Monday, January 28, 2008

REPOST: California Cuisine and Gangsta Rap: A Comparative Dichotomy

Another classic from the archives....

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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath (without the Okies)

Many people ask me "Hey Dave, what're your favorite wine grapes?" To which I say, "Go fuck yourself. How'd you get my cell number? Ima cut you hard."

None of that is true, nobody asks me that. But if they did, this is what I'd say....

1. Riesling. This is a grape that is still maligned in the US by uneducated imbeciles. Admittedly the export market was flooded with insipid uber-sweet German riesling in the decades after World War II. Riesling ranges from racily dry (Austria) to sweet but bracingly acidic (Germany). It's also one of the few white grapes that grows respectably in California (Trefethen and Navarro, for instance). But there's something about an excellent German riesling that is euphoric. I speculate it's the combination of sugar, modestly low alcohol, and food-friendly acidity that gets the serotonin going.

2. Pinot Noir. It's got the robust fruit of a grenache or merlot with the earthy complexity of syrah or mourvedre. And while incredibly difficult to make really well, it's hard to fuck up as long as the fruit is grown in the right climate and managed well. In order: Burgundy, Anderson Valley, Santa Barbara County, Willamette Valley, New Zealand, Alsace, Germany.

3. Zinfandel. See above, only with fuller flavors. It's not as elegant as other reds, but it's broad and complex. And it really doesn't grow well outside of a handful of regions in California. Try Mendocino County, Dry Creek Valley, and Paso Robles for the best of the best.

4. GSM. I'm going to group the Rhone power trio of Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre as one grape here because, while I've had many single varietal wines of these grapes that I've enjoyed, when two or more of these power grapes hook-up, magic ensues. Grenache supplies the rich supple fruit, syrah the musty leathery tannins, and mourvedre the strong, broad earth. Try grenache-syrah blends from Northern Spain and GSMs from the southern Rhone.

5. Chardonnay. Steer clear of the giant overly buttery Napa versions of this excellent grape and opt for the crisper and more acidic white Burgundies from Macon, Chablis, and the Cote d'Or. In California, try excellent chardonnay from cooler climate regions like the Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Santa Maria Hills, and Los Carneros.

6. Carignane. What is essentially a blending grape in France has reached a rarefied art among a few producers in California. Rich dark fruit, dusty tannins, and a refreshing acidity. Contra Costa county is growing some rich, elegant carignane, as is the Dry Creek Valley.

7. Marsanne/Roussanne. Another Rhone party blend, these two aromatic whites make for some fun and funky wines. Excellent cool climate whites that tend toward overripeness in hotter years, these grape varietals, when combined, build a profile of honey, pear, and sweet spice with modest and soft acidity on the finish.

8. Verdejo. The king of Rueda, Spain's verdejo is the grape that sauvignon blanc should be. Crisp bright acidity, aromatic tropical fruit, and moderate minerality. Food friendly and refreshing.

9. Gruner veltliner. Austria's grape of grapes. Gruner's citrus fruit tartness coupled with lingering minerality makes for a wine that fits where others don't. Perfect with asparagus, pesto, and pretty much every seafood, gruner veltliner's probably the most food-friendly white grape in the world.

10. Furmint. Look, it might only make one type of wine, but that type of wine's pretty much the most awesome dessert wine in all the goddamn universe, Hungarian Tokaji. I've never had the dry furmints, but the sweet, botrytis-laden grapes in Tokaji create an elegant dessert wine that lacks the insipid syrupy-ness or heafty viscosity of other sweet white wines.

And now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

Now never fucking call me again.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A New Blog!

For those of you who can't get enough of my opinionated rants on food and dining can now also get my opinionated rants on men's fashion and style!

Check out the new blog here:

The Substance of Style


Saturday, January 12, 2008

HFF Has Lunch: Redd - Yountville, Ca

Tasting menus rock. No choice. Chef’s discretion. It’s liberating, like the formal beauty of an Elizabethan sonnet’s constrictions over the tedium of unrestricted postmodern free verse, or the casual elegance of a porn star that still leaves one hole sacred.

And I don’t mean “tasting menus” where you get to pick from an array of courses, I mean an honest no-choice tasting menu.

It was Chef Scott’s birthday so we were going wine tasting. After a morning in the northern reaches of Napa Valley we worked our way back to Redd in Yountville in the afternoon.

