Monday, December 31, 2007

Internet Failure Crisis!

No internet right now!

Limited posting time! Busy holidays!

Sorry! Sorry!

New posts soon and a lot of big news!


Saturday, December 22, 2007

HFF On the Road: Los Angeles, Ca

I don't know what it is about Los Angeles dining that I like so much. On paper, there's nothing. Fewer fresh ingredients, restaurants focused as much or more on quality of atmosphere and "scene" than on seasonality of its product, and a propensity for restaurants in strip malls.

But getting past the plastic veneer of Los Angeles dining, I think you find restaurants committed to a level of service and quality of product that is on par with anything in San Francisco or New York and without all the baggage.

Basically, I think Los Angeles benefits from its role as the redheaded stepchild to the country's more esteemed culinary cities. When lower expectations are combined with ready availability of people looking to throw money at restaurants, something positive is born.

Say what you will about Kirin, Chaya, Tsunami, or Hime, I know of no sushi restaurant in the Bay Area that has been as good as my numerous sushi outings in Los Angeles.

On this last trip I stumbled into Sushi Masu on Westwood Blvd (at La Grange). I sat at the bar and had excellent saba (fresh, not pickled), toro (melty and delicious, close to the quality of the stuff I had at Matsuhisa), and a vegetable roll (good, but heavy on the pickles). I also had a dish of softshell crab sauteed with fresh vegetables. This was crisp, deeply textured, and rich with umami. Pretty freakin' great.

As this was a mini-trip, my culinary adventures weren't as extensive as previous visits, but my trip to Wakasan (also on Westwood Blvd., right next to Sushi Masu) was enlightening. Presenting a daily omakase menu (and only an omakase menu), Wakasan presents around a dozen courses of izakaya food for $30. Perhaps the best dining value I've encountered. As I was fairly intoxicated by the end of the meal, I don't think I can recall every course, but they included an excellent sushi course, a pickled mackerel dish as well as a grilled mackerel dish, chicken skewers, the best goddamn ebi-fry I've had, and a soft semi-set savory custard with chicken, shrimp, and mushrooms. The food was all fresh and home-y, some of it a little bit weird (the custard was questionable for me), but all very very interesting. And I also left dinner stuffed. Tell me where you can get a dozen courses of artfully prepared Japanese food for thirty bucks..... and I'll show you Wakasan, because I guess that's where you can get it.

Point is, all this fine sushi put me in an excellent mood, so much so that being accosted by a man asking if I "can spare some change for a homeless man with AIDS" didn't particularly phase me. Hell, you had me at "Can you spare some change." I wasn't annoyed until he informed me about his time as a lab researcher on a government military base where they were splicing human DNA with aliens to create supersoldiers. I rolled up my window and hit the road.

Another spot of note was Mexico City on Hillhurst in Los Feliz. Good, cheap, Mexican restaurant offering a bit more than the typical budget Mexican enchiladas and chimichangas. My cochinita pibil (though a bit overdone) was pretty tasty.

On my drive back north I stopped in Kettleman City and ate at a Taco Bell for the first time in at least five years. Pretty much my first non In-and-Out fast food experience in at least that long. And you know what? It was surprisingly alright. A nicely spiced chicken and rice burrito and a simple bean burrito (admittedly heavy on the tortilla) for less than three bucks? Fuck, why the hell not? Can't think of anything else that easy to eat as you zip from east Hollywood to Berkeley in five hours, can you?

Okay, popcorn shrimp from Long John Silver's, but that's pretty gross. Let's be honest.

So give LA a chance, SF foodies. It really is pretty damn good and the service is nothing if not deferential. Despite what you might think, there's no snarky attitude to be had.

Probably because everybody's spirit is already crushed.

Go to LA. Eat sushi.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

HFF Quickie: Bar Bambino

Something's up. I'm growing skeptical of dining out.

Weird, huh?

Have I reached the peak of my abilities? Am I a 14 year old Bulgarian womens' gymnast? A 28 year old baseball pitcher? A 10 year old Thai hooker? Is it all downhill from here?

I hope not. I really do.

Maybe it's growing up in the Bay Area, being inundated with organic and natural for most my life. I've been surrounded by the best ingredients and some of the finest restaurants in the world since I was born. I grew up in a home where dining together, experimenting in the kitchen, and copious wine drinking was what it meant to be family. I've lived at the epicenter of modern American sustainable cooking for seven (Christ, really?) years. I've been working in that business for close to four.

I've easily spent the per-capita GDP of Albania on dining out, wine, and kitchen gadgets.

I'm over it. Really, I am.

Dining out doesn't have the cachet it once did. Most things I eat out I can either cook myself or am very good friends with people who can. I can get almost any weird ingredient I want to within a five mile radius of my house. Perhaps most importantly I've come up with better uses for my money (e.g. Thai hookers).

That being said, there's still room to be impressed.

Bar Bambino, on a dirty little stretch of 16th Street at Capp in the Mission, impressed me. Despite it's gross (but gentrifying) surroundings, the owners have carved out what I can only say is the perfect neighborhood haunt for the surrounding community of hipsters-cum-yuppies.

I didn't mean for that to sound as dirty as it did.

It's a tiny narrow storefront with a beautiful bar, a large communal table, a handful of banquettes, and a nice outdoor patio.

The menu is Italian wine bar/cafe type fare. Nice selection of salumi (much of it housemade) and a compelling cheese selection. Diverse selection of antipasti, salads, homemade pastas, panini, bruschette, and more substantial entrees round out the lengthy menu.

It's a fluid menu that matches the fluidity of Bar Bambino's hours (open all day 11AM until 11PM on weekdays, midnight Fri/Sat) and location (tech companies, non-profits, artists and arts agencies). Have a panino and espresso lunch. Drop in for an after work glass of wine and a snack. Grab dinner. Or get a post-theatre dessert and select from a nice assortment of dessert wines.

Girlfriend Charlie and I just had a few snacks and some wine. The salt cod and potato on toast was delicious, as was the spicy pomodoro bread stew. The homemade pasta was al dente and flavorful. While yes the wine list is all Italian, Bar Bambino offers wines from every possible region of a country that is very much underappreciated for its viticultural diversity. Italy's not just big reds and light acidic whites, folks.

We returned after our evening event for dessert and had a great not too sweet olive polenta cake with sea salt and a dense bitter chocolate mousse. Both were fabulous. Sitting outside on the covered, heated, cedar-enclosed patio with rain falling above us we felt like we were inside the world's most awesome sauna.

Was anything mind-blowing or innovative at Bar Bambino? No. Service was great. Atmosphere is excellent. Design is stylish without being trendy. Bar Bambino fits perfectly in its space.

While I can't say Bar Bambino was transcendently memorable, I can say that I'll be back frequently.

And that's something I can say about very few restaurants.

Bar Bambino
2931 16th St. (at Capp, between Mission and South Van Ness)
San Francisco, Ca 94103
Reservations: 415-701-8466

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

HFF Repost! "Amateur Night"

Since I haven't had much new stuff to write about lately, here's a repost of an HFF "classic."

"Amateur Night"

There's a phenomenon in the hospitality business called "Amateur Night." These are nights that for whatever reason seem to involve a disproportionate number of inexperienced diners or diners who are out of their element in a particular restaurant. Amateur night is bad for a number of reasons, the primary one is that the amateur night diner is typically more demanding and more likely to have unreasonable expectations while also spending less and tipping worse than a more seasoned diner.

The amateur diner will often only eat someplace if they can make a reservation, by doing so they have disqualified themselves from eating at some of the most compelling dining options in the area. The amateur diner also typically must eat between 7 and 8 on a Friday or a Saturday and then is shocked and/or confused when they find themselves in a loud, crowded restaurant and their food is taking longer than they think it should. The amateur diner becomes angry and/or disconsolate when they don't recognize anything on the menu, can't find a wine that they know, or aren't given their first choice of tables. The amateur goes out to eat when everyone else goes out to eat, and is more likely to find as much pleasure dining at Macaroni Grill as they would at Nopa.

So how do you avoid being an Amateur Night diner?

1. Know your restaurant. Research where you're dining in advance. Is this the place for you and your dining companions? Are you just going there because "you heard that it's good"? Most restaurants have websites with recent or representative menus (and prices). If not, check for reviews online (but take reviews from sites like citysearch and [especially] Yelp! with a metric tonne of salt). Also, don't go to a restaurant just to have one specific thing that you saw on their menu, that way you won't be disappointed if they're out of it or not serving it that night.

2. Do you really have to eat out on a Friday or a Saturday night? If you do, do you have to eat at 7:30? If you answered yes to both questions than you are an incurable amateur diner. Plan your evening differently--go out to eat at 5:30 or 6 and then continue your evening out with the theatre, drinks, or dessert elsewhere. Or, conversely, have a cocktail hour at home or at a nearby bar and then go have dinner at 8:30 of 9:00. Or hell, go see your movie first and then go eat at 10 o'clock! It's Saturday night! Where do you have to be the next morning? Hungover in the shower, that's where. Most restaurants in any city worth living in seat until at least 10PM, usually much later (especially on weekends).

3. Don't expect too much. People who dine out irregularly, especially people who go out for a "fancy" dinner only a few times a year, are expecting those meals to be absolutely transcendant or mind-blowing. The fact is, most of these people are going to be just as sated and pleased after a meal at your basic upscale casual-dining chain establishment as they are at the finest restaurants. Frequent dining out and cooking in is the key to understanding and appreciating the differences between restaurants, flavors, ingredient quality, etc. And the fact is a lot of expensive restaurants are doing the exact same thing as your local Chili's, only with better ingredients. And once again remember if you're eating at 7:30 or so on a Saturday, you're experiencing a restaurant at its busiest, which means food will take longer and the servers and bartenders will be busier than at virtually any other time during the week.

