Wednesday, December 27, 2006

HFF Speculates: Why We Fuck Up Cooking

I'm not saying I fuck up cooking. By and large I'm a competent home cook. But it took a long time and many many pots of overcooked pasta, burnt onions, and virtually raw vegetables. How did I figure out what I was doing? I'm not sure exactly. Trial and error, problem solving, attentive reading, and knowing what I like and why, I guess.

In my own personal experience, and in talking with friends, here are what I think our the main reasons that we fuck up cooking:

1. Impatience. Impatience manifests itself in two ways--we use too high of heat and we cook things for too short of a time. We just turn on our burner (worse if its electric) and throw on our food and next thing we know the garlic is black and our chicken is charred. But then after charring our chicken we pull it out of the pan--only to enjoy a blackened chicken breast that is raw in the middle. The lesson? Cook over medium-low to medium heat. Use a good pan that heats evenly. Don't let your oil get too hot. Keep your food moving (unless you want to blacken/brown something). The burner never needs to be past medium unless you're boiling water or searing meat.

2. We don't follow instructions. There's a reason that recipes and cooking techniques require specific orders. There's a reason a soup tastes better if you cook your bacon in oil and then you cook your onions in the bacon and then you cook your carrots in the onions than if you just cook everything separately and mix it together at the end. Flavors integrate and build on each other. Wine added early on to deglaze a pan and form the base for a stock serves a different purpose then wine added later to supply aromatic liquid for steaming food. Crushed red pepper cooked in the oil plays a different flavoring role then red pepper added at the end of cooking.

3. We don't know what we like. Knowing what you like--and being willing to explore--is fundamental to home cooking. When you combine competency with basic cooking techniques with culinary curiosity, you're going to steepen your learning curve. Plus, if you try cooking something that you know that you should like, you'll have a clearer sense of whether or not you fucked up what you were trying to cook.

4. We follow recipes. Okay, so this sounds contradictory to some of my earlier notes, but hear me out. Recipes only work if you have a foundation in basic cooking techniques. When you combine uninvolved recipes with a plethora of Food Network shows that teach you how to assemble ingredients in a pan rather than teaching how to cook you get a lot of people trying to cook beyond their abilities. Once you learn how to roast chicken, scramble eggs, pan-fry fish, steam broccoli--once you learn the basics--then recipes can be great for teaching you new flavor combinations and cooking approaches. Attempting a buche de noel before mastering a sheetcake is like trying to take on an eight-way interracial gangbang when you've never even masturbated before.

So what then do I recommend?

1. Cook and cook a lot. Experiment. Fuck up. But pay attention to your fuckups and learn from them.

2. Learn the basics. I recommend Mark Bittman's seminal cooking text How to Cook Everything. Bittman's book presents introductory sections on types of food and then breaks those down into specific food items--always teaching the basics on how to prepare and cook those items before he delves into more elaborate recipes. It's the best book for learning the whys and hows of cooking pretty much everything. Honestly, there've been maybe three things that I haven't found in the Bittman....

3. Get the right equipment. I don't mean you need to spend a fortune, but spend $20 on adecent knife and $30 on a good frying pan. Nothing All-Clad or Le Creuset or Henckels--just stuff that isn't scratched, warped, dull, and paper thin. Get a sharpening steel for your blades. A gas range should be a deal-breaker when you're apartment hunting, too. You can't learn to cook on electric. You just can't.

4. Learn your spices and seasonings. Don't be afraid to use salt. Practice and see how different dried and fresh seasonings behave in cooking. A pinch of aleppo sauteed in olive oil makes for an estrus-inducing pasta sauce. A teaspoon of dried herbs turns scrambled eggs into a romantic post-coital breakfast.

5. Never watch the Food Network again. Except Iron Chef and maybe Good Eats. Maybe. Gone are the days when actual chefs with actual talent (Mario Batali) taught you about cuisine, culture, and cooking. Instead you get a bunch creepy career women trying to make other creepy career women feel less guilty about not having time to actually cook for their families by teaching them how to open some cans and dump then in a casserole dish. That's not cooking. You don't need a tv show to explain that to you, you need the recipe on the back of the can of Hormel chili. Maybe I'll start watching again if they come up with a show that combines Giada de Laurentiis' tits with Rachael Ray's ass and Emeril Lagasse's blowjob skills all under Paula Deen's benevolent, watchful eye. So much cream cheese. I'd also watch Marc Summers straighten fringe at the French Laundry.

Seriously though, between that giant head and her spectacular rack, Giada should not be able to stand upright. It's a paradox of physics. Like bumble bees.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

HFF Quickie: Yoshi's

Yoshi's, Oakland's venerable jazz club recently hired a new chef and overhauled their menu in an attempt to revitalized what had become a staid, unchanging menu of traditional Japanese food and outdated fusion food. Not to say it was bad before--Yoshi's has always served some of the best sushi and sashimi in the area--but this new menu is a giant leap forward.

The menu changes weekly, and is broken down into a family-style/tapas format with dishes grouped by type (small plates, carpaccio, smoked sashimi, salads, shellfish, tempura, grill, sides) with everything served a la carte. The excellent sushi and sashimi selection is also still available.

We dove right in, trying an array of menu items. First up was the ohitashi trio--three cigars of densely-packed blanched spinach each topped with black sesame, vinegar-miso dressing, and tofu-walnut puree. Pretty good. The spinach itself was a little underseasoned but the toppings were well done--in particular the tart, earthy miso.

Next up, the smoked hokkaido scallop sashimi. Sliced sea scallops, lightly smoked, and topped with salmon roe and truffle oil. The scallop ensemble was deliciously full-flavored. The spicy citron puree on the bottom was a bit overpowering--strong, heavy, and smoky it got in the way of the comparatively milder flavors on top.

Asari clams steamed in sake and miso were fucking great. The clams were tender, the broth rich and redolent. The broth itself was a bit salt for solitary consumption, but complimented the clams beautiful.

Two tempura dishes: one, a mix of organic vegetables (that somehow included asparagus in December) was decent; the other, silken tofu and avocado was great. Crisp fluffy batter and a nice (if underseasoned) tentsuyu broth.

The finale--the most entree-like--was the kurobuta pork chop. The thick, fatty chop marinated in a broth similar to what the clams were steamed in. It was pretty damn good., One would imagine that it'd be hard to fuck up a cut of meat this fatty, but I've had versions that were either too puckeringly salty or glazed with a sickeningly sweet teriyako-ish syrup. So this was nice change of pace.

Yoshi's has also expanded their sake selection and marketing with a very nice, detailed, and focused sake menu. The two tasting flights Yoshi's offers are each very distinctive and well-articulated. Yoshi's has become a friendly spot for sake novices to get their feet wet.

Once we got into the jazz club itself we satisfied our fish craving (a limited appetizer, sushi, sashimi, and dessert menu is available during the shows) with an order each of unagi and saba sashimi and hamachi nigiri. Phenomenal. The eel was sweet and dirty like the a dirty river, the mackeral firm and oily, and the yellowtail soft and buttery with just enough lingering firmness to hold in a hint of oiliness.

So, in the end Yoshi's was pretty good. Well worth a stop before seeing a show in the jazz club (10PM show ticket-holders can reserve their seats in advance if they're dining). Worth a visit for dinner on its own? Sure. Nothing mind-blowing but some really good (and probably continually improving) food.

Eight stars!

510 Embarcadero West
Oakland, Ca 94607
510-238-9200 or
Total cost for two (six plates, two sake flights, tax, tip): $130

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Range - San Francisco, Ca

Critical darling--3.5 stars in the Chronicle, one Michelin star all in its first year of being open.

Me and girlfriend Charlie. 'Twas her birthday.

The Space:
Long storefront--bar and tables in front and then an crowded but somehow airy main dining room in back. Range manages to pull off the industrial chic look with a more pronounced homey-ness and warmth then some of its counterparts. Comfortable enough seats and big enough tables. Banquette tables are a little close together, but that seems to be the case everywhere.

The Wine:
A bottle of 2004 Schlumberger Grand Cru riesling. Nicely dry and crips with moderate acid and creeping minerality. Pronounced stone fruit nose--lightly floral. Good small winelist overall, well-priced and with a broad reach--not particularly deep in any one region or style, though. Props to the server for steering me to the riesling instead of the more-expensive Sancerre that I also had my eyes on.

Appetizers: We tried their soup--a flageolet bean soup with crostini and olive oil. Nice and bean-y with an earhty creaminess induced entirely from the beans. It was a suprisingly light but still comforting cold-weather dish. We also had the roasted beets with arugula and goat cheese. A competent take on a classic salad. Beets were left in fairly big chunks which was nice--you could actually bite into a beet instead of swallowing little cubes. Good goat cheese.

The real criticism I had with the appetizers was a lack of innovation and originality. Besides the two that we had (which are pretty standard fare) there was butternut squash ravioli, roasted scallops in scallop jus, and raw hamachi with cucumber, avocado, and meyer lemon (and one or two other items that I forget). All of which are very conventional fare--no doubt all quite tasty--but they weren't pushing any innovation boundaries. And as much as I love butternut squash ravioli, that's kinda reached cliche at this point. Let's be honest.

Entrees were a different story however. Charlie had the chicken--a half roast chicken with pecan, bacon, and scallion bread salad with sherry jus. I know what you're saying--Zuni. It's true. But the pronouncement here? Range's chicken is BETTER. That's right. Crucify me now and feed my entrails to the avocado demons. The skin was not as crisp, but the chicken itself was moister and infused with flavor without being overly salty. Bread salad was fantastic too--more bread pudding than salad with all the ingredients sort of oozing into each other. Flawless execution.

I went with the striped bass (a change from the cod that was on the menu) with melted fennel and baby artichokes. The fish was also crusted with a luques olive tapenade. This dish was great too--perfectly cooked fish (cooked through but not chewy) with a crispy savory skin (thanks to the tapenade). The fennel and artichokes were cooked to just this side of mushy consistency that extract complimentary flavors from the fish. The dish did lack a touch of substance--not to say that it needed a starch, but perhaps an additional more substantive vegetable--salsify maybe? Nevertheless, well-done and fresh--I was tasting something new.


