Thursday, December 10, 2009

Observations on Top Chef Season 6

Crossovers between Top Chef and The Truman Show:

  • "So I grabbed the Calphalon non-stick pan ..." (Kevin)
  • "We all got into the Venza and headed to Whole Foods ..." (Bryan Voltaggio)

Are we really supposed to believe that these lines came from the chef himself (especially that one)?

  • "I did watch Michael Chiarello on [Top Chef ]Masters. He is an awesome chef. He has pioneered fine dining in the Napa Valley." (Michael Voltaggio)
  • "The Napa Valley Wine Train is known for great cuisine." (Michael Voltaggio)

What on earth did Kevin do to tick off the producers? Maybe the M Resort wanted to recoup the cost for all those High-Stakes Quickfires by betting against the leading contender? Not to dispute the culinary talents of the Voltaggio brothers (or of Harold from Season 1), but Kevin got screwed almost as badly as Tiffani did on Season 1 with his sous chef selections.

Really, you had to boot out the two moms after just the introductory childhood memory appetizer and not let them stay to taste the remaining 3 courses? Chintzy much?

Why make savory chefs do dessert, especially now that Top Chef is spinning off Top Pastry Chef?

Bravo finally seems to have caught on that making chefs responsible for decor in Restaurant Wars is pointless. Will it ever come to the realization that event catering is different from restaurant cooking?

I appreciated and completely agree with Harold's comment that he hates the question, "Did you taste your food?" (the Top Chef equivalent of the "Did you stop beating your wife" cross-examination). Can we also get rid of the "Why do you deserve to be Top Chef" question? When did oral advocacy become part of a cooking competition? Perhaps I should be prepared to cook an omelette at my next motion hearing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Do you have any food restrictions?"

When I get asked this at a restaurant, my answer is always "no, I eat everything." Which is largely true (these days, large seems to be the operative word, but I digress), since I would hate to miss anything, even if some components may be less desirable in the gastronomical scheme than others. At the risk of sounding [even more] horribly spoiled though, sometimes I am still tempted to think out loud:

1. Lobster

Almost always overcooked and frankly really boring, but it's expensive so it must be good.
No thanks.

2. Truffle oil

There is only word to describe this ingredient-- gross.
I would rather eat unadorned sodium alginate.

3. Lobster WITH truffle oil

4. Seared scallops

I doubt I will ever recover from being sick of this preparation.

5. Beef tenderloin

Might as well have a boneless skinless chicken breast; not much difference in flavor or texture.

Honorable Mention: Crab cakes (I have not seen this item included in anything but a bar menu in quite some time, but still, why would someone do this to something as wonderful as crab?)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Morning Laughs

In the midst of a truly heinous week (two more work days left!), I appreciate anything that makes me chuckle, even in pathetic agreement.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chef-Writers

I love reading Anthony Bourdain. He is sarcastic, funny, entertaining, and insightful-- what is not to like? I have never once thought I would really like to taste his cooking, but who cares?


I can tolerate reading Michael Ruhlman. Even if he were not constantly reminding you that he went to CIA and is formally trained as a chef, he is in fact quite erudite in the culinary arts and not a half-bad writer. Even though I do not feel that my life is incomplete for never experiencing his cooking, I would generally prefer to read his writing over listening to Andrew Knowlton or Toby Young.


The ones that make me shrink and feel insignificant are those who are incredible chefs AND also good writers. With what free time is Daniel Patterson able to create such masterful tasting menus at Coi and write pieces for publications like New York Times and San Francisco Magazine? While I have never been a huge fan of his cooking style, no one could dispute the chefly credentials of Grant Achatz. When he publishes a piece that is thoughtful, well-written, and entertaining, the refrain that runs through the back of my mind is That is really not fair.

I can crank out a decent motion for summary judgment; I cannot crank out anything more complicated than Eggs Benedict (and I cheat because I would never serve it unless accompanied, or rather distracted, by a bottle of good bubbly).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Restaurant Website Issues

  1. Why must basic information like days and hours of operation be so difficult to find? A simple home page showing address, phone number, and hours may be pedestrian but also practical and helpful.
  2. Why must there be so many graphics such that the site takes forever to load, particularly on mobile devices?
  3. Can I please see a sample wine list, along with the sample menu, so that I can be prepared when I show up that the majority of the wine selections are priced above $100/bottle? Or worse, include only domestic wines?
  4. I doubt that Thomas Keller, Michael Mina, or Wolfgang Puck will be expediting my dinner. Would it be so disillusioning to post an easily accessible bio of the person who might actually be doing that at a particular kitchen?
  5. The cheesy music whose graphic I cannot immediately locate in order to turn the sound off is not only irritating, but makes it more likely that I will turn to alternative sites, like Yelp, to get restaurant information during the work day so that I am not announcing my potential dinner plans to the entire office.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

More Reasons To Admire Those Who Toil in Restaurants

Alternate title for post:
Why I would drink [even more] excessively if I worked in a restaurant.

