Friday, May 30, 2008

Imitation, Flattery, and Everything in Between

Are you familiar with the concept of the "Plague Doctor?"

In the 14th century dudes dressed up in a long overcoat and leather breeches sealed with wax or suet, donned a wide-brimmed black cap and a freaky bird-beak mask stuffed with aromatic herbs and which had red glass lenses over the eyes. They went around town with a long stick and poked sick people to determine whether or not they had the plague.

Some people say the outfit had mystical properties to draw out illness when in fact it probably had the very real property of protecting the doctor while simultaneously making him a handy disease vector as he roamed around town in his leather and animal fat outfit, high off of rosemary fumes.

A Plague Doctor probably looked like this:
The inimitable style of the Plague Doctor would then be oft-imitated by many a goth or medieval fetishist, while also making for a pretty spooky Halloween costume.

The Plague Doctor costume is number two on the list of "What to Wear to a Party to get a Chubby Goth Girl to Go Home With You." Number three on the list is Ogre from Skinny Puppy strapped to your back. Number one on the list is a Fine Christmas Ham.

What's my point in this random madness? Why it's an opportunity for me to discuss yet another interesting distinction that I see in the restaurant business here in LA versus back home in San Francisco.

For those of you not attuned to the obtuse clues I've been leaving, I moved to Los Angeles about a month ago.

In SF very few restaurants would deign to serve something that another restaurant also was serving, unless said item came from that Hallowed Pantheon of Culinary Things--fish and chips is a "thing," steak frites is a "thing," foie gras and brioche is a "thing," roast chicken and bread salad is a "thing," et al.

But say a restaurant served some sort of mild white fish crusted with herbs, olives, and bread crumbs, on a bed of fondant leeks; no other restaurant is going to do that. That would be ripping them off. As delicious and simple as portobello fritters are, no other restaurant is going to serve them because that's one of Rivoli's signature dishes.

Though last time I checked fried mushrooms were on the menu at TGI Fridays for a long time.

That's not the case in LA. In fact, you can find certain menu items at many trendy new restaurants (particularly those with a "wine bar" emphasis) in disparate locations. These include blue cheese-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates, truffled grilled cheese sandwich, truffled mac and cheese, truffled frites, and lollipop-style petit lamb chops.

LA, even among the upper-echelon of restaurants, is perfectly willing to do what another restaurant is already doing. Because hey, if it works for them, why not?

While I don't inherently object to this trend, it definitely goes a long way to showing the restaurant's hand. It immediately exposes the restaurant as a place that is all about providing an immediately appealing product for the masses as opposed to a restaurant that wants to provide a innovative quality product. They want to go with what works.

It's sort of a classier version of fried calamari or fried shrimp. It's just something that Joe and Jane Midwest expect to see on the menu at every restaurant, regardless of location or cuisine.

I admire restaurants that don't want to do that. I admire restaurants that offer food that people haven't heard of. I admire restaurants that challenge their diners.

And the funny thing is, a helluva lot more restaurants that cater to the masses got out of business sooner than restaurants that are pushing that oh-so-cliche envelope.

So I raise a proverbial (and literal) glass to those restaurants that achieve success on their own terms. To those restaurants that force their diners to experiment, learn, and enrich. To those restaurants who show their customers that there is more in this world than filet mignon, roast salmon, and Caesar salad.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grapes: The Next Generation

Many people come up to me and ask: "Hey Dave, what're the next hot wine grapes?" And I tell them "Hey, what the fuck are you doing in my dream?"

And while grapes and Star Trek may share nothing more than the smooth roundness of Patrick Stewart's cranium, here're the grapes that I think will be the next big things.

First, let me say that I'm ruling out all the grapes that others have already been called "the next Chardonnay" or "the next Pinot Noir." These grapes are: Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, and Hondarobbi Zuri/Txakoli (white) and Grenache, Tempranillo, and Carignane (red).

On to my picks.

The whites:

Godello. This floral and crisp Spanish varietal is going to be the next rock star wine. It's brisk and zippy like Albarino or Gruner Veltliner, but more strongly floral like a good Riesling or Semillon. It's swiggity swiggity awesome. You thought I was going to say sweet?

