Monday, April 24, 2006

Bouchon - Yountville, Ca

We were in Yountville, ground zero for extravagant California dining. It was lunch time (early lunch, as part of a marathon day of wine tasting along Highway 29) and not having $300 to spend (nor a reservation) figured that the French Laundry was out of the question. So why not try Keller's casual bastion of Lyonnaise decandence, Bouchon.

Me and Chef Scott.

The Space:
Efficient and open, banquettes are crammed against two walls, a smattering of tables for four and a few two-tops fill out the central space. Beautiful large glass windows and a few outdoor tables meet up with a beautiful bar and raw bar along the back wall. Beautiful, open, and airy--perfect on this nascently gorgeous day in Napa.

The Wine:
This was lunch on a wine-tasting trip, so buying wine wasn't a top priority. I wasn't overly impressed with Bouchon's list--fairly predictable and fairly pricey. Definitely some great wines, but nothing terribly interesting. I had a draft French beer (Meteor) and Scott had a Mandarin Drop cocktail. Both were tasty.

First Course:
Figuring we're not going to get up to Yountville that often (or with that much money) we decided to go nuts. Starting off we got the house charcuterie, the beignets de brandade de morue, and the salmon rillettes.

The charcuterie was nice--four different salumi--nothing extraordinary. Two of the meats were quite good, the finocchionna was very nicely spiced and the saucisson sec basquese was the slightest bit spicy. The other two were mild and very very similar. Still, all the charcuterie were nice and well-balanced--nothing too fatty, nice meaty flavors. Basically, it thoroughly cock-slapped the oftentimes oily antipasti I've had at places like Eccolo. The pickles that came with the Bouchon charcuterie were fabulous.

As soon as I heard the combination of beignets AND brandade, I knew that I had to have it. There are few things I love more in the world than these two culinary treasures. In Bouchon's preparation, three envelopes of airy beignet dough are stuffed with creamy, salty, cod-y brandade and fried. Incredibly rich yet surprisingly light, these were fucking phenomenal.

As retarded as the beignets were, the salmon rillettes would end up being the best of Bouchon. They do a traditional preparation with steamed salmon mashed with fat, but then also included small chunks of diced smoked salmon which produced a nice complex flavor with pockets of smokiness jumping out of the rich steamed salmon mixture. The presentation was just as awesome as the flavor--served in a flip-top glass jar and sealed with a disc of clarified butter. Rad

I went for the bourride with monkfish, mussels, clams, baby fennel, and artichoke hearts. Also advertised as having squid, my soup came with no said cephalapod. My waiter apologized and informed that they didn't actually have squid today. I would've ordered it anyway, but it would've been nice to know. It was the only hiccup in what was otherwise stellar service. All of the components of the bourride were fabulous--tender shellfish, juicy monkfish, and baby fennel is now one of my favorite vegetables. The broth, however, was very (very) salty. I'm getting better with salt, but I'm still not the biggest salt fan, but Scott also believed my broth to be salty even for a seafood stew. The broth had a great flavor (the aioli was present but not overpowering). It was just freakin' salty.

Scott's entree was the roasted leg of lamb (medium rare) with seasonal vegetables. Simply a great cut of meat prepared very well and accompanied by great fresh produce. The only criticism here was that the lamb jus was also quite salty (though nowhere near as salty as the bourride).

We got the dark chocolate mousse. This proved to be a mistake--not because it wasn't fabulous, it was, but because it was nothing unexpected. We should've gone for a citrus tart or the profiteroles. Still, it was a rich, creamy, bittersweet chocolate mousse and it was awesome.

In Conclusion:
Bouchon was a great meal. Not necessarily a place that I'll return to for a full meal (maybe once a season), but with its great bar, eclectic menu with a lot of nice smaller plates, and late hours (serving limited menu until 12:30AM), it'll probably be a regular stop on future Napa outings. Honestly, a cocktail or glass of wine and those rillettes would be the perfect late night bite.

Note: Bouchon serves the same menu all day. Though we had reservations, walk-ups for lunch seemed pretty easy (at least on a Wednesday).