I recently had the opportunity to shadow a sommelier at a high-end restaurant during dinner service. Apart from confirming my belief that I would so be fired before the end of the shift if some restaurant were actually crazy or desperate enough to hire me, one thing that stands out starkly in my memory from that experience is how insignificant, dismissed, and non-human I felt around the diners. I have heard servers talk about feeling invisible, but that was not quite it. I was definitely visible, since people clearly saw me and asked me for things, but it was more of a benign lack of acknowledgement of my existence, coupled with an attitude of entitlement.

To illustrate, I was floored to read about diners complaining about servers and bussers trying to clear their plates when they are not finished eating. On the flip side, I have also heard complaints about plates not being cleared fast enough once people are done eating. Yet these are the same crazies who begrudge servers the measly 15% gratuity they deign to leave, after expecting their every desire to be fulfilled immediately, getting irritated if servers do not tell them enough about the food, if servers tell them too much about the food, if servers hover, if servers fail to apparate at their side the moment they want ___________. Do not even get me started on diners who decide to pop into a restaurant two minutes before closing and then get grouchy at being "rushed." How happy do you get when your boss gives you a project at 5pm on a Friday. Are lack of manners de rigueur for dining out these days?

Those would be front of the house issues. The kitchen has a whole other set of issues with which to contend. A recent episode of Top Chef Masters had the chef contestants preparing a meal for a vegetarian who does not eat dairy and has a gluten allergy. The following are some examples of actual conversations I have had with people at work trying to decide where or what to eat:

"I don't like poultry."
"What about turkey at Thanksgiving?"
"Fine, I like turkey and chicken, but nothing else."
"Rabbit tastes like chicken."
"No."

"I won't eat organs."
"You loved foie gras."
"That was before I found out it was liver."

"Indian sounds good, as long as I don't have to eat lamb."

"I don't like ground meat, except hamburgers."

"I can't eat cheese because I'm lactose intolerant." (Cheese does not contain lactose.)

"Sausages gross me out."
"What about hot dogs?"
"Hot dogs are okay."

"I want my steak well-done."

"I don't like raw fish."

"I don't like seafood."

"I eat everything. Except sweetbreads."

"I don't like spicy food."

"I put Tabasco on everything."

Feel like ripping your hair out yet? After training for years, accepting all kinds of abuse, and being paid pittance for most of your career, why would you subject your culinary creations to this type of audience. I am frankly surprised that chefs do not hack off one of their ears in frustration.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Flour + Water Missing Something

Flour + Water
2401 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 826-7000
Chef Thomas McNaughton
Dinner nightly

Flour + Water on Urbanspoon

As Anton Ego noted in Ratatouille, it takes someone or something else to provide perspective. After finally trying the much-lauded Vetri in January 2012, I now understand why people love Flour + Water so much. Comparatively speaking, it is better executed and better priced. Why is Italian so difficult?

Last tried: December 2011

This is a perfectly nice neighborhood joint, with hearty, homey dishes that are almost as appealing as SPQR or Cotogna and a well-priced wine list. But I still do not understand the reason for the national hype.

Tried: August 2009

Scoring high with the critics early in the game is both impressive and certainly good for business. During an economic climate when many restaurants would kill to get even a half-full dining room on a weekend evening, there was already a long line of people spilling onto the street corner in front of Flour + Water at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday night, all vying for one of the cramped tables in the deliberately shabby-chic interior.

I have to admit I was definitely curious after it had garnered three stars from Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle. While I am not a huge fan of his dismissive and somewhat antiseptic writing style, the man does have a palate. In this instance, however, he raised my expectations way too high, and perhaps any new restaurant, no matter how talented the kitchen, was bound to fail to meet them under the circumstances.

Flour + Water does quite a decent margherita pizza, with the appropriate blistery crust, aromatic basil, and sweet tomatoes, without any of the underlying blandness that can mar this type of pizza if the pizzaiolo does not calibrate the balance exactly right. Plus, the fior di latte mozzarella was so delectable that I did not even miss mozzarella di buffala.