I’d dropped into Redd once before with Charlie where we sat at the bar and had a snack. I was impressed with the space, wine list, and what little food we’d had.

Every review of Redd talks about the “minimalist space” that’s a “perfect canvas” for Richard Reddington’s “art.”

Ejaculate on a sponge and wax Michael Bauer’s Lexus with it. Christ.

Did I mention that good food is good food? And a nice space is a nice space. I guess in a city where Pat Kuleto’s over-adorned pirate handjob adventure restaurant spaces are the standard for “good taste,” the simply designed and minimally adorned Redd would be jarring.

Though Redd does have an a la carte menu we both opted for the four-course tasting menu.

The tasting menu is a comparative steal at $50 ($25 for wine pairings), a value magnified by the fact that each of our two tasting menus were different and there’s enough of each course for sharing.

First round was a raw seafood course of hamachi and yellowfin tuna tartare with chili oil, soy, avocado and crisped rice, and hamachi sashimi with edamame. The fish was impeccable, and while the tartare flavor combination was, well, let’s just say it’s been done before, every flavor was fresh and balanced, never sharp, never harsh, never cloying. The crisped rice added a crucial textural dimension that, in both our minds, made the dish. The hamachi sashimi was as good as any sashimi I’ve had.

Next course featured seared diver scallops and braised skate wing, two of my all time favorite seafoods of all time. The scallops were one of the finer preparations I’ve had and the skate was firm and fluffy, served with a few steamed mussels and bits of chorizo, leaving the whole dish redolent of spiced pork. Flavors infused the entire dish and you sensed all the components’ presence without any individual flavor pushing through. We’re talking synergy in the finest dot-com sense of the word. The one techno-flourish here, the saffron nage (a foamy cloud), actually added an integral flavor and texture dimension. It wasn't just an artsy indulgence.

Meat course: Redd’s signature horseradish-crusted short ribs and roast quail with bacon (there it is again!) The shortribs are justifiably held in high esteem, fork tender and topped with just a bit of fresh shaved horseradish. The quail was moist and tender all the way through, enlivened by the microscopic dice of bacon.

Dessert. A trio of chocolate desserts, a chocolate-hazelnut mousse, a peanut butter honeycomb parfait, and a chocolate-peanut gianduia. Also a trio of citrus desserts, including a mini lemon cheesecake, an orange sorbet, and a mini citrus float with homemade yuzu soda. Pretty fucking cool.

I almost forgot—we deviated from the tasting menu just slightly. We got the trio of cold foie gras. I’m not as big a fan of cold foie gras as I am hot preparations, but… holy fucking shit this was good. The torchon with pistachio was my favorite, though the terrine with pear, and the mousse were also retarded good. Even the toasted brioche wasn't overlooked. It was soft, warm, and slightly sweet.

So Redd was pretty great, a very solid value in the uber fine-dining world, and lived up to its reputation and hype admirably. Just ignore what reviews say about blank slates and artistry on the plate and whatever else. Redd is dining at its simplest and most unassumingly elegant. Roll with it.

6480 Washington St.
Yountville, Ca 94599

Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Year's Eve at Rivoli - Berkeley, Ca

I don’t have many particularly fond memories of New Year’s Eve. Last year I worked a delightfully expensive New Year’s prix fixe serving way too much to a crowd made up mostly of friends of the owner, ending the evening in a fight with a lovely but way-too-sensitive co-worker. The year before I went bowling in Anaheim, one of my very limited options while trapped near Disneyland on a work-related trip (don’t ask), a heavy storm brewing in the distance. And the year before that…. I was also in Anaheim on a work-related trip while my relationship with my then-girlfriend soured and dissolved like biodegradable plastic, exposing coffee grounds and eggshells to an uncaring world.

My last memorable New Year’s Eve? New Year’s Eve 2000 when I leapt into a 38-degree swimming pool at midnight. That was rad.

Anybody else remember how they put a big light-up “2000” in front of the Washington Monument, adding a pair of giant zero balls to what is already America’s national erection?

Just me?

So it’s fitting that my first memorable New Year’s in eight years involved the very same gentleman who took that midnight plunge with me back in ought ought. All the others chickened out and, admittedly, I would’ve too had he not stripped off his shirt, bolted past me and leapt into the chilly, leaf-strewn water. My balls were too big to be one-upped so I quickly followed. My balls were not too big, however, to not be immediately retracted deep inside my abdomen, my body reacting in protective fear to this inexplicable trauma.

