Showing posts with label California. Show all posts
Showing posts with label California. Show all posts

Monday, July 9, 2018

Chez Panisse | Berkeley, California

Some places aren't just restaurants; they're institutions. Chez Panisse certainly falls in that category. Its founder, Alice Waters, is widely regarded as the patron saint of the "farm-to-table" movement: the restaurant, which she opened in 1971, made the sourcing of local ingredients a cornerstone long before that term was commonly used, much less beaten to death.[1] And generations of restaurants since have followed suit.

My last visit to Chez Panisse must have been about twenty years ago.[2] It doesn't seem to have changed much at all, even though the two-story Arts and Crafts style space got a major facelift about five years ago after a fire. (No doubt it helped that the architect who first designed the restaurant, Kip Mesirow, was responsible for the renovation as well.) Downstairs is the original "restaurant," which still serves a three- or four-course prix fixe menu in a sort of country French idiom that changes on a daily basis. Upstairs is the "café," opened in 1980, which offers an à la carte menu and a somewhat more casual feel. Maybe the biggest change is that both upstairs and downstairs now have open kitchens, whose wood cabinets and shelves blend so seamlessly into the rest of the space that it really does feel a bit like eating in someone's home.

(You can see all my pictures in this Chez Panisse flickr set.)

Remarkably for a restaurant that's been around for nearly half a century, Chez Panisse doesn't feel particularly dated. Indeed, aside from the farm-to-table thing, there are at least a couple other facets of contemporary dining culture where I think Chez Panisse was way ahead of the game, including those daily changing menus, and the combination of high-end food in a more informal setting. If I told you that a rustic-looking place, with a charcoal grill and wood burning oven, serving food straight from the farms, fields and docks had just opened in the East Bay, you'd probably think it was right on trend. It's a testament to the restaurant's outsize influence; and, I suppose some would say, to the stagnancy of what's come to be known as "California Cuisine."[3]

There's a reason for the genre's staying power, though: when it's done right, it's still very good, especially in Northern California, which produces some of the greatest raw ingredients on the planet. And Chez Panisse is still doing it right.

We opted for the café over the restaurant. Although it may lack the dinner party vibe downstairs, the food still captures that "of the moment" feel: while the format of the à la carte menu stays largely the same, the particular pieces change from day to day, and sometimes even from lunch service to dinner.

Some of the highlights from our visit:

A simple salad of crisp, perky gem lettuce, dotted with juicy, sweet sungold tomatoes, napped with an assertively salty, funky anchovy dressing.

A crudo of wild California king salmon with cucumbers and green coriander, accompanied by a wispy salad of greens, herbs and slivered radishes.

A pizzetta cooked in the wood oven, topped with pancetta, hot peppers, capers and fresh rosemary – great to order as an appetizer "for the table."

(continued ...)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

In Situ - San Francisco

In Situ, the new restaurant in the recently refurbished and reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a bundle of contradictions. The chef is Corey Lee, whose tasting-menu flagship, Benu, just retained the three Michelin stars it was first awarded in 2014. But the highly regarded chef didn't create a single recipe for the restaurant. Rather, the menu consists of a rotating selection of other chefs' dishes from all around the world, which the In Situ kitchen sets out to faithfully recreate. In other words, it's a restaurant in the model of an art exhibition, with Lee as the curator.

In this and other ways, including the exhibition catalog-style menu, In Situ clearly advances the notion of chef as artist. But the manner by which it is implemented – with Lee and his crew duplicating the "artists'" creations – undermines the very notions of authorship and uniqueness that are generally thought of as essential to the distinction between "art" and "craft." While Lee is ostensibly in the role of curator and not creator, the lines become blurred: when was the last time you saw a museum curator break out his brushes and hang up his own canvas on the museum wall as the "Mona Lisa"?[1] What you will get here is at best a copy, though it may be a very good one.

Indeed, the very name is a contradiction: "in situ" refers to a site-specific artwork, one that is created for the location. Yet each of the dishes served at In Situ was created for and is usually served in some other restaurant.

All of which is to say this: In Situ is possibly the most thought-provoking restaurant experience I've had in years. But unlike many restaurant experiences that aim to be thought-provoking, this one was also a lot of fun and mostly really delicious.

(You can see all my pictures in this In Situ - San Francisco flick set).

A big part of the fun at In Situ is that the restaurant acts as both Star Trek transporter and Dr. Who time travel TARDIS telephone booth. Here, in one meal, you can sample dishes from thousands of miles away, and even from decades past – some of which may no longer even be available anywhere else.[2]

For instance, the lead-off item on the menu[3] during our visit comes from chef Wylie Dufresne. His restaurant in New York's Lower East Side, wd~50, was a mid-aughts "molecular gastronomy"[4] trendsetter. But I never managed to get there before it closed in 2014.

Yet here are Dufresne's "shrimp grits," a dish which subverts the classic Southern pairing, turning the shrimp themselves into the grits by chopping, cooking, finely grinding, and finally re-warming them with powdered freeze-dried corn, then garnishing with pickled jalapeños and a bright orange shrimp shell oil.

If I'm to be honest, one of the reasons I never ate at wd~50 is that I wasn't convinced I would have enjoyed an entire meal there: the place often gave me the impression that form was being elevated over substance, creativity over flavor. But that's another of the interesting things about In Situ: it's a chance to sample a chef's cooking (at least vicariously through the medium of Lee and crew), without the commitment of a full meal. Turns out, this dish was excellent: intense crustacean flavor, combined with a nostalgic creamy, nubby grits texture. Perhaps I misjudged. But In Situ offers a taste of what I missed.

We were in Kyoto a couple years ago, but did not go to Gion Sasaki, a kaiseki style restaurant that is a notoriously difficult reservation. So here is another "missed opportunity" dish. Tender, meaty chicken thighs are glazed with a delicate teriyaki sauce (not the gloppy syrupy stuff we get here, but a fine calibration of salty, tangy and sweet); concealed beneath them is a wobbly "onsen" egg (probably cooked in an immersion circulator rather than the traditional hot spring), mounted in a bed of crunchy lettuce, and dusted with tingly sansho pepper. It's Sasaki's version of "oyako," i.e. "parent and child" (chicken and egg), and it's superficially simple but elegantly balanced.

One of the challenges In Situ faces is finding dishes that can be replicated without access to all of the ingredients used by chefs whose restaurants may be thousands of miles away. Virgilio Martinez's cooking at Central in Lima, Peru is indelibly tied to indigenous products, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. So when he chose a dish for the In Situ menu, he had to do something that would "travel well." (More interesting tidbits in this conversation between Martinez and Lee captured by Lucky Peach).

His "Octopus and the Coral" is the result: plump octopus tentacles basted in a spicy rocoto chile paste, hidden beneath shards of silver savory meringues, dark grey rice crackers, and tufts of red seaweed, meant to appear like an octopus crouching within a coral-covered rock beneath the sea. It was a good dish, though not nearly as interesting as several dishes Martinez prepared for a dinner at Alter restaurant in Miami earlier this year.

(continued ...)

