Sunday, December 23, 2007

Heading to Warmer Climes

I'll be offline for a bit as Karen and I leave the Bay Area to enjoy some warmer weather down south. We'll be back soon, so stay tuned for the report from our beach vacation.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dine About Town '08

Nearly 100 restaurants in San Francisco are now taking lunch and dinner reservations for the 7th Annual Dine About Town event. Participating restaurants will be offering three course prie fixe lunch and dinner menus that will allow you enjoy a wide variety of gourmet cuisine throughout San Francisco.

The event will run January 15-31, 2008 and will feature three course lunches for $21.95 and dinners for $31.95 (excluding beverage, tax, and gratuity). You can book your reservations online at

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Cuisine of the Friendly Skies

A couple of weeks ago, I took my last business trip of the year, a short (five day) jaunt to Sweden. The corporate travel agency booked me on an outbound flight on Lufthansa and had me returning on United, so I had an opportunity to compare their cuisine a few days apart, which is about as close to head-to-head as I would probably ever get to experience. I had flown in United Business just a few months earlier, but hadn't flown on Lufthansa since late last year, so I took the occasion to reacquaint myself with the fare on German flagship airline.

I took the Monday afternoon flight from SFO to Frankfurt. After my customary nap through take-off, I spent about a half an hour fiddling around with the settings on the new Business Class seat before a flight attendant came around with napkins in hand to kick off the dinner service.

To start my meal, I could have selected a pistachio crusted shrimp with mango salsa and cilantro aioli, but I instead went with the smoked duck breast with sweet corn flan and cherry vinaigrette. The duck breast was pretty decent, though I barely noticed the vinaigrette, but the flan was ice cold.

For the main course, I had a choice of three entrées: turkey escalopes, grilled salmon, or saffron fettucine. Though I normally don't order fish on flights, this time, I decided to try the salmon, which came with celeriac purée and sweet pea and fava bean jus. The salmon was surprisingly good, flavorful and cooked to almost a perfect doneness - the middle of the filet was about perfect and the ends were, if anything, just a touch overdone, but when you are 39,000 feet in the air, it's pretty close to being perfect. However, all of the sides were pretty forgettable. It would have been better if they had just put down some mashed taters next to the salmon.

The next course was a cheese plate consisting of (from the left) Cambozola, Sage Derby, and Gruyère. All the cheeses were quite good, though I would have enjoyed some more dried fruit on the plate.

After the cheese plate was cleared away, I was served with some apple raisin bread pudding with sweet cream and a box of chocolate truffles. Both the bread pudding and truffles were very good - a couple of small, but tasty treats to finish off the meal.

After a few hours of intermittent sleep, I woke myself up for breakfast as we cruised over England. I groggily ordered some coffee and selected a fruit plate with some cold cuts (turkey and salami) and cheese (Brie and pepperjack). The plate was tasty, especially the fruit, which was very ripe and surprisingly sweet.

After landing in Frankfurt and passing speedily through immigration, my colleagues and I had a few hours to kill before our connection to Stockholm, so we headed up to the United lounge to stretch our legs and rehydrate ourselves. While we were in the lounge, I showed one of my colleagues some pictures from our dinner at the French Laundry. Unfortunately, I forgot to turn off my camera. By the time that I noticed, we were just about to start the meal service on our short SAS flight from Frankfurt to Stockholm. It was too late to do much about a dead camera battery, so I was not able to capture the food on this flight. Oh well.

The next few days in Stockholm were quite packed, as I was busy conducting a design-led innovation workshop with several colleagues from Germany and the United States. One of my colleagues and I did have an opportunity to do some sightseeing around Stockholm on Friday, but that's another blog post...

Heading back home on Saturday, we boarded an early morning SAS flight to Frankfurt. Once again, I was not able to capture my meal, as my camera was stowed away in the overhead compartment, access to which was blocked by the slumbering passenger in the aisle seat next to me. I guess that photos of the food on the SAS flights were not meant to be, at least not on this trip.

