsletter that advertised the ever-changing fixed-price menu, but for the past few years the restaurant has flourished under a more traditional format. The Mediterranean combinations, created by chef Steve Jaramillo, change regularly but might include mussels steamed in harissa broth or chestnut- crusted venison. The two-level restaurant has a Zen-like ambience, with crowded tables that give it a warm, neighborhood atmosphere. Cuisine: Mediterranean
Specialties: Scallops and pink grapefruit on frisee sage- and pancetta- wrapped pork chop and rack of lamb
Seats: 70
Prices: $16.25-$22.50
Noise:
Parking: Street (easy)
Vitals: 1329 Gilman St. (at Peralta), Berkeley (510) 527-9838. Dinner daily. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

LAPIS
You might say Thomas Ricci, who won't be 30 for several years, has learned on the job. When he opened Lapis two years ago the modern Mediterranean food didn't quite hold together. Now his creations are seamless, with enough creativity to keep things interesting. The loftlike interior of this modern restaurant features an open kitchen and a row of windows that provides a captivating close-up view of the bay. Cuisine: Mediterranean
Specialties: Moroccan spiced crab cake with spicy carrot salad wood-oven- baked mussels with potatoes and house-made chorizo Tunisian rubbed tuna with white beans and preserved lemons
Seats: 142
Prices: $17-$34
Noise:
Parking: Valet $10
Vitals: Pier 33, the Embarcadero (at Bay), San Francisco (415) 982-0203. Lunch Tuesday-Friday Dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

LA TAQUERIA
No one in the Mission -- or anywhere else that we've found -- does a burrito better than this 28-year-old taqueria owned by Miguel Jara. It's a bare-bones operation: Customers line up at the counter, take a number and wait to be called when their order is ready. Diners always know what they're getting: They can see the meat being grilled, the salsa being made and the tortillas being steamed. Everything is first-rate. Take it out or sit at one of the backless stools in the always-crowded dining room. Cuisine: Mexican
Specialties: Tacos and burritos, especially carnitas (pork) fruit drinks (cantaloupe, tangerine, strawberry)
Seats: 65
Prices: $1.60-$4.55
Noise:
Parking: Street (difficult)
Vitals: 2889 Mission St. (at 25th Street), San Francisco (415) 285-7117. Lunch and dinner daily. Beer. No reservations or credit cards.

LIBERTY CAFE
Looking kind of like a country farmhouse dining room with tongue-and-groove siding, Liberty is a shrine to American cooking. While there have been several chefs since it opened -- now it's Cynthia Shea -- owner Cathie Guntli has always kept things on track. Several years ago she created a cottage and deck in back, a great place to be on warm days (and Bernal Heights has quite a few). Guntli is an excellent pastry chef, so order anything with a crust. Cuisine: American
Specialties: Caesar salad chicken pot pie banana cream pie
Seats: 52 (including deck)
Prices: $10-$16.50
Noise:
Parking: Street (generally easy)
Vitals: 410 Cortland Ave. (at Bennington), San Francisco (415) 695-8777. Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

MANZANITA
Loretta Keller of Bizou in San Francisco and Mike and Carole Hale of Willowside Cafe in Santa Rosa joined forces to create this casual restaurant. The industrial-chic interior has a big-city look, and the room is divided by partitions that hold stacks of the namesake wood. Chef Bruce Frieseke, with the guidance of Keller, creates some exceptional rustic combinations not found anywhere else in the Wine Country. Cuisine: Mediterranean
Specialties: Oysters with peppercorn mignonette wood-fired mussels pizza citron-glazed black cod grilled New York steak Meyer lemon pudding cake
Seats: 55
Prices: $16.75-$23.50
Noise:
Parking: Street (generally easy)
Vitals: 336 Healdsburg Ave. (near North), Healdsburg (707) 433-8111. Dinner Wednesday-Sunday. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

MARTINI HOUSE
Todd Humphries, who was at Campton Place and then the Culinary Institute of America, and Pat Kuleto, who designed and owns Boulevard, Jardiniere and Farallon, have paired up for this new Napa Valley restaurant. It showcases the best of both of them: Humphries is developing his rustic style with the foraged and wild products he loves, and Kuleto has designed a handsome two- level restaurant with three fireplaces, rough-hewn wood accents and bocce ball displays in a 1920s Craftsman-style house. Michael Ouellette, formerly of Mustards, has created an amazing -- and amusing -- wine list. Cuisine: California
Specialties: Crispy veal sweetbreads tuna tartare with cucumber coulis and lotus root braised veal cheeks with glazed root vegetables
Seats: 165 (including patio)
Prices: $18-$32
Noise:
Parking: Street (generally easy)
Vitals: 1245 Spring St. (at Oak), St. Helena (707) 963-2233. Lunch and dinner daily. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

MASA'S
A new chef, Ron Siegel, and a luxurious new interior designed by Orlando Diaz-Azcuy have put this 20-year-old restaurant back on top. The rich chocolate brown walls, bronze sculptures and red-shirred chandeliers create an elegant backdrop for Siegel's creative French combinations. The service, like the other elements, is among the best in the city. Cuisine: French
Specialties: Two fixed-price menus skate wing with red-wine-braised short rib ravioli veal tenderloin medallion with sweetbread
Seats: 65
Prices: $69-$109 (full meals)
Noise:
Parking: Valet $11
Vitals: 648 Bush St. (near Stockton), San Francisco (415) 989-7154. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

MATTERHORN
Eating fondue tends to make people relax and take it easy, and it's no different at this Swiss-inspired restaurant owned by chef Andrew Thorpe. He's created a menu of mostly cheese and meat fondues, which are brought to the table with all kinds of condiments and accompaniments. There's even a chocolate fondue for dessert. The knotty-pine paneling gives the interior the look of an Alpine chalet, and the inviting service orchestrated by Brigitte Thorpe is as warming as the cheese. There's also a list of hard-to-find Swiss wines. Cuisine: Swiss
Specialties: Fondue (nine kinds, including chocolate for dessert) raclette with potatoes and pickles Wiener schnitzel
Seats: 85
Prices: $14-$22.75
Noise:
Parking: Weekend valet $7 some lots
Vitals: 2323 Van Ness Ave. (between Green and Vallejo), San Francisco (415) 885-6116. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

MERENDA
If there's a friendlier restaurant in the Bay Area, it hasn't been discovered. Owners Keith and Raney Luce make a perfect couple: She takes care of the front of the house and oversees the takeout case, and he creates the delicious food on the moderate fixed-price menu. Luce came from the East Coast to head up PlumpJack after a successful stint as sous chef at the White House, but he seems at home in the more modest surroundings of Union Street. The restaurant features blood-red walls, an intimate wine bar and floor-to-ceiling wine racks that add warmth to the dining room. Cuisine: French-California
Specialties: House-made pappardelle with duckling confit and green olives prosciutto-wrapped lamb with lentils and turnips profiteroles with vanilla gelato and chocolate sauce
Seats: 30
Prices: $25-$45 (full meals)
Noise:
Parking: Street (difficult) nearby garages
Vitals: 1809 Union St. (at Octavia), San Francisco (415) 346-7373. Dinner Wednesday-Monday takeout during the day. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

O CHAME
Anyone who loves Japanese food will warm to David Vardy's menu at O Chame in Berkeley. His combinations are fusion, but with gentle California twists. The udon soups are fairly traditional, but he takes some detours and pairs roast pork tenderloin with poblano chiles and portobello mushrooms, for example. Flavors are subtle and refined. The serene interior offers a stark contrast to the bustle outside on Fourth Street. It has an Asian country look that's perfectly suited to the food. Cuisine: Japanese-California
Specialties: Udon noodles (pork tenderloin and mustard greens) grilled river eel with Belgian endive seared tuna sashimi with braised leeks and horseradish sauce roasted Atlantic salmon sherry custard
Seats: 70
Prices: $9.50-$19.50
Noise:
Parking: Free lot
Vitals: 1830 Fourth St. (near Hearst), Berkeley (510) 841-8783. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Reservations accepted for dinner. Credit cards accepted.

