Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Case I Could Sink My Teeth Into

Hot Doug's in Chicago, previously featured on Chicago's "Check Please" program, became the first restaurant to be ticketed for violating the city's ordinance against foie gras which took effect last August. Even though I'm not sure how good a foie gras hot dog would be, I must admit I am curious, mostly because I am hopelessly addicted to the stuff (yes, both hot dogs and foie gras). Somewhat outside of my practice area, but I'm impressed with the owner's defense.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pigging Out at Momofuku

Momofuku Noodle Bar
163 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003
Chefs David Chang and Joaquin Baca
Lunch and dinner daily
$15 per person minimum for credit cards

Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Last tried: December 2007

Fried sweetbreads with sweet/spicy soy dipping sauce with scallions tasted like top shelf popcorn chicken-- absolutely rocked. Oysters were meaty, briny and fresh but the spicy fennel mignonette was somewhat bitter. The spicy "rice cakes" (Westernized version of duk bok ki, Korean street food) had terrific chewy texture with charred exterior that is far more sophisticated than the original version, but sadly the sauce was too sweet. The brussel sprouts and bacon with kimchi puree was as satisfying as before, but this time, the brussel sprouts were a bit mushy.

Momofuku ramen, on the other hand, is perfection upon perfection, with Tampopo-like broth, noodles, and pork, and deserves its porky respect.

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 Second Avenue
New York, New York 10003
Lunch and dinner daily

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Last tried: August 2007
Previously tried: February 2007

The Momofuku restaurants-- both the noodle bar and the ssam (phonetic for "wrap" in Korean) bar-- are reputed to be an addiction for chefs. I was fortunate enough to try both during a recent trip to New York, and I can see why. Both are hip and trendy without being pretentious, with adventurous flavors and ingredients from local farms combining to provide rib-sticking, satisfying food.

At the noodle bar (literally a bar, no tables), the offerings are not only hearty, generous, and inexpensive but also soulful and elegant, with intriguing and original flavor combinations such as charred brussel sprouts spiced with kimchee puree and pancetta, garnished with carrots sliced as thin as angel hair pasta. The compact menu offers small dishes such as smoked chicken wings, fried sweetbreads, and steamed pork buns, ranging from $9 to $13; generous servings of crudos and shellfish plates at $13-$16; and enormous bowls of noodles with pork, duck or chicken for $9-$16. As if that were not enough, the noodle bar even sports quite a nice beer and sake list, including Japanese microbrews and even a namasake ($8/glass; $38 bottle).

I started with the hamachi crudo, comprised of about 8-10 slices of pink and creamy fish as fresh as one would find in a top notch sushi bar, dressed with yuzu and topped with sweet, vibrant blood orange segments and julienned pieces of dark green nori. I also tried the fluke sashimi served with a miso-onion marmalade, as well as the grilled cuttlefish on rice noodles, dressed with yuzu and intermingled with transparently thin slices of jalapeno peppers, topped with bits of what looked and tasted like spicy rice crispies. Although the fluke was the least successful among the three appetizers (I would have preferred thinner slices of the fluke, and the fish got lost among the flavors), I loved the savory marmalade, which was reminiscent of the sauce on Korean-Chinese black bean noodles, purportedly a favorite of Chef David Chang.

Among the noodles, my favorite was the Momofuku ramen. I loved the absolutely decadent thick slices of braised kurobuta pork belly, with glistening, melting (literally) fat studded with tender pork meat swimming in the rich broth. The Momofuku ramen bowl also includes a mound of shredded kurobuta pork-- better than any carnitas I have ever tasted-- with a poached egg resting on top of the handmade noodles and garnished with fresh, chopped chives. I have no doubt that the savory brown broth is loaded with pork fat, yet it is not the least bit heavy or greasy. It was the perfect dish to combat a bitter cold February winter day.

The ssam bar, a few blocks away from the noodle bar in the East Village, is more spacious, including a few tables, but everyone still seemed to vie for the seats at the bar where you can better spy the action in the open kitchen. In addition to beer and sake, the ssam bar offers a compact list of well chosen wines to match the food, including a variety of sparkling wines from Spain, Australia, Loire Valley, and of course, Champagne, and even a magnum of 2003 Valderiz Ribera del Duero for $120.

My favorite ssam was the marinated hanger steak ssam-- thick slices of medium rare beef tenderized by a marinade of soy, apple juice, sesame oil, and spices-- accompanied by two sauces, a spicy (but not overwhelming) kimchee puree and a refreshing ginger/scallion puree which complemented one another beautifully. Instead of the traditional green leaf lettuce for ssam, the wraps were large leaves of fresh butter leaf lettuce. Quite upscale for ssam and quite delicious.

