Friday, June 22, 2012

The Power Of Bacon and Twitter

Tomorrow, I have the honor to be a judge at my first legitimate culinary related event.  And I owe it all to bacon.

I always knew that bacon had magical, mysterious powers.  I could feel it every time I sunk my teeth into that salty, fatty strip of heaven that a force beyond our knowledge was altering the universe.

Plus, it's a scientific fact.  Look it up.

From a culinary perspective, I'm what one would call "Jew-ish."  My great grandfather was a kosher butcher, and while he was alive we kept a kosher home: two sets of dishes, two sets of silverware...the whole Megillah.  Yet our strict adherence to the rules of kashrut seemed to decrease steadily in tandem with Papa Izzy's height as he aged and, when he passed away, we somehow lost the desire (and to be quite frank, the need) to put forth the extra effort.

Away from the confines of our abode was an entirely different story.  I was exposed to the glory of cheeseburgers as a youngster, and pig was just another red meat.  So my rearing sent a lot of mixed signals - kosher (ish) in the house, whatever the hell else you wanted outside.  Thus, while I strictly abide by the no leavens rule during Passover, I have zero qualms with devouring a ham and cheese sando on matzoh. 


I guess it comes as no surprise, then, that the first food event I attended in San Francisco was the "Bacon Takedown," held at the Thirsty Bear merely three weeks after my arrival.  Fifteen chefs and one not-so-secret ingredient combined to be what I'd imagine heaven to be like.  

Yet of all the porky goodness I experienced, there were two that stood out snout and ears above the rest.  The first was an ice cream sundae with bacon salted caramel and a piece of signature "Bacon Crack" from Kai Kronfeld of NoshThis.  This was a no-fail dessert - the sweet/salty combo charged ahead and the contrasting flavors toyed in my mouth back and forth as the cold ice cream played with the warm sauce.

The second took me by surprise.  It was so unassuming, so...normal.  Normal looking, that is.  Chef Trace Williams' Bourbon Bacon Jam stole my heart.  Holy wow - even a year removed I can still taste how sweet and jammy it was thanks to the caramelized onions, but with a huge bite of bourbon (I believe she said that she used one bottle per batch) and crispy little bits of bacon nudged into the otherwise smooth spread.  I was so taken with it that, after the competition was over, Chef Trace packed me up a to-go container of what I still contend to be the best jam I've ever experienced.

Fast forward a few months after we had kept in touch intermittently via Twitter, and I receive a random message from @FarmThrowDown asking me if I'd like to be a judge at this upcoming food competition.  On the one hand, I was on cloud nine.  Trying to make it "big" in the food world, I was ecstatic that someone though enough of my incessant tweets and limited knowledge to invite me to participate in such an activity!

On the other hand, I've seen enough Nigerian-prince-held-hostage scams to last me a lifetime.

Against my better judgment, perhaps, I wrote back for some clarification only to find out that it was Chef Trace herself, who was the lead behind organizing this event.  She explained that it was a fundraiser called, "Throwdown on the Farm," a food competition to benefit Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution in the East Bay.  A phenomenal foundation with a mission that, according to Oliver, "...aims to inspire people to reconnect with food. It's all about raising awareness and individual responsibility, resuscitating dying food culture around the world and, ultimately, keeping cooking skills alive."


So, after finding out the legitimacy of the event (to which you can STILL BUY TICKETS!), I dove right in.  Chef Trace welcomed me with open arms and invited me into her circle.  Throught the force of Twitter, I have been introduced to chefs and co-judges alike.  DMs, RTs, MTs...we have managed to form our own little community over the past few months just through social media.  Between food jokes and puns, pictures, and excitement over the event itself, we have managed to "talk" at least a few times a week - sometimes multiple times a day.  I can tell you a tremendous amount about a ton of these folks.  You can check out some bios at, but trust when I say these are some of the most fun, passionate people I have come across.

Remember, we have never actually met.

After some delays, they have finally arrived in San Francisco, and tomorrow will be the first time I have the honor and privilege to not only meet these accomplished chefs, but to taste their (surely) incredible dishes.  

Chef Trace - I owe you all the gratitude in the world, and I am forever in your debt.  Rest assured that I will gladly lend you my hands and the little culinary experience I have any time you're ever in need.  I can not tell you how much I am looking forward to tomorrow's fantastic event.

Please visit Chef Trace's website if you are ever in need of some of the most quality catering you can find in the Bay Area.

Expect a post filled with outstanding food and stunning personalities.  

Nosh on,


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My First Second Date

It finally happened, and I feel like the luckiest girl at the ball.

Of all the culinary adventures upon which I have embarked, this was the first time that I have had a planned, repeat encounter with people I've randomly met at a food event.

The traditional pattern has been something along the lines of finding a food source, meeting a random person or people by virtue of my butting into conversations in which I clearly don't belong, having a great conversation with tasty treats, and leaving with nothing more than a full stomach and a decent story.

Not this time.

As you may recall, I met a lovely couple at the recent B. Patisserie popup, and we really hit it off.  Almost immediately, I felt as though there was something different about this particular encounter.  Something clicked. Something resonated.  Something was, to be quite honest, special.  And it isn't anything on which you can put your finger or that can be described in words.  I think I may have fallen for a couple...


But I digress.  We exchanged email addresses and chatted a bit, until they surprised me with an invite to the East Bay for brunch this past Sunday.

Be still my beating heart!  A second date!?

Please don't get the wrong impression - I've been on PLENTY of second dates...

As a repeat customer...

