Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cibo, Sausalito

Lately I've found myself having a confused relationship with Sausalito.  Sort of like when you break up with a boyfriend but he's still living at your house.  You start wondering if getting back together wouldn't be so bad after all, the cap off the toothpaste and dirty laundry not really bugging you as much as it did when you made your BIG decision to dump him.  The comfort of his warm body in your bed much more predictable than the cold, unknown world out there.
You see, I'm on the eve of departure from my home of 4 years.  I've given notice at my job in the City and have decided to make a big change:  I'm moving to Petaluma, the gateway to the SF North Bay's vibrant farming community. I've taken a job at Central Market, a popular sustainably-focused restaurant, literally front and center on Petaluma Boulevard North and Western Avenue.  Across the street is the Mystic Theater, built in 1911 for Vaudeville acts, where these days one can see wildly varying musicians such as G Love and Special Sauce, The John Corbett Band and even Camper Van Beethovan.  The historic integrity of Petaluma  is alive and well in the architecture downtown, the gorgeous Victorians on the westside, and the farms and ranches within a mile of town center that provide many Bay Area chefs with their organic riches.

Back to Sausalito though.  As I sat outside its newest and hippest cafe', CIBO, soaking up some Christmas Eve rays at a patio table, and sipping on Blue Bottle coffee, brewed to order and served in a fabulous Heath Ceramics mug (can't get any more Sausalito than Heath), I pondered my decision. I wouldn't call it regret, but I began to have a longing, a "shit, I should have done this more often" sort of feeling.  Started by the Ancona family of Angelinos (a longstanding southern Italian restaurant a few blocks up) CIBO is such a gem: Metallic orange banquettes line its walls, whiter than white formica tables contrast with rough exposed brick and displays of housemade jams, compotes and cookies tastefully packaged for sale.  I pondered the idea that if I had spent more time here instead of jumping into my car to get to work, perhaps this town would have successfully entranced me.  My wonders were further evidenced when the super cute Chef personally delivered a perfectly toasted Chicken Panini:  chicken, apples and Pt Reyes blue, pressed and heated together into melty goodness.  The pickled carrots, red bell pepper and celery garnish, deliciously crunchy, spicy and vinegar-ey added a high note of contrast to the sharp blue while simultaneously clearing my palate.  I know, washing this all down with coffee, which I hardly drink anyway (except for here at CIBO), has echoes of my parents, but it was only 12 noon, and there was a slight chill to the sunny December air, and it was Blue Bottle, for Chrissake!

Besides sandwiches, CIBO has great poached eggs, served simply with roasted winter vegetables and toasted focaccia.  Fritattas, soups and salads are also available as well as a beautiful array of pastries and dolci made in house.  The artisan movement has definitely made its mark here.  Only open for breakfast and lunch, I can definitely see myself making a frequent pilgramage here to meet up with Marin friends, or enjoy my Blue Bottle solo under the crisp Sausalito skies.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our local wilds

For years now I've noticed beautiful strings of pink pearls weeping down from the willow-like pepper trees that seem to be everywhere in the SF Bay Area.  So, earlier this week, when I went out to pick wild fennel to make Chai, I was pleasantly surprised to see one in "full seed" right up the block from me.  Someone long ago had told me these were the same kind of peppers that when dried, you could put into your grinder and save yourself a few bucks at the grocery store.  I've got a preponderance for this sort of thing, not really  "saving the few bucks" (believe me you!), but of harvesting the local bounty that's to be had right outside the door.  Here, on the edge of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and not too far from Point Reyes National Seashore, there's a plethora of wild plants that have common useage in our kitchens and, for the herbally inclined, in our medicine cabinets.

After some investigation, I discovered that the California Pepper Tree, Schinus molle, is not in the same Genus as true black pepper, Piper nigrum, which grows as a vigorous vine, native to South India and spread throughout the tropics.  Schinus' uses are not interchangeable either, damn.  It is easy to see how one could be mistaken for the other, as when you crush the California pink peppercorn between your fingers, it certainly smells of fresh black pepper.  But no, Schinus molle, is originally from the Peruvian Andes, and a close cousin to the Brazilian Pink Pepper Tree, Schinus terebinthifilious.  S. terebinthifilious turns out to be more culinarily used, as it is often the exotic pepper put into mixtures and billed as "prized pink peppercorns".   The S. molle that grows up the street from me can be used sparingly as a seasoning, as the dried seeds have a slight piquant taste with a hint of peppery tone, but can cause stomach upset in large amounts. The Native Americans commonly use all parts of this tree for a myriad of medical ailments.  My fantasies about using it interchangably with black pepper were unfortunately dashed, and without reliable enough firsthand information on its medicinal uses, I've decided to admire the sweeping branches of these beautiful trees from afar.

However, just this year I spotted a milk thistle plant growing out of the decorative bark near my kitchen door, next to the huge stand of peppermint that can't be beaten down (but thankfully finds its way into my drinks).  I'm used to only seeing milk thistle on my hikes, and usually don't make it back to the same spot often enough to harvest any of the dried flowerheads.  So, I put a note on the milk thistle in broken spanglish "este planta es medicina, por favor, no cortar", as the mow and blow gardeners plow down anything not natural looking. I waited for it to go to seed, and clipped the tan furry flowerheads into a paper bag.  I later donned gloves and tweezers and picked each black seed off the prickly flower head, a medicine that is important to liver health and regeneration and a good thing to ingest if one has an affinity for alcohol (the drinkable kind, that is), or works with volatile compounds (oil paints, thinner, varnishes).  Incidentally, it this amazing seed which is also the only antidote to the unsettling incidences of death cap mushroom poisoning which happen around here every winter.  There's always a few stories in the paper about someone's grandmother who picked wild mushrooms and poisoned their entire family within a few hours of dinner.  Its very sad, as there are a huge amount of edible wild mushrooms in this area, but you will never find me ever attempting to decipher good from bad, I'll buy mine from Whole Paycheck, thank you. Unfortunately, unless treated with Milk Thistle, death cap poisoning is usually fatal, if not, at the very least, cause for a  liver transplant.

I  learned about Yarrow, Achillea millefolia, from a local herbalist on my first hike with a knowledgable professional back in the early nineties (his name escapes me at the moment).  He pointed out the furry leaves(pictured), the broad flat white flower heads (hence the millefolia) and trailing rhizomes.  It turns out that yarrow is a well known blood stauncher, stopping bleeding quite effectively.  He mentioned being on a backpacking trip when someone fell and cut their leg on a rock.  In the middle of nowhere this can be alarming, as a deepish puncture wound with blood gushing could set off a bout of panic.  However, yarrow was nearby and he instructed the hiker to chew up the leaves and flower heads, making a pasty poultice, and shove it into the wound.  The bleeding stopped within a minute and by the next day, the wound was well on its way to healing.  Turns out the yarrow also has antibacterial and immune stimulating properties, so it will help cuts heal from the inside out, preventing nasty infections.  Once I was sawing a piece of wood (yes, I'm a bit of a tomboy at times) and the saw jumped out of the curf and sliced a jagged tear in the fleshy part of my hand near my thumb joint.  Shit!  Looked like I needed a few stitches but I'm not one to rush to the ER (esp with no insurance at the time), so I ran to the backyard instead, did the requisite chewing and chomping of the yarrow, and shoved it into the wound.  A bandaid kept it all in place and by the next day, I kid you not, the wound was 50% better.  A wash and fresh yarrow a few more times had it healed in a week.   Incidentally, the dried flower stalks: long, straight and stripped of its leaves, are used to cast the I Ching, an ancient chinese oracle/advice giving text.  Back in the day I used to cast my own readings, it took about 20 minutes to sort the 51 sticks and cast a 6 line hexagram.  With all that time to ruminate on the question at hand, the result was usually more accurate than the modern "coin toss method" which could be repeated quickly if one didn't like the result.

The yarrow you'll find at the nursery (pictured here) will have similar yet much weaker medicinal  properties, but much more showy bright yellow or even rose colored blossoms.  Have those in your garden for show, and a small stand of wild yarrow nearby by snagging a few wild seedlings, being sure to get some root matter with them.  They easily take hold in your garden or pot, yet won't flower quite as readily or be as hearty as the one found in the wild.  For medicinal use, the leaves are okay without the flowerhead.

As with all medicinal herbs, before ingesting or experimenting with the effects of these magical plants, consult an herbalist and take a few classes in plant identification and uses, cross toxicity and interaction with western meds.  The Pacific School of Herbal Medicine in Oakland is a SF Bay Area mainstay. Adam Seller, Director, is one of the best herbalists and teachers around

Friday, December 18, 2009

A toast to the holidays!

