Thursday, November 29, 2007

(XLB x 2)+(Incanto x 3courses)= FULL

Despite the fact that I will be returning to SF for a few more days in a week and a half, I went out in a blaze of excessive eating glory yesterday. I kicked off the day with another double dose of xiao long bao in the Richmond, which confirmed my preference for those at Shanghai House. In my opinion, Shanghai Dumpling King's are a bit too sweet and have a less delicate pork flavor. SH's vegetarian goose was also good, very crisply fried and lightly sauced with sweet soy. On a previous visit, the same dish at SDK arrived not only cold but still slightly frozen in the center... never a positive quality. I also tried the cold tripe in chili oil (listed on the menu in a less appealing fashion simply as "cow stomach") at SDK, which was tasty but cut in thick, irregular hunks instead of shaved, of which I much prefer the latter.

After recovering for a good few hours, I moved on to Incanto, my fifth visit in as many weeks. I had come with the intention of just sampling the truffled mortadella agnolotti, but of course the menu had a multitude of new offerings that I found impossible to resist. This resulted in ordering three courses (all morbidly decadent, incidentally), to be consumed all by my lonesome. First off was the enigmatically alluring cod milt bruschetta with shaved fennel. I had assumed that milt was some unfamiliar term for roe... what arrived was a large piece of grilled bread topped with a delicate, pale, creamy mass that looked a lot like calves' brains. Its rich and melting texture, only barely hinting of fishiness, was offset nicely by the crunchy shaved fennel and crisp-chewy bread. Upon returning home, a google search revealed the reality of cod milt... it would seem that I swallowed more than I had bargained for! At first I found that thought pretty... off-putting, you could say. But really, is it so different in concept than eating caviar, or any eggs for that matter? And uni is in fact ovaries, from what I've understood (another polarizing delicacy of which I am a fan). But moving on... Next came another crostino, this time topped with two fat slices of seared foie gras, bits of braised pig trotter, a slice of bacon and sauteed pieces of pear. One third of the way and I wasn't sure I was going to make it to my next course, let alone through this plate. Delicious, yes, but it was truly one of the richest dishes I have ever eaten, anywhere. Oddly, I wasn't into the trotter component; its formlessness and bland fattiness detracted from the foie, whose richness was overwhelming enough already. However the relatively lean bacon partenered very well, its sweet-salty chew providing an interesting dynamic. I would say that the dish as a whole could have used a bit more acidity, as the fairly ripe pears were merely sweet and not at all astringent. Finally, ready to keel over, I mustered up the will to face the agnolotti for which I had originally come in the first place. Showered with shaved fresh truffles (which must have been domestic, given the low price), they were worth it. I didn't love the slightly grainy texture of the ground mortadella filling, which for some reason I had expected to be smoother, but the sweet, subtle flavor with just a hint of nutmeg was very nice. The brown butter sauce was once again velvety and well-balanced.

Third course conquered at last, I rolled myself to Cafe Flore in hopes that espresso might cut through the discontent in my maxed out belly. To no avail, my tummy ache lasted all night, through my flight and into this morning.

I guess gilding the lily has its consequences.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pomegranate madness, lumache insanity, and the ubiquitous persimmon: autumn in San Francisco

This is the first time I've been in San Francisco during the fall, and I must admit it's quite pleasant. It's still sunny most of the time and fairly warm during the day, which is certainly more than can be said of Minneapolis at the moment. Menus are featuring fuyu persimmons, pomegranates, stinging nettles, truffles (for a stiff supplemental fee), game birds, fresh porcini, braising greens, heirloom apples and pears, winter squash and so forth. Our Thanksgiving was a blow-out feast: butternut squash soup with creme fraiche and lemon thyme, apple and watercress salad with kurobuta pork belly (braised with the porchetta mixture from Roli Roti, then sliced and pan fried), gingery sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce (with grapefruit zest, ginger and star anise), swiss chard gratin, roasted cauliflower (with chilies, capers and toasted breadcrumbs), yukon golds (with lots of bacon, shallots, garlic, lemon zest and parsley), stuffing with Italian sausage from Boccalone, Chinese roast duck (better, easier and even cheaper than turkey!), buttermilk biscuits, and apple crisp with ice cream. Food coma ensued!

In no particular order, some selected dining experiences....

A few days ago Zuni thankfully redeemed itself from what what was a pretty poor lunch experience several months ago. Good oysters, friendly service, a killer bloody mary (every bloody should have fresh shallots!!), pizza with a good crust, and a truly standout salad of juicy, seared rabbit loin and thin strips of belly on frisee with pomegranate seeds (see?) and shockingly sweet and flavorful pecans. The nocino pot de creme was pretty wonderful, too.

Although not completely perfect, Incanto once again provided a great meal. The biggest disappointment was that they were out of the roasted lamb's neck, the item we had come specifically for on this visit. A crepinette of pork and sweetbreads was so-so in and of itself, but the aioli on the plate was stellar, as was the little watercress salad dressed with a tasty and elusively flavored vinaigrette. Chicken liver ravioli were a bit undercooked (floury raw dough was visible at the seams), but the mousse filling was lushly decadent. The accompanyng balsamic brown butter sauce was perfectly balanced and emulsified, providing just the proper acidity to cut through the rich sweetness of the liver. But the real stars of the meal were the lumache, aka large, tender burgundy snails, which were simply warmed and served atop two purees, one vibrantly green and grassy with parsley, and then a sweetly mellow white garlic one that I suspect contained bread. Atop it all were fried slices of garlic whose slightly bitter edge pulled everything into focus. It was the perfect trinity of snails, parsley and garlic, but without the usual triple helping of butter that you get in France... not that I have anything against garlic butter. Once again we both had different wine flights (northern reds and Tuscan reds, respectively), which I think is a really nice option, especially for a wine philistine such as myself. Finally, moist, warm ginger bread with butterscotch and ice cream was a comforting last indulgence.