But that was mostly about the food.  When you want a morning bun from Tartine, a hot bowl of Ramen from Hapa Ramen or some Humprhy Slocombe Secret Breakfast, nothing else will do.  And rarely did I run into the same people or have nearly the same personal interactions.  However, this time, I was the one being courted.  They wanted to be with me!  The food would serve as the medium; the rallying point.  But the crux of the meeting was to try and mimic that same experience of being together.

They like me - they really like me!

And I felt the exact same way about them.

So, giddy and giggly, we planned to meet for brunch at one of their favorite spots in the East Bay.  A bicycle trip, a bart ride, and another bicycle trip and I arrived at our destination.  Early, of course - only to find out that it was closed for Father's Day.  

A quick phone call to regroup and we were off to Lois The Pie Queen - a destination they wanted to cross off of their bucket list before they head off to Portland.  A soul food haven for East Bay dwellers to rival the best of the best.  Four miles on the bike and a ten minute drive landed us at our destination almost simultaneously.

Everyone landed upon their orders pretty quickly - except for me of course.  For those of you who know me, it will come as no surprise that I changed my order after it was placed.

I'm the worst.

Bacon, Eggs, Hotcake 

Chicken and Waffles

Salmon Croquettes, Grits, Poached Eggs

Piecing together her ideal meal from our originally planned locale, Leeann made her mix of a hotcake, bacon, and eggs.  Jacob went for the classic chicken and waffles (on which I almost doubled up before my re-neg), and I opted for the salmon croquettes with grits and poached eggs.

I really wanted to be head-over-heels about the dishes.  The atmosphere was simultaneously dive-y and homey.  Tables were filled with those who I can only assume were recently returning from Sunday church services, happy couples, and regulars.  The staff was fantastic - extremely attentive, always there for your warm-up and the company was perfection.  Everything about it made it hard not to love the dishes...but I just couldn't.

Jacob's waffle was paper thin: not nearly enough to hold up to the chicken, which looked less than meaty (though I didn't have a bite to confirm my theory).  Leeann's hotcakes were fine, but nothing about which to write home - though apparently enough about which to blog home.  My croquettes were texturally playful - a nice crispy outside with a soft, salmon-y interior akin to a smooth crab cake or a finer salmon rillettes.  I would have loved some chunks of salmon stuck in there.  The grits were gritty and the poached eggs were a bit overdone and without much yolk to them.  The best phrase I can use to describe the plate is "one-dimensional."

We finished off with (bites of slices) of banana cream pie and mixed berry pie.  The mixed berry pie filling was replete with chunky fruit and was capped with a crispy, flaky crust.  The banana cream was good as well, piled high with whipped cream, but again, I'd probably pass if asked again.

Later, Leeann emailed me to let me know that she thought the meal itself was a letdown, and that it didn't hold a candle to the previously planned spot.  However, the company (i.e. me!) was great - and free, to boot!

Yes, I'm a cheap date, ladies.

Some would say, "priceless."

They say that a great chef can salvage almost any dish.  I contend that great company can do just the same.  Not that this food needed saving by any means - it was pretty good.  I'd take Brenda's in a New York minute, but Lois gave us a decent meal.   Though I'm not sure how it would have tasted if I weren't with Leeann and Jacob....

And isn't that the point?

Nosh on,

P.S. - For those of you interested, we do have plans to see each other again.  I think this is getting serious...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

More Than The Sum Of Its Parts: Flour+Water

An SF "must," Flour+Water has been on my radar since I moved here just about a year ago.  However, it was always like my Disney World growing up in Ft. Lauderdale - it was close but not close enough to warrant the wait I would need to endure.  By the time I realized that I wanted to go, reservations were already booked solid, so I just threw it to the back burner.

That was, until tonight.  My close friends had been in a similar predicament, yet decided that for the birthday boy (Happy Birthday Jeff!), we would make the trek down upon opening, take our chances, and hope for the best.

Little did we know the endeavor for which we were in store....

The Birthday Boy!
Awaiting a fourth, we began with the smoked sturgeon antipasti.  Thick, meaty slices of smoked fish were polka-dotted on the plate with bright red beets and cubed cucumbers.  The sturgeon was almost steak-like in the best possible way, with an earthy taste that complimented the soil-grown beets.  The tang of the créme frâiche and dill were refreshing and took the dish "out of the ground," so to speak.

Smoked Sturgeon w/ Beets, Cucumbers, Whipped Créme Frâiche & Dill
The beets spilled a nice pink liquid that, when mixed with the créme frâiche made a really nice dipping sauce that complimented the house-made bread quite nicely (like I was going to let that go to waste...).  The interior was soft but a tad too chewy, while the crust was as flaky and crunchy as I could have hoped.

Flour, of Flour+Water

Then came the real fun.  Chalk it up to hunger; chalk it up to being ecstatic that we finally made it and didn't want to leave without trying as many things as we could stomach; chalk it up to every menu item sounding better than the one preceding it; chalk it up to a birthday celebration.

Or, just call us fat.  We don't really care.

Three pasta dishes and two pizzas for four people.  Was it a lot of food?  Sure.  Did it all get consumed happily?  Save for two slices, you bet your ass.

Before we go any further, I'm going to qualify all of the pasta dishes with one vital detail - the noodles were cooked to perfection.  And I'm not talking pretty good, and I'm not talking great - I mean dead-on-balls accurate.  A dreamy al-dente with enough texture to make your mouth realize it had solid food and yet a smoothness that brought you back to the days of eating comforting childhood staples.

Taleggio Scarpinocc with Aceto Balsamico
Definitely the crowd favorite, the taleggio was outstanding.  At the table, I said aloud that the shape didn't quite do it for me, until I came to the realization that, well, it did.  See, the thing about pasta is that it needs to match the sauce in which it is served.  Some styles mesh well with others (i.e. macaroni and cheese works because the cheese can ooze its way through cylindrical tubes...), and others just don't.  In trying to think of a better pasta for this particular dish, I drew a complete blank, which is when I realized why this worked so well.