After another short visit to the United Red Carpet lounge, we boarded our United flight to return home. After settling in my seat, I dozed off for a bit before being awakened for the main meal of the flight. We started off with a cold appetizer of Parma ham, tomatoes, and buffalo mozzarella with balsamic vinaigrette. Unfortunately, this was not a good starter. The plate apparently had been refrigerated, so the tomatoes were completely flavorless and had a mealy texture. The balsamic "vinaigrette" had the look and viscosity of used motor oil, so I didn't even try it. There was some spongy-looking orange and yellow thing on the plate. I had no idea what it was (and still don't), but it didn't taste very good at all, so I pushed it aside after a single bite. I guess that that mozzarella and Parma ham were okay though...

After the disastrous course was cleared away, I had a selection of one of three entrées: a pan-seared filet mignon with three peppercorn sauce, a mushroom stuffed chicken breast with shallot Madeira sauce, and a spinach and ricotta stuffed tortellini Antonio with creamy chive sauce. Despite my rather poor experience with the filet on my last flight, I decided (for whatever reason) to give it another try. I'm glad that I did. While it was far away from being a great steak, it was actually halfway decent. First of all, unlike the meat from the previous trip, the steak actually looked like it was a filet. While the steak was still overcooked, I was still able to detect a faint pink section in the middle, which was definitely a step in the right direction. Best of all, the steak was actually quite tender and tasted like steak. Not bad for hot box cooking six miles above the ground. Unfortunately, the accompanying Lyonnaise mashed potatoes with cheese were pretty disappointing, though the green beans were okay.

After the main course, I passed on the ice cream dessert and instead had the cheese platter, which included smoked chili and Sbrinz cheeses. I like these simple cheese plates, but I do wish that they would use seedless grapes.

After finishing dinner, I actually managed to get some decent sleep, which I generally have trouble getting when flying from Europe to the United States. We took a very northerly polar flight path which, at this time of the year, meant that the sun set (from our perspective) and rose again before we landed. I woke up relatively refreshed in time to catch a light snack before landing. The snack consisted of another cheese plate (apparently I can't get enough of them) with cheddar, Brie, and Edam cheeses and seasonal fruit. It was a light and tasty snack which would carry me over until I had a chance to enjoy a real dinner after we landed.

Well, now that the year is over, I'll have to endure a couple of flights in economy before I'll qualify for Business Class travel again. Stay tuned for my meal reports from back in the cattle section of United and Lufthansa.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bacony Goodness

Do you love bacon? Well, one of the folks over at the Good Eats Message Board found someone who might like bacon even a bit more than you do...

Starting with breakfast, this connoisseur of the cured porcine product has found heart-stopping ways to enjoy bacon in sandwiches and in burgers. I can't wait for his next bacony creation.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Menu for Hope 4

Today marks the kickoff of Chez Pim's Fourth Annual Menu for Hope fundraising event, benefiting the UN World Food Programme. In the words of Pim,

"It's that time of year again, when food bloggers from all over the world join together, taking leave from our usual frivolity. Throughout the year, we celebrate food as a source of joy, but for two weeks every December, we ask you, our readers, to help us support those who are not so lucky, to whom food is not a mere indulgence but a matter of survival. This Menu for Hope is our small way to help. Please join us."
For the next eleven days, food bloggers around the world will be working together to host an online raffle for a vast assortment of culinary prizes. For every $10, the donor will receive a virtual raffle ticket. This year's fabulous list of prizes include a tour of El Bulli with Ferran Adrià, dinner for two with wine pairing and a private tour of Manresa's biodynamic garden, and a private lunch with Harold McGee.

Last year, Menu for Hope raised $60,925.12 to help feed the hungry though the UN World Food Programme, the world's largest food aid agency, working with over 1,000 other organizations in over 75 countries.. Proceeds from this year's fundraiser are earmarked to benefit the school lunch program in Lesotho, Africa.

For additional details, including how to donate and a complete list of prizes, check the home of the fundraiser at Chez Pim.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Night to Remember: Dinner at the French Laundry

Sometimes, things just work out.

One of those times happened to Karen and me recently. Taking advantage of the Thanksgiving weekend, we decided to head up with Napa Valley for a few days. Since we don't usually stay up in Wine Country more than a single night, we thought that it would be fun to see if we could land a coveted reservation at the French Laundry (6640 Washington Street, Yountville; 707-944-2380). Owned by world-renown chef Thomas Keller, this 62 seat restaurant is recognized as one of the premier dining establishments in the world. Landing a table during the dinner hours in this tony Yountville restaurant is extremely difficult. In fact, there are web pages dedicated to doling out advice on how to get such a reservation.

So, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, I picked up the phone and called the reservation line at the French Laundry. When the receptionist answered, I told her that we going to come up with Napa for a long weekend and was wondering if we could get ourselves on the waiting list for each of those nights, with the hope that someone might cancel on a two-top during one of those evenings. Boy, was I surprised when I heard that there actually was a table for two available on Saturday night! I took advantage of this good fortune and immediately booked that open table. We were going to the French Laundry!

Arriving 15 minutes early for our 9pm reservation, we waited in the foyer of the rustic brick building, perusing the Bouchon and French Laundry cookbooks on the coffee table. After a few minutes, the host called our names and led us through the dining room to our seats. We sat down at the table, taking in the environment as we looked around the room. On the table in front of us was a neatly pleated napkin, on which was clipped a French Laundry clothespin.

Our dinner commenced with a couple of amuse bouche dishes. The first dish was warm Gruyère gougères, small savory pastries filled with cheese:

The second amuse bouche were a pair of ice-cream cone shaped salmon cornets with filled with crème fraîche. The cone was crunchy and its texture contrasted nicely with the minced salmon and silky crème fraîche.

At the French Laundry, you have the choice of two menus: the chef's tasting menu and the "tasting of vegetables" menu. (As I understand, there is also an unpublished 20 course tasting menu, but that needs to be ordered in advance.) Since it was the first visit to the French Laundry for both of us, we decided to order the chef's tasting menu.

The first course of the nine course tasting menu was the classic Keller dish "Oysters and Pearls", a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Beau Soleil oysters and white sturgeon caviar. The dish was wonderful. The texture of the tapioca contrasted nicely with that of the sabayon, and the oysters and caviar provided a perfect amount of briny flavor. We enjoyed this fabulous course with a flute of Pierre Gimonnet, a classic pairing of champagne and caviar.

For the next course, we had a choice. We could have had the hearts of palm salad, but we opted for the Moulard duck "foie gras au torchon" with stewed Oregon huckleberries, Tokyo turnips, spiced bread crumbs, and Garden Mâche, which was available with an additional $30 charge. If you follow our food adventures in this blog, you'll know that both Karen and I are huge fans of foie gras. Without a doubt, this was the single best foie gras dish that we've ever eaten. It was absolutely phenomenal. The foie gras was served with three different types of salt: a grey salt from the Brittany region of France, a Japanese sea salt, and a "Jurassic" salt from Montana, each with a different flavor and coarseness. Served with a side of toasted brioche from the Bouchon bakery just a couple of blocks down Washington Street, the dish was a meal in itself.

One very nice touch: in the middle of this decadent course, one of the servers came by to refresh our accompanying brioche with a hot slice of freshly toasted bread. The wine director steered us to a 2006 Yves Cuilleron Blanc "Roussilliere", which paired fabulously with the foie gras.

Next came the first of the fish courses. For this course, we had a choice of two different dishes, so Karen and I ordered one of each. I order the "Tartare" of Kona Kahala with cauliflower fleurettes, toasted Marcona almonds, Satsuma mandarins, and mizuna greens. I have to say that I was a bit underwhelmed by this course, especially after the two previous dishes, both of which were simply stunning. I was expecting some bold flavors, but this dish was a bit flat in my opinion.

Karen went with the line-caught Atlantic striped bass with glazed sunchokes, wilted Arrowleaf spinach, San Marzano tomato compote, and niçoise olives. This dish was pretty good, much better than my choice of fish. For this course and the next, we enjoyed a glass of Spencer Roloson viognier, which again was a great pairing suggested by the wine director.

Our second fish course was the fantastic sweet butter poached Maine lobster tail with caramelized cippolini onions, sugar snap peas, Yukon Gold "Pommes Maxims", and "Mousseline Bearnaise". This dish was as good as it looks. The lobster was perfectly cooked and buttery, especially with the luxurious Bearnaise sauce. The potato crisp was crisp and savory, but a bit difficult with eat with a fork and knife.

After the two fish courses came the meat courses. The first meat that came out of the kitchen was the all-day braised Kurobuta pork belly with grilled hearts of romaine lettuce, celeriac purée, and Périgold truffle glaze. The pork belly was succulent and fall-apart tender. The purée was a nice complement to the rich pork, but the romaine lettuce seemed a bit out of place on this plate. To go with this course and the following one, we had a glass of 2005 Brewer Clifton pinot noir. The wine was again quite good, a testament to the fine skills of our sommelier.