We ate crab in two different Chinese joints, the first of which being Chinatown's Great Eastern Restaurant (very very good dim sum, albeit cart-less), the second of which being at Superior Seafood Palace in the outer Richmond. We ordered our crab sauteed with scallions and ginger at Great Eastern, and although it was extremely good, towards the end we couldn't help but covet the crab of the guy next to us, which had been fried and jazzed up with something or other. Plus that guy didn't have to share with anybody... a decided bonus. We ordered a similar preparation at Superior Seafood Palace, and though it was less flavorful it was still very good, plus it cost about five bucks less AND came on a absurd amount of saucy fresh egg noodles.

Little Sichuan in San Mateo is as spicy as I remember it... crimson chili oil bathed tender ribbons of cold shaved honeycomb tripe and beef, and dumplings came literally floating in a big bowl of the stuff. The cold noodles also had no small measure of kick from the oil, although the coolness of the shredded cucumber served to mitigate the heat slightly. Szechwan pepper tied another common thread, numbing the lips and providing floral undertones. A scallion pancake rounded out the spread, but it was not as good as some others I have had (mm, Shanghai Dumpling King....).

Good old Okazu-Ya in the Sunset was as tasty as usual (although our hotate nigiri left something to be desired), but the oysters proved to be one of the best deals in town: $6.95 got us a half dozen Fanny Bays on ice, each topped with a bit of crunchy tobiko, along with a savory-sweet scallion mignonette that we guess must have included soy, mirin and rice vinegar.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The verdict is in: pork tastes delicious

It's been a veritable whirlwind of eating this past week in San Francisco, and the photos are starting to pile up deep on my camera's memory card (plus quite a few of a certain moustachioed Capitan). Food highlights have included...

-Fantastically tender garlic-butter poached squid and other good things at Canteen
-Many treats at Tartine (such as the unbeatable bread pudding), as well as a very nice dinner at Bar Tartine, which was highlighted by roasted marrow (how could one ever go wrong scooping delicious beef fat straight from the bone onto grilled bread??), as well as meltingly tender braised veal cheeks and perfectly executed gnocchi whose sweet, pure potato-y nature was made to shine
-Lots of good stuff from Pizzeria Delfina, though the clam pie was a let-down
-Many excellent things at Incanto, particularly the seared pork liver, all the salumi (they have an artisan salumi sister-company, Boccalone), and incredible spaghettini topped with an egg yolk and generous grating of intense, bottarga-like cured tuna heart (!)
-Unbeatably cheap and good banh mi from Saigon Sandwiches
-Ridiculously flavorful pork meatballs with braised greens at A16, as well as ciccioli that gives French rillettes a serious run for the money
-Two doses back-to-back of xiao long bao (those inimitable Shanghai soup dumplings) and other treats, at Shanghai Dumpling King and Shanghai House, respectively
-As always, otherwordly porchetta from the Roli Roti truck at the Ferry building, which I plan to consume religiously every Saturday for as long as I'm here

So, it's clearly been a pork-heavy week here, but that's suits me just fine. In fact, tomorrow already being porchetta day once again, I just might continue the trend a bit longer.....

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dispatch from Lexington, Nebraska

Much has transpired since I last posted, and now here I am, post-Harry's, at a Days Inn somewhere in central Nebraska. Between a toast and jam breakfast and lunch in El Paraiso in neighboring Cozad, we are eating our way to the sunny shores of the Pacific (ones not engulfed in flames, that is). We had a major strike out in that endeavor last night at Don and Millie's just outside Omaha. Our quarry was the cheese frenchee: a deep fried battered and cornflaked mayo-cheese sandwich. The reality: a bland, crumb-coated abomination of a grilled cheese. Onion rings were similarly crumbed and unappealing (although improved by dunking in ranch-- obtained at the big pump at the cash register), and even the morbidly enormous chili-cheese dog was curiously bland and extra greasy. The food settled in our stomachs like a cinderblock, and even the 99 cent margaritas didn't improve things.
Hopefully today we will fare better!

Monday, September 24, 2007


.... and yes, I've already preordered mine!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Biopsy: The Sequel... more dispatches from the infirmary...

Immobilized by our respective bum legs, Andy and I are holed up once more in the living room, with only laptops, DVDs, Vicodin and the sporadic company of roommates and visitors to amuse us. Summer is over. The days are increasingly chilly and gray, which adds to the sense of being marooned indoors. Indeed, this is the most time by far that I will have spent at home since before Harry's opened 9 weeks ago. I am thus afforded the opportunity to catch up on reading, movie-watching, laundry, and evidently, blogging. Despite working so much, there's been a respectable amount of dining in my life as of late, not least of all two weeks ago in Chicago. The breakdown:

Lunch: two different preparations of mole at Tepatulco, as well as ceviche and crepas with homemade cajeta. The ceviche was over-marinated and tasted slightly fizzy... not so nice. The moles (both red varieties), however, were great-- complex, rich and smooth. The corn tortillas were also fantastic, flavorful and resilient. The hot crepas were delicious except for the plantains, which were underripe, bland and starchy. Service was friendly yet somewhat inattentive, and oddly there was no agua fresca or other fruit juice in house. What's up with that? All in all, and in spite of the good mole, we could have done better for an excellent authentic Mexican meal. During the netherworld between lunch and dinner we bought gelato and chocolate from a very friendly man at Canady le Chocolatier.

Dinner: The one, the only... Charlie Trotter's. I was expecting a truly sublime meal, and that's certainly what I got. Naturally, we chose the Grand Menu (ie, "normal" non-vegetarian). I also requested to sample all of the desserts at the end of the meal, a request which was almost accomodated... I think maybe 2 or 3 things didn't appear, but we still had 6 (or 7?). Highlights from the meal... a gorgeous bowl holding monkfish, several varieties of seaweed, sea beans and the freshest salmon roe I've ever had, with hidden pools of kaffir lime sauciness and lemon creaminess.... tomato granité of astoundingly pure flavor.... a spicy yet balanced composition of, among other things, cockles, serrano and three preparations of celery (which reminded me of Michael's gazpacho at Auriga).... pickled ginger that we suspect to have been braised in lamb demi (whose scent and taste provoked in me an oddly strong association with my mom's adobo).... the shockingly harmonious flavor combination of canteloupe, feta and spearmint.... a perfect watermelon sorbet, topped with an impossibly tiny squash and its attached blossom.... a chocolate dessert incorporating Iberico chorizo..... and along with the entire meal great wines, the best of which being an incredibly honeyed and complex auslese riesling. Service was of course gracious, informed and, above all, inobtrusive. At the risk of sounding cliché, our dinner wasn't short of being.... pretty magical. But then it also had everything to do with me feeling damn lucky and happy to simply be there, sharing a beautiful experience with someone very special.