Monday, February 8, 2016

best thing i ate last week (jan. 25-31) - camarones en aguachile verde at Mariscos Puerto Nuevo, Seaside CA

I finally got caught up on "best thing i ate last week" and then immediately got sidetracked once again. But rebounding will be quick. We spent the weekend before last on the left coast again, as Mrs. F had a conference in Monterey. While Aubergine in Carmel-by-the-Sea would be the dining highlight of our visit (you can sneak a peek at the pictures here), that wouldn't be until later in the week and there were many meals to be had in the interim.

Lately when traveling, I've been using Google Maps as a form of aerial restaurant reconnaissance, scouring nearby neighborhoods for places that might not turn up on the usual lists. I doubt I would have found Mariscos Puerto Nuevo otherwise. But there was a promising density of Mexican restaurants in Seaside, a town just north of Monterey that felt less hoity-toity than its other neighbors, Carmel and Pacific Grove. And the menu sure looked right: scan past the usual suspects, and true to the name, there's a focus on oceanic dishes like ceviches, cocteles, and seafood soups.

(You can see all my pictures in this Mariscos Puerto Nuevo flickr set).

Like these camarones en aguachile verde: sweet raw shrimp, swimming in a bright green sauce rippling with citrus and chile, simultaneously cool and spicy. More freshness from some cubed cucumber suspended in the marinade. A few slices of dead-ripe, creamy avocado. This, along with a crisp tostada topped with octopus ceviche, was a pretty perfect lunch.

Mariscos Puerto Nuevo
580 Broadway Avenue, Seaside, California

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Coi - San Francisco

There's a passage in Daniel Patterson's book "Coi: Stories and Recipes" that I found almost painfully evocative. The chef was writing about his first restaurant in Sonoma, and the turning of the season from summer to fall:
It was when the rains came, and the tourists went away. The first year the bills piled up on the mantelpiece at home, one pile per week, carefully bound with a rubber band, the total owed marked on a Post-it on top. At first there were two, then four and later eight piles, sitting there as a constant reminder of our empty dining room. The rain cut off roads and flooded fields, seeping into our subterranean bedroom at home, filling it with the smell of damp concrete and mold. Subsequent years were never as bad as the first, but every fall after that, as the days shortened and our bank account dwindled, my heart broke a little as we dug in for an isolated, depressing winter. That was some time ago, but the scars still remain. Every year, even now, when I step outside and feel that the light has changed, that it is fall and that summer is gone, I fight down a rising panic. It will be all right, I tell myself, over and over, until eventually I believe it enough to keep going.
Coi is one of the more unusual "cookbooks" I've read lately. It's not so much the format, which pairs a thoughtful one-page essay with each recipe, nor even the initially somewhat distracting decision to put all the ingredients and quantities for those recipes in a separate index at the back of the book. And while Patterson can wax seriously eloquent about what inspires his dishes and how to cook them, it wasn't entirely that either. What was so striking was his willingness to provide these personal and often brutally candid insights into the fears and frustrations of being a professional chef.

The restaurant business is a weird and particularly tough one that seems to be constantly teetering between success and failure, both on a macro and micro level. In a sea of competition, it's hard enough to figure out what's going to capture the dining audience's interest. Then you actually have to make it work. Even when you do, this year's hot-spot can quickly turn into next year's has-been. Get all the big things right, and you're still only as good as your last plate: some line cook screws up the seasoning or cooking time on one dish, or your server is having a lousy day, and a customer leaves with a bad impression that you may never have a second chance to remedy.

From reading his book and following his career, it's clear Patterson recognizes and, in his own way, embraces this dance on the edge. In the essay about his "beet rose," an almost absurdly labor-intensive dish in which slivers of roasted beet are assembled by hand to resemble the petals of a rose, then paired with an aerated yogurt and rose petal granita, he describes it like this:
When a dish is right, there is synchronicity between form and substance, idea and execution. This is a dish that was meant to be challenging to make, impractical to reproduce. There is something about its unreasonableness which makes it more impactful. For it to work, everything has to be perfect. ... But I came to love it most for what it represented to me: intuitive, handmade cooking. Each rose is a little different, and I can pick out who made which one every night. The seasoning is finely tuned, wobbling on the edge of sweet and savory, always close to tumbling into failure.
That sounds a little crazy, but yeah, I'd like to experience that. Because as good a writer as he is, Patterson is pretty universally recognized to be an even better chef. And yet I'd never paid a visit to the restaurant from which the book takes its name. My travels to the West Coast are almost always with family, which means my opportunities to do tasting menus are limited. And other, shinier objects always seemed to beckon. Then a month ago, Patterson announced that he was stepping down as executive chef at Coi and handing over the reigns to chef Matthew Kirkley in January. It was a surprising announcement: first, because Patterson's work at Coi has been so highly regarded, but even more so because it has been so definitively Patterson's restaurant, and his style of cooking is so personal, that the two seemed inseparable.[1]

We already had a trip to San Francisco coming up. So this would likely be the last chance, for the foreseeable future anyway, to catch Patterson in the kitchen. I re-jiggered the agenda, talked the family into doing a tasting menu dinner,[2] and booked a reservation at Coi. When they asked me what kind of restaurant it is, I wasn't sure exactly how to answer. What I knew is that it's a tasting menu format (but much more restrained than the 20+ course bacchanals like Saison); that it's got some locavore / forager sensibilities, but is not wedded to them; and that the cooking uses, but does not seem defined by, contemporary techniques and processes. This undefinability is also something of which Patterson is acutely self-aware:
When it comes to what a marketing wonk would call 'brand clarity,' we don't do ourselves any favors. ... When someone asks, 'What's the food like?' the best thing I can come up with is, 'Um, hopefully delicious,' my voice rising at the end in a note of uncertainty.
Well, let's see.

For this farewell tour of sorts, Patterson has seeded the menu with several "greatest hits," and his "California Bowl" is one of those. It's really just an elevated version of chips and dip using some of the basic tropes of California hippie cuisine: brown rice, avocado and sprouts. But those chips (made from rice cooked down to a paste, dehydrated, then fried like chicharrones) are light and airy and have a tingle of spice, the avocado is whipped until soft as a cloud, and zinging with lime, the tiny greens have bright, fresh, intense flavors.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Coi - San Francisco flickr set).

(continued ...)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

best thing i ate last week (8/2-8/9): celtuce, just dug potatoes, comté, burnt hay, tarragon at Coi

A vacation has taken me off the regular posting cycle, but after two weeks tooling around the Bay Area (including moving Frod Jr. into U.C. Berkeley), I'm home in Miami and ready to get caught up. That means circling back to the first day of our trip: a visit to Coi, which I squeezed into the schedule on account of Chef Daniel Patterson's announcement that he will be stepping down as executive chef in January. (Patterson simultaneously announced that Matthew Kirkley, last at L2O in Chicago, will be taking over the kitchen. In a curious coincidence, I caught Kirkley at L2O only a couple months before it closed last year. That was an excellent meal, and while it's disappointing to see Patterson step away from cooking at Coi, I expect good things are in store.)

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Coi - San Francisco flickr set).

