Friday, February 17, 2006

Return Visit: Maverick

Though it's definitely inconsistent, I've become a fan of Maverick for the same reasons that I'm now a fan of Bendean--it's a restaurant that takes risks, has a constantly evolving menu, and has a consistent theme and focus.

So I decided to go there for Valentine's Day (changed to V-Day Eve because I had to work on Valentine's Day). Going on a Monday we were able to take advantage of Maverick's Monday night promotion: half-off any bottle of wine. That promo alone seemed to pack the place on a Monday night.

Our meal, I would say, was a step up from when I dined last. We got the crab fluffs which are balls of flavorful lump blue crab meat (my favorite crab) deep fried with a crispy exterior and impossibly light, moist, and fluffy interior. The three fluffs are served on a bed of frisee with three small dollops of strong, thick housemade tartare sauce. The only distraction were a few halved cherry tomatoes that were decent given the season but what tomatoes should be.

Second starter was the "Maverick Citrus Salad." This iteration featured blood oranges, tangerines, and watercress with a meyer lemon vinaigrette. The watercress was deliciously peppery, the citrus not overly sweet (almost too tart in spots), offset by the sparse, sweet vinaigrette. Would've liked a touch more even watercress-to-citrus ratio.

Remembering my enjoyment of the steelhead last time, I tried Maverick's fish dish again: pan-roasted monkfish served over a "stew" of steamed potatoes, haricots verts, and chorizo. The piece of fish was absolutely incredible--firm fleshed but delicate with wonderful subtle flavors. The potatoes were smooth and creamy and the chorizo was lent a nice heat to the stew and contrasted nicely with the mild (but a touch lobster-y) fish. The green beans were nicely done too, though they were superfluous (to the point of incongruity) to the dish.

Charlie ordered the Spring Risotto--this one featuring jumbo asparagus, creme fraiche, and meyer lemon confit. The risotto was thick and creamy, the asparagus tender and bright. While the tartness of the lemon was welcome, the nature of the confit left each bite with a sickly sweet aftertaste that was unusual and that we both found unenjoyable--or at least distracting.

I also ordered a side dish of creamed spinach. This was also a mild disappointment--it being more appropriately sauteed leaves of spinach in a rich creamy soup. It was all quite tasty, but it wasn't the balanced mix of chopped spinach, butter, cream, salt, and pepper that I've come to love about creamed spinach. Nevertheless, a generous portion for $4.

We steered clear of the "hot fudge brownie sundae" and opted for the roasted pear bread pudding with caramel sauce. This was a home run. Pieces of roasted bosc pears in a moist and gooey bread pudding with a rich burnt caramel sauce. Served warm, it was one of the best bread puddings I've had that I didn't make.

We also enjoyed a very nice 2004 Albarino (one of the few non-American wines on the list) the worked with our eclectic mix of flavors.

A few final notes: I finally understood what reviewers had meant by the volume in Maverick reaching ridiculous levels. This evening seemed to be a "girls' night out" for a few parties in the tiny dining room and, no doubt fueled by the half-price wine, what should have been the dull roar of conversation turned into a torrent of shrieks and shouts from drunken investment bankers and non-profit administrators. I eat (and work) at loud restaurants all the time and this was the first time I really had to uncomfortably raise my voice to be heard when dining with just one other person. Something else I noticed was that in the short time since I last dined there, the staff was no longer wearing the TGIFriday's-esque polo shirts and were back to being casually dressed in all black.

So I've had three great dinners at Maverick, despite the occasional miss. I strongly urge you to give Maverick a try for an adventurous dinner out.

And yes, I'll start reviewing new restaurants soon.