Figuring it couldn't hurt to top the night off with yet more food (coupled with the fact that we had botched our opportunity to go earlier for lunch), we decided to rush over to Blackbird for yet more dessert--- specifically the butterscotch-bacon ice cream. One cheese plate, two glasses of Tokaji wine and three desserts later, very serious food coma was beginning to take hold. The bacon ice cream was certainly awesome, but the overall combination of elements (mission fig beignets, raspberries), although plated beautifully, wasn't my favorite. The parmesan toast (like cheesy french toastix!) with peaches and olive oil ice cream was tasty but would have been much better had the olive oiliness come through. I would say my default favorite was the crepaze with rhubarb consommé and the best pistachio ice cream I've ever had-- although the promised candied celery was stringy and not candied at all. After falling unconscious on my friend's couch shortly after this orgy of desserts, we realized it was time to retire to the hotel.

The second day I struck out on my own, winding up in Chinatown. Although in search of dim sum at Shui Wah, I couldn't ignore the place a few doors down, Lao's Sze Chuan, whose windows were pasted over in press clippings. So, I did what any respectable eater would have done and ate two full meals back to back! At Shui Wah I had fried seaweed rolls (not so special), har gow (excellent), chive and shrimp dumplings (awesome), and pan fried chive dumplings (sweeeeet). Total, including tea and tip: about 12 bucks. Trying to capitalize on the time window before my hypothalamus would realize my stomach was full, I proceeded to Lao's, where I had very good cold spicy beef tendon and a huge, wonderful bowl of clam and tofu soup. In a daze of shrimp, chili oil and jasmine tea, I wandered into a bookstore a couple doors down and impulsively bought an instructional book written in Mandarin on the fine art of carving taro, daikon and carrots into frilly dragons, pandas playing the drums, monkeys grooming each others' butts, frolicking antelope and the like. Although I had a mind to return to Blackbird or Avec for dinner, I later continued the Asian eating theme of the day with a huge amount of sushi at a little place in Wrigleyville.

And thus ended the 36-odd hour Chicago Whirlwind of 'o7!

......unless you count the sausage-egg english muffin and chocolate milk I had at the truck stop during the bus ride back to Minneapolis.

It seemed so right at the time.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

...and now, in macro!

Macro lens-outfitted camera in hand, I venture forth to Chicago, for 36 hours of relentless and unrepentant eating.....

Alright, Charlie, hit me with your best shot!!

Monday, August 27, 2007

And now, my world as viewed through the lens of the *ist!!!!!

At long last I have uploaded my first batch of photos off my fairly new camera!!!!! See them all on Flickr. They also serve as a decent photo-narrative of the last 8 weeks during which I've been utterly absorbed in work (and subsequently not blogging).

A few of the more interesting dining highlights from lately:

La Belle Vie's lounge-- the Tomgirl cocktail (fantastic), foie gras (we decadently tried two different preparations), escargots and desserts. Freakin' wonderful. Followed by very good nigiri at Sushi Tango (toro, uni, unagi, hotate and ama ebi).

I also checked out the eagerly awaited Brasa, which was pretty good. I definitely want to go back and try the chicken, creamed corn bread, cheesy grits, braised collards, tapioca pudding......

Wilde Roast is pretty good, too.

Monday, August 20, 2007

On Food and Cooking (according to me)... aka, Juliette gets all new-agey up in here

My current job is having a tremendous impact on my perspective on food....

I am at last coming to fully embrace the fact that food is at the very forefront of my interests. Food is the lens through which I view the entire world around me. It informs many of my decisions, just as my mood informs my taste on any given day. Food is possibly the single most important thing to me in this world, and I'm finally starting to take real pride in that, as opposed to feeling somewhat bashful and geeky. Or maybe it's that I'm learning to take pride in my geekiness. More than anything, I'm coming to realize that I'm blessed to have found my passion so very early on in life, and to have been infinitely blessed with the privelege of being able to pursue it as a career. That is a truly wonderous and wonderful luxury that proportionally few people in this world are afforded. In fact, I experience no small dose of guilt from that fact... years back, at the height of my political activism I wanted to change the whole world, in that way that only kids think they can. Misogyny, racism, heterocentrism.... you name it, I would put an end to it! And then I burnt out. These days I'm less politically hardcore, at least in action, but I feel a real moral dilemma about how to incorporate the task of improving the world into my chosen life of preparing food. I know the two are compatible, in fact wildly so. The need to be nourished, spiritually and physically, exists in every living thing, and these days I find that we as the human race are generally lacking in both regards. So how to approach this task? That's the 64,000 dollar question. The recurring question I ask myself is "do I want to cook food for rich people food the rest of my life?" as well as its follow-up question "if I cook food for rich people the rest of my life, on my deathbed will I feel as though I have helped the world to be a better place for my children and their children?" Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not down on all rich people. In fact, in the grand scheme of the planet, I'm a pretty damn rich person myself. I guess more what I mean to say is, I create art, I am an artist, I create something of aesthetic and gustatory value mainly to serve the hedonistic desires of myself and others. Can't I do more?? Can't I improve the world while practicing my craft? Can't I affect some lasting change in this world on a small or even moderate scale? Can't I help save humanity through foodsy endeavors?

I guess I'll find out. But for now I completely love my job.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Queen of Prime

Last Friday marked my lifetime debut on sauté, and I am hooked. I feel like I never want to work another station ever again! Last Saturday I was almost swallowed a few times by the Prime Monster: three sizes of prime rib, carved to order, cooked to different temps, up with items from other stations... but we pulled through and emerged victorious in the end. It was exciting! Yet to pastry I am wed, and to her I must remain faithful. But perhaps I will be able to pick up some sauté shifts on a regular basis.

