Sunday, March 26, 2006

Putting on the Ritz

600 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Chef Ron Siegel (formerly Masa's)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton on Urbanspoon

Update: May 2007
On a return visit, service was flawless and well-coordinated, even with a large dining party with special requests. With Siegel's always-sublime cuisine and Stephane LaCroix's personal attention to wine-pairing, this last visit was close to perfection.

Last tried: March 2006
I have been a fan of Chef Ron Siegel since his days at the now defunct Charles Nob Hill, and he seems to be getting better and better all the time. As the Ritz Carlton Dining Room is always crowded, I am hardly in the minority in that opinion. The Dining Room is so packed that the service does not seem to be able to keep up with the level and pace of the kitchen. At times, it seemed our server did not feel he even needed to try to keep up, given that people were clamoring to dine there anyway.

The service issue was apparent from the moment we were seated. After a haughty inquiry dripping with sarcasm, "Is this table acceptable?" (I had asked to be moved as the first table was directly underneath the air conditioning vents; I noticed that the party subsequently seated at our rejected table asked for their overcoats back from the hostess and kept them on during their entire meal), our server proceeded to ignore us for over ten minutes before asking whether we would like to order a pre-dinner drink. He then ignored us for another fifteen minutes before bringing over the menus.

All that was needed to alleviate this problem was a quick and simple "Sorry we will get to you as soon as we can; we are very busy tonight," but instead we were left just sitting and waiting as our server walked past our table repeatedly, avoiding eye contact. By the time he finally decided to take our order, we had drained our drinks and the remaining ice had melted. To cap it off, when one member of our party requested no cheese for the tasting menu, the server raised an eyebrow and jeeringly asked, "What about cheesecake?" I doubt he was trying to determine whether the request was based on a dietary restriction since cheesecake was not part of any menu option. Rather, he seemed merely to be poking at the fact that cheese and cheesecake were both dairy products, even though no one had stated that the request was due to any allergy. Whatever his underlying motivation, the approach and attitude were bothersome.

As the delectable amuses began to arrive, my building annoyance with the service momentarily subsided. The chilled asparagus soup, sprinkled with dried, powdered candycat mushrooms, was delicate and refreshing, with the mild curry and maple flavors of the powdered mushrooms highlighting the sweetness of the fresh pureed asparagus. Even better was the glistening slice of raw kampachi, decorated with a dark maroon miniature square of ponzu gelee and julienned red-white tiger stripe patterned watermelon radish matchsticks, creating an incredible mouthful of creamy, sweet, and tart flavors. The sea urchin panna cotta topped with a morsel of tempura-fried lobster and drizzled with vanilla bean olive oil was the only amuse that was not quite as spectacular. While I loved the concept of these intriguing flavor combinations, the vanilla bean olive oil was so strong that I could not smell or taste anything but vanilla, and the slick oil fought with the delicate texture of the panna cotta custard. The rich and crispy perfection of the last amuse, deep fried oxtail and chanterelle mushroom ravioli, was disrupted only by the fact that it arrived while we were still enjoying the previous amuse. Having kept us waiting for such an inordinately long time in the beginning, the dishes were now lapping one another.

Timing continued to be an issue as the different courses of the tasting menu were served. The wine service was not coordinated with the delivery of the courses such that they often arrived on top of each other, resulting in either the wine not being identified before pouring or the contents of the dish not being explained before the server rushed off. On more than one occasion, dishes were unceremoniously dumped off with no description of any kind provided. Fortunately, the server's assistant who cleared the plates and replaced the flatware between courses was quite knowledgeable and answered questions from the table when this occurred. (I was, however, quite happy to see used napkins being replaced with fresh ones when diners left the table to use the restroom, instead of getting soiled napkins refolded.)

Siegel's creations are so sublime that my awareness of the service discrepancies dissipated as I got lost in the flavors of each course. The chilled salsify veloute enveloping a single fresh oyster and topped with a scoop of salty, briny osetra caviar was a perfect symphony of creamy and subtle tastes. The white asparagus soup was just as delightful, although the chewiness of the somewhat fishy-tasting icefish pieces at the bottom was a little disquieting. The 1999 Engelgarten, a white wine blend from Alsace by Marcel Deiss, might have been great with these dishes if it were not slightly oxidized. On the other hand, the 2003 Hirtzberger Gruner Veltliner, served with the raw seafood course that followed, was pure enchantment. The crisp fruit balanced by mineral and stone was an ideal match for both the meltingly thin, translucent slices of spiny lobster carpaccio, dressed with tiny sweet orange segments and a tangle of seaweed salad, and the pink-red bluefin tuna sashimi topped with deep-fried shreds of yuba and a tiny but pungent cube of clear shiso gelee.

The next courses were cooked seafood. The soft, white poached turbot accompanied by a single braised baby carrot and a strand of perfectly cooked, bright green asparagus in a champagne reduction, accented with a few grey-gold pearls of caviar, was a remarkably harmonious combination of textures and flavors. The tender piece of snapper with salty, crackly skin was also very well executed. The coconut milk and kaffir lime sauce that was spooned on top was perfect for both the fish and the underlying crab ravioli whose pasta wrapper was pleasingly al dente and the dungeness crabmeat inside succulent and vibrantly fresh. Although I was less enamored of the somewhat flavorless artichoke heart and stringy braised leek accompanying the ravioli, the overall combination of tastes and dual-level presentation (fish on top plate; ravioli/artichoke/leek on bottom plate) were quite impressive. The round fruit and oakiness of the 2003 Chassagne-Montrachet by Michel Colin-Deleger made it a great choice for both fish dishes, matching with their divergent sauces and flavor combinations.