Range's pastry chef was recently featured in San Francisco Magazine as the best in the area. I didn't know this until after we ate and it seems the recognition was deserved. Every dessert had compelling attributes and we had a hard time selecting. We opted for warm crepes with huckleberries and pear. Fabulous. Fresh sweet fruit and made-to-order crepes that were perfectly crisp on the edges.

It was so good in fact that we had to try another dessert and went with the pumpkin pot de creme topped with toasted spiced pumpkin seeds. This was even better--surprisingly light and not overly sweet. It actually tasted like pumpkin and not sickeningly sweet pumpkin in mousse form.

In Conclusion:
Great food in a great space (not to mention relatively inexpensive). Some of the menu lacks inspiration and innovation, but everything we had was perfectly cooked and quite good. And there were more then just the occasional flashes of brilliance. Great wine list, phenomenal dessert. California cuisine done right--perhaps even better then Chez Panisse Cafe. Better service and desserts at the very least.

Cuisine: California
Price range: Appetizers: $7-$12 Entrees: $16-$22
HFF's cost for two (two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts, bottle of wine, two coffees, tax, generous tip): $110
Reservations: 415-282-8283 or
842 Valencia St.
San Francisco, Ca 94110

Sunday, November 12, 2006

HFF Quickie: 900 Grayson

*****UPDATE: A return visit and a taste of the "Demon Lover"--a slightly spicy breaded and fried chicken paillard on their waffle smothered in rich white gravy. Fucking great! Honestly one of the best pieces of fried chicken ever moist and tender, crispy on the outside. Great peppery gravy, slightly sweet waffle, crisp-crusted paillard. Big but balanced flavors, rich and filling. Also available on the lunch money.*****

It's Monday. A new week, a new breakfast. Met up with coworkers at 900 Grayson, the hot(ish) breakfast/lunch spot in industrial West Berkeley.

Home-y interior with neo-rustic chic tables and chairs. Nice garden out back, reasonably secluded from the surrounding manufacturing and biomedical research facilities. Large creepy painting of a rooster on the wall.

We were promptly greeted by a friendly host/server who informed us that the coffee machine was broken, though espresso was flowing freely. Not a big deal. The machine was back on-line before we left and he circled, offering complimentary coffee.

So the food. At the table we had the Potter's Creek--a basic fresh egg and herb scramble with shredded hash browns and toasted pain de mie. Not what I would've ordered, but it definitely was well-made.

We also had a Time-Life Cookbook--an emmental omelette "souffle" with the same hash browns and a small fuji apple salad on the side. Eggs were light and fluffy and the apple salad was a nice touch. It was lacking flavor depth--herbs, veggies, something. This proved a common theme--everything was well-executed and tasty, but lacking a savory depth that would've heightened the other flavors.

Another dish--cheekily called "Breakfast"--scrambled eggs, levain toast, bacon or sausage, and the same shredded hashbrowns. A fresh organic take on breakfast.

I had the "7th and Grayson"-- a tofu, red onion, tomato, mint, olive, and harissa scramble with levain toast and hash browns (these cooked in olive oil to keep the dish vegan). This was great--it had that savoriness that the other dishes lacked. I added hass avocado (one of the many sides and add-ons offered on the "make-up kit" a la carte list). Tasty.

We also shared an "I'm Not Belgian" waffle. This was a minor disappointment--neither light and fluffy nor dense and nutty. Ah well.

One service note: my breakfast didn't arrive initially--seemingly as an error. Server took it off the bill, no harm done.

Probably the best organic/farm-fresh take on breakfast I've had and the tofu scramble showed flashes of brilliance. Curious to try lunch (and the upcoming dinner menu) to see what 900 Grayson can do when freed of the constraints of what we expect from "breakfast."

900 Grayson
Grayson at 7th St.,
Berkeley, Ca 94710
Total Cost for Four (4 plates, 4 coffees, 1 side, tax, tip): $45

Monday, November 06, 2006

From Michael Bauer's Blog, Part 2

"fingering potatoes"

A typo sure, but still....


From Michael Bauer's Blog

"I find it shortsighted that expensive, high-profile restaurants put inexperienced people (mostly young women who have tight bodies and wear even tigher clothes) at the door. They might dress up the restaurant visually, but the wrong person -- whether not properly trained by management or just inherently inhospitable -- can create an icy chill that is difficult to shake. The waiter's job immediately becomes more challenging, because to warm things up, the server has to work twice as hard."

If Bauer ever (ever) uses the term "young women who have tight bodies" again I will track down his automobile and personally urinate in his gas tank.

I'm still having douche chills. And will no doubt have nightmares.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Protagonist Adventures in California Cuisine: Brussels Sprouts, Turnips, Apples: Pumpkin In All Forms

Down Gilman street toward the freeway you remember that you never (never!) exit at Gilman street headed west on I-80. The frontage road is also of little use (paritcularly on weekends) as greasy townies from Cities Past Richmond wend their into The City (or Berkeley should there be a college football game). You might think that city streets are better than crawling at 20 mph on the interstate but you'd be wrong. Sitting at a stop at a manic and bizarre nine-hundred way uncontrolled intersection for five or ten or ninety minutes as cars barrel past and you have nowhere to go but attempt a left turn is a recipe for a hernia.

For you see, the couple in the Subaru in front of you won't move their goddamn car and you shout at the window for them to Grow Some Goddamn Balls! But it's a Subaru so they're lesbians and they cast a scalding glare as the air escapes from your tires along with the crumbling artifice of 5,000 years of patriarchy. Slowly and inexorably.

But you're not there. You know better--you're on San Pablo Ave. What's that? Backed up for eight traffic lights? Quick make a left and now you're on Kains! Ah Kains! And now you think you can't get past Cedar on Kains. You are wrong! Cross the Avenue again and now to 10th and make a left! Here's where it gets sticky (that's what you're telling me, I know)--crossing four lanes of angry University traffic. Suicide, no? Worse than anything Gilman St. might throw at you? How wrong you are! You are so wrong that it is funny! Haha! When San Pablo is backed up for eight traffic lights so is University! Barring the occasional spot of douchebaggery--if the drivers are obeying the basic rules of the road--you should be able to zoom straight through the parted Red Sea of late model Japanese cars as they wait with an eerie patience to move a car-length closer to the hills or the sea.

That's not your business though. Socioeconomics and geography are not for you. Gay rights and patriarchy are things you talk about at the dinner table to pretend that you are Socially Aware. You don't actually care about them. You are a middle-aged upper middle-class heterosexual couple (probably secular Jews [probably self-hating]). You are looking for food. You are looking for The Best Food in the Country. The Best Food in the Country that you are so blessed to have available to you on your front porch. That unification of Ingredients and Technique that defines California Cuisine.

And it is November. You, oh educated one, you know what you're going to get. And what's that? Why Apples! Brussels sprouts! Turnips! Apples again! Even more apples! Apple slaw! Apple salad! Apple compote! Apple confit! Apple conclave! Apple compost! Apple convex! Apples and apples! Show me a restaurant without apples in November and I'll show you a restaurant at which it is not worth eating! Show me a restaurant without brussels sprouts in the autumn (that's how we say it in California Cuisine Land--it is not fall but autumn [adjective form: autumnal]) and I'll show you a restaurant without a soul! Show me a restaurant without turnips and I'll show you a restaurant that doesn't care about weird virtually flavorless root vegetables! Then there are the apples!

And when you sit down you will no doubt lament the lack of that one particular obscure French appelation on restaurant's list of wines by the glass (though they have three of them by the bottle, all decently priced) and you'll snidely mention this to your server and then order a glass of chardonnay--"though you don't usually drink California wines." And then you'll ask if they plan to have dungeness crab--how can they not when this is California in autumn when the Crabs are in Season!

Oh aren't you in for a treat tonight! Remember, it is autumn--which means you can eat pumpkin in every form. Start with pumpkin soup! Then pumpkin ravioli! Then wild salmon on a pumpkin puree topped with an apple-turnip tapenade! And for dessert? Pumpkin pie? No! How banal! How quotidian! How facile! What a terrible person you are for even suggesting it! You will have a warm apple-pumpkin crisp on a bed of pureed apples and pumpkins and topped with apple and pumpkin spiced whipped cream of course! Would you accept anything less? I didn't think so.

(Butternut squash and pears are an acceptable substitute. Huckleberries too, but only Wild and Hand-Picked. But you knew that.)

And you lament that you can't get the turnips in your own garden to taste as good as those you just ate. And after thanking the chef you leave in your automobile (probably a Volvo, maybe a Saab), sated and self-satisfied. You wend your way back to your 1920's Craftsman home, let in the dog that substitutes for your child, and head to your bed where you celebrate your tired and loveless marriage with a quick kiss and some light reading.

And as you drift to sleep there's one last thought that flits in and out of your head--I can't wait for spring and I can't wait for asparagus!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

HFF Asks: Why?


So why do people love bread? I mean I like bread. Bread is fine. It serves its purpose and can be pretty tasty sometimes. For my money, Tartine's levain-esque loaf is the best, by the way. But I can't understand how people fetishisize bread. Some people seem to honestly be sexually attracted to Acme's levain. I will admit that its shape lends itself to being humped (and not much else--you ever try slicing a loaf of levain into any functional form?) So many people ask for more bread and don't eat much (or any) of the bread that is brought to the table. And don't be that weirdo who asks to take their bread home. That makes you pretty much the cheapest and most food obsessed fucker on the planet. As a side note, do you know how many superfluous calories you'd give up if you stopped eating bread with dinner? Just sayin'.

Waiter Hatred.

The vast majority of diners are friendly enough folk. Some are even a pleasure to serve. Yet there is a sizeable minority who have nothing but contempt for those hard working folks who serve them their food. Why is that? Some ideas:

1. Being waited upon at a restaurant is the closest most people come to having actual servants. Therefore they feel compelled to bitch, moan, and request every little thing before they go back home to their nice house and loveless marriage.