Computer finally fixed, I will hopefully soon be able to upload my many, many photos off of my new camera...

Sunday, August 05, 2007

29 Days Later

A day off! My FIRST!!! What better way to celebrate than to go out for a drink at... work! Ironically, I just can't stay away. I want to take a visiting friend there, and it appears as though today is my sole opportunity.
Amazingly, I had the chance to go out and grab some actual sit-down dinner on Friday night. I finally, after years of meaning to go, made it to the 112, which was of course bursting at the seams at around 9:00. I had the duck and radicchio salad and the steak tartare, both of which were good. And today I had yet another chance to eat out in the normal world, this time at the Chicago-y neighborhood joint Chris and Rob's (formerly known as Joey D's). Killer italian beef. Of course I've been photo-documenting all of this (and more than my fair share of last-calls at Grumpy's), but with no computer I can't post anything.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Still here, but I have traded civilian life for that of an increasingly depraved line cook for the time being.

Bare bones update:

-Momentum rapidly, frightfully gaining at Harry's.

-Got a new DigiSLR! But our computer is dead and so I cant upload photos from it :( Many barbecue and drunk-at-the-bar photos so far.

-Survived an EMG, in spite of quite literally wanting to die at certain points.

Obviously, working about 100 hours a week has a tendancy to cause a blogging standstill (not to mention eating, sleeping, interacting with other human beings, etc etc).

Updates again someday.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sugar, surgery, sweat and stress: the first half-week at Harry's Food and Cocktails

Above: us in the kitchen. I'm at left.

We've been public now since Thursday (the full website is yet to come), and are just starting to get our sea legs. Certain difficulties have been... considerable. Take, for instance, non (or barely) functioning major equipment (which willfully resist repair efforts), next to zero dry storage space (a zillion shelves soon to come), a frightfully (over)crowded walk-in, not to mention the insanity of a dozen or more cooks in a space that often seems as small as a ship's galley.

The way around having no acceptably functioning ovens on soft-opening day?

1.Pack up everything pastry related, veiling raw panic with incredulous humor at the surreal nature of the situation.
2.Call Rainbow Cab .
3.Take over part of a dear friend's bomb-ass prep kitchen a mile away. During lunch service. While said friend is (simultaneously?!) doing a tasting menu and a photo shoot for a magazine. (By the way, THANK YOU TIMES INFINITY, YOU ALL KNOW WHO YOU ARE.)

And what if on that day you're missing a sliver of quadricep from a muscle biopsy performed that morning at 7:00? Codeine sulfate and cyclobenzaprine, that's what.

Keep in mind that the above solution does not resolve the issue of unloading again back at the restaurant only to discover that there is almost nowhere to establish a dessert line, much less stock the prep anywhere...

Needless to say, desperate times called for desperate measures. Tony ain't got the monopoly on kitchen stories!! Things are much much calmer now, at least for the moment, as we try to organize systems in anticipation of the impending onslaught of customers.

In fact, it's the calm before the storm.

Friday, July 13, 2007


500 Washington Avenue South. You know the statue of the fat naked people dancing?

That's us.

Behind the scenes scoop coming soon.....

Monday, July 02, 2007

Hospital food and other (better) recent dining highlights

A few days ago I was served an enormous breakfast in bed of cheese blintzes with cherries, bacon, oatmeal, milk, coffee and apple juice. And at which bed and breakfast did I have the pleasure of vacationing? None other than Methodist Hospital, a most caring host--- albeit one whose rate will prove to be most, er, indulgent to a poor sucker such as myself without health insurance. It's been 13 years since I last spent any great length of time in a hospital. That breakfast was relatively edible but by no means good, though I will say that lunch the next day was actually pretty decent: chicken noodle soup, big turkey sandwich, macadamia nut cookie.

Needless to say, neither of these meals were especially memorable, due not least of all to my general haze of pain and displeasure of being hospitalized.
On to better things. I returned a second time to Queen of Sheba for more kitfo and tibs, and was certainly not disappointed. This time I took the kitfo cooked medium rare for Ryan's sake, and although I think I prefer it raw, it was still very good (except it seems that I did not get the version I had ordered). The special tibs were great, although I was less into the texture of the dried beef than I had expected to be. Otherwise, it was tangy, a bit spicy and with a great texture lent by the torn up injera that got all mushy, thereby binding the sauce together and making it easy to scoop up with yet more injera.
A couple weeks ago I dropped by Vincent for their happy hour, trying the tomato braised octopus (which turned out to be baby octopus) and the pommes dauphines (a bit greasy). Nothing to blow my socks off, but a steal for the price ($4 and $2.50, respectively). That plus a perfectly drinkable three buck glass of Chilean pinot noir equals a good deal that I'd probably go back for if I were in the neighborhood. Sadly, I missed out on the days of the happy hour 6 buck Vincent burger (now $8), although to be honest I saw a couple of them walk by while I was there and they looked more diminuitive than I recall from years past. My imagination?
While we're on the topic of burgers, let me segue to Barbette's Royale with Cheese. It was coincidence that I found myself there immediately after Dara covered this very burger, but with her endorsement in mind I ordered one up. Everything Dara wrote is true:
Each bite is gooey, beefy, funky, craveable, and just enough too much, if you know what I mean.
My sole point of contention (unrepentant gourmande that I am) is that I actually could handle a little bit more too much-- if you know what I mean.
Next up, the very cute Cafe Ena, sister to El Meson, both just up the street. The room is lovely, bathed in bright, warm tones of ochre and chiles, with rustic exposed beams and an airy, expansive feel from the wall to wall windows onto the street. Service was extremely friendly and eager to please, but not very competent on this particular day (no menus for a very long time, our appetizer came out after our entrees, etc). The menu is a unique blend of Latin cuisines without being over-the-top or inaccessable. Delivering fully on that potential, the food was all very good, from seared coriander-encrusted tuna salad to the ceviche (which included among other things sweet, buttery, morsels of sea scallop) to a dense wedge of flan (topped with strawberries and outstanding). Even the fries were great. My only concern is some of the prices, considering the neighborhood... for 12 or 14 bucks, we had expected the salads that include chicken or tuna to be more substantial, yet in fact their size, although not downright miniscule, was more so that of a first course. In this neighborhood which straddles the line between middle and upper-middle class, this fact could be a turn off to budget-minded families who could just as soon head a bit further down to The Malt Shop or Broders, or even to Bistro Levain, which offers a comparable price point yet larger portions. But then again El Meson seems to continue its success, and so hopefully people in the area will recognize the quality and uniqueness of Cafe Ena-- and make sure it sticks around. It's definitely a place I'm happy to have around the corner.
Priced most appropriately for my (lately nonexistant) income is Lu's Sandwiches, the teeny bánh mì joint located in the parking lot on the south side of Shuang Hur. For $2.50 you get your choice of 5 subs, which they toast up briefly. When eaten immediately (perched right there on the Nicollet curb, as I prefer to do) this gives you a warm, crisp crust to contrast the spicy, meaty and pickly guts. This is a procedure sidestepped by some places, and no matter how good the filling, makes all the difference. Of the all the tested contenders on the Vietnamese Nicollet strip, I do in the end prefer Quang's cold cut bánh mì, despite its untoastiness. It's got mayonnaise (I'm not a fan of Lu's use of butter), the pâté is peppery, everything is plentiful and fresh, and I do like the thickly sliced headcheese, in spite of its shocking firetruck red color. But Lu's has a couple options that Quang's does not, and I'll most certainly be back to try out at least the sour pork sausage. Ah, Vietnamese food. I love it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Saffron: get your ass down there!