Every year I have a drink that I gravitate to.  If you've been reading my blog (and can identify the photo on this page), you can probably already guess what it is.  To digress though (because what would my blog posts be without a little digression?), in recent years it has been vodka with St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur and lime juice, shaken and served up, martini style.  Mojitos have made their appearance, but usually more frequently in the summer, a refreshing minty alternative to the Margarita.  This year its the Pisco Sour, using Peruvian Pisco (not the Chilean variety), simple syrup, lemon juice and the white of one egg.  As I ponder this drink (and pondered one more closely near my Christmas tree last night after work), I rationalize that it is a Christmas-ey  drink after all.  I mean, isn't it similar: a little eggwhite and pisco (a clear variety of brandy made from grape spirits), to some eggnog and brandy?  (and less caloric, I'm sure).

Pisco Sour

1.5 ounces of Peruvian Pisco (found at any large liquor store)
.75 ounces of fresh lemon juice
.75 ounces of simple syrup (I bought mine at Trader Joes but you can make it yourself)
1 fresh egg white (the yolk, well, you could make some aioli with it, why not?)

Angostura Bitters (or Peychaud's Bitters)

Add all the ingredients (except the bitters) to a cocktail shaker without ice (this part is important, as it allows the egg to get frothy).  Use a good egg white, organic, free range, natural eggs.  Why would one use any other kind anyway???  Shake the hell out of it, for say, 30 shakes.  Add a few ice cubes and shake the hell out of it again.  Strain into a rocks glass (or a martini glass if you must, but that is not traditional).  There should be a nice 1/4" of foam on top.  Sprinkle the top with a few dashes of bitters.  Drink slowly and savor the heady goodness of the pisco and bitters marrying in the creamy matrix.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I'm blaming it on the Butternut Squash Gratin!

My posts have been abruptly halted by the incredibly lame right neck and arm pain that has kept me off my laptop for over a week.

Once I took the time to retrace what brought this on, all paths led to the huge pan of Butternut Squash Gratin I made for Thanksgiving last week (although, I have yet to disclose this to my frustrated chiropractor).   You see, I cut 4 large butternut squashes into 1/8" slices with the dullest damn (Global) knife on the planet.  Why didn't I use a mandolin?  Well, I only have a cheap-o model that doesn't have an adjustable blade (take note all of you out there wondering about what to get me for Christmas! ha!).  The squash would have disintegrated had it been any thinner and the texture of the gratin would have been one big pile o' mush instead of the delineated layers of goodness that it was.

However, that fricken squash was hard (as it should be) and my knife was painfully (literally) duller than you can imagine.  Funny thing is, the reason I even have this lovely piece of steel is because my chef friend Jon was prepping a side dish for one of my dinner parties a few years ago, and was shocked  at my poor stock of kitchen knives.  Next occasion to buy me something, a global knife appeared at my door (and he isn't even my bf!).  Okay, well that was a few years ago, and let's just say my sharpening skills are, um, non-existent.

Which brings me to the current issue, I can't type anymore without producing mucho pain later, so, don't worry, my posts will pick up as my arm chills out.  Stay tuned for more local eats as well as new posts about the naturally edible world outside my door.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Chai Tea with Wild Fennel Seed

I had to get up early this morning to take my car in for maintenance in Mill Valley.  On the 45 minute walk back home, across the marshlands of Richardson Bay, past the cranes and other water birds making a quick breakfast of the grubs and bugs in the deep grasses, I had a few moments of respite, the kind that help us catch up with our thoughts, remembering those emails that we haven't yet tended to, or the projects we are aching to begin.  A sort of  "mental accounting time" I guess you could say.  It was just then, wondering about the grasses and plants of this wild land, that I began pondering the Chai tea recipe my friend Linda sent me just yesterday.  You see, Linda was the only friend of 20 or so that complied with my forwarded recipe-exchange email. I had gotten it from a friend's mom and it seemed simple enough: Type up a quick recipe, the kind you can recite off the top of your head, send to the #1 person on a list of 2 people. Move the #2 person into the #1 position, and place your name into the #2 position.  In a few days I should receive 20 recipes, sort of exciting, really.  Well apparently my friends and family are way too busy for this sort of thing, as I received multiple emails saying they just "didn't have the time". (my thought was, "what-everrrr," in the best valley girl accent I could come up with).  I did receive one recipe though, for chicken breast sauteed with noodles and garlic, and heated through with DiSorrento Alfredo Sauce.  The recipe said it was optional to serve this dish with Texas Cheese Toast. I was about to be judgemental, using terms like WT and the like, but considering it was the only recipe I recieved, I was thankful for the effort (despite the fat cells I imagined expanding on my thighs).  I managed to rattle off an easy version of Butternut Squash Gratin, layering Bechemel with a sprinkling of parmesan, nutmeg and thyme, and topping with gruyere cheese.   (Yes, my thighs are expanding at the thought of that calorie-laden dish as well).  So, back to Linda, who facebooked me that she did participate by sending a Chai Tea recipe to the first person on the list (thanks Linda).  To date, she hadn't received any recipes in return...
Chai Tea?  "Can you forward me the recipe?" I called out over the airwaves.

After I arrived home, after a quick inventory of the cupboard revealed I had all the ingredients except fennel seeds, Foeniculum vulgare.  I had hardly ever used them, and seriously could not remember if I had ever used them in my cooking before (although eaten plenty of them in restaurants).  After having wondered about unidentifiable marsh plants just moments before, I felt confident and proud that I could solve  the no fennel problem in a matter of minutes. Wild fennel is practically everywhere in the SF Bay Area that's not deliberately landscaped. After a little online research, I found the ideal time to pick is when the seed pods start to turn slightly brown. Of course one should choose a patch away from traffic and the overspray of neighboring gardeners' weed killers. (an important point as I witnessed just today a neighbor spraying small grasses in her driveway with Roundup just feet away from the Fig tree I had been sneaking fruit from a few weeks back.) Oops, back to the fennel.  So, after picking , rinse the seed pods off, spread them out (on a screen or sheet pan) and let them dry naturally for a few days. When dry, the seed on the inside of the pod releases easily. These are exactly the same seeds you will find in a fancy jar in the spice aisle but instead are FREE. I strolled up my street and clipped a few fronds, some in later stages so I could use them immediately.

Here's her recipe:

Chai tea

3 pods cardamom, cracked
1 (3-inch) stick Ceylon cinnamon
2 whole cloves
1/2 tspn whole coriander
1/2 tspn fennel seeds
1 tspn black peppercorns
2 (2-inch) strips orange zest
1 tblspn black tea (or 5 decaf tea bags)
1 cup plain regular soy milk
2 tblspns honey

In a medium saucepan, combine the cardamom, cinnamon, cloves,coriander, fennel, and peppercorns with the orange zest. Add 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 5 minutes. Add the black tea. Cover and remove from heat. Let steep 30 minutes.Strain the spiced infusion. Pour it back into the pot. Add soy mik and honey. Heat, pout into cups and serve. Serves 4.

I must admit, being an avid tea drinker, the idea of steeping my PG Tips for 30 minutes was offputting.  Usually more than 2 minutes and the tea is bitter and tannic as hell.  Somehow that didn't happen.  Don't forget to crush open the cardamom pods though, as the flavors just don't extract if you leave them whole (I forgot the first time).  I used a few extra cloves and wasn't anal about the measurements of the other spices.  Also, I highly recommend using organic oranges, as the zest is the semi-permeable barrier between the pesticides the grower used and the fruit inside.  If your fruit is not organic, these creepy substances will be released into your delicious concoction, making it not so delicious seeming after all.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Grass for Dinner

I had a rare Saturday night off last weekend and headed up to Napa to see an old favorite of mine at the Napa Valley Opera House, Greg Brown.  "Greg Brown?," you're asking.  Yeah, Greg Brown, got a problem with that?  I got tired of explaining to people that he's a great guitarist and blues/folk singer, probably at his height in the 80's and 90's; okay, his height amidst the coffee house crowds.  I'm sure he's popular somewhere, like in the backwoods of Ohio where he toils in the dirt on his Grandmother's farm.  And opera, "Napa has an opera?", was another common response.  So anyway, that's how I found myself in Napa on Saturday night, my friend Kimberly in tow, a free ticket as the lure.