4. Be understanding. Know that, with very few exceptions, chefs, cooks, servers, bartenders, and managers are doing everything in their power to provide you with an optimum dining experience. If you're having to wait for food, a drink refill, etc. it's not always due to laziness, incompetence, or mismanagement. It's because it's fucking busy. Also, if you've already exhibited some of the aforementioned signs of being an amateur diner, you've probably already been deprioritized (usually unconsciously) in the minds of the staff because the staff knows that, no matter what, you're going to tip a perfectly calculated to the penny 12-15% on an already sub-standard bill. Obviously you'll still get good service, but any extra attention that staff might be able to provide will go elsewhere.

And I do mean to sound bitchy and elitist, because all that I've said is true. I don't eat out often on Friday or Saturday nights when I am free for these reasons. Off-peak times, afternoons, and weeknights are the best times to eat out and have a truly good time.

Humans are creatures of habit, routine, and convention. Break out of it. Stay in and cook dinner on a Saturday night. Have people over for a party. Go out to that hot new tapas bar on a Wednesday. You'll be a better person for it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Perils of Blogging: A Cautionary Tale

All bloggers have opinions. Usually strong ones. That's what makes them bloggers. The drive to make unilateral declarations of "facts" (if you're a truly pompous blogger) or "opinions" (if you're marginally less pompous) is what pushes people to write into the anonymous shit-slinging universe of the internets.

But at the end of the day, a blogger's job is a blogger. That's it. He or she has a little space on blogspot or livejournal or whatever social networking or shared interest community group he or she belongs to where the blogger can rant and rave and comment and share.

Most bloggers, particularly those who deal with more controversial form or content, take deliberate steps to separate themselves from their 9-5 employment through disclaimers, pseudonyms, careful withholding of information, or whatever else.

But what happens when you combine a chef-owner's blog, an official website, marginal literacy, and an indescribably enormous ego? You get Pizzaiolo chef-owner Charlie Hallowell's poorly thought-out and even more poorly executed blog "Charlie's Rants" on the website.

As a side note, pizzaiolooakland is really freakin' hard to type correctly the first time. Try it.

You can read all of Charlie's Rants here.

A highlight from his most recent posting (these have been transferred verbatim from the website, so let's just slap a giant "sic" on the whole damn thing):

"Today I recieved a letter of complaint from a disgruntled girlfriend of a disgruntled customer who had a less than wonderful experience at Pizzaiolo. This customer however seemed to think that the negative experience somehow manifested because her boyfriend was an African American, not because we where crazy busy on a weekend night and he asked us to do something for him that would have made our lives a little harder, and we said no, sorry, we can't do that now."

Already we're seeing a general breakdown of one's internal censor by even sharing this story. But surely we can expect a successful entrepreneur like Mr. Hallowell to tactfully address the delicate subject of race?

"So... I would be a total asshole to deny being a racist, I'm white, I'm privilaged, I have benefited from a system whose entire foundation, and whose functional metaphores are so firmly rooted in captivity, slavery, and opression, that for me to claim any kind of trancendant stance in relationship to it would be total bullshit. However, I would never make a desision about weather or not I cut someone's pizza based on what they fucking look like.!!!!!"

No. Though apparently Charlie did take a cultural anthropology course that he only halfway slept through.

Also--why didn't you cut the fucking pizza? How do you make that decision? I've eaten at Pizzaiolo a few times and don't recall having any difficulty eating my pizza, so I'm pretty sure it came to my table cut.... Weird. Also, would you have cut the pizza on a slow night but not on a busy night? That's not fair, now is it?

But surely we can resolve this issue cleanly, right? Charlie's a Berkeley kid, been working and raising a family here for a while. He's sensitive to the cultural dynamics of his tense, gentrifying neighborhood, I'm sure. Let's see:

"Listen, I want you to feel taken care of, I mean I want you, hard working, middle class, hopefully with a kid, trying to make a life in this crazy town work, you. You are why I, a thirty year old cook with two kids who never made more than sixteen bucks an hour in his life, openned a place like Pizzaiolo. A place where for five bucks you can get a bowl of the best god damn beans you ever ate and a plate of rapini that will make your mouth water for days, and it will all be organic, and it will all be local, and it will all be cooked with love, and no, I can't and won't compete with MacDonald's prices, and if people in the hood want to keep throwin away their hard earned money on shit food thats killin them and taking that same money right out of the neighborhood and into some fucking franchise owners pocket in the burbs, so be it."

Wait, did he really use the word "hood?" What is "mouth water" and how does Charlie make mine? Did anyone tell Charlie that rapini is peasant food? To paraphrase a chef acquaintance of mine: "Charlie needs to realize he's just running a fucking pizza parlor."

Not to say it's a bad pizza parlor, but my experiences there have been entirely unremarkable, as any regular reader will know. Pizzaiolo serves an entire menu of the fresh, boring Chez Panisse-style pizzas that Charlie spent his formative years spinning for Herr Waters. Unrelatedly, I've enjoyed the two pizzas I've had at Chez Panisse Cafe in the time since he's left more than I've enjoyed my pizzas at Pizzaiolo (though the clam pie was pretty damn good). It's pizza. It's easy. Get over it.

But that's not really my point. My point is--why the fuck is a the chef-owner of a restaurant putting this incoherent, strangely racist rant on his COMPANY'S WEBSITE?!?! I could forgive him if he was blogging independent of his business, but this? Fuck, I could forgive his weird sociopolitical opinions if he bothered to proofread. These rants don't just suffer from the usual collection of a few typos and dropped articles. It's written by someone who has a very limited grasp of how the English language, or at the very least a computer keypad, works. This is your public fucking business persona, man! I'm just a foulmouthed over-opinionated little douche bag and that's what my business (this blog) is! But you're a successful restaurateur with an image to uphold to your business, your investors, and (hopefully) yourself!

Honestly, I wouldn't've even brought this whole thing up, but your "Charlie's Rants" just make you sound like a seriously self-important, self-absorbed, and utterly clueless dick. And not in a whimsically ironic way.

Like me.=^)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tipping: What You Need To Know

The application of gratuity is obviously a very American institution. In no other country is tipping expected to such a degree from so many different professions. It draws the ire of those customers who feel put upon to have to pay a premium on top of their meal. It draws the ire of servers who depend not upon their employers but upon the vicissitudes of strangers for their livelihood. And it draws the ire, in some cases, of kitchen staff who see servers making significantly more money for what is often viewed as less work.

But the fact remains that tipping is not optional. It is a de facto standard for dining out at all levels in the United States of America. If you can't afford to leave a gratuity then you can't afford to eat out. Sorry. Stay at home, get takeout, or go to McDonald's.

Where does your tip go? It really depends on the restaurant. Many restaurants operate on the traditional model where the server receives his tips in cash at the end of each night and he distributes that money at his discretion to his support staff. Typically that means 20% to the bussers, 5% to the bartender, 5% to the hostess, 3% to the kitchen and maybe 5% to a food runner or other support staff. Other restaurants will tip out each of their servers individually but will mandate the tip-out amounts to the support staff. While this eliminates the problem of the stingy server, it exacerbates the problem of the lazy busser. I'm a believer in this case of letting the market correct itself. If the server is stingy, the bussers won't help him out and his tips will go down.

An increasingly common trend in restaurants is "tip pooling." All gratuities go into one tip pool for that shift and then each server, busser, runner, host, kitchen, etc. gets a fixed percentage of the total gratuities. This works well in a busy, high-turnover restaurant where roles and sections blur. It eliminates competitiveness between servers and, assuming everyone works well together, encourages teamwork and cooperation. In this situation, stiffing a server is less of an issue since your cheapness is spread out over the hundreds of covers served that evening, and not the dozens that the one server has handled.

A third variation is one used by many fine-dining restaurants. A set service charge (usually about 18%) is added onto the bill or included in the prix-fixe price of the meal. Often in this case the server is paid a significantly higher base wage that partially is offset by that included service charge and then the server retains any additional tips given on top of that base service charge. This model is ideal for restaurants that can afford to pay their servers higher wages and maintain direct accountability for the quality of their servers' service to their customers. This is the standard operating procedure for restaurants in the upper price echelon, where a server will often only take a handful tables in an entire evening and stiffing a server is not an issue, since any server who does stuff worthy of being stiffed for will be promptly fired (and chances are doesn't work their in the first place).

So why should you tip? Let's debunk some common tipping complaints:

1. "My meal was already so expensive, why should I expect to shell out even more?" If you thought your meal was expensive before, you should see how much it would be if a restaurant had to pay a wage to their servers that was actually commensurate with their skills and experience. By turning over a small but significant portion of the payroll to the customers, a restaurant relieves some stress on their razor-thin profit margins.

2. "Here's a tip, get a real job!" It is a real job folks. A restaurant doesn't run without that layer between the customer and the kitchen. Good restaurant service is good customer service. It's a mix of acting, psychology, and good old-fashioned knowledge that can help make an unhappy customer happy and an unsure customer confident. Good servers also know the best way to streamline any problems so that by the time the problem reaches the kitchen they can deal with it with minimal difficulty. Imagine being a client-relations manager for four dozen different people every night. Oh yeah, and you walk (run) the equivalent of five miles in the course of doing your job. Are there bad, talentless servers? Absolutely. That's a product of too many restaurants and too many job openings. It's also a product of an increasingly "corporate" restaurant culture that emphasizes rules over intuition, protocol over talent.

3. "In Europe we never had to tip." So what, you want a fucking trophy? Go back to Europe, dipshit. No matter what, you're tipping. All that is eliminated in places where tipping isn't discretionary is the "sticker shock" at the end. The employees' wage is factored into the pricing of the menu (and many sit-down restaurants in Europe do add on a 10% service charge anyway). And what do you gain from this? Distracted, dispassionate servers and incongruous prices. On a recent trip to London, for example, a coworker of mine spent about $70 a person for mid-level Indian food and beer.

4. "The cooks do all the work and they don't get tipped." In most cases the kitchen does get a small share of the tips. Kitchen staff also makes significantly more hourly than servers do. Kitchen staff also work more hours than servers and are typically offered health insurance, some degree of vacation, and opportunities for advancement. Does a typical line cook still makes less than a typical server working at the same restaurant? Sure, but that's a product of the way the business works. The income that one can make as a server if one is good at it is often the only thing that keeps people with actual talent around. Think how bad your service would be if your server was making $12 an hour. Oh right, go to Europe and see. A Cote is a restaurant I know of that tips out a larger percentage to their kitchen and the servers make less overall. Service there is about as neglectful and unhelpful as you can find for that price.

