Monthly Archives: June 2010

Bay Burst 2

My friend Raub Roy is known as the “toothbrush and balloon guy” among experimental music circles in San Francisco. Those are his instruments. During my visit, he was branching out though, playing a misshapen, multi-pronged Vietnamese wood instrument that looked straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. His concert was in some guy’s garage, during the Divisadero Art Walk. The opening act was a girl who hit a miniature sewing machine with a stick at random intervals (SK said it was a waste of a cute object).

After the concert, we wanted tacos. Friends pointed us in the direction of Little Chihuahua, a hip taqueria down the way, where they had $3 tacos and $3 draft Pacifico beers (my favorite!) The food was so-so (rubbery shrimp, cold pork, foul cupcake) but it was like a festival in there, Manu Chao blaring and face-painted Burning Man weirdos everywhere! It was exactly how I pictured San Francisco before I visited, except it didn’t repulse me at all.

Bay Burst 1

(first of a quick wrap-up series on San Fran)

I killed two birds at this place one Wednesday night in SF, meeting a girl from my food writing class, then a girl I used to work with 10 years ago.

I had never met Alanna before, as our class was online, but I wanted to find out how competitive the Bay Area food writing scene is. Turns out she’s a party in a box, a fast-talking hipster hurricane. I started drinking green tea and making small talk, quickly progressing to strong cocktails like the Diablo (tequila, creme de cassis, lime juice, ginger ale) and rowdy conversation. Alanna was a regular (“I got so wasted here last weekend, I’m surprised they let me back in!”) and the bartender gave us a free prosciutto and arugula pizza that was made on accident.

By the time my old friend Lucy showed up, I was already full of pizza and half drunk on cocktails. I tried to be a good listener but there was tequila in my ears. I do remember that Lucy works for Pixar and was proudly attending the premiere of Toy Story 3 that weekend. We ate a second pizza and speculated on the grizzled urban cowboy at the end of the bar who was delicately arranging a vase of flowers.

This was a promising night. SK and I plan to host weekly invitation-only dinners (“Two for Tuesdays”) and Alanna and Lucy are both prime candidates.

don’t mind if I do!

Remember my piece in the Voice last week? I got a new comment:

Wing King says:

Jesse,
I almost went to the event but didn’t have a good vibe from what I saw or didn’t see on the website. I run the National Buffalo Wing Festival held in Buffalo, NY on Labor Day weekend. Admission is on me and I’ll even throw in some Anchor Bar wings.
Our festival website is http://www.buffalowing.com

eating at the temple, 2

SK and I headed to Berkeley well in advance of lunch, not wanting something cosmic and stupid to stand in our way (e.g., truck full of Skittles overturned on the Interstate). We soon found ourselves with an hour to kill in the sleepy commercial area surrounding Chez Panisse. We spent it in a hardware store, shopping for Gorilla Glue and potting soil. And somehow, dazzled by the array of smoke detectors, we managed to be 10 minutes late for our reservation. I’d blame SK except that would be totally inaccurate.

Click to Enlarge

By the time we got inside I was sweaty and flustered, at the bottom of my game. I told the bespoke host that we had reservations, and after a nearly imperceptible “you’re late” look, he put us in the corner of the waiting area. No one puts Baby in the corner!

I was totally edgy while we waited, suspecting (like I often do) that the host was seating people before us out of spite. Then, with the reassuring grace that’s indigenous to the well-heeled gay man, he cooed, “I couldn’t be more sorry about the wait, right this way.” We were inside the temple.

Decor:
We were tucked into a cozy corner table, with adequate space between us and all the other yuppies. Everything was dark wood, adorned with leafy plants and vintage posters for French movies and booze. An open porch at one end of the dining area allowed for a nice flow of air and sunlight throughout. I called the layout feng shui, which is ignorant white dude for “vaguely Asian.” SK sweetly agreed that there were elements of a Japanese tea house, but I suspect she had her own ideas. She often does.

Service:
Our long-haired waiter had a dazzler smile and laughed at all my jokes. Clearly a flawed individual, but très professional and efficient. There was also one of those crumb sweeper dudes who gracefully cleans your stray tidbits off the tablecloth. I had mild guilt because cleaning up after my meals is a double-duty affair. They probably swept a whole porkchop off my place, and I didn’t even eat pork.

Food:
After a painstaking review of the menu (above), we made our selections.

To start:
Garden lettuce salad– Couldn’t be more simple, a mix of fresh greens, lightly dressed in lemon and oil. Oddly enough, this was my choice. Typically my salad selections look more like omelettes or casseroles, with meat cubes and eggs liberally dressed with blue cheese. On this occasion, I was feeling light.

Entrees:
Grilled Canard Farm sirloin roast with green beans and shoestring potatoes
I played to type with my entree selection. Little pieces of sliced beef in a mild chimichurri sauce, delicious and tender. The portion was just enough to leave me wanting more, unlike a steakhouse monstrosity that leaves me gasping for air. The side of lightly seasoned green beans were al dente, but not so much that I got angry (like usual). The shoestring potatoes were a surprise hit with both of us, as normally those things are cheap throwaways. They were salty, crisp and actually tasted fresh! Free-range potatoes.

Soul Food Farm chicken al mattone with polenta, asparagus and olives
SK chose this one, and I immediately regretted my own order. As tasty as the sirloin was, the chicken al mattone (literally, under a brick, referring to how the chicken is cooked) was effing incredible. Crispy on the outside, tender and juicy within, the flavor smashed me right in the face and I kept stealing more off SK’s plate. The creamy sweet corn polenta and grilled asparagus stalks were a perfect accompaniment, though the latter was a bit over-salted (wah-wah).

Dessert:
Someone recommended the mind-blowing vegan brownies at a place called Cafe Gratitude across from Chez Panisse but we were both so dazzled by the meal that we decided to stay for the sweets.