Although still delicious, I found it interesting that the lobster courses were not as well articulated as the rest of the tasting menu, especially given that Siegel and lobster are an infamous combination due to his victory on the Iron Chef television program a number of years ago. The first version was topped with a piece of pork belly and drizzled with a teriyaki-type sauce, and the second was on a bed of braised swiss chard with a vanilla-celery root sauce, accompanied by a caramelized piece of salsify. The 2001 Macon-Village by Jean Thevenet that Sommelier Stephane Lacroix paired with the lobster dishes worked well with these different elements, but the lobster was lost under all of these dominant flavors. Even more surprising, the lobster was a little tough and chewy.

The next course, variations of foie gras, was faultless. The seared foie gras, served with spicy pickled huckleberries in an apple juice/black pepper sauce, hit all of the right notes, particularly with the 1998 Auslese Riesling by Dorsheimer Pittermannchen that was paired with it. The creamy, pink terrine of chilled foie gras, presented with a dollop of magenta rhubarb jam, a stack of cubes of pinot gris gelee, and a cilantro microgreen salad with sweet, crunchy candied pecan pieces, was as tasty as it was pretty. The terrine was so well done, however, that you almost did not need any of the accompaniments to enjoy it, except maybe the grilled bread and of course the matching glass of 2000 Kiralyudvar Tokaji (Puttanyos 5).

The last two savory courses escalated from poultry to red meat. The poultry course consisted of crispy chicken with artichoke in a port reduction, and quail with chanterelle mushrooms and braised kale. The quail drumsticks were extremely tender, with the fragrant mushrooms further elevating the flavors of the dish. The chicken, while well prepared, was not as exciting, and I wished that the braised artichoke were sweeter. It also did not help that the 2001 Vosne-Romanee by Confuron-Cotetidot that was paired with this course was again oxidized.

The red meat course included beef tenderloin with gnocchi and asparagus in a Bordelaise sauce, and rare lamb loin topped with a piece of deep-fried sweetbread on a bed of mushroom risotto in a thyme jus. At this point in the tasting menu, I surmised that the chef must have retired for the evening as the gnocchi were dry on the outside and slightly mushy inside. As I continued eating, I found a piece of string left on the beef tenderloin. Although the beautifully cooked lamb loin was among the best lamb preparations I have tasted, the risotto had been overcooked and the fried sweetbread was somewhat soggy. To top it off, our server attempted to characterize the 2002 York Creek Cabernet that was paired with this course as a wine from "New York," when we reminded him of our preference to steer clear of California wines. Did he seriously think that would work? As expected, the cabernet was too alcoholic and extracted to work well with the food, and simply drowned out all flavors.

Following a refreshing palate cleanser of lychee sorbet with cubes of fresh mango and sweet beet sorbet with tangerine segments, we concluded the meal with cardamom panna cotta in pineapple soup, and chocolate caramel cake with milk chocolate ice cream. The sprinkling of maldon salt on the cake not only intensified the sweetness of the dessert, but its finely crushed crystalline texture mimicked the caramelized crunchy top layer of a well-made creme brulee.

While the service was lackluster on this visit, when I think about the Ritz Carlton Dining Room, what stands out in my mind are the precisely calculated tastes and original flavor combinations of Siegel's tasting menu. I cannot help being drawn back to try more and can only hope that service would eventually catch up.

In the Mood for Fish & Chips

932 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
Monday through Saturday 11am to 11pm
Sunday 1pm to 11pm
Cash only

Old Chelsea on Urbanspoon

Last tried: March 2006

Update: Piccadilly Fish & Chips on Polk Street has reopened after remodeling.

Piccadilly Fish & Chips on Urbanspoon

My favorite hole in the wall fish & chips joint, Piccadilly Fish & Chips, recently closed due to a fire. Fortunately I discovered that its sister restaurant, Old Chelsea, although smaller and in an even sketchier neighborhood, serves almost the same satisfyingly flaky white fish and thick-cut fries, both wrapped in newspaper. Although the two grandmotherly ladies who made the fish & chips at Piccadilly did them a little better, the batter coating on the fish is similarly crispy and golden brown, and the inside of the hot fries are fluffy when you bite through the crispy outside (unwrap them as soon as you get them home, otherwise they will steam from the heat and get soggy). For best results, buy some malt vinegar to sprinkle when you are ready to eat, as opposed to having them put the vinegar on the fish & chips before wrapping. Definitely do not forget to get a couple of containers of their homemade tartar sauce.

Note that Old Chelsea is strictly a take-out place. While there are a couple of worn out formica tables and vinyl chairs next to the counter, you probably would not want to sit and eat there, even if you could ignore the odd mix of people wandering in and out talking to themselves. But for really good, satisfyingly greasy-- in a good way-- fish & chips, this is the place.

Take home a large order of fish & chips, less than $15 for five generously large pieces of fish plus a giant sack of fries, pop open a bottle of your favorite beer, and indulge. It's perfect for lunch or dinner when you're not in the mood to cook, especially after an all nighter at work with nothing to eat except vending machine candy...