Our second meat course was a herb roasted saddle of Elysian Fields Farm lamb with globe artichokes, Nantes carrots, golden chanterelle mushrooms, and sweet garlic "jus". We could have opted for a course of Wagyu beef in place of the lamb, but the $100 supplemental charge seemed a bit steep to me. The lamb was amazing tender and quite flavorful. I enjoyed this dish very much, but I think that Karen was a little less impressed.

After finishing the lamb course, both of us were getting pretty full. We had finished all of the main courses, so we were now heading into the desserts. Our first dessert course was a cheese plate: "Petit Sapin" with Royal Blenhein apricots, red beet relish, and arugula leaves. I was not expecting a soft cheese for this course, but I liked it. I think that Karen enjoyed this dish as well, even with the beet relish.

Next came a palate cleaning feijoa sorbet with Maui pineapple relish and angel cake. The sorbet was very refreshing and the angel cake was very light. Given the heaviness of the previous courses, this was a welcome dish to enjoy at this point in our meal.

The last of the nine courses on the menu gave us two options for dessert. As it is our habit, we picked one of each course. I chose the "Charlotte aux Poires et aux Dates" with Bartlett pear sorbet, "Japonais", candied hazelnuts, and pear coulis. Like the previous sorbet dish, I like this dish quite a lot. At this point in the meal, I was definitely okay with enjoying some lighter dessert fare, and this dessert was lighter than it appeared.

Karen picked the "S'Mores" with cashew nut "Parfait", caramel "Délice", and "Sauce a la Guimauve brûlée". As with the corresponding dessert during our last dinner at Manresa, I wasn't a huge fan of the S'more, but that's probably more of a reflection of my personal preference than anything bad about this dessert.

With the last of the nine courses, we were finished with our dinner. Oh wait. We still had the mignardises.

After clearing away the dessert plates, the waiter brought me a Meyer lemon pot au crème and set a Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée before Karen.

After those two desserts were cleared away, we were completely stuffed. But there was more yet to come. Next came a little bowl of chocolate caramel macadamia nuts and some olive financier cookies (not pictured).

Next, we were presented with a huge platter of chocolates. On the suggestion of our waiter, we picked one of each type of chocolate for a total of six. It was six chocolates more than I should have eaten - now we were completely stuffed.

At this point, our waiter asked me for my camera so that he could take a photo of the two of us to commemorate the occasion. Here's a photo of two very sated diners:

Last, but not least, about a quarter past midnight, came our final mignardises course: a gold box filled with pâtes de fruit and other petit fours. I managed to try each of them, somehow finding a tiny bit of open space in my stomach.

Of course, such opulance does not come without a price, and a hefty one at that. Here's the damage:


As a final treat, our waiter presented us with some shortbread cookies to take home, courtesy of their pastry chef.

The service that we received that evening was impeccable. It was perhaps the cleanest and best executed service that I've ever experienced at a restaurant. The pacing of our meal was superb and we were never lacking for attention. Throughout our dinner, the waitstaff cleared our empty plates as soon as we finished our food and kept our water glasses full with complementary bottles of Hildon still water.

The members of the waitstaff were obviously well-practiced, delivering top-notch service throughout the evening with spot-on precision. It seemed like each of their movement were deliberate, well-thought out, and completely choreographed. Our main server was quite friendly, but it was not the personalized-type service that we've enjoyed at other restaurants, such as Frasca and Chapeau, though I don't think that either of us would have expected that type of atmosphere at a restaurant like the French Laundry.

All in all, we had a fabulous meal. It was definitely one of the best meals that I've ever enjoyed at a restaurant. Everything was there: spectacular food and flawless service in a luxurious setting. But, on the other hand, neither Karen or I thought that the food was far superior to that of Manresa, where we've enjoyed a couple of fabulous dinners at a much lower price point. In fact, we both thought that the food was, in fact, quite comparable. While the service at the French Laundry was superior to Manresa, I'm not convinced that it justifies the difference in price. So, did we enjoy our dinner? Absolutely - it was a fabulous dinner, perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to dine at one of the best restaurants in the world. Would we go back? Maybe (and really just maybe), though it wouldn't be any time soon, especially with Manresa just a short drive away.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Absinthe No Longer Absent

As of December 21, American-made absinthe will be legally available in the United States after a 95 year absence. Bay Area distiller St. George Spirits, best known for their high-end Hanger One vodka, will be selling bottles of the newly legalized liquor at its Alameda tasting room and at a few select retail locations. Though the absinthe must legally have less than 10 parts per million of thujone, the chemical thought to be responsible for the liquor's hallucinogenic effect, the high alcohol content (typically around 120 proof), should get you to where you want to go.