Maverick Eatery & Wine Bar
Cuisine: Neo-American comfort food
Entree price range: $15-$28
HFF's cost for two (two starters, two entrees, one side, bottle of wine [half-price], dessert, coffee, tax, and 20% tip): $123
Reservations: or 415-863-3061
3316 17th Street (at Mission)
San Francisco, Ca 94110

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bendean - Berkeley, Ca


So I liked my last experience a lot, Scott had been wanting to try it, and we were hungry and in Berkely on a Sunday, so we went to Bendean for a full meal.

I had been on Solano Ave earlier doing some shopping and homework-ing and had checked out the previous night's menu in the window at Bendean. I was pleasantly surprised to see that about 30% of the menu was different just from the previous night (a Saturday to a Sunday, no less!)

I've really begun to see in action what the force of a dynamic, talented, and committed chef-owner can do to keep a restaurant from getting stagnant. On this night, chef Lance Dean Velasquez patrolled the dining room, greeting customers, chatting about food, clearing and resetting tables, etc. He's not just there, he's present.

Me and Chef Scott

The Space:
Small but well-spaced fifty-seat dining room divided into a lounge-ish area with a handful of high tables and a dining room with a mix of stand-alone four tops along one wall and two-tops along a banquette against the other. Stylish--perhaps overly so--(a little too Restoration Hardware-y remarked Scott) furniture and fixtures with a closed kitchen. Nice, not too loud, but a little too industrial-stark even for my tastes.

The Wine:
You know, this day included a lot of subsequent drinking and I can't remember more than that it was a 2004 Austrian Gruner Veltliner and that it was nice, warm and apple-y with great mineral notes with a finish that was just a touch too acidic.

The wine list itself is fairly small but diverse and well-tailored to the eclectic menu.

First Course:
We opted to try something that Bendean's become known for, chef Lance Velasquez's pork chile rojo. We got it in the form of something called "tostitos." These are ostensibly the same format (as far as I could tell) as the tostaditas you see on some tapas menus--three small discs of fried tortilla piled with tender, slightly spicy pork and some traditional garnishes. The pork was tender and the whole dish was delicious and warming. Nothing remarkable, just tasty.

Our other starter were steamed Fox Island mussels with french fries and aioli. This dish was out of this world--mussels were steamed to the point of tenderness in a rich, creamy, lemony broth that was, to say the least, "retarded." That means good, somehow. The fries were thin and crisp, great with either the creamy, mildly garlicky aioli or dipped in the incredible broth. One of the simplest (and delicious-est) mussels preparations I've had.

I ordered the curried french lentils with cucumber-yogurt raita. The lentils were cooked perfectly, still firm but not at all hard. Most importantly they weren't cooked to mush. The dish was rich in with curry spices that were warming to almost-hot levels. It was a perfect flavor-spiciness and not just capsaicin-spiciness. Building on the eclectic nature of Bendeans menu, a handful of mirepoix vegetables were cooked with the lentils that included incomparably sweet carrots. Whiel I would've liked a bit more of the cooling raita to swirl in and the accompanying lentil-flour crepe was somewhat flavorless, this was still the best vegetarian dish I've had in recent memory.

Scott opted for the chicken pot pie, essentially a piece of puff pastry smothered in a thick and rich chicken and vegetable gravy with a second puff pastry on top. While a few pieces of chicken were a little bit tough, most of it was tender and flavorful. The gravy was thick without being lumpy or gooey and the same ridiculous carrots reappeared in more generous portions. With all of these strong but simple flavors the puff pastry was almost an afterthought--not that it wasn't good (it was what puff pastry should be), it just didn't lend any extra weight (other than caloric heft) to the dish.

After two visits, dessert seems to be Bendean's one somewhat weak point. Like the lemon poppyseed cake on my visit, our chocolate gingerbread cake was bright with flavor but overly dry. Additional whipped cream could've mitigated this, but I'd much rather have a moister cake. The lines of thick dark chocolate ganache decorating the plate were very good and chocolatey and would've been welcomed in greater quantity. In the future, I'll need to give the bread puddings a try.