Where to dinner, where to dinner?  That's an exciting question for me always.  Downtown Napa, Old Town, has experienced a revival in the last few years with Main Street being, well, the main street through this part of town.  The Opera House sits smack in the middle with restaurants dotting the road and side streets between 3rd Street and Pearl.  We were surprised how hard it was to find parking at 6 pm along this stretch, with many public parking lots to choose from.  We sneaked into the Wells Fargo parking lot, and the attendant turned a blind eye as we scampered away from the car.

I had been (happily) pondering our dinner option all day, having checked online for any I may be missing.  I had narrowed it down to a couple of choices:  Zuzu, on Main at 3rd, a favorite of mine and pretty much the only place I ever eat in Napa proper.  I was hankering to branch out though, and looked at Bounty Hunter's menu online, thinking their famous beer can chicken could be the ticket.  I had heard great things about their menu and wine list, but was a little offput when I noticed they didn't mention anything about organic or sustainable on their menu.  I've never been that much of a food snob, but the more I know about factory farming, the more I don't want to know about factory farming.  As a matter of fact, just last night before bed I was reading Michael Pollan's "Omnivore Dilemma" and found, to my dismay, that even Rosie chickens from Petaluma Poultry are factory farmed.  Whaaa!  Speaking of blind eyes, I really can't turn one this time.  I'm actually sort of pissed, but I'll explore that tangent in another post...

Another viable option for dinner could be Ubuntu, the Michelin Star appointed vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio which is literally right next door to Cole's Chop House, an old style steak house where Kimberly and I decided to enjoy a cocktail while we pondered our options.  I hadn't remember hearing much about Cole's before, but then again, I realized I didn't know jack about Napa dining when it really came down to it.  My friend Laura was to be celebrating her birthday there in just a few hours and had invited us to meet she and her husband for drinks after the show.  That's the only reason it was on my radar. 

The drinks almost didn't happen, as Kimberly was grumpy that there wasn't a seat at the bar, and I was trying not to be the pushy I-must-have-cocktail-now type friend.  Just then, a couple got up to be seated in the dining room and voila, we had seats.  Nowadays most cocktail lists are fancified with infusions and syrups and herbal concoctions.  Not that I'm against that, anything that masks the alcohol artfully is okay in my book - otherwise, I'd just be ordering a Hendricks Martini up, please.  But no, I'm a wimp when it comes to this stuff, so I chose a ginger-y vodka concoction (as they didn't have my current favorite, Pisco Sour); Kimberly chose a pomegranate vodka concoction and all was good, finally.

It was only 6:15 and we still hadn't decided where to eat.  A phone call to Zuzu reassured us there would be plenty of seats at 6:30, Ubuntu was still an option, but I was in the mood for some meat and as much as I did want to try it, I wasn't very excited by the idea of going there.  Kimberly had eaten a late lunch and was only up for a salad.  Once the steak was placed in front of the guy next to us, my canines began watering, and the longer I sat there staring at his steak, the more I wanted a bite.  Okay, let's look at the menu here, I thought.

Their menu boasts "21 Dry Aged Prime Steaks".  But how many of the 21 would I feel good about eating?  I'm no purest, just last year I had a quite delicious ribeye at the Outback Steakhouse near my house, and I'm pretty sure the Mongolian Beef from the place down the block came directly from a Sysco truck, but everything I've read (thanks a lot, Michael Pollan) makes me cringe at the idea of factory farmed, corn (and other ingredient) fattened prime beef.  Don't get me wrong.  Corn fattened beef is delicious:  Well marbled, fatty goodness. But these days when I'm going to eat a solid piece of meat, a big, deliciously charred slice of heaven, it's going to have to be grass fed, damnit.  So, after perusing the menu, and nixing the Chicago dry aged porterhouse (awwww) and New York, I decided on the Five Dot Ranch's ribeye.  Not only is it my favorite cut, but also "naturally raised" and 28-day California dry aged.  I'm not prepared to argue on the merits of California vs. Chicago dry aging processes.  But just the fact that they were aged in Chicago, didn't have natural or grass fed in any description, recalled the factory feed lot mentality of most ranches in the midwest and pretty much grossed me out.  A quick check by the bartender reassured me it was prairie fed, as up to that point I had never heard of Five Dot Ranch.  The guy next to me seemed a little put off that I cared that much anyway, being completely oblivious to the corn fed, antibiotic ridden, feedlot nightmare his hunk o' meat had gone through. (ignorance is bliss)

I ordered a 1/2 bottle of Mi Sueno "El Llano" Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah blend, an almost sacrilege combination but something I've seeing popping up more often nowadays.  I love the story around Mi Sueno, owned by the son of migrant vineyard worker who got his start in the food and wine business as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soleil, then worked his way around the valley, finally making wine at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.  The "American Sueno" at its finest. (that's American Dream for you gringos).  Not to mention, the wine was spectacular, rich, very extracted, leathery, slightly tannic, with a hint of spice from the Syrah.

The steak and caesar arrived simultaneously as requested, with the 12 oz ribeye practically covering the whole plate.  Perfectly medium rare (or "mid-rare" as we say in the biz), there was nothing separating the rich flavors of my steak from my neighbor's "unnatural" counterpart (in my opinion, of course).  And there was nothing separating me from my steak, save for a few bites I regretfully gave Kimberly in between sips of unctous Napa Valley juice.  "Grass for dinner" you may be asking yourself?  Why yes, haven't you been paying attention?  With the caesar, the croutons (made from bread, which is made from wheat, which is, of course, a grass) and my prairie fed steak, what wasn't grassy about it?  Watch out Ubuntu, you may have some competition. - for a true steak house experience - for a heartwarming story and some great wines, located in the southern end of town. - located in Lassen County, they graze their herds in several open grasslands around California, even making it to Napa Valley. - you may be surprised to know a few of his songs. - using only organic and sustainable ingredients and Argentine grass-fed beef. - one of the best wine lists around and despite my issues, I still wanna try the beer can chicken! - not mentioned in my post, this is the sister restaurant to Cole's and has a great wine list and asian/world fusion style food. - my next stop in Napa when I'm feeling forage-y.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Peruvian Feast

I can't believe my right running shoe still smells of paprika, even after the washing machine and dryer?  How the hell is that possible? 

Please allow a recap:  I stopped by my friend Gary's birthday party on the way home after a day out on a boat.  That explains the running shoes.  I was the dorkiest dressed (well at least I thought so):  a white hoodie, banana republic jean shorts (the tighty kind that go to your knees), and running shoes (no socks).  I guess my choice to not change before the party sort of backfired as the other guests arrived in cleanly pressed dress shirts, cutey patootie shoes, make-up (imagine that) and blow dried hair.  I had blow dried hair alright, the kind that is naturally messy from the wind and salt water.

Okay, enough said about that.  I was clearly uncomfortable, so proceeded to try each and every fine wine that Gary opened.  I was surprisingly impressed with the Coppola Claret, the kind of wine that one can sip without food.  So impressed that I had a wine epiphany. It may not sound like much of an epiphany but here goes:  there is wine that goes with food and wine that goes alone;  often the wine that goes with food is not very good without food (too acidic), and the wine that goes alone can be overly cloyying, (too much fruit, high alcohol etc.)  But, there is a definitive place for both.  Being in the industry, many of the wine geeks I have the pleasure of knowing (quite a few by the way) don't like those big Napa County Cabernet blends that sometimes have the tendency to hit you over the head with their bold flavor profiles.  The snobs that have been at it for a while look down on the "less refined" nature of these wines, opting for a leaner style, "food friendly" they call it. I can appreciate those too:  A gorgeous Cote du Rhone, a juicy Nebbiolo, a true Burgundy.  However, sometimes there is a need for a wine that stands alone, one that doesn't require a bite of food to enjoy, one that lingers like dried plums, dusty earth, and bittersweet chocolate.  That's how I felt about the Claret:  dusty, dark fruit, coco powder, raisins, balanced goodness.  Like a good Guinness beer, almost a meal in itself.

Oh that's right, I'm supposed to be talking about food here, hence the "Peruvian Feast" title.  And my shoe, what the hell happened there?

Michelle, Gary's adorable half-Peruvian wife, had whipped up a huge batch of Chupa for the birthday celebration, a Peruvian cream based stew of potatoes, onions, hominy, chiles, tons of paprika and fresh shrimp.  Her mother had made the most delicious Papas Rellanas I had ever had:  mashed potatoes folded into a disk and stuffed with a mixture containing hard boiled eggs, ground meat, olives and spices (secret recipe I'm told).  The papas are then topped with vinegared red onions to give them a little zap and zing.  I was so overjoyed with the flavors that I threatened to sing at the top of my lungs (which my tablemates staunchly prohibited).  The shrimp stew was perfectly seasoned and texturally stunning with the crunchy hominy, sweet shrimp and just enough chile to make you want to eat a bite of the papas.  The papas rellanas were crispy on the outside (from the fryer, I imagine), soft on the inside, with that hidden pocket of seasoned meat that would make any mashed potato lover run off to the wilds of Peru forever.   I had a second one, as Michelle's mother had made a load of them.