Friend Randy has recently moved to Albany where he and his lovely wife Jessica bivouac in a stunning (if tiny) pre-war bungalow two short blocks from Solano Avenue. Hard work, technical acumen, and shrewd planning, have enabled them both to earn salaries well above most other 25 year-olds and has also allowed them to live the American dream: to be saddled with a (fully-prime) mortgage close to double America’s per-capita GDP.

So it was my turn, with my oh-so-careless and spendfree ways, to prod Randy into taking that New Year’s plunge, this one involving an 11PM dinner reservation (no small feat for a couple routinely waking at five most days) and a three-figure restaurant bill instead of a swimming pool and single-digit (centigrade) temperatures.

(In truth, it wasn’t all that difficult. Randy and Jessica were down pretty much from the get-go. But this is more interesting. I’m working on a metaphor here, so give a guy a break.)

Randy, Jessica, girlfriend Charlie, and myself set out from their cottage for a brisk evening walk to Rivoli, already warmed by a bottle of Roederer Estate Brut Rose (can you name a better domestic sparkling rose?) and a bottle of 2006 Chalone Pinot Noir (another favorite, though admittedly not the best vintage).

So why Rivoli? Why after my relatively ho-hum experience the first time? Simply put it was the last reservation I could get that wasn’t at a restaurant doing an elaborate and over-priced prix-fixe and did I mention we could walk there? Take that DUI checkpoints! Joke’s on you bitches!

As an aside, every fucking restaurant was doing a fucking “special celebration menu,” which as far as I can tell means charging more for the same food and coursing it out awkwardly with a free half-glass of bad champagne at midnight. Why can’t restaurants just be open like normal?

Fortunately Rivoli was doing their regular menu, albeit with tables adorned with confetti and noisemakers and co-owner/wine director Roscoe adorned with a comically tiny festive hat. Think Damon Wayans in the “Men On…” bits from In Living Color.

First we were all sent an amuse of puree of baby artichoke soup with shaved parmesan. This proved for me the highlight of the evening, warm and rich with a deep fresh artichoke-ness.

For a first course I had the butternut squash gnocchi with mixed mushrooms and hazelnut gremolata. The gnocchi were denser than the best I’ve had, but far from gummy and still quite tasty. All the components were suspended in a delicious brown butter cream sauce and we all know that brown butter and hazelnuts are the platonic lesbians of deliciousness. Charlie had a simple unremarkable mixed green salad, but the accompanying goat cheese crostini with fig marmalata was tasty. Randy and Jessica split the butter-poached lobster on a mascarpone biscuit with peas, carrots, leeks, lobster butter, and chervil. Judging from their rapt expressions it was pretty freakin’ great.

My entrée was a grilled Hoffman farms quail stuffed with prosciutto, sage, and Brussels sprouts with a sweet potato gratin and pomegranate pan jus. And more brown butter. Though the quail/bacon/Brussels sprouts combo is pretty tired (but justifiably tasty), the flavors were strong and well-developed. Much of my quail (the narrow, bony bits) were rather overcooked, but the breast was moist and flavorful.

We brought with us a couple wines, a Dieboldt blanc de blancs that was crisp, elegant, lean and apple-y, with an impossible ethereal dryness and a 2003 grand cru Corton Blanc from Chandon de Briailles that was medium bodied, dry and flinty, with a light toasted butteriness and a lingering finish. Pretty damn good, well balanced, and held up well across the palate without being overpowering. Roscoe directed us to a third wine, a 2004 Schiava from Northern Italy that was much more rich, earthy, and Burgundian in style than the lighter, fruitier, bubble gumm-y Beaujolais nouveau taste I’ve come to associate with the varietal.

Midnight was fun. Rivoli definitely has it down to a science, except for handing out the noisemakers and poppers after midnight hit. Ah well.

When dessert rolled around we were full, drunk, and happy so we grabbed two desserts to go and wended our way slowly home.

And what did I learn children? Something I’ve been getting a sense of for a while now…. You can get good food anywhere. Good food is easy. You can do it at home, on the road, at the ballpark, in an Armenian circus tent. What really makes a good meal is the who, the where, and the when and whether or not tiny hats are involved.

I give New Year’s at Rivoli three snaps in a z formation.

1539 Solano Ave.
Berkeley, Ca 94707