Verdejo. So yeah, "Rueda" isn't a grape, it's a region. In most instances Verdejo is the grape that you mean. So ask for a Verdejo. Some examples are crisp and clean like a lean Sauvignon Blanc, others can have a more pronounced tropical fruit character like... a more tropical fruit-heavy Sauvignon Blanc. But it's not like a Sauvignon Blanc, I swear! Did I mention that Rueda also grows excellent Sauvignon Blanc?

Maria Gomes. Sure it might sound like a Univision soap opera star, but this Portuguese Muscat cultivar is pretty freakin' great. It's dry without being overly acidic, has a nice softness and a fuller mouthfeel. Some of the best examples taste like a nice white Bordeaux. It also takes well to sparkling treatments, tasting somewhat like a Cremant d'Alsace or a drier Sekt. Some of the finer examples compare favorably to Champagne for a fraction of the price.

And now, the red wines.

Let me just say that I think we're going to see red blends make a push for dominance over single-varietal wines in the near future. Red wines, more so than white, take well to blending to temper the strengths and mask the weaknesses of the individual varietals. Blends to watch out for:

Port-style blends in table wine. Many of the Port varietals (Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao) make excellent dry table wines. Besides Tinta Roriz (which is the Portuguese name for Tempranillo), Touriga Nacional and Tinta Franca blend quite well together and with Tinta Roriz. These wines typically have nice plum-y fruit, good light tannins, and a food-friendly acidity.

Spanish red blends. Sure Spain makes excellent single-varietal Tempranillo, Garnacha, et al, but the blends are where value can really be found. Look for Garnacha-heavy blends that may also utilize classic varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Capcanes and Montsant are two good regions with quite a few experimental bodegas.

And then two single varietals to watch out for:

Mourvedre. This oft-marginalized Rhone varietal is only given a regular opportunity to express itself in the red wines of Bandol in Provence and the wines of coastal northeastern Spain (where it's known as Monastrell). A few California vineyards in hot Contra Costa County and the Central Valley around Lodi are growing Mourvedre with some solid results. When given the chance to ripen properly, Mourvedre presents solid fruit, smoke, and dusty earth. It's higher yielding nature means it should always offer a quality wine for the price.

Tannat. Uruguayan Tannat will be the next Argentinian Malbec. Another instance of a Latin American country embracing a marginal French grape with excellent results. When grown in Uruguay, Tannat loses much of it's grippy tannic edge and instead presents a medium bodied, firmly structured wine with lightly steeped tannins and a surprising minerality. Production currently isn't enough to push prices down to Argentinian levels of five years ago, but superb examples can be found for $15-$20 retail. You can also find excellent (and much fuller-bodied) Tannats from the subregions of Madiran and Irouleguy in France. These can offer some of the finest values in French wine.

You heard it here first. I'm calling it now. This is my 1982 vintage.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Organic, Sustainable, Biodynamic, Sulfite-Free

In Berkeley, these four words, Organic, Sustainable, Biodynamic, and Sulfite-Free have become commonly heard in wine shops and restaurants.

Here's the problem. Nobody has any fucking clue what they mean.

I've long said that wine is a drink you can feel good about, assuming we mean small-production wine and not massive factory-farmed estates.

Good wine grapes grow in soil that is otherwise not particularly great for anything else. It is a quickly renewable crop that doesn't damage soil. Vineyards can prevent erosion and create natural firebreaks. And many many vineyards dry farm their grapes, meaning that no additional irrigation takes place. Even if irrigation does take place it's in most instances negligible when compared to many other crops.

Most importantly, grapes aren't a staple crop, so consumption of wine (as opposed to say, beer) isn't contributing to the rapid price inflation coupled (strangely) with rampant subsidizing of staple grains.

But there's nothing wrong with seeking out wines with these descriptors, but before you just go out searching for these products, here's a basic layman's rundown:

1. Organic. Organic wine means just what it means when we're talking about other produce. The grapes are grown according to one of the many organic certifying-organizations, most commonly the USDA, Oregon Tilth, or CCOF. Note that truly "organic wines" are very rare as the United States prohibits the addition of sulfites in organic wines (even though sulfur dioxide itself can be organic and has been used for centuries) and other aspects of the wine making are restricted. It is much more common to see "wine made from organic grapes." You can feel equally good about either. In most instances organic grape wines will be superior to fully organic wines, as the lack of sulfur will reduce stability and increase the likelihood of spoilage.