The scarpinocc look like shallow bowls, or deeper plates, with handles on either end.  This creates a tiny well in which the sauce or topping can rest, yet not overpower the pasta itself.  Because this dish was simply topped with tallegio and a drizzle of balsamic (30-year aged, I believe she said), it was the perfect vessel to be filled.  Tallegio is a milder cheese, yet still lent the essential saltiness, while the aceto balsamico was the ideal counterbalance for sweetness - almost syrupy.  The combination, and more importantly, the proportion of salt to sweet that filled those tiny plates, made this dish a winner.

Fava & Ricotta Mezzaluna w/ Whey, Preserved Meyer Lemon & Tarragon
Pasta dish number two - the half-moon dumplings filled with a house-made ricotta and a fava bean mixture.  Our waitress (Sam) didn't need to tell me that the ricotta was home-made - that was obvious.  Creamy and slightly gritty and a rustic sort of way, the seasonal favas and the cheese made a tasty center.  I know it is a fine line when it comes to filling and overfilling pasta, especially when the dough itself is so wonderful, but I feel this could have been a touch fuller.  I could have just been greedy and wanted to have more of the innards, or it could have just brought a hefty component to the plate.

The unsung hero of this dish, however, was the preserved meyer lemon.  In gathering all the components, it contained a good amount of grounded flavors: the favas, the cheese and whey, even the dough.  But the lemon elevated the dish with a spark of brightness.  Without it, the plate would have been all earth tones, yet when I bit into that tiny lemon nugget, I could taste the dish being lifted (quite literally) up to where the lemon was hanging from the tree, higher and higher, until a harmonious balance existed between the minerality of the legumes and freshness of the citrus.

Black Pepper Pappardelle w/ Quail, Cherries, Pine Nuts & Torpedo Onions
Finally (for pastas, at least...), was our heaviest dish of the three.  The quail was the consistency of a pulled pork, with chopped up cherries and onions for sweetness and a sprinkling of pine nuts for good measure.  Beyond amazing, this could be the best representation of quail I've ever encountered.  Plus, no tiny bones about which to worry.  Score another one for team Flour+Water. 

As I gazed upon the beautiful, black pepper-specked sheets of parppardelle, I knew I was in for something special.  Again, texture was on point, but I really wish the black pepper kicked me in the throat.  It was subtle, which is normally a huge plus for me.  Though with SO much else going on, I think they could have punched it up a notch.  Had this been a more simply topped dish, I think it would have been right on the "dough."

Our pizzas arrived swiftly after our pastas disappeared.  First up was the traditional margherita:

Tomato, Basil, Fior di Latte & Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Normally, traditional pizza just doesn't tickle my fancy.  I mean, push comes to shove, I'd much rather have a pizza with pork belly (which we did...hold your horses) then a regular ol' tomato/basil combo you can get anywhere.  

Well, way to prove me wrong, F+W (can I call you that now?)

How they did it, I just can't fathom.  They managed to have the basil permeate the entire slice, not just the bite with the leaf itself.  Every single bite had fruity olive oil, creamy fior di latte, and a leafy basil slap in the face that had me do a double-take to make sure there was no pesto on it.  

Second, we went for the maiele:

Cured Pork Belly, Broccolini, Fontal, Spring Onions & Calabrian Chili
Bacon, in all its forms, is the highest honor you can bestow upon any food item.  This is no exception.  I am quite glad they included some form of green so I could justify at least a portion (however small) of this meal as a serving of vegetable.  It also gave it a crunchy mouthfeel which I rather enjoyed playing off of the chewy dough.  The warming sensation from the chili was not the least bit overbearing, even for a spice wuss such as I, and added another dimension.  The only thing I would have wanted was perhaps to have caramelized onions instead so that the biting saltiness of the pork belly and cheese was evened out.

Additionally - for 99% of the crust on each pie, it was spot on.  A great cracking thin crust with a little chew before you hit the sauce and cheese.  Yet there was just one spot in the dead center that was just thin enough that the sauce/olive oil/cheese made it soft before I could get that same crunch as I did everywhere else. But again, pretty damn near perfect. 

And what birthday dinner would be complete without dessert?  

A bad one.

So, we got the ever-popular chocolate budino:

Chocolate Budino, Espresso Caramel Cream and Sea Salt
Imagine, if you will, the creamiest truffle filling you've ever had.  Go on, I'll give you a minute...

Start with that as a base, and top it with a fluffy coffee and caramel flavored whipped cream.  If that weren't enough, sprinkle some flaky sea salt on top to really bring out that sweetness.  Now I know that the "add-salt-to-sweet" thing has been around for a while.  But my biggest pet peeve is that people are still generally afraid to take full advantage of the extreme benefits to be had.  F+W doesn't F around with the salt.  It was generous and there was no doubt about the fact that they added it liberally to the top to ensure you got a few flakes in every bite.  For me, that threw this dessert over the top and made it a home run. 

As for the "worth the wait" issue that is constantly raised.  Trick question.  I would absolutely wait 30-45 minutes for a table here for a bunch of reasons: I love the cozy, homey atmosphere, you can easily grab a glass of white and chat while gearing up for the experience head, and, well the food is worth that type of wait.  But here's a little secret:

You don't have to! If your plans allow it, just show up early.  While the space is on the small side, they reserve roughly half the tables for walk ins.  Plan this strategically, and you'll be well on your way to a delicious, flavorful Italian food experience.   

A special thanks goes out to our server, Sam, for an incredible wine recommendation, a delightfully jovial demeanor, wonderful smile, good conversation, quick service, and a candle in Jeff's dessert.  

