Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wine: 2003 Canayli Vermentino di Gallura

Me and girlfriend Charlie were making pan-seared salmon with a sort of Mediterranean bent (tabouleh, hummus, and a spicy creamed spinach) but we found ourselves totally out of wine. A quick trip to Piedmont Ave and a stop at A.G. Ferrari yielded this well-received vermentino from Gallura. I'm not generally an Italian white wine fan, but I'd had good luck with vermentinos in the past so I decided to pick this up (it was being offered at a significant discount, too). I'm a big fan of bigger-bodied acidic white wines with strong fish dishes like salmon, so why the hell not?

When initially sampled cold (very cold), it had a very lush, fruity nose (notes of citrus and butter). It also was a touch musty. The finish was long, crisp, and acidic. The wine was totally dead across the palette, however. As it warmed through our meal, the palette of the wine increased in complexity somewhat, though it still tasted very, very light.

After our meal I was somewhat disappointed with the Canayli since it seemed neither representative of the varietal nor particularly complex in character. However, I tasted the wine the next day and it was markedly different. I had only sat corked in the fridge overnight (no VaccuVin or anything). The wine had changed significantly. The butter was gone (which I didn't mind) and the wine developed a very nice warmth and broad acidity across the palette moving to a lingering and distinctly apple-y finish.

A very good if uncharacteristic wine. Open and let breathe for 24 hours before serving, which is a definite downside.

Country: Italy (Gallura)
Varietal/blend: 100% Vermentino
Price: $12.99 (sale)
Purchased: A.G. Ferrari Foods, Piedmont Ave.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Maverick Eatery & Wine Bar - San Francisco, Ca

I've been to Maverick once before and I really enjoyed the food, service, and space--including a brief chat with chef/co-owner Scott Youkilis (who was acting as waiter/manager that evening). After a modest review in the Chronicle (seemingly downgraded by Bauer's tiresome criticism of the noise level of the restaurant), I was curious to see how the restaurant had evolved in the last few months.

What I love about Maverick is they take a premise--neo-American comfort food--and run with it in an innovative and successful way. It's concept and execution, which is rare in a restaurant with a focused theme.

Me and Chef Scott

The Space:
One of my favorite rooms in the Bay Area--a cramped, wood-paneled dining room with thick wood tables and comfy heavy wood chairs. It's very very dark (so dark that I couldn't take pictures) but lit well enough to see the food and decor well. Also one of the coolest bathrooms in town.

The Wine:
Scott opted for a pinot noir flight--two from the Willamette Valley and one from Carneros. All were pretty straight forward. The Willamette pinots having a bit more spiciness. I'm not a red wine person, so it's not my strong suit.

I opted for a Russian River trousseau gris, which was nice and mellow, fairly light-bodied but had a nice spiciness that picked up as the wine warmed. My second glass was a central coast gewurztraminer that was pretty boring--missing the minerality on the finish and the floral nose that makes this varietal work for me.

Maverick's wine list is almost entirely American, with a big list of California wines (along with bottles from New Mexico, Oregon, Michigan, Virgina, New York, and Washington). Being a white wine fan, I just can't enjoy most American whites because, for whatever reason, we don't seem to produce whites of a top quality and complexity (exceptions being chardonnay and sauvignon blanc--both of which I don't really care for, and the reliable viognier, which can be quite good).

Interesting service note: glasses of wine are poured at the table.

First course:
What drew me to Maverick were the buffalo "wings"--frogs' legs sauteed in Frank's Red Hot Sauce with carrot and celery crudite and ranch dressing. I'd only had frogs' legs once before and been wanting to try a top-rate preparation. The legs, which were very very small, were nice and tender with a delicate flavor--not the bland chewiness from my previous frogs' leg experience--and Frank's Red Hot Sauce was what it was: one of the best and most flavorful hot sauces out there. Great mix of flavors and a great, well-executed concept.

Second appetizer was a beet and goat cheese tartlet with prosciutto. The roasted beets were fresh and incredible. They were also actually served warm, the first time I'd encountered warm roasted beets in a dish. The goat cheese was nice and pungent and the crust was salty and buttery--almost like a delicious Ritz cracker. The big problem here was that there simply wasn't enough cheese or crust to hold up against the pile of incredible beets. You could get very few bites of cheese and crust (let alone the nearly absent prosciutto [which, when tasted, was also fairly flavorless as prosciuttos go]). Luckily, the beets were pretty fucking great. But why take the time to carefully craft this nice mix of flavors if you're not going to provide them in a ratio that'll let them shine together?