2. Sustainable. Sustainable is a bit more nebulous term as there are very few regulatory bodies. Sustainability means that the wine makers ascribe to basic fundamentals about responsible farming practices, utilizing organic pesticides and natural pest controls. But it's hard to know if a winery is merely playing lip service to sustainability or actually providing an environmentally conscious product. There is a voluntary sustainable-certification organization in Sonoma County and a government certification in Spain. There may be others, but I'm not aware of them.

3. Biodynamic. Okay, this is a weird one. Biodynamic isn't just organic, and in many instances biodynamic isn't organic due to the aforementioned sulfur problem. Biodynamic means the grape growers and wine makers practiced farming and wine making practices that are certified by the international Demeter association. The vast majority of biodynamics is medieval-era geomancy. Included in biodynamics are the planting of a horn full of manure in your vineyard, treating pest problems by burning one of said pests, mixing it with wet sulfur (gee, I wonder why this worked), and then casting it on the grapes.

Oh, and by the way, if there is a field mouse problem you're supposed to scatter the ashes of field mouse skin in the vineyard...when Venus is in the Scorpio constellation, just to be sage about it. Biodynamics is a big scam with no real significance to wine making except that 1, you know that your wine is made completely naturally, and 2, the process is so detailed that you know that the vineyard managers at least have to pay very close attention. It doesn't mean they're GOOD grape growers, but at least they're paying attention.

4. Sulfite-Free. You will find very few sulfite-free wines. There's a reason for this, for a wine to be sulfite-free it actually needs to undergo a sulfite-removal process. Now that's hardly naturally, isn't it? One of the reasons we can make wine is that grapes have a decent amount of naturally-occurring sulfur dioxide on their skin. Many fruits do (apricots most significantly). This sulfur dioxide is a natural defense from disease and rot. It's a preservative.

The reason we can make raisins right out in the sun without having to add sulfur or acid to the grapes is because of this sulfur. The reason pressed grape juice can ferment into tasty wine instead of rotting into spoiled juice is because of the sulfur dioxide and to a lesser extent, tannins.
Are there people who are sensitive to sulfur, even deathly allergic? Sure. But there are a whole fuck ton more people who just think they are because it's yet another thing they can feel special about.

How do I know this? Two reasons. Most people who claim sulfite-sensitivity also note they have more of a problem with red wine than white wine. This is retarded. There are more sulfites in white wine than red wine. Red wine has more natural preservative from the tannins than in white wine, so white wine requires additional sulfur dioxide. Secondly, most people describe their sulfite-sensitivity as causing headaches. This is also retarded. Sulfite-sensitivity manifests in respiratory problems, not headaches.

Many wines in Europe that are drunk domestically and meant to be consumed within a year or two don't often have added sulfur since the natural sulfites will be enough of a preservative for that short period, but wine that is meant to endure the trials of shipping and export and the rigors of aging require sulfites or this wine will spoil. Period.

And then if a wine has no sulfites at all it becomes very unstable even for short periods of time and really won't last more than six months if you're lucky.

So yeah, you know what? If you actually have a legitimate sulfur allergy, then don't drink wine. Sorry. Drink beer, spirits, kombucha whatever. And if you DON'T have a sulfur allergy (and most of you don't) then just get over it and enjoy. Why waste so much time worrying when you can just enjoy yourself?

I'm convinced that people use "sulfur" as an excuse to hide their hang-ups about drinking. It's a way to self-regulate something without having to assume personal responsibility.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Frozen Delights: Wherein the Protagonist Discusses the Merits of Pre-Made Frozen Dinner Items from Trader Joe's

So here's the thing. I love to cook, I really do. Cooking is a blast. Making food for friends is great. Entertaining and enjoying others' company over an ambitious home-cooked meal is one of life's great pleasures.

That being said, I have a hard time finding the effort to devote the significant investment of time and money (nowhere are economy of scales more prevalent than in purchasing food) for just myself.

And despite my obvious love for dining out, I've found myself in recent months to be paying a little more attention to the bottom line as I've left the lucrative world of table waiting for a moderately less lucrative but infinitely more rewarding line of work.

So I've been eating a lot of Trader Joe's lately.