OLIVETO
At Oliveto, you think you've walked into a traditional Italian kitchen. Chef-owner Paul Bertolli, who worked for years at Chez Panisse, makes his own pasta, cures his own meats, ages his sausage and even makes the balsamic vinegar. His food is so authentic chefs in Italy might learn a few tricks from him. One word of warning: While his food is wonderful, don't expect anything fancy. The appeal here is the purity of the food. The interior, which features an open kitchen with a grill and rotisserie, has a modern loft look and a casual, relaxed atmosphere. Cuisine: Italian
Specialties: Fresh pasta house-cured meats spit-roasted or grilled meats
Seats: 100
Prices: $13.50-$26
Noise:
Parking: Free lot
Vitals: 5655 College Ave. (at Shafter), Oakland (510) 547-5356. Lunch and dinner daily. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

ONE MARKET
Bradley Ogden has always been known for his "farm fresh" fare, but since Adrian Hoffman has come onboard the food has veered deliciously to Europe. Hoffman is a star in the making, and his food will wow diners not only for the expert blending of flavors but also for the fresh presentations. The interior of the restaurant has been warmed up a bit over the years, but it still has a kind of cold office atmosphere that doesn't match the professional service or the robust flavors of the food. Cuisine: American
Specialties: Petrale sole souffle house-cured and braised beef cheeks One Market choucroute osso buco for two made-to-order sundae
Seats: 150
Prices: $19.75-$29.75
Noise:
Parking: Valet $8
Vitals: 1 Market (at Steuart), San Francisco (415) 777-5577. Lunch weekdays dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

PANE E VINO
Chef-owner Bruno Quercini has won a loyal following for his pasta and other Northern Italian specialties. The restaurant, open for more than 10 years, has the cozy atmosphere of a trattoria, including a well-worn table in the middle that holds prosciutto and a wheel of Parmesan. You can expect waits, even if you have a reservation. Cuisine: Italian
Specialties: Pasta, including fusilli with smoked mozzarella and eggplant daily-changing risotto whole roasted fish tiramisu
Seats: 49
Prices: $10-$22
Noise:
Parking: Valet $10 (at Balboa Cafe) street (difficult)
Vitals: 3011 Steiner St. (at Union), San Francisco (415) 346-2111. Lunch Monday-Saturday dinner daily. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

PARK CHOW
While other places were suffering late last year, Park Chow was doing its best business ever, which goes to show one thing: People crave inexpensive comfort food served in warm, inviting surroundings. Tony Gulisano opened Chow in Upper Market about five years ago and followed up a year later with Park Chow. Last year, when the consistency of the food began to wane, the owners brought on Laurence Jossel, the brains behind Chez Nous. Now they're poised to open more places. The menu is the same at both restaurants, but the branch near Golden Gate Park features a fireplace, beamed ceiling, heated outdoor deck upstairs and a private room that seats 25. While the food is mostly Italian, there's a nod to Asia with several noodle dishes. The all-American desserts are some of the best in the city. Cuisine: Italian
Specialties: Bruschetta spaghetti and meatballs grilled chicken with lemon and rosemary pizza short ribs steamed mussels fruit crisps pies (especially pecan and butterscotch banana)
Seats: 160
Prices: $5.95-$10.95
Noise:
Parking: Street (difficult)
Vitals: 1240 Ninth Ave. (between Irving and Lincoln), San Francisco (415) 665-9912. Lunch and dinner daily. Beer and wine. No reservations. Credit cards accepted. Also at 215 Church St. (near Market), San Francisco (415) 552-2469.

PLOUF
This charming restaurant has become known for mussels cooked eight ways: with garlic and sherry, curried, or with shallots, bacon and cream, to name a few. Still, there's much more on the seafood menu, including very good fish and chips, seafood stew and steamed and roasted fish. Tucked away on Belden Place near the Financial District, Plouf looks like a charming fish house with tile floors, a tin ceiling and a corner fireplace. On warm days and evenings, large windows open onto the alley, which is filled with rows of tables. Cuisine: Seafood
Specialties: Mussels served eight ways banana profiteroles
Seats: 55
Prices: $15-$24
Noise:
Parking: Street (difficult)
Vitals: 40 Belden Place (off Bush between Kearny and Montgomery), San Francisco (415) 986-6491. Lunch weekdays dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

PLUMPJACK
Roaming chef James Ormsby has ended up at PlumpJack and transformed the kitchen yet again. The move has been beneficial for both. For one, Ormsby has replaced many tired standards with signature dishes he created at Bruno's and Red Herring. There are also some exciting new items, such as pan-roasted salmon with green lentils, grilled artichokes and a vinaigrette of blood orange and Meyer lemon. The subtle taupe color scheme and the hand-forged appointments, including the wine racks, give this clubby spot a destination appeal. The wine list is interesting, with some of the best prices in the city. Cuisine: California-Mediterranean
Specialties: Ahi tartare cones steamed black mussels with orange, mint and saffron broth red-wine-braised oxtails devil's food cake Meyer lemon souffle with mint creme anglaise
Seats: 75 Prices:
Noise:
Parking: Valet $9.50
Vitals: 3127 Fillmore St. (at Greenwich), San Francisco (415) 563-4755. Lunch weekdays dinner daily. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

REDWOOD PARK
The most high-profile restaurant to open in 2001, this complex in the Transamerica Pyramid reunites Michael Mina and George Morrone, who cooked together when Aqua opened more than 10 years ago. More recently Mina took Aqua to four-star status, and Morrone did the same thing with Fifth Floor. For this new restaurant, owned by Charles Condy and Mina, they hired Tony Chi to do the design. He created a serene, modern environment that's just right for Morrone's modern French food. It's also one of the most expensive restaurants in the city. For smaller budgets there's the Redwood Park Grill upstairs, where the menu is more relaxed. Cuisine: French
Specialties: Trio of soups en croute carpaccio from land, sea and air tuna foie gras made-to-order ice cream
Seats: 80
Prices: $34-$39
Noise:
Parking: Valet $10
Vitals: 600 Montgomery St. (at Clay), San Francisco (415) 283-1000. Lunch weekdays dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

RIVOLI
Owners Wendy Brucker and Roscoe Skipper are a team in life and in business: Brucker cooks, and Skipper runs the show in front. Combined, they produce one of the best restaurants in the East Bay. The low-slung dining room has an upscale ranch-house look, with a garden in back. The service is smooth, and the food is a marvel. Don't pass up the mushroom fritters or one of the braised or grilled meat dishes. Cuisine: California
Specialties: Portobello mushroom fritters with lemon aioli hot fudge sundae
Seats: 58
Prices: $14.95-$18.50
Noise:
Parking: Street (generally easy)
Vitals: 1539 Solano Ave. (near Neilson), Berkeley (510) 526-2542. Dinner daily. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

ROUX
Vincent and Tyla Jones Nattress followed their dream to open this 44-seat restaurant in downtown St. Helena. The impressive food belies the modest interior, which is a work in progress. When the couple have a few extra dollars or a few extra hours, they invest it in their restaurant, which they affectionately call their "baby." The storefront dining room features only about a dozen tables, but there's a patio for warmer evenings and a wine bar that seats seven more inside. Cuisine: California
Specialties: Changing menu may include: smoked trout salad foie gras spring rolls various soups
Seats: 34
Prices: $17-$30
Noise:
Parking: Street (generally easy)
Vitals: 1234 Main St. (near Hunt), St. Helena (707) 963-5330. Dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

RUBICON
In the rush of new restaurants Rubicon is often forgotten -- until you check it out again and experience the smooth service, the incredible wine list by Larry Stone, the stellar food by Dennis Leary and the handsome loftlike environment. Brick walls and earthquake support beams play against refined wood booths and Dale Chihuly glass sculptures. The place has celebrity cachet, owned by New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent, Robert De Niro and several other celebrities. Leary features the traditional a la carte and fixed-price menu, including a vegetarian option. Cuisine: California-French
Specialties: Tuna tartare John Dory en papillote with walnut pesto
Seats: 125
Prices: $22-$31 (fixed-price menus $32-$85)
Noise:
Parking: Street (difficult) valet $10 at dinner
Vitals: 558 Sacramento St. (near Montgomery), San Francisco (415) 434-4100. Lunch weekdays dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

SAM'S GRILL
What can you say about a restaurant that first opened in 1867? If it can survive 135 years it must be something special. Sam's has been in the same family since 1937 and at its current location since 1946. The interior is like stepping back in time to that men's grill look that used to dominate the dining scene. At the back is a double row of booths where the curtains can be drawn for private conversations. The menu offers classic fare that's been abandoned by many trendy restaurants. Chicken is roasted to order (it takes 45 minutes) and costs only $9.50. One bite and you know classic doesn't mean tired. Cuisine: American
Specialties: Seafood (including petrale, sand dabs or Rex sole) sweetbreads broiled with bacon veal porterhouse with bacon celery Victor French pancakes with lemon
Seats: 125
Prices: $9-$30
Noise:
Parking: Street (difficult) public lots
Vitals: 374 Bush St. (between Montgomery and Kearny), San Francisco (415) 421-0594. Lunch and dinner Monday-Friday. Full bar. Reservations accepted at dinner. Credit cards accepted.


Open every day for lunch and dinner. Dinner from 5 p.m. lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Weekend reservations suggested.

Caramelized sea scallops are served at Harbor Mist Restaurant in Cold Spring Harbor. (Aug. 15, 2010) Credit: Yana Paskova

Harbor Mist rolls in where more than one restaurant has drifted in the fog. It's an easygoing eatery that steers a safe course through familiar American and Continental favorites, allowing for an unexpected taste of the moment. The results often are good, from owners Barman and Michelle Sharifi, who ran La Taverna and then Aqua Blue in Roslyn.

The look of the successor to 105 Harbor, Inn on the Harbor and, way back, The Old Whaler depends where you eat. The upstairs dining room serves up a peachy, sunny hue and a pretty water view, which both underscore that the calendar reserves a few more days for summer. Downstairs, you'll find a bright space, too, with a fireplace for a hint of autumn. The busy bar: all-seasons style.