Yesterday was a balls-to-the-wall eating extravaganza, kicking off at the Sibley Plaza strip mall gem Queen of Sheba and finishing with Saffron Restaurant and Lounge. Queen of Sheba will get their well-deserved shout out in another post... for now let's focus on Saffron, shall we?

Having opened in February, highly favorable reviews can be found from the Strib and MSP Mag, as well as in a growing thread on the Mpls Chowhound board. I agree with the lot: practically everything coming out of Saffron's kitchen vibrates with freshness, and the execution last night, from a cook's perspective, was mostly flawless. The unique thing about Saffron's food is its successful marriage of middle-eastern, north African and mediterranean influence. Recurrent are the flavors of harissa, mint, cumin, cinnamon, cilantro, parsley, za'tar, sumac and, of course, olive oil. At the same time, western luxe favorites such as ahi tuna and foie gras are enlivened by astringent, herbal tabbouleh and a dab of subtle rose jam, respectively. I had the luck to try almost everything on the menu-- a staggering 25 or so dishes which the four of us, in attack formation, took on 3 items at a time (we told them to just keep sending food until we could handle no more). A few favorites: deviled eggs topped with high-quality olive oil tuna, capers and a few blades of tarragon; rich and earthy house-made mirqaz (merguez) sausage, on a tangle of sweet and tender roasted red pepper confit; sugary date slivers with creamy, neutral goat cheese and fresh thyme; a special not-on-the-menu plate of beef carpaccio topped with spicy, zesty cumin-laced beef tartare, crisp fried chickpeas and brown butter; the delicate vegetable bisteeya which in my mind recalled baklava with its walnuts, almonds and crisp phyllo dusted with cinnamon powdered sugar. There were very few disappointments. The scallops had sounded promising, but the saffron sabayon was thin and lacking in flavor. The main course items we tried were well executed, but inherently less exciting than many of the small plate items-- yet at this point we were also getting to be quite stuffed, which consequently altered our perception. I had been thrilled at the thought of the house made lamb bacon accompanying the braised lamb shoulder, but in fact it had been simmered with the chickpeas and had therefore all but dissolved as far as we could tell. But apparently at lunch they offer a BLT featuring it in its rightful, unadulterated salty, lamb-y glory (at least, that's how I imagine it). Desserts (admittedly overkill for us at this point) were really nothing special, but not bad. A turkish coffee and chocolate ice cream was very nice and not too sweet, as was an intense cherry sorbet. Happily, Saffron also pulls a good espresso... I'm always so disappointed when a meal ends with bitter, watery coffee. Monday through Wednesday the already affordable wine is 1/2 price, and we drank a nice chablis followed by a tasty Oregon pinot noir.

Even after the dining room eventually filled completely, service thoughout the evening was attentive, efficient, friendly and very well-informed (despite just a few times when mint was verbally identified as basil, thyme as rosemary and other such finicky things that only stickler cooks --such as yours truly-- give a damn about). Our many courses came at a steady and appropriate pace, water and wine were generally refilled frequently, plates were cleared very quickly, and our server thoughtfully replaced our silverware and small tasting plates every couple of courses as they got all saucy.

I really do hope to see Saffron continue its success beyond a couple-month wave of popularity from favorable reviews. As I and many others have already expounded upon, the Minneapolis fine dining scene is a fickle mistress these days. So get out there, spend that extra 60 bucks or even 20 bucks burning a hole in your pocket, or else we'll be screwed with nothing but goddamned Wolfgang's worthless pan-asian blah blah blaaaah!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sick, twisted... and undeniably delicious

In the summer I love few things better than a fat burger from grass-fed beef, lovingly grilled over blistering hot coals to a wonderfully carcinogenic char, revealing a carnal medium-rare interior, served on a soft but substantial homemade bun with few or no fixin's. Like this one. Or Ryan's signature off-the-hook concoction of beef mixed with lots of diced red onion, good blue cheese, garlic and a hefty dose of black pepper.

But sometimes you find yourself wasted.

At 3am. Biking down Blaisdell Ave, about to cross Lake St.