2. People think waiters are out to screw them. I think that there are people who honestly believe that the fraternity of waiters is some sort of strange Freemason-type brotherhood that is out to fuck with people. Waiters only fuck with you if you're a weirdo who thinks that waiters fuck with you. It's a vicious circle.

3. Middle-aged women. Simply the worst to wait on, generally. Picky, entitled, and dour, without the redeeming charms of old age. They hate waiters because they see either: the youthful beauty they once had (if female) or the husband who once loved them but is now banging his secretary (if male). Sure this might be because of being oppressed by years of patriarchy so they need some outlet for their frustrations, but that's what a dildo's for.

4. They get it. There are a few people who realize that waiting tables at a good restaurant is the ticket to a well-paid, flexible, and interesting job that doesn't involve sitting on your ass in an office and slowly dying of artheriosclerosis and the lack of a soul. And they're jealous.

Soft Drinks.

So this is unfair. It's not that I don't understand the appeal of soft drinks--they're very sweet, after all. What I don't understand is why anyone would order a Coke when there is an entire beverage list of infinitely better (and better for you) non-alcoholic beverages. Why waste money on high fructose corn syrup in a can if you can get a Reed's Ginger Brew, IBC Root Beer, or IZZE fruit soda. I know that coke is "America" or something but, honestly--gross. Not to mention void of nutrition.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

HFF Gets Caught Up

So yeah--not much posting lately and I apologize. There's simply been way too much to do in the non-dining world for your humble host and narrator. The fact is, I haven't eaten anywhere worth writing up extensively. But.... some highlights of the hiatus.

A. Did a dinner at Magnolia Pub that was great--really good fall menu right now including a tasty fried plantain appetizer. Pork schnitzel sandwich also quite nice. Finally had their fried chicken special and that was pretty damn tasty too. Still just an all-round great spot.

B. So if you do find yourself with drastically limited dining options in greater suburbia, here are some of your best bets:

1. Fish & chips at Red Robin. Red Robin overall is the best of the casual dining establishments, taking one tiny extra step to actually care about how their food comes out.

2. Lettuce wraps at Chili's. Straightforward and relatively healthful.

3. Spinach and artichoke dips. An institution of casual dining! Red Robin's (with "hint of bacon") is tops.

4. Fried green beans at TGI Friday's. Just goes to show that what's on the menu's at Bay Area Top 100 restaurants ends up on casual dining menus three years later (and at McDonald's after that--see the fruit and walnut salad). Honestly, Friday's' version gives Coco500's a run for their money--just going to show that breading something and frying it is the easiest way to create super-tastiness.

5. Stay the fuck away from Applebee's.

C. Can I talk again about Sofia? This tiny hole-in-the-wall on Solano Ave in Albany (which somehow failed to make the Chronicle's Bargain Bites) is one of the best places going. Fresh, usually organic ingredients combined together to make the best Mediterranean food I've found. Best falafel, baba ganoush, and roasted eggplant salad you can get. Honestly, once you've had Sofia falafel any other falafel just tastes heavy and dry. Did I mention homemade pita, hamentaschen, baklava, and strudel?

D. I think Gregoire is phoning it in, to a degree. The food has still been tasty but the offerings--particularly the sandwiches--have lacked inspiration lately. How many times can you offer smoked shrimp?

E. Two tentative thumbs up for the new Cesar on Piedmont Avenue. It's nice to see that they addressed many of the problems of Berkeley Cesar--most notably the too-small bar, too crowded tables, and no waiting area--at this new one. It's also an awesome space and the slightly more expansive menu is appreciated.

F. Tokyo Fish has some excellent ready-made dining options that I've fallen for. In addition to a nice selection of sushi from Musashi in Berkeley, recurring Tokyo Fish specialities include hijiki salad, a panko breaded and fried rice ball with sardine, and a hamachi salad with cucumber, ginger, and avocado tossed in Japanese mayo and topped with tobiko. Speaking of tobiko, check out their flavored flying fish roes too. Both the citrus roe and the wasabi roe are pretty damn tasty. Other items that I haven't tried yet--breaded sole, salmon croquettes, and tuna salad.

G. Daimo. Daimo! One of my new favorite restaurants. Daimo! It's not just that it's open until 3AM every day, it's that the food is pretty damn tasty and dirt cheap. Don't miss out on the steamed pork buns (available until 3PM and then after 10PM daily). Three soft sweet buns stuffed with barbecued pork (for $2.50, btw). Shrimp chow fun with egg sauce is a must get, as are the deep fried smelt and deep fried tofu with chili and fried garlic. The menu is many pages long and the walls are plastered with specials so it definitely encourages repeat visits. Even standards like sweet and sour pork and green bean chicken are executed well. Another highlight? The hot chili sauce is second only to Sofia's in the world of local homemade hot sauces.

So what's next on the HFF agenda? Expect a lot of San Francisco posts--tentative trips planned include Home (with the return of Lance Dean Velasquez!), Jardiniere, and Range. Also expect another Napa trip and a stop at Bistro Jeanty. Also, expect more short posts, rants, and wine reviews.

Sorry for leaving y'all with blue balls for so long. HFF'll make it better, I promise.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

HFF on the Road: Anderson Valley, Ca

A couple weekends ago I found myself in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino county for a (somewhat) staid but enjoyable bachelor party weekend of wine and beer tasting. Overall I was impressed with the quality of the wines even if the mild climate does produce wines with delicate subtleties that definitely don't stand up in body to the more robust wines from Napa and Sonoma counties. Light and medium body reds (one of the best pinot noir growing regions in the world perhaps?), Alsatian varietals, and lighter, broad on the palate zinfandels and Italian red varietals round out a nice palette of wine selections. It must of course be acknowledged that many winemakers based in the Anderson Valley have vineyards in other parts of Mendocino and Sonoma counties from which they get many of their fuller-fruit red and white grapes.

Some of the winery highlights:

Navarro - Perhaps the quintessential AV vineyard, producing almost all of their wines from site-grown grapes. Really good pinot noir and a premiere reserve Chardonnay that was wonderful--bright and minerally though still with significant butter. I was particularly drawn Navarro's Alsatian varietals--both a dry white riesling and a white riesling dessert wine that was one of the best dessert wines I've tried. And of coure their famed gewurztraminer. A couple of surprising finds too--a tasty, light-bodied but aromatic muscat blanc and a deceptively complex old-vine grenache/syrah/carignane/mourvedre rose with strong strawberry and rose petal notes.

Roederer - Their brut has become omnipresent in the premium California champagne market (and makes up over 90% of Roederer's production) but I was impressed by their single-vintage Ermitage selections and their off-dry and slightly sweet small-case runs.

Esterlina - A private winery two miles up a dirt road (call ahead for reservations--space is limited). You get your own private tastings on one of the winery's two decks overlooking the entire valley. Friendly staff pour the spectrum of their wines (great pinot and chardonnay, really tasty zin port too) on a patio table while you enjoy complimentary crackers and chocolate--you're also welcome to bring your own food and picnic while you taste. One of the best wine tasting experiences out there.

Handley - Known of course for their sauvignon blancs, chardonnays, and pinot noirs (both from AV vineyards and Dry Creek vineyards), I was most impressed however by a floral, complex, but not oaky, Viognier.

Brutacao - A funky winery producing a lot of Italian and fuller red varietals. Nice primitivo and a great zinfandel port. Very friendly tasting room staff.

What struck me most about the wineries in general was a lack of pretension--they just loved making good wines. And that's the thing--unlike other small wine-growing regions (Livermore being the most notable)--the wines across the board were pretty damn good. Not as many standouts and I tasted better wines overall on my trips to Napa, but some of these wines were fucking great. Other notes--other than at the sparkling houses we visited, each winery poured on average 8 different wines for no tasting fee (some poured a dozen or more) and they were usually distinctly different wines too--not just a couple different years or a couple different vineyards of the same varietal.

Also on the trip we made a stop in at the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. Nice little tour of the brewery and a tasting of all the beers that they were currently brewing--except the porter which they were out of. Boont Amber and their Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout are still my favorites, but a slightly malty Summer Solstice Cerveza was deceptively full-bodied and the strong and spicy Double and Triple Abbey-Style Brother David ales were fun and interesting tastes too.

Most of our dining on this trip was campfire cooking and cold cuts, but we did make two stops at a couple Boonville dining establishments.

Dinner was spent at the Boonville Hotel, which offers constantly changing seasonal dishes featuring a lot of local produce (think apples). Excellent homemade foccacia, big plump PEI mussels with aioli, and a fresh green bean and beet salad rounded out our appetizers and our group shared a couple orders each of the roast chicken with fries, lamb with horseradish-yogurt sauce, and pan-seared halibut with saffron rice. All the entrees were cooked perfectly--even the halibut. I appreciated the strong hand with the seasoning, but I agreed with Chef Scott's comment that most of the dishes were fairly one-dimensional--not terribly complex or nuanced in flavor range. Desserts were tasty but unremarkable save for the fresh seasonal fruit used. Boonville Hotel's wine list was impressive, well-priced, and not overly reliant upon local wines.

Breakfast on our way out of town was an unexpected surprise. We dropped into a little cafe called Lola's run entirely by three Mexican women. Breakfast selections were mostly Mexican egg dishes--huevos mexicanos, huevos rancheros, huevos de (puerco) carne abodabo, etc. Perfectly cooked to order, fresh produce, and nice and spicy sauces. Best huevos rancheros I've had, though I would've enjoyed it more if the accompanying red sauce had been served warm. The egg dishes are served with steamers full of warm, soft, homemade corn tortillas. They were definitely corn, but they had all the lightness and softness of flour. Absolutely amazing tortillas--do not miss Lola's for breakfast on your next visit to (or even just through) Boonville.

Go to the Anderson Valley, quality without pretension.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Rant: "Cheap" Wine

The East Bay Express this week features an extensive article on wine--or rather, on the wine reviewing business and its shortcomings. The article laments that nobody seems to review wines that are less than $10 a bottle or wines that are readily accessible in grocery stores. In response, the Express is going to start a recurring feature, cloyingly titled "Wineau," that will only review wines that are less than $10 a bottle and that are readily available in local grocery retailers.