Chef Terrence Cave, who worked at Docks and the departed Cub Room in Manhattan, delivers a mellow shrimp risotto that suddenly announces itself once more with a spark of chorizo sausage. Orecchiette tossed with broccoli rabe and nuggets of sweet and spicy sausage heads the pastas. And try the jumbo lump crab cake, spurred by chipotle-spiked aioli and citrus-marinated cucumber as well as the herbaceous littleneck clams oreganata.

Sweet, nutty, caramelized sea scallops benefit from sage brown butter and garlicky mashed potatoes. Grilled Montauk swordfish veers Catalonian with a mild riff on romesco sauce, then segues French with a light potato gratin. Branzino, which is becoming the year's all-purpose fish, serves as a good vehicle for flavorful tomatoes, roasted garlic, olives and capers. Enjoy the tender steak frites, matched with hand-cut fries and creamed spinach and the rack of Australian lamb, finished with a red-wine reduction, accompanied by a potato gratin that has a hint of horseradish. For dessert: well-made, time-capsule tiramisu.

Satisfactory chicken with wilted spinach and mashed potatoes and Alaskan salmon with fingerling potatoes, in a white wine-and-mustard reduction. Duck confit, however, arrives dry New England-style clam chowder, thin and bland. The lobster bake, while generous with clams, mussels and corn, is overcooked. Arid Italian cheesecake and dull cannoli.


Lifestyle Interview by OMY for Singapore Blog Awards 2011 – 入得厨房出得厅堂 美姐博客完美变身

Thank you OMY.sg for featuring me in their Lifestyle column. This article (attached below) is originally written in Chinese. Do “Like” my video and SUBSCRIBE to my newly created youtube channel! There, I’ll show you tips on how to maintain a beautiful body and of course, the legendary Tofumisu created by yours truly :*)

入得厨房出得厅堂 美姐博客完美变身

25岁的李丽贤 Cherie 不仅是本地美容时尚博客,她的部落格也入围了新加坡部落格大奖的最佳时尚部落格的奖项。今年七月,丽贤更获得”新加坡国际小姐2011″选美比赛的季军荣衔和”完美体态奖 “,成为名副其实的美姐博客。

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 1:28 am


Recent restaurant reviews

The following are shortened versions of recent full-length restaurant reviews. The date the original review ran and its overall rating is in parentheses. If there are more stars than dollar signs, consider it a good value.

Amoo, 1909 Salvio St., Concord. 925-969-0991. With a little spice and no silly garnishes, dishes composed of hamburger, garlic and long-cooked produce soar beyond their peasant station. Bonjaan Borani is nothing more than fried eggplant and tomato sauce, but its depth of flavor is astonishing. Bolani Gandana &mdash a leek and yogurt pie of sorts &mdash has all the primal satisfaction of an oozing quesadilla. $. (HH½ on 10/11/07)

Sahara, 907 First St., Benicia. 707-746-0505. High-quality authentic kebabs, hummus and falafel are served at reasonable prices. Rounding out the Arabian fare is a New York steak and lamb rack at dinner. Delicious wraps at lunch. Wines are quite reasonable. $. (HH½ on 6/14/07)

900 Grayson, 900 Grayson St., Berkeley. 510-704-9900. Concealed in a little red building is casual dining with an oasis of scrumptious breakfast and lunch fare. Classic American fare meets pizazz (buttermilk waffles topped with spicy fried chicken and cream gravy) and a few sophisticated touches (salad with omelet). Exquisite soups and salads blend fresh ingredients and new dimensions of texture. Despite a laid-back vibe and harried service during rush periods, the food shows a refined hand in the kitchen. $. (HHH on 11/14/08)

Arcadia, 100 W. San Carlos St. (in the Marriott Hotel), San Jose. 408-278-4555 www.michaelmina.net. Two of our four savory dishes here were standouts: the Steak Rossini and a black olive Caesar with cured white anchovies and a hauntingly good dressing. The cracked crab and crab cakes, however, were disappointing. $$. (HH½ on 11/15/07)

Bases Loaded, 400 G St., Antioch. 925-755-4487 www.basesloadedrestaurant.com. Memorabilia at this sports bar evokes a sense of time, when baseball was about the game and not about big stars and their even bigger salaries. It’s rather refreshing. The food is pretty good, too, and the service is outstanding. In addition to customized hamburgers and hot dogs, you’ll find flavorful Texas barbecue and generous portions. Control the television located at your own table or watch one of several larger screens throughout the restaurant. Live music on weekends. $. (HHH on 12/18/09)

Boiler House Restaurant, 1414 Harbour Blvd. S., Richmond. 510-215-6000 www.boilerhouserestaurant.com. Between the glorious views, industrial chic vibe and wallet-friendly appeal, we were ready to love this gastro pub, nestled into a former World War II-era automotive plant on Richmond’s waterfront. That you get great little tacos and tasty burgers in addition to that view is just icing on the cake. Full bar, lunch, dinner, and pub fare &mdash sliders, calamari, quesadillas &mdash from 3 p.m. on. $. (HHH on 2/05/10)

Bo’s Barbecue, 3422 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. 925-283-7133. William “Bo” McSwine knows how to render stubborn, meaty spareribs tender. Not soft, not boiled senseless, but coaxed through gentle heat and subtle smoke to a succulent state. The brisket, after 18 hours in the smoker, develops a thick black crust, forming a shell that locks the heat inside. Bo’s remains our top pick for barbecue &mdash and beers his bottled selection is second to none. Cash only. $. (HHH½ on 5/23/08)

B Restaurant, 499 Ninth St. at Washington, Oakland. 510-251-8770 www.boakland.com. B’s spacious dining room is filled with soulful smells of bone marrow, sweetbreads and innovative pizzas coming from the almond wood-burning oven. Great oysters and a smart wine list served by a knowledgeable, friendly staff. $. (HHH on 8/02/07)

Brown Sugar Kitchen, 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland. 510-839-7685 www.brownsugarkitchen.com. A fusion of African-American home-style and Southern regional, Brown Sugar Kitchen shows off chef Tanya Holland’s serious chops. Her cornmeal waffle and buttermilk fried chicken is simply the best version of the Harlem classic you’re likely to taste. The downside of Holland’s light touch is that some dishes seem boring, despite &mdash or perhaps because of &mdash their carefully controlled elements. $. (HHH on 3/27/08)

Burgermeister, 2319 Central Ave., Alameda. 510-865-3032. Burgers at this family-owned restaurant are the real deal. Here, you will find all-natural, high-quality Niman Ranch beef, cooked to order. Customized toppings include Applewood smoked bacon and sauteed mango, but the classic cheeseburger remains the most popular choice. The MeisterBurger is a megameal. Even the non-burger BBQ chicken sandwich is done up right. Milkshakes are made from Tucker’s Ice Cream, a beloved Alameda institution. It’s definitely a high-end burger joint, so expect a hefty tab. $. (HH½ on 3/6/09)

Cafe Garre, 7986 Tesla Road, Livermore. 925-371-8200 www.garrewinery.com. With its outside patio with beautiful vineyard views and its unpretentious menu, service and décor, Garre Cafe offers a casual and affordable take on wine country dining. Chef Ty Turner, who has guided Garre’s culinary growth for a decade, has a good palate, but his overly ambitious menu often falls short. While the entree salads on our visits were uniformly good, a pasta at lunch and the prime rib at dinner had some glaring flaws. $. (HH on 6/20/08)

Camino, 3917 Grand Ave., Oakland. 510-547-5035. Former Chez Panisse chef Russell Moore’s pedigree draws national attention to this new venture, but what makes Camino so intriguing is the fresh food cooked in a fireplace or wood-burning oven. The ingredient-driven menu changes daily (diners can phone in after 2 p.m. to hear the night’s offerings), and for some may be too limiting with roughly five starters and three entrees. Camino could be classified as a destination restaurant, but on weeknights, it has the sincerity and familiarity of a neighborhood spot. $$. (HHH on 9/12/08)

The Cheesecake Factory, 1181 Locust St., Walnut Creek. 925-952-8451 www.thecheesecakefactory.com. This popular chain restaurant has found an excellent corner spot in downtown, with seating indoors and out. Every hallmark of the franchise is seen here, from the warm Venetian-style décor to the menu brimming with options. Wait times at this location aren’t as long as at other Cheesecake Factories in the Bay Area. If you want the great food without the wait, try the Curbside to Go. Portion sizes are huge, so expect to go home with leftovers. $. (HHH on 06/05/09)

Chow, 445 Railroad Ave., Danville. 925-838-4510. Versatility is key for both décor and the restaurant overall, as if the goal is to create a place that feels welcoming to all types at all times. The space is perfectly suitable for a big rowdy group, but equally comfortable for a single diner. Chow’s straightforward comfort food menu is conceptually strong. With more snacky items and appetizers, the Danville Chow varies a bit from the one in Lafayette. Pastas and salads fare particularly well in this kitchen. $. (HHH on 11/07/08)

City Bistro, 30162 Industrial Parkway, SW, Hayward. 510-429-8600. Looking for a classic New York deli in the East Bay? City Bistro delivers with an ambitious amalgamation of deli soups and sandwiches, diner classics and several bistro-type entrees. Brunch is served all day. It feels more like a diner than a bistro, but portions are generous, latkes are delicious and dedicated deli lovers will love the New York authenticity of the super-sized sandwiches. $. (HH on 2/20/09)