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Searching for a Real Deli in California

3200 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Daily 11am to 8pm

California Street Delicatessen & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Last tried: July 2006

The thick juicy corned beef I loved is now gone. After two disappointing sandwiches, one with thin dried out slices of corned beef and the other with flavorless and fatty yet dry pastrami, I am sadly removing the italics.

Previous summary from March 2006:

Until I experienced Katz's in New York City, I did not understand why New Yorkers constantly waxed poetic about delis. The delis I had tried, granted they were all in California, served acceptable but largely forgettable sandwiches, which were generally the best things on the menu and certainly preferable to greasy chicken soup or bland knishes. Upon seeing the light, however, I resigned myself to the fact that I would get good deli only during my business trips to New York when I could find an opportunity to steal away a couple of hours to escape to the Lower East side and satisfy my craving for a pastrami on rye. Thick, juicy, peppery, melt-in-your-mouth pastrami.

Then came the new California Street Deli at the Jewish Community Center. Having Joyce Goldstein as consultant must be the secret ingredient. The soothing chicken soup had large pieces of white meat and tender chunks of carrots and celery cut in just the right size to scoop up comfortably with a soup spoon. I have never been terribly fond of matzo balls, but here it was not bad-- more of a dumpling that adds heartiness than the soggy ball of unleavened dough I've experienced in the past. The Brooklyn potato knish, fluffy and savory inside and flaky and golden outside, was fantastic. I also appreciated that the plate of pickles, delivered first to the table like a casual amuse bouche, were full sours (I never did get used to the half-sours served in New York delis, which always tasted to me like they were not quite done.)

At a deli, the sides are almost as important as the main dish. The cole slaw at California Street Deli was so tasty with fresh, crunchy, and sweet shreds of cabbage and carrots, mixed with not too much mayonnaise and just enough vinegar and pepper, that I could not think of a better sandwich accompaniment. Until I tried the potato salad. Creamy, chunky, and mildly tangy with just the right amount of saltiness and bits of crunch from the added relish and finely diced celery pieces. The french fries, while ample in quantity, were less successful than the other side dishes as they were slightly overcooked and dry.

But what about the main event? Although the pastrami is fair, it is a bit chewy and not at the level of Katz's. The Niman Ranch corned beef though-- dare I say it?-- may actually be better. Moist, flavorful, salty and sweet, cut into thick, generous slices. With a Dr. Brown's cream soda, I was quite happy to finally have a deli that I can visit for a satisfying sandwich without having to get on a plane.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Feeling Crabby at Swan Oyster Depot

1517 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
Monday through Saturday 8am-5:30pm
Cash only

Swan Oyster Depot on Urbanspoon

Tried: March 2006

Even though Swan Oyster Depot has been a San Francisco institution since at least the '50's, I still had a difficult time researching in advance what would be best to sample there. Seafood, fine, but that covers a lot of territory, and I feared encountering Fisherman's Wharf syndrome-- tourist spot with adequate to mediocre seafood and clam chowder. Even the freshest seafood in the wrong hands, drowned in aggressive cocktail sauce or Louis dressing, can be dismally disappointing. Although the potential pitfalls are not completely absent at the Swan, I was pleased to find that the renowned seafood joint lived up to its reputation.

First tip: Wear machine-washable clothes, as you will undoubtedly get spattered with shellfish bits or juices, whether by your own hand, the adjacent diners squeezed in next to you along the narrow counter, or by the staff busily shucking, cracking, and flinging various seafood items as they prepare the food to be served or weigh amounts to go for neighborhood shoppers picking up fresh fish for dinner. Second tip: Skip the mounds of sauce presented in the large glass goblets that look more like ice cream sundae containers. Instead, take some of the lemon wedges in the bowl on the counter, as those are really the only condiments you need (although the homemade mignonette sauce is quite good with the oysters). Third tip: Check out the wine list. Despite appearances to the contrary, Swan Oyster Depot has a nice selection of white wines that match the seafood, including Pahlmeyer Chardonnay if you really feel like spluring, at $95 per bottle (given that it costs about $70-$80 if you can even find it at a wine store, not a bad deal). My favorites were the Muscadet and the Honig Sauvignon Blanc, much more affordable at $6/glass.

The two must-have items at the Swan are the fresh oysters on the half shell and the half (or whole) cracked crab. The oysters were plump, briny, and tasted like the ocean. I also appreciated that they were expertly shucked, with no shell bits to mar the experience. The crab was so meaty, fresh, and delicious that I polished off the entire half order in a matter of minutes.

The combination seafood salad, which consisted of shrimp and lump crab meat on a bed of chopped iceberg lettuce with a giant dollop of pink/orange dressing that looked to be either Louis or Thousand Island, seemed to be very popular among the other diners but held no special appeal for me. The clam chowder, while thankfully not the gloppy thick variety found at most non New England seafood places, contained no clam, no sign of any salt cured pork, and the liquid, although decent in taste, had bits of curdled cream floating in it.

Surprisingly, the restaurant also serves raw seafood sashimi style, complete with soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger. I would not bother with the tuna again, which was somewhat butchered in the slicing with some bloody veins still left on, but the raw scallops were spectacular. If you like sea urchin, they serve it fresh in the black spiny shell, with a spoon to scoop out the roe like a seafood mousse. The younger guys behind the counter are expert at cutting these shells, and presented the uni shining bright yellow in layers in the half-shell. The older gentleman who served us, however, did not look happy at the prospect of cutting one open, and ours consequently arrived somewhat mangled with bits of the outer shell mixed in.