Cuisine: French
Entrée price range: $15.95-$26.50
HFF's cost for two (three appetizers, two entrees, one dessert, one beer, one cocktail, tax, 20% tip): $140
Reservations: 707-944-8037 or
6534 Washington St.
Yountville, Ca 94599

Thursday, April 20, 2006

HFF Quickie: Coco500

Ever since this revamped Bizou reopened in SoMa, the food community seemed to be talking about nothing else (well, Range and Myth too). It had an attractive quasi small-plates menu, good location, good prices--so why not?

The space is nice--stylish with an actual waiting area, tables to the right, banquettes to the left and a long bar along the back wall with a few bar tables.

Charlie and I started with a few small plates--the caramelized cauliflower and pecorino truffled flatbread, the delta asparagus with Meyer lemon, and the crispy green beans.

First out of the chute were the green beans. Incredible fresh green beans dipped in a fluffy tempura batter, flash-fryed, and served with a mustard aioli. These were great--as good a tempura batter as I've had, coupled with infinitely better produce than most Japanese restaurants use.

Next up, the flatbread was just as tasty. The crust is rolled wafer-thin and comes topped with the cheese and cauliflower as well as a bit of creme fraiche. The caramelization brought out a lot of great flavors in the cauliflower--I would've liked either more of the almost-minced cauliflower or bigger pieces so that I could really taste the veggies. Other than wanting more toppings, this flatbread was unique and one of the best I've had.

Our asparagus was nice and fresh--twelve meaty stalks. Definitely could have used more of the meyer lemon juice--its sweet/sour flavor tempered the mild bitterness of the asparagus well.

We went for slightly bigger plates for our "entrees." Charlie got the chicken tajine--wood-fired chicken stewed in a small pot with chick peas, zucchini, and cilantro served around a scoop of fluffy couscous. The tagine was nice--the chicken fabulous. The whole dish lacked a spiciness--not necessarily heat (though I would've liked that), but it lacked enough aromatics to make the dish interesting.

I opted for the squid. Three small-ish squid bodies and tentacles with four sweet and spicy grilled szegedi chiles and spring garlic. This was very nice. The squid tender and the peppers were incredible.

Our entrees to a long time to come out (which was acknowledge by our server) and we were given marinated olives on the house. These were very very salty--saltier even than Cesar's which is about the saltiest I can stand. The bigger black olives were nice and the other component herbs and vegetables (orange peel?) were interesting. Nothing exceptional.

Speaking of service--everyone was very friendly, but there were a lot of hiccups. Our water was left unrefilled--including a moment where a pitcher-toting server stared straight at our table, empty glasses perched on the edge, and didn't come over, nor ever return. We were given share plates with the green beans, had them taken away and never refreshed when the other starters came. We got two slices of our flatbread to go and some of the tajine. The tajine came boxed up. We asked about our flatbread, received it finally only to discover when we got home that there was only one slice in the box. Weird. I'm not sure if they're understaffed or just have an inefficient protocol, but in a restaurant that relatively small and well laid-out, keeping water full and plates refreshed should not be that difficult. But like I said, everyone was friendly, especially the host who had to deal with angry patrons waiting for a table when we were sat immediately (we took the five seconds to call ahead and reserve a table).

We closed our night with dessert, eschewing my usual chocolate/fruit foray into trying the Vacherin. A plate coated with a thin layer of creme anglaise on top of which is set a mound of fluffy meringue. A scoop of mild coffee ice cream perches atop the meringue, coated with bittersweet chocolate sauce and candied almonds. I'm not the biggest ice cream fan, especially coffee ice cream, nor do I really like meringue, but somehow I loved this dessert. It had a mix of big complimentary flavors, generous amounts of the wonderfully bitter chocolate sauce (almost a ganache), and the candied almonds (also served in generous quantity) were fabulous. It was nice to experience a dessert where it's component parts are served in a nice balanced ratio so you can experience the mix of flavors as intended.

With its great bar and cocktails (pricey, but fresh and organic) and great desserts, I'll be back to Coco500 to be sure. Probably not for a full dinner, but definitely to drink and snack. Too bad they stop serving at 10PM.

Cuisine: Eclectic small plates (Cal-Med heavy)
Price range: $3-$18
HFF's cost for two (five small plates, one dessert, two beers, tax, 20% tip): $80
Reservations: 415-543-2222 or
500 Brannan St.
San Francisco, Ca 94107

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Pizzaiolo - Oakland, Ca

I'd been to Pizzaiolo once before and once underwhelmed. Food was good but not great--flavors were mild. Polenta was mediocre. I had gone fairly soon after they opened and wanted to give it another go. Maybe I was missing something--it was a Bay Area Top 100 after all. It can't just be the reputation.