Birthday dinners are supposed to be special, and this is surely one we won't forget.  


Nosh on,

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Bride, A Groom, A Pop-Up, A Macaron

It all started with a pastry whose name I couldn't pronounce.

I first came across the now ubiquitous Kouign Amann at Farm:Table, and not knowing entirely what it was, was persuaded (quite easily, to be sure) to pick one up on my inaugural visit.  I will save the details of my love affair with this crispy sugary croissant at a later date, but this divine experience had an even greater impact on my palate of pastries, as it introduced me to Belinda Leong.

Belinda, owner of B. Patisserie (Facebook and Twitter), is no newbie to the world of sweets.  She spent one year in Paris under the tutelage of Pierre Hermé (macaron KING of the world), supplied pastries to Bar Agricole, and was Head Pastry Chef at Manresa as well a little restaurant called Gary Danko - just to name a few.

This ain't her first rodeo.  

It is no exaggeration that every time I was able to get my hands on one of her pastries, I took full advantage.  Working down in the South Bay, my pickings are generally slim.  Places that carry her creations are either not open at 6am, close by the time I return home, or have been long sold out.  My weekend jaunts about town, however, are often times accompanied by a little piece of indulgence when I can snag one.  

When I found out that Belinda was popping up at the Four Barrel Alley this Sunday, I knew I had to be there.  I purposely ignored the menu she posted just days before, because to be honest, it didn't much matter to me what she was serving - I knew it would be stellar and I would happily devour it.

Now if there's one thing I'm good at, it's being on time.  And by "on time" I mean ten minutes early.  So, as I hopped on my bike and made my way down Caledonia, I was taken aback by the line that had already formed!  

The Crowd
People really want Belinda's goods.  

As I stood in line, I eyed the menu and saw that most of the items strayed from her normal offerings! 

The Glorious Spread

She had her classic KA, as well as one with an apricot and cherry center.  However, there were so many items I had yet to try, I actually skipped over both of those in favor of diversification.  After an internal battle regarding my decisions, I finally decided on the two I was getting.  First, the "White Chocolate Coffee Macaron with Chocolate Toffee Ganache," and second, the "Sugar Brioche Tart with Summer Berries and Vanilla Cream."

White Chocolate Coffee Macaron with Chocolate Toffee Ganache

Sugar Brioche with Summer Berries and Vanilla Cream

Knowing that Belinda spent time with Pierre himself, I was fired up to try this macaron.  Ever since visiting Paris two summers ago and experiencing the wonder that is a Pierre Herme macaron, I have been on a seemingly fruitless search for anything comparable.  As I bit into it, I knew I was getting much, MUCH closer to my answer.  The part of the macaron that is hardest to replicate is that initial crispy, flaky exterior, and Belinda nailed it . My teeth just cracked the outside, and fell softly into the bed of the cookie.  Here, I though, it was just a bit too chewy.  It is entirely possible that it could have been due to the size of the macaron (which was probably two inches in diameter) - just a little too big. Or, it may have needed to come to room temperature, as my second one (yes, second one, thanks to the lovely staff that let me have a slightly cracked one!  THANKS!) was better.  However, I completely forgot about that once I let the flavors meld together in my mouth.  None of the flavors were too pronounced as to dominate the cookie, yet each one played well off of the next.  The ganache was smooth as silk, and coffee/chocolate/white chocolate complimented each other perfectly.

The sugar brioche was up next.  Killer good.  What I think Belinda does best of all in each of her confections is that she achieves balance.  Here, the brioche was buttery and sweet, but in a subtle way.  The cream was light, and the berries added a brightness that contrasted with the vanilla components.  It was almost like a handheld brioche pancake with berries and cream.  

I started asking around how people found out about her pop-up.  Mostly the answers were along the lines of a Spaceballs relationship: "My brother's cousin knows a guy who had one of her pastries at a friend's bachelorette party..."

Word of mouth travels a long, LONG way.  

Other attendees included personal friends of hers, former Gary Danko colleagues, and just regular Four Barrel customers in for a happy surprise.  But as I re-entered the line for my second round on the tip that her caramelized onion and bacon tart tasted like French Onion soup (yes, my dedication to this blog knows no caloric bounds. You're welcome.), I received the best answer of the day:

"She's actually catering our wedding, and we've only had her Kouign Amann."

  Leeann and Jacob!

Yes, Leeann and Jacob decided to enlist Belinda's expertise for their wedding, having only known her from her KAs and glowing recommendations.  Neither of them consider themselves "cake people," so they wanted to take a more untraditional route for desserts.  (P.S. - the main course at their wedding will be served by Jon Darsky, formerly of Flour+Water and now owner of Del Popolo pizza truck) 

You two are my heroes.  

Freshly stocked with a French Tart Flan and the savory "French Onion Soup"tart, the three of us took our seats on the sidewalk and exchanged stories.  The two met in D.C., where they were both involved in environmental work in one form or another.  They uprooted to the west coast to be closer to some family, and are actually only here until Jacob starts law school (for environmental law) at Lewis and Clark Law School.  Leeann works for an environmental non-profit and is from Ann Arbor (GO BLUE!), and her brother is actually in the Hockey Pep Band: the best band in the country.  Fact.

After the wedding, they'll take a "mini-moon" before heading up to Portland.  Such incredibly nice people who deserve nothing but the best that life has to offer.  They just seemed to genuinely happy together, and not in that really annoying clingy-kissy-pet names way.  Just plain happy.  

Maybe it was the sugar high, but I doubt it.

Their wedding will be in a small little park in San Mateo at the end of July, and though I just met them, am so excited for their lives ahead together (and, you know, the amazing food they'll have at the reception.)  