Monday, December 03, 2007

All the Lobster You Can Eat

The price: $2,995.

For that price, you get your very own lobster trap for the season and all of the crustaceans that you catch (guaranteed minimum: 40), courtesy of Ready Seafoods. The price includes shipping, as well as other accoutrements, including mussels, clams, Maine-made gourmet desserts, bibs, cooking instructions, and gift cards, as you catch a piece of Maine.

2900 Calories, 182g of Fat, and 240g of Carbs...

... is what you would consume if you ate the worst of the 20 worst foods in America.

Catching Up.... On Thanksgiving

After being out of town for most of the past two weeks, I'm back at home for a bit, so I can catch up on my blogging.

First, some pics from our Thanksgiving dinner. Since there was only two of us, we made a small-ish (12 lbs.) turkey. Instead of doing something overly complicated, we simply put some compound butter under the skin, stuffed some aromatics in the cavity, and roasted the bird, basting it periodically with butter using my mom's tried and true technique. We ended up with this:

The sides (clockwise from the upper left): baked squash hotdish, bread stuffing, braised leeks, and cranberry compote.

To go along with dinner, we had a bottle of 2006 Peju Sauvignon Blanc. We managed to enjoy our Thankgiving dinner without stuffing ourselves silly, unlike a couple of nights later...

Friday, November 30, 2007

Good to the Last Drop

I've been hanging out in Stockholm this week for work but will be making my way back home early tomorrow morning. With the nine hour time shift and the resulting jet lag, I've been feeling pretty tired all week, so I've been keeping myself well-caffeinated. Luckily for me, the coffee over in Sweden is quite good - I haven't had a bad cup o' joe yet. No wonder that Sweden is among the world's leading countries in the per-capita consumption of coffee.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Just Sit Tight... Will Be Reporting Back Soon...

For those of you who are waiting for the report on our visit to the French Laundry, just hang in there for a few more days. I had to travel to Europe this week for work, so I haven't had a chance to sit down and write a proper post. Once I return from Sweden, I'll get cracking on the write-up. I'll just say that we had a wonderful evening - it was one of the best meals that I've ever eaten.

Thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Getting Ready to Feast Tomorrow

I just got done with the last of my Thanksgiving Day grocery shopping. I'm glad that I took the day off to relax and avoid the mad evening rush at Safeway that inevitably happens the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. As I picked out a fresh turkey for tomorrow night's dinner, I was asked by two different people on how to select and prepare the turkey. I was happy to help, though a bit surprised - it's not like I was wearing a Butterball Turkey Hotline cap or anything like that.

Since it'll only be the two of us for dinner tomorrow, we're going to keep it simple. The menu for tomorrow is (tentatively):

  • Roasted Turkey (not sure what I want to do quite yet - the last time, we made a miso butter-rubbed version)

  • Bread stuffing (I'm not a huge fan of stuffing, but Karen likes it)

  • Cranberry compote (both of us will be making our own variation)

  • Braised leeks (Karen loved the leeks that we had at Ad Hoc, so I thought that I would make some for her)

  • Baked Squash Casserole
Hmmm... I guess that we'll be having a lot of leftovers...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My Aha! Food Moments

Every so often, each of us experiences an "Aha!" moment. During these brief flashes of insight, you make a quantum leap and suddenly have a profound revelation that changes the way you view the world. Over the past few days, I've been thinking about the "Aha!" food moments that I've experienced. I came up with a list of five such moments which I would like to share with you.