Don't get me wrong, I do cook. I made an excellent turkey loaf which lasted me quite some time--fry it up with eggs for a sort of turkey scrapple breakfast, slap it on some bread for a meatloaf sandwich, or throw it out the window to get your cute neighbor's attention. It's your world, the loaf's just along for the ride. I also can still make a nice from-scratch pasta sauce, assemble a mean sandwich, cook the shit out of some cranberry beans, and steam up the quinoa.

I know that one doesn't actually steam quinoa.

But what's the harm in letting Trader Joe's do the work sometimes?

I'm not a big fan of the fully-made frozen entrees, like the heat and serve pasta dishes, mac n' cheese, taquitos, and burritos. The heat-serve pastas aren't any better than if you make dried pasta and add a sauce and some chopped meat yourself, I can't bring myself to eat mac n' cheese as an entree even though I love it, and the Mexican stuff you can get fresh from a good taqueria for the same price.

What I mostly eat are the Asian and Asian-esque rice and noodle dishes. Some of them are pretty damn solid.

I like this stuff because it's really quick to cook, unlike the Mexican and Italian stuff which often take two or three repetitions of the on-the-box instructions to render the innermost delights not ice cold. Of course the outer layers will be molten as soon as you open the package. The rice dishes just take a quick sautee in the skillet and they're ready to go.

I also like these dishes because they're easy to doctor. You can cook a little garlic first, add some additional veggies or some scrambled egg, or grill up a piece of fish or chicken (or turkey meat loaf!) to throw on top.

Really what Trader Joe's is doing is saving me the time and annoyance of cooking rice only to have re-fry it and the tedium of dicing up some veggies really small.

Obviously it's not as good as the real fresh thing, but it takes 10 minutes and costs a few bucks.

The hits and misses of Trader Joe's frozen Asian-esque entrees.

Chicken Fried Rice: HIT! Cooks easily. Lots of big chunks of chicken. And the rice, although already fully cooked and frozen, doesn't leach out too much water into the pan (a common problem with this stuff). With enough patience (and enough canola oil) you can make a reasonable approximation of Durant food ghetto fried rice.

Chicken Chow Mein: MISS! I should clarify this. Overall it's pretty tasty, but the noodle preparation instructions are ridiculous. The already fully-cooked noodles come vacuum packed in the bag with the chicken and vegetables. You're instructed to let the noodles run under cool water for 5 minutes or so to thaw them while you prepare the chicken and veggies. Five minutes leaves them just as rock-freakin'-hard as before. And then even if you finally thaw them out, they're still all stuck together, which means you'll never actually have chow mein noodles but rather a bunch of two or three inch pieces of chow mein noodle resulting from you violently hacking the noodle-blob apart. At the end of this traumatic process you're still left with a pleasant-tasting dish but at the expense of your dignity.

Nasi Goreng: HIT! Really aromatic and flavorful with lots of chopped vegetables. Pretty much my favorite of the bunch, though it's lack of significant protein requires the addition of at least a couple eggs. My favorite additions are a scrambled egg and some frozen shrimp (also conveniently available at Trader Joe's!)

Vegetable Biryani: HIT! Good and surprising flavor combinations thanks to the addition of apples and cashews to the mix. Unfortunately the vegetables in the biryani sweat a bit too much and you're never able to get the nice dry, ever-so-slightly crisp texture that makes restaurant versions of this dish so appealing. Like the Nasi Goreng, it requires the addition of a couple things to make it a meal.

Sweet and Sour Shrimp over Rice: MISS! Simple dish to prepare, but found lacking in a number of ways. The cooked frozen white rice gives off a ton of moisture when thawed which takes a while to steam off and leaves the rice tasting, well, wet. The shrimp are nice and the vegetable quantity generous, but the sauce is a big miss. I appreciate the attempt at making a sauce that isn't overly sweet and syrupy, but unfortunately this was done at the expense of flavor. The sauce tasted pretty much like watered-down syrup from canned pineapple. Ah well.

Join me next time for a detailed discussion of boil-in-the-bag Indian food.

Not really, they all taste like cumin and ghee. Good though.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pintxo - Santa Monica, Ca

When the "small plates explosion" hit the Bay Area about ten years ago with the opening of the "big three" Cesar, A Cote, and Fonda in the East Bay over the course of a few years, not to mention countless others in San Francisco and elsewhere, everyone (and by everyone I mean mostly single professional women in their thirties) fell in love with dining "tapas style."