Me and Chef Scott.

The Space:
Really Pizzaiolo strongest point is the space--it is beautiful and perfect for the food. It's casual while being well-thought (except for the lack of waiting space on this rainy day). The only oddity is the back dining room which is only another step away from the incredible humid back-kitchen/restroom area.

The Wine:
It's hard to come up with a wine list for a pizzeria, especially a more nuanced California Cuisine pizza establishment. Pizzaiolo's wine list is unremarkable. It's not bad, it's just predictable and uninnovative. It reads like a packing list from Kermit Lynch.

BUT, they do have very good beers on draft (what's better with pizza than beer, anyway?). We had two pints each of the Black Butte porters.

First Course:
First up came the English pea ravioli with speck and parmesan. This dish was extraordinarily odd in that there was about a teaspoon of pea filling in the centers of two inch square pasta. The pea filling was great, but you could barely taste it. There were eight ravioli in the order--why not serve four with twice the filling? Or even two with four times the filling? Why have such a great tasting filling that you can't taste because it's loaded up with dough?

Second was grapefruit, onion, and "wild rocket" salad. Wild rocket is wild arugla folks. It's also called roccola. I have an irrational hatred of the use of the term "rocket" in describing arugula, as it is the habit of dirty Englishmen. This salad was good, fresh--excellent onions (sharp but not pungent) and the roccola was great. Peppery. Excellent dry-cured olives on top.The only bad thing was the timing--it came after the first pizza so we declined it and asked for it to return at the end of the meal. Weird.

First pizza up was the prosciutto and artichoke heart pizza. Learning from our last visit, we made sure to request an ample side of crushed red pepper (in this case, ground dried red chiles). It needed it. The prosciutto was cooked to flavorlessness, the artichokes similarly bland. The pepper when added did pique the flavors somewhat, but not much.

Our second pizza, however, was phenomeal. Clams and purple onion pizza with generous drizzles of aioli. This had a nice complexity with layers of complimentary and contrasting flavors--tender clams and sweet onions. One of the best pizzas I've had--if not the best.

We had a dessert billed as a "flourless chocolate cake." What it actually was was a goddammned fallen souffle. Of course a souffle is flourless! But it's not a freakin' cake! The flavor was decent, a bit eggy, and unremarkable.

In Conclusion:
Better than our first visit, sorta. What really made it memorable was that clam pizza. But the ravioli and dessert pissed us off. So it's a wash really. Pizzaiolo is an excellent space and there are a lot of good things going on (great crust), but the flavor just isn't there. Almost everything is fresh, subtle, and oh-so-boring. I honestly can get a more pleasurable pizza (and cheaper, tastier beer) at Lanesplitter for a fraction of the price. I'll probably make it back one more time--Scott and I both want to try some of the Secondi (on the night we visited it was just halibut or the Chez Panisse-style buttermilk fried chicken)--but it's tough with so many other dining options out there.

Cuisine: Pizza/California/Italian
Entrée price range: Pizza: $10-$16, Secondi: $18-$24
HFF's cost for two (two appetizers, two pizzas, one dessert, four beers, tax, 20% tip): $110
Reservations: No.
5008 Telegraph Ave. (at 51st)
Oakland, Ca 94609

Sunday, April 09, 2006

HFF On The Road: Los Angeles, Ca

First an apology for my lack of posting. It's been hectic.

I went down to Los Angeles to get away, visit friends, eat, drink, and spend money. I wanted to experience a whole different food environment then what we get up here. I wanted glitz, tradition, and technique. I wasn't disappointed (too much) in that regard. Basically, I wanted to escape the "food assembly" approach to cuisine that is so omnipresent in Bay Area dining.

I didn't keep terribly detailed records, so I can only give a rough idea of how much was spent at each establishment.

First food stop (after a marathon early-morning drive) was Quality Food & Beverage (8030 West 3rd Street, Los Angeles). I knew I was in LA when the gentleman at the table across from us (I made the trip with my friend and co-worker Ziya) ordered (without menu) "a latte with soy and the BLT with one slice of lettuce and one slice of tomato." The menu here is eclectic with an international bent. Their emphasis is on omelettes, scrambles, and other egg dishes though they have a diverse array of salads and sandwiches. Though it's not touted too prominently, Quality also uses fresh and organic ingredients.