Due to my weirdness at parties (or at least at this party), I insisted on helping serve the guests, passing around plates of food like the professional that I purport to be.  After I had my fill, I helped with the clean-up, "bussing" everyone's plates into the trash (okay, they were paper and why not, as who wants to be washing dishes for days?).  This is where the shoe fiasco came in.  In my overzealousness, I  had several bowls stacked on my arm at once (just call me "Flo").  I aimed into the trash, and just then the wine must have gone to my head, as I missed the bag and slid the bowls right onto the kitchen floor, and my right shoe. Well, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to imagine remnants of Chupa broth soaking directly into the soft fabric of the Asics.  (I can't believe I was wearing running shoes at a party!)

Instead of tracking Chupa all over the apartment's white carpeting, I decided it best to remove my shoes to the outside.  This final layer of embarrassment and humiliation got the best of me, walking around the party barefoot as if I were hanging on the beach in Maui. I scooted out the door, no regrets for having helped a bit and of course having partaken of this incredibly memorable feast, but vowing to never come to a party without properly coiffing again.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Taste of the Bay Food Event October 2009

I wasn't sure what to expect as I headed over to Pier 3 a  few weeks back to represent Terzo in the Taste of the Bay Event, an annual fundraiser put on by the Hospitality Management program at San Francisco State University. 

Chef Mark was out of town, and I was told I'd have an intern to help, so I went alone, the solo flyer that I prefer being (or control freak, you choose).  My dish was simple with no need for cooking or much fussing:  Marinated Feta with Lemon, Mint, Oregano and Olive Oil on Crostini.  He planned it perfectly. Even though I'm no rookie in the kitchen, getting ready for the guests translated to smearing feta on toast and schmoozing with the other restaurateurs, chefs, former colleagues and wine industry professionals.

Positioned between Paragon Restaurant who was serving housemade sausage and Luce, where chef Dominique Crenn was putting together pork belly mini-burgers with red cabbage (yum), I couldn't have asked for a better locale.  The Bay Bridge loomed behind our boat, the docked San Francisco Belle, donated for the event by Hornblower Dinner Cruises. 

It was readily apparent after the 10 minutes it took to decorate my table and set up the mis en place that I would need some vino, as the event was still an hour away from beginning, and was slated to last 3 hours!  I perused the other vendors, many still an hour away from being ready (and some not even yet arrived), but was a little shy to ask if any would start popping their corks this early.  Who moi?  I have a small amount of restraint, sometimes. My intern, Monica, was a bright eyed freshman, having never worked in a restaurant, but in the hospitality program nonetheless.  When proded about why she chose this major, she responded that she wanted to be an event planner "because I helped plan my senior prom and loved it".  Awww, the naivete' of youth!

As Luce set up I marveled at their almost life-sized poster of Dominique, fresh from the set of Iron Chef, and all of their propaganda promoting her pending television appearance.  This was perfect fodder for giving her shit, as she was clearly incredibly embarrassed by their insistence on the large poster.  She slipped me a pork belly mini burger to keep me quiet, piled on the most delicious brioche buns that she "had a friend make, as the brioche here in the states is just not as good as in France".  Well, that friend should work at Luce with her, because the brioche was incredible, and judging by the fact that she had just earned a Michelin Star that very day, I must be seriously missing out on a great place.  Another one to put on the list.

Dominique loves Terzo and promised to come in and give me an equal dose of shit the next time she had a moment free.  I couldn't wait.

Once the event got rolling, my intern well trained in swiping the proper amount of  feta on the crispy toasts, I cruised around the room again to see (and sample) the other chefs' goods.  Damn, I was sad I had a late lunch at Le Garage (yes, I went there again...), as there was ample food to be had.  I sampled anyway:  Delicious chili from Henry's in the Hotel Durant (Berkeley), a place I once worked for a week over a decade ago while finishing my degree.  Lark Creek Steak had its famous Butterscotch Pudding, a dessert I've had more than my share of during my time with their organization, One Market, and Isaac, the nicest chef one has ever met and who has worked there over 10 years, had delicious crab cakes on little spoons.  Kuleto's was serving little toasts with incredible duck liver and marmalade. Oyaji, a Japanese restaurant far into the Richmond, was serving sushi, but wait, they were already gone.  Why is it that sushi at these events disappears as if it were the latest thing to hit the dining circuit?

I circled back to my table, Peju being right next door,  my wine needs met.  The beer at this event was crisp and perfect too:  Pyramid was pouring their Snowcap seasonal ale and Heifeweisen;  Anderson Valley was pouring their famous Boont Amber.  The  room was hot and full of people who couldn't get enough crammed onto their small plates.  I was watching the cocktail style high tables fill with unwanted food morsels and the restaurant manager in me couldn't look the other way as I motioned to the interns to bus the hell out of them.  Once a boss, always a boss, I suppose.

As things wound down, Dominque admitted she was drunk which was another opening to give her a hard time.  I reminded her she had to stay in top shape to sign all those autographs that were certain to be solicited.  I packed up my table a few minutes later, loaded up the cart and said goodbye to all, and then proceeded to scoot around the line of culinary students who were, you guessed it, lined up for autographs at the table next door.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Osteria Stellina - Pt. Reyes Station - Worth the Drive

Plugging this restaurant's name into the Google search engine to check their hours of operation, I was surprised by Tom Sietsema's (of the Washington Post) description of the "scenic and sometimes hair-raising (the twists! those turns!) 90-minute drive from San Francisco." 

"What??" I asked myself.  I don't know what back alley route he took, but I made the comfortable and, yes, scenic drive from Sausalito (just 10 minutes north of the City, and if you are all the way across the city, well, maybe 20 minutes to the bridge) in 38 minutes.  Just 36 miles door to door.  Tom, you should be ashamed of yourself for not knowing the insider way to this lovely little hamlet, having worked as a food critic for The Chronicle all those years.  But then again, you probably didn't have much reason to venture into Marin for a food review, and especially to Point Reyes Station, because back in your day the only reason for traversing the Golden Gate was to get to Napa or to do an occasional mountain bike ride on Mt. Tam.

