Top Toques: San Francisco’s Culinary Artists

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These days, even San Francisco’s finest restaurants are finding ways to make luxury more accessible with innovative menus that include wine carafes, small plates, and fewer courses. But that doesn’t mean a dining experience that’s any less gratifying. The chefs we feature here-who we’ve chosen as our favorite purveyors of haute dining in the Bay Area-believe the key ingredients of luxury dining don’t change in a bad economy. In fact, in times like these it’s even more important for guests to feel well cared for. These culinary artists always manage to serve delicious food with sincere hospitality in a comfortable, beautiful setting.

Jen Biesty is famous for her appearance on Bravo’s Top Chef reality show, and now she’s real-life top chef at Scala’s Bistro, located in San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel. When she took over the Union Square landmark in January, Biesty revamped nearly 80 percent of the menu, finally making downtown eating as interesting as shopping. Born in Brooklyn and trained in classic French and Mediterranean cuisine, Biesty loves having access to incredibly fresh, high quality food products in the Bay Area. “My style of cooking is very ingredient driven, and I use as many local products as possible,” Biesty says. Her favorite ingredient? Squid. “It’s so versatile and delicious. You can sauté, grill, braise, eat it raw, stuff it, or go the all-American route with fried calamari.” (The latter is her least favorite). She also makes her own in-house pastas, cheeses, and cured meats. “When you start with fresh, high-quality ingredients, everything tastes better.” Biesty says she also loves they city’s culinary community. A far cry from the cutthroat world of Top Chef, she says Bay Area chefs support one another by eating in each others’ restaurants. Not that they don’t keep their counterparts on their toes. “(We’re) united and motivated to live up to the city’s reputation as an innovative food town.”

 Danko’s favorite item to prepare is the amuse bouche, because “it allows for the most creative endeavor in a restaurant. It has the ability to change every day.”

Gary Danko’s eponymous Nob Hill restaurant is a draw for tourists and locals alike who want to experience the unique casual elegance-not to mention amazing food-for which San Francisco is famous. Danko says his idea of luxury is to welcome guests with open arms and embrace them throughout the dining experience. That means melding luxury with affordability, regardless of the economic climate. “There is a new trend for restaurants to be both casual and elegant no matter what the price range,” he says. Danko received the first Mobil Travel Guide five-star rating in 1999, and his restaurant has one Michelin star. He’s is known for his hearty fare, such as roast lobster, foie gras, and lamb loin, which are served year-round-only the accompaniments change with the seasons. And while he says the San Francisco Bay Area’s produce is the envy of any American chef, he won’t make sacrifices just to stay local. His cheese cart features many local choices, “but in my opinion there is no American replacement for the great kings of cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano. The same can be said about East Coast lobsters-there simply is not a replacement.” Danko’s favorite item to prepare is the amuse bouche, because “it allows for the most creative endeavor in a restaurant. It has the ability to change every day.”

Lisa Eyherabide, the chef at Claude Lane’s newcomer Gitane, is bringing sexy back to San Francisco dining. Hailing from western France and a self-proclaimed “gitane” (gypsy in French) herself, Eyherabide has created a menu that matches the restaurant’s exotic name. Tajine, cataplana, and pan-roasted lamb are just a few of the enticing offerings, and the décor is in harmony with the menu’s eclectic tone. In stark contrast to the many sleek, minimalist joints in the Bay Area, Gitane is a carnival of sensory input with its hand-painted wallpapers and enormous vintage chandeliers. And while the vibe at Gitane is distinctly luxe, the prices are accessible. “In my eyes, luxury dining is not really defined by the money a person spends, although that has tended to be the case in the past. Experiencing something luxurious can be a very simple thing. It is really about sensations and being transported from the current state of ‘normal’ that you are used to,” Eyherabide says. “Comfort and sexiness play into a luxury experience in a very significant way.” Her favorite dish is bacon bon-bons, a treat her mother used to make: sautéed prunes stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in smoked bacon, with anis and cinnamon port sauce. “The flavors are bold and intense, and they are a luxuriously rich snack.”

Chris L’Hommedieu is a veteran of Michelin-star-rated restaurants and a longtime friend of Michael Mina (L’Hommedieu worked at Aqua and Per Se), so it was no surprise when he took over as chef de cuisine at Mina’s flagship San Francisco restaurant in 2007. Located in the Westin St. Francis hotel in Union Square, the elegant restaurant has been showered with accolades, including two Michelin stars. Such high praise is a blessing and a curse, L’Hommedieu says. “The next day is terrifying because you have to maintain it-it’s a double edged sword. Really it’s all about the guests and that day’s work.” L’Hommedieu hits up the farmer’s market himself every Saturday. “Reaching out and talking to the farmers makes the experience much more complete for me, and I think it’s also rewarding for them to see how much we appreciate what they do,” he says. He uses local ingredients whenever possible to reduce the restaurant’s carbon footprint. But when he finds an excellent source outside of California, he remains loyal: he has bought his lamb from a Pennsylvania farm for years, and some of his favorite oysters come from Cape Cod. In response to the tough economic climate, L’Hommedieu created an innovative lounge menu. “I didn’t want to water down what’s been established,” L’Hommedieu says, so he’s offering items from Mina’s signature “trio” menus-like lobster corn dogs and black truffle popcorn-for $20 a plate in a less formal setting.

Thomas Keller has garnered more accolades than any other chef in the United States. The James Beard Foundation named him Best California Chef in 1996 and the Best Chef in America in 1997. In 2005 his New York restaurant Per Se received three Michelin stars. In 2006, The French Laundry-a Napa Valley restaurant situated in a former saloon and later a French steam laundry-became the first restaurant in the Bay Area to receive three Michelin stars. That made Keller the only American chef (and one of two in the world) to hold two Michelin three-star ratings simultaneously. He now has eight restaurants in the United States including Bouchon, located down the street from French Laundry, and the nearby Bouchon Bakery. He also opened branches of Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery in Las Vegas and New York City. He opened yet another restaurant in Napa Valley in 2006 called Ad Hoc, where he serves dishes reminiscent of the comfort food he enjoyed growing up with his mother, who owned a restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida.

Alice Waters is probably best known for being a champion of using local, organic ingredients. In 1971, she opened her famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, which is the original “California cuisine” establishment. Waters also owns the less formal Cafe Fanny in West Berkeley. Both restaurants focus on using food produced by local farmers, only when they are in season. She has written nearly a dozen cookbooks. In 1996 she created the Chez Panisse Foundation to help underwrite programs such as the Edible Schoolyard, which educates young students on the fundamentals of growing, cooking, and sharing food. Waters is also the International Governor of Slow Food and a Visiting Dean at the French Culinary Institute. In 1986, Cuisine et Vins de France named her as one of the 10 best chefs in the world, and in 1992, the James Beard Foundation voted her best chef in America.

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