Monday, January 30, 2006

Scott Howard: Flexing His Fork

500 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415)956-7040
Chef Scott Howard (formerly Fork in San Anselmo)
CLOSED

UPDATE: September 2006
Sadly Scott Howard has decided to move away from tasting menus to more casual dining, including offering large plates. While this may have help fill the large dining room, the result is disappointing. The entrees are clunky and unfocused. The carrot soup, previously a delicate wisp of carrot with chervil cream, tasted like a giant bowl of lukewarm carrot juice. The wine list was also substantially reduced. Whether this is due to a transition in sommeliers is unclear, but the selections were limited and most were extremely expensive, contrary to the more casual atmosphere the restaurant seems to now be aiming for. This identity crisis has sadly transformed a previously impressive restaurant to something run of the mill and forgettable.

Tried: January 2006
From the fixtures to the food, Scott Howard has transformed the cavernous space at 500 Jackson into a modern and sophisticated dining spot. Gone are the 90's bright lights and blond wood of the previous seafood restaurant, nor is there any hint of the 80's over-the-top decor of the Cypress Room before that. Instead, the low lighting and warm dark wood of the gleaming floors and tables cast a flattering glow over the restaurant. The wrought iron chandelier has artistic yellow filament light bulbs, instead of crystal, and the woven place mats on the tables in place of white tablecloths add a contemporary and casual touch. Behind sliding glass doors that look like Japanese shoji screens, on the far end of the dining room, is a private dining area, and the gradation in floor levels between the bar area and the dining space, with half-enclosed elevated side spaces to accommodate larger parties, breaks up the large space to create a feeling of intimacy.

The menu is in keeping with the relaxed elegance of the decor, with a variety of raw and cooked appetizers ranging from $8 to $12, main courses comprised of seafood, poultry and meat dishes in the $21-$31 range with side dishes at $6-$10, and concluding with cheese and/or desserts ($9-$14). There is also a seven-course chef's tasting menu at $80 per person, with wine pairing at $58 per person. (I was not thrilled about waiting half an hour past our reservation time for our table to be ready, but it did give me ample time to peruse the menu and wine list in advance.)

Our table opted for the tasting menu. We received two amuse-bouches to start: a small mound of pink tuna tartare with a tomatillo coulis, followed by an espresso cupful of cream of sunchoke soup garnished with chopped trumpet mushrooms. Although the tuna was somewhat tasteless, even with the tomatillo coulis, the soup was delightfully thick and creamy with the unique flavor of sunchokes, with the earthy trumpet mushrooms adding depth.

With the first two courses, the chef started to really show his stuff. The clean and fresh fluke sashimi would have been delicious alone. With the soft, delicate, and mildly sweet coconut gelee, kaffir lime and basil, it was divine. Next came a thin square terrine of creamy, nutty foie gras. Again, it was perfect solo, but the sweetness of the tangerine chamomile gelee and the savory richness of the squid ink gastrique accompanying the terrine brought out deliciously different aspects of the foie gras. The 2003 Loimer Langenois riesling from Kamptal was an interesting pairing choice that worked well in highlighting the sweet gelee and rounding out the flavors of both the terrine and gastrique.

Then came the famous carrot broth. Just smelling the fresh pureed carrots and the fragrant chervil that wafted up from the bowl that was placed in front of me made me happy. The first spoonful of the broth, with a touch of the chervil sabayon mixed in, fulfilled every promise that the aroma made. The crisp and fruity Austrian weissburgunder, 2004 Heidi Schroeck, that was paired with the soup was an ideal match for the sweet carrot.

The sweetbreads that followed, golden brown on the outside and soft inside, were just as spectacular. Every element, from the sweetbread, the smooth and creamy potato puree, to the surrounding sweet truffled madeira sauce reminiscent of maple syrup, and the chewy bits of salty bacon punctuating the dish, was perfectly executed. The pairing, however, was not quite as magnificent. The junmai Hanahato kijoshu, a brown sake, was too harsh and alcoholic to do justice to the dish. (The Loimer riesling, which I had leftover from a previous course, actually matched beautifully.)

The next course fell a bit flat after the perfection of these earlier dishes. The dish had the same sunchoke and black trumpet mushroom combination that had been presented in the earlier amuse, and while it was just as tasty with broiled sunchokes as with pureed sunchokes, it was somewhat of a letdown to see the same thing twice. Also, the seared scallops were slightly overcooked and sandy. I finished off the trumpet mushrooms with the 2004 Olivier LeFlaive Les Satilles burgundy that was paired with this dish, but gave up on the sandy scallops.

The kitchen returned to excellence with the final savory course-- duck breast with a quenelle of apple chutney, a swirl of apple cider gastrique, and a small salad with serrano ham. Again, every single element was expertly executed. Howard nails the sweet and savory combination like a champion figure skater landing a triple axel. As I took a sip of the 2004 J. Hofstatter pinot nero that was paired with the dish and took another bite of the tender rare duck, making sure to get some of the crispy skin on the side and a taste of the sweet and buttery chutney, I was quite content. To close, we had a dessert of lemon beignets. The powdered sugar on the beignets was a little overwhelming but they were otherwise soft, sweet, and satisfying.

Service, while attentive and personable, was at times not quite at the level of the food. For example, the person delivering the bread basket proceeded to repeatedly touch the crackers on top and the various items within in order to point out and explain the contents. While I realize that food gets touched a million times in the kitchen during preparation, this was still unsettling to see at the table. Another nit is the fact that wine bottles were not shown until after they had already been poured, instead of beforehand. While minor, these are nonetheless flaws that should be addressed in a restaurant endeavoring to be recognized as an upscale dining establishment.

What the Italics Mean

I have a short attention span, and I get bored very quickly. The reason I prefer tasting menus is that I have been known to lose interest in the middle of a dish, so the fact that a restaurant serves large portions does not hold a great deal of allure to me. I love small plates restaurants and tapas bars, where I can snack on different tastes to my heart's content, without the formality that is often involved with a tasting menu. While I appreciate the production and performance of formal dining, I also like variety. As long as the food is good, I am just as happy eating at a street cart or at a white-tablecloth-with-sommeliers-and-multiple servers-type restaurant, and everything in between.

So what does all this mean?

I eat out frequently, whether I am home or on the road, and I am generally unlikely to visit any eatery more than once (with the exception of fast food places, which is more a function of time and convenience as opposed to preference). This is not to say that the un-italicized restaurants are not worth going back to (although that is true in some cases) or that I have never gone back to some of those restaurants. Rather, the places I have italicized are the ones that have stood out in some meaningful way from the others, whether because of a single memorable dish that I crave tasting again or because the chef's creativity holds something that draws me back.

Finally, for the sake of accuracy, I have not italicized any restaurants that have either closed or changed chefs since I last dined there, even if my last experience there would have merited italics.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Highs and Lows of Morimoto

Morimoto New York
88 10th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
(212) 989-8883
Lunch weekdays
Dinner nightly

Morimoto on Urbanspoon

Tried: December 2007

Scariest place ever. If you actually like sushi or genuine Japanese food, do not waste time with this place. Poorly executed fusion fare that looked like it belonged in an airport Panda Express (Nobu midwest, anyone?), cheap disco decor, and dessicated fish-- the uni looked like umeboshi. How disappointing.


