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.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

HFF On The Road: Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, and Osaka

Okay, so this wasn't a culinary vacation in the way that my whirlwind LA trip was. My brother's studying in Kyoto so I took opportunity of a break in school and work to spend 10 days in Japan. While I was there I benefited from the cuisine of perhaps the most culinarily-minded country in the world.

I'll be unable to offer many specific recommendations on any restaurants since, for the most part, I had no idea what any of the restaurants' names were. The food was however consistently delicious and freshly prepared whether at ramen shops, curry stands, street corner snack vendors, to-go containers at train stations, or sit-down service restaurants. Dishes were universally cooked to perfection with a willingness to combine disparate flavors and textures in remarkably complementary ways.

Some highlights:

Okonomiyaki: A Kansai-region specialty (the area around Osaka and Kyoto), it is a batter of flour, egg, and vegetables (usually mung bean sprouts, cabbage, and scallions) mixed with additional selections of meat and vegetables. Okonomiyaki houses feature hot griddles at each table--in some cases you mix and cook your own okonomiyaki in pancake form on the griddle, in most cases a server comes and prepares the pancake for you--in others still the pancake is cooked in the kitchen and finished off/kept warm at your table griddle. A range of condiments are provided--usually sweet and spicy sauces, mayonnaise, nori, and bonito. Warm, flavorful, and filling. My personal highlight was the "mini pirate okonomiyaki" that I had in Nara which featured squid, shrimp, octopus, and clam in the batter.

Takoyaki: Another Kansai specialty that can be found throughout Japan--these are balls of dough made from flour, ginger, tenkasu, konnyaku, and studded with pieces of octopus and then cooked in hemispherical moulds. They end up looking like deep-fried octopus croquettes, but they're essentially round skillet breads. Sold in restaurants and on street corners, takoyaki's usually come in orders of 3, 6, or 8 and are garnished in a variety of traditional ways--soy sauce and ginger or ponzu and scallions being the most common--or in neo-Western ways with Caesar dressing or melted cheese.

Yakitori: Usually limited to grilled skewered chicken in America, yakitori restaurants in Japan cook just about anything you want on skewers--though chicken was the predominant meat used. Highlights included smokey shishito peppers, quail eggs--grilled plain or grilled with a sweet barbecue sauce, and leeks native to the Kansai region. Soft chicken gizzard was good, hard chicken gizzard was just too damn hard.

Iron-pot rice: Forget the Japanese name for this. Rice is cooked and then finished in a scaldingly hot iron pot, where a tiny bit of moisture is added and fish and veggies thrown on top. The ingredients steam again with the rice, cooking nicely while allowing the flavors to permeate the rice throughout--including the nicely browned rice on the edges. Abalone cooked this way was fantastic.

Red bean paste: Whether in dumplings, mochi filling, or with agar, fresh fruit, soynuts, and honey in a classic dessert, sweetened red bean paste is great, tempering its substantial sweetness with just a hint of the earthy savoury.

Mochi: In particular, a Kyoto specialty that consists of squares of mochi folded over a mound of flavored red bean paste into little triangles. Ubiquitous in the old capital, some specialists offer dozens of flavors--find some of the makers around Kiyomizu-dera where they offer samples and try some of the most strangely wonderful dessert flavors you'll ever encounter.

Betayaki: A carb-tastic fast food consisting of a thin flour crepe topped with noodles, which is then topped with bean sprouts, and then topped with an omelette. And then topped with okonomiyaki sauce. Savory and satisfying.

Ramen: Not the cup o'soup variety. A big bowl of broth (usually white miso or a clear pork broth) loaded with noodles and vegetables and whatever fish or meat you want (as long as it's either shrimp or pork). Often served with a hard-boiled chicken or duck egg.

Curry: A brown curry commonly made (in Tokyo anyway) with potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and pork to a moderate degree of spiciness. Served on a plate with pickles and white rice and usually a choice of tonkatsu, tempura shrimp, or Japanese-style hamburger patty (usually beef, but often pork or a pork-beef mix).