Eddie Papa’s American Hangout, 4889 Hopyard Road, Pleasanton. 925-469-6266. The restaurant is a remarkably well-researched homage to American cooking, with monthly specials culled from a different region of the country. The space is an appealing mix of clean design and softly stated nostalgia. And even though the regional-historical concept sometimes overwhelms the menu, which is too large to ensure that every single item sparkles, chef-partner Neil Marquis’ cooking is full of easy-to-like flavors with family appeal. $. (HH½ on 5/30/08)

Esin, 750 Camino Ramon, Danville. 925-314-0974. A few dishes hearken back to co-owner Esin DeCarion’s homeland, Turkey, including the popular meze platter and phyllo-wrapped chicken breast. The food is fresh, unpretentious and made from high-quality, often local ingredients. Not every dish is polished, but the human effort is palpable and compelling. Despite the fancy new digs, it hasn’t lost the family touch. Save room for dessert. $. (HH½ on 9/19/08)

The Farmer Restaurant, Pleasanton Hotel, 855 Main St., Pleasanton. 925-399-6690 www.pleasantonhotel.com. This cozy, country-style restaurant exudes down-home comfort. Service is brisk and warm, and the food &mdash Veal Oscar, for example, a Chicken Marsala Pasta and luscious house-made desserts &mdash delicious and nicely presented. Devotees also rave about the Sunday brunch, with omelet station and Bloody Mary bar. $. (HHH½ on 4/16/10)

Fish & Farm, 339 Taylor St. (between Ellis and O’Farrell), in the Mark Twain Hotel, San Francisco. 415-474-3474 www.fishandfarmsf.com. Young chefs Charlie Kleinman and Jacob Des Voignes are less concerned with saving the world and more impressed by how proximity dovetails with quality. So, while produce is almost always farmed within 100 miles, the West Coast is considered local enough when it comes to fish. Much of the food seems unsure whether it wants to be gutsy or gorgeous, but the House Made Gnocchi with chestnuts and pumpkin and Farm Poached Egg with wild mushroom ragout were confidently both. $. (HHH on 2/21/08)

Five at Hotel Shattuck, 2086 Allston Way, Berkeley. 510-845-7300, www.five-berkeley.com. Named after the five senses, this modern American bistro is one part urban lounge, one part old-fashioned ice cream parlor and one part retro bistro &mdash all in one space. Bold geometric décor brings a playful energy to the open dining room, and the food offers plenty of fresh, seasonal, American cuisine. Don’t miss the short ribs “pot roast,” perched atop a block of white cheddar polenta, and the rich butternut squash ravioli, and be sure to save room for dessert, especially the luscious butterscotch pudding with peanut butter brittle. $-$$. (HHH½ on 1/15/10)

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. 1685 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek. 925-287-0297 www.flemingssteakhouse.com. For a classy steakhouse that serves prime &mdash that well-marbled, pricey top grade &mdash Fleming’s has kept prices fair: You won’t find any $50 cuts like you might in a Chicago chophouse. But even keeping dinner to a steak, a side and a glass of wine can get you in $70 tip-included territory. If you’re beginning to sweat, come on Sunday, when a 12-ounce “prime” prime rib with salad, side and dessert is a bargain &mdash $35.95. $$. (HHH on 11/01/07)

Izzy’s Steaks & Chops, 200 Montgomery (in the Marketplace shopping center), San Ramon. 925-830-8620 www.izzyssteaksandchops.com. One could call Izzy’s the People’s Steakhouse &mdash delivering thick cuts at a price you can afford. Order a top-end choice, dry-aged 14-ounce New York steak, and you’ll still have money (if not room) for one of the tasty seafood appetizers of pan-roasted mussels, calamari or Louis salad. $. (HH½ on 5/31/07)

Kinder’s, 1831 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek. 925-952-9393 www.kindersmeats.com. This mostly Bay Area chain rules the roost with its tender ball tip sandwich. Other options include ribs, hot links and grilled chicken sandwiches. This isn’t a typical vegetarian haunt, but salads and a vegetarian sandwich are available. They also offer an enticing meat counter with cut-to-order meats and a hefty carry-out business. $. (HH on 8/29/08)

Looney’s Smokehouse, 2190 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. 510-649-0628 www.looneysbbq.com. Ken Looney’s beef ribs &mdash slabs of prime rib still hanging on &mdash are treated to a flavorful dry rub and 10 hours of smoke. The baby back pork ribs are stubby and thick, sliced and reheated on the grill until dark and crispy. The sides have a rustic honesty that evokes a backyard cookout. $. (HH on 10/17/07)

Moresi’s Chophouse. 6115 Main St., Clayton. 925-672-1333. Try the Wedge, a classic combo of chilled iceberg, warm pancetta and blue cheese, or the French Onion Soup, cheesy rich with a true-tasting stock and the right ratio of onions. Brick Chicken is deeply charred, tender and nicely flavored from a long marinade. And the prime rib is outstanding, with crisped edges and an easy chew. $$. (HH½ on 08/16/07)

Pican, 2295 Broadway, Oakland. 510-834-1000 www.picanrestaurant.com. Pican exudes warmth, comfort and an arty, chic elegance. The Southern-inspired menu brims with enticements, including a perfectly grilled Berkshire Pork Chop with zesty, neon yellow chowchow, a deep mahogany Buttermilk Southern Fried Chicken paired with a truly decadent smoked Gouda “Mac ‘n Cheese,” and divine desserts &mdash Moon Pies and a Sticky Bun Bread Pudding with maple sugar glaze. Impeccable service. Intriguing cocktails and a full bar. $$. (HHHH on 05/01/09)

The Refuge, 963 Laurel St., San Carlos. 650-598-9813 www.refugesc.com. This is more than a meal: It’s a rich cultural experience. The hot pastrami, thick hand-carved slices, rivals any found on a deli tour of New York City. The Belgian beer selection is also second to none. The 20 French wines by the glass cover tantalizing ground. There are Jewish classics &mdash sparked by a chef’s fresh imagination &mdash such as chopped liver and chicken noodle soup. Alongside regional favorites such as cheesesteaks, you’ll find European cheeses and charcuterie. $. (HHH on 04/18/08)

Shutters Brasserie, 2013 Elkins Way, Suite A1, Brentwood. 925-516-4131 www.shuttersbrasserie.com. Smart service, a top-notch beer menu and rustic, flavorful entrees captured all that a brasserie should be. Try the crusty pan-fried giant pork chop with Brentwood corn duck confit with mashed potatoes and seared cod with steamed clams in a buttery parsley broth. $. (HH½ on 7/19/07)

Sidebar, 542 Grand Ave., Oakland. 510-452-9500 www.sidebar-oakland.com. The new gastro pub in Oakland’s Lake Merritt District casts fancy spells on classic comfort foods. Try the Brined & Grilled Double Cut Pork Chop ($17), brined for two days in clove, anise, sugar and two peppers and then grilled to order over a ragout of soft, bacon-spiked cannellini beans. The Oven Roast Poussin ($18), a baby chicken, gets its kick from a marinade of fennel pollen and mustard seed before it’s seared and finished in the oven. For dessert, try the ever-comforting Almond Joy ($6.50). $ (HHH on 4/10/09)

Sideboard, 411 Hartz Ave., Danville. 925-984-2713. The quaint restaurant is a cross between a European cafe and cozy coffeehouse. Despite having counter staff, it leaves you feeling neither rushed nor impersonalized. The décor is homey, the staff attentive and the food largely spot on. Dishes range from breakfast pastries to French toast and salads to pasta and sandwiches. They are made using mostly organic, natural and locally produced ingredients. At any time of the day, try the hot chocolate &mdash it’s dessert in a mug. $. (HHH on 1/2/09).