Morimoto on Urbanspoon

723 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 413-9070
Lunch weekdays
Dinner nightly

Tried: November 2005

After trying Chef Morimoto's namesake restaurant in Philadelphia, I can see why he is an Iron Chef in America as well as in Japan. The menu at Morimoto is the same neo-Japanese with French influence that brought Morimoto such acclaim while he was at Nobu in New York but far better articulated. (Indeed, I was as impressed with Morimoto as I had been disappointed with my previous experience at Nobu a few months earlier.)

The omakase menu started with mashed toro inside a ceramic dish the size of an espresso cup, mixed with both fresh and crispy fried shallots and a variation of the Japanese mother sauce of soy/sake/mirin, and topped with a dollop of caviar. The sweetness of the toro and the sauce contrasted beautifully with the salty caviar.

Next came three kumamoto oysters on the half-shell, garnished with an edible orchid-- the first oyster was served with a jalapeno fish sauce, the second with what was described as Japanese salsa (no such thing; it was just chopped fresh tomato and chives with some type of light vinegar sauce), and the third with a champagne mignonette sauce. The oysters were fresh and briny, and the sauces were well executed, although I found the fish sauce to be too strong. The edible orchid had the texture and taste of a dried slice of cucumber and while mostly tasteless, provided an interesting touch.

The oysters were followed by raw scallops with matsutake mushrooms in a hot oil and yuzu sauce, topped with mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley). The hot oil slightly warmed the scallops while the tang of the yuzu and the pungent mitsuba made the flavors of the scallops and the delectable matsutake mushrooms dance.

The next course was a sashimi salad comprised of shimaji (striped jack) and thickly shaved slices of bonito on a bed of wild bitter greens and drizzled with a creamy yuzu vinaigrette. The creamy shimaji tasted like a cross between mackerel and yellowtail, and the bonito tasted like bacon. These Japanese ingredients somehow came together tasting like a salad with lardons that one might find at a quality French bistro.

The palate cleanser that punctuated the tasting menu at this point was also delightful. The raspberry wasabi sorbet was clean, fresh, sweet, tart, and very spicy all at once. It was the ideal precursor to the cajun lobster dish that followed. The lobster tail and claw had been expertly cracked so that they were presented in the shell but required almost no effort on my part to extract the well-spiced chunks of lobster meat. Grilled carrots, broccoli, and asparagus accompanied the lobster, along with a mixture of citrus creme fraiche and chives.

The piece de resistance was the final savory dish-- seared slices of rare kobe beef that had been marinated in the soy/sake/mirin Japanese mother sauce, garnished with grilled scallions and toasted sesame seeds, topped with a sizable hunk of perfectly seared Hudson Valley foie gras, and served with scoops of sweet creamy Japanese sweet potatoes. I was awestruck at how harmoniously the flavors of these luxurious ingredients blended together to create this incredible incarnation of beef and foie gras. After this sensation, the dessert-- a warm chocolate souffle with white miso ice cream, apple puree, and slivers of Chinese almonds-- while solid, was a bit of a letdown. The miso ice cream and almonds alone, which were deliciously unique, may have been cleaner and more impressive served without the slightly cakey chocolate souffle.

Where Restaurant Morimoto falls somewhat short is service. Although friendly, the servers often lacked knowledge about ingredients or composition of a number of the dishes being served. In addition, the timing was off for delivering the wines intended for pairing with the various dishes, such that sometimes the wine was delivered after the course was already half (or almost entirely) consumed, or brought so early that I ended up drinking most of the wine while waiting for the paired course to arrive. I was also surprised that a $120 omakase menu, while excellent in virtually all aspects, did not begin with any type of amuse. Overall, however, my experience at Morimoto was amazing, and I found myself no longer bothered about the long travel to Philadelphia or the perfunctory business I had to attend to there.

I am very curious to see how the second Morimoto, a 160-seat restaurant scheduled to open in the Chelsea district of New York City in February 2006, will be. Will Morimoto be able to maintain quality control over both restaurants while continuing to defend his title on Iron Chef America?

Exotic Comforts of Tamarine

546 University Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
(650)325-8500
Chef Tammy Huynh
Lunch weekdays
Dinner nightly

Tamarine on Urbanspoon

Update: November 2006
The dishes are still relatively solid but have lost the delicate finesse that made Tamarine stand out. The crab dumplings in Ha Long Bay Soup were gummy and overpeppered, and the coconut milk broth was too sweet and thick and also too sour from the vinegary fish sauce. The shaking beef was not as tender as they used to be, and the bed of watercress salad and picked onions, previously lightly dressed and highlighting the beef, seemed to be a throway like dried parsley garnish. The banana beignets for dessert, however, were crunchy outside and creamy inside with the just right amount of sweetness.

The chips on the edges of the previously elegant green plates were a sign that the attention to detail that made this place special is now lacking.

Last tried: January 2006
Tamarine has managed to strike exactly the right balance between Silicon Valley casual and Bay Area food snob in everything from its layout and decor to its wine list. The dark wood, frosted windows, and deep green velvet curtains and upholstery create a refined yet cozy atmosphere. The cocktail lounge area, including a full bar and large barside table with barstools for snacking on the small plate dishes (or enjoying a full dinner) with post-work drinks, provide an informal touch.

Tamarine's wine list is exceptional, with a large number of selections available by the glass, tailored to match the Vietnamese flavors and spices of the menu, whether seafood, poultry, meat or vegetable. They are also quality wines with great acidity that anyone would enjoy quaffing alone.

Where Tamarine truly excels is in the exotic yet comforting cuisine expertly turned out by Chef Tammy Huynh, with her finely-honed sense of harmonizing the unusual with the familiar in the various spices, flavors, and textures present in every small and large plate on the menu. The portions of both the small and large plates are well-sized. They are comfortably ample for people to share tastes (or not), but a single diner could also decide to sample several different dishes without getting overly stuffed.

We started with the bahn ma roti, pan-fried triangles of unleavened bread that is chewy with flaky edges and comes with a kicky yellow curry dip and a thick basil bean dip. They disappeared from the table faster than a bag of potato chips at a superbowl party. Given how ubiquitous tuna tartare appetizers are, I am impressed when a chef can give it new life. Huynh spices it up with almost invisible bits of chopped chili and adds crunch with cucumber pieces. The generous mound of pink Big eye tuna is served in a hollowed out coconut, which imparts yet another layer of aroma and flavors, along with a pile of fried flaky wonton chips on the side. The spring rolls, with a filling of shrimp, pork, mint, and lettuce, are not deep fried but wrapped in soft translucent rice paper and presented with a tangy hoisin sauce and garnished with chopped peanuts. Although I personally find the mint to be a bit overwhelming, others eagerly scarfed them up.

Of the large plates, the shaking beef, tender chunks of grilled filet mignon marinated in garlic and spices and presented on a bed of watercress with slices of radish and red onion, is substantial enough to satisfy any carnivore and yet so tantalizing in flavor that I never tire of ordering it. If the shaking beef is not Tamarine's signature dish, it should be. The tri-squash scallop curry is another must-have dish. The seared scallops floating in the curry had absorbed the curry flavors without being overcooked in the slightest, and the creamy squash chunks added depth to the warm and mildy spicy broth. With a bowl of aromatic jasmine rice, this is Vietnamese comfort food. The Tamarine prawns, jumbo grilled prawns with tamarind sauce, is the only dish that I was not crazy about. While they are not bad, I personally have never cared for unpeeled shrimp, as all of the flavor seems to stay on the peel and never on the prawns, and this one is no exception. In contrast, the ruby duck-- perfectly cooked tender slices of muscovy duck breast served with braised chicory and fig sauce-- is one of the best duck dishes I have encountered in any restaurant.

