Sunday, June 13, 2010

Absence makes the stomach grow fonder, too

You may have noticed we haven't been posting much lately. That is probably laziness. Going forward, though, when you don't see us posting (or at least both of us posting), it's because I'm actually going to Japan for six months and will probably not really have time to finish this up. It was never our goal to race through them and I don't want to rush and cram good food just to say that I ate it.

While it's tempting to muster a couple other entries before I leave (a week from Tuesday), I will probably be content hitting neighborhood spots (Nombe, Heirloom, La Taqueria, etc.) I'm really going to miss the food here...

Any blogging—or tweeting (@tiger/@tora), more likely—that I undertake while in Japan will have wayyyyy less gorgeous photos because the man with the camera, roomie J, will be holding down the San Francisco fort.

If anyone has recommendations of restaurants in Tokyo, please comment :) Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Guest Chef Fergus Henderson at Incanto

Let me begin by recounting my foursquare check-in comment: “It has been a long time since I have felt cheated by a restaurant.” While that was hyperbole, I didn’t walk out feeling I’d had a meal worthy of a famous guest chef from London, either. I feel bad. Henderson is an older gentleman and has Parkinson's. If I weren't such a considerate (and chicken) guy I would have complained to his face when he showed up at Beretta later that evening.

The evening itself was delightful — three friends and I got off work early and met up for this unique dining opportunity. Incanto is a little cheesy (LED candles, fake marble columns, plug-in air fresheners in the bathroom) but I knew that heading in. Also knowing Incanto's wine selection isn't really up our alley we brought a bottle of cab franc I felt like opening, figuring we’d get a bottle of prosecco from the menu and they’d waive the corkage. Though it “isn’t their policy,” the restaurant agreed without a fuss.

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The first course was delicious. Bone marrow is hard to screw up, I hear, but I wouldn’t know as this was my first time eating it. As a friend said, it is beef butter. It had a parsley and caper salad accompanying it that I enjoyed, too. A second server placed a spoonful of rock salt on each plate as it was set down. A bit theatrical, but the effort was appreciated. The parsley salad immediately made me think of Passover. They gave us toasted bread from Tartine to spread the marrow on which was itself delicious.

But the next three courses were some of the least interesting (though adequate and not unpleasant) dishes I have paid good money for in recent memory. The meats were all well prepared — tender and juicy — but distinctly lacking in depth of flavor. The ox tongue was served on bland potatoes. The braised goat shoulder, trotters, garlic, and fava beans tasted like a light stew. I can't even remember the last time I wished for salt on the table. Salt! It was especially ironic since they dolled some out with the first dish, but then took it away as it was on the dish on which the first course was served. If my friend hadn't asked I might not have myself but I certainly used it once it came.

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The dessert course was strawberries and red wine. That's what it said on the menu, and that is what it was. It needed cream, pastry, custard, anything to make it more interesting and indulgent. (To be fair, strawberries are not my favorite fruit, but if it had been a bowl of blueberries similarly prepared I still would have had that “I could make this at home” feeling.) That should give you an idea of how unflavorful and unimaginative the other courses were as well.

I'm told he's a great chef, by people I trust implicitly. I have zero evidence to support that, though. What little soap box I have I feel compelled to stand upon and urge anyone who might be planning to go to Chez Panisse tomorrow for his menu to think seriously about making other plans.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Limón Rotisserie [#37, 31%]

Thankfully we can report Limón Rotisserie absolutely deserves to be on the list. (I already knew it was delicious, which might be why we chose it — to fortify us for the rest of the list we were growing weary of.)

Hey, I think we're doing ok if we're eating any list that does not contain the Double Down. (And I—Emily—will experimenting with this color-coding format, even though this tint of blue is ugly.)

Limón Rotisserie Chicken

Make no mistake, this is some delicious chicken. Savory spices, incredibly juicy, meat flavorful even when you’ve run out of tasty skin … it’s everything I hope for in chicken.

For me, it's a wonder to even eat the skin. It's one of the relatively few things I am still picky about now and then, but here, the quality compels one to at least sample it.

Limón Rotisserie Sides

A half-chicken comes with your choice of two sides. Drawing on past experience Emily and I chose the yuca (better than potato fries, yes) and veggies (you know they are seasoned and cooked expertly when you don't avoid big slices of red onion). Combined with the assorted dipping sauces provides, these are great, slightly spicy counterpoints to the main event.

