Saturday, April 26, 2008

Millennium - San Francisco, Ca

Stop the presses! Catch the flying pigs! Start building the snowmen in hell! Start the George W. Bush impeachment proceedings!

I agree with Michael Bauer.

I know, right?

That's something of a hyperbole, as I often agree with Michael Bauer's reviews in the Chronicle in many instances, at least in part. What I object to is his slavish devotion to "chef" cults, his adoration for ingredient at the expense of innovation and (in my mind) flavor, and the weird relationship he seems to have with the Kuleto restaurants.

What I'm saying is, rarely do I agree 100% with any Michael Bauer review, but in this instance I think he's nailed Millennium dead-on. I'll let you go to and look it up for yourselves.

Having once had a vegan girlfriend, I've actually been to the esteemed center of no-animal fine-dining a couple prior times and recall enjoying my meals, however this visit to celebrate a friend's 20th vegeversary was my first visit in a number of years and my first after having spent the last four firmly entwined in the world of Bay Area fine-dining.

The wine list here is excellent, very very well-priced, and food-friendly. They are a bit disingenuous when they label all their wines as either "organic," "biodynamic,"or "sustainably farmed," because only the first two labels mean that they are beholden to any sort of regulatory boards. Virtually all small-production wine of any quality, particularly in Europe but also domestically, is produced sustainably. Any non-factory farmed wine's pretty damn eco-friendly.

The food, overall, is quite good. That being said, in many instances it's very complicated to the point of being muddled, as Bauer mentioned in his most recent update. I'm not one who believes that one needs meat as a centerpiece for an entree to have a point--I've had some spectacular vegetarian entrees before and often find a big chunk of meat to be as boring as a plate of spaghetti.

At Millennium, however, so much of the food relies upon a truckload of ingredients and a shit ton of spices. There's a somewhat lackadaisical approach to presentation, many of the dishes arriving somewhat lukewarm (distressing given that food poisoning occurs most often from produce, not animal products). The pickles and beets that we shared at the table were delicious, the beets in particular were cooked nicely and accompanied with a well-made balsamic reduction. My appetizer of grilled flatbread was underwhelming--the only indication that the flatbread was "grilled" were the black marks--the bread was otherwise room temperature and a bit stale. The accompanying eggplant was nice, the cucumber was overloaded with spice. Girlfriend Charlie's shaved asparagus salad was perfectly cooked and dressed, but the little caraway cracker thing was stale.

Entrees showed Millennium's talents a bit more strongly. My injera crepe was pretty good, though served under-temperature. In this case I was expecting a spice orgy anyway due to the Ethiopian-inspired nature of the dish, so that wasn't a problem. I did find the dice of the vegetables to be too small to easily stab with a fork but too large to scoop and bits of food fell out of the crepe with every bite. Charlie's seared polenta cake with vegetables was delicious, though this dish in particular looked like it was missing a chunk of chicken or a rack of lamb short ribs sitting atop the vegetables and starch. Most other preparations did a good job of showcasing their vegetable protein centerpiece well. The hit of the evening was the chard roulade, stuffed with some sort of very well-executed vegan ricotta and mushrooms and nuts and all sorts of good stuff. Meaty, moist, flavorful without being overwrought, and served piping hot.

In every instance I would say that the plates were overconceived while still not having much of a point. Every dish was sort of "little chopped ingredients! spices spices spices! sauce sauce sauce! Pan-ethnic influences!" But with the exception of perhaps the roulade, nothing I tasted had any sort of gestalt, the sense of a whole of the dish that is greater than the sum of its parts. Which is the principal distinguisher of exquisite professionally prepared cuisine and a really good home-cooked meal.

I throw everything out the window when it comes to Millennium's desserts, however. The desserts are retarded good. Creamy, rich, decadent, and remarkably well assembled given their lack of eggs and dairy. The non-dairy ice creams have always been the best I've tasted. The chocolate almond midnight and the pistachio cake were two particular highlights. Desserts also had a distinctive quality of assembly where I felt there was a sense of the completed product throughout the preparation as opposed to the entrees, which had that "little of this, dash of that" quality of an accomplished amateur cook.

Sort of like Bob Ross messing around with watercolors on a canvas versus Michelangelo freeing his envisioned David from a single piece of marble--both results are pleasing, only one could be called transcendent.

And it's not the happy trees.