Yes, friends and family, you know what that means: I paid a visit to The Castle. Yes, the white one. Ryan and I are both to blame for this, er, lapse in reason. We were truly enraptured by the sweet but deadly siren song known only as The Drunk Hunger. But you know what, those bacon double cheeseburgers (two each!) were preposterously good, perched there on the dirty Lake St curb while drunkenly dissecting the highly dubious merit of the term "steam-grilled." I don't know what heinous, biohazardous mojo they put in those damn things, but by god were they good at the time!!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Levain redux: Bistro Levain

Due to my underwhelming (read: empty) schedule, I made a point of being among the first kids on the block to scope out the reincarnation of Levain... out with high-fallutin' (read: exquisite) degustation, in with reasonably priced Frenchy food for the neighborhoodies: meet Bistro Levain, of which we've been recently hearing anticipatory rumblings. Now, I very very unfortunately never got to eat at the original Levain, so I can easily refrain from drawing comparison between the two. The following is a general breakdown of my evening on opening night, June 12th 2007...

Upon arriving at 8:00, the room was almost completely full, and subsequently quite noisy, which lends either a very convivial or irritating quality depending on your mood. Like the other diners, fortunately we were feeling convivial, although all the shouting around the table did prove a bit tiring. This was not aided by the fact that our table, a six top, was too large for our party of four, but of course that can't be helped when they're the last seats in the place, which I believe they were. So, settling into the bustle of the pleasant, low-lit (but not annoyingly dim), newly woodpaneled room, we ordered a nice bottle of 1995 reserve I-forget-the-details Rioja and opened our menus. The first thing that struck me were the encouraging prices: mussels available in two sizes, for 8 bucks or 14, nice salads for 6 to 9/ten-ish, main courses for I think as little as 12 and topping off at around 20. For the neighborhood, I find this price point to be decidedly correct. The second thing that struck me was momentarily a little more surprising: in this day and age of seasonal, local, farmer's market-driven dining hype, the menu at Bistro Levain is straightforwardly, well... bistro-y! See this excerpt from Wikipedia's definition:
A bistro is a familiar name for a type of small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in an unpretentious setting, especially in Paris, France. A bistro may not offer professional service or printed menus, and it will usually specialize in simple classic dishes such as steak au poivre, French onion soup, and coq au vin.

Small? Check. Unpretentious? Check. Moderately priced? Definite check. Simple? Another check. And although there's no steak au poivre, there was a hangar steak (mm, good ol' onglet... love it!), and also both onion soup and coq au vin. Which is to say, these are indeed bistro classics-- which, if you're like me, you might find to have a winter-weather, stick-to-your-ribs feel. Meat and potatoes. But, fair enough! We began with all three of the offered starters: a take on moules à la crème (the mussels here steamed with wine, a bit of cream, tomato and chives), breaded and fried frogs' legs with a sauce reminiscent of rouille and wedges of roasted fennel, and pork rillettes. A very thoughtful touch is the condiment caddy that every table receives, which this night featured a tasty corn relish, chopped marinated beets, quick-pickled shaved cucumber, and a loose and good aïoli. Next we shared an arugula salad with a creamy lemon vinaigrette and grilled marinated artichoke hearts, a chilled cucumber soup, and the French onion soup. For our mains, we got coq au vin, braised shortribs, roasted chicken and duck confit (yep, that last one was me). Another user-friendly system is that you choose your own side dish with all of the main courses, which can also be ordered à la carte. These included grilled asparagus with lemon, roasted brussels sprouts, mac n cheese, fresh fries, roasted (or sautéed? I forget) mushrooms, bread and tomato salad, and maybe even a few more I can't remember. So let's start at the beginning...

The mussels were well seasoned and fairly plentiful considering we had ordered the smaller size. The frogs' legs were presented simply and prettily arranged, offset by smears of the sauce and a couple wedges of the fennel. This dish, although not bad, was not a standout. The frog was, as frog frequently is, just like chicken, and therefore was like eating oddly shaped breaded chicken wings. The sauce added the only flavor to the otherwise bland and lean meat in its crisp coating, and the fennel, although tender and flavorful, we found to be overly oily. Them frogs' legs... I always want to like the idea (unlike most people), but the only really great ones I've ever eaten were at some Thai place in Miami when I was a kid. Oh well. I tasted only a bit of the rillettes. The seasoning was good, but I felt they lacked the lush, artery-clogging quality so inherent to that preparation. And one other little thing that bugged me: our bread baskets came with a dish of lovely big butter curls... which were fridge-cold and unspreadable. Argh!

I feel that our second course was the highlight of the meal. The salad was simple, properly dressed with a vinaigrette that reinforced the assertiveness of the arugula while still holding its own, and with ingredients as fresh and crisp as you could want. The artichokes were of the canned/jarred variety, but still very good and a bit warm and smoky from the grill. And wasn't there mozzarella on there too..? I think so. Anyhow. The cucumber soup was clean, pure, refreshing and subtle, maybe the best version of this classic I've had. Enhanced by a few drops of olive oil and just a mere spoonful of crème fraîche, the cool, melony nature of the vegetable was able to shine through. The texture was also just right, smooth but with some body, which we suspected might be thanks to a bit of buttermilk. And the French onion soup was a real champion! This is the kind of dish that holds no interest for me during summer months, but I had to sample it anyways... it turned out to be a little bowl of insanely rich, beefy stock, onion-sweet without being cloying, with a molten crown of good quality cheese. It truly had the substance and depth of demi-glace; I challenge anyone to find a better French onion soup this side of Bouchon (um, who I can only imagine to have a good version). On the side came a fluffy heap of fried shallots scattered with chives. Crispy and good, but far too many of them.