The thing is, these restaurants offered very little in the way of true "tapas" dining and the aforementioned "everyone" definitely wasn't dining "tapas style" since dining in that manner involves traveling to multiple locations and imbibing indescribable quantities of wine, beer and sangria, not plunking one's ass at Cesar for three hours and drinking a Cuban Manhattan and half a glass of Cava.

Most importantly though it seemed that these restaurants were using this as an opportunity to serve less food for only marginally lower prices. The "casual" nature of small plates also allowed for slashing service requirements, as waiters are little more than order-takers and food runners (notice I didn't say "plate clearers") at most of these small-plates restaurants. The demands on the server are mostly physical and very little knowledge or refinement is required. This service mediocrity is sometimes a result of rampant understaffing (Cesar) or a general culture of incompetence (A Cote).

My grander point is that despite the "fun" aspect of sharing food and getting to try a lot of flavors (a form of dining I wholeheartedly endorse), rarely does one spend any less money at a small plates restaurant than one does at a more "refined" dining establishment. You are left with an inferior experience overall because of crowds, noise, and service inconsistencies. My dinners at Cesar, Va de Vi, and Fonda have been some of the most expensive I've had in the East Bay (not to mention I'm out of there in an hour as opposed to close to two hours at a more formal restaurant). And with the lack of other similar establishments within a close stumble, one can't really live the "tapas" life as I'd like to envision it: a drink and a bit of food before moving on to your next stop. I'd love to go out with a friend and spend $100 eating and drinking at four or five locations instead of spending that some amount at one spot, especially a spot where the service sucks and it's too awkward and crowded to linger even if I wanted to. As it is, $100 at Zuni buys a better dinner experience for a better value (not to mention the added bonus of an actual reservation) than $80 at Cesar (or $40 at A Cote).

As an aside, I think that a better integration of our eating and drinking cultures in America--that is the concept of "going out" to both eat and drink continuously throughout the evening rather than dining as either the beginning of a night of bar-hopping or the as a result of the beer munchies at the end of a night of bar-hopping (or both)--will go a long way to improve how we treat alcohol in our society. If you're always eating while you're drinking, you drink more slowly, alcohol is absorbed more evenly, and you probably consume less alcohol overall. Four drinks over four hours of a tapas crawl (drinks more likely to be beer and wine) versus four drinks over two hours at a bar (drinks more likely to be spirits and cocktails). You'll also consume more nutrients (including all-essential sodium), which will go a long way to ameliorate your hangover symptoms the next morning.

But here's the good news!

In Santa Monica, right by the water, I think I've found a spot for a legitimate tapas evening, though so far I've only eaten at one bar, Pintxo.

Pintxo (from the same people who brought Venice the esteemed, Michelin-starred Joe's Restaurant) is the first true tapas bar that I've been to in the U.S. Specifically, it's a style of tapas bar common in the Basque regions of Spain and, to a lesser extent, Catalonia that focuses on fish, cured meats, and chunky sauces served on top of slices of bread. These types of tapas are called "pintxos" from the Basque word for "thorn," originally referring to the small wood skewer that was used to hold the toppings on the bread.

Although the pintxos are served pre-made from a sushi bar-style fridge, there are never more than four or so of any dish in the fridge, so everything is served fresh. Pintxo also has a number of hot dishes, including a plate of pescaditos fritos--a pile of tiny fish dusted in flour, deep fried, and served with romesco--and a decently sized seafood paella. Prices start at $2 for a pair of toothpicks with chunks of avocado, radish, and jicama skewered on them, topping out at $12 for a foie gras parfait. Most of Pintxo's plates are between $4 and $6 and a serving is two individual pintxos.

The food was full of deep rich flavors coupled with a simplicity--only a few ingredients, basic spices, and loads of olive oil. The highlight was a slice of bread topped with chorizo, potatoes, romesco and a tiny sunny side-up quail egg.

As great as the food is, Pintxo's wine list is off the charts. 25 wines by the glass, all Spanish, all frequently changing. Wine's by the glass start at $5 with a huge selection falling under $8, something absolutely unheard of in a restaurant of this quality in the Bay Area. Especially given that even the $5 and $6 wines are quality small production Spanish imports.

So what did this all mean? When I left Pintxo's I was stuffed, had two glasses of wine, and spent about $35 or so. I easily could've had one fewer pintxo and I definitely didn't need the second glass of wine, so a less gluttonous me could've eaten extraordinarily well for about $25.