Is amuses me when people talk about bad service as a reason not to tip in general. No, that's a reason not to tip your server that night. It's all the more reason to tip well the servers who are truly good at their jobs. I don't tip the stripper who performs a disinterested lap dance and tries to upsell me on the full-nude option as much as I do the stripper who holds a conversation, compliments me, and doesn't try to scam me.

Let's get down to business then. How much should you tip?

If she's good, $5-$10 extra per song.

If your service is competent and reasonably attentive you should tip NO LESS THAN 15%. Anything else, anything at all, will make you seem like a cheapskate. What do I mean by reasonably attentive service? You got everything you needed and if any problems arose they were promptly addressed. Service was professional, questions were answered reasonably effectively, and direction was given when requested.

If you had the service mentioned above with maybe a little bit extra "oomph" or helpfulness thrown in there, e.g. a server was able to get the kitchen to make a special substitution or something along those lines, you should tip NO LESS THAN 18%.

If your server made recommendations that you truly enjoyed, offered helpful direction on the wine list that enhanced your dining experience, navigated a particularly sticky situation at your table, was able to handle many special requests, or just in general left you feeling well taken care of you should tip NO LESS THAN 20%.

Same holds truth if the server was way hot and flirty.

So what's the least you should tip? That's a tough question. It really depends where the failings were. If the server was inattentive, distracted, forgot things, fucked up an order, and made no effort to correct those matters I would say that you should tip no less than 10% if you plan to tip at all. Anything less will be taken as a severe personal affront. If you do choose to take such an action (and some servers do deserve it), you should leave no tip at all and plan never to return to that restaurant.

I do encourage you to closely examine the situation. For instance, if a server is hard to find but is otherwise very helpful when he's at your table, take a look around and see how busy the restaurant is and how busy the server is. Chances are your server is doing the best he can and is simply very busy. Should you tip less than you would if you had prompt service? I wouldn't but usually a server won't take it as a slight, provided you're still tipping at or above the 15% point. A server knows that sometimes service quality suffers at the expense of volume, and that's not something he can adequately control. Also, take a look at what the problems were--did food take too long? Not necessarily the server's fault, though he should be in communication with you on the topic. Was an order messed up? Once again, not necessarily the server's fault--but did he try to correct the error promptly?

Remember that at a popular restaurant on a busy night, your server is going to be busy. Restaurants don't overstaff. Ever.

On the other hand, is your server neglectful, slow, and inattentive but you can see him chatting with the cute hostess, sitting in the back reading, or standing around drinking wine? Well then by all means get pissed the fuck off. That's the difference between a neglectful server and a busy server.

Here are a few other guidelines when it comes to tipping:

DON'T tip some arcane decimal amount to make your total bill round out to a whole number. I give you a slide if you only make whole dollar purchases on your credit cards across the board: at gas stations, grocery stores, wherever. I wouldn't care so much about this topic if people rounded up on their decimal amounts to give a marginally more generous tip, but inevitably the customer has given a 13.9% tip for the sake of having a whole number on their bill. If your total lunch is $12.36 sense, why tip $2.64? That makes you look like a cheap asshole whereas a $3 tip makes you look generous. Isn't it worth 36 cents not to be an asshole?

DON'T tip exactly 15%. This makes you look not only cheap, but amateurish. You view tipping as a rote obligation and not something discretionary. This type of customer will generally also tip 15% across the board regardless of the quality of service. Round up folks. Round up.

DON'T show your math your check. If you really need to carry a one or do a percentage calculation in longform on your check, I really question your ability to get dressed in the morning and wipe your ass without assistance. Folks, it's simple: take the total, move the decimal point over, and double it. That's 20%. Feel free to adjust it up or down accordingly.

DON'T expressly compliment your server on the quality of his service or write a nice "Thank you great service [smiley face]" and then tip anything less than 18%. Nothing is more frustrating to a server.

DON'T get huffy about the "additional gratuity" line when you're paying a bill to which an automatic gratuity has been added. Remember two things: that gratuity has been added pre-tax so it's not a full 15% or 18% or 20% and that believe it or not a lot of people DO leave extra gratuity. That automatic gratuity is included to factor in the additional labor and service complications that larger parties entail. Relatedly, don't get all huffy about a gratuity line appearing on your check for a to go order. The computer doesn't know that it's a to go order, it just knows it's a credit card receipt.

DO tip in whole number quantities. This is what professional diners do. Even if you want to leave a 15% tip for whatever reason, do that quick math in your head and round up to the nearest dollar. Always round up folks, rounding down makes you look cheap. It looks like you'd rather keep that 36 cents than give the server an extra 64. The same rule of rounding up applies with cash payment too. When in doubt, throw in that extra dollar. What's it to you? Also don't do the "double tax" thing. While tax can be a useful guide for math purposes, actually doubling the tax us amateurish and odd--it can also get you in inadvertent trouble in states with lower tax rates.

DO tip fully on wine and drinks. Tipping $1 for drinks is something you do at a bar, not a restaurant. Make no deductions for wine or drinks in your consideration of a tip percentage. There's a grey area here: if you get multiple pricey bottles of wine, or an ultra-premium spirit at the end of your meal and you want to tip a few bucks less, fine. But if it looks like you deliberately factored out the wine you purchased in your tip, you'll look amateurish. This looks particularly bad if you asked for a server's direction on a bottle of wine and he gave you a recommendation that you greatly enjoyed. How much is tip on a $50 bottle of wine anyway? $10 out of your total meal, tops? Big fucking deal. If the server recommended it, opened it and poured it well, and you enjoyed it, then by all means tip the same as if it was your food. He had as much to do with that production of that as he did the wine.

DO calculate your tip after tax. The tip pre or post-tax debate is one of the all-time great pointless debates. If that difference of LESS THAN TWO CENTS ON THE DOLLAR (in California) is so important to you, then please stay at home. Servers only look at their tips in terms of percentage of the final bill. Sorry.

DO consider tipping on top of an automatically added service charge. As I said, the service charge is factored in pre-tax and, just because the policy has provided for a gratuity to be included, that doesn't mean the server might not've earned a higher tip. If you got 20% service, tip that extra cash. It looks good, I promise.

I tip a lot and I tip well. I tip 20% pretty much across the board, unless the service was particularly bad. I do this no matter where I am, unless local custom dictates otherwise. It's not a matter of taking care of people I know or making sure I maintain a reputation within the community where I work. I believe in the gratuity system and I believe in the rigors of customer service. Tips allow servers to earn what their labor is actually worth.

Beyond that, if you frequent a world in which gratuity is expected (you eat out a lot, take cabs a lot, stay at hotels a lot), over time you'll start to see things coming back around. If you tip that bellhop $10 when he takes your bags up or you tip the hotel valet $5 the first time you meet him and say "hello" and "thank you" and engage him like a human being, see how quick a response you get the next time you need something. If you tip a stripper an extra $40, see how well you're treated next time you're in.

Here's the truth. I get good tips. Most nights I average 18% on my gross (after tax) sales. I'm also really on top of my game. I know when I'm not being as attentive as I should. It's stressful. Sometimes I get too busy to give the service I demand of myself. But you know what? Customer see that I'm busy. I communicate with my tables and usually still get good tips. What all of that adds up to is, if you tip me poorly, I'm 99% certain that the problem is with you, not me. Is that arrogant? Maybe. But it seems to work.

Most people give bad tips because they are bad tippers. Most people give good tips because they're good tippers. The key is managing the good tippers to make them great tippers and making sure that the "undecided" tippers are pushed toward the good tipper side. What does that mean for bad tippers? You get ignored. I know it's a chicken and egg thing, but I'm pretty sure that bad tippers came first.

Be generous and friendly to service staff, it's a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Le Pigeon - Portland, OR

"Just trust me."

It's something we love to hear in movies, from an admired boss, or when accompanied by the strong grip of a swarthy lover as he takes you, bosom heaving, aboard his trimaran ready for a weekend of adventure, romance, and sport-fucking off the coast of Sint Maarten.

But most diners are utterly unwilling to turn that same level of trust over to an able chef. The number of true prix fixe restaurants in the Bay Area are very very few. Sure places will offer a tasting menu in addition to an a la carte menu or will offer a selection of choices for each course, but how many places offer a fixed menu, no substitutions, sorry?

Close to none.

I've worked at restaurants that bend over backwards for even the most asinine customer substitutions. A classic exchange:

"Could I get those clams just steamed with butter, garlic, and white wine instead of with this stuff?" (Stuff is inevitably said with a confused disdain, a sense of "why would ANYONE possibly want to eat this dish THIS way. How WEIRD."

"We'll do what we can."

And then, after dining:

"That was the worst meal I've ever had."

Yeah, well don't blame the chef. You cooked the fucking food, asshole.

We won't go to the Symphony and tell Tilson-Thomas how to conduct (well, I would if I could), we won't go to Stephen King and tell him how to write formulaic horror, and we won't go up to Ralph Lauren and tell him how to design slightly dated menswear, but we will go up to men and women, many of whom have spent longer honing their skills and reaped far fewer rewards (and at a more advanced age) then any of those aforementioned gentlemen, and tell them how to do their jobs.

Oh, but we can cook at home, so it's okay to criticize.

Well, I can write, draw pictures of sportcoats, and wave a stick vaguely in time with music, but that doesn't necessarily mean I know how to do it as well as King, Lauren, or Tilson-Thomas.

So what's the point? Trust our chefs! Nothing's more exhilarating then being exposed to new flavor sensations, flawless preparation, capable direction. It's fun. It's enlightening. It's sexy. Roll with it. "Trust me, you'll like it. It's food."

And trust your wine people too. Chances are they know more about it then you do, particularly because they know enough not to care as much as you do.

Along those lines, Le Pigeon in Portland was one of the best meals of my life.

