January Eats Checklist: 4 Standouts of the Month | by Virginia Miller | Feb, 2023

Merchant Roots’ The Olive (Branching) course (Photo Credit: Virginia Miller)

These newcomers or new menus cover the gamut, from a nature-rich tribute to California’s majestic trees in edible form, to healthy, chic, nuanced at-home delivery food. Alongside this month’s full restaurant reviews of these exceptional spots — Bar Sprezzatura, The Laundromat SF, Akikos, Cavallo Point’s Sula and Farley’s — these four are also worth visiting, with last month’s standouts here (as always, I’ve vetted and visited each place reviewed):

An Edible, A Nature-Rich Tribute to California’s Majestic Trees: Merchant Roots Great Trees Theme
Yes, Merchant Roots’ (MR) chef Ryan Shelton works with a tight team in a tiny space. And I’d go so far as to say he is one of the most creative and inventive chefs anywhere. Despite the 600+ restaurants I get to around the world each year — over 12,000 and counting — I have yet to ever see someone change it up so often, yet stay inspired and go this deep each time. I’ve written about his wildly changing, eight-seat dinners ever since they opened in a cozy wine shop in January 2019, including my in-depth review of MR’s playful Willy Wonka menu.

The current Great Trees menu is another brilliant winner, one that feels oh-so NorCal and nature evocative. It’s only running until April 8, 2023, so book soon to snag one of few seats (there are also gluten free and vegetarian versions of each menu). In May, MR returns with one of my favorite themes of their early days: Vanity Fair, London, 1814. But as Shelton explained when I was just in, they’ve evolved from the first run but still playing with the decadent luxury of England’s Regency Period and W.M. Thackeray’s novel, class levels, societal expectations, with British, French and Indian cuisines.

Merchant Roots The Laurel (Death) course (Photo Credit: Virginia Miller)

I adore MR’s literary themes but was just as rewarded with the Great Trees. Their thoughtful mini-booklet explains dish ingredients, but also educates on and tributes each “typical” California tree. Courses are named by the tree and its life cycle, whether The Laurel (Death), The Birch (Decomposition), or The Cedar (Growth). Fascinating facts — like our great redwood’s “Fire & Fog” process of literally drinking up fog and being reborn in fire and char — inspire thoughts of our own complex life cycles, while, per usual at MR, a rich flow of aromatics and tastes are sheer pleasure.

Highlights are numerous, including The Olive (Branching), a trio of Scotch quail egg falafel in a sweet baklava nest, olive oil mastic (tree resin) ice cream over spiced pear spheres and an adorable, maki roll-meets-grape leaf dolma “sushi” of rice surrounding a Castelvetrano olive, feta and preserved lemon. Another gem is The Pine (Flowering), a rabbit/hare casserole in pine nut gravy with pine needle cheese and pinecone syrup. Rather than pine overkill, it’s evocative and comforting. Desserts likewise delight, like The Maple (Seeding), a maple-glazed cannoli filled with maple seed ricotta, brightened with tart green apple sorbet.

Nestled under branches and leaves artful formed as a ceiling canopy, the experience is a bit like walking through incomparable California forests. This deep dive into one of nature’s greatest gifts feels personal, truly local, connected, leaving you refreshed and nurtured.

// 1365 Fillmore Street, www.merchantroots.com

Al Carajo’s cochinita pibil tacos (Photo Credit: Virginia Miller)

Yucatecan Mexican Delights: Al Carajo
Chef-owner Javier León opened Al Carajo, a minuscule Mission District counter shop with a couple sidewalk tables in October 2022 after running it as a beloved food truck since 2020. He specializes in dishes of Mexico’s Yucatán, previously working at the delightful, nearby Lolo. León goes strong with tacos and Yucatecan dishes, a chorizo-laden breakfast burrito, chicken tinga chilaquiles and Yucatecan huevos motuleños.