My question is...why?

There's no need to review wines like that. It's the same reason that newspapers don't review Chili's or McDonald's or most basic mom and pop ethnic restaurants. The audience for these venues are predetermined--based primarily on foot trafiic, bargain hunters, and people who are afraid of new things.

I'm not denying that there are some good sub-$10 bottles of wine. There are many. Trader Joe's is full of them. Are there any great wines for under $10? Not that I've tasted. The fact remains that cheap wines generally come from high-yield grape growing regions that produce fruity, tasty wines that are eminently drinkable but lacking in depth or complexity.

What most people don't realize is that it's hard to make bad wine. Most cheap wines, even of the jug or box variety, are drinkable. They might not be terribly complex but they aren't gut-wrenchingly bad. People confuse the fact that a wine doesn't make them want to gouge there eyes out as a reason that the wine is good. Coupled with a bargain basement price they might even think that this wine is great. The fact is... well, no. It's not.

From a very basic standpoint, it's impossible to have a great cheap bottle of wine. The types of soils that produce interesting wines are not ones that are prone to the highest yields. A vineyard's yield (and consequently the cost of the grapes) is the single most important factor in a wine's price. High, fertile yields produce innocuous grape-y wines. See Charles Shaw. Charles Shaw is from a winemaker out of the Central Valley. The Central Valley is the largest wine-growing region in the world--but can you name one major Central Valley winemaker? Exactly.

I do applaud the Express on one aspect of their new "Wineau" column. Each feature is going to showcase and educate about a specific region, grape, or appelation. This is a good thing. If consumers become more savvy about world wine regions then they can begin to understand the types of wines that they like and begin to seek out their own great values--in particular those wines in the $10-$20 range that can be quite phenomenal.

Just remember that finding a drinkable wine under $10 is like finding a fuckable chick at a frat party. It's pretty easy, but it's not going to leave you with any lasting memories. Save up your money and your best pick-up lines and get a wine that won't leave you with genital warts. Save the $5 wines for parties or afternoon drunkification. Get a nice bottle (a great bottle) for those nice dinners. It'll make you a better person. Trust me--I'm awesome. And I don't have genital warts.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

HFF Quickie: Bar Tartine

Found myself in the Mission with two lovely ladies hell-bent on dinner. We roamed the 16th-ish area wanting to try Limon (hour wait) and instead stumbled our way into the easy-to-miss Bar Tartine. There was a minimal wait for three at the bar and we were greeted (a bit belatedly) by the hurried staff. They've got a nice, if scattered, wine list of mostly French and Californian wines--with a bunch of bottles under $35. We opted for a solid if light-bodied 2004 Macon-Villages.

We weren't uber-hungry so we munched on a few small plates (saving room for the much-touted desserts). First up were dates stuffed with gorgonzola in balsamic. The perfectly sweet dates were filled with pungent gorognzola--all of which blended nicely with thevinegar's sharp acidity. Next, gruyere gourgeres (a sort of cheesy choucroute pastry puff) were okay--a little bland. More herbs or salt or cheese was needed to punch them up. A salad of grilled radicchio, grilled plums, and walnut fromage blanc toasts was excellent--bitter, tart, and sweet all at once. We finished up with a grilled sweet corn risotto with Greek basil. It was deliciously creamy and sweet, though the rice was a touch underdone.

As a side note, the bread that Bar Tartine served was phenomenal. Slightly doughy with a thin flaky crust. It made Acme levain taste like dirty boots. Very dirty boots.

Bar Tartine's bakery/patisserie pedigree shown through on a list of innovative seasonal desserts. A muscat poached nectarine was served with a think disc of almond sponge cake and a creamy, sweet, and savory basil ice cream. The only flaw here was the somewhat underdone nectarine. Our other dessert, a malt creme brulee topped with pluots and candied white corn was one of the best desserts I've had--definitely the best creme brulee. The creme was not too sweet, the extra sweetness added instead by the unexpectedly funky (in a good way) candied white corn and the pluots.

So Bar Tartine is pretty damn good. Fun and innovative small plates embracing seasonality while still doing some pretty wild stuff. Rounded out with a solid wine list and a big selection of wines by the glass and Bar Tartine is a solid neighborhood haunt that'll bring me back.

Bar Tartine
561 Valencia Street
San Francisco, Ca 94110
Total Cost for Three (4 plates, 2 desserts, 1 bottle of wine, 2 coffees, tax, tip): $108

Fragments: Musings on Food and Dining

I. More than Food

Being fed by attractive, flirty, and knowledgeable servers makes dining infinitely more pleasurable. Unless you're a middle-aged woman who sees in the comely 20-something taking your order the girl you once were or the husband you once loved. We'll always go back to restaurants with a cute staff simply because the staff is cute. This something that transcends race, gender, or sexual orientation. Let's celebrate that. Customers are sluts, servers are whores, and the restaurant is the brothel where this all goes down day and night. Or maybe the food is the whore and the server is just the pimp--the long-legged hostess beckoning passersby into a den of carnal delights. Either way.

II. Requiem for Bendean
I know that some people might get a boner from reading a list of seasonal ingredients, but that does not a dinner make. Take note Alice, Wendy, Judy, and every other Berkeley Bowl shopper with their own restaurant. We lost one of the best restaurants in the East Bay when Bendean closed. It was flavor intensified. Premium ingredients sculpted into entrees that were greater than their pieces. Free range chicken, retardedly great carrots, and flaky puff pastry fell together to create a transcendent (there's that word again) pot pie. And yet people didn't go in the way they should. Why? Location? Price? Or are people scared of flavor? Are people scared of not knowing what they're eating? Pork chili rojo? I don't even know what that means. Why should I eat it? Because it's goddamn good for you, that's why.

III. Viva Espana
Australia? Argentina? Oregon? California? The best value wines are not coming out of these trendy New World viticulture areas. The best convergence of quality and price can be found in one of the oldest wine-growing regions of the world--Spain. The country that brought Old World winemaking to the New World is--for reasons I don't know--producing phenomenal red, white, and sparkling wines that (EU be damned) are still commanding far less than their French and Italian counterparts. Spain's hot climate produces vibrantly fruit-forward reds but its talented winemakers manage to produce rich and mildly tannic wines that pack in flavor and depth without being mouth-puckering or jammy. There's also a judicious use of oak--Crianzas from Campo de Borja being a prime example. There's enough wood to build a nuanced finish without being buttery or musty. Spain's white wines benefit from complex soil--creating wines with long minerally finishes and/or bright crisp acidity. This isn't the place for residual sugar or big herbaceous whites, but excellent food-friendly whites that are deceptively complicated. Recommendations? Check out whites from Rueda and Rias Baixas and reds from Montsant, Jumilla, and Campo de Borja (not to mention some great sparkling Cavas) for great dinner wines in the $10-$20 a bottle range. Vintage Berkeley, Solano Cellars, and of course The Spanish Table all have great selections (and helpful staffs to navigate the minefield).

Thursday, August 24, 2006

HFF Quickie: Globe

Add another restaurant to the stable of HFF's quality spots for return visits.

This wasn't even on the agenda for dinner--we had plans to hit up Zuni but lane closures on the bridge held us back and we had no desire to be one of the "those guys" rolling in thirty minutes before close so we redirected our efforts to Globe.

I was shocked at how good the food is there--late-night eating and quality generally don't go hand in hand (see The Brazen Head over in the Marina). We kept it light--two pizzas a starter and two sides for the three of us. Oh, and a bottle of wine--a 2004 Wild Hog Carignane that was fucking off the charts. One of the best reds I've had (and at a $35 list price).

The appetizer of friurello peppers "pedron style" was decent--the peppers were fairly "green" and undersalted. Not sure if these are meant to be similar to "pimientos de padron" for instance. The accompanying cherry tomatoes were retardedly good, however--as was the burrata.

The two pizzas were off the charts. The only weak spot was the crust, which was doughy and underseasoned--not bad, just really bread-y. The sopprasetta and sunnyside-up egg pizza was great. The best sopprasetta I've had (don't think it's housemade) covering the pizza with two perfectly runny eggs on top. Even better was the wild mushroom and black truffle oil pizza--meaty, flavorful, and redolent with fungi.

The side dishes were solid--some just-slightly underdone broccoli de ciccio (not the best I've had, but good) and a decent mac and cheese. This was probably the best restaurant mac and cheese I've had, but that's not saying much. It was nice and cheesy if a bit too liquid-y.

Food was good, service was friendly but flighty--and they serve until 1AM (or later, I'm not sure). And a killer wine list with nice funky bottles in the $30-$40.

Not that it needs more press--but check out Globe next chance you get.

290 Pacific Ave.
San Francisco, Ca 94111
Total Cost with Generous Tip (for three): $110

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Things I Like, Things I Don't

Things I Like

Lanesplitter Pizza – Two slices and a beer for seven bucks? Enormous thin crust pies loaded with simple, tasty toppings? Salt, spice, and flavor? Late hours and unpretentious service? Lanesplitter kicks all the Cal-Cuisine pizza pretenders square in the nuts.

Tokyo Fish – Fresh fish, friendly people, a great little produce section and a wide array of weird and tasty Japanese imports.

Cesar’s Salt Cod and Potato Cazuela – Sure it’s just brandade in a bowl but it’s also the best $4.75 you can spend on food in town.

Aleppo pepper – Have you ever tried it? Think a milder mix of dried chipotle, cumin, and cayenne.

Spanish Table – Wine, snacks, and helpful staff without the pretense, sophistry, and obscene mark-ups of other area specialty shops.

99 Ranch – Sure it’s not the best source for organics, but it’s the best source for fish paste.

Minerality – It’s the new buttery. Trust me.

Gregoire – Despite frequent slip-ups there’s no better place for a sandwich. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not overpriced.

Frogs’ legs – The bastard child of chicken and lobster.

