Monday, July 31, 2006

This Is How I "Iron Chef" ...

Even though business travel has long ago lost its glamour, I can sometimes still find the silver lining in the cloud of drudgery of having to endure yet another series of long plane flights and generic hotel rooms. Or should I say the iron lining?

In the last year and a half, I have managed to squeeze in opportunities in between billable hours to check out La Rochelle in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, Rokusan-Tei in the Ginza district of Tokyo, Morimoto in Philadelphia (and recently New York), and Bar Americain and Babbo in New York City. Whose cuisine reigns supreme?

The seafood dishes at Hiroyuki Sakai’s La Rochelle were as good as I would have expected from an accomplished Japanese chef. Disappointingly, the meat and dessert courses did not live up to the initial promise of the opening courses. Although the menu, with smiling photographs of Chef Sakai and glaring shots of the food bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a Denny's menu, the wine list was quite impressive, including a wide selection of older Burgundies (I had a 1990 Vosne Romanee), as was the service, which was suitably formal yet friendly. The restaurant is sumptuously decorated, like a wealthy grandmother’s antique living room, which contrasted with the tourists in sweatshirts packing the dining room but the glittering panoramic city view was spectacular.

What about the invincible Rokusaburo Michiba’s Rokusan-Tei? Chef Michiba’s interpretation of Kaiseki-ryori (traditional Japanese seasonal tasting menu) alone is worth the plane trip to Tokyo, especially the unique sashimi offerings and the most amazing and tender duck individually cooked on a ceramic charcoal grill at the table. The desserts, however, may be somewhat sketchy for the American palate, e.g., mixture of fruit, rice dumplings, and sweetened gelatin cubes. Be warned that while the food at Rokusan-Tei is quite international, incorporating multicultural influences from Europe, the restaurant itself, including the staff, is very traditionally and exclusively Japanese, meaning that there is no English spoken or written anywhere and the bathrooms have squat toilets only.

Morimoto in Philadelphia was delicious although not quite as innovative as I would have expected based on what I had seen of Masaharu Morimoto on television. The tasting menu is similar in concept to Nobu in New York but significantly better executed, particularly the toro with caviar. Service, however, was a bit on the unpolished side, such as dumping off dishes with no explanation (In New York, service was substantially better, but the food was unspeakable).

What about Iron Chef America? I have not had a chance to try Mesa Grill or Bolo, both of which have garnered critical acclaim, but Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain was disappointing. The $100 seafood appetizer platter was mundane and heavy-handed in seasoning, and most of the raw shellfish items were quite a distance from fresh. The moules frites with green chile broth, however, was solid. The orange, retro-60’s décor is quite au courant, and the service was as smooth as you’d expect from a notable Manhattan eaterie. After this, I approached Babbo with cautious skepticism. Although Babbo lived up to its hype, I still think A16, Quince, or Delfina in San Francisco could give Babbo a run for its money.

One last note: None of the name chefs were in residence on the nights that I visited these restaurants. Nonetheless, I am still curious to check out Chen Kenichi’s restaurant in the Akasaka district of Tokyo and one of Bobby Flay's original ventures in New York.

Allez Cuisine!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Nectar Lounge: Treats for Wine Geeks

3330 Steiner Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
Chef Jason Moniz
Dinner/lounge hours nightly
Retail hours 2pm to closing daily

Nectar Wine Lounge on Urbanspoon

Last tried: August 2006

Even though I adore Nectar Wine Lounge, a wine bar/wine store/restaurant where you could taste all kinds of wines, order small plates (or a full dinner) to go with wine, and also shop for and buy bottles of wine, I never really took full advantage of the benefits of this hybrid concept apart from occasionally stopping in for a glass of wine. Nonetheless, I always liked that it was there, like an outfit you buy because you fell in love with it but somehow keep forgetting to wear.

Nectar Wine Lounge recently started a Court of Master Sommelier style blind-tasting wine event led by sommelier Jennifer Knowles, with a matching prix-fixe dinner prepared by Chef Jason Moniz. Each participant brings a wine (between $15-$30 per bottle) to be dissected according to color, viscosity, smell, taste, and finish. You can geek out with every single descriptor you have ever heard of in Sideways, or just sip and eat. The fun part, for both wine geeks and wine novices, is that this event helps you separate out what you smell and what you taste, based on the guidelines and tasting format of the Court of MS examinations, in a fun, low-key setting, while also enjoying a fabulous multi-course dinner.

