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.