Solano Cellars – The best selection from the biggest geographical diversity of any local shop. Friendly staff and cool wine bar—flights change every week.

Things I Don’t

Salads – Come on! It’s fucking produce on a plate! There are better ways to eat vegetables.

Oddlots Wine Shop – So this is a petty grudge, but the owner flagrantly ignored us when I tried to spend money at his business. I'm never going back.

Paying for Eggs – Why spend money on scrambles or omelettes? Waste your hard-earned brunch money on something cool. Like frogs’ legs.

Monterey Fish – Overpriced and stinky. Also staffed by hipsters who are overpriced and

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Rant: The Foie Gras Hypocrisy

The Foie Gras Hypocrisy

In 2010 the production of foie gras by “cruel means” in the State of California will be illegal. New York is passing similar legislation, essentially eliminating the foie gras industry outside of France. The theory behind the law being that the perceived force-feeding of geese to obtain the fatty liver necessary for foie gras is cruel.

This may be true. It may not. That’s not the problem.

At the core of this law is a fundamental hypocrisy that abides in political correct meat eaters—that at the end of the day one kind of dead animal is better than another. These are the same folks who ban the sale and consumption of horse meat in America. Some of these folks are vegetarians and more power to them. Opposing the slaughter of animals for food is a rational moral stance built upon the underlying premise that animals should not be killed for food. But many opponents of foie gras are the same folks who proudly proclaim they only eat Niman Ranch meat or Hoffman Farms chickens—that somehow because their food animals were raised “humanely” that makes it okay that the animals were brutally slaughtered for consumption.

A dead animal is a dead animal and limiting an animal’s suffering doesn’t change the end result. You either believe animals should be killed for food or not. End of story.

There are a multitude of reasons that one should eat meat from humane, organic, and sustainable farmers—but it has nothing to do with humane treatment. Good meat tastes better and is better for you. A Hoffman farms chicken is infinitely more nuanced in flavor and texture than its factory-farmed counterpart. Grass-fed beef contains less cholesterol and is loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids. Eggs from free-range vegetarian fed hens have beautiful orange yolks, less cholesterol, and more nutrients than the 7-11 variety. And quite simply they taste better.

Artisan-produced meats are also more likely to be processed with attention and care, using minimal preservatives and maintaining the integrity of cuts and chops with an attentive eye to the presence of fat, gristle, and marbling.

Organic meats are also better for the environment—less energy is used in transporting, processing, and treating the animals. Animal waste is less concentrated (Harris Ranch, anyone?) and the animals play a natural role in maintaining the ecosystem through erosion control, fire prevention, and natural fertilization.

But don’t try to say that the animal on your plate is any better off because it spent a year enjoying a bit of open space and better food—that’s inane. You might as well support the death penalty as long as the inmates are treated well and killed without pain. A dead person is still a dead person—and we aren’t even given the bonus of being allowed to eat dead people. Beliefs about the humanity of either process might make you feel better, but it doesn’t wash the blood away from your hands (or your plate).

To what results can those obsessed with the welfare of dead animals point? How about the ban on horse meat sale and consumption? That must have ended the slaughter of horses for profit in the United States.

As of 2006, the U.S. is the largest exporter of horse meat in the world. There are horses to be killed and there is a market for their meat. If you oppose horse slaughter you’re better off not buying a horse or not attending events at which horses are used (and often abused) for entertainment or profit.

And what about foie gras? In 2010, instead of the geese being in the hands of small-farm artisan producers we’ll see larger scale farming of “humane” versions of foie gras probably processed with additional chemicals and additives or we’ll rely solely on imported foie gras, further marginalizing the already struggling small farmer in America.

We’re better off focusing our energy where it makes the most impact. Support organic producers. Fight factory farming, which is one of the biggest threats to the safety of our food chain and the welfare of our environment. Shop locally from small farm producers. Pay the extra 10% for the sustainable product. Chances are it’ll taste a hell of a lot better anyway.

But unless you’re planning to go vegan, quit wasting money and time fighting hypocritical battles to decide for the cow who should kill it. Gas chamber, electric chair, firing squad, or lethal injection—it doesn’t change what ends up on your plate.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Rant: California Cuisine

Take a recent selection of entrees appearing on notable restaurants’ menus:

Grilled California white sea bass with cucumbers, beets, and yogurt (Chez Panisse Café)

Rosemary and garlic braised pork roast with grilled nectarines,
white corn pudding and snap peas and baby carrots (Rivoli)

Poached California sea bass with Romano beans, gypsy peppers, corn, cucumbers
and chili oil (Café Rouge)

Roast rack of pork with slow-cooked Romano beans, tomato Provençale and red wine sauce (Bay Wolf)

What do these all have in common--besides the fact that the chefs creating them have all gone down (I speak metaphorically—probably) on Alice Waters or Judy Rogers at some time in their lives?

That’s right, all these entrees are not actually entrees! They’re lists of ingredients cooked nicely and plopped on a plate for your (and your $25’s) pleasure. Each component is seasonal and delicious by itself but just because you combine them in one bowl and call it dinner does not make it so.

There was a time when fine dining meant creating something greater than the sum of its parts—pies, chowders, gastriques, napoleons, soufflés, quiches, custards. Cooking stuff in other stuff. Cooking stuff with other stuff. Combining complimentary or disparate flavors for the very purpose of how they create new flavor sensations together—not because they all reach their peak on July 22nd.

A bowl of plums is not dessert!

California cuisine appreciation can be described, at its uppermost complimentary limits, in the satisfied declaration of “Damn, that was a good tomato.” But there’s no gestalt to dining at Chez Panisse. There’s no feeling that this is an extraordinary experience. And any uniqueness can be ascribed solely to the ingredients single-sourced from ¼ acre farms. And for which the Chez Panisse Foundation pays top dollar. It’s one of the few restaurants for which the bottom line of profitability is simply a tertiary concern.

And it spreads like that wet spot on the sheets. All over Berkeley and Oakland you can’t roll over without feeling its cold clammy chill. At the zenith of this tragedy is Pizzaiolo, which has sacrilegiously applied California Cuisine dogma to the beatified realm of the pizza—resulting in perfectly prepared pies devoid of taste.

I don’t mean to decry freshness or seasonality. These are very good things. But that should be the beginning of creating a dining experience. Whenever I hear the words “the best ingredients, impeccably prepared” I reach for my Browning: It’s an expensive gourmet restaurant, you’re supposed to have premium ingredients and you’re a fancy chef in a gourmet restaurant, you’re supposed to prepare your ingredients impeccably. That’s the foundation of what you do, not the end.

We’re hopeful (albeit still skeptical) with the emergence of the “New American” trend in which restaurants are going back to what made eating great—salt, spice, fat, and grease. Casseroles, fried chicken, and breaded pork chops. In short, flavor. But so far this is a San Francisco phenomenon that has yet to establish a beachhead on the Berkeley Marina’s hallowed, condom-strewn shores.

I knew before sitting down and at Rivoli what I would be tasting just by reading the menu. Because I’ve tasted those things before. I know exactly how those flavors taste together. I’ve cooked those things before. And I didn’t overcook my halibut. Now when I would go to the late Bendean and try chicken pot pie, spicy lentils, pork chili rojo, et al I had no idea what to expect or how to cook it. What I got was a pack of flavors that made my palate do somersaults and completely invigorated me. It was rad.

California Cuisine was a welcome innovation in dining that is well past its prime. The point’s been made. It’s a groundwork for great dining—the skeletal framework for a culinary cathedral that’s remained unfinished for over two decades. Let’s add some fucking gargoyles already, yeah?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dopo - Oakland, Ca

Everyone loves it.

Me and girlfriend Charlie.

The Space:
Cramped, stylish space--beautifully yet casually appointed. 20-some seats in the dining room, another 6 or so in front and eight along an indoor/outdoor side patio. There was a wait (had to cockslap some durf who tried to cut in front of me in line) but only 15 minutes or so--enjoyed a glass of wine on Piedmont Ave. Charlie and were seated at one of the thick wood two-tops on the side patio which was great. Open-air but secluded from traffic and the waiting crowd. Each table has a personally adjustable heater.

The Wine:
Had a 2004 Canayli Vermentino di Gallura. It wasn't until I got the bottle that I remembered that I had had the 2003 vintage (and reviewed it here, no less). If my notes from 2003 are accurate, the 2004 is infinitely more interesting. Dry and acidic with a long finish--there was an unplaceable floral character on the finish. Dopo's all-Italian wine list is small and well-priced, topping out at $38. Corkage is $8, perfect if you wanted to bring in a more nuanced wine from your cellar.

Started with the calabrian salumi. This had the best texture of any hosuemade charcturie I've had. It was soft and fatty, not the slightest bit waxy. Good flavor but I would've liked it to be quite a bit spicier, especially for a calabrian. Following that we had a fresh mozarella and tomato burrata. The cheese was soft and flavorful--not the flavorless tofu-like discs that pass for fresh mozarella at some Italian places. The slices of tomato were okay but a bit watery. The halved cherry tomatoes were great, however--sweet, tart, and mildly acidic. The entire dish was dressed with olive oil and very fresh herbs. This proved to be a recurring flavoring theme at Dopo.

I had a gypsy pepper and red onion pizza with added house-cured anchovies. The pizza was pretty damn good--not because of the toppings (which were good but scant) or the crust (behind Pizzeria Delfina and Pizzaiolo) but because of what is oft-missing in California Cuisine: flavor. The pizza was generously topped with basil, oregano, thyme, and fresh olive oil. Oh yeah, and salt. Charlie had the housemade lasagna alla napoletana with a beef-pork ragout and fresh vegetables. Reports were that flavors were good and that the pasta itself was fresh, thick, and (once again) actually salted.

Opted for the delicato--sort of like tiramisu on meth. Sponge cake is layered with chocolate mousse and soaked in espresso and a liqueur that I don't remember. The slice was topped with whipped cream and chocolate nibs. It was pretty tasty--the chocolate mousse rocked and the flavors were well-balanced. Nothing extraordinary, but extraordinary desserts are had to find.