Not to say Millennium wasn't very good--it was and is still at or near the pinnacle of vegan fine-dining in America. I'd gladly go back and I'm curious to see if they're ever able to achieve what their chard roulade came very close to doing: an innovative, fully articulated, vegan dish to rival, say, Zuni roast chicken or Redd horseradish-crusted shortribs.

I'm pretty sure it's possible.

580 Geary Street
San Francisco, Ca 94102
Reservations: 415-345-3900 or

Thursday, April 17, 2008

HFF has Lunch: Lola's

I want to bring up a place that I've been frequenting lately that is awesome, inexpensive, and unpretentious: Lola's on Solano Avenue. It's solely takeout and while Gregoire it surely isn't in terms of breadth of selection, there's a character to Lola's that Gregoire lacks and an immediacy to that food that is refreshing. Instead of a fixed monthly menu, the limited Lola's lunch offerings change almost daily.

The husband-wife (John and Donna) team spend the day roasting their famous chickens which I admittedly haven't had yet. Rather, I've come to enjoy their tasty focaccia sandwiches. A different sandwich each day, almost always only one, usually pretty eclectic (turkey and guacamole, coppa and roasted peppers, chicken and mango chutney, tuna salad with black olives) and always simply dressed on Donna's perfect lightly salty fresh-baked foccacia.

The sandwiches are on the small-ish side, but when you pair it with a slice of vegetable-studded frittata or savory vegetable tart you've got a rockin' awesome meal for less than $10. Lola's salads are also big and fresh and a nice change of pace.

It's also worth a drop-in for one of Donna's baked goods. Her pound cake in particular is spectacular.

The simplicity and lack of pretension is great. Get there early because they'll probably run out of their sandwiches. They make maybe a dozen or so each day and they're usually gone by 2:30 (sometimes earlier). Same goes for their daily soup and the roast chickens in the evening. While one might mistake it for surliness and poor planning, I see it as efficient food cost management. Why waste?

1585 Solano Ave.
Berkeley, Ca

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Wine Primer Part 3: Safe Bet Wines

In my continuing effort to steer people away from Charles Shaw and into the many many higher quality wines that can be had for only a couple dollars more, I present to you today some general guidelines to buying quality inexpensive wine.

I sell wine and many many people come in asking for one specific wine. Wine is a finite thing each year. There's only so much 2005 Chardonnay made by X Winery in a given year. When it's gone, it's gone. Additionally, wine can be allocated to retailers and distributors making it impossible to get more of it once it's gone. Many customers try to seek out a wine they loved that they'd had at a restaurant or a wine they'd had wine tasting, but many many wineries only sell direct through the winery or through restaurants.

Thankfully virtually every winery has embraced the internet as a means of selling their wine and shipping costs are relatively nominal.

So what can you do if you have a wine you really really like? There's surprisingly a lot of useful information on a label that can be very helpful. Here's a step by step:

1. Make note of winemaker, though this might not be as useful as you think.
2. What's the vintage?
3. Where is it from? (This is key).
4. What are the grapes?
5. Note the price (know that the retail price will be 30%-50% less than the wine list price).

Something that the Europeans have always recognized about their wines is that WHERE it's from is inextricable from WHAT'S in it. Soil and climate is the most important consideration in a wine--for instance Sancerre and Chablis taste strikingly similar even though one's Sauvignon Blanc and one's Chardonnay. Sancerre and Chablis are virtually next each other and their terroir consists of the same white chalky soil. A Chablis is more similar to a Sancerre than to another white Burgundy from across the region in, say, Macon or Meursault.

That's more for the advanced class though.

What I'm saying is, if you have a 2004 X Winery Dry Creek Zinfandel, you'll probably like MOST 2004 Zinfandels from Dry Creek. If you enjoyed a 2005 Jumilla Monastrell from Juan Gil, you'll like a 2005 Jumilla Monastrell from Casa Castillo. Though you probably won't like 2005 Yecla Monastrell.

More advanced class stuff, but you get my point. Admittedly a talented winemaker can do glorious stuff with excellent fruit and can MAYBE make a respectable wine from mediocre fruit, but what it really comes down to is the fruit. So instead of our American fixation on brand brand brand, let's take a different approach and think about PRODUCT.

You like a hamburger. You like roast chicken. You like ravioli. Sure if you had your druthers you'd get a Whopper, but you'll get a Famous Star before you get a BK Broiler in a pinch, because you know that in the end you like a greasy fast food burger regardless of producer more than you like a greasy fast food chicken sandwich from the same producer. You see?

But money's limited and sometimes you're just stuck someplace and need some wine. So what do you do?