The primary ingredient in this dish is celtuce, featured both in thickly sliced discs and thin ribbons of its stalk. It has the hearty snap of a broccoli stem, and a delicately bittersweet flavor somewhere in the neighborhood of lettuce, celery and asparagus. Freshly dug potatoes are cooked until just tender, and crowned with caps of nutty, buttery melted comté cheese. These sit over an oil blackened with powdered burnt hay. Those black and charred aromas are brought back to green and fresh by a few wispy leaves of tarragon.

"Coi" is an archaic French word meaning "quiet," and Patterson's cooking voice can be quiet, subtle, understated. Sometimes you have to listen closely. If you do so, in this dish maybe you'll hear something that sounds like a field of grass blown by the wind, with all these variations on the vegetal tastes of the pasture.

Runner up: the stone fruit curry with black lime cod, green beans and blueberries at Al's Place, just named the Best New Restaurant of 2015 by Bon Appetit magazine. Like many of chef Aaron London's dishes at Al's Place, the combination of ingredients sounds absolutely implausible, and tastes absolutely delicious.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Saison - San Francisco

There are few meals I've looked forward to with as much anticipation. Between the reports from trusted friends both virtual and flesh and blood, the three Michelin stars conferred late last year (which many thought were overdue), and myriad other raves and recognitions, my expectations for Saison were quite high.

Some reputations are so lofty that I fear the reality cannot possibly compare. But Saison did not disappoint.

Ingredients. Focus. Smoke. Pleasure.

These are the words that keep coming to mind as I look back on our meal.

Ingredients: With a menu that uses primarily seafood and vegetables, prepared in a minimalist style, every item that makes it to the plate has been selected with fanatical attention and care. Many are sourced from nearby: sea urchin from Fort Bragg, seaweeds from Mendocino, vegetables from the restaurant's own farm plot, milk "from our cow."

Focus: Instead of dozens of components thrown together, Saison's dishes have a unity of purpose: nearly every course is about one thing, how to bring out, concentrate, and enhance its flavor. Vegetables are cooked in their own juices, fish are served with sauces infused with their grilled bones, all with the goal of honing and focusing the flavor of the primary ingredient.

Smoke: Almost every dish here is kissed with smoke or fire: grilled over open flame, cooked in the wood-fired hearth, preserved in the smoke that makes its way up the hearth's chimney. This is not just some Luddite counter-reaction to the last decade's increasing focus on kitchen technology. Rather, it's a rediscovery that ancient ways of cooking have powerful ways of highlighting, punctuating, amplifying flavor and texture.

Pleasure: Maybe it's just because these are things that I really like to eat, but Saison's menu feels like it is designed to coddle rather than confront. No doubt, a tremendous amount of thought has gone into the preparation of the dishes; but it doesn't require a lot of thinking to enjoy them.This is not a meal whose purpose is to show you how clever the chef, Joshua Skenes, is. Rather, it's about how much pleasure the diner will take in his work.

(You can see all my pictures in this Saison - San Francisco flickr set).

The pleasure principle kicks in from the moment you enter Saison. There's something delightfully unstuffy about the restaurant. Yes, it's an elegant, beautiful space, filled with live edge wood tables and ornate flower displays; many of the seats are arranged to provide a vantage on a kitchen filled with more gleaming copper than a Mauviel warehouse.[1] But there's also something about it that's very welcoming and even homey: the foyer area is framed by a woodpile, around the corner of which is a cozy little bar where you can start with a cocktail before your meal; that open kitchen feels not so much like a stage with cooks performing for an audience, and more like the open floor plan of a (very rich) friend's loft apartment.

After a pause at the bar, dinner begins with a sort of tea service: an infusion of "some herbs from our garden." Bound with twine, the herbs release a heady aroma as they are dropped into the hot water. The Japanese aesthetic sets the tone for the meal. It's a remarkable thing: there's no dish in particular that is overtly Japanese, but the overall impression is uncannily reminiscent of our meals there last year.[2]

(continued ...)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Artisan - Paso Robles

ArtisanIf Bistro Laurent is the kind of restaurant that every wine region seems to have, then Artisan in Paso Robles is the kind of restaurant every wine region wishes it had. We had several great meals on our recent California trip, but this may have been the one that was the most purely enjoyable.

Clearly the locals know what they've got. The place was packed the first night we stopped by and there wasn't a table available for at least an hour, so we made a reservation for the following night. Our persistence was rewarded with a meal that highlighted local product with unfussy preparations and bold flavors.

The restaurant has a relaxed, casual feel to it, with lots of natural light coming in through the tall windows. The space is split by a line of banquettes, behind which is a partially open kitchen and a sizable bar area with additional seating. It was equally crowded the next day when we returned for our reservation, and the room feels convivial without ever becoming overwhelmingly noisy.

The menu listed 9 starters and equal number of main courses, which were supplemented with a few off-the-menu specials. I started with one of those specials: Santa Barbara spot prawns, their raw bodies just barely cooked with a drizzle of hot oil (a la Nobu's "new style sashimi"), the heads fried, all served over some grilled hot peppers, with a sidecar of a little salad spiked with fried capers and julienned preserved lemon. There were lots of bright flavors here, but well balanced and none so aggressive as to overpower the beauty of the pristinely fresh seafood. My only regret was that the heads were good for sucking on, but not crisped up sufficiently (as with ama ebi) to gnaw on in their entirety. Mrs. F started with an heirloom tomato and cucumber salad that was everything that Zuni Cafe's should have been. It was loaded with a generous selection of plump ripe tomatoes and slivers of cucumber, with a bit of richness contributed by some La Panza Gold, a washed rind sheeps' milk cheese from Rinconada Dairy near San Luis Obispo.

Both Mrs. F and I stuck with the starters portion of the menu for the rest of our meal. I followed with a "BLTA" - bacon, lettuce, tomato and ... abalone! This was a great dish, pairing tender Cayucos red abalone (in itself every bit as delicious as the abalone I'd had at Manresa a couple days earlier) with lightly crisped pancetta, fried green tomatoes, sprigs of peppery arugula, and cubes of avocado. It was an unexpected but effective combination, and months later I still pine for more of that fantastic local abalone. I also had the barbecue braised pork belly - yes, everyone's doing pork belly these days, but this was a nice twist on the theme, bringing some tangy barbecue flavors to the party, along with some tender stewed cranberry beans, and a drizzle of brightly flavored salsa verde to perk things up and cut through the fattiness of the pork. Mrs. F had a smoked gouda and porter fondue, which offered garlic toasts, cubes of andouille sausage and broccolini for dipping. This was probably the least exciting of the dishes we had, but it's hard to be unhappy with any scenario which combines pork product and bubbly cheese.

Thanks to the kids we also got to try some of the main course items. The salmon was pronounced by Little Miss F the best she'd ever had: a wild-caught West Coast fish, paired with a fava bean succotash enhanced by some applewood-smoked bacon, along with a rich, tasty corn pudding, fried little Italian squash, and a scatter of corn shoots. A steak from the specials list was also very good: a richly flavored grass-fed Hearst Ranch filet mignon (yes, that Hearst - the 80,000 acre ranch surrounds Hearst Castle), which came with roasted potatoes and shishito peppers and a drizzle of the same salsa verde which accompanied the pork belly.

Desserts were equally unfussy and satisfying. We tried a chocolate black bottom pie topped with marshmallow fluff; apple fritters with butter pecan ice cream and salted caramel; and a peach and blackberry crumble, served in a little cast iron dish, and topped with a blackberry creme fraiche ice cream. We were hard pressed to pick a favorite.