Limón Rotisserie Budino

Apparently just mentioning dessert made it impossible to resist, so we didn’t. While not really remarkable, the budino was pleasant and moist, accompanied by a tangy crème anglaise. It's true, turning down warm chocolate cake was never my forte, and apparently turning down Port is not Josh's.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Michael Mina [#19, 30%]

Simply put, we had a splendid evening, but blogs are for elaborating and elaborate we shall. Incidentally, we were here for the lobster pot pie. In the end, we sort of wish we hadn’t been. Gasp! [I’ll be gasping in brackets. -J]

How this goes down:

[Michael Mina is a complicated dining experience. First, you choose from either a three course or six course system. The only vegetarian option is six course, but they did promise they could convert that into three to match the other.] In the three course dinner each course is a trio of preparations on a theme. [ “Signature dishes” like the lobster pot pie and tuna tartare are served solo.] Themes are broad, like beef or fish[, but also include another element, like fava or morel, that will be found in all three preparations]. I'm sure the six course seasonal tasting menu was fantastic, but we had the three courses (which ran $105 each). Note: the pot pie is $35 extra dollars if you use it in your menu. More on this later.

Josh ordered Champagne, while I hydrated. I did have a sip, though, and it was really wonderful. He had been hoping for Prosecco, but I think this proved a suitable substitute, dry as it was. [I actually use ordering prosecco as a ploy to make it obvious to the staff exactly what I am looking for in my sparkling wine — they invariably interpret it as I intend: “I’m looking for the most bone-dry sparkling beverage you offer.”]

Bread was provided, both whole wheat and sourdough. Took a little nub off the cold butter pad they presented, and it was predictably tasty. The bread proved more apt for plate cleaning, though, which is really what I always (always always) want it for. [Emily may be fine with the cold butter, but given the container in which it is served — a curved dish with little flat bottom — there was no way to take butter without rocking the container. Tacky.]

Amouse Bouche

SURPRISE! Our waiter arrived to amuse our bouches. This was a seafood trio of an espresso sized portion (and foamy...maybe there was a barista involved) lobster bisque (red flag was thrown here, on my side of the table, and LO—but that's for later), some kind of tempura fried I-forget-what-was-in-there [salted cod] that was a delight to chew, and a preparation of shrimp that Josh was more excited about than I was.

Trio of Rabbit & Foie

Starters followed. The Spring Rabbit was wonderful and given a do-over I would go the same way. Now might be a good time to say how much I love all the tiny portions. Not that you end up eating less, since it's more and smaller, not smaller and fewer, but small is cute, which is fun. (This language is running away a bit clearly; we'll need a flow chart soon.) English pea tortellini was particularly tasty, with the leg confit; Foie Gras mousse was definitely something I had never experienced before; rabbit pudding, and even a little sweet. [The trio theme was in force here, and very effective. Having the tortellini first, the flavor of the peas stays with you, then by the time you get to the foie, a layer of peas and carrot winks at you from the bottom of the terrine and brings the trio together most effectively.]

Tuna Tartare Tuna Tartare
Our server was apparently trained in the art of tartare disassembling.

As for Josh's tartare, it may be said of me that I am not much of a tartare person. When I am in the mood for raw fish, I tend to crave a Japanese preparation (which they do actually have on the menu, oddly enough), so tartare cannot find a good time to hop in my mouth. I wasn't incredibly motivated to finish my half of it, and did end up trading back to Josh despite the tiny cubes of pear and pine nuts. Had much more fun sopping up the rest of the rabbit leg confit with a bit of sourdough. [I’d have rather had one of Bruce’s tuna poke preparations from Spork than this tartare. Sad. Look for the theme in these disappointments.]

Between courses we ordered glasses of wine, and took our waiter's suggestions in both cases.

Lobster Pot-Pie

The lobster appears first. I had seen the puff pastry in the kitchen, and had felt immediately intimidated. "Oh gosh, I bet that's it. Yikes. Yikes!" Luckily, once our server cut the top off and reconstructed the lobster, dressing it with the cream and veggies (including some very charming baby carrots), it seemed more manageable.

Lobster Pot-Pie

In the end, however, this was the one plate that didn't get absolutely cleaned. To be honest, (7X7, are you listening? You led us into a trap!) the lobster was just uninteresting. The veggies fit together well with each other as well as the cream sauce, the puff pastry was some of the only puff pastry I've ever had that I have not been disappointed by, but the lobster didn't do anything for me. [I have to concur. Though the vegetables, pastry, and sauce were all tasty, the lobster itself was unpleasantly tough and relatively bland. And for the privilege of being so disappointed we payed $35 extra!] Partially it was just anticlimactic after the bisque during the amuse bouche. We pointed this out to our server and I hope it gets passed up the chain of command, because I bet we are not the only ones to have this reaction. On some level I'm sure you can argue that the bisque primes you for the full experience later on, but I think there must be a threshold of diners who feel the way I felt who make that particular amuse bouche not worth the risk.