We were welcomed with a glass of sparkling wine-- was it Prosecco, Cava, Cremant, California, or Champagne? It was fun to try and discern, even though we all guessed wrong (The reveal showed that it was a 2002 Gramona Gran Cuvee Cava). To pair, we were presented with a crunchy, buttery bread salad with sweet heirloom tomatoes drizzled with an olive oil vinaigrette and topped with a mound of fresh haricot verts dressed in a creamy sherry crema.

The next course was a pan-fried Alaskan halibut on a bed of sauteed summer vegetables including yellow and green beans, potatoes, and porcini mushrooms, with a smoky bacon pan sauce. A sprinkling of pungent, freshly ground black pepper on the halibut highlighted the salty flavor of the crispy skin, while the moist white flesh underneath melted in my mouth, creating a pleasant startling contrast with the light crunch of the perfectly cooked fresh vegetables and fluffy insides of the crispy potatoes. The mystery wine was a 2002 Morgon Beaujolais, which everyone guessed to be a much older Burgundy.

The last savory course was roasted pork loin surrounded by a swirl of spicy pasilla chile pan reduction, accompanied by a summer corn and zucchini bread pudding and a small salad of arugula and yellow and red cherry tomatoes. The flavor of the tender and juicy pork was accentuated with the chili and cumin spicing which brought out the sweetness of the meat, echoed by the sweetness of the corn in the creamy bread pudding. A tangle of fresh cilantro microgreens on top made the entire dish come alive. The final wine reveal was a 2004 Emmanuel Dunaud Crozes Hermitage-- a perfect match with the spices and hearty summer flavors of the dish.

Last but not least, we had one of the best chocolate pot de cremes ever for dessert, with a side of shortbread cookies and fresh strawberries. Although I normally do not care for pot de creme due to either the texture (too waxy, too sticky, or simply just too much like canned frosting) or the sweetness level being off, this one mastered both elements. I was quite curious to see what the sommelier would pair with this multi-dimensional dessert. She brought over a glass of Lustau, Don Nuno Oloroso Sherry. The nutty sweetness of the wine made the pot de creme taste even more chocolatey while matching beautifully with the buttery shortbread.

I never realized that a learning experience could be so much fun. Not to mention, in how many restaurants can you ogle bottles of Pingus and Lafite (that you can buy to take home) en route to the restroom?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Winter Coming to Winterland

2101 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Chef Vernon Morales (previously Sous Chef Restaurant Daniel, Chef de Partie El Bulli)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday until July 15, 2006

Last tried: July 2006

One of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco is closing at the end of this week. What did I like so much about Winterland? I loved Vernon Morales' daring and adventurous cuisine, which remained anchored in solid techniques and flavors without veering into the weird-for-weirdness sake world of molecular gastronomy. Even though not everything worked, I appreciated his continuing to push the envelope with things like poached egg in asparagus foam broth with bacon ice cream and octopus carpaccio with sweet-tart grapefruit segments (recently changed to mango) and salty sea beans. I am quite sad that notwithstanding his creativity, which I would have expected to flourish in a food-obsessed town like San Francisco, Winterland is closing at the end of this week.

Was it the ever-powerful influence of a less than stellar review from the San Francisco Chronicle? Except that the review, read in its entirety, is enough to pique the interest of any frequent restaurant diner, notwithstanding its two-star conclusion.

Was it the location? Four previous restaurants have failed in this location, but that was before the gentrification of the neighborhood, which is now firmly established as "Lower" Pacific Heights.

I have no idea. I am merely sad that something so promising is disappearing after only a year and a half, before the chef really had a chance to show his stuff.