The wine list sensibly focuses predominantly on local producers, but if you've brought back some samples from a day of wine tasting, the corkage is an eminently reasonable $15 (which they were very happy to tell us when we made our reservation). I was pleased to find a Booker "The Ripper" Grenache (2006) for about $80 (release price was $55 with only 136 cases produced). If you're all wined out, they also had a great beer list with more than a half dozen on tap, plus a fine selection of bottles from around the globe.

The folks behind Artisan are brothers Chris (chef/owner) and Michael (general manager/owner) Kobayashi, who seem awfully young to have produced a restaurant that exudes such confidence and comfort in its own skin. There's nothing precious about the food here, but it's nonetheless clear that a good bit of thought and effort has gone into its preparation. It hits that great sweet spot of being refined and homey at the same time.

"California cuisine," with its focus on locally sourced product, seasonality and sustainability, is often accused - some might say justifiably, others would dispute that - of "just serving figs on a plate," to use David Chang's recent description. Artisan clearly shares that focus, but just as clearly is "doing something with its food" - something that's awfully good.

1401 Park Street
Paso Robles, California 93446

Artisan on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bistro Laurent - Paso Robles

Bistro Laurent
Photo via Bistro Laurent
The last leg of our California trip brought us to Paso Robles. When I had made inquiry through friends of friends for recommendations, a few names kept coming up, and Bistro Laurent was one of them. I can now understand why. Every wine region seems to have a place like this (or ought to) - a comfortable restaurant where you can find simple, well-prepared food that compliments the local wines. Bistro Laurent clearly fits that description.

I knew that Paso Robles was a wine-producing area that has gotten some attention particularly for Rhone varietals and zinfandels, and was familiar with at least a couple producers (Tablas Creek and Linne Calodo, the latter of which I've been a mailing list customer of). But frankly, I hadn't quite realized how extensive Paso Robles' wine biz had become. There are now over 180 wineries in Paso Robles with 26,000 acres of vineyards, and the publicists claim it is the fastest growing wine region in California. Happily, much of that is still focused on small-production wines from vineyards that are still family-owned.

Bistro Laurent, which does double-duty as a wine shop and restaurant, is a good place to sample some of that local product. The restaurant is in a brick building that occupies a corner of the town square. Inside, it's cozy and informal, with exposed brick walls on the interior interspersed with French wine and spirits posters, and along the ledge behind the banquettes, a fine collection of French cookbooks to peruse after you order. The menu offers either a four- or five-course tasting menu in a DIY style with a number of choices (very reasonably priced at $48 or $64), or you can order a la carte. We did some of both.

I started with a simple salad of crabmeat paired with some orange segments over a lightly vinaigrette-dressed green salad, the flavors of which were simple and clean. I followed with seared sea scallops served over a textbook ratatouille, a drizzle of a red wine reduction providing a nice bridge for appeasing my prediliction for red wine with seafood (and everything else). Next, duck magret, still nicely rosy pink, served over potatoes macaire (twice-cooked, first baked, then the flesh scooped out, cooled, molded into a disk and then pan-fried till nice and crispy on the outside), also with a red wine sauce, this one bolstered and smoothed out with demiglace. Meanwhile, we also had their onion soup, again a textbook rendition, a couple pizza-like tarts, one topped simply with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, the other with a nice combination of escargot, pesto and goat cheese, and a perfectly cooked, juicy pork chop. A chocolate pot du creme and creme brulee were likewise fine versions of the classics.

Terry Hoage The PickThe simple bistro fare makes a good foil for the wine list, which features a pretty encyclopedic offering of Paso Robles' finest, including some back vintage options. The Rhone Ranger types seemed a particularly good match for the food, and we tried something I had never heard of before, Terry Hoage's "The Pick" (2006). The wine was a GSM (grenache syrah mourvedre) blend, heaviest on the grenache, which was dense with black fruits without being over-ripe or over-sweet, and had a nice backbone of spice. I was happy to discover that the winery was only a couple minutes away from our hotel and paid a visit the next day.

Terry Hoage is a former football player (a Georgia Bulldog defensive back who had a 10+ year pro career) and now he and his wife run a small vineyard and winery in the hills of west Paso Robles. Their focus is exclusively on Rhone varietals and total production is about 2,000 cases. The lineup features a grenache blanc / roussanne blend, a rosé of syrah & grenache, a 100% syrah ("The Hedge"), a grenache ("Skins"), and a few blends - "The Pick," a GSM as noted above, "The 46" which is 50/50 grenache & syrah, and "5 Blocks Cuvee" which is a syrah based blend with grenache, mourvedre and cinsault. Both oenophiles and football fans will appreciate the multiple points of reference of the names, and from top to bottom I was really excited by their wines.

When you've got good wine like this, you don't necessarily need or even want culinary pyrotechnics with it. Is the food at Bistro Laurent cutting edge? Innovative? Not even remotely. Is it satisfying, especially together with some of the local juice? Absolutely.

Bistro Laurent
1202 Pine Street
Paso Robles, CA 93446

Bistro Laurent on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Manresa - Los Gatos

We did Manresa all wrong. I now know that Los Gatos is a good hour and a half away from Carmel, which was our home base the evening of our Manresa reservation. I now know that it was a major mistake to attempt a heady dining experience with the whole family after a day of tidepooling and hiking in Point Lobos Park and a loooong drive back up the coast. But when I planned our California trip (in fairness to myself, on very short notice), this was one of the destinations I didn't want to miss, and so - against my better judgment, or at least that of certain other members of the family - we made the trek to Manresa. With this preview, it shouldn't come as a great surprise that the meal was not a perfect success.

Once we got there, Los Gatos turned out to be a charming little town, and the restaurant, on a side street off the main drag in what looks to be a converted house, is modestly unassuming for a place that has garnered such a lofty reputation. Inside, the exposed wood beam ceiling, earth-toned walls, and oriental rugs give a feeling of casual intimacy. We were greeted warmly and led to a table in the back that looked out on a small garden. The garden is a prevalent theme with Manresa, where Chef David Kinch has an exclusive arrangement with Love Apple Farms located nearby: the farm's produce is grown exclusively for the restaurant, a quite literal exemplar of the "farm-to-table" movement.

In light of the long drive behind us and the return trip still ahead of us, the tasting menu was out of the question. All right, I questioned, and Mrs. F said "Absolutely not." Manresa also offers a four-course dinner, and further accomodated the kids by doing 2- and 3-course offerings for them. The menu appears to be divided into vegetable & seafood appetizers, fish items, meats, and desserts & cheeses, suggesting a natural 4-course progression, but you are free to choose however you wish and we mixed things up quite a bit. Indeed, between the four of us we tried thirteen different items, effectively (or ineffectively, perhaps) making our own tasting menu. It was something of an up-and-down experience. I had some dishes I thought were absolutely ethereal; some of the other ones we had were visual feasts but lacking in flavor (causing Mrs. F to proclaim that they were like "a symphony composed for the deaf").