Swan Oyster Depot is not as inexpensive as the inclusion of "Depot" in the name, or its fish market decor, might suggest. If you are hungry to sample the seafood, without veering into the large and more economical seafood salads, the price tag for two can run as high as $80-$100 with drinks.

Was it worth the forty-plus minutes of waiting in line? Depends on how much you like fresh shellfish. I'm thinking that next time I'll go at 8am when they open to avoid the line.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Cool as a Kappa

1700 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Chef Toshiaki Kimura
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Kappa Japanese on Urbanspoon

Tried: March 2006

Stepping into Kappa, a ten-seat restaurant behind a dark hidden door on the second floor above Denny's in Japantown in San Francisco, feels like entering a foreign country. The few words uttered by the stern, taciturn chef during the entire evening were in Japanese, and the menu posted on the wall, handwritten in brush calligraphy on a large scroll-like strip of paper, was almost exclusively in kanji. Fortunately, there is a condensed English version of the menu available, and the hostess/waitress, who takes the drink orders and serves the food, also speaks a few words of English.

Although no sushi is served at Kappa, the restaurant is built like a large sushi bar, with all of the seats facing the trapezoidal counter where the chef finishes the food for serving. A sashimi selection, however, is among the dishes available on the a la carte small plates menu (starting at $20), and is included in the seven-course prix-fixe menu called "koryori," starting at $75/person, which is required to be arranged a day in advance.

On this evening, the koryori dinner started with Ankimo, an ample-sized circular disk of monkfish liver served in a pool of ponzu sauce, garnished with diced scallions and a scoop of chili-tinted grated daikon radish. Monkfish liver tastes like a cross between uni and foie gras, and with the acidic ponzu sauce and the mildly spicy grated daikon, this dish was a spectacular starter. The next dish was a dungeness crab maki with Japanese cucumber salad, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. I was surprised to find small bits of crab shells in the maki. While the dish was still refreshing, since there was nothing else inside the dried seaweed wrapper other than crab meat, the purity of the presentation was disrupted by having to pick out shells.

The next course was a collection of tastes comprised of tamago (Japanese sweet egg omelette), kazunoko (pickled crunchy herring roe) sprinkled with dried bonito shavings, steamed asparagus spears with sesame paste, steamed uni with sushi rice, glazed with tamari and topped with freshly grated wasabi, duck breast wrapped with shiso leaf, a steamed sea snail, and a small dish of okara, which appeared to be a mixture of tofu, ground steamed fish, and white miso. The thick duck breast was meaty yet tender, and matched very well with the minty shiso leaf. The sesame paste on the perfectly cooked asparagus spears tasted like a milder cousin of peanut butter. Overall each flavor was clean and well executed.

A selection of sashimi came next, consisting of hamachi (yellowtail), toro (fatty tuna), mirugai (giant clam), and hirame (halibut), accompanied by the standard garnish of julienned raw white daikon strands and shiso leaf. The thick sauce accompanying the sashimi was a combination of tamari, konbu (kelp), bonito, and soy sauce.

I was less impressed with the next collection of tastes, comprised of spicy grilled herring stuffed with spiced herring roe, grilled unagi, a chicken meatball yakitori sprinkled with chili flakes, snow crab maki with deep-fried panko crust, and grilled beef tongue. The spicy grilled herring had entirely too many small fish bones to be able to eat comfortably, and the grilled unagi was only average in quality and flavor. The grilled tongue was unremarkable, as it seemed to be nothing but sliced, grilled meat with no distinction in spicing or preparation. I also found the slick texture of the meat unsettling. The overcharred chicken yakitori also had the impression of being cooked the day before and reheated. The snow crab maki, although a bit boring, was acceptably soft inside and crispy outside.

The final savory course of the koryori was a clear seafood broth containing turnip, Chinese broccoli, and taro root pieces. The turnip and taro root had been braised until they practically melted into the hot broth. At this point, left with only dessert in the prix-fixe menu but still somewhat hungry, we decided to take the cue from a couple who appeared to be regulars and order some dishes from the a la carte menu. The golden-brown panko encrusted kurobuta tonkatsu ($15) tasted as good as it looked and smelled, and the tender pork dripped juices as I took a bite. Although clean in taste, I was disappointed that the hirame usuzukuri, the other dish we tried (and the most expensive dish on the a la carte menu at $25), was nothing but a large single sashimi plate. We returned to dessert, which consisted of sliced mango, pear, and mochi with red bean paste.

Kappa was overall an interesting experience, but many of the dishes felt too pre-prepared and many ingredients seemed over-preserved, particularly given the cost of the meal. If it were presented in a more casual izakaya format (and pricing), I may have enjoyed it more. The sake list is appropriately impressive with a number of well-known daiginjo and ginjo sake labels, served in miniature carafes.

Modern Classics at Masa's

648 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Chef Gregory Short (formerly sous chef French Laundry)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Last tried: December 2006

Absolute cosseted luxury is the only way I could describe my recent visit to Masa's. In his tasting menu, Chef Gregory Short showcases classics such as caviar, lobster, foie gras, and chocolate, interspersed with Asian ingredients like trout roe, miso, hamachi, and Wagyu beef, all of which are played up magnificently by the thoughtful wine pairings of Sommelier Alan Murray. With playful elements like dessert tacos and popcorn ice cream punctuating the refined elegance of the menu, the result is a deeply satisfying dining experience.