I went for the roasted eggplant and feta omelette--strangely I had to REQUEST for whole eggs to be used (the default for this one was whites only). It was great. Nice and fresh, not over-filled but with a good mix of ingredients. The homefries were also excellent--cooked through without being overly crispy on the outside. My side of fresh fruit was also very nice--generous and fresh. The fruit had actual flavor instead of the usual monotone melon melange that comes at most breakfast joints.

Ziya opted for the eggs benedict. The eggs were poached nicely (albeit in a poaching dish--how many places actually poach directly in water anymore?) with a great hollandaise sauce. Thick slices of pan-fried ham welcomely replaced often rubbery Canadian bacon. We also split a side of enormous blueberry pancakes that were nice but a bit dense--neither a light and fluffy cake or a thick flavorful cake. Nothing remarkable. A solid breakfast place with a great and varied selection. Reasonable priced--I think our total bill was around $40 for two serious entrees, two sides, and two coffees. Not bad for being stuffed. This isn't really a reservation-y place. I'm told the weekend brunches are extraordinarily busy.

We continued on our sojourn after checking into our east Hollywood motel by meeting up with some friends at Birds (5925 Franklin Ave, Los Angeles). This place proved to be a bust. It was described to me as a hip, low-key hangout with great food away from the West Hollywood/Sunset Strip madness. It is hip, in a great part of a town (a little shopping and dining stretch of Franklin across from the Church of Scientology) but the food is one-note and the epitome of mediocre.

We waited just a few minutes and were sat at a nice busy table in the center of the restaurant. We were greeted promptly, which is fine, except that our server expected us to be ready to order after 30 seconds at the table. We ordered drinks to start--martini for Ziya and a Guinness for me. I was surprised that such a destination spot (the bar was packed with folks watching the NCAA Championship game) had a mediocre beer list, shitty wines, and a liquor selection only marginally better than Club Mallard.

Birds specializes in rotisserie chicken, but I just can't bring myself to get what I know is going to be good, salty, overseasoned chicken. I know what it's going to taste like. I wanted to try something a bit unusual, but everything was pretty much the same: chicken, burgers, and wraps. I went for the shrimp caesar wrap, Ziya the "cajun" shrimp wrap. For sides I opted for the garlic mashed potatoes and Ziya the baked beans.

The first major problem came from us staring at our food sitting under heatlamps for a good five-plus minutes before being brought out. That sucked. My wrap was okay for what it was, assembled out of Sysco ingredients. Ziya's was similar. There's not much to comment on just because it was so unexciting. Something has to be striving for greatness (or even competency) for it to even be worth commenting on. There has to be someone making the food who cares, and nobody at Birds does.

While the wraps were mediocre, the sides were terrible. My potatoes tasted not a whiff of garlic and they had the conistency of reconstituted dried mashed potatoes. Ziya's beans were watery and bland. I found the terribleness of our side dishes distressing, given the menu's focus on their rotisserie chickens and the accompanying sides.

I'd say avoid Birds in general--there are plenty of places in and around that area that provide infinitely better food. I wouldn't even go there for the bar scene unless it's your local place--there's nothing their bar has that a small sports bar doesn't. The entire vibe of Birds, from the bar to the food, is TGI Friday's Lite.

So after that and a hit-and-miss sojourn into the Hollywood bar scene we slept for the night. The next morning we hit out for Studio City for what would turn out to be the best sushi of our lives. Sushi Katsu-ya (11680 Ventura Blvd., Studio City) is sitting unassumingly in a strip mall a couple miles from the highway. The first indication that this was a destination spot was when we pulled up to the improbably valet parking station (complimentary, probably to soothe the accessibility concerns of the neighboring businesses). We were warmly greeted by seemingly every staff member when we entered and were promptly seated at the sushi bar. We went with a few nigiri to start (tuna, yellowtail, and salmon). The fish was hands-down the freshest I've had. Period. Not just in sushi. Small pieces, but reasonably priced at two pieces per order. We were curious about the "super toro" which the sushi preparer told us was an extra-fatty tuna. This one tasted a bit fishy and didn't seem even as fatty as regular toro that I've had before.