First, the whole line-up of our meal, then pictures (apologies in advance for the poor quality of some of these; the full set can be seen here) and discussion:

Parmesan churros and crispy kale (amuse)
"Arpege" egg (amuse)
Summer snapper, sashimi style
Assorted shellfish in green tomato broth
Squash and courgette risotto
Into the vegetable garden
Pasta with vegetables and cheese[*]
Local abalone
Ling cod
Season's first albacore
Spring lamb
Beef bavette
Selection of artisan cheeses
Exotic citrus with honey and spice
Hazelnut and cocoa tartine

After ordering, we were first brought two amuse bouches ("amuses bouche"?). The first to arrive, on a sheet of slate, were a few twirls of light, airy and greaseless parmesan churros, paired with leaves of crispy kale. These were neither the palate-cleaner nor palate-tweaker I typically anticipate from an amuse bouche, but there's nothing wrong with starting a meal with something crispy and fried either. The next amuse was more interesting, described by our waiter as the "Arpege egg," readily acknowledging the dish's source of inspiration, Alain Passard's L'Arpege. The egg is served in its shell and, working your way from the surface to the bottom, you find frothy creamy white, a tart dash of sherry vinegar, a sweet tickle of maple syrup, and the gooey rich yolk. This was an elegant and flavorful package. Having never tried the original at L'Arpege, I am in no position to draw comparisons. The bread was also quite nice, crusty outside and tender within, served with creamy house-churned butter, a corner of which is sprinkled with coarse sea salt.

shellfish shellfish
Assorted shellfish in green tomato broth

My first dish was the assorted shellfish, which is also described almost universally by those who have tried it as the "tidepool." And for good reason, as the visual association is almost inevitable. The dish featured a variety of seafoods - octopus, dungeness crab, geoduck clam, and buried further within, a couple tongues of coral-colored sea urchin roe, seemingly floating in a limpid pool of dashi given an inflection of refreshing tartness with the addition of green tomato broth. Both the dashi and the green tomato broth were just slightly more viscous than water, perhaps thickened a touch with xanthan. Scattered throughout were sea beans (a/k/a marsh samphire, a name that makes more sense to me since these are clearly not beans), various green leaves, orange and red nasturtium petals, and tiny purple flowers (borage?). In a few spots were little puddles of black and white sesame seeds and tiny matchsticks of nori, providing an additional dash of flavor. Yet another layer of contrast was provided by the addition of thin slivers of unripe strawberries, their green, sour note playing the role often played by citrus in combination with seafood.

Mrs. F started with "summer snapper, sashimi style," the fish served raw and sliced usuzukuri style into very thin slices arranged in a spiral around the plate. The pristinely fresh fish was topped with good olive oil, slightly coarse sea salt, tiny chopped chives and very finely shredded kaffir lime leaf. I enjoyed the clean and pure flavors, though Mrs. F found the kaffir lime a touch overpowering.

squash and courgette risottosquash and courgette risotto
Squash and courgette risotto

Next for me, a squash and courgette (zucchini) risotto "without rice," the vegetables cut into dice roughly the size of grains of rice, and cooked to a texture approximating a risotto - tender outside, but with still a hint of firmness within. The "risotto" was bound with an emulsion with the salty umami of parmesan cheese, the flavors echoed by a white froth on top. The dish was crowned with a twisted mobius strip of thinly sliced raw (or barely blanched) zucchini, along with little crispy wafers of mushroom. I usually find both summer squash and zucchini insipid, but this was an effective and pleasing use of their summer bounty.

into the garden
Into the vegetable garden

Mrs. F's next course, "Into the vegetable garden," is a signature item for Manresa. Like the "Arpege egg," it is also one that has something of a family tree. The original reference point for the dish is derived from French chef Michel Bras, and a dish he dubbed "gargouillou." Though the original gargouillou is apparently a simple peasant dish of potatoes and ham, Chef Bras' gargouillou is a garden-inspired assembly of dozens of different vegetables, leaves, herbs and sprouts (supposedly anywhere between 30 and 60 different items), some raw, some cooked, all united by a buttery ham-infused broth. It has been the inspirational springboard for many chefs, and Chef Kinch's own explanation provides intriguing insight into the evolution of his take on the dish.

The iteration we had featured a cornucopia of different leaves and petals, plus cubes and rounds of various vegetables - zucchini, potato, turnip, tomato - some raw, some barely poached. Then as you progress further into the pile, you find a couple loose pyramids of vegetable purees, and a crumbly dark "soil" in which I tasted potato, chicory and maybe hazelnut. The elements of the plate were bound by a foam made from the vegetables' juices. It was a beautiful thing to look at, really like a garden on a plate. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the elaborate pedigree and gorgeous presentation, Mrs. F found the dish bland and underflavored.

I recently saw Chef Kinch on Le Bernardin Chef Eric Ripert's new TV show "Avec Eric" talking about the dish, and he was explaining how as time has passed, he has pared away components of the dish in order to highlight the vegetables, specifically commenting that he didn't want to be guilty of overseasoning the "star ingredients" (the theme of the show). It is possible this restraint can be carried too far; either that, or perhaps Mrs. F doesn't love her vegetables enough. But I am also reminded of a tweet exchange I recently had with the immortal Gael Greene, prompted by her comment on Top Chef Masters that "Whenever a chef uses a foam I wonder what they're trying to DO to me." Interpreting this as an overbroad indictment of an entire technique, I helpfully suggested "Relax - it's foam, not Astroglide," to which she gracefully responded "I often wonder if the foaming chef ever tastes his foam. So often it's flavorless scum and detracts from an otherwise good dish." And she makes a good point. A bold or richly flavored ingredient can work well when aerated into a foam, but milder ones can often get lost; and here, if I hadn't known that the foam was made from the vegetables' juices, I would have never been able to tell you what it was. This was a dish I found more pleasing in concept and presentation than in flavor.

Local abalone

I found my next dish, local black abalone, infinitely more satisfying on every level. Unlike most abalone I've tried, these, which are farmed in Monterey Bay, are mind-bogglingly tender, yielding to the gentlest touch of a knife and not chewy or bouncy at all. Their flavor is mildly but distinctly oceanic, reminiscent of octopus or geoduck. Two of these plump disks were propped upright in the bowl in a golden-brown umami-loaded broth, together with a few dollops of corn pudding, glassy-looking translucently golden-green slices of tomato, and a fascinating little green our server told me was called ficoide glaciale. These little sprigs, similar to the iceplant, were lightly crunchy, just slightly sour, and provided a sensation uncannily like a light spray of cool water.

ling cod
Ling cod

Beef bavette

Spring lamb

Next, working in reverse order of the pictures, the spring lamb dish was mine, featuring rosy slices of shoulder, a cube of tender confited tongue, a tangy yogurt-based sauce, black beans, some wilted and fresh greens, and - if memory serves - some roasted shishito peppers. The yogurt sauce was the component that brought this dish, which otherwise would have been well-prepared but unexceptional, to another level. The other items we had, however, did not impress as much. The beef bavette, which was cooked in its own fat, had a murky taste to it (Frod Jr. said the beef tasted like mashed potatoes), and I found the pairings - grilled spring onions, cubed turnips, and quinoa turned bright green with arugula - somewhat bland. The roasted ling cod was good fish, but the accompanying zucchini, summer squash and eggplant - the first two sliced in various thicknesses and alternately raw or grilled, and all bound with a milky white froth - were also bland, and too similar to the "risotto" I had earlier. Mrs. F had "the season's first albacore," and also found the oil-poached fish to be underflavored.

