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Alma

A Meal Worth Savoring

On an unassuming corner of the Mission, I had what I would undoubtedly say was one of the best meals I've experienced in San Francisco. It might have been the company or the welcoming candlelit room washed in turquoise and framed in dark wood that put me in this exceptional mood, but I'm certain the food had a significant role. At Alma, Chef Johnny Alamilla has created a menu of Nuevo Latino cuisine that isn't forced or pretentious and has been consistently stellar for almost three years. He uses local ingredients that match and mimic the traditional dishes while adding a hint of more character.

This is displayed most clearly in the ceviches that begin the menu. The traditional curing method of lime, onion, and chilies is expanded in each dish for a unique taste. We opted for the un todo de poco ($12), a sampling of all four of the offered ceviches. The standouts: the striped bass with grapefruit and champagne, a sweet and yeasty twist on the traditional lime; and the scallops with cucumbers and a celery-lime agua fresca. Each one light, fresh and the perfect beginning to a fabulous meal.

From there we moved on to that evening's special appetizer of sweet corn flan ($7) and the much lauded Cuban bread salad ($7). The rich, sweet flan was fantastic, but summer corn is hard to go wrong with in any form. The smooth silky texture was a perfect match to the concentrated flavor. And while the bread salad was enjoyable, it wasn't the knockout I had expected after all the raves. It was a nice twist on the standard dinner salad, but not much more than that.

For a main course we shared the Sonoma duck breast ($18) and a side of the arepas ($6). Sweet and smoky, the duck was also juicy and tender. The side of mashed not-too-sweet plantains had so much more character and flavor than regular old mashed potatoes -- they made the dish. And I can still taste the arepas, which I will go back for again and again. All this was accompanied by two fresh corn cakes with a goat cheese and caramelized onion filling that was just delicious. The entrée was sweet and tangy in just the right balance.

The dulce de leche pôt de crème ($5) was the perfect finish to the meal and this comes from someone who really doesn't like caramel. It was creamy and not too dense, but also had a strong burnt sugar flavor that I completely enjoyed especially with a nice glass of tawny port.

The wine list is entirely Spanish and South American, which in the Bay Area is a strong statement, and there are some great finds at good prices. The bar also offers a selection of drinks made with fresh fruit agua frescas that are wonderful to sip as you plot how best to attack the tempting menu.