In Conclusion:
Bendean has firmly placed itself among my favorite restaurants. The execution from the kitchen that I've experienced has been comparable in quality to Chez Panisse Cafe andVelasquez seems committed to a menu that takes risks and challenges diners. With a menu that changes seemingly daily, Bendean also has a reason to keep frequent diners coming back.

Cuisine: Cal-Med/Eclectic
Entree price range: $15-$22
HFF's cost for two (two starters, two entrees, one dessert, one bottle of wine, tax, 20% tip): $120.
Reservations: 510-526-3700
1647 Solano Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94706

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Rant: Ice Buckets

I hate ice buckets.

I don't mind them as vehicles for storing or transporting ice for parties. That works. I do mind them when their used to get already too-cold wines to near-freezing levels.

What this comes from, I think, is this misaken belief that white wine should be drunk cold. Fuck that, white wine should be drunk cool.

Certain bad white wines (as all alcoholic beverages do) benefit from being really fucking cold. That's because flavors that give wine character--acid, alcohol, musty, minerals, flavor in general beyond "wine flavor"--are tempered (or even eliminated) as the temperature goes down. In bad wines, these character notes are usually pretty bad.

In good wine, however, these flavors are warming and exciting when you taste wine. The middle range of flavors in particular is lost when a wine gets cold. The range of tastes and sensations you'll experience between the initial taste and the finish are virtually non-existent in overly-chilled wine.

Pop a bottle of wine in the freezer and get it nice and cold. Take it out and open it. Taste it every 15 minutes and notice how flavor and complexity builds as it warms. A good white wine should be enjoyable for well over an hour after being removed from refrigeration. I promise.

You people who get an ice bucket for ONE bottle of wine for FOUR people? You're all going to hell.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

HFF Quickie: Bendean - Berkeley, Ca

Sometimes I just want to eat something good, relatively inexpensive, in a relaxed atmosphere. I found myself walking around Solano Avenue at 5:oo on a Monday night hungry and with homework to read. Nothing sounded good to me. My usual casual Mediterranean restaurants are not terribly good for homework (something about getting baba ganoush on textbooks).

After renting a few DVDs at Five Star, I found myself strolling past Bendean. They had just open and were serving Ben's Supper (5-6PM Tues-Thurs, all night Sun & Mon), their $13.50 three course prix fixe dinner. I'd heard good things about the food, great things about the space, and mediocre things about the service, so why not?

A note about "early bird" prix fixe meals. I think that they can be a very specious concept. At a restaurant I worked at we introcuded an early bird three-course dinner to bring in business and it failed miserably. First of all, even if they want to there are very few people who are able to come out to dinner before 6PM. Second, people who do eat dinner at 5PM are ALWAYS going to eat dinner at 5PM--you're not going to bring in otherwise late-dining individuals. Third, the "value-conscious diners" who come for a $13 prix fixe are NOT going to come back on a Friday night to spend $40 a head on dinner. Lastly, in my experience, the prix fixe is usually not particularly interesting or even well done.

At Bendean, however, a combination of not having my interest piqued by the meat-heavy entree list and the surprising diversity on Ben's Supper (mixed greens and beet salad; rizo pasta with criminis, bacon, and grana; lemon-poppyseed cake) I went for it. I was thoroughly impressed.

The salad was excellent--fresh field greens with pungent goat cheese and nice thick slices of roasted beets. Much better than the generic mixed greens on other three-course dinners.

I appreciated that on my main dish that it wasn't called "risotto" on the menu. Risotto is a slow-cooked arborio rice dish. Many restaurants pass off a quick-cooked pasta dish as risotto, which it's not, no matter how delicious it may be. Bendean's rizo pasta dish was warm, creamy, smoky, and not overly rich. Thick chunks of mushrooms with a smattering of smoky bacon provided good depth of flavor. There also was an unidentified green (I think spinach) and a hefty dose of grana that gave it the requisite creaminess.