Well, things have changed, or let me put it differently, they are changing s-l-o-w-l-y.  Any reason to take a leisurly drive out to Point Reyes Station, through oak studded rolling hills, still green from early fall rains, warmed by the lovely November Indian Summer sun, is a good reason. In my world the landscape doesn't get any better than this.  Every time I make this drive, I plot and fantasize about how to move out here, a single woman, living on these amazing pastures, waking daily to the wingspan of hawks circling for their breakfasts, the steam rising off Tomales Bay as the sun warms the surface and feeds the creatures within.  The term "spinster" just may be in my future, like it or not. Besides being one of my all time favorite places, this is the heartland of Marin Organic, a local organization committed to an organic Marin and dedicated to the local producers that supply the Bay Areas top restaurants with their produce, cheeses and meats.
It is really hard to not be in a good mood after taking the easy drive up 101 north to Lucas Valley Road, turning left past quiet subdivisions, and further on past the secretive Big Rock Ranch (3838) and Skywalker Ranches (5858).  You can't see either George Lucas enterprise from the road, so don't even slow down, as their private fire department/security force won't even let you past the front gate, trust me.  It's a mild wind out to Nicasio, a tiny town that has a festive restaurant and bar, Rancho Nicasio, as well as a quintessential little red school house.  Driving through this one block town and roughly north past horse pastures and pumpkin patches lands you at the corner of the Petaluma-Point Reyes Road.  Nicasio Reservoir will be on your left as you make the turn.  I got stuck behind a landscape truck that was filled to the brim with cleared pampas grass and often spit out stray reeds from the back.  Not to worry though, just a few miles down is the "bridge" in some state of local colorful paint (graffiti to some) where you will turn right, Point Reyes Station just 3 miles further.  By the time you arrive, you will have been transformed into a hungry traveller, a little over half and hour later and seemingly a world away.
I had been wanting to try this restaurant for a while now, as it opened at some point last year.  I had read a few reviews in my searching for hours (their website is which were spotty and spoke of poor service.  I always take these with a grain of salt, as my restaurant background gives me an eye for the not so obvious and I am often more forgiving than most "yelpers" and other recreational reviewers that have an unrealistic expectation if their salad is over $5 and their entree over $10.
For Monday at 1:00 pm, I was genuinely surprised that the place was over 1/2 full, with a lot of locals: farmers and merchants and people like me.   A few bed and breakfasters were there lingering over their last moments before heading back to reality. 
I sat down in the empty left half of the dining room, as the only table available to the right of the partition was in the middle of the floor and I preferred to have my back to the wall.  No one was in this section, but I could see the kitchen perfectly past the neat row of low bar stools bordering the counter for more casual dining.  I usually like the counter, but I was wearing jeans and not really in the mood to be monitoring whether or not my butt crack was showing.  A couple of tattooed hipsters were dining at the bar and as I sat down, a tall, weathered and sturdily built customer (on a first name basis with the staff) negotiated his bill, clearly on trade, for the wild arugula, the beets or the beef he most likely dropped off earlier that morning.
A couple of minutes later my server approached my table. Wait a minute, I know this guy, I thought.  A look of recognition also lit up his face, and we soon realized it had been many years, and many restaurants ago.  Mark used to date a friend of mine, and is the lead man for the band "Death Angel".  He used to pal around with Metallica back in the early 90's.  The early 90's!  Geez, I should feel old, but his unlined face and eponymous dreadlocks made me feel that we both hadn't aged a day.  Considering I had just safely entered my mid 40's a few days earlier, this was a good thing.
I am usually pretty quick in deciding what to eat (usually) and this time was no different.  I didn't need much help navigating the not too big menu, and Mark suggested a couple of his favorites:  GBD Grilled Cheese Sandwiches (I'll have to get back to you on what the GBD  means) and the Saffron Stew with Tomales Cove clams, mussels, Lunny's hot links, shrimp and potatoes.  Had I not been dining solo, I would have definitely had the soup as a mid course, but unfortunately, the curse of having friends that work during the day (ho hum) and my skinny pocket book, limited my foraging to two things:  The Star Route beet salad with Marin Route Farm wild arugula, ricotta salata and aged balsamic ($9); and, pizza with Roasted tomatoes, fontina, basil, and crushed chiles ($15) with added Italian Sausage for $2.  Yes, these may seem like somewhat middle of the road selections, but I actually like to try the basic stuff my first time at a place so I can get a snapshot of what they're about. 
It was a few days post birthday, and I thought, what the hell, so ordered a glass of 2007 Margerum Pinot Gris ($8) from the Colombia River Valley (WA), a crisp wine with a slight hint of pear and medium body, served Italian style in a rocks glass.  I have to say, I do prefer regular stemmed wine glasses, but I also appreciate design particulars of places, and the italian style glasses gave the place the casual feel they are going for. 
A few minutes later my salad arrived.  I declined the bread offering considering I was having pizza, but I'm sure it would have been great, as it is from Brickmaiden Bread Company, a local bakery sporting a huge, wood-fired, brick oven.  Next time, next time.  The beets were thinly sliced and arranged on the bottom of the plate with a pile of lightly balsamic dressed arugula neatly on top.  Shavings of Ricotta Salata garnished it, the sheepy dry Ricotta cousin enough to carry me through each last bite of the delicously fresh salad.  I love Ricotta Salata on salad, enough said.
As I waited for my pizza to arrive I admired the surroundings, hardwood tables, silver plated, mostly matching flatware, linen napkins, leather chairs.  Like going to a friend's warm house for Sunday supper.  A little while later my pizza arrived, about a 10 incher, not that huge and if I was being a glutton, I could have wolfed the whole thing down.  The first thing that popped into my mind when I viewed this plump looking disc studded with roma tomatoes, basil and sausage was the Pizzeria Uno from my childhood.  No, not the one that was on Lombard Street for years, but the one from my southern California town, El Toro, a place where the crust was made with olive oil and a hint of sugar, where the crunchy doughyness gave way to oodles of cheese.  Of course, I was only 17 at the time, and the experience was heightened by appetite enhancing recreationals and the several pitchers of beer that we somehow got away with being served (well, there was one person with us who was 21 - that pedophile!  ha). 
Flash forward to the present and my premonition wasn't that far off.  The puffy crust was olive oil infused, maybe just the smallest amount of sugar (to help those yeast) but the perfect amount of salt.  The pizza was amply dressed with the fontina and tomatoes.  The sausage was mild and fresh, as if they ground it that morning.  The chiles, what chiles?  They must have forgotten them, as I didn't get even a hint of any chiles anywhere near this pizza.  Unlike the current trend in neopolitan pizza with their uber-thin crusts and minimal toppings, this pizza was a definite knife and fork affair.  The crust was so flavorful, I may be easily converted back.  Not that it was a thick crust, Chicago style pizza, as this was not.  Let's just say the leftovers were just as good and the crust held up to being refrigerated without that crackery, cardboardy texture that often requires a zap in the microwave (no zap needed).  The owner cruised by my table and noticed I was out of wine.  I ordered a delicious glass of 2006 Unti Dry Creek Valley Grenache  ($10) (I love those guys), and my meal was complete.  Service was a little bit slow, but as I mentioned before, I take it all in stride, as I wasn't in any hurry, and other staff helped out when Mark was bouncing off the walls in another direction - he is a musician after all. 

With guests still walking through the door at 2:15 pm on Monday afternoon, its hard not to notice that Osteria Stellina has found its niche. The dinner menu boasts an oyster pizza, slow cooked octopus, Marin Sun Farms goat, and seared Bodega black cod - a who's who list of the local bounty bordering these parts.  I'm putting it at the top of my list of things to look forward to.  And don't mind me if I borrow the overused, yet to-the-point phrase from our Governator: "I'll be back".

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Le Garage, again

Yes, I know, it seems as if I only make it to the same places each week.  Well, if you saw my options here in Marin County (okay, I owe Picco and Pizzeria Picco a visit), you would understand.  I did make it back to Bushi-Tei Bistro in Japan-town for a 3rd visit, and as threatened in an earlier post, it has become my new "go to" lunch place on the way into the office, as it is right over the hill from (my job in) Cow Hollow. The Chirashi-don is a  must, and I've been mixing it up with Pork Ramen or Chicken Ramen, the hugest bowl ever, leftovers fit for a snack pre-service (so I'm not drooling over the Terzo offerings all night, looking as if I'm threatening to sneak bites from my guests' plates).  Yes, I supposed Terzo needs some air-time here too.  Okay, okay.  Now, back to my local fav, practically walking distance:  Le Garage.

The rainy weather on Tuesday was perfect for a matinee, a dose of Michael Moore in his new feature:  Capitalism, a Love Story.  Afterward, a combination of guilt (as I always feel that way after his flicks) and  many raindrops found me on the phone with Lisa, making plans for Irish Coffees at the Buckeye, a splendid idea on this windy, "storm watch" weekday afternoon.  At 5:00 pm, it was easy to get a seat at the bar where we dished about our jobs, our friends, and men! (what a shocker).  We were finished right when the crowds began to descend.  As we departed, we laughed to ourselves at the "receiving line" of men, various ages, shapes and sizes, lined up to nab one of our precious seats (barstools, that is).  Perhaps we were leaving a bit too early?

An hour or two later, I found myself home alone and not in the mood for the soba and fresh dashi I had planned for dinner.  I scoured my memory bank for what I was hankering for:  red wine, yes.  pizza, no.  mexican, no.  thai, no.  Le Garage, it was flashing like a psychic beacon from down the street.  A quick phone call confirmed they were open until 9 pm (and it was 8:40).  I better hightail it over there.