Date: July 9, 2005
Place: Sushi Ran, Sausalito, CA
During the summer of 2005, I had my first encounter with o-toro, the most luscious cut of maguro available. I can still remember that piece of tuna belly just melting away in my mouth like it just happened yesterday. The taste and texture were simply amazing and unlike anything else that I had ever eaten before. That utterly decadent slice of fish changed the way that I think about eating sushi. Since then, every time that I eat o-toro (which is nearly every time I eat sushi), I close my eyes and hope that I can once again experience the feeling of eating o-toro for the first time.

The Complete Dining Experience
Date: August 17, 2005
Place: Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, CO
It was during my dinner at Frasca when I first understood how exquisite service combined with exceptional food executed with culinary precision can elevate a simple meal into an out-of-this-world dining experience.

The Corn Croquette
Date: October 1, 2005
Place: Manresa, Los Gatos, CA
Karen and I celebrated our first year together with a fabulous dinner at Manresa. Ordering the tasting menu, we were treated to a series of amuse bouche prior to our main courses. One of these amuse bouche offerings was a croquette, a small, breaded morsel meant to be eaten in a single bite. When I bit down on the croquette, I was completely surprised by its warm liquid center which released the pure and unadulterated taste of sweet corn into my mouth. Its sun-soaked flavor simply made my taste buds sing. The croquette utterly captured the delectable essence of corn and demonstrated that little packages can be full of wonderful surprises.

The Cheese Plate
Date: November 21, 2005
Place: Le Bistro de l'Olivier, Paris, France
At the end of an otherwise ordinary meal at a mostly empty bistro in the 8th arrondissement, Karen and I were both blown away by the cheese course. The plate had a couple types of cheeses and was served with a smear of honey sprinkled with lavender. The cheeses tasted fine, but combined with the honey and lavender, their flavors were elevated to extraordinary level. For the first time, I understood how good a cheese plate could be, the elements of the plate coming together to show how the whole can be far greater than the sum of its parts.

And there is one more moment, but it's certainly not the least important. In fact, it probably is one of the defining moments of my life as a foodie.

Beer Can Chicken
Date: Early Summer, 2002
Place: Chez moi, Silicon Valley, CA
One afternoon, I pulled out my copy of Steve Raichlen's How to Grill book and found the recipe for beer-can chicken. It looked simple enough, so I followed the recipe and set up my gas grill to hot smoke the poultry until it was golden brown. Taking my first bite of chicken, I was utterly amazed by the exceptional flavor and juiciness. I asked myself if I could have actually made that bird myself. It was better than any rotisserie chicken that I had ever bought at a store and it was so easy and simple to make. I even remember calling my mom to tell her about what I had made and how good it was.

The important point of this "Aha!" moment is that up until this point in my life, I considered myself to be an adequate, though unexceptional cook. Sure, I knew how to keep myself well-fed and even improvise a bit on existing recipes, but I never strayed too far from the tried and true. However, at this moment, I realized that I might have some potential in the kitchen. Perhaps I always had it in me, but this moment gave me the confidence to believe in my own culinary abilities and set me off on a course to being a foodie, a path that I'm still following today.

One of my favorite quotes from Julia Child is:

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."
This moment gave me that "what-the-hell" attitude.

So folks, I'd love to hear some of your "Aha!" food moments. I hope that you will share them with me!

As Simple as That...

This afternoon, I picked up the phone, dialed a number in Yountville, and landed a Saturday evening dinner reservation here. Woo-hoo!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A New Layout (or Not)

Some of you may notice some minor changes in the look and feel around here. I just finished migrating the blog from Blogger Templates to Layouts. I can hopefully take advantage of the some of the features in Layouts as well as get fixes to issues that have never been resolved in Templates. If you encounter any problems or have any comments or suggestions, please let me know!

Happy reading!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

1300 on Fillmore

(This post is way overdue, but better late than never, right?)

A couple of weeks ago, Karen took me out for a fabulous birthday dinner at 1300 on Fillmore (1300 Fillmore St; 415-771-7100), a new restaurant located in the Fillmore Jazz district of San Francisco. Having opened only five days prior to our visit, 1300 on Fillmore features American food with a Southern flair. Indeed, their website describe their cuisine as "Soulful American". Opened by Executive Chef David Lawrence and his wife Monetta White, 1300 on Fillmore is located in the Heritage on Fillmore high-rise, next to the soon-to-be-open Yoshi's Jazz Club.