I promise my priorities are in order.  

We shared our desserts, and they even let me try some of the potential wedding items that Belinda had made for them!  (For what it's worth, the lemon curd/granola/fruit has my vote.  I think with the park setting and the weather, it would be much more appropriate and delicious.  Then again, I'm not a chocolate fan, though that pudding was fantastic.)

Yogurt, Lemon Curd, Fruit and Granola

From what I understand, most couples taste a dozen or so cakes before they find the perfect flavors and textures for which they're looking.  How incredible is that that merely a reputation and one pastry was enough for a couple entrust their entire wedding catering?  

No need when that person is Belinda Leong. 

I guess I should get back to the food.  

Alsatian Caramelized Onion/Bacon Tart

The caramelized onion and bacon tart was just as touted - a handheld french onion soup with the crust as the crouton!  The onions were soft and sweet, with a layer of tangy crème fraîche spiked with salty bacon bits and topped with swiss cheese.  Seriously, if you want french onion soup in a portable form, you won't get anything better than this!  It would be an awesome summertime lunch when you don't want hot soup and still want to feel fancy.  

The real surprise for me, however, was the French Tart Flan.  I'm not usually a flan fan, but I figured since I had tried virtually everything else on the menu, why not go all-out?  

French Tart Flan
Let's start from the bottom up.  The pâte brisée crust managed to stay crisp despite holding the weight of the custardy flan.  It was flaky and had a wonderful snap to it after you sunk through the creamy, smooth insides.  The "flan" did not have your traditional wiggly jello-esque consistency.  Instead, it had a smooth, thick, creamy mouthfeel with the only differing texture coming from the actual vanilla bean specs studded throughout.  The vanilla was the star here, and it shone through and through.  

Belinda - I wish you nothing but all of the success you deserve.  You have proven yourself in restaurants around the world, but now you have the chance to show your stuff for what it really is: your own.  I feel lucky to have such easy access to your work, and rest assured that I will continue to consume it as often as I am physically able.

Leeann and Jacob -  May your life together be as rich in happiness as Belinda's Kouign Amanns are in butter and sugar :)

Nosh On,

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tourists at Local: Mission Eatery

Picking a restaurant for twelve people is easy.

Picking a restaurant that twelve people will actually enjoy is not.

So, when my friends from Florida (now living out here) and I knew we were playing host to our families over Memorial Day weekend, we racked our brains for somewhere, anywhere, that might have decent potential to even seat us, let alone feed us.

"How about the dough room at Flour+Water?"
"Gluten allergy.  And it's booked."

"I really love Firefly!"
"They don't take reservations of more than eight people."

...on and on like this for days, and we still couldn't come up with anything.  The restaurant either couldn't accommodate a group of our size, was unavailable, or didn't have a food type "safe" enough to appease so many different palates.

Finally, I remembered hearing about Local: Mission Eatery, but knew it was pretty small.  Running out of options, I decided to try my luck and, lo and behold, we had a winner!  They could work with our food allergies, could seat all of us, and with the ubiquitous "New American" food categorization, we had to have a winner.



I'll get to the hospitality section later, but let's get onto the part you'll really like.  We were welcomed with open arms and lavender almonds.  While they certainly weren't for everyone, they were a huge hit for those of us who loved them.  The essence of the lavender was definitely present, but not overbearing in that, "I'm eating flowers" sort of way.  The aroma filled our nostrils as the sweet and crunchy almonds still played a vital part of the overall flavor.  They gave me a really relaxed, lazy-night-at-home feeling that made me warm inside.  The lavender bubble bath of the culinary world, if you will.

Lavender Almonds

Afterward, we were presented with shots of chilled asparagus soup topped with a small chiffonade of basil, and it was at this point that I knew we had made a phenomenal decision.  We were in the clear.  Our decision was going to pay off.  No mini glass bowl was left unlicked, as each of us tried our best to be "appropriate" but failed miserably.  Yet if you knew this group, you wouldn't expect anything less.  

 Chilled Asparagus Soup, Basil

The soup was more like a pudding - super thick and impossibly creamy due to the, well, cream.  But the beauty was in the simplicity of the ingredients: asparagus, cream, and spices.  Done and done.  

A duo of salads followed.  Both served family style, one had asparagus, home-made black olive oil, preserved blood orange, squash, arugula and mint, while the other was a new potato salad with artichokes, kale, soft farm egg, and pickled mustard seed aioli.  

New Potato Salad

Asparagus Salad

The table was evenly split in its favorites.  After everyone took a small, polite portion of each, we quickly found who liked what and polished off the rest.  Normally an asparagus lover through and through, there was something about that new potato salad that really blew me away.  A perfect combination of crispy fried and boiled potatoes, the textures played off of each other a little nicer for me.  But the kicker was that mustard seed aioli - creamy with a salty bite and a sinus-tingling, light horseradish quality.  Killer good.

The asparagus salad was no joke, to be clear.  Ideally cooked green spears had a great snap with none of that stringy skin that can sometimes form, the arugula provided the necessary peppery bite that contrasted well with the sweet preserved orange.  Again, very good, but I can't get my mind off of those potatoes. 

The ricotta agnolotti with english peas, carrots, fava beans and preserved meyer lemon was fine, bud didn't quite blow me away as much as some of the other dishes did.  The produce was clearly fresh, bright, and tasty, but at the end of the day it was a good pasta plate.  

Ricotta Agnolotti 

Of this food pairing, the polenta cooked in whey was whey better (sorry, too easy).  Creamy polenta with large hunks of creamy goat gouda and a poached egg and charred pickled onions.  My only complaint was that I wish I had another egg, but I guess that's just me -  I'll do just about anything for a runny yolk.  The onions gave the cheesy dish a great dose of acid and texture so it wasn't simply a rich mush and really brightened it up.  

