Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Bagel Wars Are On

Hot on the heels of the "Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.," here's another entrant into the bagel brouhaha: Brooklyn Bagels, coming - sooner or later, like so many other places announce - to Midtown Miami. The press release says the owner, Ashraf Sahaltout, has "roots in Brooklyn for generations. " I could not, despite inquiry, get any info as to what NY delis he's been associated with.

Press release also said that "a key ingredient he proudly utilizes is the pure city water shipped directly from New York." OK, bakers: how much water would you need to ship down from New York to really do that?

Meanwhile, the author of "The Bagel: A Surprising History of a Modest Bread" chimes in on the whole issue of whether it's really about the water:

As to whether New York City water is the all-important ingredient — the bread scientists I consulted were not convinced.
A good bagel place would certainly be a valuable addition to the midtown Miami area. Maybe everyone should save their efforts in trying to use, or recreate, New York water, and just focus on making a better bagel. Anticipated opening date: December 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 ...)