Baked goods: Japan may have the best pastries--they definitely have the best donuts (try the Mister Donut chain). Get a pon de ring--it's made with a bit of glutinous rice flour so it has a springy, chewy texture. Also, hit up whatever corner bakery that you encounter for a great cheap breakfast or lunch--even our trip to the international Vie de France chain still featured great artful sweet or savory buns, sandwiches, and pastries.

We never ate anywhere particularly fancy--even our one real sit-down dinner in Tokyo was at a fairly casual dining establishment, but the food was just very very good everywhere. There seemed to be a focus on providing warm, satisfying food that filled you up without leaving you stuffed. Perfect food for the miles and miles of walking that we undertook. The only miscue was at a "hip" place that we hit up in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo that seemed to emulate a trendy SF or LA small-plates restaurant. Still this place was pretty good, even if all of our dishes were served cold, but it just wasn't satisfying.

On the docket for future trips to Japan will be kaiseki--the traditional multi-course prix fixe of Kyoto--and a serious sushi restaurant.

But for the love of god, go to Japan. You can fly from SFO for cheap if you look carefully and honestly we rarely paid more than about $10 for a meal (sometimes as little as $5).

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cav Wine Bar - San Francisco, Ca

Went to a Velvet Revolution poetry reading with Scott and made indefinite plans to eat afterward. We'd eaten at Cav once before. I thought it was solid but I think we didn't give enough attention to the menu--opting for a couple tasting trios, yam fries, and cheeses. Figured we'd return and tackle the menu full-on.

Me and Chef Scott.

The Space:
A literal storefront next to Zuni, easy to miss. After the entry corridor there are tall bar tables on your right and the L-shaped bar to your left. Straight back fromt he end of the bar is the dining room (dining chute?) with an L-shaped set of banquettes along the left and rear walls, and a few stand-alone two-tops along the right wall.

The Wine:
So Cav is a wine bar and the do have a lot of wine from all over. Some 30+ wines by the glass or taste, and another whole lot by the bottle. They also do featured wine flights each week--I'd done a riesling flight in the past that was phenomenal (even had a 1979 riesling), interesting, and educational. This time I went for the Sauvignon Blanc flight. This one was more rote and fairly uninteresting. It was simply recent vintages of a New Zealand, an Italian, a Napa, and a Sancerre. They were decent, just not very interesting--I wasn't tasting anything exciting. Scott went with a couple reds that had a similar problem, they weren't distinctive. In fact, a thorough perusal of the wine list showed it remarkably lacking in any particular compelling wines or vintages earlier than 2001. This would be fine in a restaurant wine list where you're looking more for versatile food wines, but at a self-described wine bar one of the draws should be the opportunity to try interesting, rare, and exciting wines. I'd gladly put down $10, $15, $20 for a 2-oz. taste of an exciting wine--something I'm not going to find many other places (nor could afford a full bottle of). When I think back at how much we spent on wine at Cav and how many bottles of modest, inoffensive wine I could've bought, it makes me sad. I don't mind spending money on wine--I just want something interesting. As a plus, our two ports that we finished up the meal with (a 1986 Smith Woodhouse Colheita tawny and a 1980 Grahams vintage port) were pretty tasty with lingering complexities.

The point is, I think Cav needs to give its wine by the glass program a kickstart. It's a perfectly serviceable--even good--wine list for a restaurant, but not for a wine bar.

Round One:
We started off with their tasting trios--a charcuterie and a mediterranean sampler. The charcuterie featured chicken liver mousse with red wine gellee. This was an ample portion, served in a little cazuela. It was inoffensive, though tasted very similar to the various chopped liver preparations I've had at Passover celebrations. The country duck pate was quite good--surprisingly meaty and full of flavor. The rabbit rillettes--I'd never had rabbit before--were also good with a nice strong flavor without being overly game-y. The house-made pickles were a nice mix of veggies, though the pickling brine was way too acidic. I love all things pickled and I love vinegar in general, but honestly these could have a used a rinsing a re-dressing before service. That was weird thing number one. The other weird thing was that the baguette slices we got were borderline stale. I don't know if they were old or cut too far in advance or what but it was pretty bad. Either use better bread or serve toasts (or don't do bread at all). The accompanying mustard was nice (don't know if it was house made).