The rest of the menu, unfortunately, reminded me of a pretty girl who does not know how to use makeup or dress to complement her looks. The meaty Monterey Bay sardines, although nicely charred, were dry and underseasoned, not helped by the overpowering mint puree smeared on the plate as though it were an afterthought. The yellow cherry tomatoes and clump of undressed watercress on the side, while both beautiful and fresh ingredients in and of themselves, were similarly out of place, leaving the entire dish to taste minty, fishy, and undersalted.

The oxtail "terrine" was actually not a terrine at all but deep-fried croquettes filled with oxtail confit. The meat was exactly as tender as it should be, and the crispy fried exterior was satisfying to the point that I did not mind that it was a little burnt, but the odd sweet sauce with its slightly Asian flavor drizzled around the plate clashed with the seasoning of the oxtail "terrine," as well as with the shards of parmeggiano artfully placed around the arugula on which the croquettes were presented. The most frustrating part of the dish was the generous scattering of chanterelle mushrooms, one of my favorite ingredients, which were gritty. I still ate them, suffering through the unpleasant crunch of the grit against my teeth echoing through my head, in the same way that I refuse to stop eating oysters when less-expert shuckers leave pieces of shell in them.

I had heard so much about the hand-made pasta that I had to try one notwithstanding the slight disappointments of the other dishes. Each component of the thick spaghetti with butter beans and pancetta in a tomato sauce was prepared exactly right. The pancetta was rendered down to the point where the pieces were crispy yet retained their bacony-meatiness, the butter beans were soft and creamy, and the thick spaghetti were cooked to exactly the al dente texture I like, with that chewy tug reminiscent of good soba. Nonetheless, as a whole the dish looked and tasted like a slightly better rendition of something I might have at home on leftover night.

Sadly, if Bauer had given Flour + Water his standard two and half stars, I might have loved it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In Search Of ...

A taste (and I mean, just a taste) of sublime, tender, juicy pastrami prepared by Chef de Cuisine J.P. Carmona as an amuse at the Iron Chef dinner at Manresa Restaurant a couple of months ago fired up my pastrami craving. Otherwise, I have found to date no place on the West Coast, in either Northern or Southern California, that matches the platonic ideal of the pastrami from Katz's Deli in Manhattan (although The Refuge in San Carlos probably comes closest, notwithstanding the mildly spongy texture and slight cinnamony flavor).

I have generally been so impressed with the artisan sandwiches and salads created by the crew at Kitchenette, a little catering outpost on the edge of San Francisco in an area that looks like a cleaned-up version of Thunderdome, that I purposely manufactured a reason to be in the City on the day they posted pastrami on the menu. Yet even Kitchenette's pastrami disappointed. Too chewy, too peppery, with the necessary interspersed fat layers gristly instead of melty.

I gave up and ordered pastrami from Katz's on line (more feasible than begging a Michelin two-star restaurant to make me a sandwich). It suffered a bit in transit, and probably the first and only time I would pay over $20 for a sandwich, but it assuaged my craving for the time being short of actually flying to New York. I am not quite that crazy yet.

Other cravings that all seem to require travel, some farther than others: ramen, burger, pizza, fried chicken.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Conversations with the Chef

Whenever possible, my favorite way to eat in a restaurant is "omakase," i.e., chef's choice. Of course, this generally only works in restaurants I have frequented previously, although it also works sometimes in places with open kitchens where the chef notices that I am eating everything not nailed down, or at least not faster than my fork, chopsticks, or fingers.

The best part of omakase dining is the opportunity to try something new or unusual, which might include something that the chef is excited about having recently created or something he enjoys eating himself (I am referring to the chefs I know, who happen to be male, so I am not intending to be sexist with this pronoun usage). Sometimes the chef is testing something out on me, which is flattering as well as fun. Sometimes the chef is showing off to remind me that his kitchen prowess is even greater than hitherto expected. Sometimes the chef is treating me to a taste of something extraordinary because he knows I am celebrating a special occasion (which can frankly be just eating at his restaurant).

The stressful part is when the chef comes by to say hello or checks in to see how I like a particular dish. I have just experienced an incredible expression of the chef's artistry. What words can I use to convey on the spot, at that moment in time, not only mesmerized by the flavors I had just experienced but also with whatever minimal literary skills I possess further impaired by the accompanying wine or sake, exactly how mindblowing the poached geoduck with ponzu and grated daikon was, how the flavor of the freshly shucked baby peas melted in my mouth with the white chocolate and mint, or how the pink, tender duck breast slices with their outlines of savory, melty, charred fat blended perfectly with the chewy, earthy and creamy farro risotto.

As highly descriptive words like "wonderful" or "delicious" escape from my mouth, I want to yell, do you have any idea how amazing this food is?

