Table Talk: Next-Level Brunch, Week of Italian Cuisine, Fried Chicken

A different kind of green eggs and ham for brunch at The Saratoga. (tablehopper.com)

Enjoy a quality brunch and cocktails at The Saratoga, Week of Italian Cuisine returns (featuring Puglia this year!), keep the off-the-menu Prog Dog at The Progress in your little black book, and don’t miss the next installment of Chicken and Wine Palace’s pop-up, featuring some truly excellent fried chicken.

The Saratoga Offers a Next-Level Brunch That Is as Delicious as it Is Camera-Ready

The Saratoga
1000 Larkin St., San Francisco
Brunch Sat–Sun 11am–3pm

The Ramos Gin Fizz is high art at The Saratoga. (tablehopper.com)

Brunch can feel like a pretty common (and basic) thing in San Francisco, with the same-old egg dishes and bottomless mimosas, but weekend brunch at The Saratoga is definitely one that stands out for its creativity, quality, and sense of fun. This Polk Gulch restaurant has a chic, sexy style in the evening, which actually translates well to daytime—the diffused light and darker interior will be appreciated by anyone nursing a hangover (including the staff). And if you’re looking to celebrate with a group, you’re going to have a lot of fun with brunch here.

The bar, overseen by skilled barman and partner Brandon Clements, has an extensive brunch cocktail selection (all $13), starting with an array of Ramos Gin Fizz options that come delightfully frothy from their special fizz shaker, with seasonal add-ins like honeydew melon-tarragon or strawberry-rhubarb. It’s definitely the most gentle way to get back into the game, even if you’re one of those “I don’t like gin” types. Just try one. Fizzy cocktails and boozy coffee options — plus the Cereal Milk Punch (bourbon, nocino, cream, corn flake–washed milk, vanilla, cocoa Krispies, nutmeg) — are other ways to ease into your weekend.

The "Hail Mary" Bloody Mary. (tablehopper.com)

There are a couple cocktail showstoppers that the party table next to us was celebrating with, including the “Hail Mary” Bloody Mary ($20), which comes precariously and fully loaded with skewers of fried pickle, bacon, pickled quail eggs, beef jerky, jalapeño poppers, fried chicken, and poached shrimp. Don’t be surprised if everyone asks to take pictures of your drink. You can also pick and choose any add-ons if you don’t feel like going for the full showcase, and there are a few artfully crafted variations of Bloodies to choose from, like the Root (with carrot and ginger) and the Verde (mezcal, Ancho Reyes Verde, tomatillo, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeño, green Tabasco, white soy sauce, chile-lime). 

We stole a pic (and were offered a drink!) from our neighbor's “Cocktail Bill” Boothby Bowl. (tablehopper.com)

The “Cocktail Bill” Boothby Bowl ($85) is another attention-grabber (and a big commitment): a crystal dispenser, which can serve up to eight full-sized cocktails, is (carefully) brought to your table, filled with a Corpse Reviver #2.1. It’s designed for brunch (gin, Cocchi Americano, curaçao, absinthe, lemon sorbet) and it’s beautifully lined with sliced citrus. You’ll make friends at adjoining tables by offering a taste.

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At this point, you should definitely get something to eat. You can start with their mimosa doughnut (topped with strawberry glaze and Pop Rocks, $8) or their Killer Coffee Cake (that’s its name, $9) if you like sweeter things. 

The Jenga Tots are a must at The Saratoga's brunch. (tablehopper.com)

Mom always said, “Don’t play with your food!” but when the platter of Jenga tots ($21) arrives in front of you at The Saratoga, it’s hard not to. It’s just like it sounds: a tower of fried potato sticks (which are shaped like hefty 2x4s, with creamy potato inside) that come anointed with dollops of cream cheese, plus all your other favorite bagel accouterments: smoked salmon, thinly sliced red onion, cucumber, capers, and tomato. After a couple sticks, you should probably slow your roll, because the rest of the menu has some other winning dishes you’ll want to save room for. The good news is you can pack up the tots and warm them up beautifully the next day.

The Texas French toast with bourbon syrup. (tablehopper.com)

There are many ways to prepare French toast, and the Texas French toast ($12) here comes out as fluffy and golden as a soufflé. They use thick-cut brioche, which adds to the eggy delicacy of the dish, and the bourbon syrup is exactly the hair-of-the-dog syrup you need. There’s also some bacon powder sprinkled on top, which will begin to stick together as it warms up on the toast, so don’t let it sit around — grab your fork.