Moving on, I was a bit let down by my main course. My duck confit arrived missing its thigh section almost completely, and was tender but curiously did not taste seasoned throughout (despite the fact that it had, of course, been salt-cured). Its accompanying red wine-blackberry sauce was ok, but nothing special, and therefore to me superfluous. There was was also a small pouf of assertive greens and flat parsley dressed with lemon, whose brash sharpness served as a nice contrast to the rich meat. I had chosen the bread salad as my side, which turned out to be a large dish of olive bread croutons, chopped tomato, lots of thinly sliced red onion and shredded basil. It was summery, well seasoned with a good balance of salt/acidity, and the tomatoes were actually quite good for this early in the season. My single criticiscm is that the croutons were slow to soak up the juices and mostly remained intact and hard; torn pieces instead of cubes would fare better (although admittedly a prep nightmare), and perhaps the whole could be combined in small batches throughout service so as to allow the bread to better resoften. I did not try the roasted chicken, but the report was good, nor did I try the shortribs. I did sample the coq au vin and was unimpressed. The sauce seemed muddy and indistinct, the chicken without much character. Dessert was simple, but so-so. Crème brûlée was fine and what you expect.... although misspelled on the menu (ok, ok, I do know that I'm a big ass when it comes to that!!! But yes: missing/incorrect accents in French does equal misspelled. Also: the menu states that rillettes are "similar to pate..." this is neither French or English, though it's more similar to "pâte,"which means either quite simply "dough" or "paste" or "pasta"). I had good hopes for the tarte Tatin, but alas, it was limp and uncarmelized. Next time I would like to try the licorice ice cream.

Aside from the food, service was friendly and mostly adequate, but could use fine tuning... water glasses were always filled, but bread was not replenished, plates were not brought for sharing of the starters, and things like dirty silverware did not always disappear. Smaller things, but ones to address nonetheless.

All in all, Bistro Levain has all the makings of a great neighborhood place, and worthy of a short detour for their highly affordable (and accessible) French food in a pleasant yet casual atmosphere. Et là, ça va marcher très fort, à mon avis......

See my several (very poor quality) photos here.

*EDIT: In an effort to google this post, I came upon a January post on Andrew Zimmern's Chow and Again also entitled Levain Redux... just for the record, I ain't tryin' to be a little blog thief! (A relevant problem, I should add, which was recently brought to my attention at Chez Pim.) Actually, I now realize that I had read his post soon after it was published, while I was scoping out what the town had to say about the closing of Auriga (ah, my dear departed). His observations on the dining scene vs. MN consumer mentality are still interesting and highly relevant, especially as we are just beginning to see what might be the next phase in that scene's evolution, what with Doug Flicker now steering Mission and Steven Brown apparently about to open the kitchen for Harry's Food and Cocktails. Yep, a few days ago Craigslist's employment ads spilled the beans on that one, unless there has been some gossip I've missed:
Harry's Food & Cocktails is opening in early July and we need to staff our kitchen.... This is an excellent opportunity to work in a top kitchen with a well known chef making original cuisine with a neighborhood mentality. Our motto will be; Nothing Fancy. Everything Tasty! some examples:
* pressure cooked pork roast with strongbow cider and mustard de meaux
* dry aged duck breast with pickled grapes and sherry
* the harry burger - 100% organic chuck with local cheddar and harry's secret sauce. served with a grainbelt, of course........
*Please Email resume and letter of interest stating why you want to work at Harry's to the attention of Steven Brown.

So we'll see. I'm as hopeful as the next diner to see Minneapolis poke its head out from the ashes.....

Bistro Levain Minneapolis restaurant review MN 4800 Chicago Ave Turtle Bread Company

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Rage against the machine, indeed!

I found this to be a rather interesting article on the increasing impact of the "food blogosphere" on the mainstream.....

Through the lens of the Spotmatic....

Ah, film.

Child of the digital age yet luddite-at-heart, I've been fiddling around lately with the ol' 35mm Asahi Pentax that Ryan gave me a few months back. Although I'm a total amateur and know only the very barest basics of film photography, I'm pretty pleased with the results from Camp Bread, plus the few shots from Hog's Back Farm. Of course the scan quality dimishes the sharpness, but you get the gist. See the rest here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

My Life in France... Julia's, that is

I just finished reading Julia Child's partial autobiography, My Life in France, focused primarily (as you might imagine) on her tranformative years spent in Paris and Marseille, and her subsequent fame in the US springing from the publication of her seminal work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Now, I believe it was circa 1991 or 1992 that I became obsessed all those old-school, waaay pre-FoodNetwork cooking personalities and shows: Martin Yan, Biba, Graham Kerr, The Frugal (and morally suspect) Gourmet Jeff Smith, the Great Chefs series, and so forth. So, how on earth did I manage to miss Julia? Well, perhaps that summer spent glued to the screen taking my chicken-scratch notes coincided with a rare lull in her steady stream of shows. In any case, I've always been aware of who she was and that she was an American champion of French cuisine, but I never got acquainted with her effervescent character, her joyful enthusiasm and earnest dedication to cooking and eating. It was inspiring to read about her adventures. I'm so struck by her unhesitating plunge into the world of haute cuisine... she, a brash and towering Californian woman going head to head with the biggest Old Boys Club in French culture. And she undertook this pursuit at age 37!


She was unapologetic, indefatigable and opinionated. She refused to compromise the quality or scope of MtAoFC, even when it meant getting dropped from a publisher (whose editors were no doubt kicking themselves later!). Yesterday I found myself killing time in Barnes and Noble, idly browsing the cookbook bestsellers. I came upon a book I'd seen much publicized, Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, one woman's self-appointed challenge to cook her way through MtAoFC's 524 recipes in 365 days. The concept had first struck me as contrived, although it was mainly the fact of it getting billed as Bridget Jones Diary-type chick-lit that sparked my predjudice. But newly intrigued by all things Julia Child, I picked it up and was suddenly in 50 pages deep! However I'm on a moratorium of sorts for book buying, so onto the library list it goes.

Part of the reason for my moratorium is that I have so many unread food lit books lying already. I've just begun one of those: The People's Chef: The Culinary Revolution of Alexis Soyer. Good so far.....

Friday, June 01, 2007

Return from SF, the sequel

Fresh off the plane early yesterday morning, I brought back with me from San Francisco the lovely souvenir of strep throat. So much for getting back home renewed and refreshed. But it is nice to return in the midst of full-on Minneapolis "pre-summer," when everything is green, the weather is warm without being suffocating, and the mosquitos have yet to take total reign. Having spent so little time here in the past 15 months (and having therefore missed summer here since 2005), I'm amazed all over again at what a pleasant environment this city provides during the warmer months. Although so far I've only lain around in my pajamas for hours on end feeling sorry for myself, the great outdoors are calling me to bike around, have picnics, hang out at the lake, and of course barbecue.