Just looking at the menu you know you're in for something special. New menu every week. Six appetizers, six entrees (and a burger). That's it. At the bottom of the menu: "substitutions politely declined, no more than 2 methods of payment per party." Also: "we don't take reservations between 6:30 and 7:30." How great is that? Here are the rules, play by them.

Are people offended? Doesn't seem like it. Le Pigeon is packed and the accolades keep piling on.

The space is tiny: three large communal tables and ten-seat counter around the kitchen. High ceiling. Tiny open kitchen. A mysterious back room. Desserts written on a large chalkboard. That's it.

Girlfriend Charlie and I were ushered to two seats at the chef's counter where we watched three tattooed hipsters cooking and cooking and cooking. They were friendly, engaging, and seemed to be having a lot of fun (compared to the dour glowers one often sees on young white cooks in open kitchens).

Wine list is nice and fairly expansive. Good selection of a dozen or so wines by the glass/half-liter/full-liter, 20-ish half bottles, 10 dessert wines, and about 60 full bottles. While the list offers a selection of Northwest wines, it doesn't pander to them (and given the French-tinged menu, that's a good thing). Already a little buzzed from our enormous cocktails at the Doug Fir just down the road, we opted for a half-liter of a nice aromatic Cairanne.

First course. Charlie had the chestnut gnocchi, poussin, and parsnip. I have a love-hate relationship with gnocchi having had my first experiences with terrible gummy Olive Garden-type shit. Le Pigeon's gnocchi were dense in flavor but impossibly light in texture. The parsnips imparted a deep earthy sweetness enhanced by the fresh chestnuts. Bits of meaty young chicken broke up the monochromaticity of the dish.

Since I can't resist when I see it, I had the foie gras appetizer. Generous slice of torchon, seared and served on top of a slice of buttery brioche toast. The toast seemed to be cut to the exact same size and shape as the foie gras. The ensemble was then perched on fresh roasted beets surrounded with a beet puree. The meaty richness of the liver was echoed in the buttery crispness of the toast, which was complimented by the earthy sweetness (yes I know I just used that phrase a few sentences ago, I'll cop to it), each layer adding another flavor or texture dimension.

Entrees. Charlie had the pork stuffed pork, a boneless pork chop stuffed with a spiced pork mixture which tasted (not at all in a bad way) like SPAM. Fresh roasted seasonal vegetables and a bright Mediterranean salsa verde. The pork was ever-so-slightly dry in parts, but the well-matched flavors made up for it. I had the skate wing, dusted in flour, pan-sauteed crisp, and perched atop creamy celery-root puree. The skate was accompanied by a "sauce" of crayfish tails, bits of chorizo, and pan "jus," or as much of a jus as can be created from cooking skate. Great.

If the meal couldn't get any better, it did with dessert. Foie gras pumpkin pie, the liver adding just a hint of savoriness to the lightly-spiced pumpkin in puff pastry. It was paired with a sweet foie gras mousse that was thicker and denser then any pastry cream I've had. Charlie's dessert similarly paired sweet and savory: cornbread with bacon and maple ice cream. Weird! Fun! Clashing and complimentary flavors! Excitement! Adventure! Trying something new! What's the worst that happens? You have an interesting culinary experience and you're out a few bucks. What's the best that happens? You eat something new and freakin' awesome.

And in the case, it was freakin' awesome.

Le Pigeon. An interesting, innovative, fun, and uncompromising restaurant. And it's being rewarded for it. Kowtowing Bay Area restaurants, take note.

Le Pigeon
738 E. Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214
Reservations: 503-546-8706

Sunday, November 11, 2007

HFF On The Road: Portland, OR

Sometimes certain things conspire to make a place "it." For a variety of reasons a city becomes the right place at the right time. Boston in the 1770's. Paris in the 1890's. San Francisco in the 1950's. London in the 1960's. The entire nation of China right now. The reasons for these municipal zeitgeist are difficult to distinguish much of the time. Why did Kerouac and Ginsberg and friends pile into North Beach? Was it really just the absinthe that brought the glitterati to Paris? Is it really just the combination of a command economy and a willingness to heavily exploit one's own citizens that has made China such a rollicking economic success?

In the last case, yes.

Portland is the "it" place right now. For a city of its size (it's tiny--29th largest metro area in the country) it has been getting a shit tonne of press, particularly for its food but also for its urban planning, its strip clubs, and its general tourist awesomeness.

All I can really say is that Portland is the first city in the US to honestly make it onto my "places I'd live other than the Bay Area" list. Everything about Portland was easy and friendly. The airport was easy to navigate. Public transit was well-integrated, simple to figure out, and cheap. The city is an orderly grid. People are very very nice and overly helpful. There's no sales tax. I'm told rent is relatively low. The only significant problem is crippling unemployment, but as a tourist we don't deal with that.

Girlfriend Charlie and I found ourselves in Portland on a mini-vacation because it just seemed right. Good food, good hospitality, and cheap airfare on Southwest.

We booked two nights at the Heathman Hotel, pretty much universally declared the "nicest hotel in downtown Portland." And even with that distinction, the Heathman cost pretty much the same as the Holiday Inn at Fisherman's Wharf. This proved to be a recurring theme in Portland--everything was cheaper than you expect. Besides being the nicest hotel in Portland, the Heathman's restaurant is also considered by most to be the ground zero restaurant for Northwest cuisine, sort of the Chez Panisse of Oregon. And yet entrees at the Heathman mostly top out in the upper twenties, laughably cheap by upper-echelon San Francisco standards.

Did I mention everyone was friendly? As an example, the service at our hotel was very attentive and hands on without being obeisant. When I commented on the friendliness and helpfulness of everybody to the concierge delivering our room service he thanked me and then hoped that it wasn't "overbearing." That's right, they wanted to make sure they weren't being too helpful.

So what did our Portland culinary journey consist of?

First day gave us breakfast at Mother's, a bistro in the waterfront district. Despite an overly-friendly server who sat down cross-legged at the table next to us, dirty cuffs and ancient white socks exposed for all to see and informed me that the salmon hash I was about to order was what many people consider "the best breakfast in the world." The food was quite good. Fresh French press coffee. Really nice creamy sockeye salmon and potato hash that, while nothing overly remarkable, was very well done. Charlie had "Mike's Special Scramble" with prosciutto, garlic, tomatoes, basil, and provolone--portions were very generous.

Side note: the French press is big in Portland. Every finer-dining restaurant we stepped into or glanced at the menu seemed to offer coffee in either individual or two-person French presses. The option of French press coffee (the best way to drink good coffee) is only just beginning to work its way into Bay Area dining and is far from ubiquitous.

Back at the hotel we snacked on fresh pears given to us as part of our welcome gift at the Heathman. We headed back out into the trendy Pearl District (think SoMa without the skank) and ended up at BridgePort brewing company for dinner. The food was surprisingly good. A couple appetizers--salad of fresh local beets with spinach was well made and my appetizer on special of trout and potato cakes was delicious. The trout had a brandade-like texture with a crisp panko-crusted exterior. For entrees, Charlie had the turkey, fig, and sage meatloaf. It was quite good, but neither the figs nor the sage was particularly prominent. I had the mac'n'cheese with butternut squash and Swiss chard. Really tasty. Excellent in fact (and an enormous portion), though the cheese was not sharp enough to balance the sweetness of the generous chunks of butternut squash.

Day two saw us eating breakfast in the Heathman dining room. The food was definitely Northwest Cuisine in the sense of being California Cuisine only with Northwest-centric ingredients. My hangtown fry was really good. Fluffy scrambled eggs folded with potatoes, onions, peppers, bacon, and Willapa Bay oysters. Charlie had the seven grain porridge with hazelnuts, brown sugar, and some of freshest tasting raisins I've had.

What is a novelty here (like French press coffee), found only at the Parkway and Cerrito, is a standard in Portland: pub theaters showing second-run movies. There are maybe a dozen in Portland. We found our way into one, the Bagdad on Hawthorne, for lunch. That's the other thing, they're also fully-operational pubs and not just theaters serving food. Charlie had decent but overcooked halibut fish and chips. My curry tofu bowl was tasty, but heavy on the salt and more like a Thai peanut sauce than a red curry.

Dinner was at Le Pigeon and was transcendently good. See the upcoming separate post for that write-up. Before dinner we dropped in at the Doug Fir, a seminal Portland music club, for a cocktail. Charlie's sage margarita was excellent, as was my gin/campari/grapefruit concoction. The Doug Fir offered excellent happy hour food deals, as did many restaurant in Portland.

Our last day in Portland found us with a serendipitous bonus. Breakfast was room service from the Heathman Restaurant--hearty ginger and pumpkin pancakes, nicely cooked scrambled eggs with bacon and toast, and housemade almond-cashew granola with a pile of fresh fruit. Nothing was sacrificed in quality, plating, or temperature despite being room carried upstairs on a tray and eaten in bed. Anybody who dismisses room service as a frivolous indulgence has never actually gotten it. Or at least they haven't gotten it in a hotel with a cushy European pillowtop bed, complimentary French press Peet's coffee, and waffle robes. Pretty much the best thing ever.

We had no real plans for lunch, we were just aimlessly shopping around town when we stumbled on an authentic conveyor-belt sushi establishment, Sushi Land. What is a way of life in Japan is barely on the radar in the U.S., many establishments opting for the gimmicky (and more expensive) sushi boat style restaurant. Real conveyor belt sushi should be a touch sleazy, dirty without being unclean, and offer the vast majority of its dining options for a dollar or so. Sushi Land fit that bill, with 90% of the dishes costing $1 or $1.50. Quality was as good as most mid-priced non-conveyor establishments. After seeing the automatic rice-ball maker, I was inspired to consider the many other business models that could be streamlined using the conveyor belt method. Lap dances being the most logical. We gorged ourselves on instant gratification sushi before wending our way back to the hotel to get our bags and head to the airport.

So why was Portland so awesome? It's difficult to say. The relatively cheap prices helped a lot, coupled with the lack of sales tax and the friendly service. But Portland was also just very low stress. Perhaps the lower rents make everyone happier. When you make rent after one busy weekend at a restaurant or after selling a dozen pair of jeans in your retail shop that makes life a helluva lot simpler. Having a younger, relatively homogeneous (77% white), educated population might play a roll in restaurants' success as well. These are people who like to waste money on frivolous stuff like dining out, sunglasses, designer suits, and fancy hotels. Ah well.