Interestingly, my favorite from the ssam bar menu was the spicy honecomb tripe stew. I only like tripe when it completely loses any semblance to tripe. But this was unadulterated tripe-- the kind that I would normally squeamish away from. A giant bowl of spicy kimchee-flavored broth with rectangles of tender yet still slightly chewy braised tripe, garnished with finely chopped sweet white onion. With a bowl of Japanese sushi restaurant quality sticky white rice and a sake, it was heaven. On the other hand, I was not as crazy about the Momofuku ssam, which although still tasty, was basically a giant carnitas burrito, with kimchee puree in place of salsa and edamame instead of refried beans. Even in the course of a single visit (two, if you count the noodle bar), the kitchen had already spoiled me into expecting something unusual and unexpected.

I was also less enamored with some of the small plates I sampled. First, because they were not small. While I appreciate the value factor, the giant bowl of black truffle chawan mushi was quite simply gigantic and overwhelming. Although the custard was properly done to the requisite jiggly, panna cotta consistency, the size detracted from the quality of the dish. Chawan mushi is supposed to be piping, scalding hot in a tiny cup. That giant bowl could never get to be the right temperature without overcooking the custard, and the truffles and escargot accompaniments, while opulent, did not match as the result was heavy and rich, whereas chawan mushi should be ethereal and light. The uni with yuzu-whipped tofu and black tapioca pearls (the giant kind you find in Japanese sweetened cold teas) was really interesting. Sadly, I am spoiled by the quality of uni I can get in California, and these were rather tough in texture.

I wish I could have tasted more dishes at both places, but I am really not exaggerating when I say the portions are huge. If I had to choose between the two variations, the noodle bar seemed to be more seasoned and better articulated, but I suspect the ssam bar will catch up soon. Sitting on a bar stool slurping ramen and sipping sake-- life as a lawyer does not always suck.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Death Row Meal?

Talk about the wine dinner of your (actually my) dreams. If you had $25,000 per person to spare and the time and expense to fly to Bangkok, would you die for this meal? I might beg/borrow/steal just to get a sneak taste of the wines...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Mining for Gold at Perbacco

230 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Chef Staffan Terje
Lunch weekdays
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Perbacco on Urbanspoon

Last tried: February 2008
Since the restaurant was jam-packed on a Tuesday night, I suspect the restaurant has hit its sweet spot. For my personal taste, though, everything I tried was merely not bad, with the high notes being the vitello tonnato and the pasta offerings.

The scallop crudo with chunks of cucumber and transparently thin micro-radish disks was a pleasant beginning, with the sweet pool of olive oil and crystal specks of sea salt almost masking the slightly tired scallops. The mortadella was oddly perfumey, like hotel shampoo, but the rest of the salumi platter was acceptably satisfying and certainly generous in portion size. The grilled squid was generally fresh and nicely charred, although the bed of buttery pureed potato on which they were served nearly drowned out its flavor.

The agnolotti with cabbage and veal was the perfect combination of sweet cabbage, savory veal, and rich and flavorful yet not the least bit overwhelming sugo d'arrosto. The pappardelle, clearly homemade, had perfect texture, although somewhat marred by the oddly flavored duck confit with citrus and cilantro adding a jarring Asian accent.

Other people seem to love this place. With its generous portions and well-priced wine list, I can appreciate its appeal for a business lunch or dinner, but I think I'm done now.

Last tried: June 2007
Perbacco seems to be hitting its stride a bit more consistently. The tortelloni filled with prosciutto in brodo with fresh peas was well balanced and better than any of the dishes tried on my first visit. The strawberry sorbet was refreshing yet creamy with the right amount of sweetness and fresh tart flavors (the supermarket-type strawberry shortbread rounds I could have done without).

I'm curious to see whether Perbacco will continue to improve.

Tried: January 2007
Perbacco is the new restaurant in the space that formerly housed The Gold Coast, an unpretentious watering hole in the San Francisco financial district that used to have cups of cigarettes at the bar, flouting the nonsmoking regulations. The only remnant of the old bar appears to be the exposed bricks. The entire space, although still somewhat awkward in dimension, has been transformed into an impressive-looking restaurant, a destination worthy of client entertainment. However, with Aqua on the same block and Italian restaurants the caliber of A16, Quince, and Delfina just a short cab ride away, Perbacco needs some seasoning before it can stand up to these establishments.

The first obstacle we encountered was the inexperienced service. Although very friendly and well-intentioned, our server had little knowledge about the menu or the wine list. When I asked about the difference in sauce between the agnolotti with sugo d'arrosto and the tagliatelle with pork sugo, she either did not know or could not explain and ended up just reciting the written contents and descriptions of the menu back to me. After several such problems, we decided that we should navigate the menu on our own. Fortunately Perbacco's menu offers many delicious-sounding options, ranging from crudos and salumi to small plates, pastas, and main courses of fish, poultry, and meat. Perhaps most diners do not order items from each category? After our first several courses, all of the plates, breadsticks, and silverware were cleared away as though we had asked for the check even though we were still awaiting the grilled dry-aged sirloin steak.