Scott opted for the seared Liberty duck breast with Israeli cous cous and brussels sprouts. The duck was rich and flavorful (though, as Scott noted, cooked more medium-rare/medium than truly "seared") with moderate fat and a delicate gaminess. Scott found the accompaniments to be overcooked--I agreed on the cous cous, finding it flavorful but mushy (far from al dente), but I thought the brussels sprouts, while softer than most preparations I've had, were still tender.

I ordered the steelhead with swiss chard, once again violating my general rule about ordering seafood out. This time I was not disappointed at all. The steelhead was perfectly cooked to where there was just a sliver of pink in the middle, lightly seasoned, incredibly moist, and very flavorful with the mild creaminess of the fresh Pacific salmon without the hints of briny fishiness. Steelhead's great right now and this dish was cooked perfectly. The swiss chard (one of my favorite greens) was just barely wilted, pairing nicely with the restrained forcefulness of the trout. The only odd spot was the warm sherry vinegar sauce which tasted just the slightest bit scorched.

Here was our one strikeout--the "hot fudge brownie sundae" had either heat nor fudge, instead being a slightly sweet (and dry) brownie with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, brandied cherries (actually, cherry as far as we could tell) and peanuts. It was a decent dessert flavor-wise but what the fuck? It wasn't even hot! Or warm! It wasn't a rich and gooey hot fudge brownie sundae at all! Come on! You could've AT LEAST just called it a chocolate brownie sundae or something like that. Don't call it "hot" and then not serve it with some real hot fudge. Boo Maverick, boo.

In conclusion:
Maverick once again impressed me with its innovation and bold flavors. I have some concerns in the direction I see it heading--service was friendly but more casual than on my first visit, the servers are no also wearing wierd TGI's-ish logo polo rhists instead of a simple black-on-black uniform. They're also now offering a $25 three course "tasting menu" on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday--which looked more like the usual boring prix fixe that lesser restaurants offer to get lame cheap people to come in and eat. A green salad, roasted haddock, and bread pudding is not a terrible interesting or innovative tasting menu. This restaurant is better than that. One fun promotion: Monday nights, all bottles of wine are 50% off.

Maverick Eatery & Wine Bar
Cuisine: Neo-American comfort food
Entree price range: $15-$28
HFF's cost for two (two starters, two entrees, four glasses of wine, dessert, tax, and 20% tip): $126
Reservations: OpenTable.com or 415-863-3061
3316 17th Street (at Mission)
San Francisco, Ca 94110

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A few notes....

So a couple notes to answer things that readers (okay reader) may notice:

1. Yes, a lot of reviews are going to be mostly positive. Especially early on since I'm going to be writing about places that I frequent. I don't usually frequent places that I dislike. Except your mom's house.

2. I promise AT LEAST one new (to me) restaurant reviewed a week.

3. Ideas for spinoffs and rants are in the works.

4. Daily posting should commence next week.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Luka's Taproom & Lounge - Oakland, Ca

I've been to Luka's several times late night for drinks, fries, and mac & cheese (awesome) and I'd eaten dinner there once a while ago and enjoyed it, so I figured I'd cruise in, sit at the bar, and see what they've got going on for lunch. Hell, I was in downtown Oakland anyway and what else is there to do there?


The Space:
You know, Luka's. Long L-shaped bar, high bar tables in front, low banquettes and booths in the back. 1940's-style pool-hall in the very back. Rave room in the front. It's four venues in one!

The Beer:
I opted for something new and tried the Duchesse de Bourgogne Flemish red ale. I'm a beer fan, though I'm not a big Belgian beer fan. I like Trappistes, witbiers, and the darker ales and lagers. I'm not a big fan of lambics or guezes, but I was at Luka's and had had Delirium Tremens enough, so what the fuck, why not try something newl? The beer, served in a wine glass, was quite strong with a pronounced sweet and sour characteristic. It tasted akin to an off-dry riesling mixed with yoghurt--a total slap to my tastebuds initially, but the flavor grew on me nicely as I sipped. A definite sipping beer and a definite beer to drink only if you're eating too. The beer's sourness brightened up a lot of the flavors in my vegetarian meal.