So yeah, go to Portland and eat and shop. It's pretty much the best place ever. But don't feel like you have to go to Powell's City of Books. It's just a big book store, which is cool, but come on. It's a big book store.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dining and the Sex Trade: A Comparative Dichotomy

There's a reason that food and sex are intertwined in many aspects of our popular culture. There have been recent studies that suggest that food, cooking, and dining become sort of a proxy for the sex that gradually disappears from life as we age. The new, sleek, soft-focus, high-production value programming on The Food Network and its spin-offs reinforce this correlation. Is this a product of greater affluence and ennui? As food becomes "in" and "sexy" and therefore reaches a wider audience, is it imperative that the brainy food-nerd cooking shows and books of the past, when such programming was relegated to weekend mornings on PBS and a tiny corner of the bookstore, be replaced by the immediate gratification of Rachel Ray's apple bottom and Sandra Lee and Giada DeLaurentiis' respective racks? Not to mention Paula Deen's cockslaps of butter and Tyler Florence's panty-dropping chin dimple, all greeting us from the entire cooking wing at Barnes and Noble.

Let's look at this further.

Eating and fucking are, on a good day, total mind-body experiences that transcend their respective immediate physical gratifications. And while we're often able to fulfill our gustatory and sexual needs by ourselves to great effect (dinner for one and self-love being two of life's greatest pleasures) the addition of others can often increase the enjoyment--and in many instances make things more complicated and awkward.

And of course with all things sexual and gustatory, even numbers are better.

But perhaps the most distinctive similarity between eating and sex is how we take the activities out of the privacy of our homes and into the public world--that we're willing to utilize the services of professionals to meet the needs that we're fully capable of fulfilling on our own.

(As a side note, we use the word "fulfill" in describing our food and sexual needs I think because of its prominent compounding of "full" and "fill," two words eminently appropriate for both eating and fucking.)

For the purpose of this writing, the "sex trade" is a fairly broad term not limited to strippers, porno, dildos, and whores. I'm talking about sex-positive sex shops, mens' and womens' magazines of all kinds, sex advice columns and columnists, lingerie, swimwear, boxer briefs, plastic surgery, Abercrombie & Fitch (we sell abs!)--any business that capitalizes in whole or part upon the human preoccupation with increasing the pleasure and frequency of sexual activity. Because let's face it, we can talk all we want about these commodities increasing our self-esteem, but that increase in self-esteem ultimately comes entirely from being viewed as a more sexually attractive animal. It's cool. Roll with it.

Let's examine why we (often eagerly) seek out to exchange our hard-earned symbolic representations of our assets for food and tail.

1. It's more convenient. An acquaintance of mine is a dominatix. She once had a client pay her to put her foot into his butt. Her entire be-latexed foot into his prepared bottom. Let's say you're an otherwise normal, healthy individual with a stable home life and good job, but every now and then you need a foot in your butt. What's easier, trying to explain to your partner your desire to have a foot in your butt, or going out a few times a year, shelling out some money and discretely indulging in your secret pleasure?

I love good sauces, like a good mole or slow-simmered Indian entree, but when I feel like indulging in one of these dishes it's easier to shell out the money at a good Mexican or Indian restaurant then attempt to seek out the dozens of spices and slow-cook my food for twelve hours.

While it might be rewarding to learn to cook chana masala on your own and it might be rewarding to share your foot-in-butt fetish with your committed partner, unless your cravings for either occur on a daily basis it's probably simpler and more comfortable to leave it in the hands of professionals. Enjoy those simple, comfortable workhorse dishes at home with loved ones. And hell, definitely be adventurous with your non-remunerated partners--try out that rare artisan ingredient or exciting new bundt pan with the same titillating eagerness as a new vibrator or kama sutra position. But if you find yourself deviating into the aforementioned foot-in-butt and beyond, probably best to take that to the dungeon.

A corollary: unless you're a drug-addled rock star you probably don't want to be married to a coked-up stripper but unless you live in a Mormon cave (and even then....) you've probably enjoyed a lap dance from one. It's easy, refreshing, and probably won't result in having your bank account cleaned out and your kids grow up to be junior development executives for basic cable, things that would no doubt happen were you to marry the stripper.

Lastly--just throwing this out there--you don't pay a prostitute for sex, you pay for him or her to leave afterward. See? Convenience!

2. It's cleaner. Building on that previous idea, it could be said that we don't go out to eat for the food, we go out to eat to have somebody else clean up afterward. This is why rich people have man-servants. Rich people are inherently more noble and shouldn't have to get their hands dirty.

Do you really want to clean that out of your jacuzzi or wipe that off of your foot? Professionals of all kinds have the experience, tools, cleaning products, brass polish, insurance policies, and changes of clothes to deal with the gustatory and excretory problems that may arise from their lines of work. Because even if you're cooking the simplest pasta dish, you're still going to have some dirty dishes afterward and it's just so much more relaxing to not have to deal with that.

And it's also cleaner for a variety of socio-emotional reasons touched on in the previous entry and that I'll touch on in the following entry.

3. It eliminates personal responsibility. I would argue this is the most significant reason for the seemingly growing popularity of dining and sexing-up outside the home. If we cook food in our own home and it sucks, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. When I talk to people about why they don't cook, fear of failure underlies any reason that they give. And as with anything, if we don't keep reading, studying, learning, and experimenting, we'll never get better. I don't mean the quick-fix open a can and heat "cooking" that you get from Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee, but actual intuitive from-scratch cooking.

If we go out to eat and we don't like the food, we can call it somebody else's fault. If we turn ourselves over to the vicissitudes of dining trends and prepackaged commodities, we eliminate the vitality that personal opinion, culture, region, and taste plays in how we enjoy food. Fear of sexual inadequacy underlies almost every human insecurity so no wonder we like to trust "experts" and "techniques" instead of "our bodies" when it comes to sex and relationships, because then it's the technique's fault and we don't have to actually do anything ourselves.

But If we turn our sex lives over to guidebooks, videos, Carrie Bradshaw, and "hot tips" from Cosmo, we eliminate the personal responsibility of being in tune with our own bodies, tastes, and pleasures. Not to mention it creates the presumption that all men like some degree of anal stimulation, a gross exaggeration perpetrated by womens' magazines. Food magazines also seem to suggest that we as a people are way into tiny "slider"-type sandwiches. This is (or at least should be) a similarly gross exaggeration. That's right loyal readers, gourmet sliders equals a finger on the prostate.

Moving responsibility for sexual fulfillment over to movies, clothing, advertisements, jewelry, and (oh what's this?) food allows us to sidestep the actual problems. We're too fat. We're no longer attractive to or attracted by our partner. We're not good at sex. We come too soon. We're just not sexually compatible with our current partner. We can't cook chicken without it drying out. We don't know how to clean mushrooms. We don't even know where to begin to make a pie crust. So let's go buy a new car. Or a diamond necklace. Or have a couple children. And let's go to Zuni. Or the truffle dinner at Oliveto. Or finally eat at the French Laundry (sort of the dining equivalent of two $10,000 Vegas call girls and a kilo of coke).

But you might find, just maybe, that learning how to cook really well and learning how to fuck really well will enrich your life in ways that can't be made proxy. We're talking about a critical learning experience here though. It takes effort. You need to learn how to do the things you aren't good at, not find versions of things to do that fit better with what you're already able to do. Try. Error. Learn. Get better. What's great about both cooking and fucking is that the processes are a hell of a lot of fun and worth doing a lot.

4. It's fun. And this is what it all comes down to, doesn't it? There are plenty of people who can cook really well and fuck like champs who still love the French Laundry and a good coke orgy.

Plenty of happily married people still love flirting, strip clubs, and pornography because, hell, it's just a lot of fun. They fulfill (there's the word again) needs that, without placing judgment, cannot be met by a home-cooked meal or a home-fucked partner, no matter how good the respective meal or partner. To the same tune, a loving stable partner and a fabulous home-cooked meal fill voids that no Perfect 10 model or twelve-course tasting menu can.

But going out to eat and being treated well in a beautiful space with the added reward of a spectacular meal is a blast. Going to a tastefully appointed gentleman's club to enjoy a beverage and discuss the issues of the day, while beautiful scantily-clad women with daddy issues dance to earn money to open their tanning salon is a lot of fun. They're also our Allah-given rights as Americans.

So I'm saying it's not all doom and gloom. Four star restaurants and hookers are not telltale signs of a collapsing civilization, even if they might be better indicators than gay marriage and teen pregnancy. In fact, I'd argue that going out to eat and the sex industry are not just parts of, but essential to a functional modern democracy--there's a reason that market regulation and liberalization of the sex trade is a hallmark of virtually every developed country in the world and there are very few Michelin-starred restaurants in countries' whose GDP per capita is less then dinner for four at the Ritz-Carlton (cf. sarcasm). They're market-driven animals that fill gaping voids in our aimless, postmodern societies. Of course they also filled gaping voids in our aimless, god-fearing societies of yesteryear too.

Pulitzer Prize nominating committee, this has been humbly submitted for your approval.

Monday, October 22, 2007

HFF Quickie: Peet's Kenya Auction Lot

I'm not really a coffee person, but thanks to a couple of coffee-addicted housemates I've come to appreciate its stimulating effects. Coffee's also definitely gotten me through some long night in a way that tea or even energy drinks don't.

But for the same reason that I rarely drink cocktails in favor of beer and wine is the same reason I limit my daily coffee--instead of the reliably measured doses of alcohol and caffeine in beer and tea respectively I get the unpredictable hits from alcohol and coffee, also respectively. One cup of coffee and I'm still asleep, two and my heart's racing. One manhattan and I'm not even buzzed, two manhattans and I'm calling the maitre'd a pigfucker.

Plus I just think tea tastes better. It's a more interesting, contemplative experience. And I can always knock back a pint of Lipton's if I need to get wired.