On those same few blocks of Santa Monica there's Bar Robata, a Japanese small plates bar, Chloe, an eclectic (gimmicky?) bar and lounge, and 3 on Fourth (a higher-end restaurant offering small plates as well as entrees) and several other pubs/bars/taverns that maybe, just maybe, are offering an opportunity for an eat and drink, eat and drink, eat and drink, evening out in California.

I'll find out soon.

Bar Pintxo
109 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, Ca 90401

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Father's Office - Los Angeles, Ca

I'm going to declare the term "gastropub" dead.

Maybe there was a time where the idea of a casual establishment with a haute cuisine take on American/British bar food was innovative and rare.

That time has long passed. Just because you sell $7 pints of beer and are known for having "a great burger" doesn't make you something distinctive. It means you're a pub that has (gasp!) GOOD FOOD!

In fact, the basic premise of delicious well-made food in a casual atmosphere with copious amounts of alcohol is something that only the British or Americans would have to separately classify. Apparently in the Anglophonic world you either eat trash or you put on your smoking jacket and head out to spend 100 pounds sterling on an eight course tasting menu. God forbid you find someplace CASUAL that doesn't compromise on quality.

You know what? Most of the rest of the world calls that "dining." Cf. tapas, izakaya, brasserie, trattoria, meze, et al.

That being said, Father's Office was pretty damn good.

I'll be the first to declare that I like ordering at the counter. I think it's a nice streamlined way of operating. But when you combine that with a crowded scene-y spot like Father's Office the result is, at least for now, some degree of confusion.

The basic course of an evening at Father's Office: stand in line for a while (we didn't, we got there early). Enter, finally. Gaze around in confusion for a while. Finally find a table in the corner. Find out that table is reserved by one petite Armenian girl and her hand bag. Convince three other parties to reconfigure themselves so as to allow you four adjacent seats. Sit. Realize no food is coming. Right! Order at the counter! Find a menu. Decide what you want. Realize as you walk to the bar that there are also a bunch of specials. Damn. Change mind. Approach bar. Be served surprisingly quickly. Order a $7 beer and your food. Return to seat with little Carl's Jr.-esque plastic number. The food comes very quickly, thanks to a very limited menu driven heavily by burgers and the now-ubiquitous sweet potato fries.

While I'm declaring the word "gastropub" dead, I'm also going to declare "$4 pints of beer" dead, at least in Los Angeles. Ah well. It was bound to happen.

The beer selection at Father's Office is excellent. My only complaint is that it's not clear on the menu which of the many beers are draft and which are bottle. Order what you see from the wall of taps or risk spending a lot of money on a bottle of beer that you could track down at BevMo easily enough.

My duck confit salad, one of that day's specials, was great. Good fresh greens and a whole confit duck leg. I was expecting a smattering of pulled duck meat, especially given the incredibly reasonable $12 price tag. But nope, I got a whole crispy, juicy, fall-off-the-bone tender duck leg. Brother Noah and I also shared an order of grilled asparagus with hardboiled egg and serrano ham (rockin') and an order of the sweet potato fries which were also excellent. Perhaps the best I've had so far. Sweet potatoes, because of their higher sugar content, have a tendency to overly-brown on the outside while still remaining soft and undercooked. Through some mix of par-frying/blanching/black magic the Father's Office sweet potato fries are crisp, not burnt, and fully cooked.

The meal was great and the vibe's not too bad. I'd recommend going during off times because trying to mix a place that crowded with trying to actually enjoy food is just not worth it. Hit it up early for dinner and a pre-party before heading out to contract chlamydia.

Father's Office. Check it out.

Father's Office
3229 Helms Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90034

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Neighborhood Restaurant

After having spend so much time buried in the world of urban Bay Area fine dining I'd forgotten about what really makes the dining world turn: The Neighborhood Restaurant.

And I don't mean a neighborhood restaurant in the sense that the Chronicle defines it, where any restaurant that won't automatically get people to drive across a bridge is defined as a neighborhood restaurant. Nevermind that these would be among the best restaurants in town in virtually any other city in the country.

I'm talking about the neighborhood restaurant that provides a modest fine-dining experience with a decent wine list and good service for around $20-$30 a person instead of $40-$50.