Polenta in Whey, Goat Gouda, Charred Pickled Onion

The main dish (as if these weren't main enough...) came in the form of three doses of protein.  First, grilled quail with braised little gems, strawberry sofrito, turnips and jus.  I really dug the strawberry sofrito mixed with the braised little gems.  I liked the quail, but the tiny bones are always a turn-off for me.  Taste-wise, it was as great as everything else, but I can never get enough meat from the quail to make it worth my while.  

Grilled Quail

For the meat eaters who were afraid they may not have found anything else they could/would eat, they brought us roasted ribeye with hen of the woods, red potatoes, and baby rapini.  Perfectly medium rare steak was elegant and melted in my mouth.  (Not pictured, sorry!) 

However, ask anyone at the table what the best dish was, and the answer was unanimous: the salmon.  None of us have ever tasted salmon so...salmony.  Mind you, this is completely different from fishy.  The pure flavor of salmon was intensified into each and every bite.  And as good as the flavor was, the texture was even better.  It was the softest, smoothest salmon from top to bottom that I have ever experienced.  I could have sworn it was cooked sous vide, and would have put my very mediocre food reputation on the line.  But when I asked the chef, she told me that they simply put it between two parchment sheets and cooked it, "Really low for a really long time."  

King Salmon

If I had to describe the texture, it was like a fluffy, soft, heavenly pillow of magic that somehow still had that wonderful flaky layering effect.  Somewhere between sushi and, for lack of a better word, not sushi.  It still haunts my dreams in the best possible way, and I want to go back just for three orders of that to eat alone in a dark corner and not care who sees it.  

Knowing that Shauna of Knead Patisserie was in charge of the desserts here, I couldn't turn them down.  She is one of my two favorite pastry chefs in the city and has the talent (let alone the lines at her pastry shop) to back it up.  My experiences with her pomme d'amour and croissant (which I still contend are the best in the city, by far) were enough to have us order two of each item. 

Chocolate Pot de Creme, Coffee Foam, Cookies with Cream

Strawberry Delice

Cherry Fancier

The chocolate pot de creme was so thick, rich, and incredibly satisfying, even for a non-chocolate lover like myself.  The coffee foam on top was too light to have been real, and the chewy chocolate cookies with fresh cream were devine.  The strawberry delice had all sorts of crazy wonderful textures: crunchy, creamy, chewy... and used some wonderful in-season strawberries.  The almond cake in the cherry fancier was killer, and the cherries were plump and plentiful.  A perfectly sweet ending.

This meal turned people on to foods that I know they would not otherwise have eaten.  I think I saw my father eat a dark leafy green, meat-and-potatoes people were given a whole new twist on the theme, and the meal lit a bulb over the heads of previous onion haters.  

Props if you got that last joke.

LME showed people what local, fresh ingredients can really do.  As my mother said, "I've never tasted anything this real before."

And that's what LME is about - a farm-to-table concept with stellar cooking skills that showcase the ingredients available at hand.

We could not stop talking about this meal all weekend, which I guess is the point of going out to dinner with a large group.  Sure, you need to actually eat, but when you can eat, talk, and drink during the meal itself and continue talking about it for days to come, the chefs have succeeded and the people are happy.

And we are happy indeed.

As promised, a quick note about the incredible hospitality that was shown to us.  First, they were able to accommodate all of our food allergies - and I know that this has become somewhat more manageable, it was fantastic that they let us be so picky with a family style meal.  Second, we were running late after a somewhat exhausting bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, and they moved our reservation back an our and a half without making so much as a peep about it.  They gladly made room for us and allowed us to join them.  Finally, our server, Joyful, was just that.  Joyful.  Delightful.  Wonderful.  She anticipated everyone's wine/water/plate needs, and always with a gigantic smile. 

And she was cute, to boot.  Call me.  

Local: Mission Eatery, you now have fans from here and afar.  From the bottom of our hearts, thanks for feeding us.  

Nosh on,

Saturday, May 26, 2012

(Great) Divide and Conquer

Clearly, all of my disposable income goes to food, but still a newbie to San Francisco, I don't quite have a grasp of the entire spectrum of food events around town.  Fortunately, I have friends who do, and I had the pleasure of attending the Monk's Kettle "Dinner of the Trappist" back in February.  Having experienced firsthand what a stellar job the Monk's Kettle team does at food and beer pairings, there was no doubt in my mind that when the menu for the Great Divide dinner was announced for this past Monday AND knowing one of my best friends would be in town that tickets were to be purchased immediately.

Good decision, or best decision?

I've always found the staff at Monk's Kettle to be not only intelligent and informative, but more importantly, happy.   Then again, what is there not to love about working in a place where you are surrounded by fantastic beer and delicious food and, generally speaking, a crowd that can appreciate it?

Brian, Kevin, and Hedes

Three of us were welcomed with smiles and, in contrast by name, Hedes - a Belgian-style golden ale packing some heat for our reception at 7.8% ABV.  Light, crisp, and fruity, this is one of those that will sneak up on you and kick you in the pants before you realize what hit you.  Apparently, most Belgian ales have these demonic names, because what better describes Belgium than the devil?

Not originally planned for the menu, head chef Adam Dulye was inspired by the peach notes in the Hedes and the ripe peaches at the Ferry Building Farmers Market just a few days earlier to create a crostini with peaches, candied bacon and fromage blanc.  The fruity sweetness was pleasant, the saltiness of the bacon gave it a nice contrast, and the fromage blanc was smooth and mellow.  The pairing was just light enough to whet the appetite in anticipation for courses to come.