Strawberry shortcake with crème fraîche– A classic done to perfection. I had hoped it would be sponge cake instead of a biscuit, but once the biscuit soaked up the berry juice and the crème, it got all moist and chewy (perfect for my 12-year-old palate). Our only complaint was that it was shy on strawberries, but hey.

I finished the meal with a glass of iced green tea, even though I already drank one before lunch. I wanted to prolong the Chez Panisse experience, and they did make a fine glass of tea.

For all this awesomeness, we spent under $100, with tip. Amazing.

eating at the temple

I suspect that 65% of my readers know who Alice Waters is. For the rest of you, don’t feel bad- before a year ago, I only had the vague sense that she would get angry if I went to Taco Bell.

Alice is the reigning queen of the local, organic, sustainable food movement. She is a larger-than-life, polarizing figure, whose unyielding adherence to her principles has led critics to deride her as elitist, unrealistic and preachy. Anthony Bourdain had these choice words:

“Alice Waters annoys the living sh*t out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic.”

Despite her fierce dogmatism, I believe in everything she supports. It’s obvious that huge agri-conglomerates are destroying family farms, the quality of our foods, our health, etc. But more than her ideals, I’m interested in her food.

Alice’s iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse is one of the most legendary and well-regarded restaurants in the country. I can’t read a food book without being hit over the head with some ripple this place caused in the Restaurant Sea (lame metaphor). At some point, I stopped thinking of Chez Panisse as a real place. When you read about something so much, in such epic terms, it becomes mythic, like Narnia or the Gulf of Mexico.

So when SK suggested we just pop on over to Chez Panisse on Memorial Day, I thought “AS IF!” There was no way we could get reservations without 7 months of advance warning, never mind the prices… Wrong. Berkeley ain’t New York.

Without batting an eye, SK snagged same-day reservations at Chez Panisse’s more casual, upstairs cafe. Granted, the reservations were at 1:45 pm (not exactly prime time), and the entrees were around $20 (not exactly a steal) but it was still within our grasp…

Part one of two

less cute

While my NYC edibles made the cross-country journey unscathed, I also brought a sushi-making kit on the plane. On arrival, I found the plastic containers of rice vinegar had violently blown up in my bag.

“But I have rice vinegar here, why would you bring those flimsy little containers in your suitcase?!”

*sheepish grin*

SK, Let’s Eat!

Alice and Calvin

SK bought this book for my birthday last year, which details New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin’s love affair, with food and with his wife. A persistent and voracious gourmand, Trillin is a man who will beg a friend traveling through New Mexico to pack tamales in dry ice and fly them to him.

Trillin’s wife, Alice, was half foil and half partner in crime. While exasperated that their trip to Italy allowed no time for museums and natural beauty (too many restaurants to try), she bore a hearty appetite, and would often indulge her own food cravings while her husband was on his quests.

When I flew out to San Fran two weeks ago, I packed two New York delicacies in my 57-pound (actual weight) suitcase, trusting the Luggage Gods to ship my bag with delicacy and grace. Both of these foods were SK favorites, and I knew the Trillin aspects of traveling 3,000 miles with the perfect meal would not be lost on her.

beef burek

The first item was easy, and a no-brainer. At this Bosniian restaurant near my house, SK and I used to laugh at the sign proudly proclaiming “Best Burek in New York!” Okay dudes, we’ll take your word for it. Then some world-traveler friends told us that for years, they’d been craving something they used to eat in Budapest- burek! We tried it that night, and oh what a treat.

It’s basically buttery, flaky filo-type dough surrounding spiced beef or spinach and cheese, and it’s amazing. SK (typically a fresh, healthy eater) started clamoring for burek whenever she’d stay at my apartment. When my dad visited town from Maine, we sent him back on the bus with a pound of burek in a bag. So obvi, I’d be taking some on the plane to Cali.

The second item was a little more tricky. One of SK’s favorite New York restaurants is this isolated bistro, jammed under the elevated train tracks in the outer reaches of Bushwick, Brooklyn. It’s an incredibly charming place, with live cabaret music and a chic early-century French bistro aesthetic, but it’s the food that kept us coming back. Our top picks were fresh buttery mussels, gruyère mac and cheese, and…date cake.

Moto date cake (Photo courtesy Serious Eats)

Sound like something you’d pick up at the Lady’s Auxiliary bake sale? Wrong. SK is a sweets snob, and this is her favorite dessert in all of NYC. It starts with a dense, moist piece of cake, with subtle date undertones. It would just be a piece of cake though, if it wasn’t drizzled with an INCREDIBLE buttery toffee sauce, enhanced with fresh whipped cream and a mint leaf.

Not the easiest thing to transport though! Two days before my trip, I tricked three friends into meeting me at Moto so I could take a piece of date cake to go. Somehow between the restaurant and our post-meal drinks at a nearby bar, the to-go container exploded, spreading huge gobs of toffee sauce all over the inside of the plastic bag. My friends chuckled and said it’s a lost cause. “Who are you kidding dude, you’re gonna eat that before the night is through.”

Not so! As you may recall, I was able to keep a hard-earned lobster roll intact overnight for a sad co-worker, so I could definitely keep SK’s fave dessert untouched for two days. When I got home, I squeezed all the toffee sauce down into one corner of the plastic bag, like the last remnants of a tube of toothpaste. Then I cut a little hole and squeezed the sauce back onto the cake, like a pastry froster! (so innovative)

I stuck the cake in a tupperware and froze it until minutes before I left for the airport Saturday. I bought the burek at 8:30 that morning for maximum freshness and voila, I was off. I told SK not to make dinner plans that night, as “I had somewhere in mind”: my suitcase!

I won 82 boyfriend points that night.