First Course:
I had planned to just get a sandwich and some fries and call it a party, but I was totally intrigued by the celeriac and fuji apple soup with roasted hazelnuts and brown butter. Pretty much my four favorite things (except celeriac. I honestly didn't know exactly what it was--it's what I assumed, a rootier cultivar of celery). It was fucking awesome. A hearty but not overly-rich creamy soup. The apple made its presence known without making the soup too sweet and the brown butter did what brown butter does when well made--be delicious. And where there's brown butter there're hazelnuts. They're the platonic lesbians of tastiness.
I love beets. I love beets a lot. I ordered the roasted golden beet sandwich with herbed chevre on pain de mie. The sandwich came simply but elegantly presented on a large plate with a small mixed green salad. The beets were fresh and flavorful--very mellow, even for golden beets, but with an earthiness that shone through. The chevre was what it was--a touch pungent with basic garden herbs--nothing remarkable, but pleasant. A thin layer of aioli worked nicely with the beets but clashed awkwardly with the chevre, blending in just enough that it succeeded only in making the cheese taste weirdly garlicky. But like I said it worked really well with the beet end of things. What to do?
Complaint: I didn't mind that the sandwich was cold--the beets, cheese, etc. I liked that. But why did the bread have to be toasted but served at room temperature? The bread was great fresh pain de mie, but room temperature toast does little for me but tear up the roof of my mouth.

The side salad was lightly dressed, fresh, and diverse--arugula, spinach, and purple onion being the principals.

Luka's fries are great--thick and filling with a hefty amount of residual oil. Crispy outside, soft inside, etc. They still haven't won me over with the sauces--they aren't bad, but they lack distinction. The smoked paprika ketchup is my favorite, but I'd love it spicier. The same goes for the other sauces--the herb aioli could be way herbier and the chipotle aioli could be smokier and spicier. The fries are so thick and have their own strong flavor that the sauces need to be more assertive or else they're just along for the ride.

I didn't plan to get dessert, but I did anyway--I'm a sucker for warm, rich, seasonal fruit desserts (almost as much as I'm a sucker for being punched in the face with dark chocolate). The almond and huckleberry clafouti with lemon creme fraiche was pretty damn good. Served in a wide shallow ramekin with a layer of warm sweet huckleberries on the bottom and an eggy cakey almond batter on top, all nice and warm with the slowly melting dollop of the creme fraiche and a few fresh huckleberries finishing it off. The cake layer was a little too thick, overwhelming the berriness of the berries, shrouding them in too much batter. The cake itself, however, was buttery and not too sweet.

In Conclusion:
I'm adding Luka's to my regular lunch destinations--it's not just for late night french fries. Though I went nuts and spent $40, I could've easily put together a great lunch for half that. Great food in a relaxed, hip, but unpretentious atmosphere. Plus you can park easily (and it's not full of neo-yuppies) at 2:00 in the afternoon.

Luka's Taproom and Lounge
Cuisine: Belgian-inspired California pub food
Price range: $7-$13 (sandwiches) $12-$19 (entrees)
HFF's cost for one (soup, sandwich, fries, dessert, beer, tax & generous tip): $40
Reservations: (I think so) 510-451-4677
2221 Broadway (at W. Grand)
Oakland, Ca 94612

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Stokes Restaurant - Monterey, CA

I decided to make my inaugural entry about Stokes because it honestly was the kind of restaurant that I created this website for. Newspaper reviews had given this California cuisine venture in an 1830's adobe in old town Monterey good but not stellar reviews seemingly based on vague "service" complaints. The space sounded awesome, the menu looked stellar, and it really was the only fine-dining establishment in Monterey (other than the uber-pricey Pacific's Edge) that featured cuisine that sounded interesting.

Me & girlfriend Charlie.

The Space:
CitySearch reviews had described the restaurant as "hard to find" but we had no problem spotting the enormous lit-up restored adobe. Street parking was easy and there's also a large lot. We walked up a path through a garden area to the left-most of several large wooden doors.

The restaurant is in the historic Stokes Adobe, named for its most prominent owner, English sailor-turned-physician James Stokes who took up residence in 1837. It has been impeccably restored, almost to the point where it looks like a custom Mission-style home or seriously bourgie Chevy's. Not that that's a bad thing.