The dinner began with a couple of different amuses. The first was an espresso cupful of sweet, rich, creamy sunchoke soup, topped with licorice foam and accompanied by a hot gruyere puff the size of a large gumball. The second was a scored and grilled sea scallop, which had been marinated in soy and sake, topped with a few grains of salty trout roe and accompanied by a crunchy seaweed salad in a light sesame dressing. These very different introductory tastes foreshadowed the tone and variation of the dishes to be presented in the tasting menu.

The first course was a caviar presentation, one with leeks braised in cream and the other on top of a disk of gravalax with two golden-brown blinis the size of nickels, garnished with daikon sprouts. These opening dishes were so delicate and well done that I forgot I generally prefer caviar as is with nothing more than an occasional bite of toast point to moderate the saltiness. The Wakatake Junmai Daiginjo sake that Sommelier Alan Murray paired with the caviar, with a mild melon scent, matched beautifully.

After caviar, the menu turned to vegetables. The first vegetable dish was a salad of sweet roasted heirloom beets with bull's blood beet greens, which looked like miniature watercress dyed red, in a dressing of red beet glaze and hazelnut oil, topped with roasted hazelnuts. The second dish was a ringmold of Yukon gold potatoes mixed with celery greens and topped with a thin slice of strong, earthy black Himalayan truffle. The richness of the nuts and truffles combined with the fresh, sweet, and mildly bitter flavors of the beets, potatoes, and greens were impeccably calculated. These dishes were followed by shellfish variations: (1) a salad of chilled crab with water chestnuts, fava beans, and hearts of palm surrounded by dots of sweet medjool date vinaigrette, and (2) a tender portion of lobster tail, with black trumpet mushrooms, fava beans and a swirl of artichoke cream. To pair with the vegetable and shellfish courses, Murray brought over a glass of Austrian Riesling, an Oregon pinot gris, and a Chablis and Meursault from Burgundy.

The next course was hot and cold variations of foie gras-- one seared on top of a micro arugula and miniature shiitake mushroom cap salad, and the other a pink chilled triangle terrine, accompanied by pickled strands of cherry red rhubarb and crispy buttered brioche sticks. Both were paired with a Jurancon. The terrine had all of the buttery richness of foie gras but none of the livery gaminess sometimes present in this form, and the pickled rhubarb provided a delightfully tart and sweet accent. While the seared foie gras was as delicious as expected, I would have liked a little sweetness and acidity added to that dish as well to highlight the flavor of the foie gras.

The menu next took an interesting detour from the richness of foie gras to the richness of black cod and hamachi. Miso-glazed black cod seems to be on every menu these days but few places do it really well. Short's version, on top of a thin layer of purple sticky rice, retained the sweet flavor and moist texture of the fish, while optimizing the fermented saltiness of the miso. The accompanying watermelon radish and watercress coulis were refreshing touches. The tamari-glazed grilled hamachi with trumpet mushrooms and braised bitter greens was worthy of being served in a top notch Japanese restaurant. To pair with the divergent flavors in these dishes, Murray went with a young red Burgundy by Jadot. A cross-cultural marriage made in food heaven.

The last series of savory courses were variations on beef: perfectly medium rare medallions of Snake River Farms beef ribeye with al dente steamed asparagus and pureed Belgian salsify with Bordelaise sauce, and a Wagyu beef stirfry seasoned with soy and sesame. The tannins and bold flavors of the young, small production Bordeaux that Murray paired with these dishes intensified the lavishness of both types of beef, and interestingly did not fight with the Asian flavors of the stirfry.

This stunning meal concluded with a molten chocolate cake, accompanied by a quenelle of banana ice cream and popcorn ice cream, paired with a port. The second dessert were miniature corn-maple tacos, paired with a sparkling Gamay.

As though an extension of Short's virtually faultless cuisine, the service at Masa's, by the entire staff, was among the best I have seen. Service was so smooth and unblemished that it practically seemed choreographed and rehearsed in advance. Without ever being intrusive or hovering, the servers quietly materialized the instant anyone at our table had a question or a request, armed with answers, water, wine list, and/or some other desired item. Each course was ideally paced, with plates and silverware expertly cleared and replaced as though they were emitting silent homing signals to the kitchen to indicate when it was time. To the delight of my OCD tendencies, used napkins were whisked away and replaced with fresh ones, rather than being refolded, when diners left the table to use the restroom. The only minor criticism I have is that one of the champagnes by the glass offered at the beginning of the meal (Laurent-Perrier) was an unexpected $36 a glass. That was a bit of a surprise for a starting beverage, even for pricey, four-star dining. While I do not mind paying for quality, I would have appreciated being alerted to this fact (and that there were other Champagnes by the glass available for less than half that price).