The grassy landscaping in the parking lot was blowing sideways with warm, gale force, winds.  For some reason, visions of the Japanese seaside popped into my head.  I made my way inside to a sexily-lit restaurant and perched myself on a barstool.  The hostess/manager asked if I had just called, and I nodded yes, she astounded at how quickly I got there.  (well, it is just 4 minutes from my house- I need to remember this)

Funny how things pop out at you from the menu, almost immediately.  I always say this is what one should order, instead of himming and hawing over this or that, caloric content, reviewing what you have eaten already that day, or that week.  For me, that night it was the squid ink spaghetti with octopus, clams and tomato concasse.  I had come thinking I would order one of their amazing mussel dishes:  with chorizo or the one with Pernod, but as I looked over everything, the Kobe burger (yum), charcuterie plate (yum), two mussel dishes to choose from (yum), those lovely crab stuffed squash blossoms from my last visit(yum), that lobster salad with watermelon radishes (yum).  okay, okay, you get the picture.  I ordered the Squid Ink Pasta with Octopus and Clams.  Yup, my body knew what to get.  My very friendly Japanese barman, Akira, put my order through pronto as the kitchen was about to close.  (I must have had a premonition outside, and some mass consciousness programming as I was told later that the weather was due to a typhoon in Japan...)  Despite Akira's busy-ness, he helped out by pouring me tastes of wine, as unlike my food decision, I was fickle about what I wanted to drink from the selection of about 10-12 selections of each white and red by the glass, divided into American and French.  I finally settled on the Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps slightly big for my seafood dish, but chewy and rich, exactly what I wanted.  Wine selections are not always 100% about the pairing with food (okay, don't cringe).  There are obviously major no-nos, but in general, I am less finickey about that and more into the flavors I am in the mood for.  Okay some of you, I have just lost credibility, oh well...
My pasta arrived quickly, studded with beautiful manila clams, which I quickly released from their shells so I could enjoy each bite unencumbered.  The black pasta had a slight briney-ness to it, the squid ink providing that perfect perfume; and the octopus, I still can't get it out of my head:  tender, sweet, delicious flowers of tentacles, succulent, perfectly cooked.  Need I go on?  The manilas were also expertly cooked, sweet and chewy, mixed with the chopped tomatoes, some butter (well, it is a French restaurant, after all) and some chile flakes to keep things interesting.  I savored each and every last bite.  The only downside, I asked where the clams were from (local, Washington??) and no one could produce an answer, not even the handsome Sous Chef himself as he poured over his invoices seeking a source.  I expected a slight bit more from this level of establishment, but then again, the French do manage to get away with a lot.

After happily chatting with the staff and inviting them to Terzo, just a hop over the Golden Gate, I exited back into the wind blown parking lot, already plotting my next visit.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Camino, Oakland

CAMINO, Grand Avenue at Jean Street, Oakland
From my vantage point in the back corner of the dining room I glimpsed something unusual coming in through the emergency exit.  Even though conversations with old and dear friends should have kept my attention 100%, my peripheral vision caught something out of the ordinary.  Was that, wait, did I just see half of a mammal make its way into the back kitchen? "Did anyone else see the 1/2 hog that just slipped in through the back door"?  My dining companions stopped their conversation, "What?",  "Where's the camera?", "Shit, how did I miss that?"  Cameras ready, but distracted by talk, they also missed the other half slung over the meat delivery guy's shoulder as he whisked it around the corner to be expertly handled, I'm sure, by Russell  Moore, the Executive Chef and Owner of Camino in Oakland. 
It was brunch, and if the pork and herb sausages I was lovingly eating were any sort of preview for what this guy could do with a hog, then I was putting this place on the top of my list for dinner.  One of the many Chez Panisse descendant restaurants, Camino had been open for about a year, and I had yet to enjoy a meal there.  Centered around a huge wood hearth that's flames can be seen from across Grand Avenue, the food is reported to be a bit exclusive, with a very limited dinner menu.  From all accounts, people either love it or will never be back.  I wonder where I will fall on this limited spectrum?
It was my best friend Erin's birthday brunch, and most of our party of 7 had worked together for many years at O Chame' (Berkeley), so a game of catch up was in order.  But first, we had to figure out what to eat off a menu that included baked eggs with cream and herbs; potatoes fried in duck fat; home-made doughnuts; organic polenta with maple syrup; a pancetta, tomato and escarole sandwich; sardines with eggplant, almonds and hard cooked eggs; french toast; charcuterie; housemade jams and nut butters...  Let's just say it was hard to choose.
Their cocktails looked enticing too, it was early though, and I had to scoot off to work afterward, but had a sip of one of my companion's:  Gin, tomato, lemon, salt, pepper and chile - a delicious bloody mary-like concoction that would have gone down my gullet with no problem.
We settled on a few orders of the potatoes, rough-cut russets with the heady aroma of poultry wafting from the bowl, like one's home when a fat chicken is roasting in the oven.  The sausages, although a tad undercooked, were seasoned with a small amount of maple syrup, memorable goodness that I snuck more than my share of during the meal.  The baked eggs in cream and herbs were decadent with a rich yellow yolk that spoke volumes about their freshness.  Several orders of toast , a few doughnuts and some butter lettuce salads (to balance things out) completed the meal.  Drip coffee, brewed by the cup to order, and ground with a hand cranked grinder, was strong and nutty, leaving that slick in the bottom of the cup, the kind that lets you know that you've probably had enough even when you think you want another cup.
Bottom line, I'm a fan, and can't wait to return for dinner!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A few mini reviews of some favorite haunts

Many of you know I am a "restaurant-a-holic".  My friends put it more mildly and call me  "a foodie", which embarrasses me and also, sadly lumps me into a category with obnoxious guests that I sometimes have at my restaurant.  But I do go out a lot,  it is clearly one of my greatest pleasures in life.  And the thing is, I work a lot and often find myself foraging for a hearty lunch to eat at my desk, or with no food in the fridge come my day off.  So, even though I do partake of dinner out at least once a week (well, I work the other 5-6 nights!), lunch is often the more affordable way to sample some of my favorite haunts without the price tag (or the alcohol that brings up the price tag! : )    Here are a few places of note that I've had the pleasure to enjoy in the last few weeks (some lunch, some dinner, some both!)

BUSHI-TEI BISTRO, Webster Street at Post (Japantown), San Francisco.  (no website posted)  JAPANESE
I planned on Japantown for lunch the other day on my way to work from a late morning doctor's appointment.  As I scouted around for parking, thinking I'd slurp up some soba at Suzu Soba Shop (downstairs from the bookstore), I noticed the sign for Bushi-Tei Bistro on Webster Street, and a parking spot right outside.  Ahhh, I had remembered that they opened this place, a more casual eatery than their fine dining venue (Bushi Tei) up the street.  After checking out the menu and seeing many choices with Ramen their main noodle dish, I decided to give it a try.  Modern decor and a great wine list make this place pop a bit more than the kitschy decor of most other restaurants in this area.  (although, it was lunch time and I would have to save my wine sampling for another time).  They had a lot of classics centered around Donburi (over rice) available, and also some Japanese/American classics (rigatoni, for example).  You may remember from my earlier posts on Japan that the Japanese love their spagetti!  What jumped out at me was the lunch specials on the front page:  A bowl of Ramen with pork or chicken plus Chirashi (sliced raw fish on rice), or a sushi roll, or kushi-katsu (breaded and deep fried pork skewers);  all for $10.95! I chose the Chicken Ramen and the Chirashi.  I have to admit here, that I haven't often ordered Chirashi, as it has the tendency to be a bit boring, just fish on rice with some wasabi for dipping.  Well, I think I have been wrong all this time.  As this Chirashi (with a slice each of scallop, tuna, squid, shrimp and salmon) over gently seasoned rice that had been tossed with a minute chop of tomatoes.  The fish slices were fanned out over the rice and then topped with finely julienned carrots, daikon and pine nuts (yes, you read correctly, pine nuts).  This whole mixture was then sprinkled with a vinegar,soy sauce, black sesame mixture.  The entire dish reminded me fondly of the tai snapper-don I had at the Tsukiji fish market last year.   I usually leave bits of rice in the bottom, but for this one, I used the soup spoon to scoop up every last grain.  I think my feelings about chirashi have been forever changed.  The ramen was a huge bowl of miso seasoned broth and noodles for 2!  The chicken had nice grill marks, adding a smoky flavor to the simple but voluminous concoction.  The leftovers provided a perfect pre-dinner rush snack to tide me over (as by 9 pm I am usually overly hungry).
Although the ramen was just average, the chirashi inspired me to go into the city a few days later on my day off and order the dinner sized serving (2 slices each of fish).  It was almost as good (could have used more vinegar-ey sauce).  I also had the pork miso soup which was very drab, something I wouldn't recommend, along with a delicous glass of Provencal Rose wine.  I will go back though, to try the rest of the menu and savor over those last bites of rice.