Peach, candied bacon, fromage blanc

For me, the best parts of these pairings are the explanations from those who actually know what the hell they're talking about: namely, Mike Reis, beer program co-director and certified cicerone.  Mike intelligibly walked us through the process of finding these beers and their perfect pairings, as well as the occasional interesting tidbit about the beer name itself.  Colette, for example, was chosen when the brewers at Great Divide tasted their farmhouse ale and imagined walking through the fields and happening upon a pretty young woman and thought, "What would this young girl's name be?"

Apparently, it was Colette.

I Want To Love You - Pretty Young Thing (PYT)

Lots of tree fruits here - bananas, apples, and perhaps a little grapefruit bitterness coming through, in addition to some earthy undertones.  A nice "funk" that you get from some farmhouse ales, that subtly reminded me of some Jolly Pumpkin beers I'd had back in Ann Arbor.  As for the food pairing - some roasted cauliflower, spring peas, and what was supposed to be a bintje potato brandade.  Let's say that Chef Adam took some liberty with the "brandade," - the salt cod was removed, for one, and the potatoes were deep fried.

Good decision, or best decision?

Roasted Vegetables, Spring Peas, Bintje Potato Brandade

I'm glad the salt cod was removed - I don't think that would have played well into the rest of the dish, and I think it would have overpowered the beer in a bad way.  As for the potato - well, can you really do harm by deep frying anything?  Crispy outside, and smooth starch innards made these a hit, and the earthy root vegetables helped to bring out Colette's more subtle features.  The kicker for me was the very light lemon zest that really made the dish pop and tie it all together.  And, you know, it looked pretty.

A term of endearment or friendship, Hoss had the least friendly food pairing.  The beer itself was solid - almost like eating a slice of rye bread, it had deep caramel undertones and a grainy-ness that made me want to pour it over some pastrami and let my inner New York Jew have a field day.  The dish was a boudin blanc with caraway dumplings and a currant chutney.  I think the issue here was the sausage, which, though cooked perfectly, just didn't have the flavor that I wanted it to have.  I think a fennel sausage may have played better into Hoss's strengths.  The caraway dumplings were phenomenal, made almost more like a spaetzle, and the sweet currant chutney cut right through the spice of the rye.

Hoss - Named For Writing On A Kid's T-Shirt

Boudin Blanc, Currant Chutney, Caraway Dumpling

The 18th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA was up next, and it didn't disappoint.  Strong bourbon flavors really hit from the wood-aging, along with some deep red fruits and a hoppy backbone.  

18th Anniversary Wood Aged DIPA

Game hen two ways was the pairing of choice.  The roast was a bit dry, but the confit was quite literally falling off the bone.  The corn and fava bean cassoulet was fresh and bright, and added a nice crunch to counter the soft protein.  This was the first time that I had a cured egg yolk, which is apparently just made by dumping an egg yolk in salt and letting it sit there until it turns into a giant jelly bean of a yellowy deliciousness.  Overall, a solid dish with a great beer.  

Game Hen Two Ways, Shell Bean Cassoulet, Cured Egg Yolk

The beer we had all been waiting for had arrived not a moment too soon.  The Yeti, an Imperial Stout that clocked in at a fun 9.5% ABV, was a treat in-and-of itself.  Easily consumable as a dessert by itself, the aromas of dark chocolate and coffee were matched with a pleasant bitterness and a sweetness of molasses.  

Yetis Apparently Do Exist...And Are Delicious 

What impressed me most was that Chef didn't take the easy route.  Sure, throw a delicious imperial stout in with virtually any coffee or chocolate dessert and you've got yourself a winning pairing.  However, the easy route is rarely fun.  Instead, salmon smoked over oyster shells with asparagus and black truffle potato gratin was the venture.  

Oyster Shell Hot Smoked Salmon, Asparagus, Black Truffle Potato Gratin

As much as I LOVED the flavor of the salmon, it was pretty dry.  And sure, I understand that cooking salmon is difficult, let alone for 50 people, but I was nonetheless disappointed.  The potatoes were wonderful - creamy and cheesy...scallopy?  And the dish as a whole was a phenomenal pair - despite the stretch from an imperial stout to an untraditional dish.

Finally, the last taste of the night - the Titan IPA paired with hop sugared pretzel donuts, white chocolate, and candied orange preserve.  

Titan IPA

The Titan had a surprisingly light feel to it - a hint of orange and citrus on the back and a nice, well rounded hop character.  It went really well with the preserves, which was more like a syrup than I envision a preserve to be.  The citrus notes of each played off of each other well.  Yet for whatever reason, the white chocolate really stood out to all of us.  It managed to stay at a point that was not clawingly sweet and was a smooth saucy texture. 

A Box....

Of Hop Sugared Pretzel Donuts...

With White Chocolate and Candied Orange Preserve

I attempted a bite of the pretzel donut on its own.  Chewy innards, crispy exterior, hoppy sugar coating, and an awesome pretzel taste.  Well done.  But then I tried mixing and matching the dipping sauces - each individually, then in tandem.  Somehow, the simple bite of all three components made for a taste that hit all the right senses - sweet, savory, bitter...but I guess that was the point.

Three men; three best friends - employed full-time and reunited after a long year apart, using our minimal amount of disposable income on an incredible dining experience.  We owe this great memory to you, Great Divide and Monk's Kettle.  Thank you for a night we will never forget.

Nosh on,

Saturday, May 19, 2012

How to Start a Vacation - Outerlands

Lately, I've been a bit stressed out at work.  Even in the non-profit sector, the stresses to raise money to further your cause and ensure a balanced budget are not lost on any member of the team.  So, after countless hours wearing multiple hats, my vacation could not have come at a better time.  Strategically planned around Memorial Day, a ten-day excursion in the Bay began as one of my best friends flew into SFO tonight.