But every now and then I'll stumble across a coffee that is really freakin' good. Peet's Kenya Auction Lot is the best I've had in my admittedly limited experience.

I brewed it in a French press, let the coffee sit for a couple minutes, pressed and poured. The cup had an almost espresso-like crema. The coffee is one of the mildest I've had from Peet's but with nice complexity, toasty and bright like light rye bread spread with a thin thin layer of orange marmalade.

And despite its lofty origins as Peet's' select lot from Kenya coffee auctions, the price is in line with most of their beans at $13.95 a pound.

Mild and eminently drinkable with respectable complexity.

Drink it today!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Weird Fish - San Francisco, Ca

Why do we fetishize inexpensiveness, particularly in dining? When most people have a decent sit-down meal of competently prepared food and get out the door for less than $20 it's not enough to go "Well, that was pleasant," but they actually try to assert some gustatory transcendence over their experience that is immeasurably enhanced because they saved a few bucks.

The Chronicle's "Bargain Bites" is full of lots of pleasant unremarkable restaurants of little interest to me. Of the many that I have eaten at, I'll definitely give Vik's Chaat Corner some respect, and I've had a couple rather excellent meals at Udupi Palace, even if I did feel like I sitting on a chair made entirely of staphylococcus bacteria. Zand's is decidedly mediocre--including serving reconstituted hummus. I've seen the boxes. Why Sophia, one of my personal favorite inexpensive spots, never makes this list I don't know. Cactus Taqueria makes me want to kill people, but that's primarily because of the poorly behaved and even more poorly parented children splashing around in the fountain while I'm trying to eat. Saigon Sandwiches is tasty.

Best bargain bites in my book are Lanesplitter Pizza and Daimo's late-night dim sum. Royal Tofu House in Pleasanton is also excellent and wicked cheap. You won't find these on the Chronicle list.

A few nights ago I found myself at one of the Chronicle's new "bargain bites," Weird Fish.

I'd heard nothing but phenomenal things about this fish and vegan restaurant in the Mission. Excellent sides, great fresh fish, really cheap, etc.

After dining there I was left thinking, hm that was pleasant. Although my entree was quite terrible. But we'll get to that.

The restaurant is small and mostly two-tops so our party of five had a while to wait. This place was freakin' packed on a Wednesday night.

Weird Fish's wine list was tiny--a half-dozen each whites and reds--but they were all fairly fun and eclectic selections. Not the usual grocery-store selections that places like this often have. We had an excellent kabinett riesling and a Languedoc rose.

We kicked off with a round of fried appetizers--pickles, "buffalo wings," and green beans.
The pickles were pretty great, crunchy on the outside and salty crisp on the inside. I was even more impressed by the buffalo wings--fried fingers of catfish tossed in a slightly spicy buffalo sauce. That was pretty fun. The green beans had good flavor but were a bit over-battered and soggy at times.

Entree round. Everything I tried from others' plates was tasty. Cornmeal-crusted trout was quite good. Sauteed spinach with dates was great, as was yams mashed with coconut milk. French fries (potato and yam) were pleasant. The fish taco was excellent, but impossible to eat as a taco.

My entree, however, was god-awful. I opted for the "suspicious fish dish," which is a secret special each night. The server will not disclose what it is or much about it in general. Sounded fun.

The dish ended up being sort of a Mediterranean tilapia ensemble. The only pleasant part was the spinach and date side. The fish was crusted in pungent (and stale-tasting) lemon pepper and then buried in an even more tart lemon sauce with salty-salty black olives. It just tasted like tart and salt. Oh and there was a giant mound of white rice in the middle. Yay. Compared to the other entree options on the menu, this was pretty damn boring, ill-thought, and poorly executed. They'll need to step this up if they're going to be known for their "suspicious fish dish" as the Weird Fish website proclaims.

Desserts were a highlight. The chocolate pecan pie was one of the finest examples of that genre that I've had, and the fried bananas were retarded good.

So Weird Fish had pretty decent food and the overall experience was pleasant. It definitely wasn't remarkably cheap--we ended up spending about $40 a person out the door. Plus. the ingredients that they use are very very inexpensive. Weird Fish's fish are trout, tilapia, and catfish, as well as oysters and squid. With the exception of oysters, those are four of the cheapest fish you can buy. Seriously--we're talking $3-$4 a pound tops (and that's retail) and Weird Fish serves about six ounces or so in their entrees (a pretty standard portion). Not that there's anything wrong with that. Catfish is one of my favorite fish. My point is merely that Weird Fish's inexpensiveness can be largely attributed to the minimal cost of their ingredients. We're not talking $20+ a pound sustainable wild salmon or halibut. Additionally, the produce relies heavily on tubers, spinach, plantains, and green beans, all of which are cheap even in their most rarefied organic incarnations.

So my ultimate criticism? Weird Fish is charging money for something that I can readily do at home for dirt cheap. Trout, cornmeal, and plantains be cheap, yo. Crusting and pan-frying fish is one of the easiest ways to make a tasty dinner. Saute some spinach and mash up a couple yams with some coconut milk and you have a Weird Fish entree.

Unlike going out to a more expensive place and spending $25 on an entree that would cost me pretty close to that to prepare at home once I tracked down the hard-to-find ingredients and made up for the fact that I'd have to buy more than I actually needed, I'm spending $12 at Weird Fish for a meal I can prepare quickly with ingredients that'd cost me $5 at Trader Joe's or Safeway. Does that save me money? Is that really a bargain?

And isn't that what most "bargain bites" provide? Simple food for cheap that you can prepare even more cheaply at home if you had the time and inclination. That's it folks. It's nothing magical. Every now and then you will find that family diner or hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant that is offering something a bit more insightful, but that's rare.

So enjoy your neighborhood spots. It's always nice to have places to go to have a nice tasty dinner that doesn't break the bank. But let's be realistic folks, it's nothing more than that.

Weird Fish
2193 Mission St.
San Francisco, Ca 94110
Reservations: None

Monday, October 08, 2007

HFF Quickie: IKEA Restaurant

The on-site restaurant is a veritable institution in most other countries. Museums, department stores, cultural sites, landmarks, all have places to eat. We're not talking the obligatory snack bar with lukewarm hot dogs, dry chicken breasts, peanuts, and so many frozen bananas that you find in America but an honest sit down cafeteria with a selection of premade entrees and sides and a few cooked or nearly cooked to order dishes.

Why is that? A lot of Berkeley people will tell you that it's because Europeans have a magical connection to food and they value truly eating much more highly than Americans. Berkeley people know that they are better than other Americans because they understand this too. Berkeley people understand why Europeans need fancy food in close proximity to their priceless works of art.

Berkeley people are douche bags.

What a cafeteria does is it keeps visitors on location longer where they'll hopefully spend more money and "make a day of it."

But I'd also argue that cafeterias are simply better because they are awesome. Food kept impeccably styled and warm over steamers and heat lamps has a certain pleasure to it. I think it's because it's cooked boringly by machines instead of poorly by human beings.

Anyway, you can go to IKEA and experience this pleasure.

What did we eat? I had the gravlax platter which was decent, surprisingly unsalty, and fairly flavorless. This was probably due to the lack of curing, the mediocre quality of the salmon, and the frigidly cold temperature at which I pulled it from the reach-in. I also had a side of mac and cheese which was better than most shit out of a box and it was 99 cents. Girlfriend Charlie had the steamed salmon entree which was firm and well-cooked, though the whole dish had a sort of monochromatic character that was discomfiting. Roommate James had the meatball platter with lingonberries. The meatballs were pleasantly there and didn't make us wish that they weren't. Highlights actually were the two desserts, a simple mild almond tart and a thick slice of apple crumb pie. Well-spiced and pleasantly textured.

The IKEA restaurant wasn't particularly good, but it was particularly cheap. And in the world of cafeteria food it was better than most. The restaurant's also freshly remodeled. And did I mention cheap?

It's not worth a stop just for lunch. I mean, this isn't Costco. But if you're letting your soul gradually drip out your anus while you shop for Flergens and Merqins at IKEA, might as well stop in for some meatballs and salmon for less than $10 and call it a party.

IKEA Restaurant gets a reluctant HFF stamp of approval.

IKEA Restaurant
4400 Shellmound St.
2nd Floor
Emeryville, Ca 94608
Open daily 9:30AM-8PM

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fleming's Steakhouse - Walnut Creek, Ca

Walnut Creek is something of a wasteland for fine dining. In the same way that most of Beverly Hills is a wasteland. It's style over substance, opulence over quality, and big cushy chairs over properly cooked meat. Which I guess is merely a fine-tuning of my previous assertion of opulence over quality. You get my point.

There are a couple spots in Walnut Creek worth dropping in on to be sure: Va De Vi, primarily, and I've heard good reports on Sushi Grove though I've never been. And there're a couple outposts of Berkeley establishments like Crepes A Go Go and Plearn Thai that are good for a sure thing on a Thursday afternoon (like that one girl who lived on the next floor up in your dorm).

So I was skeptical when my friend proposed we go out to the newly-opened Walnut Creek branch of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse. It's OSI's (the management group behind Outback and Roy's, amongst a few other names in restaurant chains) upstart challenger to high-end steakhouse chains like Morton's and Ruth's Chris. I'm not really a "steakhouse" guy anyway--I'm not a big meat eater, barely eat beef at all, and generally speaking really like fish and vegetables--and Walnut Creek is, well, I already talked about Walnut Creek. But Fleming's was open late, seemed to have a shit tonne of wine, and I was wearing a blazer and this was Friday night.

Color me surprised. Surprised, I believe, is a darker shade of taupe. Fleming's was quite good, even excellent in a lot of ways.

Given the sheer quantity of meat served at steakhouses, I question the need for appetizers and salads at all, but then I remembered that diners at Chicago power lunches are, literally, twice my size. We (me, girlfriend Charlie, C, and newguy Ross--heretofore known as nR) skipped appetizers and jumped straight to wine. Fleming's has an impressive and varied wine list, with selections varying drastically from location to location. Besides the usual California Cabs, an array of wines from California and afar (including selections from Germany, Portugal, and South Africa). To celebrate Friday (and blazers) we got a bottle of the Roederer Estate Brut Rose. That's an excellent bottle of wine and widely available. Look for it.