The lemon-poppyseed pound cake was quite dry, which wasn't so good, but it had a bright lemon flavor and was stuffed with fresh poppyseeds.

What I got at Bendean was good, diverse food. The ingredients were quality and there was a measure of care and attention put in to planning the menu. The menu also changes weekly (or even daily, from what I've heard) I knew that I wasnt' going to get the best that their kitchen was putting out, but that's why it's the prix-fixe.

It was what it was, and what it was was good.

Cuisine: Cal-Med/Eclectic
Entree price range: $15-$22
HFF's cost for one (prix fixe, glass of wine, tax, 20% tip): $28
Reservations: 510-526-3700
1647 Solano Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94706

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Critical Eating: Restaurant Appreciation

So forget a rant about ice buckets. That's not very interesting.

I'd like to kick off an inaugural segment of something I'm going to call "critical eating." Critical eating is the process by which you look at what you eat from something more than just the immediate physical pleasure (or pain) that that food instills in you. It's taking a look at why you're having the reaction that you are--what about the flavors, textures, setting, plating that makes the dish work or not work. It's also about pushing aside prejudices and preferences--so you like pork, big fucking deal--that doesn't mean you need to get pork every time you're out. So you "don't like fish?" I find that highly doubtful. Critical eating is attempting to wrap your brain around your culinary experience--get yourself to understand food, eating, and dining in a new way.

It'll make your life better, I swear.

So the first thing I want to talk about is restaurant appreciation. What is often missed when dining out is that ultimately the enjoyment of the food rests on you, the consumer. If you dislike a menu item, chances are that it's not the restaurant's fault--what you ate just wasn't to your tastes. I work at a restaurant with a fairly narrowly-focused menu. Often I'm asked (though not as much as before)--Oh, you don't serve X? Why don't you have a glass of Y?

It's not a restaurant's job to be all things to all people. A restaurant's job is to do what it thinks it needs to do to succeed. And if that's not to your tastes, then don't go there. There's nothing wrong with that. I don't go to steakhouses. I'm sure there are many steakhouses that serve an excellent product. Steakhouse cuisine is not something I like, but I don't get all pissed off at steakhouses for not having something that appeals to my interests. That would be retarded.

What I'm attempting to say is just this--it's okay not to like a restaurant, but don't blame the restaurant for the fact that you don't like it. Blame the restaurant if your meat is overcooked. Blame the restaurnt if your soup is cold. Blame the restaurant if your wine is oxidized. But don't blame the restaurant if you can't taste the difference between Gorton's fish sticks and pan-fried sand dabs.

If you don't like what a restaurant does--understand that other people do, that it's probably just a matter of taste and move on with your life.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Rant: White Wine

A common problem I encounter in wine service is a desire for one of three things: a "dry" white wine, an ice bucket, and chardonnay.

Let me expand upon the subject of "dry" white wine.

The vast majority of wines served on the regular wine list at restaurants in California are dry. Many roses are dry. Many rieslings and gewurztraminers (and other traditionally "sweet" varietals) are dry. What people USUALLY mean when they're asking for a "dry" white wine is an ACIDIC white wine.

So fucking ask for that. If you ask for a dry white wine--99% of wines on a list will fit the bill. However there are rieslings and gruner veltliners that are dry and minerally. There are ruedas that are dry and citrusy with strong floral characters on the nose. There are vermentinos and albarinos that are big and spicy with long acidic finishes. Viogniers and muscadets can be dry but musty and/or grassy. All these wines are dry. All are very very different.

But why do you even necessarily want an acidic wine? Acidic wines are not necessarily great to drink alone, but they work nicely with mild seafood and most light and spicy cuisine. Acid perks up the taste buds and cleanses the pallet, brightening up delicate flavors and tempering spice.

Just because a wine isn't bone-dry acidic doesn't mean it's a white zinfandel. So calm down, open your mind, and drink a lot of wine.

Then you'll find out what you really like.