FiletRibOxtail

[My main course, on the other hand, was excellent. Well-prepared meats, in three distinct preparations, with vegetal echoes of seasonal influences.] The beef trio was genuinely fun to eat, where the lobster was more of a chore, not only because of the shells, but just because of the way I felt once the food was in my mouth. It was such a relief to trade plates and finally get to scoop up some fava bean purée with a bite of beef.

Pinapple Cake

[Emily ordered the pineapple cake for dessert, while I ordered the dessert trio.] I'm not sure exactly why the pineapple was calling to me, but I do hope Josh doesn't hate me for being such a willful brat and getting that instead of what I probably should have had, the cheese trio.

Trio of Deserts

[The leftmost dish was the most interesting, with cubes of frozen pineapple ice, cubes of passionfruit, and coconut panna cotta. The tiny white beads are the coconut, I believe. The chocolate mousse and lime-and-huckleberry dishes were good but less unusual.]

[The most important takeaway here is that Michael Mina is a great fine-dining experience as long as you stay away from the signature dishes. What should have been obvious to me as an eater in San Francisco — local and seasonal ingredients are what elevate food in SF to the next level — somehow did not occur to me until it was far too late. Anything offered year-round could not hope to live up to a seasonal dish crafted with equal skill by a great chef.]

[To be honest, this experience was yet another nail-in-the-coffin for my opinion of 7x7’s editorial staff. What began as a joyous exploration of culinary delights has become instead more of a chore, put up with for the hope that somewhere down the list true gems await.]

Saturday, April 17, 2010

RN74 [#26, 29%]

First off, I have to apologize. I forgot my camera, a tragedy whose proportions I did not fully realize until we began holding candles and menus up to throw as much light on the delicious food as possible to help Emily’s iPhone capture something for posterity. Thanks to some judicious post-processing, you’ll be able to see what we’re talking about, if not completely appreciate its beauty.

Audoin Marsannay Seriously, It’s Potato Salad

My friend Jess, visiting from New York, joined us. The wine was the mission this evening, and it did not disappoint. The three of us had a hard time deciding on our course of wine-action. As I recall we’d come to agreement about appetizers and entrées before tackling the wine. In the end we took one of the waiter’s informed recommendations, the Audoin Marsannay. Almost delicate, the wine went well with the flaky halibut yet had enough character to stand up to the rib eye. Amusingly, the particular year on the menu had just run out as some party had been drinking it all night, and we were given an alternate (and supposedly superior) vintage for the same price, though we had to take his word for it, of course.

The apps we chose were sardines and cauliflower salad. The latter turned out to be a fascinating take on potato salad, with caper remoulade standing in for mayo and Serrano ham for bacon. They had me at the words “caper remoulade.” [Emily: I, too, approved of this potato salad. The sardines were my idea, and quite good, but every time I order sardines now I am secretly hoping that it will somehow end up being the grilled sardines on toast with arugula and lemon peel that I had at, I think, Pastis, in NYC last year. (The menu appears to have changed, or I have the place wrong. Pretty sure it was Pastis, though.)]

Rib Eye
Bacon-Wrapped Pork Loin
Halibut


The mains were also excellent. My rib eye was tender and juicy, with an intensely flavorful short rib to keep it company. The preparation — medallions so evenly cooked with no apparent mark of sear or char on the surface — brought to mind the lamb of my life from The French Laundry. That the rib eye was not diminished by the comparison is high praise indeed. The potato ravioli, turned over to resemble a flower, was a great take on the “steak frites” pattern. The trumpet mushrooms were a mystery to me, however. Both the texture — almost tough and rubbery — and the uninteresting flavor let me to question how it might have appeared on the same plate as the rest.

Emily's olive-oil poached halibut was moist and flaky, though somewhat overshadowed by the amazing baked shallots and asparagus that accompanied it. [Emily: I'm pretty sure there was some sort of mushroom I had never tasted before. I would order this fish again just to have those veggies.] Jess’s pork was good, too, though not as memorable. [Emily: I remember people being pretty excited about the pork chop the night of, with its bacon and whatnot. Easily the largest and most tender pork chop I have ever tasted, but that is not to say that I order pork chops very often.]