Fleming's offers 100 wines on their standard list, all available by the glass. The reserve wine bottle list offers selections ranging from typical premium wines to some of the best cult vineyards from the best cult wineries.

So here was the only significantly weird thing--Fleming's serves their sparkling in what're essentially graduated cylinders (all that's missing is "one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor written down the side," quipped C). While they're definitely striking, they also feel out of place next to the elegant stemware set on the table, and also wholly inappropriate for drinking champagne--they don't highlight the bubbles, provide no stem to hold the glass, and force the drinker to knock back the glass as if doing a shot of Goldschlager to drink the last contents of the glass.

So food. I ordered the double-cut pork chop, Charlie had the double airline chicken breast, C had the scallops, and nR had the petite filet. We also ordered sides of creamed spinach and roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

My pork chop was the best restaurant pork chop I've ever had. Thick and cooked through, it remained incredibly moist. I've had single-cut chops with significant pink remaining at gourmet ghetto establishments that were bone-dry compared to this chop. The mustard-cider-apple-celery root oven sauce was almost too sweet, but worked well with the thick chop.

Girlfriend Charlie's chicken was moist and very tender, baked with an aromatic shallot white-wine sauce. Also quite good. C's seared sea scallops with puff pastry and vegetable saute was simple and tasty, everything cooked properly. nR's petite filet was fork-tender, cooked only slightly past the requested medium-rare, and flavorful. The side dish of creamed spinach was very good, though Fleming's uses sauteed whole spinach instead of the more traditional chopped spinach, lending a slightly more stringy and fibrous texture to the dish. The mashed potato side dish had an excellent texture, but the roasted garlic flavor in the butter tasted a little stale.

Wine choices for entrees was a bottle of Zilliken Riesling for the ladies and the Qupe Syrah for the gentlemen. Not your typical steakhouse wine choices, no?

Desserts were typical but well-made, a fruit crisp was a bit too sweet for my tastes but the cheesecake had a great texture and good flavor.

Service at Fleming's was spot-on. Staff was well-trained and well-versed in fine-dining basics and corporate protocol. Fleming's protocol did not seem as intrusive as other corporate restaurant's spiel, simply offering a basic introduction to the menu and common ordering procedures. Wine and water was refilled attentively, silverware changed appropriately, and used plates cleared with a scary ninja-like silence. On more than one occasion I noticed something had been cleared without me even noticing. Restrooms were clean and stylish, napkin was refolded upon return.

The restaurant itself has a contemporary feel to it--sure it's dark and leathery, but not in a stuffy 1950's sort of way. Accents are elegant and stylish and felt a helluva lot more modern than most restaurants of this ilk.

Fleming's corporate seems to have a good thing going. I'm not a steakhouse regular, but it sounds like from others that the quality is at least on par with other high-end steakhouse chains in terms of food and excels in service and wine selection--particularly in how far flung Fleming's ranges in geography and varietals on its list.

If you're looking for excellent meat, good wine, (relatively speaking) reasonable prices, and great service in a restaurant that won't make you feel like you're ninety-two, Fleming's has the HFF-endorsement.

Is this the first ever for a chain restaurant?

Maybe, I can't remember.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse
1685 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Walnut Creek, Ca 94596
(and many other locations nationwide)
Reservations: 925-287-0297

Friday, September 21, 2007

Marginal Profits: Redux

I've been informed by a few different people that my already dismal restaurant financial projections are actually substantially over-optimistic.

According to a chef friend of mine, food cost is usually averaged to ~30% of an item's price.

Additionally, I underestimated non-labor overhead quite a bit. Shit gets broken a lot. Utilities and maintenance costs are also much higher.

I knew my floor team was a skeleton crew but it's apparently an unfeasibly small staff for a busy night.

I also failed to fully consider the level of capital equipment that goes into opening a restaurant.

So what does this all mean? It means that a successful restaurant actually operates at a 4%-6% profit margin and most restaurants that stay open operate on a mere 1%-2% profit margin.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Marginal Profits

Let's all agree on some basic tenets:

1. Capitalism is the primary socioeconimic system of the United States of America.

2. In capitalism, the means of production are held by private individuals either individually or collectively in corporations.

3. These means of production are operated for a profit and those profits are based upon how that means of production (business) functions within the greater market economy around it.

4. Most restaurants are businesses, not charities or state-run food banks.

Do we agree? Yes? Good.

Moving on.

People don't like to feel ripped off. This is understandable. However, if the douche-baggery that occurs on Yelp! is any indication, most people (or at least most people who post on restaurant review websites) don't have much of a sense of how restaurants operate financially and what you're really paying for when you go out to eat. The most common complaint (after "the service was bad") is "the food was overpriced."

Let me explain.

First, a restaurant's expenses and how they affect prices:

1. Food Cost. This is what it sounds like. How much does the food that is served cost the restaurant. Included in this is how much food is wasted. For instance, any restaurant of any calibre and esteem doesn't keep ingredients for very long. Food has to be staffed and/or thrown away after a certain number of days. Another factor: sure a whole salmon might cost X dollars per pound, but how much usable meat comes from a whole salmon and how does that effect the real cost? Just like the Indians were purported to do, restaurants do what they can to use every part of the ingredients that they are sourcing.

Often a restaurant has little flexibility on food cost. In the hyper-competitive California Cuisine world, ingredient source and quality is all. As a result, the top farms have more business and there is more competition--and with the rise in the popularity and availability of farmers' markets, that competition comes from the end consumer as well, not just other restaurants--therefore they're able to raise their prices. And as their prices go up, so do the prices at other farms. Additionally, restaurants with massive purchasing power like the French Laundry and Chez Panisse can push their resources around and snap up the top product when they want or need it because they can pay virtually any price. Think of these places like oil-rich Arab sheikhs. For instance, a couple months ago no other restaurant in the Bay Area could get any fresh organic black-eyed peas because Chez Panisse had bought up everything available for that week.

Food cost at a Bay Area fine-dining restaurant makes up anywhere from 5%-50% of the menu price. Restaurants try to make their food cost average out at about 20-25%. If a menu item gets close to 50% food cost then most restaurants, depending on their overhead, are actually taking a loss on the sale of that item.

2. Labor. It takes a lot of people to run a restaurant.

Let's look at a basic Friday night dinner for a medium sized (120 seat) restaurant. This is an eight-hour shift (3-11PM) for most kitchen staffs. This is a bit shorter for the front-of-house staff, but not by much. You have one chef. He's making anywhere from $3K-$10K a month. Let's throw him in the equation at $40/hour. And then at least one sous-chef at $22/hour. You'll have one "advanced" line cook or supervisor level line cook at $15/hour. And then throw in two line cooks making $10/hour. Can't forget the dishwasher making $8/hour. So you have a total kitchen wage of $105/hour. That's a skeleton crew for a busy Friday night. And that's on the lower-end of average for wages.

Other staff. You have six waiters/bartenders, two bussers, a barback, and a food runner all making around $7 hour. You probably have your GM making the equivalent of $25/hour and then a host/floor manager/wine director making $15/hour. So there's another $110/hour in wages for your front-of-house.

Total payroll, $215/hour. Total payroll for an eight-hour night: $1720 (give or take a couple hundred). Divide that by 250 covers (about what a restaurant of this size will do on its busiest Friday) and roughly $6-$7 of each diner's meal goes toward paying the staff.

Yikes. No wonder restaurants push wine and cocktails so heavily.

And remember, this is basic bare-bones staffing for a busy fine-dining restaurant.

3. Non-labor overhead. Here's the catch-all for everything else related to restaurant operations. First there's rent, which varies heavily from location to location. Running a restaurant in Nob Hill is a helluva lot more expensive then running one in Antioch. Some (very few) restaurants own their own space. Others have cut sweetheart deals with their landlords because the property owners want a restaurant in the space or the landlord gets a share of the profits in exchange for a break on the rent. Regardless, all restaurants are paying a rent or mortgage of some kind.

And then you have utilities. Restaurants use a lot of energy. Most of a restaurant's operations involve either cooling or heating things, whether that's food, wine, coffee, or surly customers who are inevitably too hot or too cold. A commercial kitchen has some serious energy-using equipment running, in many cases, 24 hours a day.

Don't forget cleaning! Those designer banquette cushions don't clean flabby Berkeley ass germs off themselves. Most cleaning in restaurants is sub-contracted to linen companies, kitchen equipment cleaners, and janitorial contractors. $$$.

What else.... Oh yeah, breaking shit. Restaurants break shit all the time. Most of the time that shit is just a wine glass or two. Doesn't sound like much, but breaking $20-$30 in glassware a night adds up fast. Silverware also disappears into trash cans, dishwashers, and customers' pockets. Sometimes the shit that's broken gets bigger. An entire rack of glasses gets dropped. A couple decanters crack. A $200 Burgundy shatters. Or--look out--something in the kitchen breaks.

And then there's promotion, advertising, accounting, management, insurance, outreach, property depreciation, inventory control....

Unfortunately I don't have hard numbers for any of this stuff so there goes my chance of this article being published in The Economist.

But, this is starting to sound like a business no?

Jeremiah Tower's SF restaurant Stars, with famously high prices, also had famously insane overhead, and even $40 steaks couldn't keep it open. What's in its place now? Trader Vic's, a "fun" restaurant with godawful starch-heavy food and wicked expensive syrupy sweet drinks.

4. Profit. Not much left to go back to the owners at this point. Especially after the owners pay off their investors and the Mob. Presumably the owners are reinvesting a significant portion of their profits back into the restaurant for capital improvement and expansion, so how much money do the owners take home each year?

In most cases, nothing. Hopefully the restaurant makes enough to pay the owners a modest salary and then the rest of the profits pay off investors and fix the toilets.

To quote En Vogue: and now it's time for the breakdown:

In a typical restaurant with $25 entrees, $10 appetizers, $5-$7 desserts, and a full bar, the per-head sales average on a busy Friday will hover somewhere around $45, especially in Berkeley where it seems people are much more shy about purchasing drinks or multiple courses of food than in San Francisco. So how does that shake out?

