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.