Yogurt Mousse White Sesame Pot de Crème Kaffir Lime Curd

Desert was epic, a word I refuse to use lightly. Uniqueness of preparation, combination, or presentation was there in every one we tried. Initially, we’d decided to be “good” and restrain ourselves, ordering only two: Yogurt Mousse and a White Sesame Pot de Crème. We had some concept of what the second would be, though the idea of a sesame-flavored pot de crème had never occurred to any of us, but nothing could have prepared us for the yogurt mousse. The mousse itself was wrapped in little packages made up of what seemed to be sheets of rhubarb ribbon candy. The apple basil sorbet exploded with flavor. The spill of rhubarb and the almond cake set off the stronger flavors. It was beautiful. The sesame was similarly mind-boggling, offering us a flavor/texture combination not previously found in nature, much to her detriment. After those two experiences we could not help ourselves. We had to go with the desert that had not made the original cut: kaffir lime curd. This one was accompanied by a ginger snap, banana, hibiscus, and coconut sorbet. I’m glad we tried it, but it just couldn’t stand up to those first two.

[Emily: The quote on the night was something along the lines of "If we had only ordered two, we ordered the right two," which I agree with. I also agree with Josh's use of the word "epic" above, hence the reason for ordering three. My late blooming affinity for rhubarb causes me to jump at every dessert that features it; the apple basil sorbet I was more prepared for (by Beretta. Are you counting our Beretta mentions yet?) but still impressed. I mean, partly impressed that they put apple and basil together and partly that basil goes so well with such an increasingly (I find) wide variety of things. As for the sesame pot de crème, well. Well. Let's just say I would have been licking the inside of the jar if it had been outside the jar.]

One final thing worth mentioning: Jess ordered 15-year Glenlivet on the rocks. Expected: glass of scotch with one or two large ice cubes. Actual: glass full of crushed ice and scotch. Bartender fail. (Worry not, for Gabe at Beretta made it up to her in spades later that night.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tartine Bakery ½ [#8, 28%]

There is something about Tartine Bakery that causes people to line up down the block, probably to do with the fact that they are arguably the foremost Mission experts in the butter-flour-sugar thing. I feel like maybe, yes; that could be it.

We went there with the single-minded goal of attaining our morning bun foodspot, but Josh took the opportunity to hoard some treats for later, including a cup of bread pudding with seasonal fruit and one of their rightfully famous croissants. [Fun fact: Tartine is NY Times critic Mark Bittman’s favorite bakery in the United States. -josh]

Morning Bun

I usually go for a croque monsieur or a cup of muesli at Tartine, so this was actually my first time trying the morning bun. I think a little piece of Josh’s heart died when I cut it in half—he really wanted to unwind the swirls.

Sharing

I’m going to say the word “subtle” now, but I want you to know that I mean it; the orange flavor is subtle, so subtle it goes unmentioned on the menu. It’s only there enough so that you think, “Oh, this is nice, this citrus impression I have here in my mouth,” the flowers on the side of a caramelized sugar-paved road.

Fingers

It’s a morning bun you will enjoy, if you can keep yourself from ordering something with more frills. Personally, I probably can’t, after standing in that line outside ;)

Kings Bakery Cafe [#52, 27%]

Unassuming pastry is unassuming, but perhaps, just maybe, also delicious; this is the lesson of our trip to Kings Bakery Cafe. Observe:

BFF

One of these baked goods appears as something akin to a lightly sesame seeded hotdog bun, while the other is temptingly coated in coarse grained sugar and stuffed to the brim with what could very well be pure butter. You already envision chomping off a huge bite, causing the cream to squirt out the other end, and anticipate the awkward delight you will take in licking it up in exactly the same manner that Konata from Lucky Star laps at her クリームコロネ:


Am I right? Since there is no name tag or sticky note to distinguish a coconut bun from any number of other buns (some of which actually do contain hot dogs), the average consumer who veers into Kings Bakery Cafe for a pitstop on their lazy Saturday stroll down uninformed street could easily miss this item. Luckily, having seen pictures in 7X7, we knew better, and ordered one.

The Bun

Lo and behold, there is coconut inside, and it is good.

Inside

This coconut bun is bereft of fanciness, but then, it costs 80 cents, so you wouldn't expect any, and if you like coconut, fanciness is unnecessary. You can think of it as a Mounds bar, only with bun coating instead of chocolate.

That other pastry, once we tasted it, started to look a little garish. The flavor had none of the sunny day character that coconut imparts, and no other character to replace it—just lots of fat and sugar.

"Don't judge a book by its cover;" ok, ok, but what then? Who knows what untold bakers dozens of pastries exist in the city hiding plain-clothed among their superficially sprinkled and frosted cousins? An entire blog could be dedicated to the search, but this, however, is not an endeavor I am willing to undertake.