Chef Short, your French Laundry is showing.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kaygetsu: Kyoto Moon Rising Over Stanford

325 Sharon Park Drive
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Sushi Chef Toshi Sakuma
Kaiseki Chefs Katsuhiro Yamasaki* and Shinichi Aoki
Dinner only Tuesday through Sunday
(Kaiseki menu only Wednesday through Saturday)

*departed February 2008 to open new restaurant

Kaygetsu on Urbanspoon

Last tried: September 2009

Unfortunately, the departure of one of the chefs combined with the persistent economic conditions appear to have adversely impacted the quality of the kaiseki menu at Kaygetsu. While still satisfactory overall, the delicate and subtle touches that made this place stand out appear to have somewhat diminished. To be brutally honest, even the sushi quality was not quite as stellar as I remembered. I used to enjoy this restaurant so much that I am hoping that this last experience was an anomaly.

Previously tried: March 2006

I can no longer disparage the Peninsula for its level of dining after my recent experiences at Kaygetsu, located in a mini-mall between Stanford University and Highway 280 behind a Shell gas station. Kaygetsu is a quiet, artfully decorated oasis that makes you want to speak in hushed tones, even to exclaim over the exquisitely prepared dishes that float from the kitchen or sushi bar to the tables across the small dining room.

Both the kaiseki and a la carte menus at Kaygetsu are sheer gastronomic bliss. The kaiseki offerings are more traditionally Japanese with respect to both ingredients and flavors, while the a la carte menu, which still incorporates the kaiseki concept, has items more familiar to the American palate (as well as slightly larger individual portions) created under the same exacting standards and techniques.

Kaiseki ryori is a form of tasting menu that originated in Kyoto, focusing on seasonality and harmony of ingredients and presentation -- a concept going back four or five centuries. As an extension of Japanese tea ceremony, kaiseki cuisine is a prime example of Japanese obsession with perfection and symmetry. As such, Kaygetsu's seven-course kaiseki menu ($85/person but not required to be ordered by the entire table, with optional sake pairing for $33/person) changes every six weeks, and its a la carte menu also varies with seasonal ingredients.

The chowan mushi from the a la carte menu was among the best I have had recently. The pale yellow egg custard, immersed in luminous broth that floated about a quarter inch above the top of the custard, was housed in a blue and white ceramic teacup, about the size of a large espresso cup, sitting on top of a wooden saucer and served with a small matching wooden spoon. As I broke the surface of the custard to take a small scoop, the custard intermingled with the hot seafood broth to create a perfectly balanced taste that was delicate, creamy, and savory. Although the temperature of the chowan mushi remained hot from start to finish, the custard was as soft as silken tofu, and the tender unagi, flavorful shrimp dumpling, crunchy black mushrooms (kikurage), al dente lotus root, and chewy ginko nut embedded inside were all perfectly cooked. Given that these elements all have different cooking times and the unagi was clearly seasoned and broiled in advance, everything had to have been cooked separately then placed into the custard for steaming. Talk about obsession with detail, but the result was phenomenal.

Both the agedashi tofu and the mixed vegetable tempura demonstrated the kitchen's deep-frying expertise. A diaphanous layer of crispy, almost white tempura batter coated the outside of each ingredient. The tofu was hot and soft inside, and the agedashi sauce was so unbelievably good that I drank it like soup after I was done eating the tofu, not caring that it was hardly good manners to slurp my plate. The subtly seasoned vegetables consisted of lotus root, carrot, red bell pepper, mushroom, green beans, and even a shiso leaf, each of which were fried so skillfully that even my picky nephew who is firmly anti-vegetable would polish them off.

In addition to the toro sushi, which were exactly of the quality one would expect from a restaurant of this caliber, I tried the Sashimi Moriawase (meaning "variety"), which included tuna, halibut, yellowtail, and salmon. The jewel-toned fresh fish pieces, expertly cut, shimmered on top of a mound of angel hair strands of fresh daikon, accompanied by minty, dark green fresh shiso leaves, daikon sprouts, and a sprig of edible lavender shiso flowers. The wasabi was of course grated fresh and dissolved instantly upon touching the soy sauce.

The cooked fish dishes were equally as inviting as the dazzling raw offerings. The hamachi kama, grilled yellowtail fish cheeks, were gently salty with crispy, crackly skin. The fish meat, although it took a bit of work to separate from the bony cheek area, was melt-in-your mouth supple. If you are squeamish about fish parts, however, be warned that these pieces come with the gills still attached. The collar is grilled very crisp and great to chew on to get the tiny morsels of salty soft gelatinous meat around the bones-- a bit barbaric but so worth the effort. The deep-fried sole, although also expertly fried and still quite delicious, was probably my least favorite among these dishes, more because it really involved extensive chopstick proficiency to manuever around the fish bones to get at the meat. Like all of the sauces, the dipping sauce for the sole was subtle and savory, but it was a little strong for the very delicate flavor of the white fish.

The only offering I was not completely enthralled with was the dark red miso clam soup. I personally found the combination of the red miso paste and pungent sansho pepper leaf (looks like a miniature Christmas holly) to be too floral and dissonant to be enjoyable. However, like the other dishes, it was faultlessly executed, with the clams still briny and vibrant, and the miso smoothly blended with the fish stock. I suspect that native Japanese, as well as those who seek out completely authentic, un-Americanized Japanese fare, would love this traditional soup.

