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.