As I left the office, putting out as many preemptive fires as I could possibly imagine, I was ready to let go, sit back, and enjoy the ride...

That took 45 minutes longer than usual thanks to the pleasure cruise that is rush hour traffic.

I must admit that despite the pressures of my job and the bumper-to-bumper commute to the airport, nearly all was forgotten at the sight of Brian.  It had been almost a full year since I had seen him last, just before I left college for San Francisco.  Just as happy as always, Brian gives off this incredible energy that just makes you want to be around him all the time.  He was a sight for sore eyes in that magical "guy love" sort of way.  But I digress...

The first meal with someone who visits your city (yes, this is my city now, thank you very much) is always an important one.  It sets the tone for the rest of the trip: one bad dinner and you spend the rest of your time trying to pick up the restaurant's slack, but a great one and you're full, happy, and ready to take on the world.

We received the latter at Outerlands.

I had been there for brunch (which was beyond phenomenal), but had always wanted to try their dinner.  A cozy atmosphere with rustic, fresh, farm-to-table ingredients was exactly what I needed to shake off the work-week funk in which I sat, and Outerlands fit the bill perfectly.

Brian had been adhering to the Paleo diet, which excludes gluten entirely.  For this trip, however, he decided to step away, and so what better spot to take him than one known for its bread that, in my personal opinion, is better than Tartine.  Yes, I said it, and I will say it again - BETTER THAN TARTINE.

Bread And Butter Is My Bread and Butter

My one gripe (which isn't even that big, all things considered), is that you never know how long you may have to wait.  They don't pick up the phone, they don't take reservations, and they are way the hell out in the...don't make me say it...However, we were already in the car and I was having trouble finding parking by my house, so we decided to take our chances.  Taking the first available is always a good choice in my opinion, and as we grabbed a beer to hold us over, we may have waited about fifteen minutes before our names were called and we were ready to feast. 

As we cozied up to a four top underneath the heat lamps with our closest friend Kevin, we started off with two orders of their famous levain - inch and a half thick slices of sourdough, a flaky, crispy-but-not-too-crispy crust (which is where I think it outshines Tartine) with a fluffy, chewy interior were the perfect canvas on which to paint (generously) the house made butter and flaky sea salt.  It's one of those comfort food moments where you take a bite, chew and ponder, and heave a gigantic sigh of blissful calm and sloop back into your chair.   

The newest menu item caught more than one set of eyes at the table, as we partook in two plates of shrimp and grits with farro, pork shank, English peas, and other ridiculousness.  Kevin, looking dazed and confused at the thought of having to make a decision among the mouth watering choices, finally decided on the beef tenderloin - which I offered to split with him.

And good thing I did.

Rarely have I ever had meat so tender that it quite literally melted in my mouth.  The flavors were so intense, with a nice salty bite on the forefront.  It was cooked to that delicate balancing act between rare and medium rare, beaming a pink hue that beckoned to me.  

Beef Tenderloin

But let's not forget about the shrimp and grits - it was no throw-away dish by any means.  Using farro for the grits was an awesome alteration, and the fresh peas really had a chance to shine in terms of taste, color and texture.  The snappy crunch played well into the chewy farro, and the bright green popped on top of the paler grains.  Shrimp were perfectly cooked, and the pickled peppers brought some pep to the dish.  It was surprisingly rich, but super-satisfying.  

Shrimp and Grits

One of the things that I loved most about this dinner was that the portions were normal.  I know how relative a term that is, but here's the way we all seemed to come to the same conclusion.  


Yes, it's nice to finish off a meal with something sweet, but often times I find myself too full to even think about it.  All of us were extraordinarily content, and didn't really want the night to end.  So, a chemex of Sightglass Coffe for Brian and me, and some (shockingly wonderful) barley tea for Kevin, and we shared each of the three desserts on the menu.  After all...why not?


I have to admit that while the carrot cake was good, it was by far and away the least impressive of the three.  Served with crème fraîche and a crisp sugar brûlée, it was decent, and let's be clear, polished off.

Carrot Cake

The other two boggled our taste buds in the best way.  The strawberry almond shortcake was killer: it tasted as though they soaked the angel food cake in amaretto and topped it with fresh strawberries, which would have been enough.  Add onto that a yogurt moose, and you've got one hell of a refreshing finish to a meal.

Strawberry Almond Shortcake

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum was the salted caramel pot de crème with dark chocolate and rosemary caramel corn.  Apparently this is by far-and-away the most popular dessert, and with good reason.  I'm not sure how well they played together, but separately were outrageous.  I'm always an advocate of herbs in my dessert (not those herbs...), so the rosemary caramel corn struck a chord with me.  It helps to balance out that cloyingly sweet candy that coats the corn kernel, and gives back some of that earthiness.  As for the salted caramel pot de crème, Kevin had the best description.

"It's like a liquid truffle." 

Not quite a liquid, per se, but not quite a solid either.  Imagine that smooth texture you find on the inside of a truffle, and apply that to dark chocolate atop, as well as the salted caramel below.

Salted Caramel Pot De Crème w/ Rosemary Caramel Corn

When all was said and done, we were full, happy, and cozy.  I didn't want any more, and I certainly didn't want any less.  

Just how a perfect meal should leave you feeling.  

It was one of those perfect nights that you remember forever.  The company was unbeatable, the food was to die for, and as the chill came into the Sunset air and we held onto our hot beverages, we struggled to arise from our seats, as none of us wanted it to end.

Outerlands - thank you for a wonderful start to a much needed vacation.

"Kevin, your eyes are closed."
"They're always closed..."

Nosh on,