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?