I present to you a list of SURE THINGS! They're like a chick with tattoos who smokes and is overweight but in that still sorta hot way (i.e. big tits and a pleasant face), she'll pretty much always say yes.

1. Shiraz from Australia. It's never great, but it's always pretty rich and tasty without being tannic.

2. White wines from Spain or Italy. Unlike most other regions' whites that rely upon oak and weird herbal grassiness, Spanish and Italian whites are brisk, crisp, and innocuous. Guaranteed not to offend.

3. Gruner Veltliner. This might set you back a bit more than other wines, especially given its local trendiness, you can still get a liter of this tasty dry Austrian white wine for less than $15.

4. Cava & Prosecco. Fuck Korbel's. If you want a cheap sparkling wine grab one of these from the value bins of Spain and Italy. Always crisp, almost always bottle conditioned, and almost always for under $10 (especially Cava). Trader Joe's has one right now for $5.99 that is pretty wickedly inoffensive.

5. California Merlot. As maligned as this grape has been lately, it really does deserve its consideration as one of the most esteemed grapes in the world. It's lush and soft, mellow, and with a few hints of earthy complexity even in lower priced examples.

6. Red wine from the south of France for under $10. For some reason France doesn't let much bad cheap wine get out, I don't know why this is, but it seems to be true. Look for stuff from the Southern Rhone, Languedoc, and Provence. Grenache from this reason is a particularly good bet. Nothing great, but tasty and versatile.

7. Queer varietals (I'm reclaiming the word!) from California. A lot of wineries are experimenting with some funky grapes these days. Sylvaner. Grenache. Carignane. Albarino. Petit Verdot. Viognier. Chenin Blanc. Muscat. These're being done by a handful of producers with some excellent results and since the wines have virtually no demand, they're almost all under $20 with many around $10 or less.

Hope that helps.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Opinion! Adventure! Consensus!

I've been thinking more about my hatred of Yelp! and crap like that, and I think I've distilled it down to one very basic thing:

A disdain for this human need to have some sort of consensus opinion to reference before said human tries something.

Obviously, this is something that is necessary in things like popular elections and Constitutional Amendments, but I don't think it's necessary for things like finding a place for lunch or deciding whether you want to try a new sex toy.

Because, first and foremost, is there anything more distinctive and person-specific than one's tastes in music and tastes in erotic stimulation?

To what end is establishing some sort of broad-based record of what a bunch of individuals think about largely inexpensive holes in the wall? Why are we so insecure about trusting our own instincts? They're the only instincts that matter, right?

Some of the best meals that I've had have been serendipitous mosey-ings into restaurants that I had no previous knowledge of their existence. Like Wakasan and Brandywine in Los Angeles, for instance. Or Sophia, Gregoire, and Lanesplitter in the East Bay.

Why are we so afraid to look at a menu, check out the type of food, the price, and then just walk in and give it a go? And hell, if the place is pricey, look up some critical reviews from newspapers--not for the final declaration of stars, but for the narrative description of what was consumed and make a decision. Knowing that will allow you to judge your own tastes against the tastes of the reviewer in reference to the food served.

It's also a helluva lot more fun. You discovered some place ON YOUR OWN! You actually UNDERSTAND what YOU like and can reason out a judgment on a restaurant based on YOUR tastes! Amazing! You're an unique, self-determining individual.


A friend of mine discussed her growing disdain for Yelp! because she had tried numerous highly recommended taquerias and found them lacking. I had to explain to her that people on Yelp! by and large don't really think too critically about their food and render broad judgment based primarily on the quaintness of the taco truck and the spiciness of the meat. Tacos are one of those things like pizzas, burritos, and burgers--they're pretty easy to do well, difficult to totally fuck up, and nearly impossible to make transcendent.

My basic premise is this: you are just as likely to like or dislike a restaurant whether it was reviewed by 100 of your closest Yelp! friends or it has yet has yet to grace Yelp!'s hallowed halls. Because it's just a matter of your taste and your taste in food and dining is uniquely yours.

Here's my challenge: if a specific restaurant is a place that you'll get out of for less than $20, look at the menu and if it looks good, give it a go. If it's over $20, I give you the right to go online and do some additional research, but avoid anything that gives you a capsule summarization on something like Citysearch or Yelp! Try to find something more detailed.

And at the end of the day whether you had a wonderful experience or a terrible one, you'll be a better person for having tried something new. Take that risk and just go for it. Dining out is all about the experience anyway.

If all you cared about was the food, you could just eat at home.