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 OpenTable.com.

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:


Ouch.

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...