My last few days in SF yielded some very good food: chicken from Roli Roti, more pork belly craziness (with duck fat fries!) from Bar Tartine, very tasty assorted homemade sausages crafted with the blood and sweat of Miyuki and Nick, the wait-worthy dry fried chicken at San Tung, an indulgent farewell lunch at SFBI by Miyuki and I, and finally a last-minute stop at Yamo, where I had also gone to just before leaving SF the last time. It is definitely a bit torturous to leave California (well, mainly SF) and all its great food behind. Who knows, perhaps I'll find yet another random reason to go back sooner rather than later?.....

Saturday, May 26, 2007

And the winners are.......

Camp Bread flew by, and Team USA for the 2008 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie has been selected... including one Solveig Tofte, head baker from Turtle Bread Bakery in Minneapolis! And if I am not mistaken, she is the world's very first female representative in her category, that being baguette and specialty breads. I had the good fortune to taste her winning breads: one incorporating American chestnuts and cocoa nibs, a fig rye, a Scandinavian sowing bread (with barley, oats and rye), pain de mie boosted with potato, a great baguette made with 140% poolish and 10% liquid levain, and my personal favorite, an intensely substantial and flavorful cracked wheat bread with a remarkable open crumb. Made frail by exhaustion, I broke down in a fairly uncharacteristic Oprah moment at the announcement of the winners... there may well be some photos floating around out there of yours truly all snot-nosed and teary-eyed at the surprising election of a team that is 2/3 female and 1/3 Chinese-American! This is probably the first (and potentially the last) time I will say, Go USA!

Even aside from that momentus occasion, the rest of Camp Bread was truly a great time; it rekindled in me, as might be expected, a real passion for bread. This is something that I certainly never had lost, but I've been on the pastry boat, so to speak, now for quite some time. I must say, pastry certainly lacks the elemental satisfaction that is inherent to the idea of bread. This week I've once more been reflecting upon the common thread that bread, and grain in general, has always woven between cultures. Pastry appeals to me for its creativity and hedonistic nature (in spite of the fact that I don't have such a sweet tooth), yet bread is incomparably more soulful. By the same token, I feel that the bread crowd is a better fit for me on a personal level, though I'm not positive if it is more so than the crazy line cook set I'm so used to (friends, you know who you are...). I do appreciate the fussy, technical character of high-end pastry and plated desserts, but in a sense it's not always so "me."
All my Camp Bread photos can be seen here.

On a different note, due to my extreme business I've been remiss in dining out for the most part. One exception to this is Little Sichuan, inconveniently located down in San Mateo. I've gone twice, the first of which yielded painfully (and deliciously!) spicy dishes such as dry fried string beans, cold beef and tripe in chili oil, szechwan whole fish, cold szechwan noodles and excellent dry fried chicken wings utterly encrusted in mouth-numbing szechwan pepper. (And yes, you do indeed feel the spice twice.) On my second visit, it was less impressive and less painful, but we still had a well-executed ma-po tofu (creamy tofu that was delicate yet fully intact) and what we believe to have been "water-cooked beef,"(pictured above) despite the fact that we had actually ordered "cold spicy beef tenders." What we received turned out to be a large steaming bowl of thick chile-saturated liquid chock full of preserved cabbage and very tender beef slices, topped with a good scattering of chopped cilantro-- this was certainly the best dish of the meal. Less outstanding were the eggplant and the intriguingly-named "powdery steamed beef," but hey, live and learn. All my Little Sichuan photos can be seen here.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

From field to table: feasting at Hogs Back

The delicate, gauzy green of springtime Minneapolis is reaching its annual pubescence. Seemingly overnight, millions of tiny buds have exploded into miniature leafy tufts, the pearlescent violet bunches in my backyard promise a lush (albeit fleeting) abundance of lilacs at any moment, spring-fevered folks of all ages are venturing out clad in shorts and tank tops, and though most home gardens have yet to flourish, our dandelion-ridden front lawn has already bloomed into opulent yellow splendor. With a record number of barbecues at the house (are we up to 6?), perhaps we have been egging summer on more persuasively than we had realized.

Meanwhile, lacking the heat and barbecue quota of a population-dense city, rural western Wisconsin is lagging slightly behind. The grass on gently rolling hills is still subdued from its winter dormancy and not yet spiky and unruly. The forests lining the St. Croix shimmer a sea of speckled green over a profusion of stark, spare trunks and branches. Cows laze about at every other turn, practicing for the summer heat yet to come. All in all, the farms appear calm, just beginning to come back to life after the cold. But at Hog's Back Farm in Arkansaw, WI, the greenhouse reveals the true anticipation of growing season: trays upon trays sprout everything from feathery fennel, delicate tiny field greens, beet leaves appearing to be veined with real blood, and dozens of other still wispy, fluttery herbs and vegetables. It is a fascinating snapshot for a city girl like me, to see the precipitation of what I think of as raw product... this is it, it's more than raw, it's barely nascent. Appropriately, the occasion for this visit was a birthday. Dinner naturally centered around the few yet precious goods that may be culled this early from the farm (nettles, ramps, chives), the farms of nearby neighbors (lamb, raw milk and cream, spinach), and, in the case of my desserts, the fruits typical of spring (rhubarb and strawberry) which had to be "faked" by using stuff from California since the local crops just aren't ready. Perhaps I redeemed myself slightly from this treason by using chives from my much-neglected garden for the bread. You can see all 30 photos here (and note my woeful ignorance to look up from the damn food long enough to take some pictures of the beautiful surroundings!! Next time. Promise.).

Potato and egg yolk ravioli, parmesan broth,
seared lamb liver with chives and white truffle oil

Chickpea and nettle soup

Family style: grilled lamb, risotto, sautéed spinach,
and a relish of grilled ramps, pine nuts and bitter honey

Artisan cheeses with potato-chive rolls

Intermezzo: rhubarb, granité and poached

Raw milk panna cotta with almond praline,
strawberries and strawberry syrup

Assorted macarons