The excellence of Tamarine falters a bit with the desserts when the kitchen veers too far from its Asian-based expertise. The cranberry cheesecake was somewhat dry and not sweet enough, and the cranberry sauce seemed more of an afterthought to add color, as opposed to complementing any flavor. The profiteroles were fine but not exceptional as the ice cream was too soft and the pastry puff shell a bit bland. I did quite enjoy the banana beignets, which are sweet and crispy, and the chocolate ganache wontons, which are so rich and decadent that I did not mind that they were a little greasy (that may be unavoidable from the combination of chocolate and deep frying wonton skins). I really do wish that Tamarine would start serving real coffee, in addition to the Vietnamese coffee that is brewed with sweetened condensed milk, which is more of a dessert by itself.

Having experienced Huynh's cuisine on numerous visits, each of which has been consistently first-rate, I can see why Tamarine has been a roaring success in a location where two previous restaurants have failed. I am intrigued to see how Bong Su, Tamarine's sister restaurant scheduled to open in February 2006 in San Francisco, will be (and whether that will affect the quality of Tamarine).

Tequila Sunset at Tres Agaves

130 Townsend Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415)227-0500
Chef Joseph Manzare
Brunch on weekends
Lunch and Dinner Daily

Tres Agaves on Urbanspoon

Last tried: January 2006

Inside a large exposed brick loft space in the South of Market district with an open kitchen and an expansive tequila bar, Tres Agaves exudes casual chic in both its atmosphere and its food. Although I have never been to Jalisco, after tasting the food and sampling the tequila at Tres Agaves, I am thinking it might be worth a trip one of these days to see where such quality fare originated. In the meantime, Tres Agaves rocks with people enjoying its spicy food and hip tequila cocktails as the sun sets in the City. Tres Agaves also offers a condensed late night menu (interestingly, completely different from its regular dinner menu, which indicates they are not serving leftovers) which is available all week long until 1am and even later into the night on Friday and Saturday nights.

Upon being seated and as I perused the long list of margaritas, other tequila cocktails, and tequila flights, the complimentary chips and salsa arrived. While de rigeur at most Mexican restaurants, these chips were thicker and less salty than in other places and came with both green and red salsa. The green salsa was tart and spicy, and the red salsa was sweet and smoky.

As I was enjoying the chips with the different salsas and trying to decide what to drink, the server gave a brief yet quite informative summary of the different tequila selections-- the lighter and fruity varieties from the Highland region and the oaky, robust ones from the Lowland region of Jalisco. Among them, the blanco tequilas are clear and unaged, going straight from distillation to the bottle. The reposado tequilas are aged in oak barrels from a couple of months up to a year, and the anejos are aged for at least a year or longer. The Don Julio 1942 Anejo, a highland tequila, had a sherry nose and a richness of flavor that I would normally associate with scotch, and the smoky El Jimador Anejo made me crave a nice cigar. Flights (three 3/4 oz. pours) of blanco tequilas are available for $10, reposados for $12, anejos for $14, a "super premium" selection for $40, and a "super star" selection for $200. No salt, no shots. This is sippin' tequila.

I was getting the beginnings of a mild buzz from sampling the array of tequila glasses in front of me when the appetizers arrived. The aguachile de camarones, a ceviche-like dish with marinated raw shrimp and chunks of fresh cucumber, tomato, and avocado, was refreshing and satisfyingly crunchy with a pleasant tang from the serrano and habanero salsa. Although my personal recommendation is to taste the quality tequilas at Tres Agaves straight, without the interference of sweet mixers, I made an exception for the green cucumber fresca cocktail, which paired excellently with the aguachile and balanced out the vinegar in the dish.

The gorditas were also sensational-- the griddled masa were crispy outside, soft inside, and created the ideal sandwich casing for the soft and flavorful shredded beef and zippy avocado salsa. The chilpachole, described as a "hot" crabmeat broth with roasted tomato and chile, however, was not quite as well executed. The broth was neither hot in the spicy sense nor in the temperature sense, but rather just tomatoey and thick.

Tres Agaves is particularly adept with its meat dishes. The costillas de puerco (slow roasted pork riblets) with salsa verde was amazing. The riblets were so tender that they fell off the bone with just a nudge of my fork, and the green chile salsa added a nice zing to the already well-spiced meat. The juicy and soft carnitas, rubbed with Mexican oregano and chile, tasted like a Mexican version of prime rib, with ribbons of glistening, melty fat intertwined within the chunky meat pieces. The corn tortillas that accompany the carnitas are great eaten solo or as wraps for the carnitas. Add a scoop of the shredded cabbage, mango, and serrano chile salad-- one of four side dishes included with every entree-- and top with the green salsa served with the chips, and you get a tantalizing carnitas taco. As for the other side dishes, although the white beans stewed in tomatoes were a little bland and the cilantro rice was somewhat overboiled, the refried beans with chorizo were creamy and hearty, with terrific strong flavors from the beans and the spicy sausage. This side dish was tasty enough to be served alone.

The restaurant does have a few minor kinks to work out, such as timing and service, which is friendly and enthusiastic but a little unpolished. The appetizers, while worth waiting for, took some time to arrive, whereas the entrees arrived shortly on their heels. Yet even as I was manuevering around the numerous glasses, plates and bowls on the table, I was enjoying the food and drink so much that I was planning what to order on my next visit.

Tres Agaves has found a niche in Mexican cuisine that is upscale in flavor and presentation yet still reasonably priced, and they fill it well.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Silk's: Forgotten Treasure

222 Sansome Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
(415)986-2020
Chef Joel Huff
Lunch weekdays
Dinner 6pm-9pm Tuesday through Saturday

Last tried: July 2007

Silks on Urbanspoon

Previously tried: June 2006

It has been years since I last dined at Silk's, and in the midst of the deluge of new restaurants sprouting up all over the Bay Area, I had basically forgotten about it. When I tried it again recently, based on a friend's recommendation, my meal was so spectacular that I was tempted to remain silent, gag my friend, and keep it hidden as long as possible. Inside the small ornate dining room on the mezzanine of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco, Chef Joel Huff is spinning culinary magic.

To start, I sampled an amuse bouche of two tiny madeleines, one tomato and the other parmesan, the combination of which tasted like a delicate dessert pizza. Huff's technical expertise and whimsical creativity immediately became apparent with the "Egg, bacon & toast" appetizer. The "bacon" consisted of fork-tender slices of suckling pig with crackly, salty skin lining the edge. The "egg" was a tempura-fried quail egg with a golden crispy crust, soft but thoroughly cooked egg white, and a still-runny yolk that broke apart over the bacon and buttery brioche stick ("toast") when my knife slid across the tempura sphere. With a swirl of truffled whipped potatoes and a dash of zinfandel reduction sauce, this dish was the height of decadence. I would happily eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The server paired this dish with the same zinfandel that had been used in the sauce. While it was a safe choice, I would have preferred something a little more daring-- perhaps a full-bodied chardonnay or even a young sauterne.

The bonito tataki, presented with a dollop of persimmon and kabocha pumpkin puree and a side of asian pear slaw, sprinkled with celebratory gold paper bits, demonstrated Huff's keen awareness of Asian sensibilities. The fresh fish had been seared just enough to add texture without losing any of the raw flavor, and the puree added a sweet richness that contrasted nicely with the saltiness of the fish and the ponzu sauce. The refreshing crunch of the asian pear slaw added yet another delightful flavor and texture dimension. The Alsatian Riesling that was paired with this dish played up all of its various elements.