The second obstacle was the inexperienced kitchen. Our crudos were served too warm (fortunately they were fresh enough to withstand this minor mistreatment); our pastas were all overcooked; and our steak was so rare that the meat was bloody and pulpous as though it had just been slaughtered and laid to rest for a moment on one side near the grill. I could see, however, that the flavors and seasonings were well integrated. Had the temperature issues been addressed, the dishes could have been quite good.

The upside. The grissini (thin breadsticks) and salsa verde served in lieu of the standard bread and butter are almost worth the trip alone. The long, thin, buttery, crunchy breadsticks are spectacular, and the bright green pureed salsa verde has just enough spice and garlic to complement the breadsticks beautifully.

Perbacco has potential. But it faces a lot of competition in San Francisco to be offering this type of cuisine without some critical attention to the details to make it come together.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Too Much Going on at Go Fish

Go Fish
641 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
Chef Cindy Pawlcyn
Ken Tominaga, Sushi Master
Chef Victor Scargle
Lunch and Dinner Daily

Go Fish on Urbanspoon

Tried: January 2007

Nothing was bad at Go Fish. In fact, the New England clam chowder was probably one of the best I have tasted-- with fresh clams that are not overcooked and a briny yet rich broth, not the least bit gloppy or thick, with the addition of Pernod adding a dimension of savory depth, topped with buttery, crispy crouton bits accentuating the fluffy chunks of potatoes and diced carrots and celery. The dining room was spacious yet comfortable, with large windows facing Main Street and a long sushi bar lining the back of the restaurant. The atmosphere and the food, including the enormous (and consequently unwieldy) menu, all reminded me of Lettuce Entertain You restaurants in Chicago. While consistent with Cindy Pawlcyn's background, this impression did not enhance my pleasant but unremarkable dining experience at Go Fish.

The problem. While nothing was technically bad, nothing was great at Go Fish either, apart from the service which was attentive and welcoming without being overbearing. The sushi, particularly with Ken Tominaga from Hana in the billing, could have been better. The kanpachi carpaccio was actually hamachi, and not really "carpaccio," just slices of less than ideally fresh hamachi swimming in a thick yuzu-miso vinaigrette that tasted more like creamy Italian dressing. Although thinner slices of the fish would have diminished the creaminess of the hamachi, I expected something different or unique with the description, "carpaccio." I liked the cucumber and ikura (salmon roe) garnishes on the hamachi, but the ikura were not fresh enough nor brined enough to provide the requisite salty accent. The hirame sashimi, on the other hand, served with wedges of creamy deep-pink ankimo (monkfish liver, my favorite after duck liver) topped with pine nuts and served with ponzu were as delicious as they were pretty.

My favorite among the sampled dishes was the seared scallop topped with seared foie gras served in a nest of kaitafi-- sweet, crispy shredded phyllo dough-- accompanied by hearts of palm and wedges of grapefruit and orange. It was rich, sweet, savory, and refreshing all at the same time. If I had a complaint about this dish, it would be that I wanted more of the perfectly seared and seasoned foie gras. I did not try the shellfish raw bar items, the soup of the day, sandwiches, ceviche, sweetbreads, steak, the Japanese noodles or the tempura.

The featured item on the menu, "Fish Your Way," included five different fish selections ranging in price from $18-$27, prepared in one of three cooking methods (sauteed, poached or grilled) with the diner's choice of sauce-- a la Tom Colicchio's menu styling at Craft-- scallion ginger sauce, tartar sauce, red wine fumet (concentrated fish stock infused with leeks, onion, celery), lemon caper brown butter, olive and piquillo pepper tapenade, and ginger curry butter. This does not include any side dish which must be ordered a la carte, but both the fish and the side dishes are quite generous in portion. I selected the opakapaka, poached, and asked that the chef select whatever sauce would go best with the preparation. The result was not bad, even though the electric green scallion ginger sauce was undersalted and the fish overcooked, and the opakapaka was quite fresh, which I appreciated. I preferred the Pacific Snapper, with its crispy sauteed skin, in a clear carrot-ginger broth, even though this too was underseasoned. The broth was soothing and the thin slices of sunchoke, radish, and carrot garnishing the fish were vibrant.

For dessert, I tried the lemon verbena panna cotta with quince doughnut and huckleberry compote. The flavor of the panna cotta was nice but the texture was too thick such that it seemed more like a custard, and both the huckleberry compote and the quince doughnut were a bit on the too-sour side.

I guess I was expecting more from the announcement that Scargle had become involved with this venture. Since he is not even listed on the web site, I am wondering whether this is just an interim gig for him until he finds something more stable and permanent, given the rumors about the financial viability of COPIA, where his previous restaurant, Julia's Kitchen, was housed. I'm glad I tried it and may even go back if Scargle remains long enough to streamline the menu and add his own touch.

Best Dishes of 2017

1.      Dad's Luncheonette  Cheeseburger Sandwich and Herb Salad 2.      Bakesale Betty Fried Chicken Sandwich 3.      Carney Dog 4....