In Conclusion:
Great spot. I'll be back. Romantic, casual, but beautifully and elegantly set. It's a trendy SoMa or Mission spot without the annoying yupsters and at half the price.

Cuisine: Italian
Price range: Appetizers: $4-$10 Entrees: $10-$16
HFF's cost for two (one anitpasto, one primo, one paste, one pizze, one bottle of wine, two espressos, tax, generous tip): $100
Reservations: No.
4293 Piedmont Ave
Oakland, Ca 94611

Sunday, July 09, 2006

HFF's Best

Here're some of my random best picks for eating in the Bay Area.

Best $4.75 you can spend on food: Salt Cod and Potato Cazuela at Cesar

Best falafel (by a huge margin): Sophia

Best $7.00 you can spend on food and beer: 7/10 Split at Lanesplitter (two slices and a beer)

Best fried squid: Magnolia Pub

Best sandwich: Grilled Yam sandwich at Magnolia

Best late-night: Zuni and Emmy's Spaghetti Shack

Best super late-night: Daimo

Best flatbread: Coco500 (sorry A Cote)

Best desserts: Eccolo

Best dill pickle soup: Old Krakow

Best breakfast: La Note

Best pancakes: Sam's Log Cabin

Best anchovy-stuffed olives: Magnolia (sorry downtown)

Best on-the-go meal: Smoothie from Tazo at SFSU (chocolate peanut butter banana in particular)

Best place to view health code violations: Mediterranean buffet at Bacheeso's

Best place to have to bad food in a beautiful space: Cafe Rouge

There'll be more.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Rivoli - Berkeley, Ca

'Cause it's my birthday. And I'd never eaten here before.

Me, girlfriend Charlie, and my parents.

The Space:
Homey (if a bit tacky) facade on Solano Ave entering into a wine bar area. We continued down a service corridor ("Guests in the hallway!" is a common refrain from the manager) into the dining room. The dining room was a crowded but well-spaced single room overlooking an aesthetically overgrown garden through floor-to-ceiling plate windows. Tables were nice and well-appointed. Chairs attractive but a bit uncomfortable.

The Wine:
Perhaps the most perfect wine list I've encountered. Great selection of full and half-bottles from a diverse global distribution. The small list is beautifully priced with many bottles for under $35 and almost the entire list is under $50 with a handful of exceptions. Wines that I've seen on other wine lists (Navarro Gewurztraminer, for instance) were consistenly $5-$8 cheaper on Rivoli's list. Wine service was great with funky chilled marble bottle holders to keep the wine at a nice temperature. Service temperature for the both our white wines was a nice 45-50 degrees. A 2004 gruner veltliner from Hiedler ($26) paired well with our appetizers. It was brisk, minerally, tart and acidic. A Herze Avo Chablis ($32) from 2004 worked well with our seafood and chicken heavy entrees. It had a nice full-body complexity with a touch of oak and a lingering mineral finish.

Four appetizers: a baby lolla rossa salad with beets, avocado, and green goddess; lobster sausage on braised savoy cabbage; portabello mushroom fritters, and bellwether ricotta and pecorino gnocchi with grilled figs. All were good, nothing was astonishing. The salad was a server error (we had ordered the OTHER baby lettuce salad) but was nice anyway--succulent lettuce, delicious avocado, and a great green goddess dressing. The beets were cut too damn small to eat. The lobster sausage was pretty good, though it was spongy and fishy making it taste like the $2 fish cake you get at Japanese markets (and which I love--but not for $12). The braised cabbage was quite good. The mushroom fritters, a Rivoli signature I'm told, were great. The portabellos stay plump and firm while still being cooked through. The breading is crunchy and the aioli is well-balanced. The gnocchi was the most disappointing of the quartet--more gnudi than gnocchi. They were underflavored and undersalted balls of cheese and air paired with some relatively unremarkable figs.

I had grilled halibut with fregola, saffron, grilled calamari, and a cucumber and mint sauce. The flavors were quite good but the halibut was overcooked. Not just a bit, but pretty substantially--almost to the point of squeaky dryness. My dad had grilled day boat scallops--the smallest day boats I've seen. The scallops were great and cooked perfectly and the accomanying potato and corn mix tasted good too, but the presentation was unappetizing--six of the scallops sort of mushed into a monochrome vegetable mush. Mom had a chicken roulade with prosciutto, hazelnuts, scamorza cheese, spinach and bing cherries. This was probably the most complicated and most interesting dish--strong and contrasting flavors with everything cooked nicely. Charlie went with the Bufalo mozarella ravioli with an artichoke and onion mix on top. This was odd because the ravioli themselves were just lumps of mozarella encased in a flavorless (salt?) pasta pocket. Pretty bad. Eating a bite of that with all the sauteed flavors that they're topped with was pretty good. Why some of that topping wasn't made into a filling and why the pasta was gummy and flavorless remains a mystery.

This was where Rivoli shone. We had the hot fudge sundae--delicious actually warm hot fudge in a parfait glass with great vanilla ice cream (not homemade, I'm told) and perfectly toasted nuts. We also had the hazelnut chocolate cake with a flavored ice cream that I can't remember. This was a truly bittersweet chocolate cake and was quite tasty, albeit a bit dry. The cake itself was so bitter that a bite wihtout the ice cream was almost too much to stand--but I liked it. We also enjoyed the strawberry shortcake. The strawberries and cream were good if nothing remarkable, but the shortcake was buttery and a little smoky--a perfect savory counterpoint to the strawberries and cream. Pairing up with our desserts we had a glass of a delicious full-flavored Tokaji and a late-bottle Riesling from Yuba County that was also nice and bright although just a touch too syrupy for my tastes. Basically, desserts were fucking great.

In Conclusion:
Rivoli was exactly what I expected--great ingredients well-prepared, though I was surprised at the number of kitchen slip-ups at a three-star perennial Top 100 restaurant. I don't feel compelled to go back for dinner, but I could easily see myself returning for dessert and a bottle of wine at the wine bar.

If you want boring, well-prepared food at a pretty good price, go to Rivoli. Of the Berkeley Cal-Med powerhouses I've been too, I'd still rank the food below Chez Panisse Cafe and Lalime's. I definitely appreciate what they're doing with their menu pricing and wine selection. I hold no ill will, I just found Rivoli dull and predictable.

Cuisine: Cal-Med
Price range: Appetizers: $7.50-$12.25; Entrees: $16.95-$23.50
HFF's cost for four (four appetizers, four entrees, three desserts, two bottles of wine, two glasses of dessert wine, one coffee, tax, tip): I don't know--it was my birthday.
Reservations: 510-526-2542
1539 Solano Ave
Berkeley, Ca 94707

Monday, June 19, 2006

Rant: How to Have a Good Time Out

Too many people head out to a meal and don't seem to even WANT to have a good time. You're spending an assload of money on food--you're paying for the whole experience which includes good company. Plus, if you're in a bad mood in passes off to your server and colors your enjoyment of the food. A $30 piece of fish is going to taste a helluva lot better if you're in a good mood than if you're out with your cousin you can't stand who just brought his bawling daughter with.

Here're some tips to maximize your night out:

Pick your partners well - Make sure that who actually WANT to go eat with the people you're eating with. Why are you going out together? Do you like the same food? This last point is key. Working at a seafood restaurant (with menus prominently displayed on windows and online) I'm still surprised at how many times there's at least one person in a party who does not like fish. Well why the fuck would you pick a seafood place to go? Or why would you take your friend there? Unless you hate your friend. That's probably it.

Order the Same - I don't mean order the same food, but try your best to order the same number of courses per person. This is especially with larger parties. It is incredibly difficult from both a service and kitchen perspective to time a six-top where two people are getting appetizers and the rest are getting entrees. Do we crowd up the table? Do the other four watch as the two munch on their salads? If you're going to get appetizers, everybody get something! Or, if you want to save money, take advantage of your collective buying power and get a few appetizers and salads to share. Or, in the rare instances where you're the odd man out for ordering appetizers, suck it up and skip it. Come back by yourself or with someone who actually wants to eat.

Keep it Small - I'm going to lay this out right now--it is next to impossible to have a truly great dining experience with a party bigger than four, unless you're at a set menu type establishment or at a place that specializes in large parties (BBQ joints, Chinese seafood restaurants, Spengers, et al). The basic Cal Cuisine culinary model is made for intimate dinners. Food is cooked quickly, cools off fast, and is artfully presented. Appetizers are usually made for 2-4 people to get a few bites each. Bottles of wine are perfect for 2-4 people. Plus, you can't hear each other, people feel left out, and on and on and on. If you are going to go out in a big group--and I definitely don't want to discourage you--pick your restaurant (and dining companions) well. The best way to do it is to order everything tapas style. Get a round of salads to share. Then get a round of appetizers. Then a round of entrees. And a round of desserts. Double up on certain things if necessary. You'll get to taste more of what the restaurant has to offer AND it relieves the stress on the kitchen. Maybe for your party of six you only get three or four things each round. That should be enough for a couple bites each and there is so much more that you can try? I don't know about you, but I don't necessarily need to eat more than three or four bites of the same thing anyway. And if you do, just order another one! See how that works? And if you insist, absolutely insist, on doing it the old fashioned way in a large group--be patient, know what you want, and try to follow the previous entry about ordering your courses.

Pay for your Table - This probably will tick people off the most, but from a restaurant standpoint it is of paramount rudeness for a table to sit and sit and camp and camp without spending money. It's rude for the restaurant and for the customers waiting. Try to show up all together. If you can't, order a glass of wine or a snack while you're waiting. If you want to hang out for an hour or more after you're done with your entrees, that's fine but order dessert, coffee, more wine, port, etc. A restaurant is not a lounge or a library--it's a business providing a space and a service. Use that space and that service while you're there. If you're done, get up and move on. Find a coffee shop or a bar or a lounge to continue your conversation. Move to the restaurant's bar if it has one.