Food cost: $10
Labor: $7
Non-labor overhead: $20 (this is merely an educated guess)
Profit (before dividends and reinvestment): $8

That's a profit margin hovering at 15-20%. Most comparable small retailers (clothing boutiques, antique stores, resale shops, skin and body care products) operate at a close to 50% profit margin. Bars operate at a 70+% profit margin.

Combine those limited profits with significant startup costs and it takes a goddamn long freakin' time before it starts making money. And as with any business model with marginal profits, you need to replicate replicate replicate before you can start seeing significant dollah dollah billz y'all.

So what do restaurants do to maximize profits? In many cases food becomes the loss-leader for wine, cocktails, and the experience. Restaurants depend on beverage sales (even coffee), where the profit margins are much much higher to make up for the losses in food cost and overhead. Restaurants try to operate with the minimum staff possible, which on inordinately busy nights can result in overtaxed waiters and a slower kitchen--though the limitation for a kitchen's speed is usually just as much about space as it is about personnel (you can only fit so many potatoes in the fryer and steaks on the grill).

Why are some restaurants cheaper than others? Often it comes down to ingredient quality and quantity. Frozen beef is perfectly fine (and cheap) for a sauce and rice-heavy stir fry, but it won't do for someone wanting a quality steak. Frozen pre-processed vegetables and canned soup stocks might work for certain places and certain times, but not for California fine-dining right now. Rice, pasta, beans, tortillas, bread, etc add low-cost bulk to dinners and can deceive diners into satiety. Some restaurants save money on payroll--if it's a family-owned operation everyone can share profits (and be exempt from many costly labor laws) without having to have a real payroll. These savings on overhead can also be procured by running your business from a taco truck instead of a pricey downtown storefront. Other restaurants might simply be operating as a no-profit front for illegal imports, drug dealing, and human trafficking.

So what does this all mean? It means that a restaurant is a business out there to provide goods and services in exchange for money. It also means that you're probably more likely to get "ripped off" (in terms of percentage of income going to the ownership) at a mediocre Indian chaat house than you are at an expensive restaurant. Especially when you factor in the profits the owners make off their sex slaves.

In conclusion.

If you don't want to participate in the dining-for-profit system, that's fine. But don't bitch about it. You're probably wrong. If every restaurant that people on Yelp! bitched about being "overpriced" was in fact overpriced, none of those restaurants would still be open because nobody would go to them, you flaming retards. Think about it just for a moment. Restaurants aren't a cartel and there are plenty of quality dining options across the price spectrum that are available. If people really thought they were being gouged by a restaurant, they wouldn't go there after a while. It happens all the time.

So keep being smugly happy with your contempt for nice things and keep enjoying your taco truck dinners.

And your diarrhea.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Farina - San Francisco, Ca

Hey hey check it out! I made it to a new restaurant before it was reviewed in the Chronicle! Sweet!

The big question mark that sticks out at me about Farina is.... do we really need another fucking Italian restaurant? Especially in San Francisco. Especially in the Mission. I mean, really? Really?


Admittedly Farina claims a "Genoese" bent, with waiters in jeans (which comes from the original French word, bleu de Genes or the blue of Genova for those of you keeping score at home) and t-shirts bedecked with Genoa's flag.

Fine. So it's northern Italian. Ligurian. A rose by any other name. Whatever. It's Italian. Antipasti, giant plates of meat, and some pasta. Whoopdifreakindodiddlyoo. Fuck Italian food and the oily uninteresting horse it road in on.

That being said, Farina was pretty damn good.

First, props to Farina's extensive, deep, and well-priced wine lists. Almost entirely Italian, sure. But I like Italian wine. Extensive selection of wines by the glass, quarter-liter, and half-liter carafe as well. Half-liter's a good amount of wine. More wine should be sold like that at restaurant. Let it be done.

First up girlfriend Charlie and I had the roasted vegetables antipasti. Fennel, eggplant, onion, and tomatoes oven-roasted and served room temperature. Flavors were nice and full and the vegetables weren't swimming in oily oily Italian olive oil. The tomatoes in particular were great.

Pasta course. I had the taglietlle with boar sugo. The pasta was nutty and al dente. The sugo was rich, tasty, but loaded with salt. Like, retarded salty. One of the saltiest dishes I've had. Charlie's handkerchief pasta with walnut-gorgonzola pesto was excellent.

I'm not a fan of Italian restaurant entrees. I know this is largely because of how American Italian restaurants attempt to shoehorn Italian-style dining into the established conventions of most American dining. We try to make entrees and appetizers out of a dining style that favors multiple single-item courses. I like a diverse well-articulated main dish of multiple flavors more so than a dish of protein, sauce, and a couple vegetable accents.

But Farina's entrees were good. I had yellowfin tuna seared very rare with fresh heirloom tomatoes and fresh burrata with balsamic reduction. Simple and fresh. Charlie had the red snapper with with something I can't remember and can't place because Farina doesn't have a goddamn website yet. But it was good.

Dessert proved a highlight. Gianduia-filled fried tortelli dusted with sugar and served with three sauces--a dark roasty espresso sauce, a bright concentrated blackberry sauce, and a forgettable orange sauce. Crispy, warm, chocolate-y, hazelnut-y, and taste-y.

Farina's space is sleek and stylish, a little bit over-conceived for my tastes. Outdoor tables jut out into the neighborhood, a private dining room sits upstairs near the uber-chic restrooms, and apparently, much to neighbors' chagrin, Farina's going to start rooftop dining as well. We'll see if that happens.

Service was present and attentive. Not overly engaging or solicitous, but definitely there. Bussers were great, keeping tables clean and reset between courses, circulating with fresh bread and keeping water glasses full.

So it's a nice restaurant with well-made food, stylish space, excellent pastas, and great wine list. I think it's rather characterless and pointless in the over-saturated Italian restaurant scene, and if it keeps making enemies in the neighborhood Farina could be short-lived. If you like northern Italian it's probably worth a detour.

3560 18th St
San Francisco, Ca 94110
Reservations 415-565-0360 or

Sunday, August 26, 2007

California Cuisine and Gangsta Rap: A Comparative Dichotomy

Ice Cube. Dr Dre. Eazy E. Snoop Dogg. KRS-One.

Thomas Keller. Alice Waters. Jeremiah Tower. Narsai David. Paul Bertolli.

Each profoundly influential. Each a genius in his or her own right.

Each blazing new trails by reinventing how they used the tools that were already in front of them.

Each using their fame and reputation to support dozens of far less talented artists on their coattails.

Each responsible for spawning a generation of mediocrity behind them.

Gangsta rap and California Cuisine share far more than just being popular with rich white people. Their basic shared tenets blur the boundaries between food and music, dancing and eating, beats and beets.


What are those tenets?

1. Simplicity is Key

What makes an excellent gangsta rap tune? A g-funk era landmark? A simple heavy beat. Catchy, repetitive synth hooks. Maybe a few simple vocal samples. And dope, dope rhymes. No flourishes. No guitar heroics. No multi-octave diva arias. No double bass pedal thirtysecond-note sextuplets. There's nothing to it that makes you think you should like it. It's not Dvorak or Mahler for chrissakes. Yet somehow some way gangsta rap still comes up with funky ass shit like every single day.

The same holds true with California Cuisine. Chefs aren't flambe-ing tableside, stuffing turkeys inside sardines, or serving domes of flavored air over tapioca pearls. I mean, some chefs are, but not California Cuisine chefs. That would be inappropriate. Transcendent California Cuisine is perfect organic seasonal ingredients cooked flawlessly. There's no reason for the food to be s0 damn good, other than from the culinary gestalt of perfect ingredients assembled perfectly.

Just as there's no reason that an old Parliament baseline, some high sine wave synth sounds, and flows about gats, weed, and bitches should be good, other than that same gestalt.

2. Careful Selection

Just as our California Cuisine chefs pick their produce for its peak of seasonality and freshness, so too do the top producers of gangsta rap select their basslines, beats, and synth hooks. There's nothing in theory difficult about deciding to cook with kale. But what kale? From where? When is kale at its absolute best? The producer makes the same decision--this sample of a breathy oversexed woman is great, but where should it be used? When can it be inserted into a song for its peak effect? Probably right after the rapper says "bi-otch."

3. Passion and Purity of Motive

One of the reasons California Cuisine works is because the chef is committed to the ideals of the movement. Seasonality. Locality. Simplicity. When one of these tenets is compromised, the whole effect slips away. Gangsta rap came out of the frustration and rage felt by a generation of black men living in the ghetto. California Cuisine came out of a desire to eat more simply and deliciously. Gangsta rap had the crack epidemic of the 1980's, California Cuisine had the fuel crisis of the late 1970's.

But as gangsta rappers become wealthier it's hard to take them seriously. Instead, hip hop now is about going dumb, bringing sexy back, and getting between you and dat booty. Hearing Ice Cube in 1990 when he was a pissed off 20 year-old is a helluva lot more compelling than hearing Ice Cube trying to be pissed off now that he's a multi-multi-multi millionaire who makes family road trip comedies. Most prominent artists from the gangsta rap era who are still recording have moved on into slightly different genres.

And as California Cuisine becomes accepted fact for most restaurants--that the idea of using fresh local seasonal ingredients is de rigeur--I'm no longer impressed. Now you're just doing it because you're supposed to, not because you really believe in the tenets of sustainability. It's time to forge new ground. Build on that very sturdy foundation and move forward. Stop being a multi-millionaire still rapping about the 'hood.

California Cuisine needs to stop being gangsta and find its hyphy.

DISCLAIMER: The author understands that he is conflating several related genres of hip-hop. The author also acknowledges that logical gaps that exist in his argument. The author understands that he is exaggerating for comic effect and/or entertainment factor. The author makes no claims at being an expert in either hip-hop or California Cuisine. Horny for Food is for entertainment purposes only. The author assumes no responsibility for actions taken either directly or indirectly as a result of reading his words. The author encourages all diners to think critically and come to their own conclusions about dining. The author thanks you for your readership.