Southern Heritage Smoked Bar-B-Q, 40645 Fremont Blvd., Fremont, 510-668-1850. There’s a whole lot of soul in this Fremont strip mall. Southern Heritage gets its smoky flavors just right in a terrific barbecued chicken dish, pulled pork, baby back ribs and other classic barbecue fare. Add in a variety of side options &mdash baked beans, hushpuppies, coleslaw and potato salad &mdash and homemade lemonade and this barbecue spot is definitely worth a drive. $-$. (HH½ on 1/22/10)

Yankee Pier, 3593 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. 925-283-4100 www.yankeepier.com. If fish counts as comfort food, you’ll find it here: crackly sweet fish and chips, plump lobster rolls and fresh ceviche fleshed out with avocado. Most dishes play it safe (pristine fish fillets are cooked your way and come with your choice of sides), but don’t miss the gutsy steamed clams in a smoky paprika broth. $. (HH½ on 3/13/08)

Asia Palace, 1460 Moraga Road, Moraga. 925-376-0809. At first glance, this comes across as a traditional Chinese restaurant in a small place, but it’s really a culinary experience not to be missed. The restaurant is packed between 6 and 7 p.m. daily for a reason. Everything we sampled was incredible. Favorites were chicken corn soup and honey walnut prawns. Sushi is also served. And it’s a rare night when guests don’t receive something for free &mdash an appetizer, sushi plate, dessert, etc. $. (HHH on 8/14/09)

Burma Superstar, 4721 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. 510-652-2900. With the addition of an Oakland location, this San Francisco-based Burmese restaurant cements its cult status. The flavor, texture and crunch of the Tea Leaf Salad, made with fermented tea leaves from Myanmar, is truly a feast for the senses, and the Burmese Style Curry with shrimp has the perfect tinge of spice. For those looking for an Indian influence, the Burmese Chicken Casserole is the way to go, as cinnamon and cardamom infuse the basmatic rice and juicy, on-the-bone chicken with sweet and savory flavors. $. (HHH on 11/20/09)

Chu, 5362 College Ave., Oakland. 510-601-8818 www.restaurantchu.com. This is Asian dining at its most stylish &mdash sleek, modern lines, dazzling black walls set off by modern art and crisply white, geometric plates, which make a stunning backdrop for the food to follow. That food boasts the same sleek clarity of flavor. This is not your run-of-the-mill Chinese place. No gloppy, dye-doused sauces &mdash just clean, vibrant flavors and textures. Try the Wok Flame Rib Eye, Sun Bai Basil Chicken or citrus-flecked, garlicky You Zi Pepper Prawns. $. (HHH on 10/16/09)

Ha’s Excellent Chinese Cuisine, 2416 San Ramon Valley Blvd., Suite 160, San Ramon, 925-838-3233. Ha’s is back in San Ramon Valley after a 2½-year hiatus. Although the restaurant relocated from Danville to San Ramon, it still offers the same Chinese comfort food that first made it popular. Several varieties of prawns are popular here, but we also savored the mu shu pork. $-$. (HH on 12/11/09)

Hung’s Kitchen, 500 Bollinger Canyon Way, Suite A-1, San Ramon. 925-735-8880 www.hungskitchen.com. The menu at Hung’s is a story built on four generations of restaurateurs, with chapters in China, Korea, the Midwest and now San Ramon. Additions from China include homemade noodles, dumplings and buns that are a real treat. The scallion pancakes are among the best in the area. Also worth note is a family meal deal that features three dishes, scallion pancakes and soup for less than $30. Here you will find a solid option for modern westernized Chinese food. $. (HH½ on 7/24/09)

Imperial Tea Court, 1511 Shattuck Ave. (in the Epicurious Garden food court), Berkeley. 510-540-8888 www.imperialtea.com. Open since 2006, this Berkeley spinoff of Roy and Grace Fong’s San Francisco Ferry Building tea shop offers mostly Beijing-style dim sum and other dishes that serve as tasty accompaniments to the high-quality house teas. Choose from more than three dozen, ranging from delicate white teas to earthy puerhs, served in traditional lidded gaiwan cups. Much of the cooking incorporates tea in some form. $. (HH on 6/13/08)

Lemongrass Bistro, 501 Main St., Martinez. 925-734-8180. The ambience is lovely and the Southeast Asian fusion menu is a fresh blend of traditional and inventive dishes. Much of the menu is centered on Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese flavors, but you’ll find lots of Indian flavors as well. The lemon grass samosas are worth a journey, as these miniature pastries are stuffed with lemon grass, spiced potato, snow peas, carrots and yellow curry. Décor is clean and youthful. $. (HHH on 11/27/09)

Mahalo Grille, 425 Main St., Pleasanton. 925-462-2800, www.MahaloGrille.com. Mahalo has mastered fusion island cuisine under chef Josh Payton. The pupu platter appetizer is a meal in itself and a fine example of tropical fusion at its best. Be sure to ask what’s not on the menu that’s where you may find some of the best treasures. $$. (HHH½ on 11/28/08) Note: As of Dec. 18, Mahalo’s is temporarily closed because of water damage. Call before you go.

The Peasant’s Courtyard, 3195 Danville Blvd., Alamo. 925-362-0088. Chef-owner Rodney Worth has brought the rustic comfort food that has made Danville’s The Pheasant & The Pear so popular to his new venture. The courtyard setting gives this a charming cafe feel. A couple of Worth’s prized dishes &mdash the pulled pork sandwich and bistro burger &mdash are complemented by new salad and sandwich options. Classic American and European bistro dishes are mixed with Mediterranean flair. Portion sizes are ample. Breakfast hours are often crowded. $. (HH½ on 6/19/09)

Qin’s Asian Bistro & Bar, 5007 Lone Tree Way, Antioch. 925-754-8888. Amid a parade of chain eateries, Qin’s dares to offer a more upscale dining experience at a comfortable price. Its low-profile exterior belies the polished, city-esque setting inside. The food is ambitious, combining Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese/Thai and California, from burgers to 11 varieties of sushi. Not every dish succeeds, with some lacking spice, but the Wok Selections offer very comfortable Chinese food, and the signature cocktails are a plus. $. (HH½ on 8/01/08)

Sais T, 961 Bluebell Drive, Livermore. 925-294-8698. Don’t let the strip mall setting put you off. This Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant draws a bustling lunchtime crowd eager to dip into piping-hot fried imperial rolls, fragrant pho brimming with tripe and meatballs, and a beautifully prepared dish called Green, Purple and White &mdash a garlicky mélange of crunchy string beans, tender eggplant and creamy tofu that may convert people to vegetarianism. $ (HH on 10/23/09)

Sichuan Fortune House, 41 Woodsworth Lane, Pleasant Hill. 925-686-9828. As a rare authentic Sichuan restaurant in the East Bay, Sichuan Fortune House is slowly coming into its own with efficient service and authentic flavors. An ambitious menu features 138 items, including the satisfying fiery eggplant pancakes and milder-tasting winner seafood delight in a clay pot. $. (HH on 10/24/08)

Angelica’s Bistro, 863 Main St., Redwood City. 650-365-3226. The atmosphere is eclectic, almost Bohemian, with its European décor housed in a 1904 Victorian. The colorful ambience is an aside to the creative spices in comfort foods that range from fine salads to distinctive crepes, pastas, seafood, New York steak and hamburgers. Although not fancy, the food has artistic flair. Service is warm and friendly, and the portions are ample. Desserts show English influences, such as a hearty bread pudding. $. (HHH on 9/26/08)

Bay Wolf, 3853 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. 510-655-6004 www.baywolf.com. While honoring the restaurant’s traditions and bowing to founding owner Michael Wild’s culinary whims, chef Louis LeGassic mixes it up enough to keep himself, his cooks and his menus energized. The duck appetizer (the restaurant is famous for duck) is an explosion of California-French flavors &mdash expertly executed, but without the austerity of a Chez Panisse plate. $$. (HHH½ on 11/22/07)

Commis, 3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. 510-653-3902, www.commisrestaurant.com. This prix-fixe restaurant garnered its first Michelin star within four months of opening, and that reputation is well deserved. Warm service, a world-class wine list and jazz-filled minimalist décor combine with outrageously wonderful, eclectic food &mdash a Moroccan-influenced Slow Roast Lamb Saddle, for example, served on puréed white yams with spring onions, baby carrots and a spiced almond vinaigrette. $$. (HHHH on 4/2/10)

Digs Bistro, 1453 Dwight Way (at Sacramento), Berkeley. 510-548-2322 www.digsbistro.com. The food has a homespun character as well, but it’s more rustic than the décor. The cooking style is honest and gutsy &mdash American, you might say &mdash with just enough finesse to qualify it as California cuisine. Start with the charcuterie and finish with a sundae. Sambuca Prawns are a Digs specialty, but opt for the salt cod ravioli if it’s on offer. $$. (HHH on 12/6/07)

Gather, 2200 Oxford St., Berkeley. 510-809-0400 www.gatherrestaurant.com. Seasonal, organic food in such creative, intriguing flavor combinations, they’ll leave you yearning for more. Half the menu is vegetarian and vegan, but even resolute carnivores will find themselves tempted by the vegan charcuterie platter &mdash five gorgeous, flavorful vegetable medleys. Open for weekend brunch too. $. (HHHH on 4/23/10)

Havana, 1518 Park St., Alameda. Also 1516 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek. 510-521-0130 www.havanarestaurant.net. The food here has a tropical edge &mdash an excuse for more mojitos. The official description is California-Cuban. At its best, this translates into a light and flavorful cuisine other times it seems haphazard, both in taste and presentation. Popular dishes include Plantain Crusted Halibut and Garlic Studded Pork Loin. $. (HH½ on 5/09/08)

Henry’s, 2600 Durant Ave., Berkeley. With a new dining room, menu and internationally minded chef, this UC Berkeley haunt adjacent to the Hotel Durant will likely bring in a more sophisticated crowd than your average gastro pub. Ignite your appetite with the Turmeric and Ginger Mushrooms ($8). Roasted in herb butter, they are bright both in color and flavor. For entrees, it doesn’t get more comfortable than the Spaetzle ($17). Chef Eddie Blyden’s spin on the eastern European dumplings comes tossed with portobello mushrooms, braised rabbit, tarragon, Dijon, Hobbs bacon and Austrian Gruyere. 510-809-4132. ($$ HH½ on 5/20/09)

