Sunday, July 29, 2007

HFF Does LA 2: The Quickening

I've found myself back in LA again, this time for a wedding. I decided to keep it cheap from a food standpoint a splurge on lodging, but some new observations about the LA dining scene.

First, I'd like to point out Michael Bauer's somewhat well-observed article about his trip to LA. He pointed out what's the hallmark of LA versus SF dining: service and execution. Much more money has gone into the design of restaurants, perhaps to the point of excess, perhaps not. But there's a definite willingness in the Bay Area (especially Berkeley and Oakland) to pay three star prices in one or two star decor. The destination quality of restaurants is absolutely there too. When you go out to eat nice in LA, you're making an excursion of it. You're piling in the Hummer and going to culinary Disneyland.

Another difference that he did not point out, but is an offshoot of that service quality is:

We cram people into restaurants like sardines in this fucking town.

This fucking town being San Francisco.

We've all sat down at those restaurants where the host has to pull the table out of your way and then locks and loads you in to the banquette. This is a hallmark of Bay Area (and from what I'm told, New York) dining. Back the seats in, do as many covers as possible, etc.

I'm sure this is largely a product of much higher property prices, higher rents, etc. But it's also a matter of attitude toward the customer.

We're willing to forgo comfort for the quality of our food. Diners in LA aren't. I went into Table 8 in Hollywood and noticed that they could've rearranged the restaurant and probably added 20% more seats and still have the seating be spacious by SF standards. The server there informed me that if a party of two doesn't get their corner booth with enough room for 6 they raise a serious stink. When paying LA prices, good food is a given, comfort and ease (and the scene) is what brings people back.

But I guess once you factor in two people, their laptops, smartphones, notebooks, and shooting scripts, that's at least six people worth of stuff right there.

So what should we do about this phenomenon then? I don't really care. I'm not big on space. As long as I have enough room to eat and I can get up to go the bathroom without tea-bagging the person next to me, I'm fine with a restaurant.

But maybe we could learn something about LA's restaurant--maybe you can make money and still let your customers have room for their pirate hats.

Oh yeah, the few bites of food I had at Table 8 were excellent, for what it's worth.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

You Get What You Pay For

I recently had the dubious pleasure of dining at two upscale family dining chain restaurants. One, Buca di Beppo, is a national operation of vaguely Italian food that made it's reputation on big portions and family-style dining. The other is a smaller local chain, The Fish Market, based out of the South Bay.

These types of restaurants, more so than any other, confuse the fuck out of me.

Here's why:

I understand the popularity of fast food restaurants. They offer a very cheap, quick product. Sometimes that product is actually semi-decent too.

I understand the popularity of conventional casual dining restaurants. They offer long hours, convenience, hefty portions, family-friendliness, consistency, and prices that are a good 50% cheaper than most Bay Area fine dining. I grew up in the suburbs. I grew up where Chili's and TGIFriday's were the only places to go and hang out after 10PM in high school. I have a soft spot for casual dining. Hell, I think Red Robin is actually pretty good for what it is. So's Joe's Crab Shack.

I understand the popularity of greasy Chinese restaurants, donut shops, and hot dog stands of questionable cleanliness, particularly when said establishments are near a college campus. They fill a desperate, desperate need for cheap, filling food for dirt-poor students.

I don't get places like Buca di Beppo, the Cheesecake Factory, The Fish Market, and other restaurants of that ilk. They seem like a giant waste of money that aren't offering anything unique other than kitsch and, in the Cheesecake Factory's case, cheesecake.

Take The Fish Market. I'll admit that the quality of the fish itself was pretty good. However the preparations were without skill, cooking every fish the same way and overcooking it at that. Sure you probably got 20% more fish at 20% cheaper price than at a comparable fine dining establishment, but is that really worth it? Are the sides of lukewarm French fries and steamed vegetables really that big of a deal? Let's compare.

The Fish Market had harried service and not enough of it. I don't blame our server. Literally one other person visited the table besides her and that was once to refill water. Empty plates weren't cleared. Food was not run promptly. We could see it stack up under the heat lamps. So we already see one spot where that extra 20% in the price goes toward, staffing. Fine dining restaurants employ enough bussers to keep tables relatively clear and water relatively refilled. I'm not saying it's perfect every time, but it's a helluva lot better than the Fish Market. They also employ food runners/expediters whose job is to make sure that your food gets to your table as soon after it is cooked as possible. This is a little-understood and under appreciated evolution in dining. Also note the quality of product that you'll get for that extra 20%. While the fish at The Fish Market was fresh, it was also from some of the most questionable fisheries in the world. Filipino ahi instead of Hawaiian, trawl-caught salmon, etc. Spend a little bit extra, get a helluva lot better product prepared with actual skill.