If I had to pick a favorite among the a la carte dishes, I would have to go with the Kaygetsu roast beef. It is not quite carpaccio but thin slices of very tender, very rare beef, served on a salad of bitter greens, mildly pickled cucumber slices, and crunchy radish disks, and garnished with julienned scallions. The server instructed us to put a bit of both the dark yellow spicy Chinese mustard and the wasabi on the beef then roll it up with some of the scallions and greens and dip into the sauce made of tamari-soy-seafood broth. This is not the type of hearty beef that calls out for red wine, but rather resembles an elegant sashimi dish-- except that it is beef, not fish, and also not raw. Paired with a cold sake from Kaygetsu's excellent and extensive sake list, I could not envision anything that would taste better. (My favorite among the sakes was "Manju," one of the four junmai daiginjo varieties on Kaygetsu's list of sakes, which has a faint tropical flavor. Kaygetsu also offers unpasteurized sake, designated "nama," meaning raw, which is sweeter and more flavorful than the standard pasteurized variety but very difficult to find.)

On my second visit to the restaurant, I tried Kaygetsu's kaiseki ryori. The late winter kaiseki menu started with a collection of miniature appetizers called Saki zuke: boiled quail egg with eel in aspic, shrimp and Asian pear in a yuzu gelee, herring roe with kelp, and deep-fried sesame wrapped umeboshi (pickled plum). The quail egg with eel was rich and savory, the shrimp and pear combination was salty-sweet, the herring roe with kelp was salty and crunchy, the rice with bean curd was bland and neutral, and the deep-fried umeboshi was tart-sweet. As I worked my way around the beautfully presented platter, the precisely controlled different flavors and textures danced in my mouth.

The next course was a bowl of slow-cooked vegetables bathed in a clear seafood broth. The square of wheat gluten had the sticky texture and flavor of unsweetened mochi (Japanese sticky rice cake). While not my favorite flavor, I appreciated that it was well done. Likewise, the yama kurage (a green, Japanese vegetable) wrapped in inari (flavored bean curd) was well prepared but too authentically Japanese for my taste. The other ingredients-- kabura turnip, green beans, kabocha pumpkin, carrots, and shiitake mushrooms-- were all meltingly soft yet still retained the distinct flavors of each vegetable.

The kaiseki menu continued with assorted sashimi, followed by a collection of deep-fried items consisting of kinki fish (which had the texture and taste of snapper), eggplant, and enoki mushrooms, accompanied by a light-brown soy based broth. This was followed by a grilled dish of minced kurobuta pork and kobe beef, mixed with natto to create a meatloafy consistency. Only the Japanese could make a mixture of kobe beef and kurobuta pork airy and delicate. The ponzu sauce on the side matched perfectly with the grilled meat.

The last savory dish was a bowl of Japanese mixed ingredient rice (bamboo shoots, chicken, and lotus root), reminiscent of Chinese fried rice but not as hearty and more subtle in flavor, accompanied by a bowl of red miso soup and a small plate of pickled vegetables. This dish served as a transition from the hearty grilled meat to the refined dessert that followed-- a peach sake flan. Even though I generally dislike flan, as I find most of them to be too jello-like in texture and overly sweet, I adored this particular incarnation. The velvety sweet custard and surrounding caramel syrup had exactly the right consistency and mild sweetness. Its only flaw was the fact that it was served with out of season strawberries.

Of the many stellar restaurants I have been fortunate enough to try in 2006, Kaygetsu is among the top of the list. I cannot wait to find an excuse to go back-- maybe sneak in for lunch mid-week for a mental escape from the joys of litigation while pretending to pick up dry-cleaning or groceries in the mini-mall...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Bargain Sushi at Okina Sushi

776 Arguello Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94118
Dinner Thursday through Saturday
Cash only

Tried: March 2006

This tiny sushi restaurant is tucked away in a mostly residential area -- so hidden that our cab driver was convinced that we had the wrong address until we finally found the unobtrusive wood-framed door to the restaurant, barely visible behind Japanese cloth curtains. The modestly decorated restaurant has five seats at the varnished wood sushi bar and about six to eight additional seats at the plain wood tables set up in the small dining space.

The sushi bar is very traditional in that the sushi is served directly onto the slanted wood counter in front of the diners. The sushi rice was also packed loose, such that the sushi pieces were more conducive to eat with fingers than with chopsticks (although there were no hot moist towels provided for eating sushi in this manner). In addition to the standard wasabi and pickled ginger, the sushi chef plunked down a pile of shredded raw white daikon and chopped pickled yellow daikon as accompaniments, as well as some chopped tuna and diced scallions. Although a bit messy, these abundant garnishes were interesting side dishes.

The chef at Okina Sushi is among the fastest sushi makers I have ever seen. The Omakase (chef's selection) sushi came out faster than we could eat them. On this evening, it consisted of toro (fatty tuna), maguro (regular tuna), saba (mackerel), sake (salmon), ebi (shrimp), hirame (halibut), hamachi (yellowtail), kampachi, Alaskan king crab, unagi (eel), ika (squid), and scallop. The crab and scallop sushi were garnished with scoops of bright orange tobiko (flying fish roe) and diced scallions. The addition of shiso leaves to the hirame, ika, and kampachi sushi added a slightly minty taste, gently disguising the fact that the seafood was not at peak freshness. I was disappointed that the maguro and toro were both opaquely pink, without much distinction, and rather flavorless, and that the salmon tasted vaguely smoked. I would also have preferred if the unagi had not been pre-made and refrigerated, but they were still soft and fairly appetizing. The best of the lot was saba, which was quite meaty and flavorful, although a bit too cold (actually most of the sushi suffered from too cold refrigeration).