La Rose Bistro, 2037 Shattuck Ave. (at Addison), Berkeley. 510-644-1913 www.larosebistro.com. A short walk from Berkeley’s downtown theaters and evocative of a Parisian cafe, La Rose is just the place to duck into before or after a show. The menu, whose dozen entrees stay well south of $30, features enticing appetizer choices &mdash salmon tartare, foie gras and sweetbreads, to name but a few &mdash that double beautifully as a light supper. Desserts are also a standout. $$. (HHH½ on 12/13/07)

Lettuce, 1632 Locust St., Walnut Creek. 925-933-5600. A meal of soup, salad and sandwich here refreshes like a mini spa visit, beginning with glass pitchers of fruit-infused water and ending with homemade peach-blueberry galette. In the middle is a spalike menu with 16 salad offerings, six sandwich options and five soups. Salads and sandwiches are made to order with fresh ingredients. Vegans, vegetarians and carnivores alike will delight in what’s offered. $. (HHH on 7/10/09)

Levende East, 827 Washington St., Oakland. 510-835-5585 www.levendeeast.com. Finding a way in to Levende East’s liquidly nightclub atmosphere can be challenging, but the options are as myriad as the Vegas strip. Irresistible is chef Arren Caccamo’s imaginative treatment of culinary treats such as pheasant, filet mignon and lobster. French technique, expressed in stock-based sauces and stylized presentations, is matched by a fondness for richness, sweetness and surprise. $$. (HHH on 9/27/07)

Meritage at the Claremont, 44 Tunnel Road, Berkeley. 510-549-8510 www.meritageclaremont.com. Glorious, palm-tree studded views of Berkeley and the Bay Bridge, a Tommy Bahama color palette and deep, dramatic booths set the scene for stylish, beautiful farm-to-table cuisine by executive chef Josh Thomsen, a former chef at the French Laundry in Yountville. Silky soups and dishes such as seared sea scallops and roasted venison loin, offered in small plate or full entree portions, add up to a luxurious, satisfying dining experience. Don’t miss the chocolate souffle. $$. (HHH on 2/12/10)

Metro Lafayette, 3524 Mt. Diablo Blvd. (in the Safeway shopping center), Lafayette. 925-284-4422 www.metrolafayette.com. Metro refines service, simplifying and purifying the menu, and surrounding it all with an arty, almost austere ambience. Metro has 40-plus wines by the glass, just a quarter of which are from California four dining areas that veer from hip to relaxed to private to somber and ingredients with the snap and sweetness of backyard beans. $$. (HHH½ on 7/26/07)

Michael Mina, 335 Powell St. (inside the Westin St. Francis hotel), S.F. 415-397-9222 www.michaelmina.net. While our six-course seasonal dinner ($135) had some dazzling moments, it showed neither the polish nor consistency one would expect. And some wines (add $90 for the pairing) and dishes had an earthy flavor bordering on clay. Perhaps the “Wow!” factor at Michael Mina comes from the elaborate three-course prix fixe menus ($98), each plate offering three expressions on a theme, be it jackfish, lamb or tropical fruit. $$. (HHH on 11/15/07)

Artisan Bistro, 1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette. 925-962-0882. Chef owner John Marquez puts his distinctive flair on seasonal California French cuisine. He emphasizes local, organic and artisan ingredients. The salads are packed with flavor the specialty sandwiches are delicious and the ultimate in comfort food the vegetarian entrees are satisfying and healthy. The restaurant’s design blends well with an understated downtown Lafayette and the menu resonates well with the area. $$. (HHH on 5/1/09)

Bijou, 1036 B St., Hayward. 510-888-1092 www.bijouexperience.com. Bijou strives for chic, not classic, and serves up some pleasant surprises, although at times it seems to be at cross-purposes in establishing an identity. The décor is eye-popping, very downtown Manhattan for downtown Hayward. But with only a heavy mesh-chain drape between them, the noisy bar competes with the intimate dining room setting. The entrees are nicely seasoned, the sauces imaginative, the desserts delicious. But the small portion sizes left us wishing for more. $. (HH½ on 10/31/08)

Bistro Liaison, 1849 Shattuck Ave. (at Hearst), Berkeley. 510-849-2155 www.liaisonbistro.com. Bold comes in two flavors at Liaison &mdash simplicity and intensity. The dining room, in vivid gold with splashes of burgundy, manages to be both simple and intense &mdash a bon-vivant vibrancy that makes you feel secure, in the way of old money. But with a whole section on Croque Monsieurs, you won’t need Daddy’s credit card to have a good time here. $$. (HHH on 3/20/08)

Chevalier, 960 Moraga Road, Lafayette. 925-385-0793. Chef-owner Philippe Chevalier offers upscale, mostly Provençal-inspired dishes in a somewhat overlooked strip mall location. The menu focuses on the South of France, while also offering a few traditional French favorites such as foie gras, French onion soup and coq au vin. Chevalier doesn’t skimp on ingredients, but it’s on the expensive side. $$. (HH½ on 9/26/08)

Le Bistro, 1606 N. Main St., Walnut Creek. 925-407-8000 www.lebistro.fr. While chef Jean-Paul shows his chops with a core menu of rustic dishes and signature plates, he also keeps it fresh with half a dozen daily specials. A pillar of Le Bistro’s success, Butcher Steak, is as flavorful and thrillingly Gallic as ever. The restaurant itself, thickly arranged with every Frenchy artifact imaginable, still shines after half a decade of wear. $$. (HHH on 10/25/07)

Papillon, 37296 Mission Blvd., Fremont, 510-793-6331 www.papillonrestaurant.com. This fine-dining restaurant is not too stuffy or pretentious yet still features white tablecloths and a tuxedo-clad wait staff. Some of the sheen has faded after 31 years in business, but the food is a cut above the rest. Save room for the out-of-this-world desserts. $$. (HH½ on 1/30/09)

Post Meridian, 1568 Oak View Ave., Kensington, 510-525-1350 www.postmeridianrestaurant.com. White linens, dainty fresh roses and local artwork give this California French restaurant a friendly, neighborhood feel. The dining rooms are simple yet encourage a relaxed pace. The right ingredients are meticulously woven together in the meals, including the eight entrees offered. A prix fixe menu is available. As an added treat, homemade organic biscuits are available for your favorite pooches. $½. (HHH on 4/21/09)

Prevot’s, 613 First St., Suite 100, Brentwood. 925-626-7461 www.prevots.com. Between the prix fixe menu, the 18 entree options &mdash including Veal and Prawns a la Grenobloise and other French and Italian dishes &mdash an oyster bar, a separate tapas menu and a four-page sushi spread, you could spend three months eating nightly at Prevot’s and still not taste everything the restaurant has to offer. $. (HHH on 3/12/10)

Rendez-Vous Cafe Bistro, 1111 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-527-4111 www.rendezvouscafebistro.com. Cool, stylized images of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc d’Triomphe and other Parisian landmarks march their way across eye-catching, cornflower blue murals in this cozy French bistro on the Berkeley-Albany border. No white tablecloths or stuffiness, just a hip little place to get steak frites, some coq au vin and a dash of panache. Wine, Kir and beer. $ (HH½ on 3/27/09)

Aroma Cuisine of India, 3418 Village Drive, Castro Valley. 510-888-9555. The North Indian menu does not assume a sophisticated knowledge of this cuisine and the kitchen clearly caters to the spice-phobic American palate. You’ll have to ask if you want serious heat. Vegetarians will find plenty of options. If you’re new to Indian cuisine, this is a good place to start with many savory flavors. $. (HH on 11/21/08)

Agora Bistro, 443 Main St., Pleasanton. 925-417-0474. With its ship-size wooden beams, yards of brick wall, slate floors and heavy black chandeliers, Agora needs only a roaring fireplace to fully satisfy the dreamy image of a Greek taverna. Many of the mezethes &mdash Greek small plates &mdash have an authentic tang and touch, but entrees tended toward bland on our visits. Make a meal of the appetizers, including flash-baked prawns with a touch of ouzo. $. (HH on 2/03/08)

Mint Leaf Indian Bistro & Wine Bar, 1513 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 510-540-7900. The Indian restaurant with stylish atmosphere falls flat of what diners expect from Deepak Aggarwal, who brought Khana Peena to Berkeley. Dishes with self-described “innovative, creative flair” actually add up to no more than California flourishes, such as grilled organic vegetables. The tastiest dishes are those taken directly from the North Indian canon: samosas, papadum, dal, also Gobi, biriyani and tandoori meats. $. (H½ on 10/17/08)

Turkish Kitchen, 1986 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 510-540-9997. Chef/owner Mehmet Vural fleshes out a menu of authentic Turkish specialties with a satisfying level of detail. The best things balance vivid flavors with the comforting elements of home cooking. Pizzalike lahmacun has all the elements of a fantastic street-food nibble. Turkish tea and coffee small collection of wine and beers. $. (HH½ on 02/28/08)

Oasis Grille, 780 Main St., Pleasanton. 925-417-8438. Oasis is a refreshing change from the swarm of Italian eateries in Pleasanton. Its Middle Eastern cuisine blends Mediterranean and Afghani influences. The borani is as good as advertised. The salads are generous in portion size. The vegetarian components are impressive in otherwise pleasant but not striking entrees. The grilled chicken kebab was among the best offering. The menu could use a little more flavor but is still nicely priced for the area. $. (HH½ on 05/29/09)