HARMONY, Mill Valley, DIM SUM  A few Sundays ago I decided to break away from my egg-centric mid-day meal and sought out a more unusual way to usher in my workday (yes, I work on Sundays...).  The thought of delicate wrappings and dipping sauces sounded just like the ticket so I cruised over to Harmony in the Strawberry Shopping Center, Mill Valley, where they serve Dim Sum 7 days a week.  Unlike most Dim Sum restaurants, the staff at Harmony don't roll a cart around from which you can point and pick, but instead provide a thoughtfully descriptive menu of each dumpling as a second page to their more than ample menu of modern Cantonese.  They make about a dozen selections with wheat starch flour, a thicker and slightly chewy wrapper that is soft and bouncy, reminding me of fresh pounded rice paste, or what the Japanese call mochi.  There are several options using the more familiar egg flour wrap, the more common wrapper found around potstickers which can also which can be deep fried into wonton-like goodness.   I had the delicious broth-filled Shanghai dumplings which I slurped loudly (as it would have been a crime to burn the insides of my mouth), .  Marinated Angus Steak slices come with mini steamed tea buns to eat them with.  Shrimp Gao are filled with crunchy shrimp and bamboo shoots. Several dipping sauces are brought for the many flavors:  plum, chinese hot mustard, soy and chili; s providing endless combinations of sweet, hot and salt.  Many ingredients are organic and you really can't beat house-made wrappers from the huge crew of veterens behind the line.

LE GARAGE, Sausalito,, FRENCH  Of all of the things I could call myself, Francophile would not be close to the top of the list, but this modern twist on a traditional french bistro may be silently needling its way under my skin.  Housed in a former coffee shop space down near the water, completely off the beaten path, Le Garage is one of my favorite restaurants in Marin County.  Its even close enough to my house to ride my 1970's era green Peugeot bicycle over and barely break a sweat.  I smile secretly to myself after paying the bill, hoping the cute french waiter (and there are lots of them), notices that I too have a French last name, and that that sexy vintage bike outside, well of course it is mine.  They certainly treat me like I'm part of their club, but then again, they treat everyone like that it seems, as my friends all feel the same.  Handsome, charming, efficient.  That alone would keep me returning but isn't necessary, as the food is top notch, consistent, and changes seasonally.  I joined some old friends for lunch their last week, and chose the Lobster salad (because I had just dreamed of having lobster with Gavin Newsom - go figure?) and the Crab Stuffed Squash Blossoms.  The salad was composed of beautiful Little Gem lettuces and thinly sliced watermelon radishes with numerous chunks of plump lobster meat, all tossed in an herb scented vinaigrette; both hearty and light at once.  It was surprisingly satisfying.  A glass of Provencal Rose was a perfect match to my shellfish kick. The lightly fried crab stuffed squash blossoms provided a great textural contrast to the salad, crunchy on the outside and filled with delicately seasoned crab meat.  I reluctantly shared this dish with my companions, a small payback for the fries dipped in aioli I kept stealing off one of their plates.  The burgers here are the best I have ever had, American Kobe Beef, served a true medium rare and dripping with melted Morbier cheese and sauteed onions.  There are many lighter selections available, but you know, when in France...  I may be soon purchasing a Rosetta Stone language CD to be able to flirt with the waiters.

SIDEBAR, Oakland,, MODERN AMERICAN   I still can't believe how many excellent restaurants have opened in Oakland in the last few years.  Its as if the culinary explosion that occurred 20 years ago in San Francisco has finally reverberated over to the East Bay.   The reality is that the cost of doing business in the City is ridiculous these days, with healthcare mandates and a close to $10 minimum wage.  It's no wonder people are flocking to this underrated hamlet on the other side of the Bay Bridge.  To the rest of the nation, Oakland is gang infested and dangerous.  To those of us in "the know",  Oakland is a great cultural mix of citizens in all sizes, shapes and economic levels.  Just like any other city, one knows which neighborhoods to stay out of, and which ones to frequent.  The Grand-Lake neighborhood is one of them to make a destination, as bordering Piedmont to the north, with its amazing mansions and Oak lined streets can't be all that bad of a place.  I met my brother at Sidebar to celebrate his 50something birthday earlier this week.  I got there a bit early, so plopped down at the copper topped , U shaped bar and ordered a Pisco Sour, my new favorite cocktail.  I wasn't the least bit surprised this time when the bartender told me their Pisco Sour had just been voted the best cocktail in the East Bay by the East Bay Express, the left leaning free rag published in these parts.  Yes, again, the Pisco Sour, voted - best -drink - and - I - was - apparently - unknowingly - on - the - pulse - of - this - kind - of - stuff.   I laughed to myself and recanted the story of El Bazaar in L.A. and having the exact same experience (read earlier post).  Pisco sours are great though, and they made it expertly, applying a small dropper-full of house-blended bitters from a tincture bottle.  Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know I would be smitten by that, house blended bitters, I was going to like this place.  When Mark finally arrived, I quickly ordered the duck livers on toast and ordered him the shrimp stuffed deviled eggs.  I was so busy consuming the liver on toast and small salad that accompanied it, that he scarfed up all of the deviled eggs.  Well, I guess we were even, cuz' I didn't offer him any liver (and he didn't ask either).  I got the chopped salad for dinner and by that time was ready for a glass or two of the Three Saints Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.  The salad was nicely balanced with radicchio, little gems (well they are in season), provolone slices and salami.  Mark got a monstrous ribeye steak (which I encouraged him to order, it was his birthday after all), on a heaping pile of shoestring fries.  It was a expertly grilled and I snuck pieces when he wasn't looking.  We finished with Profiteroles (in which they forgot to place a candle):  Pastry shells filled with chocolate ice cream with a fountain of chocolate sauce cascading over the top.  I barley got a bite in edgewise.  

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oysters in Marshall

After a nice work retreat on the Russian River in Monte Rio, meetings about budgets and facilities, and a few dinners involving a lot of wine and excellent food (we were lucky to have the chefs present), I made the decision to take the coastal route down Hwy One back to my house in Sausalito.  This is no small drive, as Hwy 116/12 winds its way 10 miles to just east of Jenner and then joins Hwy 1, south through Bodega Bay,  past expansive beaches, seagull laden rocks, and warm September skies.  The weather was perfect early Indian Summer, practically no fog, and bathing suit worthy heat radiating off the empty mid-week sand.  I stopped for a leisurely run down Doran Beach, a long spit of land that hems in Bodega Bay to the south, and looks head-on at the northern tip of Point Reyes Peninsula.  I have always enjoyed this little known beach, as its orientation protects it from the blinding winds that can ravage these parts.

Working up a  40 minute sweat had afforded me a little lunch along the way.   All I could think about were oysters, delicious Sweetwaters, coined by the Hog Island Oyster Company, getting their name from the local streams that form rivulets through the numerous oyster beds that populate their shoreline on Tomales Bay.  I hadn't driven on this portion of the coast in some time,  and smiled at the one-block row of shops and the old Inn in Valley Ford.  I loved the rambly feel of the smallish town of Tomales, with the best coastal native plant nursery around.  As the highway made its way back out toward the coast, a feeling of peace washed over me.  These gorgeous grassy hills, dotted with dairy and horse farms and an occasional winery, are practically in my backyard.  After travelling at least 2/3 of the coast of California last week, I felt blessed to have such beauty so close at hand. 

Oysters, that's right, I had to fulfill my mission.  The default plan was to stop for barbequed oysters at the Olema Farmhouse Inn before turning inland at Sir Francis Drake Blvd.  I was actually craving fried oysters, and if they had them, I would get them instead.  I passed Nick's Cove in Marshall, the nicely restored property by Pat Kuleto and team. I was feeling a bit too sweaty and underdressed though, so decided to plow on, acutely aware that I had entered oysterland, where most small places dotting this windy shoreline would have oysters in some way, shape or form.  Next was Hog Island Oyster Company, my absolute favorite spot, with small and firm Kumamotos, their famous Sweetwaters, and briny Atlantics to satisfy any oyster afficianado.  I didn't stop there though, either, as my gut was wanting something warm.  After passing Tomales Bay Oyster Company and Tony's (which still had their chairs up), I saw the Marshall Store coming up on the right.   Several signs out front advertised oysters, and I made the last minute decision to pull in.  I had never been to the Marshall Store, but had passed it on many other drives to and from neighboring destinations. 

It's not really much of a store, but more of a small lunch place, with sandwiches, chowder, chili and oysters.  The menu had a few choices:  1/2 dozen raw on the half shell, 1/2 dozen barbequed with chipotle butter sauce, 1/2 dozen oyster Rockefeller.  Oysters Rockefeller it was.  It was still warm enough to sit on the perimeter deck and take in the fishing and sail boats, Inverness and Point Reyes Peninsula across the water.   A sizeable herd of sea lions barked away, as they vied for space on the small sailboat they had taken over (unfortunate for the absentee owner).  I read my book, enjoyed the breeze,  and gazed at the other diners who had chosen the tables along the parking area, no longer on Marshall Store's property, but a place they could enjoy a beer or glass of wine, as the store has only an "off site" liquor license.  After about 20 minutes, a plate of 7 oysters (a baker's half dozen?), flecked with chopped greens and bread crumbs, were set before me.