Don't be the Last Ones There - Pay attention to what's going on around you if you're at a restaurant after they've stopped seating. Are you the last customers there? Yes? Okay, what's the staff doing? Are they cleaning up and doing work? No? Are they in the back folding napkins? Yes? Chances are you're keeping three or four or five people there waiting for you. You should probably go. Naturally if you're still eating and ordering food this doesn't apply. But if you're just hanging out and talking--you're done with coffee and dessert and have been for a while--you should make your way out as soon as it looks like things are winding down at the restaurant. It's just courteous. If you do show up and get seated late in an empty or near-empty restaurant, be considerate as well. Order promptly (the kitchen has infinitely more clean-up to do than the front of the house), but there's no need to rush--just pay attention. As long as you're there and spending money, the restaurant is glad to have you. In fact, order a lot. Get wine. Get four courses. And tip well, especially if it looks like you've kept your server there for quite a while. Surprisingly, most servers aren't necessarily in a rush to get home (most want to make money) especially if he or she knows that this late diner is a good eater and a generous tipper.

Pepper me with comments and complaints. Please, for the love of god.

Friday, June 16, 2006

HFF Quickie: Cafe Rouge

I was tired of the usual suspects for lunch so decided to take a trip to Cafe Rouge--I'd been there a few times but never really sat down and had a full meal.

I kicked off with a pint of the Mendocino Black Hawk stout. It's a good beer but their kegs were way (way) too cold and the co2 was cranked a too high making it taste more like a dark lager than the stout that I remember it being from the bottle.

First up was an arugula salad with artichokes and garbanzo beans. The components were all good. The arugula was peppery and sweet, the garbanzos tender and not grainy, and the artichokes were nicely blanched but pretty bland. The salad itself was really bland--everything was underseasoned and underdressed. I just felt like I was eating a plate full of grass. Maybe a heavier dressing, mix of herbs, or a cheese mixed in could've made this a more exciting dish.

As an entree I got the soft shell crab sandwich with cactus, harissa, and creme fraiche. I know this might sound harsh, but this was honestly the first dish that I've had at a restaurant of some reputation that I would actually call bad. Not boring, flavorless, or overcooked (in fact the execution was great) but simply bad. The crab itself was good but it was placed on an enormous torpedo-type roll so that the crab was completely subsumed in bread. The roll wasn't toasted, the cactus was interesting but it was served cold and was resultantly very very slimy. I couldn't taste the harissa and the creme fraiche was liquid and drippy. So I couldn't taste the warm, crisp crab but I could taste all the cold, drippy accompaniments ensconced in an enormous dry roll. What struck me is that there was nothing inherently bad about any of the accompaniments, it was just their combination which indicated that whoever came up with that dish was either lazy or is in desperate need of a palate transplant.

The mixed greens on the side were moist and nicely dressed.

I closed out the meal with almond cake with roasted apricots and a ricotta-honey ice cream. This was pretty good. The cake was a bit dry, even though it was soaked with honey but the flavors were bright. The apricot were good but served not warm so they too had a weird slimy texture (can't people just warm this shit back up? Christ.). The ice cream was great--surprisingly light and not too sweet with a sharp, smooth ricotta flavor. A lot of the desserts on Cafe Rouge's menu looked pretty damn good.

So yeah--I probably won't be back for lunch any time soon. The poor execution combined with my own lack of interest in what Cafe Rouge usually serves (a lot of meat) creates little incentive. Maybe I'll sit at the bar and have some nuts or something.

Cafe Rouge
Entree price range (lunch):
HFF's cost for one (one beer, one salad, one sandwich, one dessert, tax, tip):
Reservations: or 510-525-1440
1782 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pizzeria Delfina - San Francisco, Ca

My good friend Randy's birthday. He works in SF and I figured I'd take him out some place nice. And pizza is of course delicious.

Me and Good Friend Randy.

The Space:
Store front space on 18th street just off Valencia (next to the esteemed Delfina restaurant). Compact interior with a handful of tables on 18th street another 6 or so banquettes inside and a counter with seating along one side of the kitchen. Industrial but stylish. Just as a note, the pizzeria is open all day (except Monday--dinner only) serving their pies and antipasti dine-in or to do.

The Wine:
No wine. Though I had a nice iced tea. Should be noted that Pizzeria Delfina caused a minor sensation when it opened and barred the bringing of wines from customers' personal stashes. Small, well-priced list.

The pizzeria's menu features antipasti, pizzas, one piatto del giorno, and dolce--that's it. No pasta, no long list of entrees. I like it--I think that a place like Pizzaiolo falls flat more often than not when it strays from what it is set up to make--motherfucking pizza. The Pizzeria has a nice selection of antipasti to add a a little more depth to your meal. We opted for one, the spicy cauliflower. Tender florets were sauteed with capers, spicy chilies, and garlic. This dish was strongly flavored, oily, and perfectly cooked. Simply great.

Tried two pizzas--one was a signature pie, the salsiccia with homemade fennel sausage, tomato, bell peppers, onions, and mozzarella. The other was a special that day of pancetta, grilled treviso, pecorino, and hot peppers. Both were damn tasty. First of all, this was the best pizza crust I've had--very thin but very crispy (only the very middle of the sausage pizza was a bit floppy). The edge of the crust is worked up into a nice chewy doughy ring. The pizzas are thinly and evenly sauced and cheesed with a smattering of delicious evenly spaced toppings. While like Pizzaiolo, the Pizzeria could've used more toppings--at least at Pizzeria Delfina the toppings are strongly flavored traditional Italian toppings and not mild and bland California Cuisine bullshit. The pancetta and treviso pizza was treviso-heavy (almost the entire pizza is covered in a single layer of the chicory) and the pancetta needed to play a more prominent role, but the entire package was excellent. The salsiccia pizza was fabulous--the homemade fennel sausage was plumper and stronger than that which I'd had on a similar pizza at Chez Panisse Cafe. The other toppings were well-balanced and complimentary. Both pizzas were perfectly sauced and cheesed--nothing was too gooey or drippy. It should be noted as well that all the pizzas on the menu sounded great (including a clam pizza and a broccoli rabe pizza).

At the suggestion of our server, we opted to try their cannoli with Bellwether ricotta. Nice crisp shell with a smooth, not overly rich filling. The shell could've been a little flakier for my tastes, but then again I don't pretend to be a judge of authentic cannoli. Pretty damn good.

In Conclusion:
Big, strongly-flavored, and well-priced pizzas (with an even better crust) combined with an extensive selection of strongly-flavored antipasti makes Pizzeria Delfina the anti-Pizzaiolo. Where Pizzaiolo is the place to go for people who want a seasonal garden on a crust, Pizzeria Delfina is the place to go to get an actual pizza. The bonus is that unlike other great pizza joints (Lanesplitter comes to mind), Pizzeria Delfina also uses ingredients that are on par or exceed the quality of Pizzaiolo's. And, even though the crust is far and away the best part of a Pizzaiolo pie, Pizzeria Deflina's was better--crisp and charred and doughy and soft all at the same time. Even without a wood oven.

I'll be back to Pizzeria Delfina many many times--I want to try all the antipasti and all the pizzas. That in and of itself is enough of an endorsement. It's nice to dine at a restaurant that understands that fresh & seasonal and big, bold flavors can (and should) go hand in hand.

Pizzeria Delfina
Cuisine: Italian/Pizza
Price range: Antipasti $2.75-$7.75; Pizza $10-$16
HFF's cost for two (one antipasti, two pizzas, one dessert, one iced tea, tax, and 20% tip): $60
Reservations: No.
3611 18th Street
San Francisco, Ca 94110

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

HFF Quickie: Va de Vi Bistro & Wine Bar

I found myself over the hills in in Pleasanton one afternoon and decided to make a visit with Chef Scott to one of the most highly regarded restaurants on this side of the tunnel, Walnut Creek's Va de Vi Bistro. As a disclosure I'm a very casual acquaintaince of the wine director but knew nothing much about the food or the restaurant's history.

The restaurant is a pretty chic but vaguely artificial space (Va de Vi is the restaurant analogue of the functionally attractive woman who smothers herself in makeup--a type ubiquitous in Walnut Creek, it seemed). We sat outside, taking advantage of an early reservation and a warm evening. Seats were comfortable, table for two spacious (and nowhere near as tightly packed as the interior banquettes). Va de Vi was bustling, even at 6PM on a Tuesday.

The restaurant is eclectic--it's name is from Catalan, the menu is a strongly Asian-tinged (Pacific Rim, as the website says) take on many French, Italain, and Spanish small plates. Seasonal California ingredients are featured, but not to the point of cliche, which was nice.

We ended up going rather nuts, getting two wine flights each and six plates, plus cheese. Like Cav, this proved to be one of our most expensive outings and also like Cav proved to be one of the more inconsistent.

The first dish was the shrimp tater tots--potato balls stuffed with shrimp and deep-fried. These were alright, nothing remarkable, and vastly undersalted. It tasted like there was little salt in the filling and it was unlikely the croquettes were salted before serving either. Adding salt to the dish piqued the flavors a bit.

Next up was a special--pan-seared onaga with creamed corn and shaved summer truffles. The fish, described as a Hawaiian red snapper, was inoccuous (not as robust as some snapper I've had) and just the slightest bit overcooked. The creamed corn was fabulous and a mix of corn, truffle (and much more mushroom-y truffle than the usual winter varieties) was pretty tasty. Once again, it needed salt--and more seasoning on the fish in general as the onaga was basically flavorless.

The next two dishes proved to be a bit more interesting--star-anise scented duck confit leg with plum sauce and a "Singapore style" barbecued Kurobuta pork belly with a soy-honey glaze and green papaya salad. The duck was tender and fatty and the accompanying soft buns were--eating the duck with a bit of bun tempered the strong flavor of the plum sauce. The meat not immediately swaddled in fat was a little bit dry. This was the only dish that did not require salting. The pork had moments that were transcendent. It was rich, fatty, and with an incredibly smooth mouthfeel. After adding salt, the crispy fatty grilled end pieces were some of the best meat that I've had (though I don't eat much, I admit). The green papaya salad was also tasty. As with the duck, the bits of meat not a close neighbor to meltingly juicy fat was just a touch dry.