The cheese course which we followed with - described on the menu as "refined and perfectly mature" (perhaps more than we can say about our dining group) - again brought redemption. The cheeses come out on a little red cart, which our server told us was custom-made for the restaurant in France. The first cart mysteriously disappeared on arrival in the U.S., and a second one had to be commissioned. The cart is charming, but its contents are truly special. We had four cheeses, accompanied by house-made membrillo (quince paste). They were all indeed perfectly aged and a couple in particular - a Grayson (a Tallegio-like washed rind cheese made in Virginia) and a Brillat-Savarin (so rich and oozy it required more than a bit of dexterity to get it from the cart to a plate) were truly memorable.

We let the kids pick desserts, and Little Miss F chose "exotic citrus with honey and spice," while Frod Jr. chose a hazelnut and cocoa tartine (they did not wait for pictures to be taken). The former featured some truly exotic citrus, various pomelo and tangerine hybrids, some with incredibly intense tartness to them, only slightly tamed by some honey's sweetness, and contrasted with an almost equally intense spearmint ice cream. The tartine, meanwhile, played along the boundaries between sweet and savory, with strong dark chocolate only lightly sweetened paired with a vibrant magenta beet granita, a creamy milk curd, and a sprinkle of pea flowers. As we headed out, a creamy, chewy salted caramel provided a treat to savor for the long drive home.

I know and regret that we didn't do Manresa the right way. We were frazzled, we were burned out from driving, and some of us were a bit grumpy. I suspect that both the concept and execution of many of the dishes translate much more successfully when presented in a tasting menu format, and when the diner has more patience and focus than we had on our visit. On the other hand, while I had some truly memorable and exciting dishes (the shellfish tidepool, the abalone, and the cheese course would unquestionably fall in that category, and the "risotto" would come close), others were underflavored and I was pressed to even recall them only a few weeks later.

Even so, I would love the opportunity to try the place again. Even from an imperfect vantage point, some things were clear to me.

First, that Chef Kinch's cooking represents a uniquely successful, and uniquely personal, synthesis of a wide range of influences and ideas. The flavor profiles show French, Spanish, and Asian influences, including dishes unabashedly inspired by those created by other chefs, yet still come across as a consistent and individualized creative vision. The menu is driven by the farm and its bounty as much as probably just about any restaurant in the country, yet the methods and techniques liberally take advantage of the latest culinary technologies and concepts (two trends that many wrongly perceive as antithetical). And second, that next time I'm going without the kids.

sea urchinstarfish
Tidepools at Point Lobos

320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030

Manresa on Urbanspoon

[*]Made special for Little Miss F. I was thoroughly charmed by how the waiter sized up how conservative her tastes were. When she showed little interest in what was on the menu and we asked if they could make a pasta for her, he willingly accomodated, then gently asked "With butter? ... and some cheese? ... and some vegetables?" with pauses between each addition to make sure each step was OK.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

(Not) Citronelle - Carmel

At first, I didn't have very high hopes for our first dinner in Carmel. Given that the meal was going to be sandwiched in between visits to Incanto on the front end and Manresa on the back end, I was OK with low expectations. Then just a few days before we arrived, I got an email from the Carmel Valley Ranch where we were staying, advising that the resort had "partnered with acclaimed French Chef Michel Richard for our new signature restaurant -- Citronelle by Michel Richard." Well - that changed things. I've never eaten at Chef Richard's flagship restaurant in Washington DC[*] but I certainly knew of his reputation as a phenomenally talented, creative and whimsical chef. Maybe this dinner wouldn't be a letdown after all.

But from the moment we set foot in the restaurant, something seemed amiss. First off, there was no signage whatsoever identifying the place as Citronelle - not in the resort, not in the entrance to the restaurant, not on the menu. Then out came an amuse bouche of - a lemon sorbet? Is it 1975? Followed by a bowl of french fries? They were good fries indeed, perversely reminiscent of classic McDonald's fries (and I say that as a compliment), but - could this really be how Chef Richard's reputation was earned?

Aside from no evidence of the name, the menu also showed no signs of Michel Richard's influence. Where were the trademark dishes - the lobster burger, the 72-hour braised short rib? Nowhere to be seen. It turns out, I now know, that right around the time we arrived, Chef Richard and Citronelle had cleared out shortly after the resort was sold to new owners. Chef Flynt Payne (which has got to be one of the most manly names I have ever heard) was dubbed the new executive chef shortly aftwerwards. I don't even know if he was in the kitchen yet at the time of our visit.

With this preview, it should come as no surprise that the meal in fact was something of a letdown; but I blame this mostly on the resort management which was responsible for emailing me about their "new signature restaurant" Citronelle, even as Chef Richard was packing up and heading out the door. It would also certainly suggest that it is too early to fairly evaluate the new incarnation of the dining room at the Carmel Valley Ranch. So this is much more in the nature of a "just passing it along" post rather than passing any sort of judgment.

The menu was a fairly short list of maybe a half-dozen each of appetizer and entree options, and a few desserts, offered only as a $65, 3-course proposal. They were accomodating, however, when we proposed to split one 3-course menu between the two kids, with Little Miss F taking a vegetable risotto starter and Frod Jr. a quail main course, and then splitting (reluctantly) a chocolate torte for dessert. I had myself a pig-fest, starting with a pork terrine followed with a milk-braised pork shoulder, and closed with a cheese course. Mrs. F had a beet salad and the quail as well, finishing with some fresh doughnuts (which the kids happily shared).

All of the cooking was technically faultless and well-executed. Among the more notable items, the pork terrine had a flavorful and well-spiced forcemeat, and was wrapped in bacon to give an extra salty porky punch. It was plated with pistachios and fresh nectarines, whose flavors paired nicely. The risotto, studded with summer vegetables, was also good, simple and satisfying. But - and this was likely a result primarily of the flux in the kitchen and the lack of time for a new chef to put his stamp on a new menu - very little that we had was particularly striking or memorable in any way. It was also less (in the way of quality, not quantity) than I would expect from a $65 meal, and the mandatory 3-course agenda was a downer.

Edited to add: Perhaps the greatest revelation of the meal was the wine we had with it: Couloir Monument Tree Pinot Noir (2006). Monument Tree is a cool climate, Anderson Valley vineyard, and the winemaker for Couloir is Jon Grant, who is also the assistant winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars. I am a big fan of Anderson Valley pinots and this was a great example. It retails from the winery for $44 and we had it from the wine list at $77.

The kitchen showed enough technical proficiency to suggest that they're capable of some good cooking. Just don't go expecting Citronelle (no matter what the resort's emails may tell you).