Restaurants like this are the bastion of the sprawling suburbs. These are restaurants that cut corners in terms of ingredient quality in exchange for excellent prices. A place where the salmon might be wild, sure, but it's also frozen. Or a place that doesn't see the point in serving Niman Ranch pork if it means their sandwich is going to cost four dollars more.

And you know what? These restaurants are beautiful things.

They allow you to have an upscale night out without breaking the bank. I don't care to think about the number of nice dinners I've had wherein the bill for two people has been solidly over $100.

Shouldn't we be able to dine well for $50 or $60? We shouldn't have to go to TGIFriday's or Macaroni Grill (recently lambasted for the amount of sodium in their food, by the way) for an affordable meal out. We should still be able to patronize a quality, locally-owned, neighborhood establishment and not have it be so expensive we can't go back a few times a month.

Unfortunately I think the immediate Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Marin) is so ingredient-obsessed that we don't understand what this really means for prices. One trip to Yelp! will show you so many "overpriced" complaints that you'll shit your pants, or at least really want to.

The first restaurant I worked at in the "gourmet ghetto" area was excellent. We served excellently prepared, flawlessly presented cuisine for extraordinarily reasonable prices. Appetizers were almost all under $10, entrees hovered in the upper teens. The menu changed often and was somewhat exotic. I think at one point we had a dozen different species of animals on our menu, including ostrich and antelope. Unfortunately the chef just didn't "get it" for that community. We served tomatoes out of season. Our lauded french fries were from Smart & Final. Our burgers were premade and basically everything other than produce was frozen. Yet we garnered good reviews and had a busy first wave. But nobody came back, because nobody really cared. We weren't offering what everyone else was offering for only marginally more.

I've come to think that we don't actually think our restaurants are overpriced. It just becomes a kneejerk response to sticker shock. Because the moderately priced restaurants close down and the $50 a person restaurant succeeds.

Except for Maritime East.

But I don't WANT to be stuck with a choice between sub $10 ethnic food and $50 California Cuisine.

Can't I have a nice place to go on a date with a girl I'm not sure I really like yet? I mean, that's not worth $100, is it? I probably won't even get any at the end of that date anyway. I should've taken her to P.F. Chang's.

So that being said, as I kinda mentioned before I spiraled away on this tangent, I ate at two good moderately priced restaurants recently. Both were in suburbia. Well, one was in San Jose, but most of San Jose is a massive suburb.

Did you know the Santa Clara Valley was developed by the same planner who plotted most of Los Angeles' postwar expansion? Explains a lot, no?

First, we have Elements in San Jose's southern Almaden Valley. This place is neighborhood restaurant exemplified. Solid food, solid wine list, great prices. Nothing phenomenal and the service was amateurish (but that weird overly-trained amateurishness), but it was good. My papaya salad had a pile of nicely dressed green papaya topped with a pair of fried prawns. For like, $6. My entree of stuffed pork loin was inexpertly stuffed and slightly overcooked, but it was decent and the price was right (about $17).

Strangely the wine list wasn't quite in line with the food, being priced at a slightly more premium markup with surprisingly few wines in the sub $30 range given the price of the cuisine. Perhaps that plays a role in subsidizing food prices?

Second, I had lunch at Eddie Papa's American Hang-Out in Pleasanton. The elegant interior doesn't match the kitschy theme (American classics from all over the country), and the service is embarrassingly amateurish (but also in that overly trained sense). The food, however, was respectable. My pulled pork sandwich was quite good and decently priced at $9. The admittedly smaller and french fry-less pulled pork sandwich at T-Rex is a good step and a half better for only $2 more. My dad had the halibut fish & chips. Why we keep insisting on deep frying halibut I don't understand, given it's propensity to overcook. The fish was decently prepared but dry and the fries were undercooked and underseasoned.

Okay, so maybe Eddie Papa's wasn't all that great. Nor was it particularly cheap. But the food was okay and prices were okay and the service was okay, and the space was warm and home-y. I appreciated the effort.

I'm hoping that there'll be room for places like this in more "refined" food communities in the Bay Area.

Though first thing we have to do is want it, I suppose.

Elements Restaurant
6944 Almaden Expressway
San Jose, CA 95120
408-927- 8773

Eddie Papa's American Hangout
4889 Hopyard Drive
Pleasanton, Ca 94588