With the next dish, wild boar shabu shabu with oxtail consomme, our server brought over some nigori sake of the ginjo variety in a martini glass. I had not realized until this point how much sake can mimic the sensation of a martini. The sweet unfiltered sake, with just a slight bite, complemented the meaty wild boar and the intense oxtail consomme (and I'm generally not a fan of unfiltered sake). The hot consomme, poured over the thin filets of wild boar under the hood of crispy nori, melted and finished cooking the tender meat. I could not help but be impressed at how cleverly the chef had dressed up what is basically casual bar food in Japan.

Further demonstrating the kitchen's technical proficiency, the lobster and mussels with tom yum noodles in coconut lemongrass broth arrived at the table in a sealed parchment sack. When the server cut open the parchment sack, hints of fish sauce, coconut, and lemongrass floated up in the steam from the hot broth. The lobster and mussels had remained tender in the sack while the noodles were cooked through yet still firm.

Venison katsu and sake cured bass were the last two savory courses. The venison was soft and tender, with no gaminess, and the garlic foam and venison jus provided additional richness. The tonkatsu crust, however, did not survive the trip from the deep fryer to the table. Fortunately, everything else tasted so good that the slight sogginess of the crust was barely detectable. The sauteed cipollini onion and edamame on the side on the tonkatsu, in lieu of the standard shredded cabbage, was another enchanting twist, and the fluffy and sweet kabocha pumpkin souffle was reminiscent of Yorkshire pudding but better. The bass, served with shrimp won tons in a cast iron pot of chicken consomme infused with a spicy green chile pepper, mushrooms, and Chinese broccoli, was both hearty and elegant. If I were the Emperor of Japan or the Queen of England, I would want Chef Huff to make this for me when I'm sick.

The desserts were just as inspired as the rest of the menu. The Quince French Toast, another innovative take on breakfast, consisted of crunchy buttery brioche sticks flavored with quince, accompanied by a candied quince stick and cinnamon ice cream. This dessert also had the most interesting "wine pairing" of the evening-- a glass of Bailey's and Kahlua blended together. The Bailey's and Kahlua highlighted the cinnamon and butter flavors and united the various aspects of this unique dessert.

If you think creme brulee is boring (well, I do but I still enjoyed this rendition), you need to try the lemon creme brulee at Silk's, which is more like a hybrid of lemon cheesecake and creme brulee. While it has the characteristic brittle candy top coat of a creme brulee, the lemony-vanilla custard inside is thick and rich with a moist graham cracker crust on the bottom and garnished with about half a dozen thin crunchy lemon meringue disks, each the size of a dime, on top. To end this spectacular meal, I had a cup of whipped Scharffenberger hot chocolate served with a shot of stout beer. Alternating sips with the hot chocolate, the stout tasted like coffee on some sips and root beer at other sips. This chef is full of surprises.

One small thing to note is that the portions are anything but small. In fact, they are so large that the four-course menu is almost too much food for one person. I could not help but feel that the finesse and innovation that Huff is capable of gets lost in these hotel-functional serving sizes. (Note: as of June 2006, Silk's offers a tasting menu.) Nonetheless, once word gets out about what Joel Huff is up to in this little hidden restaurant, you might spot me standing in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel shooing people away so that I can squeeze into a highly coveted table at Silk's.

Accidental Artichoke Sausage Pasta

Remember when Rachel on Friends accidentally cooked a beef trifle because two pages of her recipe book stuck together? This recipe resulted from a similar but different mishap, except with an edible end. I was trying out a pasta recipe from a newspaper clipping, while only half paying attention to the directions and adding, subtracting, and changing things as I went along, per my usual tendency to muck with recipes (did I mention I am horrible at following or sometimes even reading directions), only to realize that the only things that the final product had in common with the original recipe were pasta (not even the same shape) and canned artichoke hearts.

3 standard size links of Aidell's sausage (any flavor), cut into bite size pieces
1 white onion, cut into bite size pieces
1 can artichoke hearts (save the juice)
1/2 cup of juice from the can of artichoke hearts
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon crushed red peppers (adjust quantity to your desired level of spiciness)
1 16oz. box of Barilla farfalle (bowtie) pasta
salt and pepper to taste
chopped chives or parsley to garnish

Pan fry sausage pieces and set aside. Add olive oil to any remaining sausage fat in the pan. Pan fry onion in olive oil and sausage fat. Return sausages to pan and add chicken stock, artichoke juice, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil then simmer until sauce reduces (about 20 minutes) then add artichoke hearts. Add cooked pasta to mixture of sausage, onion, artichoke hearts, and sauce. Add crushed red peppers. Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with chopped chives or parsley (or not). White wine, red wine, and beer all match fairly well with this fiery pasta dish. Try a syrah if you like red wine, sauvignon blanc if you like white, and either Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada if you prefer beer.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Arterra: Challenging Preconceptions

11966 El Camino Real
San Diego, CA 92130
(858)369-6032
Chef Carl Schroeder and Sous Chef Brian Pekarcik
Lunch weekdays
Dinner daily from 5:30-9:30pm

Arterra on Urbanspoon

Tried: January 2006

Until I encountered Arterra, I was convinced that fine dining and beach towns were mutually exclusive and that most hotel restaurants tend to turn out bland yet expensive fare. Arterra shattered these prejudices, in addition to revitalizing my faded enthusiasm for Bradley Ogden restaurants.

As I entered the San Diego Marriott Del Mar, my expectations were mixed. I knew that Chef Schroeder had gotten considerable local acclaim for his cuisine and that he was a stickler about fresh ingredients, getting all of his produce from local farms, including the famous Chino Farms. Yet the decor of the restaurant was very ... Marriott Hotel, and as we were getting seated, we passed a group of diners who had decided to move to the bar area in order to get the burgers that were not available in the main dining room. Not a good sign. Then as I perused the wine list, I remembered that Bradley Ogden always serves exclusively American wines in his restaurants. Sigh. Why neglect all of the beautiful and interesting wines all over the world? (Not to mention, this always struck me as suggesting that American wines cannot compete against their counterparts in France, Italy, Spain, etc.)

But as the food began descending on the table, whatever anxiety or hesitation I had been feeling up to that point washed away. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the chef's seven-course tasting menu, although required to be ordered by the table as is standard, involved different dishes for each person. The only other restaurants I can recall doing that are French Laundry in Yountville and the Ritz Carlton Dining Room in San Francisco. Arterra also offers a vegetarian tasting menu.

Upon tasting the crab ravioli with meyer lemon essence bathed in cream of celery root soup, garnished with micro cilantro, and the souffle of Point Reyes blue cheese accompanied by a salad of microgreens, thin sekai ichi apple slices, mandarin oranges, and candied walnuts, I found myself quite happily bouncing from one luscious flavor to another, alternating between the elegant richness of the crab and soup, the crunch of the farm fresh salad, and the pleasingly pungent flavors of the fluffy blue cheese souffle. With a glass of Schramsberg sparkling wine, all was right with the world, and I did not even mind that I was still damp from the deluge of rain that greeted us when we arrived in San Diego earlier that afternoon.