Carmel Valley Ranch
One Old Ranch Road
Carmel, CA 93923

Citronelle on Urbanspoon

[*]Chef Richard actually first made a name for himself in Southern California before shifting coasts to DC.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Incanto - San Francisco

IncantoThey smelled good. They were topped with bacon. When I asked if he wanted to know what he was trying before he took a bite, he declined. And that's how my 11-year old son came to eat lamb balls at Incanto.

lamb fries
image via @offalchris
Before you accuse me of some form of child abuse, please keep in mind that he should well have known better. I have long been a fan of the so-called "fifth quarter," or offal. Tongues, cheeks, ears, feet, livers, sweetbreads, tripe, hearts, intestines, marrow, gizzards. They're all my friends. These are things I eat not on a dare, but because they have the capacity for deliciousness. They offer depth of flavor you often won't discover in the "prime cuts" (though in fact many are actually quite mild), and unusual, sometimes luxurious textures. And it is often the measure of a chef's talent what they're able to do with the misnamed "nasty bits." Anyone can take a prime New York strip and make it taste good. It takes some skill to make lamb balls tasty.

Chef Chris Cosentino has that skill, and has been one of the most prominent and vocal champions of offal cookery (along with perhaps his kindred spirit in England, Fergus Henderson). So his restaurant in Noe Valley was one of my "don't miss" destinations on our current San Francisco trip. And Frod Jr. was on clear notice that whatever he was taking a taste of could have come from just about anywhere on or in the animal.

Incanto looks much like many other Italian restaurants, with rough-cut stone floors, simple dark wood furniture, and a series of columns and arches that separate a partially open kitchen from the bustling, boisterous dining room. One thing that's a little different is the glass case of house-cured salumi on display as you walk in (this love of cured meats has expanded into a side business for Chef Cosentino, who now produces several "tasty salted pig parts" for retail sale through Boccalone, with an outpost in the Ferry Building). Many of those pig parts can be sampled on an antipasto platter at Incanto; and the menu, with a leaning towards starter-sized items and almost all pastas available in half portions, lends itself to trying a variety of dishes.

We started with the antipasto platter, which our server helpfully advised was also available in a 1/2 portion, even though this was not listed on the menu. My memory has faded a bit at this point, but I believe it featured some mortadella, prosciutto cotto (a cooked ham, delicately spiced and more sweet than salty), soppressata, porchetta di testa (rolled pig's head, thinly sliced), and a pork paté, along with some nice bright pickled vegetables. All were quite good, and surprisingly conservative with the salt - almost to the point where I thought they could have used a touch more. Some nice crusty bread, along with focaccia and breadsticks, were accompanied by a black olive tapenade.

lobster mushrooms
image via @offalchris
We followed with a simple dish of lobster mushrooms, sea beans and a sizzled egg. The lobster mushrooms are truly beautiful things, gigantic firm mushrooms, almost white in color, but with a gorgeous orange-red blush to the caps like the color of a cooked Maine lobster (they're actually the product of a parasitic fungus that grows on the mushroom). Here they were sliced thin, sauteed, sprinkled with a scatter of sea beans, then topped with an egg quick-fried in olive oil (I'm guessing) which made its own sauce for the mushrooms. I enjoyed this though I found (as I've experienced when cooking them myself) that the lobster mushrooms are actually somewhat short on flavor, though they have an interesting firm, almost steak-y texture.

The lamb fries were also a starter, and were done in a piccata style with bacon. They came, as I guess can be expected, two to an order.[*] The fries were actually a wonderful delicate texture, similar to sweetbreads or fish quenelles. They had a lightly meaty flavor with maybe just the slightest hint of iron, as in liver. And they were soaking in melted butter spiked with capers, topped off with a few strips of salty savory bacon. I thought they were genuinely delicious; Frod Jr., while he didn't go back for a second bite, didn't think they were bad (until after I told him what they were; and even then, he admitted he was more bothered by the idea rather than the flavor).

Next, a 1/2 order of the spaghettini with Sardinian cured tuna heart, egg yolk and parsley. I've had and enjoyed a similar dish at Sardinia Ristorante in Miami made with bottarga, the dried and cured roe sac of a tuna. The cured tuna heart has a flavor very similar to the bottarga, salty and with a deep funky marine whiff to it. It was generously shaved over the hot spaghettini, which had been tossed with olive oil, many slivers of browned garlic and a handful of fresh parsley, and topped with a raw egg yolk which is then lightly cooked by the heat of the pasta as you further toss the pasta yourself.

But Chef Cosentino's cooking is not just about offal. A handkerchief pasta sauced with a pork ragu was just flat-out good cooking. The pasta was just about perfect, supple and smooth without being insipid and limp; and the rustic meat sauce was rich, tender and hearty. Nothing unusual or exotic about this, just a delicious pasta dish.

beef rib
what was left of the beef rib
Frod Jr.'s appetite was not so thrown by the lamb fries that he couldn't dig into a Fred Flintstone-sized English-cut beef rib (a massize length of short rib), topped with "God's butter" (Chef Cosentino's name for beef marrow), dandelion greens and a simple onion salsa. Indeed he made pretty good work of that rib. We also had a braised duck leg, with contrasting notes of sweet and salty provided by grapes and pancetta in the braising liquid. Also very hearty and satisfying.

The wine list, if I recall, was almost exclusively Italian wines, and showed some nice breadth both regionally and in price ranges. A 2003 Fanetti Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva hit the appropriate note of refined rusticity to match the food.

And that is perhaps the best way I can think of to describe the cooking at Incanto - refined rusticity. While much of the attention is paid to Chef Cosentino's work with offal, I think perhaps that angle is overworked to a degree. It's exciting to explore the different flavors and textures that can be offered by the "fifth quarter," but unless it's done well, it's just something to brag about to your friends, which to me is infinitely less rewarding than a genuinely great meal. In our experience, whether it was lamb fries or pasta with pork ragu, this was just good, satisfying food.

1550 Church Street
San Francisco, CA 94131

Incanto on Urbanspoon

[*]As good as they were, I don't think I could eat 28:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Zuni Cafe - San Francisco

zuni I wanted to love Zuni Cafe. I really did. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of my all-time favorites, not merely a compendium of recipes but a passionate and wonderfully written guide to how to cook with literally all five of your senses. It's worth the price just for Chef Judy Rodgers' roast chicken recipe alone, even if it is widely available on the internet.[1] I actually don't often do recipes directly from the book, but there are any number of tips I've picked up from reading, and re-reading, that have been invaluable. And besides, notwithstanding my interest in more contemporary techniques, I usually enjoy the "California school" of ingredient-driven cooking of which Zuni is a paragon.

This was my second visit to Zuni, actually. The first was a couple years ago, when Little Miss F and I (having come out to SF a day before the rest of the family) went and ordered the legendary roast chicken. We had a perfectly enjoyable meal. Was it the best roast chicken I've ever had? Interestingly, no - as I noted back then, that honor actually goes to Miami's Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, which does an unabashed riff on the Zuni chicken, including basically every component but the bread cubes (which is a shame). It's possible Michael's chicken had an unfair advantage because we were eating it straight from the wood-fired oven, and (at our request) it was served whole so we got to pick on the delightfully juicy carcass. But that story's been told elsewhere.[2]

This time we had the whole crew together and I had the liberty of exploring some of the less-iconic items on the menu. We started with some Hog Island kumamoto oysters (breaking the "months with an R" rule for the occasion), a Caesar salad, and an heirloom tomato salad, then a spinach soup, a roasted squab, and a tagliata, along with orders of polenta and shoestring fries.