Entering through the door, we entered a bright foyer with a large long bar on the right-hand side. We were greeted warmly, led down a hall into the largest of Stokes' several dining rooms, and seated in large cushioned wicker chairs at a spacious linen-set table.

The Wine:
Wine Spectator gave Stokes' wine list some attention and accolades and I found it to be quite good. It did suffer from Cal-Med wine list syndrome where virtually every option (particularly on the whites) is Californian or French. And then of those 90% are Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs. We opted for a bottle of the 2004 Au Bon Climat Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc blend. Wine arrived promptly. Though very very light-bodied when first poured, as the bottle warmed through the meal it developed a nice complexity and a lingering finish.

First Course:
Stokes features small plates (the bar serves these late) and more traditional appetizers. We opted for one of each.

The house-cured prosciutto with blood orange and chevre was excellent with beautiful deep red blood oranges and only slightly pungent goat cheese, however we both agreed that the prosciutto was good but unremarkable--it had a waxy texture and didn't melt apart in the mouth the way some prosciuttos do. Its flavor was fatty, salty, porky, and delicious, however.

Our second appetizer was the duck confit leg (pictured behind the wine) with warm spinach, bacon, and soft-boiled egg. This was my personal favorite savory dish of the night. The duck had a thick layer of fat, crisp skin, and melt-away tender meat. Spinach was very fresh, wilted just barely and tossed with thick chunks of bacon. The dish let the strong duck flavors speak without trying to mellow it out with a sweet sauce or hefty starch. Soft-boiled egg was served halved and (surprisingly) cold, but the yolk was cooked to a perfect soft but not runny consistency.

First (minor) service/food timing complaint--why did our cold prosciutto dish arrive at the same time as our hot duck dish? I've always understood that the point of tapas and small plates in general was to get something salty and delicious for patrons to enjoy as soon as possible--thus making them more likely to order more food or drinks sooner. Oh well. Common problem.

The entree list was an impressive array of pork, beef, chicken, pizza with homemade sausage, calzone, (suddenly trendy) arctic char, mahi, and vegetarian crepes. All were served with fresh California produce as starches or veggies. Charlie ordered the crispy pork shoulder with swiss chard and rosemary polenta. Though I usually don't seafood out (because I'm usually disappointed) I opted for the crusted mahi with artichokes and onions.

Charlie's pork was fabulous. A thick, meaty chunk with crispy flavorful skin and tender, moderately fatty flesh. The swiss chard was cooked just enough, bright, and not bitter. It still had enough character to hold its own with the pork. The polenta, served in a fried wedge, was strong with fresh rosemary, lending its own tones to the strong mix of flavors on the plate. We did both think that this was way too much food to put on one plate, which proved to be a theme here.

Before I ordered my mahi, I asked the server how it was cooked and she said "about medium." This was good for me because, well, I don't like overcooked fish (mahi in particular turns into a dry brick when overdone). The thick piece of mahi I got was, however, well-done (though not overcooked) but still moist. I would guess that it was cooked on the grill to about medium/medium-well and then cooked through on the plate. This is why I don't think fish should be served in thick cuts. The mahi was very fresh with a clean taste that only had hints of that meaty taste that lesser cuts of this fish get. The crust was nice and crisp. The veggies, while not overcooked, were not firm enough for my tastes and their flavors blended together in a fresh-tasting but indistinguishable mass.

This dish exhibited for me one of my dislikes in a lot of California cooking--really great ingredients impeccably prepared but without any real character. The thick mass of mahi was quite good, but there was so much of it in every bite that I found it tiresome. The crisp crust of breadcrumbs and parmesan was a great textural addition, but a millimeter-thick crust on an inch and a half-thick chunk of fish doesn't hold its own very well. I also would have liked more spice in the crust or a small amount of a lightly spicy sauce or broth to add a stronger flavor dimension that would brighten up the delicate fish and vegetable flavors.

I'm a big dessert fan, but rarely do I find desserts out that are exceptional--especially chocolate desserts. Too often they're caught up in that same Cal cuisine trap of offering quality and nuance at the expense of big flavor sensations. It's fucking dessert--it should be big, bold, and inspiring. What do people do after dessert out at a nice restaurant? Probably have sex. All pastry chefs should keep this fact in mind.

