Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jazzy Flavors of Limon

524 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415)252-0918
Chef Martin Castillo
Lunch and Dinner daily

Tried: August 2006

I was beginning to think that my bad restaurant streak was never going to end, and then I ended up at Limon. Limon is noisy and crowded for a reason. The food is plentiful, well-spiced, reasonably priced, and thoroughly satisfying. Add to that an extensive list of Spanish, Chilean, Argentinian, German, and Austrian wines, all well matched with the cuisine and most priced under $50 a bottle, and you end up with a great meal.

We started with the ceviche de pescado-- raw strips of fresh halibut marinated in lime juice to a pearly opaque color, served with a generous mound of large white kernels of Peruvian corn and a wedge of pale yellow yam, and topped with thin slices of pickled red onion. The corn kernels were pleasantly starchy, in constrast with the tart lime juice and seasoning on the fresh pieces of halibut, with the translucent pickled onions adding a nice piquant edge. The crisp and floral 2005 Albarino recommended by our server matched perfectly with the flavors of the ceviche dish. Our dinner was off to an excellent start.

The next dish, vieres con foie gras, was the favorite of the evening. Three circles of golden brown pan-seared scallops, with no trace of grit or sand, each about the size of a quarter in circumference and about a half-inch thick formed the foundation for a generous slice of foie gras, seared to perfection. The scallops had been cooked exactly right to the point that they yielded to the fork like a custard. The mild sweet and salty sea flavors of the scallops set off the rich, meaty, buttery flavor of the foie gras, each bringing out the best of the other. Eating this incarnation of scallops, I remembered how much I used to like them before they became hackneyed. The creamy yucca puree accented around the rim with a drizzle of thick, almost black fig reduction sauce was the perfect backdrop to this magnificent blend of flavors and textures.

We then moved on to the anticucho de res, marinated top sirloin grilled on skewers and served with roasted potatoes and Peruvian addresso sauce. The mild spice of the addresso sauce (made of tomatoes, white wine, garlic, butter, and red peppers) highlighted the flavors of the tender steak and the bits of tasty char on the outside. With a glass of racy rioja, it was beyond scrumptious.

Although still fairly tasty, the least successful among the dishes we tried was the crispy whole red snapper. The presentation, with the bone and head of the snapper deep-fried to form a "basket" holding the deep-fried snapper filet pieces, was impressive. However, the delicate flavor of the snapper got lost in the deep-fried batter, making it taste not much different from fish sticks. A small piece of fish I was able to pry away from the skeleton basket where the heavy batter had missed was significantly better. The rocoto curry sauce on the side would have been great for another dish, but it too was overpowering for the delicate fish. The coconut pieces in the slightly mushy rice were a bit too tough and chewy, creating a disquieting combination of textures. Given that everything else we tried were so spot on, the slight missteps in this dish seemed more glaring.

The evening ended on a high note, with the homemade sorbet/ice cream combination. The sweet and icy coconut sorbet complemented the tropical fruit flavors of the lucuma ice cream and cherimoya ice cream, as though this combination were always meant to be.

A note about service: Limon may be casual and crowded, but our server would have been equally at home in a four-star formal establishment. He took charge from the moment we sat down and handled all of our requests and needs flawlessly (as well as all of the surrounding tables on the mezzanine floor), from menu and wine recommendations, pacing, replacing plates and silverware for each course as though we were doing a chef's tasting menu, to even refolding napkins when a member of our party left the table to use the restroom.

Ah, it is nice to be back in the land of good food.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I Miss the City ...

I am in South Bend, Indiana for a week. Everyone is very friendly, every house is huge, and gas is $2/gallon. The entire town seems to revolve around the University of Notre Dame, which is quite an impressive and beautiful campus.

The food, however, is another story.

Everything seems to be deep fried. Vegetables, when they can be found and are not deep fried, are cooked until all of the color is gone. Al Dente could only be recognized as a man's name. It is certainly not a cooking term that any restaurant in "downtown" (appears to be a three-block radius) would utilize.

I had dinner last night at The Vine. I ordered steak, medium rare, which came with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. Although well-seasoned, the mashed potatoes were cold and lumpy. Interestingly, the grilled asparagus were plated underneath the mashed potatoes, effectively steaming them. If they were not overcooked before they were plated, they certainly were by the time they arrived at the table after sitting under the mound of mashed potatoes. The steak, a 7 oz. piece of filet mignon, was grey on the outside, and the criss-cross grill marks on top looked like they had been painted on (and actually tasted that way as well). If I had the nerve to throw it on the floor, I am almost certain it would have bounced. I have to admit that the inside was technically pink, but still had a grey tinge that made the steak look like old tuna. The stringy and chewy texture of the meat further reinforced this comparison.