Let's move on to Buca di Beppo. Admittedly Buca di Beppo is a bit cheaper than The Fish Market or the Cheesecake Factory. But you're dealing with pasta which is pretty much the cheapest edible thing out there after rice. Besides the absolutely disgustingly filthy tableclothes and the undrinkable house chianti (our server clumsily tried to upsell us on the $50 chianti classico after the $26 chianti classico proved unavailable), you didn't get water unless you asked for it and you get to set in an enormous overly-lit dining room. I will admit that Buca di Beppo's food was cooked pretty damn well for what it was. The pasta was al dente, the eggplant parmesan had a remarkably fresh-tasting marinara sauce, and the crust on the pizza was crisp and tasty. Everything also tasted of cheap cheap cheese. Was it an alright meal? Sure. I would've gladly paid $10 more and had a truly great meal some place else. Or hell, I would've paid less and had a good meal at Magnolia or Sophia. Once again at Buca di Beppo we had similarly harried service that was only slightly more attentive. This time our server forgot to bring us our garlic bread, then brought it at the end of the meal in a to-go bag and still charged us for it. We complained.

And now let's move on to Cheesecake Factory....

But first, an aside:

WHY THE FUCK DO SERVERS AT THESE PLACES INSIST ON TELLING US THEIR FUCKING NAMES! It's not fucking important. I don't care what you're name is. I don't want to holler your name to get your attention. I don't tell you my name, why would I want to know yours? Take off the fucking name tag and just give me good service, don't pretend to be my friend. This whole give your name thing also means that trashy douche bags who accidentally stumble into a real restaurant (where, incidentally, nobody tells you their name BECAUSE IT DOESN'T FUCKING MATTER!!!! CHRIST! WHY DO YOU CARE YOU UGLY BITCH?!) are offended when the server doesn't tell you their name.

"Oh I didn't catch your name."

"That's because I didn't tell you, you frizzy-haired witch."

I've had my best service at places where nobody tells me their name. I've had the crappiest service at the aforementioned "Hi my name is Cunty McTwatburger and I'll be your server today" establishments.

But on to the Cheesecake Factory. I was told the name of the host, server, and "designated breaker," all of whose names I promptly forgot because, like I said, I don't give a flying gorilla fuck. Here, the focus is the cheesecake, I guess. I don't like cheesecake all that much so I didn't order it. I just needed food in the 'burbs at 11PM. I got the cajun prawns. Let me tell you this. I got a rather small number of prawns, a tiny ladleful of black beans, and two tablespoons of mango salsa.... AND AN ENORMOUS BALL OF RICE! If Trashy O'Livermore went to a "fancy" restaurant and spent $18 on a dish of five or six sauteed prawns with a black beans and mango salsa she would be pissed the fuck off and consider herself ripped off. But if she goes to the Cheesecake Factory she'd consider it a great meal because she gorged herself on a rice and spent the extra $5 for 900 empty cheesecake calories as well.

It must be that for most Americans leaving bloated=money well spent.

I'm going to try harder to avoid places like these. I don't want to support them. They offer a terrible product at only a modest discount from actually good restaurants, despite admittedly offering a shitload more starch on the plate for you. I pretty much eat at either hole-in-the-wall ethnic places for $5-$10 a meal or go and spend $50 on dinner.

The area in between is rife with disaster. And full of people with more money than sense. Or taste.

Don't look at how much you spent on dinner. Look at how much more you spent on dinner and what you got in return.

Because isn't spending $100 for two at Wood Tavern an infinitely better experience than spending $70 for two a the Cheesecake factory.

And what's more, 30 or infinity?