Egg lovers, you won’t want to pass up chef Francisco Baca’s version of eggs Benedict ($18) here, which has soft-poached eggs and thin slices of house-smoked ham topped with a fluffy and rich Béarnaise over a pretzel bun, with English peas scattered on the plate. Heartier options include steak and eggs, mole flautas, and, of course, you can go for The Saratoga burger, a double-patty situation with Taleggio cheese. The side of Millionaire's bacon is quite a slab, so make sure you have people to share it with.

If you’re excited to check this all out, you should consider attending the upcoming tablehopper holiday brunch with Westland Distillery on Sunday, December 2—details will be posted on tablehopper.com shortly.

The Art of the Arf: The Off-the-Menu Prog Dog at The Progress

The Progress
1525 Fillmore St., San Francisco

The off-the-menu Prog Dog at The Progress. (tablehopper.com)

Sometimes, you miss dinnertime and it’s too late for a full meal, but you still want a late-night bite. You don’t have a reservation anywhere, you don’t have a dining partner, and you don’t even really know what you want. In moments like these, it’s when dining at a restaurant bar is the best answer, and The Progress has you covered.

Although chef Stuart Brioza's menu is more built for sharing here, there’s an off-the-menu hot dog ($12) that is meant to be all yours: the Prog Dog. You’ll get a double smoked pork dog, which has guanciale ground into it (it’s like Italian bacon, but it’s cured pork jowl), topped with a kicky kimchee (which cuts through the richness and salt), fried shallots, toasted sesame, and bonito-rosemary aioli. It all comes nestled in a housemade, griddled milk bun, which is cut off at the sides like a lobster roll. It really comes together, loaded with texture, deep flavor, acid, salt, smoke, creaminess, heat, nuttiness, and hella umami. The Prog Dog is usually available until 10:30pm or so during the week, and 11:30pm-ish on the weekend, but it can sell out. Fortunately, there’s plenty more food to be had on the menu if that happens.

The Wendy Peffercorn cocktail. (tablehopper.com)

It’s the kind of late-night snack that is begging for a cocktail, and while the house martini with smoked Castelvetrano olive juice and rosemary is clearly a brilliant pairing, there’s another incredible cocktail on the menu right now that deserves your attention: the Wendy Peffercorn. It’s made with Kampot pepper–infused vodka (a Cambodian pink peppercorn), Aperol, Amaro Nonino, lemon, and salt-preserved blood orange, which uses the same process as Moroccan-style preserved lemon, adding a salty note to the cocktail that makes it so fantastic with food. It’s like a salty Paper Plane (a spin on The Last Word) and is definitely a cocktail to befriend at the bar—it's excellent company.

Tutti a Tavola for the Return of the Week of Italian Cuisine!

Week of Italian Cuisine
Various locations and events
November 12–17

If you're lucky, you'll know a Pugliese who can make focaccia like this. (tablehopper.com)

Here’s a celebration many food lovers will be happy to see return: now in its third year, the Week of Italian Cuisine will be running from November 12–17. The first year featured Tuscany, and last year was Sicily, and this year, the focus is on the cuisine and culinary traditions of Puglia, the southern region in the heel of Italy’s “boot.” Puglia is famous for its crunchy and round taralli crackers, orecchiette pasta (typically served with broccoli rabe and plenty of garlic), burrata, fantastic olive oils, seafood dishes, and pasticciotto for dessert (creamy custard with black cherries). 

Throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and Wine Country, participating restaurants vetted by the Accademia della Cucina Italiana of San Francisco will be offering a special Pugliese-inspired menu during the week, even if they typically serve dishes from other Italian regions. You can look at all the menus here.

An off-the-menu item you'll want to track down that week is a special gelato flavor at Gio Gelati in Cow Hollow, caffè soffiato, which gelato wizard Patrizia Pasqualetti created in homage to the refreshing iced coffee treat in Puglia, made with espresso and almond. It's my new favorite gelato flavor.

Another exciting component to the week is chef Maria Cicorella, owner of the two-Michelin-starred Ristorante Pashà in Conversano, Bari, will be cooking and collaborating with some of the Bay Area’s top women chefs, from Suzette Gresham at Acquerello to Amy Dencler at Chez Panisse to Nicolette Manescalchi at A16. There will also be a night of conversation with Viola Buitoni, Food Advisor for the Consulate General of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute. Look at the full lineup of chef Cicorella’s special appearances here. Buon appetito!