Thankfully for most of these chefs the answer is of course I do, you silly drunk person.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Places I've Eaten in Tokyo

**Places I would go back to eat
*Closed

Birdland
Butagumi
Chisen
Daiwa Sushi (cash only)
Elevage
Esaki
Harukiya (cash only)
Ivan Ramen (cash only ordering machine)
Jangara Ramen
Kagurazaka Ishikawa
Kebab Box
Koju
Kyorakutei
Maison de Caviar Beluga
Motoyama Milk Bar
Nemuri-an (cash only)
Nenrinya
Nihombashi Isesada
Numazu Uogashi Zushi
La Rochelle
Rokukakutei
Rokusan-tei
Ryugin
Salvatore
San Marco Curry House
Snaffles
Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza (cash only)
Sushi Dai (cash only)
Sushi Isano (near Ebisu Garden)
Sushi Mizutani (cash only)
Sushi Sukeroku
Tempura Motoyoshi (cash only)
Tetsugama (cash only ordering machine)
Tokyo Ramen Street Hirugao (cash only ordering machine)
Tokyo Ramen Street Rokurinsha (cash only ordering machine)
Tsurutanton
Tonki
UCC Cafe Plaza
Ukai-tei

** I had some difficulty making this decision for the places I tried in Tokyo-- for the opposite reason from the Lake Tahoe eateries. For some, where the hype and the actual experience were quite disparate, the election was quite easy. For others, I went back and forth because if it were not for the travel and expense involved, I would certainly have marked it among the italicized "Places I would go back to eat," except that in reality, I would likely not actually go back the next time I return to Tokyo because there are so many other places I would like to try (not sure when but still fun to daydream about) and frankly, there are less expensive places in the United States that I like better.

I need to learn to read Japanese. The most intriguing places have no English menus and no pictures or plastic food displays ...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ingredient Issues

I read an awful lot of complaints about people being sick of tuna tartare. What is rarely discussed in those complaints is the reason why so many tuna tartares are lackluster-- most places that offer the dish do not know how to treat the ingredient. From the hands of talented chefs, I would not mind eating tuna tartare everyday. For example, when Sarah Schafer was at Frisson, she offered a clean, beautiful tuna tartare with wasabi sorbet. Bruce Hill has always been a master of tuna tartare and his version offered at Picco, with shiso, soy, sesame, and Asian pear on crispy, chewy sushi-rice blini, is positively addictive. Even Sushi of Gari offers a tuna tartare sushi, with rice-flour deep fried wakame "chips" layered between the soy-sesame-sake marinated tuna on top and the rice "quenelle" underneath.

My main complaint these days though is not about tuna tartare. I know where to find the good ones, who I trust to prepare it, and to avoid the rest. My gripe today is about sweetbreads-- another ingredient whose popularity seems to be inversely proportional to the number of preparations executed well.

Don't get me wrong-- I am definitely happy not to see much of the gamey, not completely cleaned, brainey, undercooked variety anymore-- I have no interest in bidding for Andrew Zimmern's job. While I am happy to see sweetbreads offered on more restaurant menus, I am finding that the ubiquitousness of this one safe offal has resulted in most variations being bland and disappointing. Why is it that chefs who are so particular about everything else have no problems overcooking sweetbreads, turning them into essentially tasteless kernels of dessicated chicken nuggets, and then trying to hide the fact that it has been mistreated with lots of bacon (although I have to admit that one is not necessarily the worst strategy), layers of thick chicken-fried batter, or worst yet, some affected top shelf attempt at a sweet and sour sauce (do not even get me started on restaurants that still insist on trying to relive the Wolfgang Puck 80's).

Like with tuna tartare, I keep trying them, hoping someone would make them taste as good as they can be. Because when they are prepared well, they can be truly magnificent.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Frustrated With Top Chef

Does it seem that Top Chef should be more appropriately titled Top Caterer?
Do we really care how well the cheftestants prepare hors d'oeuvres on steam tables for 400 people? As if that Today Show bit was not bad enough-- are we really looking for the Next Food Network Star with Season 5?
Wondering if Food Network's shortened version, Chopped, will be any better. (Answer: No, but Chopped All-Stars was fun to watch)
I am still curious to see whether Fabio, Stefan, and Jamie can really cook. And not for a party of 800. Isn't that why Colicchio is doing Tuesdays with Tom, as opposed opening yet another Lettuce Entertain You type restaurant in Las Vegas or Houston or Atlantic City?
Lastly, how many contrived lines do you think Toby Young prepares in advance of each taping, hoping to come across as clever and/or funny, achieving neither?

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...