I will miss the sweet intensity of the corn chowder with huitlacoche. I will miss the transparently thin ribbons of serrano ham, cleverly presented with grilled whole grain bread smothered with sweet diced tomatoes seasoned to bring out the delicate yet rich flavor of the ham. I will miss the meltingly tender braised short rib, topped with golden rings of crispy, hot tempura-fried onion, with a sweet-savory red wine reduction on a bed of chewy wheatberries that complement the meat better than any other side dish I could imagine. I will miss the creamy gruyere macaroni and cheese with a crust of buttery, crunchy breadcrumbs, accompanied by a pleasantly bitter fresh arugula salad wilted slightly by the zingy vinaigrette. I will miss the perfectly seasoned, moist inside/crisp outside duck confit drumstick decorated with a salty, glistening homemade potato chip. And I will miss the most amazing dessert I can recall ever tasting in any restaurant-- the caramelized "French Toast," a buttery brioche turned into a custardy bread pudding with heavy cream and sugar, topped with a creme-brulee like candied crust of hard sugar on top (but perhaps pastry chef Boris Portnoy may be persuaded to make this creation available at Campton Place).

The restaurant business is horrendously difficult (especially with pain-in-the-rear picky diners like yours truly around). I started this blog to get food writing practice, as part of my dream of ultimately transitioning to a non-legal career, but maybe blogs also make restaurant reviews more democratic?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Terzo: Not as Expected

3011 Steiner Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 441-1496
Chef Mark Gordon
Dinner nightly

Terzo on Urbanspoon

Last tried: January 2007

I had heard so much positive press about Terzo that I was quite happy to be able to get in, even with the hostess warning me that we had to vacate the table in an hour for the next reservation. The old Pane e Vino spot had gotten a complete facelift, with vanilla walls accented by dark chocolate colored wood, large mirrors, hanging lamps with yellow filament bulbs (I did like the giant single bulb chandelier over the six-top in the back of the restaurant), and of course the de rigeur communal table (am I the only person who dislikes this trend?). In short, it was appropriately stylish and chic, perfect for the yuppie cow hollow neighborhood.

I was instantly intrigued by both the menu and the wine list. About twenty small plates ($7-$12) and thirty different wines by the glass, from California, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy ($8-$15), perfect for my noncomittal and short attention span tendencies. While sipping some 2004 Vinho Verde from Portugal and a glass of sparkling Huet Vouvray, we perused the menu and selected six plates ranging from soup to fish to meat.

The white corn chowder with creme fraiche arrived first. The smell was intoxicating but the taste did not correspond. Although the texture was pleasantly coarse and thick as one would expect from corn chowder, the corn flavor was very faint and the soup tasted diluted as though someone had accidentally dumped in too much water. This muted, diluted flavor seemed to be a constant theme in several dishes, including the wild king salmon. Although it had great, moist texture and was perfectly cooked with a translucent center, the salmon tasted like the kitchen had forgotten to season it before sending it out. The accompanying fennel salad was crunchy and fresh but again flavorless, with none of its characteristic licorice scent, and desperately needed more dressing.

Things improved with the next several dishes. The grilled asparagus with fried egg and romesco was both refreshing and hearty. The sweet fresh asparagus, enhanced by grilling, was accented beautifully with the fried egg and robust tomato/roasted bell pepper/onion/garlic mixture. The pepperoni and salami in the next dish, house cured meats with burrata cheese, were chewy, salty, and fantastic. Among the three meats presented, the pork rillette on grilled bread was my favorite, with moist salty fatty pork confit spread out on the charred bread. The small mound of burrata in the center, however, was disapppointingly bland and grainy in texture, instead of the creamy, poached-egg white texture I was expecting. (By the way, if you want bread, you must ask for it. When you do, you will get three or four slices of squishy white bread slices on a plate. You only get one slice of the delicious grilled bread with the charcuterie plate.) Next, the hand-cut noodles with butter and truffles were delicate and delicious, with the microthin slices of black truffles practically melting into the noodles and butter.

Unfortunately, the last dish, roasted Niman Ranch beef, again suffered from the persistent lack of seasoning problem. The beef was tough and chewy and remained underseasoned even after we added a liberal amount of salt and pepper (like the bread, you must also ask your server in order to get salt and pepper shakers). The accompanying two or three cipollini onions and two lonely wedges of potato, also lacking in seasoning, did little to improve the dish.

Although I love the concept of Terzo, I was not enthralled by the execution. Perhaps after the hype and my expectations have been appropriately adjusted, I may be able to appreciate it better.

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