The Chicken and Wine Palace Pop-Up: Fried Chicken by a Fanatic, for Fanatics

Chicken and Wine Palace
Various pop-up locations

Behold the fried chicken from the Chicken and Wine Palace pop-up. (tablehopper.com)

As a certified fried chicken lover (just ask to see my card), I didn’t have to think twice about heading to my friend Collin Casey’s fried chicken pop-up, Chicken and Wine Palace. Held at Oakland’s Boot & Shoe Service (thankfully under the new ownership of Jen Cremer and Richard Clark), this was Casey’s second pop-up (he held the first at Ordinaire Wine), although he has been working on and fine-tuning his recipe and technique for over the past two years. A wine professional for the past 21 years, Casey has also worked in many kitchens and actually came to the wine world through cooking.

Collin Casey and his beloved bird. (tablehopper.com)

The pop-up is a warm-up for his larger restaurant concept, which he’s actively seeking a location for in the East Bay. He envisions a casual place with counter service, with simple but perfectly executed dishes off a not-too-hefty menu that is affordable and approachable. And it won’t be just fried chicken: he’s also planning on roast chicken, oysters, salads, and French fries with housemade aioli. And, of course, a killer wine list—the kind of choice list you can access without having to go to an upscale place and dropping too much money. He’s calling it his “pirate-hipster Zuni,” and envisions a patio and oysters and alllll the wine (which will obviously include wines from Tess Bryant Selections, his fabulous wife). Let’s find him his space, soon.

Chicken at rest. (tablehopper.com)

In the meantime, let’s talk about this chicken! He’s sourcing top-quality birds from Cream Co. Meats, from Pasturebird farm in Temecula. The pasture-raised birds are half-Cornish, and have an incredible chicken-y flavor, with a pleasing texture as well (not too sinewy, not too fluffy). Casey has fine-tuned a three-day process, which involves brining them for 12 hours in sweet tea, herbs, and other ingredients; a dip in salted buttermilk with herbs de Provence, garlic, onion, and paprika; a dredge in all-purpose flour; and then frying them for a total of 20–25 minutes (he does a double fry), letting them rest for maximum crispiness. Of course, there are many other details and components and ingredients, but we need to let the man have his secrets. He also got a bit of input from chef pals as he workshopped his recipe and technique.

It’s the kind of chicken you should pick up with your hands—you’ll want to bite into the craggy and dark golden, bark-like exterior, which is peppery and perfectly seasoned, followed by an oh-so-satisfyingly juicy chicken underneath, with aromatic notes of herbs and a light tang to it. Yeah, pick it up—fork and knifing it feels too proper. 

He collaborated with Boot & Shoe’s chef Martin Salata on a side slaw/salad made with charred green cabbage from the wood oven and puntarelle that had just come in, tossed with parsley, cilantro, and a light vinaigrette, the perfect sidecar for the chicken. Guests were supposed to receive a piece of dark and white meat ($22), but being a friend of the chef, I put in a bratty request for two thighs because I could.

The chicory salad on Boot & Shoe's main menu. (tablehopper.com)

As a side note, it was wonderful to revisit Boot & Shoe, supplementing our fried chicken feast with some Marin Miyagi oysters with yuzu kosho and pet nat mignonette (so zippy); radishes with whipped matcha butter (more of that please); a gorgeous salad of chicories, sour orange, Medjool dates, breadcrumbs, and pecorino (what a perfect seasonal salad); and the refreshing Sugar Baby Spritz from the back bar, made with Cocchi Americano Rosa, Leopold Bros. cherry liqueur, vermouth, lemon, and prosecco. Boot & Shoe was also pouring some Tess Bryant Selections from Australia that evening, including the 2017 Jauma “Why Try So Hard,” a fresh and tart semillon and chenin blanc that was on point with hubs’s fried chicken. 

In case you want to hunt down this chicken yourself, and I think you do, here’s some good news: Casey will be popping up again on December 10, this time at Starline Social Club. Follow @chickenandwinepalace for updates on the specifics—he’ll be making a big batch, but when it runs out, that’s it. 

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And look for another collaborative pop-up at Boot & Shoe on Wednesday, November 14, with Korean dishes from Nokni’s Julya Shin and Steve Joo.

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