León weaves from Yucatecan-style ceviches, panuchos and poc-chuc (marinated pork) salbutes to cool aguachile Tulum with tiger shrimp. His tacos are on-point, and, yes, besides his Valencia-style, fried mahi fish taco, his Yucatecan tacos are where it’s at, namely cochinita pibil tacos of slow-cooked pork and pickled onions. He has fun with birria pizza, more like decadently layered tortillas as pizza with consumme to dip in (the great birria Mexican pizza in town that is an actual pizza is nearby Don Pancho Pizzeria inside La Vaca Birria). Up till now, it has been BYOB. We are blessed with dense regional Mexican: certainly for decades in the Mission, including “real deal” Yucatán cuisine. León cooks with care and (already) deserves to be on our local top Yucatecan Mexican standouts list.

// 3224 1/2 22nd Street, https://alcarajosf.com

Ciccino’s passatelli pasta (Photo Credit: Virginia Miller)

Cozy Italian Neighborhood Newcomer: Ciccino
On California Street towards Grace Cathedral, nondescript Ciccino is an easy-to-miss, Nob Hill necomer since October 2022. Drawing inspiration from my beloved Northern Italy region of Emilia-Romagna, it was opened by Italian Homemade Company’s GianMarco Cosmi (who was IHC’s opening chef alongside his brother, Mattia). His experience cooking at former Michelin-starred Rich Table and two Michelin-starred Italian great, Acquerello, shows in a couple dishes in particular: a hand-made, beautifully al dente passatelli pasta with porcini mushrooms, tossed in breadcrumbs, egg, Parmesan and balsamic reduction. Secondly, a delicate, miniscule, binchotan-grilled scallop spiedini (skewer). Though only $9, it’s a tiny three scallops, coated in breadcrumbs, garlic and olive oil. However, they are divine little medium-rare scallops enriched by the breadcrumbs, dissolving in the mouth while you long for more.

The rest is a bit uneven from my first cozy visit on a January night in a space designed by Cosmi’s wife Lynsey Rose. Attended to by mostly Italian staff with a tight all-Italian wine list, I adore a proper fritto misto and this is a good one. But it feels unusually small-portioned compared to other great versions in tow, while I was there was the also common fried lemon wheels in the mix vs. just a fresh wedge to squeeze over. An entree-listed halibut crudo offers silky fish but feels a bit disparate with a poached egg on top and scattered mixed greens, capers and black garlic. The ingredients didn’t quite meld or make sense together, while the egg made the raw, delicate fish unnecessarily soppy. Likewise a classic dessert of panna cotta in a glass is blessed by local figs, while its layer of quality honey on top was excessively sweet.

However, service is kind and ingredients of high quality. With some honing, this could be a destination neighborhood restaurant. For now, it’s a win for the neighborhood.

// 1400 California Street, https://resy.com/cities/sf/ciccino

Methodology’s attractive packaging (Photo Credit: Virginia Miller)

At Home Meals: Methodology
Methodology is not a restaurant but a new, San Francisco-based wellness food company co-founded by CEO Julie Ngyuen, with a personal, meaningful story — and years of research — behind it. It’s not your typical meal-delivery service, and is even better than many healthy ones I’ve tried. Including 200+ plant-based ingredients per week, the meals support science-backed nutrition needs for gut health, longevity, and weight management, with delivery in Nor and SoCal (Nguyen grew up in Orange County, not far from where I partly grew up).

Delivered in two size options via cute pink-topped jars with directions on the bottle cap, the meals mostly heat in microwave or stovetop in 5 minutes or less, using sustainably-sourced meat, seafood proteins, with a heavy (but not solely) vegan focus. Menus rotate weekly with all three main meals, snacks and drinks, like a nurturing nighttime lavender valerian root almond milk that aids in sleep.

I go in with low taste expectations on home delivery meals, but was delighted at how good the healthy dishes tasted. Even my least favorite (scrambled egg whites with bell peppers, avocado lime crema, crunchy chili lime almonds, baby kale, hemp seeds) was still good and nurturing, while some (lemon-graced Greek avgolemono immunity chicken soup) were quite gratifying, feeling healthy without sacrificing my spoiled-by-the-best taste buds. A “coq au vin” chicken meatball protein bowl is nicely layered with intriguing sauces over celery root cauliflower mash, while lemon lavender collagen protein bars make an easy, dense snack. Each dish is loaded with extra nutrients and, I’m pleased to say, with flavor and nuance.

Menu options are here. As I had a chance to try a few meals, I have a 20% off discount code for you California residents who want to try it: VIRGINIA4DC3.

// www.gomethodology.com

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