Appetite: 2012's top new restaurants brought surprise tastes, culinary depth
4. ICE CREAM BAR
A neighborhood diner and soda fountain, Ice Cream Bar deserves accolades for bringing us the kind of soda fountain menu unmatched in the country, yet sure to be copied. Recipes and practices date back to the 1800s with modern sensibility, showcased in drinks like the Bonne Vie No. 2, a citrus-garden delight of basil leaves, basil ice cream, and pink grapefruit, its sour-fresh qualities glorified with citric acid. There are boozy fountain drinks (like a perfect Angostura Phosphate), ice cream (the tart cherry remains my favorite), and darn good sandwiches (egg salad and tuna) on house brioche, with the soda fountain manned by gifted, friendly soda jerks who live and breathe the history of the craft.
815 Cole, SF. (415) 742-4932, www.theicecreambarsf.com
5. PLÄJ SCANDINAVIAN RESTAURANT AND BAR
With the food world in Scandinavian mode the last few years (the cuisine to take over where the El Bulli world of Spain ruled for so long), it's a shame we haven't had much Scandinavian food to speak of here, particularly of the nouveau wave à la Fäviken or Noma. Pläj (pronounced "play") is gourmet-traditional Scandinavian fare with modern sensibilities from chef-owner Roberth Sundell, a Stockholm native. In the mellow Inn at the Opera, it's a respite of a dinner with sincere service, shining particularly bright with seafood in the menu's Fjord section. Herring trios, Swedish meatballs, Norwegian salmon belly gravlax and rounds of aquavit... I've been waiting for this one and hope it opens the door for more.
333 Fulton, SF. (415) 294-8925, www.plajrestaurant.com
6. CRAFTSMAN AND WOLVES
Don't just call it a bakery. Craftsman & Wolves is a heightened sort of cafe where baked goods push boundaries and desserts are works of art. William Werner's artistic eats, alongside sandwiches and salads, Sightglass Coffee, Naivetea, and dreamy drinking caramel made with salted butter, ensure this is an extraordinary addition to the SF food scene, standing apart from other cafes. Skylights, brick and clean lines make for a modern cafe setting, while items like the Rebel Within, an herb, cheese, sausage-studded muffin with a sous vide egg hidden inside, are already cult classics.
746 Valencia, SF. (415) 913-7713, www.craftsman-wolves.com
7. AND 8. TIE: SARU SUSHI AND ELEPHANT SUSHI
This sushi duo isn't perfect, nor will either be the best sushi meal of your life. But in their infancy, they both represent the ideal neighborhood sushi outposts: friendly, laid back, almost hip, with spanking fresh fish and consistently interesting maki, nigiri, sashimi, tasting spoons (at Saru), and sizzling mango seabass (at Elephant). With a glass of sake, try firm-yet-silky squid in yuzu juice at Saru or bananas draped beautifully over Elephant's Boom Box roll with scallop, avocado, and cucumber. Those lucky souls who live near either restaurant have themselves exemplary neighborhood sushi bars at which to unwind.
Saru: 3856 24th St., SF. (415) 440-4510
Elephant: 1916 Hyde, SF. (415) 440-1905, www.elephantsushi.com