Arriving at the restaurant, Karen and I initially walked right by the nondescript wooden front door. Once we realized our mistake and made our way through the entrance, we found ourselves surrounded by the dark walls of the stylishly appointed space. Designed by the MCCARTAN design firm, the restaurant exudes sophistication without feeling overly formal. Covering its walnut and chocolate brown walls are portraits of famous legends of jazz, an homage to the heritage of the surrounding Lower Fillmore neighborhood. Strategically placed rows of indirect and spot lighting provide just right amount of illumination to offset the dark walls without losing the intimate and cozy feel.

When we arrived, the restaurant had ample availability (not surprising given its recent soft opening and the time of our mid-week visit), so the hostess led us to a four-top near the Eddy Street-facing windows in the main dining room. Since it was my birthday, we started off our dinner with a little bubbly - I enjoyed a glass of Gloria Ferrer as we perused the menu.

Both of us were pretty hungry, so we ordered two appetizers: the freshwater shrimp hush puppies and the bourbon braised pork belly. These hush puppies differed from ones that I had eaten in the past as it appeared to have a simple cornmeal coating as opposed to a layer of deep fried cornbread batter. Accompanying the basket of shrimp hush puppies was a small ramekin of spicy ancho chile remoulade. The Louisiana-style remoulade was different from mayonnaise-based ones that I've made myself, but it provided just the right amount of heat to accent the flavor of the piping hot and tasty hush puppies. After polishing off the shrimp, we started in on the pork belly. The generous portion of braised meat was fall-apart tender and simply succulent. However, I didn't care so much for the shelled white bean puree on which the pork was served. Normally, I like the combination of sweet flavors with pork (ever tried pig candy?), but in this case, the sweetness of the bean puree just did not work for me in this dish.

For the main courses, Karen and I split the skillet fried chicken and the maple syrup braised beef short rib. The fried chicken is one of the house specialties and requires 30 minutes of prep time. The chicken was excellent - its crunchy coating was packed with flavor (highlighted with cumin, if I'm not mistaken) and sealed in the juices, resulting in a savory and moist entrée that's well worth the wait. The side of truffled mashed potatoes with pan gravy was tasty as well, but it is the chicken that is the highlight of this dish. With three pieces of chicken per order, there is plenty of goodness to share. Our other main course was delicious as well. Our order of short rib had only a small sliver of bone, which meant that we were able to enjoy a generous portion of tender beef between the two of us. I don't normally associate sweet flavors with beef, but it definitely worked in this dish, in marked contrast to the braised pork belly. The sides of mashed potatoes and braised greens were good, but it was the short rib that was the headliner on this dish. We liked both of our selections quite a bit, but if there was a small complaint, it was that both of these dishes came out to us a bit on the cool side. The plates were each very hot, but the food itself was less so. Nevertheless, the chicken and beef were very good, despite cooling off quickly. We just chalked it up to newness of the restaurant; hopefully, they'll be able to work out the kinks quickly.

The service at 1300 on Fillmore was impeccable. Our server, Annette, was very friendly and attentive to our needs, as were the bussers who kept our water glasses from going empty all evening long. Since it was a bit slow that evening, Annette stopped by our table frequently, not only checking to make sure that everything was going well, but also chatting with us about the restaurant when we expressed interest. Both Chef Lawrence and his wife paid a visit to our table in order to welcome us to their new venue as well as to pass along birthday wishes, which I thought was quite nice. At the end of our meal, Annette brought us an order of chocolate-filled beignets, on the house, topped off with a birthday candle. The freshly made beignets were accompanied by chocolate and vanilla dipping sauces - they were a delicious end to a very nice meal.

While it was a bit slow during our visit, I suspect that soon it might be difficult to land a reservation there, especially on weekends. During our dinner, a large party came in to the semi-private 22-person party room, located just off the main dining area. Apparently, they had already been receiving some requests for that party room, even though they had not yet started taking reservations officially at that point in time. Once Yoshi's opens, I think that they'll be getting a lot of the spillover traffic from its next-door neighbor, especially since they will be serving dinner until 11pm and a lounge menu until 1am. They have also applied for permits so that they can host live jazz entertainment, which will be quite nice once they start up their weekend brunch. We plan to pay them a visit again soon.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Makin' Some Chowdah

Now that Karen has left for the airport to head back to the Bay Area, I can share my next recipe with you. (You see, I want to have a little surprise for her when she gets home.)

