Best Bites in Pleasanton
Gan and Sabio are taking the city's dining scene to a whole new level.
On back-to-back nights in December, I dined at restaurants that appeared to have an unremarkable connection: Both had just opened in Pleasanton. Here, the similarities seemed to end. Gan debuted quietly on an unmarked side street; Sabio on Main made a grand entrance in the center of town. Gan’s understated dining room was dressed in serene green and wood tones; Sabio was designed to dazzle—a feast for the eyes.
The driving force behind both restaurants, however, is a philosophy in which detail defines every dish (even when playful presentations downplay that sophistication). The chefs at both spots honed their skills at San Francisco’s best kitchens, but whereas Gan’s Peter Jee Oh Chung channels his talents into a modern Korean style, Sabio’s Francis X. Hogan delivers a wide-ranging selection of global small plates.
Their innovative menus might seem out of place in a city with hometown appeal, but consider how rural NorCal towns such as Healdsburg and Calistoga have become dining Meccas. Like Sonoma and Napa, Livermore Valley wine country can nurture and support ambitious restaurants: It’s a destination where the likes of Gan and Sabio have become pioneers rather than anomalies. If nothing else, Pleasanton is proving it can maintain its charm while giving more urban towns like Walnut Creek a run for their dining dollar.
So what makes these restaurants so special? “Simply delicious” best sums up Chung and Hogan’s food. But by deconstructing their dishes and looking behind the curtain, you can appreciate why these restaurants are a big deal, and how they are setting a new standard for the Tri-Valley and Contra Costa.
Take, for example, Chung and Hogan’s riffs on pork belly and beef cheeks—two of today’s top chefs’ favorite ingredients.
Chung’s pork belly is a masterful balance of rich and lively, the meat slow braised with Korean dates and chili peppers. The fat-rich pork comes on tender cranberry beans dressed with sesame oil and smoky black vinegar. Earthy wild mushrooms and curlicues of puffed pork skin finish off the dish.
Hogan’s pork belly—butchered in house from Kurobuta pigs—is brined for two days with citrus, chilies, and coriander; cooked sous vide for 14 hours; compressed overnight; and portioned into even blocks. When ordered, the pork is seared, layered with celery root mousse, spiked with pomegranate, and dusted with pulverized pistachio praline. It’s an explosion of flavor.
Chung calls his beef cheeks lacquered in ginger and soy—my favorite dish of all—his “meat and potato” dish. Its preparation is even more intricate than the pork belly, but it has all the salty-sweet appeal of Korean kalbi. Whereas those classic kalbi short ribs are typically served with rice, Chung’s plump cheeks are paired with creamy-crisp potatoes and buttery Broccolini. A silky sunchoke and sesame puree underneath, and crispy sunchoke chips sprinkled on top balance the plate.
Hogan does a riff on poutine—that french fries and gravy indulgence—to accompany his 12-hour-braised grass-fed beef cheeks. The accompanying potato wedges are brined, blanched, and fried in beef tallow to produce a fluffy fry with a crackling shell; the gravy is reduced beef braising jus enriched with port and sweetened with caramelized onions. Fresh mozzarella curds complete the poutine. It’s a dish as whimsical as it is rich.
A bevy of beverage offerings elevate each restaurant’s cuisine even further. Gan’s bar is a tenth the size of Sabio’s (as a tapas-style restaurant, Sabio’s bar is its centerpiece), but both offer a half-dozen signature cocktails and another half-dozen beers on tap. Sabio’s wine program—overseen by general manager Matt Clasen—is as carefully sourced as the food. Gan’s mostly California wine list isn’t nearly as ambitious, but the bar offers a refreshing selection of refined rice wines and Korean spirits.
Over several visits to these two restaurants, there have been some misfires, including cold or clunky dishes at Sabio, and shallow or overbearing service staff at Gan. All new restaurants are a work in progress: The important thing is to have a solid concept, which both of these do. The eclectic nature of the food and drink presents a steep learning curve for all, customers included. But it’s this very challenge that marks Sabio and Gan as exceptional restaurants.
To end at the beginning, my starters on that December weekend tell the whole story: Chung’s hiramasa sashimi with charred and pickled grapes came with a mind-boggling array of garnishes that harmonized the dish; Hogan’s Wagyu beef Vietnamese salad brought together the best of our region’s produce—including live microgreens (snipped to order).
The passion invested in each chef’s dishes is palpable. And Gan and Sabio suggest a new, exciting direction for Pleasanton—giving the city’s dining scene a nice jolt and cementing its reputation as a destination for a great meal.
Gan, 600 Main St., Ste. G, Pleasanton, (925) 523-3630, ganrestaurant.com. Dinner Tues.–Sat., brunch Sat.–Sun.
Sabio on Main, 501 Main St., Pleasanton, (925) 800-3090, sabiopleasanton.com. Dinner daily, brunch Sat.–Sun.