I do love the space itself, a flat-iron shaped wedge with a long bar on the ground floor, some seating around the kitchen area with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Market Street, and a quirky upstairs area with several little passageways, nooks and crannies. Like our last visit, we were seated on a cozy perch in the second floor that overlooks the downstairs dining room and a bit of the kitchen.

The Caesar was indeed an excellent rendition, another of the iconic Zuni dishes (the burger is probably the third - and it acquired its fame well before the current burger trend). In the cookbook, Chef Rodgers acknowledges "There is nothing clever, original, or mysterious about this Caesar salad. The main 'trick' we rely on is top-notch ingredients, freshly prepared."[3] It works. This was as fine a Caesar salad as I've ever had.

The heirloom tomato salad, on the other hand, was a real disappointment. On our earlier visit a couple years ago I had a tomato salad (it was summer after all) and it came with a bountiful and generous variety of plump, sweet, and tart heirloom tomato slices simply dressed with good olive oil and coarse salt. This time around - well, I had no idea you could slice tomatoes on a mandoline, but I'd swear that's what they had done. This $10 salad came with about 10 paper-thin slices of tomato, along with some thinly sliced cucumber, a scatter of green onion, and again a dose of good olive oil and salt. Aside from being almost absurdly ungenerous, the slicing of the tomatoes as thin as a pounded carpaccio robbed them of any semblance of juicy goodness. I mean, these are tomatoes, not truffles, after all.

(continued ...)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fifth Floor - San Francisco

Fifth FloorFor a place that's been able to maintain a high reputation for several years, Fifth Floor sure has had a revolving door in the kitchen. It was opened by George Morrone, but he left for other projects and Laurent Gras (now garnering oohs and ahhs at L2O in Chicago) took over around 2002. He left a couple years later, and was replaced by Melissa Perello, who earned the restaurant a Michelin star during her tenure and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Best Rising Chef award. Then in 2007 she left, to be replaced briefly by former line cooks Charlie Kleinman and Jake Des Voignes (who managed to successfully maintain that Michelin star). Last year Laurent Manrique (until recently also the chef at the Michelin two-starred Aqua, which he's also left after problems with ownership) briefly took over, but now he's gone. Shortly before we arrived in San Francisco, the baton was passed to Jennie Lorenzo, who had worked with Laurent Gras when he was running Fifth Floor, and whose resume also includes stints at Blackbird in Chicago, time with Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay in London, and a trip to the Far East at the Michelin two-star Ryugin.

That's a lot of turnover at the top, and frankly, Fifth Floor was not on our eating agenda for this San Francisco trip. But we happened to be staying at the Hotel Palomar, wherein Fifth Floor resides, and when we learned that they were promoting a 50% discount on the entire wine list, assembled by the highly regarded and aptly named Master Sommelier Emily Wines (who also did the wine list for Miami's Area 31, another Kimpton hotel), we quickly changed our plans.

When we made our dinner reservation they put us in the lounge area rather than the dining room, which I suppose was just as well, given that we had the kids with us. The lounge area adopts a very clubby, manly theme, with lots of wood and leather. There is one long communal table (which nobody was using), a couple other tables (including a large round one that we commandeered), and several low-rise two-tops scattered about. A quick peek into the dining room gave mostly an impression of beigeness; it looked like an elegant, somewhat generic hotel restaurant. A drawback to being in the lounge area was that service was somewhat sporadic - out of sight, out of mind, and with none of the waitstaff regularly passing through the lounge area, there were times we were somewhat neglected.

The menu is fairly short - no more than 10 appetizers and about the same number of entrees - but was supplemented by a bar menu of mostly simpler fare, which is where we often find things for the kids. The restaurant menu is geographically unplaceable, subtly drawing influences from all over (some Italy with a tortellini, some Japan with a tuna "zuke," some North Africa with a "b'stilla" sauce for foie gras...) but doesn't come off as silly for doing so. Collectively, we had starters of a crab "cappuccino," summer squash tortellini, and a caesar salad, followed by a stuffed quail, and a steak frites and a club sandwich off the bar menu. Things started off a little shaky but got better from there.

The tortellini starter brought three vividly green belly-buttons of stuffed pasta. They were filled with a tiny dice of summer squash, along with a tomato "marmalade" that was not sweet enough to merit the moniker, yet didn't bring much else in the way of flavor contrast either. The "garlic + bread sauce" the tortellini were placed upon had formed an unappealing skin on its murky brown surface, and its flavor didn't do much to enhance the somewhat bland squash filling. The crab "cappuccino" was much more successful, a big coffee cup of a creamy broth redolent with dungeness crab, picked up by a hit of ginger, and topped with a truffle foam duplicating the milky froth of the namesake. The only peculiar note to this one were strands of greenery lurking in the soup (wilted baby spinach?), not off from a flavor perspective but just an unexpected texture given the "cappuccino" descriptor. A caesar salad bore a pungent whiff of fishiness (and this from someone who is a big anchovy fan).

The quail, on the other hand, was pure bliss. The bird was perfectly roasted, the legs separately from the rest of the body, which had been boned out and stuffed with a slightly chunky and very flavorful forcemeat. It was served over a bed of a succotash of fresh corn, peas and piquillo peppers along with a scatter of pea tendrils, and then a Madeira sauce was poured tableside (the tableside finish possibly being either an allusion to or a remnant from the Manrique tenure, but either way a nice touch if somewhat incongruous while eating in the more casual lounge). Every single component of this was good on its own, and even better together.

The steak off the bar menu was also nice, a thin cut (the same as the rib-eye "paillard" on the regular menu?) which I suspect was cooked sous-vide and then finished with a quick sear, as it bore that method's typical red-to-the-edges coloration. It came with some gloriously crispy fries which had been given a drizzle of a bright green herb oil. One oddity was that the bar menu steak came at no notable discount from the one on the regular menu, a more composed and elaborate dish with persillade tater tots (tots!), cipollini onion, smoked sour cream and a cabernet reduction. I didn't try the club sandwich but noticed that between my wife and daughter it disappeared quietly and surreptitiously.

The real standout of the dinner, particularly with the 50% discount, was the wine - a 2003 Frederic Magnien Vosne-Romanee Les Suchots. What a treat it is to be able to get such a nice wine, with some bottle age on it, for about $85.

We closed out with one dessert, a warm chocolate pudding cake. Frod Jr. finds it almost impossible to resist the gravitational pull of a warm chocolate cake, but this one came with some unusual accompaniments - a lime cream, a coconut foam, and popcorn ice cream. It sounded pretty unlikely, but it all worked out just fine. Presented in a big old-fashioned glass, any sign of chocolate was initially completely concealed by a big white cloud of coconut foam. As we dug in, it all came together in surprisingly pleasing fashion, and Frod Jr. and I both particularly enjoyed the popcorn ice cream.

Though we experienced some missteps, the 1/2 off wine deal alone would seem enough to make Fifth Floor worth a visit. And if the rest of the menu can reach the level of the quail dish and the dessert we had, then San Franciscans ought to hope that Jennie Lorenzo sticks around a while.

Fifth Floor
12 4th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Fifth Floor on Urbanspoon