The Maine Lobster Tasting, consisting of a crispy lobster cake with panko breading and pernod aioli, and a butter poached lobster salad with a banyuls vinaigrette and an olive-sweet pepper relish, were interesting twists on familiar dishes, using top shelf ingredients. While both variations were delicious, I could not help but feel that the lobster was lost in the midst of such surplus creativity. A glass of 2002 Cotes de Tablas Blanc from Paso Robles, an interesting wine on its own, played up all of the different elements in this lobster duet.

The Asian trio-- tuna tartare with sesame chili aioli and quail egg, soba noodles with matsutake mushroom and vegetable maki, with cucumber, carrots, and lettuce-- was a solid execution that was also visually pleasing. The tandoori spiced scallops and monkfish with cumin-carrot puree and Mediterranean pearl pasta (slightly bigger and chewier than couscous) with curry emulsion added different flavor dimensions to these standard seafood items. The miso glazed mero with a salad of soba noodles, julienned daikon, and cilantro, was familiar but nonetheless tasty. The standout, however, was the Asian taco accompaniment to the mero. A thin rice pancake, similar to what one would get in a Chinese restaurants with mu-shu pork, was wrapped around bay shrimp and shitake mushrooms marinated in a mild hoisin sauce, resulting in something that tasted like a lighter version of Peking duck without missing any of its explosive rich and sweet flavors, just by virtue of how the sauce and the shitake mushrooms had been prepared. Combined with a glass of Riesling from Oregon's Willamette Valley, it was a savory delight.

Next came roasted chicken with potato raisin chutney and cinnamon creme fraiche, accompanied by red mustard greens with a red wine garlic dressing. The chicken was very tender and the surrounding elements added so much flavor that I forgot to gripe about having chicken as part of a chef's tasting menu. The crab stuffed Tasmanian ocean trout with bacon, lemon hollandaise sauce, and red wine balsamic reduction, however, was just too much of everything. I wished that I could taste all of these lovely ingredients separately, as together, they mushed into a heavy heap with only a vague suggestion of seafood flavors hiding underneath.

Before the last series of savory courses, the kitchen sent over a palate cleanser of lemon ginger sorbet with julienned pear and topped with icewine gelee. The fresh, tangy, and sweet elements of this intermezzo came together so elegantly that I would have been happy to have it as dessert and finish the meal on that note.

Except then, I would have missed the best part of the tasting menu. The pancetta wrapped lamb shank with roasted brussel sprouts and forest mushroom strudel was the apex of the meal. The lamb was prepared exactly medium rare, with juices dripping down the meat with every knife slice, and had none of the gaminess that usually turns me away from lamb while still retaining the earthy aroma that pairs so well with Rhone wines. Next to that lamb, even the delectable Kobe New York steak paled. (The Kobe steak was everything one would expect from Kobe beef-- juicy, flavorful, meaty, and delightful. The braised short rib on the side was a tender and tasty bonus.)

To close, we had a cheese plate, followed by dessert: molten chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream on the side topped by a crispy praline; and a brulee of tapioca pudding with pear and huckleberries.

A side note: I almost never take up the offer of bottled water, as I generally find it to be an unnecessary expense. But the water in San Diego tastes pretty metallic. I recommend splurging on bottled water. Speaking of beverages, Arterra's wine list includes bottles priced anywhere from $30 to over $300, and a large selection of wines by the glass ranging from about $7 to $15.

While a bit rough in some spots, it seemed a shame that so few diners seemed interested in trying what Arterra has to offer, and I wondered what motivated the kitchen to keep innovating and producing. On the other hand, not long after 9pm on a Saturday night, the staff was already breaking down their set up and cleaning up for the night. If you can create this kind of food and still have a life outside the restaurant on Saturday night, I can see the attraction for a kitchen crew with this much potential.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Yuzu: Work in Progress

3347 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415)775-1873
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Tried: January 2006

Yuzu, a new Japanese restaurant that opened in the space formerly occupied by Chaz in the Marina district of San Francisco, is highly ambitious. The restaurant clearly invested a considerable sum in remodeling the space and in creating a large menu with a substantial variety of cooked and raw appetizers, a number of both traditional Japanese dishes and less traditional fusion dishes, and an array of desserts, in addition to a sushi bar and a sake bar. The look of the restaurant is sleek and modern, vaguely reminiscent of Nobu in Manhattan (minus the tacky leopard print) with its taupe, beige, and black toned walls and bare tables. The low lighting contributes to the sophisticated atmosphere, although it does make menu reading a bit of a challenge.

Not surprisingly with such an elaborate and large scale menu, there were some hits and misses. Where Yuzu excels is with the fried items, which is often the most difficult thing to master for most restaurants. The agedashi tofu was soft with a thin layer of light golden crispy batter coating the cubes of soft tofu. The unagi (eel) tempura was delicately fried with a nice balance of saltiness and sweetness from the eel, the tempura batter, and the light teriyaki seasoning. Presented in a fried spinach wonton shell on top of wasabi mashed potatoes, the fried unagi was also visually appealing, with bonus points for such edible garnishes that actually tasted good. The crunchy wonton shell and the combination of pungent wasabi with creamy mashed potatoes provided the perfect background to showcase the unagi. The assorted tempura, consisting of several shrimp, onion rings, carrots, and an onion flower, were likewise fried to a light golden color, with absolutely no greasiness.

Among the sushi and sashimi offerings, we tried uni (sea urchin roe), otoro (fatty tuna), maguro (tuna), hirame (halibut), hamachi (yellowtail), tamago (sweet egg omelette), and sake (salmon). We were somewhat disappointed that the chef's selection sashimi platter and the chef's selection sushi platter contained virtually identical fish offerings, with the only difference being rice, of course, and on some of the sushi, a garnish of scallions or shreds of bonito or nori (dried seaweed) on top of the fish. The tamago was too sweet, a common affliction for most sushi places, but what surprised me was that soy sauce had been drizzled across the top, which is particularly odd since Tamago is not supposed to be eaten with soy sauce at all. Being a sushi purist, I was also not crazy about the toppings on the sushi, particularly the otoro, which I would have preferred to taste without other flavorings getting in the way. It seemed that there has not yet been enough traffic to the restaurant for the fish to rotate on a frequent basis, as most of the sushi and sashimi were not as fresh as they could have been. In addition, all of the fish pieces were also slightly too large and unwieldy, another sushi faux-pas. The otoro, however, was quite fresh (our server informed us that it was Bluefin from Spain) and had that characteristic melt-in-your-mouth texture that did not disappoint.

From the non-sushi bar items, our table unanimously selected the Kurobuta pork tonkatsu as the best dish, which again highlighted the kitchen's frying expertise. The pork was juicy and tender while the crisp panko crust provided a pleasant contrast in texture and another savory layer of flavor. The beef tataki was slightly too garlicky and the meat a little tough, but the sauce accompanying the tataki was nicely tart and salty. The only dish that did not come together at all was the butter poached shrimp, as the shrimp had been overcooked and the accompanying shitake mushrooms a bit too vinegary. The sliced duck breast was plain but well prepared, with a hoisin-based sauce that brought out the duck's flavor.

Yuzu came back strong with its desserts. The sour apple sorbet was sweet and tart, with a richness imparted by a sweet syrup drizzled on top. The yuzu pound cake was moist and rich, with the lemony yuzu adding a delightfully tart dimension. Last but not least, the lemongrass creme brulee was a deliciously novel Asian twist to the familiar dessert.