Using the chicken stock that I made yesterday, I put together a simple chowder, again adapting a recipe that originally called for turkey. Made with some of Karen's favorite foods, including bacon, wild rice, and sweet corn, I thought that this soup would make for a nice "Welcome Home" meal.

Before starting to work on the soup itself, I had to prepare some wild rice. I had just enough wild rice in my pantry for this recipe, though it looks like I will need to put in an order to Minnesota for another 10 lbs bag. After the rice finished cooking, I put it aside and started the work on the soup. I started by browning up some bacon my trusty Dutch oven. The recipe called for pancetta, but unfortunately Safeway is a bit challenged when it comes to specialty items such as this.

After browning the bacon, I drained it on paper towels and removed some of the excess fat from the cast iron pot. Then, I threw in some cremini mushrooms and cooked them for a few minutes in the rendered fat.

After the mushrooms were cooked down, I remove them from the Dutch oven and began softening some diced celery, carrots, and shallots in melted butter. I cut down the amount of butter called for in the recipe in half, since I didn't see the need to use an half a stick of butter for this. After the vegetable mixture had softened up a bit, I put in some flour. As I had reduced the amount of butter, I also reduced the amount of flour proportionally.

After the roux had cooked for a couple of minutes, I returned the mushrooms to the pot and added the chicken stock and some dried rosemary.

Once the stock and vegetable mixture came to a boil, I lowered the heat and simmered the soup for 15 minutes or so. Then, I added in wild rice, the reserved bacon, the meat from the chickens that I used to make the stock, and some sweet corn.

After allowing the soup to simmer for another 10 minutes to meld the flavors together, I added the final ingredient, a cup of heavy cream, to finish off the dish. I tried some of the soup with a simple garnish of flat leaf parsley.

The chowder was delicious, very hearty with a nice silky finish. It'll definitely keep you warm on a cool, autumn evening.

As I was making the chowder, I was simultaneously baking some Amish friendship bread using a starter that Karen gave me.

Does anyone want any bread starter?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Stocking Up

With the arrival of fall and cooler weather, it's a perfect time to enjoy some warm and hearty soup. In order to make soup, you need some sort of base liquid, such as a nice chicken stock. Of course, the best stock is the homemade variety, so today I set out to make some for myself, adapting a recipe for turkey stock from the latest issue of Bon Appétit by substituting two chicken carcasses for the turkey.

A stock is basically a liquid made from simmering a few ingredients in water. All stocks are made with some sort of animal bone, often chicken or beef. The main flavor of the stock comes from the cartilage and connective tissues in the bones. The collagen in the connective tissues is transformed into gelatin during the simmering process and contributes to the resulting mouthfeel of the stock. Most stocks also contain other flavoring agents, such as mirepoix, an onion, celery, and carrot mixture (often in a 2:1:1 ratio), and aromatic herbs, such as parsley and thyme. The recipe from Bon Appétit is comprised of these components.

First, I had to prepare the mirepoix. In general, a rough dice will work; I had roughly 1/3 inch cubes in my mirepoix mixture.

I didn't have a large onion for which the recipe called so I used three medium onion halves (which conveniently allowed me to use up all of the cut onions in the refrigerator):

This recipe called for four aromatics: fresh parsley (left), dried thyme, a bay leaf, and whole peppercorns (right, clockwise from the top):

Not owning a true stock pot, I pulled out my Le Creuset dutch oven, heated up some vegetable oil, and softened up the mirepoix.

Ater a few minutes, I added the two chicken carcasses with enough cold water to cover the bones and the aromatics:

I simmered the stock for about three hours. By the end of that time, the bones were very soft and easily crushed. Removing the pot from the heat, I strained out the solids in a stainless steel bowl using a colander. I used a potato masher to press out the liquid from the mass of bones and aromatics. I let the stock cool down for a while and then used a separator ladle to remove the layer of fat that had floated to the surface.

Here's the final result, after the fat was skimmed off. (Gotta love those Cambro containers!)

I ended up getting about 7 cups of stock, so I topped it off with water (as the recipe suggested) to 10 cups. The stock can be stored in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer if you want to use it in the future. I'll be using mine tomorrow!

Edit: The San Francisco Chronicle today published an article in which Bay Area chefs share their opinions on the best way to make stock. (10/31/2007)