Acquacotta, 1544 Webster St., Alameda. 510-523-2220 www.acquacotta.net. The food here is more rustic than refined, but a zesty note is often hidden in the shower of chopped parsley &mdash enough to capture your imagination, but never too much to muddy the flavors. The limited, changing menu &mdash three pastas, three main courses and a handful of starters &mdash makes decisions relatively easy. Open for dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays. $. (HHH on 05/16/08)

Bellanico, 4238 Park Blvd., Oakland. 510-336-1180 www.bellanico.net. Chef Jonathan Luce would like you to eat in courses, starting with some bar nibbles &mdash cicchetti &mdash such as fried green olives or creamy salt cod on polenta toasts. Then share one of the housemate pastas: giant Swiss chard gnocchi or Taglioni Pepati, with its playful interplay of jalapeño and bacon. Secondi courses are affordable and also ample enough to share. Regardless of what you order, you’ll find the food cleanly presented and boldly flavored. Open weekdays for lunch, Mondays-Saturdays for dinner. $. (HHH on 5/02/08)

Bella Ristorante, 5458 Ygnacio Valley Road, Concord. 925-524-0733 www.bellaristorante.com. Abdel Redouane has done it again, putting similar cuisine from his popular Luna restaurant in a more casual setting. You won’t find tablecloths here, but you will find his exquisite Mediterrean-style Italian dishes. Classics here are served with a twist, such as lasagna with half marinara and half cream sauces. Flavors are authentic &mdash try anything with the pesto. Entrees are garnished with a unique shredded and fried vegetable slaw. Desserts are divine with Redouane’s trademark artistic-designed sauces. With attentive service, Bella is a keeper. $. (HHH on 4/24/09)

Fiore, 5100 Clayton Road, Suite A14, Concord. 925-969-1887. Expect the full European experience, even if this Italian restaurant sits in a strip mall. Chef Habib Jacifi has spiced up his menu with Mediterranean characteristics, classic seafood dishes and carnivorous pleasures, including a gorgeous grilled flank steak and polenta wedge drenched in a Cabernet demiglaze. Just be prepared to linger over the delectable cuisine, because like many European restaurants, Fiore takes its time when it comes to service. $. (HHH on 9/5/08)

Flour+water, 2401 Harrison St., San Francisco. 415-826-7000 www.flourandwater.com. This gorgeous shrine to fresh, local and fairly priced Italian fare features stunning décor, beautiful wood-fired pizzas, hand-rolled pastas and unforgettable entrees and desserts. The food is stellar, the service and ambience just as memorable. This hip, extremely popular restaurant is a well-oiled machine, with a knowledgeable staff. $-$$. (HH½ on 04/09/10)

La Veranda, 444 Railroad Ave., Pittsburg. 925-427-0444. Guests feel right at home in the intimate dining room or sleek bar area, especially as the noise level remains unobtrusive. The antipasto choices are well-rounded but not overwhelming the garlic bread is simple in appearance but delicious. The entrees combine fresh ingredients with classic Italian tastes attention is paid to the sides (the garlic mashed potatoes are exceedingly creamy) and the wood-fire oven baked pizzas are crisp. Plus, save room for the divine chocolate ganache. $. (HHH½ on 3/13/09)

Mangia Mi, 406 Hartz Ave., Danville. 925-831-3276 www.mangia-mi.com. Comforting Italian favorites at reasonable prices draw crowds to this small restaurant. The décor is contemporary but parts of the menu feel like a throwback to the 1950s, when Americans first fell in love with Italian food. It’s a place to become reacquainted with old friends such as meatloaf, hand-rolled gnocchi and prosciutto panini. $. (HHH on 6/26/09)

Marzano, 4214 Park Blvd., Oakland. 510-531-4500. The folks behind Garibaldi’s have tossed the white tablecloths for a small, focused menu with nothing on it above $15. Neapolitan pizzas are the specialty, as the staff is one of few in the Bay Area to be certified with Verace Pizza Napoletana Association to make Naples-style pizza. Non-pizza standouts include the “angry” Wood Oven Braised Chicken All’ Arrabbiata, and the Crisp Fried Chestnut Pumpkin Arancini, fried risotto balls that are the epitome of Sicilian street food. $ (HHH on 1/16/09).

Melo’s Pizzeria and Pasta, 4433 First St., Livermore. 925-371-4499 www.melospizzapasta.com. The menu is impressive and daunting. With 29 pasta choices, including six signature dishes, repeat visits are a must. The bruschetta is divine with tomatoes that mimic the seasoned, tangy sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes while still tasting fresh. The cannelloni packs a rich combination of sausage, beef and cheese and finishes off nicely with a robust meat sauce. But this is a pizza place, and Melo’s delivers authentic New York-style with thin, crisp crust, just the right amount of sauce and no skimping on the toppings. Try Melo’s combination or the popular four-cheese Margherita. Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. $ (HHH on 8/08/08)

Pizzeria Amoroma, 65 Moraga Way, Orinda. 925-253-ROMA. Despite the name, this is not your mamma’s &mdash or your soccer team’s &mdash pizzeria. Instead, this cozy, Roman-style restaurant serves up small plates, panini and savory dishes to share, along with Italian and California wines by the glass or the bottle. And yes, half a dozen intriguing Neapolitan-style pizzas from the wood-fired oven too. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. $ (HH½ on 3/19/10)

Quince, 470 Pacific Ave., San Francisco. 415-775-8500, www.quincerestaurant.com. This Michelin-starred restaurant offers sophisticated and elegant food, artfully presented in a setting to match, and the wine list would wow any connoisseur. The emphasis is on seasonal fare, including, for example, a velvety French pumpkin and chestnut soup with chanterelles, and an unbelievably tender venison dish. Reservations essential. $$. (HHH on 12/23/09)

Riva Cucina, 800 Heinz Ave. (at Seventh Street), Berkeley. 510-841-7482 www.rivacucina.com. Where others talk a good game, Massi Boldrini delivers &mdash a stunning piece of fish, of cheese, of tomato, a little salt, a little olive oil &mdash accentuating natural goodness. Riva is out of the way, but worth seeking out. While Boldrini’s cooking is sweet &mdash from ripe produce and careful caramelization &mdash it’s not overly rich. The dining room is casual. $. (HHH½ on 9/13/07)

SPQR, 1911 Fillmore St., San Francisco. 415-771-7779, www.spqrsf.com. The sister to San Francisco’s A16, SPQR offers Italian soul food at its finest &mdash bacon-wrapped rabbit, pan-roasted quail with a fennel-laced farro stuffing, and more. The pastas are made in house, the very extensive wine list offers half-glass pours as well as bottles, and a reasonably priced menu add up to a lovely experience. Great for brunch too. $. (HH½ on 2/26/10)

Trattoria Corso, 1788 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 510-704-8004. Here you can experience all the excitement of a true Florentine trattoria. Ingredients you’ve eaten all your life taste entirely different and foods are regrouped and served in several courses. Corso wants to be a trattoria, complete with the casual atmosphere and lower prices the word implies. In some ways, it’s too casual, but a meal here is like getting a taste of Florence, just a little closer to home. $. (HHH on 8/22/08)

Vino, 3531 Plaza Way, Lafayette. 925-284-1330. The food, especially the Basque-inspired dishes, are sensational. Rustic appetizers, such as sardines and piquillo peppers, show elegant restraint. Order the cioppino if it’s on the menu, and the Ribera del Duero if it’s on the list. $. (HHH on 4/5/07)

Halu Shabu Shabu, 4288 Dublin Blvd., Dublin. 925-833-9833 www.halushabushabu.com. There are three grades of meat, all rib-eye, ranging in price from $21.99 (Angus) to $118.99 (Wagyu) for 15 pieces, a more than ample portion. (Prices are lower at lunch and if you want just 10 pieces.) Done right &mdash still vaguely pink &mdash the texture is remarkable. It dissolves on the tongue like a buttery crepe. Beer and sake. $$. (HH½ on 8/20/07)

Zabu Zabu, 1919 Addison St. (two blocks down from Shattuck), Berkeley. 510-848-9228. All U Can Eat never had such refined possibilities. Platters of pristine beef, lamb and pork are delivered in an arty Asian ambience. Bowls of edamame, trays of gyoza and baskets of shumai overflow from table to window sill &mdash with more on the way. The restaurant is only a block down from Berkeley Rep and the Aurora Theatre. $$. (HHH on 03/06/08)

Casa Latina, 1805 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. 510-558-7177. This tiny spot in Berkeley has a cash-only policy, and some of the most satisfying carnitas this side of Fruitvale Avenue. The carnitas are fantastic in a torta, the best thing Casa Latina makes, thanks to the sandwich’s huge, soft and slipper-like roll called a bolillo &mdash baked in-house, naturally. $. (HH on 11/29/07)