Yuzu also has an interesting array of Japanese microbrew beers, a variety of sakes in different grades-- including a sake flight and a number of sake cocktails-- and a short but appropriately matched and well-priced list of wines, most of which are available by the glass. The most interesting was the sparkling sake, called "Tokimeki de blanc," from Harushika, which really tasted like a cross between champagne and sake. Despite how it may sound, it was quite refreshing and delicious, with the tart fizz matching the candied ginger garnish that accompanied the creme brulee. Definitely not to be missed are the Kiuchi microbrews. If you think Japanese beer tends to be flavorless, these will change your mind.

Once they get their bearings, Yuzu has the potential to be a contender in the Marina district restaurant and bar scene. It should be interesting to see how they develop.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Universal Cafe: Universal Appeal

2814 19th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415)821-4608
Chef Leslie Carr Avalos
Lunch Fridays only
Brunch on weekends
Closed Monday

Tried: January 2006

Universal Cafe is one of those marvelous neighborhood dining spots that are as characteristically San Francisco as Coit Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge. The food is unassuming yet casually sophisticated, and comforting yet distinctive. The atmosphere of the small, narrow dining room with open kitchen imparts a similar careless chic, like an artist's loft, with a long mirror on one end of the room creating the illusion of a larger space and an inexpensive yet thoughtful selection of wines by the glass scrawled on the chalkboard by the entrance.

All of the dishes are simply prepared using quality ingredients, and the result is a highly satisfying meal, with a minimal hit to the credit card. The freshly pureed pumpkin and spices shine in the generous bowl of Cinderella pumpkin soup, which has just the right amount of sweet creaminess without veering into excess. The chicken liver crostini appetizer is likewise the product of great ingredients that are well prepared. At Universal Cafe's prices, this may qualify as poor man's foie gras but tasted good enough to be the rich man's version. The crostini were grilled to perfection, and the chicken liver had been mixed with just enough chopped hard-boiled egg and spices to create a luxurious pate. The cornichons and pickled carrots and onions accompanying the crostini were the exact right accompaniment to the dish.

The Niman Ranch flatiron steak and frites with red wine sauce was hearty and satisfying. Although the fries were slightly overdone, the steak was prepared perfectly medium rare and was so tender and flavorful that it almost did not need the red wine sauce. The milk-braised pork shoulder ciabatta sandwich with spicy rapini, however, wins as the best entree. The soft and well-seasoned pulled pork and the pungent rapini combined with the fresh and chewy ciabatta bread was a taste and texture delight. The short but well-priced list of wines by the glass (5 reds and 5 whites) also allowed us to try different varietals from Italy, Argentina, and Spain with our meal.

While Universal Cafe is not a "destination" restaurant, it is one of those places where anyone would be content to enjoy an inexpensive and gratifying meal and part of what makes San Francisco a great place to live and eat.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ame: Sweet Rainy Soul

689 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415)284-4040
Chef Greg Dunmore (formerly sous chef of Terra)
Lunch and Dinner daily

Last tried: September 2007

Ame has found a consistent path of excellence. Most memorable on my last visit (in addition to Lissa's staff meal, which I always have to have-- salad of raw scored squid with quail egg topped with salmon roe and freshly grated wasabi) was a modern riff on vitello tonnato, using perfectly grilled kurobuta pork tenderloin, instead of veal, with a creamy tuna-caper mayonnaise, accompanied by a baby arugula salad. Elegant and satisfying. Crispy, sweet fig tempura for dessert. Ame and Terra seem to be neck and neck.

Last tried: January 2006

When I first started baking, the direction that I had most difficulty following was the last one-- the one that told me to wait before eating, for the baked item to cool, to set, to be ready. I have the same difficulty waiting to try new restaurants, no matter how many times I have heard that restaurants are working out kinks in the first couple of months of opening and not at their best in that inaugural period. Given that Terra, the flagship restaurant of superchef couple Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani (from the original Spago West Hollywood) in St. Helena, has been one of my favorite restaurants for years, I had the patience of a five year old waiting for sunrise on Christmas morning when I heard that they were opening a restaurant in San Francisco called Ame ("soul" in French; homonym for "candy" or "sweets" and "rain" in Japanese but different kanji), and rushed in with a reservation as early as I could within the first couple of weeks of its opening.

Whereas Terra is housed in an old stone cottage in the Napa Valley, Ame is in the brand new St. Regis Hotel, whose decor is so sleek and modern that it makes the Clift Hotel look dowdy and dated. During my first visit to Ame, the service was solicitous but not quite polished, and while the food was certainly creative, it was not as well executed as the fare at Terra. Not even the shaved white truffle supplement I decided to splurge on changed my somewhat deflated impression of the overall dining experience. Nonetheless I resolved to go back at least one more time before making up my mind about how I felt about the new restaurant. Based on my recent second visit to Ame, I realized I should have let the cookies cool before diving in.

The sashimi offerings were as fresh and interesting as on my first visit. Although they did not have any toro this last time (a good sign that they will only serve it when they can get the good stuff that's creamy and melty, instead of the stringy, chewy kind I've had at some sushi places, which tastes like undercooked cheap fatty beef), I almost did not miss it after tasting the sparkling Japanese sea bream sashimi with angel hair strands of raw daikon, offered on top of several generous discs of pinkish golden monkfish liver and ponzu sauce.

The "tuna five" is a visually arresting dish of five variations of the familiar fish in usual and unusual forms. The jewel-red maguro slice with a pearl of freshly grated, bright green wasabi tasted as good as it looked. The razor thin slice of bottarga (salted, pressed, and dried tune roe) was very cleverly paired with a mini-roll of tamago, the Japanese sweet egg omelette, each bringing out the flavors of the other while playing on the "egg" concept. The tartare and tataki were less exciting but quite respectable. The only offering that did not work for me was the mojama (white tuna fillet cured in sea salt) with garbanzo beans, which was the only fish there that tasted "fishy."

The mi cuit smoked Tasmanian ocean trout with salmon roe and Japanese cucumber salad (thin, small cucumber slices marinated in vinegar and sugar), sprinkled with bits of hijiki seaweed and lightly drizzled with creme fraiche, was also quite lovely. I only wished that the trout had not been smoked, as the smokiness overwhelmed both the sashimi and the dish as a whole. We also had the kampachi crudo in olive oil with meyer lemon zest and sea salt. Like the rest of the sashimi, the kampachi was fresh and soft (similar to but slightly firmer than hamachi, also known as yellowtail), but the olive oil overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the fish.

The gracious and soft-spoken Anani Lawson, Ame's wine director, brought out three different wine pairings for the sashimi dishes: a glass of Kikisui Junmai Daiginjo sake; a 2004 Sancerre, Georges Roblin, Chateau de Maimbray; and a 2004 Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, Loimer Langenlois. I think he intended the Sancerre to match the salmon-like flavors of the Tasmanian ocean trout and the Gruner to balance the olive oil while still matching the creaminess of the kampachi crudo. While both white wines were beautiful in their own right with perfect acid, fruit, and minerality, they were not quite the right match for any of the sashimi dishes. The sake, on the other hand, paired perfectly with all of them. In particular, the faint coconut scent in the nose of the sake highlighted the both the clean flavors of the sea bream and the rich foie gras-ish taste of the monkfish liver, without fighting the sweet acidity of the ponzu sauce. It also worked well with the cucumber salad and cut the smokiness of the trout.