My big complaint with those two dishes was that nothing really was dependent upon the cooking abilities of the restaurant--fatty meat is pretty easy to not fuck-up, especially with the fresh and rich sweet glazes that they came with. In fact the dryness of the meat would indicate that the kitchen is not operating adequately in terms of technique.

Still hungry (and veggie-deprived) we ordered the roasted beet salad. Red and golden beets with lolla rossa, half of a small tempura-fried onion, and a slice of Cypress Grove "Bermuda Triangle" cheese. This was pretty good, though it desperately needed salt. The cheese was phenomenal.

Our final dish proved to be the favorite--a shrimp "risotto" with oven-roasted tomatoes and fried basil. The basil was relatively flavorless, but the tomato flavor was rich, the shrimp nicely sauteed and the rice creamy even if it wasn't a true risotto. Still, this needed salt and a stronger herb flavor.

Va de Vi does a decent cheese plate with a small but diverse international selection. A Sauternes-washed blue from Belgium was awesome, a semi-firm Spanish sheep cheese was tasty but straightforwardly mild, and a Ewe's blue from New York was great--especially when accompanied with either the wildflower honey or abbamele (a flavored honey and pollen reduction). Also on the plate were slices of pugliese and thin Indian crepe-like pane de carasau. Also on the plate were slices of pear that inexplicably still had pieces of the core attached.

Now the wine at Va de Vi is an excellent selection of world wines leaning heavily toward big reds from France, Spain, and California and big whites from Italy, France, and California. The bottle list is extensive and well-priced in a broad range. The highlights of the wine list however are the forty or so wines available by the glass or taste. All of these wines are also arranged in themed three-taste flights. They're grouped by varietal, region, flavor characteristics, or in many cases simple whimsy.

So Va de Vi is definitely hit and miss as far as the goes--some of the flavors are distinctive and the ingredients are great, but between the drastic underseasoning and slightly less drastic overcooking there's room for significant improvement. Check it out, have some wine and few plates--I just don't know if I'll be back.

Va de Vi Bistro & Wine Bar
Cuisine: Pacific Rim-influenced Continental small paltes
Price range: $4-$16
HFF's cost for two (six plates, three cheeses, four wine flights, tax, tip): $180
Reservations: 925-979-0100 or
1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Walnut Creek, Ca 94596

Friday, June 02, 2006

Rant: Being a Good Customer

I don't have anything else to write about just yet, so I figured it's about time I set forth my own humble opinions as to what you can do to be a good customer.

I write this both from the perspective of a waiter and a frequent diner.

The relationship between customer and service staff is fucked up already. In many ways, the server as the immediate face of the restaurant becomes the focus for all that goes ill in a restaurant, yet when things go well the first thing a customer wants to do is send compliments to the kitchen or the manager. Servers are blamed for prices, portion sizes, decor, and the length of time that it takes for food to get out of the kitchen, all of which the server has little if any control over. In the end too, the customer's responses are based as much upon ingrained and ritualized behavior than upon any actual judgment or logic. Complaining about how long food takes does not make the food come out quicker. Besides, if you're actually out enjoying yourself, it shouldn't how long something takes--aren't you having fun just being out?

With these thoughts in mind, here are some valuable (valuable!) tips to make your dining experiences better for you and the people who serve you.

1. Don't complain to a server. What I mean by this is don't complain to the server about issues of portion size, price, decor, etc. A server has no control over this--he or she may even be sympathetic to your concerns, but has neither the power to change these circumstances nor the eagerness to relay your complaints. If you have a legitimate beef, ask to speak to the manager on duty. While the manager probably won't give a fuck either (especially if the restaurant is established), he or she's more likely to be in a position to remedy your complaint if it is legitimate.

2. Do bring problems to a server's attention. If you think that food is improperly prepared or that you weren't given what was specified in the menu, do mention that in a fair and non-accusatory way to your server. Chances are that the mistake is an honest mistake and the restaurant will want to rectify it. Don't blame or penalize the server for the error and always, always be genial. You're much more likely to have an item comped or a complimentary drink or dessert sent to your table if you're friendly and helpful instead of pissed off and surly.

3. Don't denounce food categorically. Chances are if a restaurant has been open for a while they are established and enough people like what they're doing to keep the restaurant afloat. Despire what you might think, it is unlikely that anything on the menu is "terrible," "atrocious," or any other negative adjective. At the very worst it's just not to your tastes and chances are it is to the tastes of nearly every other diner. Those complaints just make you sound surly.

4. Read the menu. Just as with any test, read the contents thoroughly. It's okay. Take your time. Make sure you understand it before you ask any questions that'll make you look legally retarded.

5. Trust your server. At a good restaurant your server is a trained customer service professional there to help you. Ask your server for recommendations and then go along with them if you do. If you know what you want, then don't ask questions and just order.

6. Do your research. Find out about the restaurant before you go. Read reviews (professional or otherwise), find the menu online, ask friends who've been, or swing by and check the menu out sometime. Know what to expect this will make you less likely to suffer from sticker shock ro any other food-related shock.

7. Don't ignore your server. If a staff member of the restaurant comes to your table, pause and acknowledge there presence. A server is not coming to your table to be annoying, they're coming to serve you. Nothing pisses me off more than being ignored by a table--I'm not expecting your undivided attention, I just think that I can maybe help you right now. Maybe I can answer questions about the restaurant or the food. I understand that you might not be ready to order, that's not why I'm there. If you truly don't want the server there yet, a simple and polite "can you give us a couple minutes" suffices nicely. And be honest--if you say you need a couple minutes, then be ready to go in a couple minutes.

8. Order. Along those lines, just fucking order. You have all night to talk and visit--when you get to a table, sit down, read the menu, talk amongst yourselves, and decide on your meal. This helps you as much as it helps a server--I guarantee that on a busy night if you don't order by the second visit to your table by the server, you're increasing your likelihood of being ignored for a while exponentially. Once you're seated, spend the five goddamn minutes actually reading the menu instead of chatting up your dining partner--she's not going to sleep with you anyway, it's just a business lunch.

I'm sure more thoughts will come to me. Expect a second installment.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

HFF in the Kitchen: Weird Shit from 99 Ranch

I'm fully aware of the inherent Western Orientalist trappings of my referring to frogs' legs, sea cucumber, fish paste, baby octupus, shimusu, mystery greens, quail eggs, and rabbit from 99 Ranch as being "weird shit." I'm also fully aware that many world cultures would find our massive consumption of the udder secretions of various mammals to be equally weird and repulsive. Hell, I do too sometimes. I mean, honestly--milk? What the fuck?

After returning from my trip to Japan I immediately went into withdrawal. I craved miso. I craved MSG. I craved chopsticks. It's not that I ate anything particularly odd in Japan--octopus and cuttlefish (and "hard gizzard," I suppose) were the extremities of my experimentation. I managed to evade raw horse sushi and couldn't track down a whale meat provider on Honshu. An okonomiyaki place in Kyoto on their spectacularly translated English menu offered something called "frazzled beef nerves." I didn't order it.

Anyway, I proposed a cooking party to Chef Scott that would involve impulse buys from 99 Ranch prepared in whatever way we could improvise based on our own knowledge of ancient Asian cooking secrets. We are much more knowledgeable of Ancient Asian Sex Secrets, a landmark film starring Kobe Tai. A true classic of the genre.

Some highlights:

Baby octopus poached in red miso broth: We made a simple broth out of red miso, shiso leaves, cury leaves, and onions and cooked the octopodes for about 90 minutes at a low temperature. The little guys were very tender, not at all chewy, and redolent of the earthy miso. In a future incarnation, perhaps a sweet and spicy accompanying sauce.

Tempura Chinese frogs' legs: Don't know what makes Chinese frogs' legs different from other nations' frogs' legs, but when we dusted these in flour, dredged them in egg, covered them in panko, and then fried them in soybean oil until golden brown they were fantastic. Simple and delicious.

Pan-fried shimisu with garlic: Shimisu are tiny white fish with beady little black eyes. Hard to tell how they were as Scott put way too much salt on them. But we were drunk, so it's cool.

Fish paste wontons: Very fishy. And too garlicky. That was my bad as I put way too much garlic in them. See previous comment regarding drunkenness.

Wasabi deviled quail eggs: Pungent and creamy, could've used more mayo (we didn't have very much). Easy way to do quail eggs though. As a reference, hardboil them the way you would chicken eggs, but only let them sit in the water for three minutes after bringing it to a boil.

Stewed rabbit: Okay, so this wasn't very Asian. Scott's initial plan was to bone the rabbit, stuff it with miso, veggies, and herbs, and then roast it. Unfortunately, PG&E incompetence got in the way and my power was out for the entire evening. We were comfortable lighting the burners but decided that trying to find the pilot in the dark in an oven would most likely result in a spectacular fireball. Instead, Scott eighthed the rabbit, browned it with garlic and then stewed it in red wine with carrots, onions, and the mysterious veggies we picked up (shiso, the aforementioned cury leaves, ginger, and Taiwan spinach). It simmered for a good four hours and was simply amazing. Meaty, flavorful, fall-off-the-bone rabbit meat thick with layers of flavor.

Steamed sea cucumber: A by-product of the power outage was an inability to find instruction of how to cook sea cucumber. So we steamed it. It was gross. In the future, perhaps stewing in soup, deep frying, or braising with lots of other stuff would be better.

What's up next? Apple snails, geoduck, jellyfish, rabbit again, and Scott insists he wants to do some sort of imperial involving the stuffing of numerous fish and meats into increasingly larger fish and meats. Perhaps anchovy all the way up to whale shark? Stay tuned.

As a final note, this entire meal (with enough weird food for at least eight) cost about $70, $22 of that was for a four-pound rabbit. Fed up with the ass-raping prices at Whole Foods and Andronico's for "exotic" ingredients? Check 99 Ranch out first. They're all over the Bay Area. Find stores at their website.