Even though I was quite full at the end of the extensive Omakase sushi selections, we also tried the ikura (salmon roe) and tamago (sweet egg omelette). The tamago was a little dry and not quite sweet enough. Although still pleasantly briny, about half of the ikura were losing their round shape, like deflating balloons, indicative of less than optimal freshness. The rest of the group ordered seconds of toro, unagi, and salmon. The total for four of us (three guys and a girl who eats like a guy) to stuff ourselves with as much sushi as we could consume, including multiple rounds of large beers (they only have Kirin and only one type of unspecified sake at $2.50 a glass), came to less than $150.

If you can overlook the intermittent quality of the sushi, Okina Sushi offers one of the most filling and least expensive sushi meals to be found anywhere, similar to Noshi Sushi in Los Angeles. For plentiful and fast sushi on a budget, Okina fits the bill. Sadly though, this tradeoff sacrifices too much for me to return.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Follow the Line to Sushi Sam's

218 East 3rd Avenue (near B Street)
San Mateo, CA 94401
Lunch Tuesday through Saturday
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Last tried: November 2007

Sushi Sam's is one of the few places that caters to the black diamond sushi addicts (Uni, Kohada, Spanish mackerel) as well as to the green circle (makis) and blue square sushi eaters (tuna, yellowtail). At first glance, visitors from Japan scoffed at the chipped plates and plastic mugs, decrying the place as a "California roll" restaurant. After just two or three introductory tastes from the Omakase sushi selection, they were reciting poems about the taste and allure of the bonito and demanding to know where in Tokyo the sushi chefs trained (turns out Chef Sam Sugiyama trained in Osaka). Not surprising that chefs from all over the Bay Area make a beeline for this place whenever they can.

Sushi Sam's Edomata on Urbanspoon

Initial impressions from a year earlier:

Third Avenue in downtown San Mateo seems to have more Japanese restaurants than Japantown in San Francisco, yet none of them are very crowded. Except Sushi Sam's Edomata, which has people spilling out from the jam-packed restaurant onto the sidewalk.

After winding my way through a horde of people-- some of whom were sipping beer while waiting-- I signed my name on the clipboard in the doorway between the sushi bar and the dining room and (im)patiently waited to be seated. Approximately fifteen minutes later, a table opened up in the back, next to the storage closet and the bathroom and right beside the cash register, where busy waiters ran to every few minutes and rapidly hit the various buttons with expert familiarity, ringing up the tabs of diners who had finished their meals. Although I am admittedly a complete pain in the neck about restaurant tables (and also hotel rooms, neither of which I have any hesitation about asking to be moved several times if I dislike them for any reason, rational or not, or spot a different one I would prefer), I quickly assessed that this mattered not at all in the Spartan, functional decor of Sushi Sam's. Sure enough, people jealously eyed our group as we were led past a hungry crowd to this rather unglamorous table.

Once I tried the sushi, I understood why. As I had discovered in trying to select a sushi place among the myriad outside the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the lines do not lie. The toro, hamachi, maguro, sweet raw ebi, butterfish, and red snapper were all delectably fresh, despite being rather unattractively cut (particularly the sashimi pieces, which were so large that they practically needed a knife). For my test of a sushi restaurant, I ordered uni (sea urchin roe) and tamago (sweet egg omelette). The uni was bright yellow in appearance, with the scalloped surface plainly visible, and sweet and creamy in taste. The tamago, although clumsily rectangular in appearance, was soft with a hint of gentle sweetness. Score.

Interestingly, the maki, such as negihamachi (green onions and yellowtail chopped together), California roll, etc., which are pervasive and generally innocuous at most other sushi places, were so large with disproportionate ratios of rice to filling that they were not very appetizing (but filling for the people at the table not into adventurous sushi). Amusingly, Sam scoffs at rolls but appreciates their place and value for the general public.

The best way to experience Sushi Sam's is to sit at the sushi bar, if you can manage to squeeze in, and leave yourself in the chefs' hands by ordering the Omakase sushi (which has the bonus of homemade Japanese dessert). Do not go near any additional soy sauce or wasabi with the Omakase sushi-- the sushi chefs individually tailor the seasoning of every sushi creation, such as minced scallions with grated ginger on hand-torched kobe beef "sushi," yuzu and sea salt-dressed toro, lemon and diced white onion on ocean trout, and toasted sliver of garlic with a drizzle of sweetened soy on butterfish.

Among the cooked dishes, the agedashi tofu was flawless, with a light tempura coating outside and hot creamy tofu inside. The "special" unagi-- recommended by a friend who has never let me down with any of her recommendations-- was meltingly soft with an edge of pleasantly charred, mildly salty skin.

In addition to beer and wine, Sushi Sam's has a short list of sakes (the Horaisen and Kubota are my favorites but they are pricey). If you decide to get the sake, ask for it in a glass rather than the traditional box, which I find tends to overwhelm the scent and flavor such that all you taste is wood. The cafeteria-like atmosphere, from the bright, flourescent lights and the white tables and walls to the plastic-covered menus and plastic plates, serves to highlight the fact that this place serves no-frills sushi to people who do not care about anything but fresh fish. If you can, go early, whether for lunch or for dinner. The good stuff, usually designated "special" on the whiteboard behind the sushi bar, disappears fast.

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