For the next round, we had a series of appetizers: (1) fricasee of Miyagi oysters with leeks and forest mushrooms in a beurre blanc sauce, (2) chowan mushi with Maine lobster and sea urchin, and (3) burrata cheese on grilled bread with tiny braised artichokes, surrounded by pieces of pleasantly bitter and crunchy lettuce that was red and white in color and endive-like in taste. For these, Anani brought out a glass of 2002 Teawa Farms Chardonnay from New Zealand and a 2001 Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley (Samur Champigny, Domaine de Nerleux). He and our enthusiastic young server expertly coordinated the timing and delivery of the various courses with the selected wines. The nutty chardonnay was a perfect match for the sweet and briny oysters and balanced out the richness and saltiness of the beurre blanc sauce. This time, the Japanese egg custard, "chowan mushi," (which had been sadly overcooked on my first visit) had the right texture-- precisely the not-quite-fully-formed panna cotta consistency, like soft tofu-- with the ocean flavors of lobster and sea urchin coming through. The chowan mushi was in a bowl, rather than a cup, and was not as scalding hot as traditional chowan mushi is supposed to be, but it was nonetheless enjoyable and also paired well with the chardonnay. The only wine pairing that did not work as brilliantly was the Cabernet Franc with the burrata. The wine itself was zesty and fruity with the peppery spike characteristic of a Cab Franc, but the silken cream of the burrata was lost when paired with the wine (however, with the grilled bread and artichokes, the wine was lyrical).

A little more on the burrata: I was skeptical about trying burrata in a Franco-Japanese restaurant, but have no fear. It tasted like marscapone whipped with creme fraiche, with the consistency of a perfectly poached egg white. My dinner companion, a professional food writer who happens to be Sicilian to boot, verified what my tastebuds were telling me-- the burrata at Ame is sensational.

From the entrees, we ordered the red wine braised Wagyu beef cheeks and sweetbread cutlet with cauliflower puree and cabernet sauvignon sauce, matelote of eel and grilled Sonoma foie gras on Matsutake mushroom risotto, and of course, the broiled sake marinated black cod and shrimp dumpling in shiso broth-- a dish so popular at Terra that Lissa Doumani joked that it could have its own restaurant. With the cod, we had a glass of 2000 Chasselas, Luc Massy, St. Saphorin Sous-les-Rocs, from Switzerland, which also matched well with the sweet shiso broth and the shrimp dumpling.

The matelote of eel and foie gras is not a stew or chowder, despite its name. Instead, it is a square section of eel that was probably marinated in the Japanese mother sauce of soy sauce, sake, and mirin (sweet rice wine) and grilled with chunks of foie gras and generous slices of Matsutake mushroom on top. Combined with Matsutake mushroom risotto and what appeared to be a port reduction sauce, this is a complex, opulent dish, where even the slightest misstep could throw off the delicate balance of flavors. (When I had tried it previously, the fish was not as fresh as on this visit. While less than optimally fresh eel can be masked with more liberal use of soy, that caused the flavors to clash with the foie gras and killed the subtle flavor of the Matsutake mushrooms.) Unlike my last visit where the risotto was overcooked and so overladen with cheese that it clashed with every element of the dish, this time, the kitchen got it just right-- the risotto was rich and creamy with just a hint of texture, that set off the eel and foie gras like navy velvet for diamonds. Anani's wine pairing for this dish was a safe choice but still could have backfired with everything going on in the dish. His selection, a 2002 red Burgundy, Chassagne Montrachet "Les Pierres" by Marc Colin, worked beautifully.

As for the red wine braised Wagyu beef and sweetbread cutlet with cauliflower puree and cabernet sauvignon sauce, the sweetbread is the understudy that outshines the lead. Those who like sweetbread will love it, and even those who do not care for sweetbread will enjoy this incarnation. The panko-encrusted sweetbread is deep fried golden brown, and the sweetness of the panko matches the sweetbread as though sweetbread were born to be made into a Japanese tonkatsu. It is delectable both on its own and with the cabernet sauvignon sauce. I was less excited, however, by the Wagyu beef cheek. While the meat is fork tender and well seasoned, it is not particularly distinctive in any way. Is it Wagyu, some other type of beef cheek, chuck, flank? It did not seem to matter in this preparation. Both the beef and the sweetbread did match quite well with Anani's wine pairing-- a 2003 Merlot from Greece, Boutari Xinomavro. The spicy, leathery, cherry fruit of the wine was delightful both alone and together with the dish.

Finally, dessert. The churros, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, were good but not much different from the street vendor variety. The hot chocolate that came with the churros was more interesting, with a spike of cayenne that was almost imperceptible except to add a punch to the chocolate. The warm molten chocolate cake-- the tuna tartare of desserts-- was more like an undercooked brownie, but the sugar beet ice cream that came with it was pungent, sweet, and unique. I would have that over a tired sorbet any day. Lastly, the frozen yogurt souffle with mango sauce and black sesame florentine-- my favorite part was the florentine that had the perfect combination of salti-sweetness that is quite in vogue these days. The "souffle" is more like a frozen panna cotta. The flavor was good but the icy texture was kind of strange, like ice cream with freezer burn. For dessert wines, Anani brought out an Australian Muscat, a 15-year-old Madeira, and a 2001 Dulce Monastrell, Bodegas Olivares, from Jumilla, Spain. It was an extragavant conclusion to an overall remarkable meal, with our energetic server watching over us until the end when we finally cleared out, after having monopolized his attention for hours.

Still, my personal preference leans in favor of my first love, Terra. After this last visit, however, I am genuinely looking forward to seeing what Chef Dunmore will accomplish at Ame, flying solo, as I expect that he would be adding even more of his individual touches and making the menu truly his own. At the very least, I do like that the next time I crave the unique Euro-Japanese nuanced flavors of Terra, I can experience it right here in the City, in the sweet rainy soul inside the glossy grey marble and gleaming dark wood of the stunningly chic St. Regis Hotel.

Faux California Rolls

avocado
dried seaweed sheet
cooked white rice
soy sauce

Once upon a time when I did not like sushi (now I cannot imagine how that was ever possible but back then even the thought of eating uncooked fish made me ... not so happy), my saving grace was California rolls during those times when I had no choice but to join colleagues, clients, or friends at a Japanese restaurant. I still like California rolls now even though I would not dare order them at any genuine sushi place (please, no real sushi place has dragon or whatever rolls on the menu and if you want the really truly fresh fish, don't order California rolls or you will get the gaijin treatment).

To make California rolls at home, you can cook and shell fresh crab, make sushi rice by mixing vinegar into the hot rice while fanning the rice, get a maki sushi mat, and ... who can bother with all this?

You do need a ripe avocado, rice, and nori (dried seaweed sheets). Because I don't like the smell or texture of fake crab sticks, I skip the crab entirely since between the soy sauce and the avocado, the crab is not the primary flavor anyway. I also prefer the Korean version of the dried seaweed sheets (called "Gim," with a hard "g") which are made with a little sesame oil and salt. Korean grocery stores carry them in 8x11 envelopes. Cut them in half with clean, dry kitchen scissors then cut the halves into half and then the quarters into halves, and you will get seaweed slices large enough for single bite rolls. (Save the little package of dessicant that comes in the original package of dried seaweed and you can save the cut-up pieces in tupperware for later consumption. Store tupperware container in freezer.) Gim is roasted dried seaweed, so it's a little crumbly. If you want to try to make the long roll, using a maki sushi mat, and cut into circular maki, use Japanese Nori (but that would be basically reverting back to close to the original method and kind of defeats the ease of this "recipe").