We next tried some of the hot (more or less) specials. Almond scallops were phenomenal. Four sea scallops crusted with sliced almond (completely), served with a nice tempura sauce. Great dish. We also had seared albacore sliced thin with a tangy citrus-soy dressing and covered with small pieces of crispy-fried onion. The flavors interwove smoothly. Presentation was beautiful. Our last dish was cripsy spicy tuna--essentially a slice of tempura crusted rice with raw spicy tuna (almost a touch smoky) and a slice of crispy fresh jalapeno. Nice. Nothing extraordinary there, but really really tasty.

Katsuya's food was simply the best because it was fresh and artfully presented. The flavor combinations were simple yet challenging--they had my palate doing somersaults. Our bill here for two was around $80.

Our final gourmet stop was sort of a happy accident--we happened to be in the Valley at the time and ended up at Brandywine (22757 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills). We had set ourselves up with reservations at a few different places, not sure where we'd be and when. Though this might not have been the hippest or trendiest spot, it was fucking phenemonal. This place was the oldest old school Continental dining that I've been too. We were greeted by the owner/host/waiter and, after a moderate wait so as to get a better table, were seated in the warm, opulent dining room at a flawlessly appointed table. A guitarist sat in the corner playing quietly.

The dining room was small (about 30 or so seats) and full, though most of the crowd (older) were finishing up their meals. Tuxedoed servers move around delivering food, clearing tables, and serving wine. We ordered an excellent (and reasonable) Sancerre. The host came over to the table with the chalkboard menu. An extensive list of French, Italian, and Spanish specialities with many Mediterranean influences as well. Prices were reasonable though with an expansive range for entrees ($20 for the veggie dish to $45 for the N.Y. Steak--$79 for the Chateaubriand for two). As starters we got the sauteed wild mushrooms, the roasted eggplant salad, and the escargot. The mushrooms were tender and wondrously aromatic of garlic, parsley, white wine, and butter. The escargots were the best I've had (I've only had it on 3 or 4 occasions). The snails were tender, not the least bit chewy, and presented in a way that even made our initially repulsed dining partner try one herself. Ziya and I both agreed that the roasted eggplant salad was the best salad that we've had. Peppery arugula was topped with a sizeable portion of sweet and smoky roasted eggplant. Flavors were simple, fresh, and big.

As an entree I got the frogs' legs provencale. This consisted of 14 (yes, 14) legs sauteed with tomatoes, garlic, and parsley. The legs were small, delicate, and flavorful--sort of a mix of great chicken and great springwater. Not a touch of chewiness. Ziya went for the New York steak. A massive cut of meat (at least 20 ounces) finished off tableside on a cart with a burner (it has some French name that I forget), sliced, covered with a rich mushroom au jus, and served with a side of frites. Being that I (admittedly half-assedly) maintain a no beef/lamb/mutton/veal component to my diet, I did not partake. Ziya said that it was the best piece of meat that he'd had and the presentation was flawless despite the lack of vegetables.

Though stuffed, we had to try the Meyer lemon pudding cake which was just that--somewhere between pudding and cake with bright, slightly tart Meyer lemon flavor.

I wholeheartedly recommend Brandywine, even though it is very very traditional. Other than the fish options (salmon, halibut, and John Dory--all fresh), nothing on the menu is necessarily "fresh and local" in the California Cuisine sense, but it was all top-quality and prepared flawlessly. I want to go back desperately since I used this opportunity to try my French favorites that are so hard to get here. The fish preparations all sounded fabulous and I honestly wanted to try all the appetizers. Caesar and warm spinach salads prepared tableside also sound like a can't miss. While this place is expensive, by and large you're going to be getting portions that are nearly twice the size of anything you'll get here. Our final bill for three (three entrees--two of those the steak, three starters, two bottles of wine, one dessert, one coffee) was somewhere in the neighborhood of $250. Which all said is not bad for an enormous meal elbowed its way into my personal top three. As a last thumbs-up for Brandywine, they had a small but excellently thought-out winelist with a great selection of bottles for under $40. This place did everything right.

On my next LA trip I'm going to hit-up more of the trendy spots on the westside and also do a surveying of late-night options. On the docket are the 101 Cafe and Fred 62 in Hollywood. Trendy spot possibilities are Sushi Roky and Katana in West Hollywood. It's a different food scene down there, and it's fun.

For you loyal HFF readers, coming up will be a full review for Pizzaiolo and some quickies on spots in SF.