I rest my case.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

An HFF Glossary

I would figure that anyone willing to spend $50 on dinner would also know what they're ordering. Apparently this isn't the case. As a public service and so I can make it clear that I'm better than everyone else, I present to you a glossary of commonly seen menu terms:

Frittata: I know this is pretty basic, but you'd be surprised how many people don't know. An egg dish that exists somewhere in the netherworld between crustless quiche and omelette. Veggies and meat are added to scrambled eggs but the eggs aren't scrambled in the pan. It's cooked on the stove until it sets and then carefully finished under the broiler. Served hot or at room temperature as a slice or as an individual frittata.

Po'boy: A sandwich of Cajun extraction with nebulous etymology. Consists of a chewy French roll loaded with turkey, ham, or roast beef (served cold) or shrimp, crayfish, oysters, or crab (usually fried and served hot). Often dressed with spicy mayo, mustard, pickles, lettuce, tomato, etc.

Brandade: A mix of salt cod, cream, and olive oil often with potato as well. Pureed and served hot with bouillabaisse. When potato's added, the mixture is often fried as a croquette or used to stuff peppers or beignets.

Bouillabaisse: A fish-stock and tomato stew loaded with fresh fish and shellfish. From Provence.

Sabayon: French term for zabaglione, a sauce made from egg yolk (sometimes whole eggs), cream, sweet wine, and sugar. Essentially a light airy custard. It's becoming trendier to omit the sugar and make savory sabayon to accompany entrees.

Au poivre: Something (usually a steak) cooked with one side crusted in loosely cracked black pepper. Served with the peppery pan sauce.

Sugo: Basically Italian gravy. A slow-cooked meat and vegetable sauce that can either be served chunky over noodles, or the sauce can be strained and used as a stock or based for another dish. In sugo (basically the same as ragu) very little initial liquid is used and most of the sauce consists of the natural juices of the vegetables and meat that you're cooking.

Bottarga: Pressed and salted fish roe. Usually tuna roe (bottarga di tonno) but sometimes mullet (bottarga di muggine) or swordfish (bottarga di idon'tknow) roes are used. Usually a small amount is served grated over pasta or beans. It has a strong salty fishy flavor and is quite delicious. It's origins stem from when fish roe was packed and salted for storage and shipment the eggs at the bottom would be pressed from all the weight above it into a formless cake.

Mojama: Salted and air-dried tuna loin. Basically tuna jerky. Has a similar flavor to bottarga but is meatier and a bit less fishy.

Bresaola: Salted and air-dried lean beef.

Salumi: A general term for Italian-style cured meats. Salami being one of many types of salumi. While salumi is usually made of cured pork, there is some beef salumi (see bresaola) and some cooked salumi (cotto, for instance).

Charcuterie: Salumi's French counterpart. Cooking plays a more significant role in charcuterie and includes things like rillettes and pates.

Rillettes: Meat (or sometime fish) that is chopped and heavily salted and then slow-cooked in (usually) its own fat. Served cooled and shredded into a paste. Usually served on toast.

Confit: This refers to a few different cooking and preservation methods. Originally it is meat preserved in fat. In the classic duck confit the duck is slow-cooked (essentially poached) in its own fat. Nowadays the duck is usually served within a few days of cooking, but originally the cooking pot would be sealed and stored. When the fat cooled it formed a thick preserving layer over the meat that would keep it stable for many months. Confit can also refer to fruit preserved in sugar. Whole fruit or pieces of fruit are covered in sugar until the sugar infusesall the into the fruit juices to the core. Confit cherries are a classic dessert delicacy and the maraschino cherry is its bastard mutated grandson. Many confit recipes now (like onion confit) consist of quick-cooking methods designed to replicate the textures and flavors of classic confit.

Provencal: Generally speaking this means cooked with tomatoes, onions, and garlic. The use of tomatoes in particular is what distinguishes Provencal cuisine (and its Mediterranean proximity) from other regional French cuisines.

Offal: A general term for organs and entrails. Basically any part of the animal that isn't muscle or bone.

Vacherin: A Franco-Swiss dessert of meringue, whipped cream, and often fruit but I've had vacherin with chocolate and almonds as well.

Pot de Creme: Thick egg custard traditionally served in a wee pot. (Pronounced poh-du-crehm).

Ganache: Melted chocolate mixed with milk or cream. When ganache cools it partially solidifies but is still soft and malleable.

Profiteroles: Cream puffs. Choux pastry stuffed with whipped cream, ice cream, or pasty cream. Can sometimes be savory.