Cut the avocado in quarters. Peel and slice each avocado quarter into bite size slices. Take a piece of cut dried seaweed sheet, dab into soy sauce, add a forkful of cooked white rice, a slice of avocado, roll up like a mini taco, and eat. It's a bit messy but fast and easy and will definitely satisfy your California Roll craving-- even without the crab.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Bacar: Flight of Fancy Wine

448 Brannan Street
San Francisco, CA
(415)904-4100
Chef Arnold Eric Wong (also EOS)
Lunch Fridays only
Dinner nightly

UPDATE: Paul Einbund is now working with Daniel Patterson at Coi.

Last tried: January 2006

In the way that the perfect pair of shoes can make an outfit, a well-matched wine pairing can elevate a meal to new heights. Paul Einbund, who used to flex his wine prowess at Tartare before it closed, is now unleashing his Bacchus touch at Bacar.

The spacious dual-level restaurant looks like a South of Market nightclub (it does have a full bar, including a side stage area for a band that plays on weekends), except with white-tableclothed tables and an open kitchen instead of a dance floor. With two stories of wine stored in the center of the restaurant along the side of the staircase behind thick opaque bubbled glass, as though they were in suspended animation inside an ice block, Bacar is serious about wine but never pretentious. As I waited for my dinner companion to arrive, I enjoyed a glass of Egly-Ouriet champagne ($17) while ogling the wines and listening to the band. Bacar offers six different sparklers by the glass, including Dom Perignon, as well as an option to taste a flight of four, 2 oz. each, for $43.

Since Bacar serves dinner at the bar, the younger generation and the young at heart (as well as anyone on a bad date) can continue to enjoy the band at full volume during dinner. As fun as the band was, I was relieved to be seated upstairs for dinner where it was a little quieter.

As on my two previous visits, the food at Bacar was reliably solid, even if not necessarily the most exciting or the most innovative. With a wave of his wine wand, Paul Einbund made every dish come to life.

To start, we tried the chef's charcuterie plate ($13), consisting of generous slices of salty salami and almost transparently thin slices of prosciutto and serrano ham, presented on a wooden cutting board with a couple slices of grilled bread and a dollop of dijon mustard. We also had the pan-seared scallops on a bed of cauliflower puree and parsley oil, decorated with paper thin chips of fried garlic ($17). With the charcuterie plate, Paul presented a full-bodied chardonnay that stood up to the fat of the cured meats and yet counterbalanced their saltiness with round fruit. The scallop appetizer was well executed, even though the scallops were a little tired and dry. Yet with a glass of Huet Vouvray Sec 2004 ($13.75) paired with it, I felt like I was tasting seared scallops for the first time. The Vouvray had such a refreshing and well-balanced combination of tart and sweet citrus fruit, minerals, herbs, and chiseled acidity that it transformed the scallops from a Gap T-shirt into an Oscar outfit. Like most of the extensive list of wines by the glass at Bacar, the Vouvray is also available in a 2 oz pour, 250 ml, 500 ml, or as part of a wine flight.

For our entrees, we had the Mesquite grilled kurobuta pork chop, which had been brined, with mashed yams and apple compote ($27) and the Muscovy duck leg confit with grilled escarole and a white bean and potato hash, decorated with pomegranate seeds ($31). The brining and the mesquite grilling made the pork chop taste like a smoky ham. (If you are expecting a standard pork chop, I recommend that you select something else.) Together with the syrah that Paul had paired with it, it tasted like Christmas.

The saltiness of the tender and savory duck confit with crispy crunchy skin was nicely offset by the soft and starchy white beans and potatoes. The pungent, bright pink-red pomegranate seeds sprinkled around the plate brought out the sweetness of the duck meat as well as heightening the visual appeal of the dish. When Paul added a glass of the 2003 Puligny-Montrachet ($10.50) to this already lovely dish, all of the flavors and aromas of the food and wine swirled together in perfect harmony.

As the portions at Bacar are quite ample, we were all very full by this point but managed to squeeze in dessert and of course, dessert wine to match. Upon tasting the vanilla bean brown butter financier with caramel baked quince, topped with buttered almond gelato ($9), I was quite happy that I managed to power through dessert. The financier was delicately sweet and moist, with crusty scalloped edges where the sweetness was more concentrated like the top of a perfectly baked muffin. I had a glass of 2003 Mosel Riesling, and my dinner guest had a glass of 2004 Italian Moscato. These fragrant wines, although quite different from one another, both brought out the sweet elements of the dessert, without overpowering any of the delicate nutty flavors.

The food at Bacar is satisfying and generally well prepared. But with the wine pairing, it is spectacular.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Luella: Charming Russian Hill Spot

1896 Hyde Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415)674-4343
Chef Ben de Vries (formerly Andalu, LuLu) and Sous Chef Chris Wong
Dinner nightly

Luella on Urbanspoon

Last tried: July 2006

The decor is a bit of Austin Powers permeated with Elizabeth Hurley chic. The night I visited, the elegantly appointed bar area in the front of the restaurant was getting as much action as any of the wine bars that have been popping up lately all over San Francisco, and Luella's wine list easily stands up to the best of them. Although the list is only two pages long, it offers nice variety, including by the glass and in half bottles, with selections from France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, California, and Oregon. Best of all, like the menu, the wines are quite reasonably priced (most bottles in the $30-$40 range).

After settling into our table with glasses of crisp and fragrant white wine (2004 Hubert Brochard Sancerre at $11 and 2003 Villa del Borgo, Friuli, Pinot Grigio at $8), we ordered a series of appetizers. The kitchen sent them out in well-timed courses, with our server providing fresh plates and silverware with each course as though we were doing a formal tasting menu. The service, while casual and friendly in keeping with the atmosphere, was also as professional and attentive as one would find in any of the more formal (and more expensive) restaurants in the City.

The almond-potato leek soup was creamy and elegant. The baby spinach salad with chopped hard-boiled egg, homemade croutons, and bacon vinaigrette was solid, if a bit prosaic. I was somewhat disappointed with the bone marrow bruschetta, as all I could taste was the balsamic vinegar. Also, instead of the gelatiny, rich veal taste of marrow, I smelled and tasted something that reminded me of packaged "parmesan" cheese (despite the server informing me that there was no cheese on the bruschetta). The miniature ahi tuna tartare tacos, however, were as good as I remembered from Chef de Vries' days at Andalu.

The star dish of the evening was the crispy sweetbreads served on top of frisee lettuce and crunchy jicama matchsticks, punctuated with sweet and tart pomegranate seeds and drizzled with mint vinaigrette. The sweetbreads were cooked perfectly, crisp outside and tender inside, and presented in single forkful sizes, with the other elements complementing, instead of overwhelming, their flavor. The texture and zing of the pomegranate seeds were a particularly pleasant accent.

The one entree we sampled, the veal and porcini Bolognese with fettucine, was also excellent. The homemade fettucine had just the right amount of chewiness, and the Bolognese was comfortingly hearty and rich, yet the refined flavors of veal and porcini mushroom came through.

As an end to our lovely meal, we had the ricotta fritters with orange honey sauce, which is apparently a house specialty. The donut hole size fritters and the shiny candy-like sauce were deliciously decadent without being overly sweet (I only wished that the outside of the fritters were crunchy; ours were a little soggy, probably from the sauce being poured over them too quickly after being fried).

The cuisine at Luella is similar to the better known Coco500. I look forward to going back to try more of Luella's understated yet impressive food.

Ambivalent About Momofuku

First, am I the only person who thinks "Momofuku" does not mean Lucky Peach or refer to the name of some obscure ramen person from...