On the upside, service was friendly and attentive, despite the fact that the restaurant was short-staffed as a result of one of the servers having called in sick right before the dinner shift. I also quite enjoyed the extensive wines by the glass on their wine list, the most expensive of which was a mere $8.50! (most were $6). I enjoyed an apricoty 2004 Perrin Cote du Rhone Blanc, followed by a robust and earthy 2003 Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza.

On another night, I declined to feast on the pizza ordered by my colleagues, which scared me off with its thick, squishy crust and stringy ropes of cheese, apparent from just watching the slices being pulled apart. Instead, I decide that a liquid dinner would be the lesser of two evils and opted to make do with a Coors Light.

I would have killed to come across a Cheesecake Factory or California Pizza Kitchen. At least the hotel has a Starbucks in the lobby.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Must-Have Dishes

After ranting about mediocre meals in my last post, I started thinking about the dishes that I have delighted in and look forward to having again and again. I can't include them all since it would take too long, but here is an excerpt of that list which fills my daydreams, in no particular order:
  • Crusty, New York style cheese pizza at Za (except Friday and Saturday nights)
  • Chewy, elastic crust and clean flavors of the Pizza Margherita at either A16 or Pizzeria Picco
  • Beautiful fettucine and homemade salsiccia at Vivande Porta Via
  • Asian chicken salad with shredded white meat chicken, cold iceberg lettuce, peanuts, fried noodles, and sesame vinaigrette at Sushi House
  • Fragrant, intoxicating Kobe beef pho at Bong Su
  • Tender, melt-in-your-mouth Shaking beef made with Filet Mignon at either Bong Su or Tamarine
  • Seared foie gras with Monterey squid (with extra bread for the verjus sauce) at Piperade
  • Pumpkin foie gras pot de creme at Bushi-Tei
  • Pork belly with grilled scallions at CAV Wine Bar
  • Anything on the menu at Terra, Canteen, or Picco
  • Thick, juicy pastrami on rye with French fries and cream soda at Katz's
  • "Dictator's Special" (potatoes, two types of sausage, curry sauce, and sauerkraut) at Hallo Berlin
  • Chef's tasting menu with wine pairing at Le Bernardin
  • Beer sausage with grilled onions and spicy mustard at Rosamunde
  • Fried bone marrow with caviar and beet sorbet at Coi
  • Moules Mariniere with Frites and a bottle of crisp white wine at Plouf
  • Steak frites with a bottle of lusty, spicy Rhone wine at Florio or Acme Chophouse
  • Racy, spicy Hunan scallops at Hunan
  • Chicken foie gras ravioli and baby back ribs at Oola
  • Steak taco and ahi tuna burger at Pearl
  • Quesadilla made with homemade tortillas at Villa Corona
  • Kurobuta Pork tonkatsu at Yuzu
  • "Egg, bacon and toast" at Silk's
  • Kaiseki at Kaygetsu
  • Omakase sushi at Sushi Sam's
  • Carnitas at Tres Agaves
  • Sacripantina at Stella Pastry Caffe
  • Hot & sour heirloom tomato consomme and foie gras PB&J at Frisson
I am now thoroughly starving. Better not go grocery shopping in this state.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Recent Dining Excursions

Due to work getting in the way of life, as it often does, I have been quite remiss in posting on my latest dining excursions. The other problem has been that most of my recent dining experiences have been lackluster-- not bad, just not exceptional or noteworthy. I find it to be more enjoyable and satisfying to write about places I liked than those I was not crazy about, despite the fact that very few places interest me so much that I plan to return. I do, however, have several unfinished posts and copies of menus with my notes scribbled on them, waiting to be completed, including a couple of restaurants from Austin, Texas, one from Seattle, Washington, and another from New York City, as well as several from the San Francisco Bay Area. They each had their wow moments and their not-so-wow moments.

Some trends I have noticed (or maybe I am just cranky today), "small plates" are getting quite expensive, although to be fair, they are also not that small either. To illustrate my point, a small taste of cold cucumber soup would be refreshing, but a giant bowl of pureed cold cucumber feels like I'm being punished. In addition, despite the common refrain, "we have small plates for sharing," I often have to chase down servers to get share plates or additional silverware. Not to mention, while I do not expect a fresh plate and silverware for every dish, it would be nice to get replacement clean plates at some point during the meal when I order multiple small plates, so that my pasta does not taste like my salad and the sauce from my beef tenderloin does not get mixed up with the lemon juice from the crudo. Speaking of sharing, what is up with all of these communal tables? They are completely impractical for business meals and utterly undesirable when I am going out to unwind-- is there no place where I can escape from having to make small talk with strangers?

Work makes me grouchy. A mediocre meal makes me grouchier. If I'm using up credit limit and calories, I want both expenditures to be worthwhile.

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...