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.....