The Mediterranean sampler consisted of lamb-filled filo (mini spanakopita) which was great, a creamy eggplant dip with accompanying flatbread--I found the dip to be too tangy and not eggplant-y enough and the flatbread was glutinous and chewy. The swordfish skewers were nicely seasoned with an accompanying raisin and onion mixture that was tasty. The fish was cooked perfectly--not dry or overly meaty.

Round Two:
Here we went after the bigger plates, though we opted for the tapas size. Cav has a cool option where their entrees come in two sizes, one half the price (and presumable half-ish the size) of the other. I appreciate the presentation of a choice--it allows those weirdos who like to eat the same thing for an entire meal the chance while still preserving the wine-frinedly tapas style.

The cornmeal crusted barramundi with cornbread-stuffed clams was mediocre--the fish itself (a white fish from the South Pacific, aquacultured in Australia, Indonesia, and Thailand too--not sure of Cav's source) was delicate to the point of blandness and the cornmeal crust was a touch soggy and underseasoned. The pair of manila clams covered in cornbread crumbs were a great mix of sweet and salty--make an entree out of six littlenecks done the same way and I'd be in heaven.

The crepe with spring vegetables, goat cheese, and onion jam was tasty but unremarkable (I had a similar thing at Bendean and I'm probably conflating the two). The crepe itself was a little chewy (somebody mixing the batters too much at Cav?) and the filling was inconsequential. The accompanying vegetables were cooked nicely and very fresh.

Like À Côté, the cheese at Cav is the runaway highlight of the meal. Cheeses come with a fresh fruit, membrillo, almonds, walnuts, olives, and more of that damn stale bread. Combine that with generous portions for $5 each (or rather, 3/$15, 5/$25, or a sampling plate for $95, While the wine list lacked compelling diversity, the cheese plate is loaded with interesting cheeses from all over the world. The selection is about half cows' milk, the other half evenly mixed between sheep, goat, and blended milk cheeses. Raw milk cheese is available in all milk types too. We went with the Abbaye de Belloc (a semi-hard raw sheep's cheese from the Pyrenees), the Bleuet de Chevre (a blue goat cheese from La Vernelle), and Coolea (a semi-hard cow cheese from County Cork). The cheeses were all nice, sharp, and fairly strong. The goat blue was great--especially with a slice of membrillo. I was also a fan of the Abbaye. The cow cheese was a little too mild for my tastes. The point is though, Cav has a great selection of cheese presented artfully (and priced very reasonably).

In Conclusion:
I honestly don't think I'll be back to Cav to eat--the food was pretty good, but execution was poor in some cases and the flavors were fairly unremarkable. A lot of high-concept cuisine without the finesse to finish the job.

I probably also won't be back to Cav to drink--unless an interesting flight comes around. As we found, wine is freakin' expensive (making a full half of our tab at Cav)--which isn't necessarily bad, but paying as much for wine by the glass (bottles are a different story) as food is annoying when not a single sip was anything remarkable (or even remotely memorable)--except for the ports.

As another note, the service was scattershot. Our meal took a laborious two hours, which for a small-plates meal ordered at once is pretty ridiculous. We waited close to half an hour between "courses" (even though we didn't order in courses), wine glasses and plates sat empty for a long time, and the food runner misidentified our cheeses. Service was friendly to be sure, but it just took too long for what we got. I'll gladly wait an hour for chicken at Zuni, relaxing, drinking wine, and enjoying appetizers, but when the food is five-minute fire tapas and the restaurant is a third full--that's just wasting my time.

In the end, Cav was Scott and my most expensive meal to date (though it did feature roughly twice the wine of previous dinners), and it was far (far) from being worth that distinction.

Cav Wine Bar
Cuisine: Mediterranean-tinged Eclectic
Price range: "Bites" $3.50-$15; "Plates" $5/$10-$10/$20
HFF's cost for two (two "bites," two "plates," three cheeses, six glasses of wine, tax, 20% tip): $170
Reservations: No.
1666 Market St. (at Gough)
San Francisco, Ca 94102