Coa, 3421 Blackhawk Plaza Circle, Danville. 925-984-2363 www.coarestaurant.com. Coa appeals to both the Tex Mex crowd and devotees of modern, regional Mexican cuisine. Plenty of enticing options for those in the mood for a burrito, taco or enchilada, including a yellow corn chicken enchilada with a green chile-tomatillo sauce and cotija. But the pumpkin seed crusted salmon makes wonderful use of traditional Mexican ingredients in a modern way. It’s a winner all around. $-$$. (HHH on 1/29/10)

Cocina Medina, 5005 Lone Tree Way #A, Antioch. 925-753-1968. The restaurant’s sunny Mexican charm is accentuated by the authentic flavors of family recipes from Guadalajara and excellent service. It’s easy to see why Cocina Medina thrives with repeat business. The straightforward menu features accessible ingredients that are still distinct. The fajitas are a house specialty and the classic combos are a great way to sample the variety of flavors served up here. $. (HH½ on 4/17/09)

Maria Maria, 1470 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek. 925-946-1010 www.mariamariarestaurants.com. Vegetarians will love the roasted chile rellenos, and everyone else should indulge in a platter of carnitas, served in glorious gnarly chunks. Food-friendly wine list, too. $. (HHH on 12/20/07)

Bocanova, 55 Webster St., Jack London Square, Oakland. 510-444-1233 www.bocanova.com. Bocanova combines a stunning waterside location, dramatic but still intimate décor, and a Pan-American small plates menu inspired by that hip new darling of the cuisine scene: food that hails from far, far south of the border. That translates into some wonderful dishes &mdash the Yucatán seafood stew, for example, blends plump shrimp, mussels and clams, splashed with a spicy tomato, cilantro and fresh grapefruit broth. $$. (HH½ on 12/04/09)

Miss Pearl’s Jam House, Jack London Square, 1 Broadway, Oakland. 510-444-7171. Fans of the original Miss Pearl’s will relish that old favorites such as black-eyed pea fritters and crispy catfish “fingers” now mingle with new offerings, including the impish “mini skirt with nice buns” (three skirt steak sliders). The menu is energetic and eclectic, but most options are more familiar than exotic and lacking in a bold taste to match their descriptions. The restaurant’s design channels whimsical Miss Pearl and makes the most of electric Bay views. $$. (HH½ on 10/10/08)

Fin’s Restaurant and Bar, 1950 Grant St., Concord. 925-687-3467. www.finsconcord.com. Dining here was a tale of two experiences. Before the dinner rush, service was impeccable and the appetizers of calamari rings and crab and spinach dip were delicious. During the rush, service became harried, side dishes were cold and undercooked and the kitchen ran out of items, including one of the two desserts. The menu is packed with tasty dishes and has a fondness for crab. It’s just best to visit before 6:30 p.m., especially on the weekends. $. (HH½ on 10/30/09)

Flying Fish Grill, Highway 92 and Main Street, Half Moon Bay. 650-712-1125. Located on a dirt lot, this gem is hard to find but worth it for the legendary fish tacos, grilled or fried. The shack is cozy, colorful and affordable but a step up from a fish taqueria stand with its fresh fish dishes, clam chowder, fish wraps and sandwiches. Fresh and healthy food top the menu. The sweet potato fries are a nice surprise, too. $. (HH½ on 12/5/08)

Walnut Creek Yacht Club, 1555 Bonanza St. (at Locust Street), Walnut Creek. 925-944-3474 www.wcyc.net. After a major expansion, this restaurant’s appeal is to wrap fish-house traditions in a vivid persona that rarely seems to overwhelm the basic concept. On any given day, you can order one of a dozen types of fish and get it grilled, blackened or sauteed. Among them: a pillowy slab of Alaskan halibut, a surprisingly delicate hunk of catfish. $$. (HHH on 6/27/08)

Barlata Tapas Bar, 4901 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. 510-450-0678, www.barlata.com. The food, décor and Temescal neighborhood all jell in inviting fashion at this tapas bar. It has a quiet confidence that unexpectedly sweeps you off your feet. The vibe is welcoming with a lot of natural light and an open kitchen. The menu is surprisingly long, with more than 50 changing items. Spanish favorites are plenty seafood fans and vegetarians will find satisfying options and obscure dishes will appeal to the adventurous. $ (per small plate). (HHH on 6/12/09)

Cesar’s, 4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. 510-985-1200, www.barcesar.com. This Oakland outpost of the venerable tapas place has a similar feel to its Berkeley sister, what with the outdoor tables and blue and aqua mosaic tile. But its airier interior and fun menu make it even more enticing. Plus, it’s easier to park. Don’t miss the Sirloin Steak a la Parrilla, crisply fried calamari and divine bread pudding with orange-caramel sauce. $ (HHH½ on 9/4/09)

Vinoteca, 148 Prospect Ave., Danville. 925-743-8466, www.vinotecadanville.com. This chic wine bar boasts live music, eclectic boutique wines and a tempting array of Spanish, American and Italian small plates ranging from “Nibbles” &mdash including crisp calamari with chipotle aioli &mdash to bocadillo, salads, sliders and delicious flatbread pizzas, including one topped with spinach, prosciutto, bell peppers and mozzarella. $. (HH on 10/9/09)

Anchalee, 1094-96 Dwight Way (at San Pablo Avenue), Berkeley. 510-848-4015 www.anchaleethai.com. Bangkok-born chef Chuck Natasiri has struck out on his own in West Berkeley, in a handsome space with a touch of the serene. Named after the chef’s wife (she works as a server), Anchalee excels at a style of cooking mostly popular with non-Thais: classic dishes with bright flavors, in which the bolder tastes of fish sauce and chiles are kept in check. Natasiri has a way with vegetables, some of which are organic. Beer and wine. Open for lunch and dinner daily. $. (HH on 4/25/08)

Bronze Buddha, 5434 Ygnacio Valley Road (in the Clayton Valley Shopping Center), Concord. 925-524-0768. With a mirrored ceiling, white upholstered chairs and golden walls and chandeliers, Bronze Buddha has an atmosphere of luxury. The real pampering, however, starts with the service. While the menu sets itself apart with upscale California-fusion offerings, our favorites were the classics, such as the curries, Tom Kha (coconut soup) and Pad See Ewe (chewy flat noodles with dark soy). $. (HH½ on 6/06/08)

Do Sit Thai Cuisine, 1520 Palos Verdes Mall, Walnut Creek. 925-933-3889, www.dosithai.com. This chic Thai restaurant in Walnut Creek’s Palos Verdes Mall elevates strip-mall dining. The food is fresh and flavorful and the service and presentation are excellent. The best part? Half the dishes are under $10. Don’t miss the curries or the Tom Kha, a creamy coconut milk and chicken soup perfumed with cilantro, lemon grass and galangal. $-$. (HHH on 1/1/10)

Erawan2, 414 Ferry St., Martinez, 925-313-9185. The cool pachyderm artwork and the wooden menus with their elephant carvings grabbed our attention first at Erawan2 &mdash an offshoot of the popular, 3-year-old Thai restaurant in Walnut Creek. But that menu brims with enticing, agonizing options. Pineapple curry prawns over jasmine rice? A creamy Red Curry, with coconut milk, fresh basil and just enough heat to bathe the tender strips of beef, bamboo shoots and delicate vegetables? Or the beautifully marinated chicken medallions? All delicious. Wine and beer. $. (HHH on 2/13/09)

Lanna Thai, 2270 Las Positas Road, Livermore. 925-443-1101 www.lannathailivermore.com. Don’t miss the tom kha soup at Livermore’s newest Thai restaurant. It’s a delicious example of this cuisine’s elegant balance of flavors. The menu is loaded with curries and sautes to please any palate, and the lively dining room with its earthy green and beige hues, and a Thai angel wall hanging, feels inviting and casual. Prices are a dollar or two lower than its in-town competitors. $-$. (HH on 2/19/10)

Le Cheval, 1375 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek. 925-938-2288 www.lecheval.com. This restaurant is fresher but perhaps less soulful than the original Le Cheval, whose Oakland home has a French colonial spirit. That restaurant’s reputation for fast, friendly service is fully realized in Walnut Creek. But perhaps what seemed fresh and exciting in 1985 has become tired in the 21st century. There aren’t many low notes, but few dishes really shine. $. (HH on 11/08/07)

Pho Asian Bistro, Hacienda Crossing, 4920 Dublin Blvd., No. 420, Dublin. 925-833-0746 www.phoasianbistro.com. This tiny, chic bistro boasts a delicious array of appetizers, steaming bowls of pho, savory rice plates with grilled meats, and one of the best desserts we’ve had anywhere, is a godsend not just for the palate, but the pocketbook. Don’t miss the outstanding Rock-n-Roll Beef over Rice or the golden, crisp dumplings filled with molten banana slices, drizzled with chocolate and served alongside rich vanilla ice cream liberally laced with crisp, toasted coconut shreds. $ (HHH on 1/9/09)

Star Anise, 2470 First St., Livermore. 925-454-9888. Fussy presentations sometimes trump flavor in other dishes, but the curries rock. The killer curry is Panang Beef &mdash fork-tender boneless short ribs with crunchy vegetables to justify the lusty coconut milk. Cool your palate with a scoop of mango sorbet or coconut ice cream garnished with special treats. $. (HH½ on 10/19/07)


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