Choux pastry: One of the basic French pastry doughs. This one is light and and puffs when cooking due to a high water content.

Beignet: Deep-fried choux pastry dough, though yeasted dough is sometimes used in France. While usually served with sugar and/or jam, beignets can also be stuffed with meat and vegetables before frying.

Zeppole: Italian analogue to the beignet. Deep-fried pizza dough with sugar and spice.

Krapfen: Sweet yeast dough deep-fried and stuffed (usually injected) with fruit or cream. The Berliner (jelly doughnut) is the most celebrated krapfen.

Rocket: Arugula. That's all. It's just arugula. Wild rocket is wild arugula (or rucola).

Panna cotta: Italian for "cooked cream." A dessert made of sugar, egg, cream, gelatin, and flavoring (such as vanilla or coconut). Served chilled. Heavier than Jell-O, lighter than custard.

Affogato: Italian for "drowned." A scoop of ice cream (usually vanilla) drowned in a shot of hot espresso.

Chicory: Bitter leafy vegetable. Includes such luminaries and escarole, endive, frisee, puntarelle, and radicchio. Because of its fibrous texture and bitter flavor, many chicories hold up well to grilling and sauteeing. One type of chicory is cultivated for its root and used as a coffee substitute, but this is not the chicory you encounter on restaurant menus.

That's all I've got right now. I'll update this periodically. Please comment with other terms you'd like explained.

Most of my knowledge of the basics comes from The Food Lover's Companion, an indispensable everyday glossary of food terms and preparation techniques. Buy it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

HFF Has Lunch: Boulevard - San Francisco, Ca

It's time to crack into the heavy hitters in San Francisco dining. Lunch at Boulevard seemed like a good first step.

I know Boulevard is no Dining Room or Fifth Floor, but it's at least a half-step up in classiness (and prices) from the places I've been frequenting in SF.

Once you cross that threshold (I'll call it the Zuni-Bar) expectations step way the fuck up in terms of decor, service, presentation, and amenities. It's silly, but it's true. That's one of the reasons you go out to eat--to have a good time in a nice place.

Plus, it was my birthday. So I wasn't paying.

We were greeted professionally at the door and directed to a nice round table in the back of the dining room. Sunny day. Views of the Embarcadero and the Bay Bridge. Gorgeous.

Boulevard's wine list is a nice mix of major French and California wines with a broad selection of funkier boutique and independent wineries. Prices ranged from the mid $20's to close to $1000. Most of the wines fell in the $50-$80 range, but there was a decent selection below that.

We went with a bottle of Bonnaire NV Blanc de Blancs. Dry, crisp, and very tart. I thought it was pretty fucking great.

First round of appetizers were a couple orders of the beef carpaccio--thin slices of seared beef with shaved Washington summer truffles. Fragrant and meaty. I had the softshell crab, also really nice though the accompanying bacon-cabbage slaw was really freakin' vinegar-y.

Other appetizers were the seared scallops--one of the best scallop preparations I've had. Also a mixed lettuce and nectarine salad that was simple and elegant.

Entrees were also pretty good. Slightly overcooked pork tenderloin with really nice grilled figs and polenta. The stuffed sand dab was enjoyed as an entree and that was mild and flavorful. The lamb burger was a big hit as was the bavette.

Second bottle of wine was a Bourgogne rose that was nice and dry with good fruit without being overly Bandol-y. Not that Bourgogne is anywhere near Bandol, but you get my point.

Desserts were fucking great--I had a neoclassical Rocky Road Sundae: two scoops chocolate sorbet, candied walnuts, and a light marshmallow creme. Angel food cake with ginger and mascarpone was good but light on flavor.

All throughout the meal we had impeccable and unpretentious service in an absolutely stunning dining room. Bussers were quick and efficient (guy cleared our entire table of six in one pass). We never felt hurried and other than taking a little while to get to us at the beginning (that's what happens when the entire restaurant fills up from 11:30-11:45.

Admittedly the food was not particularly memorable (except for the carpaccio, that was pretty distinctive) but it was just a fucking nice place to have lunch. When those things click on all cylinders, the food can get knocked down to 1a on the priorities. It just goes to show that service and decor can't be dismissed, especially when you're stepping things up past the "neighborhood restaurant" level.

It's all psychology baby.

1 Mission St.
San Francisco, Ca 94105
415 -543-6084/