That being said, Stokes presented the best desserts that I've had out at a restaurant in recent (and not so recent) memory.

We were only going to order one, but couldn't decide so we got two. The first, "Pumpkin Trifle," came at the recommendation of the manager, Dino, who came by and chatted with us for a few minutes. Two thick slices of house-made ginger cake with pumpkin mousse, ginger creme fraiche, and candied pistachios. The ginger cake was thick, moist, and molasses-y with a lot of ginger flavor. The pumpkin mousse was not overly sweet, creamy, with a lot of pumpkin (not just cinnamon and allspice) flavor. The creme fraiche added a welcome tartness, contrasting nicely with the crunchy sweet pistachios mixed generously throughout. All the flavors were strong, they all worked together, and each bite was a mid-90's style massive in my mouth, complete with glowsticks.

Second dessert was a little more straightforward, but no less delicious: a Scharffen-Berger dark chocolate torte. I've had similar dishes in the past, and they often end up just being dark chocolate melted into a pie crust--having virtually the same finished consistency as a bar of Scharffen-Berger chocolate. In this case, the chocolate was mixed with cream just enough to be soft (without being mousse-y). There wasn't much (if any) added sugar in the torte, so the strong bitter (though still sweet) flavors of the chocolate shone nicely. A dollop of creme fraiche on the top was an unnecessary but unobtrusive addition to the dish. I appreciated that it didn't come with an overly sweet whipped cream on top. It was just a straight-forward, simple, dark chocolate punch in the face.

In Conclusion:
Stokes was great. Very very good food in a beautiful room. Food was prepared well, ingredients sourced wonderfully. Service was unobtrusive, fairly accessible, though a touch distant (but who cares?). The only complaints I had were not unique to Stokes. Simply your best bet for dining in Monterey, I think. Though our dinner was not cheap because we like to actually have fun when we go out to eat, a more "value-minded" diner (gag) could get out of there full on great food for less than $40 a person.

As a side note, as I waited for Charlie to get out of the restroom, I ordered a shot of Fernet-Branca (split) at the bar on the way out. As I said, we were incredibly full. We ended up not being charged, which was a thoughtful (and business-savvy) way to end the evening. We'll hit up Stokes on every overnight trip to Monterey for as long as it's open, I'd imagine.

Stokes Restaurant
Entree Price Range: $15-$26
HFF's Cost for 2 people (2 starters, 2 entrees, 2 desserts, bottle of wine, coffee, tax, generous tip): $150
OpenTable.com or 831-373-1110
500 Hartnell St.
Monterey, Ca 93940

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Welcome to Horny for Food, the Bay Area (and the world!) food blog by Berkeley food personality David J.D.!

My decision to start this site came from my frustration with both internet restaurant sites like Chow Hound and CitySearch and conventional newspaper reviews. All that the internet sites usually offer are peoples' (who can't use apostrophes correctly) ill-informed opinions with little foundation, knowledge, or rationale. They'll make judgments and declarations without articulating the all-important "why" behind their complaints. Newspaper reviews often just read as a rote description of the menu interspersed with flowery adjectives and details of minor food or service hiccups blown up into disasters of epic proportions.

At Horny for Food, here's what you WON'T get:
- you'll never here me use phrases like "the Caesar salad just didn't work" or "the server was clueless" or "poor wine list."
- the words "danced across my palate"
- bitching about portion size, noise, or how cold a restaurant is
- hanging prepositions
- stars, bells, numbers, dollar signs, letter grades or any other objective rating of a restaurant
- syphilis

You WILL, however, get:
- one guy's opinion (mine) grounded in my industry experience, food and drink knowledge, personal cooking adventures, and a hefty dumpster full of love
- detailed course-by-course discussion of my meals at restaurants wherever I go (mostly in the SF Bay Aea) interspersed with rants, diatribes, and manifestos about food and dining issues in general
- an understanding of MY taste in food and dining to see if it matches your own (and whether you should give a fuck about the views on this site)
- a brief capsule description of what was eaten, how many people ate it, and how much it cost
- gonorrhea

All I can promise is that everything I write will be grounded, articulate, and (most importantly) informed. You may not agree with it, and that's alright. At least it'll be interesting.