 I attempted to recall exactly what comprises an "Oysters Rockefeller", as this one consisted of cooked and roughly chopped chard, spinach, onions and croutons.  The scrumptous gems were plump and juicy,  and even more enhanced with a dollop of Tapatio hot sauce.  I was thankful that they weren't too buttery, and no cream or bacon studded these babies.  A subsequent Google search on Oysters Rockefeller gave a variety of answers.  The Marshall Store's version seemed a little conservative, but hit the spot nonetheless. 

Regrettably, I got in my car, reality beginning to hit, as tomorrow would signal the beginning of my work week, and the official end to vacation.  open 7 days until 5 pm.

For shuck and serve yourself, these two places offer barbeques and picnic areas so you can fill in the blanks with wine, cheese and beer:   daily, 8-5   daily 8-6

Here are a few other full service restaurants for oysters along HighwayOne between Marshall and Olema
    (it is worth noting that most offer lodging so you don't have to make the trip back so soon):

Nick's Cove, Marshall, CA Open 7 days, breakfast, lunch and dinner
       Full service restaurant restored by award winning restaurant designer Pat Kuleto.  Menu is worthy of
       destination dining.

Tony's Seafood Restaurant, Marshall, CA:  Only open on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, live music.

The Station House Cafe, Point Reyes Station, CA  closed Wednesdays
       They have a large menu with many local specialties, a full bar and many oyster dishes including         Hangtown Fry, Oyster Po'Boy, and good old fashioned Oysters on the Half Shell.

Olema Farmhouse Inn, Olema, CA  open 7 days
       A casual bar atmosphere with Oyster Stew (Fri, Sat and Sun only) and many other local specialties
       Look for them at the intersection of Sir Francis Drake Blvd and Highway One.

The Olema Inn, Olema, CA  Dinner 7 nights, Sat and Sun Brunch
     A definitive foodie destination for locally sourced ingredients including Marin Sun Farms beef, foraged
     vegetables and, of course, local seafood and oysters on the half shell.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Big Sur

Setting off this morning from Pismo Beach, I made the last minute decision to ditch the 2 hour Hearst Castle tour and slowly make my way up to Big Sur, taking in random sites along the way and visiting Esalen for a 4 pm massage. It was the last official day away from home and I needed to not be on much of a schedule. I made my way to the famous rock at Morro Bay, which was barely visible yet amazing looking through the fog. I next stopped in the picturesque town of Cambria, ordering an incredible Turkey, Avocado and Pancetta sandwich from Soto's Market downtown.
I passed Esalen at 3 pm and decided to go check in at the Glen Oaks and make my way back down to take advantage of the cliffside natural hotsprings before my massage. I had chosen the Glen Oaks Motel because they had redone it recently, having been a state of the art "modern" hotel back in 1950 when they originally built it. It had been updated with all organic linens, soaps, bamboo flooring, a working fireplace, and looked almost as nice as the Ventana and the Post Ranch Inn down the street, at 1/4 of the price.
It had been years since I had been to an alternative culture place like Esalen. I had forgotten the vibe of the at times spacey wanna-be hippy culture: peace, love and clothing optional. The setting was fantastic, perched on the edge of the cliffs, natural hot springs in a cast cement building; a place well worth letting one's guard down for. A 75 minute massage with use of the facilities was only $165. That may sound like a lot, but considering the standard rate for a 50 minute massage in these parts was $120, it was a steal. To boot, the sound of the crashing waves and the warm sunshine on my battered body leached any remnants of stress away. This place is not for the conservative minded, as nude women and men basked in the sunshine and layed together on couples massage tables. I was surprised I even noticed these things and was even a tiny bit self-conscious (for like, one second), a sign to me that I am aging and changing. Damnit, I need to get out more.

The fog had never quite lifted from the shore that day, hanging at the coastline and sinking into each crevice and valley after sunset.
After a very relaxing few hours at  Esalen, I opted for a contrasting experience and went for a drink at the posh Sierra Mar Restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn. I was dressed very casually and even had a hint of post massage sulphur spring pool wafting from my still glowing skin. If I wasn't driving a semi decent car, I probably would have been too shy, as it is tough to get a room there for under $600 a night. I summoned an few ounces of self importance as I parked my car, passed through the lobby and climbed the heavy wooden steps up to the top. The restaurant is probably the best in Big Sur and I was eager to check out the prix fixe menu and views. $105 for 4 courses, with each item available a la carte.
The room was very modern with a hint of rusticity in the rusty, hand-welded backdrop to the bar;  floor to ceiling windows overlooked a sea of clouds. The scenery, clouds hugging the coastline, and soft sunlight illuminating from beyond gave the feeling that we were in a huge  airplane looking out over the horizon, sitting in first class, of course. The cocktail menu was a good mix of innovative and classic, with fresh squeezed, organic juices making up the bulk of the specialty drinks. I opted for a drink (name I cannot recall) featuring Plymouth Gin, a splash of St. Germain (elderflower liqueur), grapefruit juice and a dollop of absinthe on top. It was delicious and refreshing. I was tempted to have the Foie Gras Trio as a snack, but somehow mustered a moment of self-control.  Surprisingly (or not), the couple seated next to me were from Pacific Heights and had never been into Terzo; of course I gave them my card... Guests there were treated like locals and it was obvious there were many repeat visitors.
As the sun sank below the horizon, I snapped up some gorgeous photos and made my way down the hill, restaurant recommendations from the very friendly bartendress, Heidi, in hand. I had originally planned on Nepenthe, but was actually very happy with the local favorite she recommended, the Big Sur Bakery, which she said was right next door. In Big Sur terms, that means a mile down the road.

The restaurant seemed a bit harried when I walked in, perhaps a little short staffed. A friendly woman with a German accent seated me outside next to a large Redwood tree. Indian summer had hit on this part of the coast and I was lucky to be in such a relaxed state, the smell of forest floor hanging in air, a warm breeze caressing my skin, the Plymouth Gin running through my veins. I'm not sure if my server thought I was expecting someone else, but it took her about 10 minutes to finally come over to my table, saying "a single lady dining alone tonight?", which I found impossibly obnoxious but smiled anyway. I had already decided what I wanted, to eat to drink etc. She assured me water and bread would be over in a minute, and that it was fine that I ordered the pizza, but it would be "at least 45 minutes, if that's alright with you?" I had already scanned my other options and I was tired of big hunks of protein; salad and pizza sounded like a refreshing change. I assured her it was fine.

The wine arrived but no water or bread. The busser hadn't bothered to notice me. I didn't care much about the bread, but the massage, hot tubs and two drinks at Sierra Mar had left me parched. I had to ask a couple of times and finally did have a glass of water placed before me. The busser never did come over though, even as he refilled the glasses at the next table. Perhaps I do reek of sulphur, I wondered to myself as I watched the German lady (who turned out to be the owner) make small talk with every table except mine. I began to feel like Ruth Reichl as an undercover food critic, dressed frumpily and being ignored by head waiters in her book, Garlic and Sapphires. I pondered how interesting it was that most people are uncomfortable with a single woman dining alone; everyone but me, that is. Oh well, not my problem how other people feel, but it would have been inexcusable if my service was faltering because of this; something I would never know for certain.
I began to perk up when a nice effeminate male waiter brought me a lightly dressed Spring Green, Pistachio, Peach, Haricot Vert and Feta Cheese Salad, a hard choice from the several very appetizing sounding combinations listed on the menu. It was tasty and filled the vegetable void that had arisen in the preceding days. He was taken aback that I didn't have any bread and whisked some out to me, 3 or 4 kinds piled on a cutting board, unsalted butter and a nice pile of salt crystals for seasoning. The seeded bread was the best, crunchy at the crust, toothsome yet soft in the center. If I hadn't already begun to feel full, I would have considered buying a loaf to bring back home.

The pizza finally did arrive, exactly 45 minutes from the time of ordering. By that point my appetite was fading, but I was still enjoying the warm night. The Niman Ranch Ham, Pineapple and Serrano Chiles pizza had sounded refreshing; defiantly not a pizza for the traditionalist. I am so accustomed to our Neopolitan Pizzas here in the Bay area however, that I found the crust a little too thick and doughy for my liking. It was as if the pizza didn't cook long enough, or possibly sat in the expediting window too long. The toppings were only lukewarm, the cheese barely melted. Picking at a few pieces, I asked for my bill, suddenly feeling the need to leave and have some quiet time with the trees back at my hotel. The next day, my vacation would come to an end, work would start again, and I would begin plotting my next adventure.