Monday, December 30, 2013

San Francisco: TBD

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All week I've raved about the amazing food scene in San Francisco.  In a place where all of the restaurants are exceptional, it's hard to imagine the competition isn't stiff.  Understandably, chefs and restauranteurs seem to be looking for ways to make their food and dining experience stand out. Sometimes this works beautifully, and other times it goes horribly wrong.  Apologies in advance for the bad photography, the lighting and my iphone camera didn't work out that well here!

At the recommendation of a chef we met, we made a last minute reservation at a new restaurant, TBD.  The concept, according to the menu, is food inspired by the "primal" means of cooking over an open fire...   Sure...let's go with it.  
The menu is separated by type of preparation: raw, smoked, grilled, etc.  Since the dishes are meant to be shared, we ordered a couple from the various categories.  Each proved lackluster in its own way. 

The scallops, for example, were categorized under the smoked portion of the menu, but were served completely raw.  The waitress explained it was a cold smoke.  Interesting, but not particularly tasty.  They were topped with a frozen fennel granita that only made the cold scallop colder.  
Another strange and unappealing dish was grilled bread topped with butter and seaweed.  The seaweed seemed unneccessy, but added a little saltiness to an otherwise plain dish.  If seaweed wasn't strange enough, the bread was also topped with little sprigs of gel-like capsules. The waitress explained that the "sea beans" were "just a part of the local seaweed."  I know they are trying to be different, but beans filled with salty seawater served on grilled bread?  Someone really should have considered whether this enhanced the flavor of the dish before adding it. 
One of the dishes we did like was a grilled arepa topped with cheese and chanterelle mushrooms.  This was the simplest of the dishes and truest to the original, which is probably the reason I liked it.
We also ordered glazed carrots served over sprouted lentils that were decent.  Although we received about 5-6 small carrots and about a teaspoon of sauce, they were served in a massive serving bowl and only along one wall of the bowl.  I understand the attempt to change the typical aesthetic, but again this seemed to be a silly effort to be different without any improvement in taste or presentation. 
The last savory dish was a somewhat forgettable grilled gulf shrimp.  Served in the shells and with the heads on, these were a lot of work and not really worth  the effort.
The pinnacle of ridiculousness was dessert.  Longing for some sense of normalcy, we ordered the s'mores.  I assumed they would be deliciously cooked over the open flame.  Silly me.  Once again we lost flavor to an unrewarding effort to be unique.  As I should have expected, the s'mores were "deconstructed" and only vaguely recalled the s'mores of my childhood.  Sometimes this type of riff on the original is great , but here the flavors totally missed the mark.  The chocolate on the bottom of the bowl was gooey like caramel but chalky in flavor.  The marshmallow foam-like substance was weak in flavor, and the graham crackers were mere crumbs scattered on top.  There was nothing decadent or particularly sweet in this dessert. 
Perhaps because she sensed my overall dissatisfaction, the waitress was nice enough to bring out a large scoop of their spiced soft serve ice cream.  Again, the scoop was stuck to the inside of one wall of the bowl. Creative or just trying too hard again?  That said, the flavor was one of the better things we ate.

My takeaway is that there is a reason man has evolved beyond the "primal" means of cooking used here. While I admire and generally encourage creativity in the kitchen, taste should always come first.  TBD seems to have lost sight of that.

All this aside, it's a testament to the San Francisco food scene that chefs are working so hard to stand out and make their mark.  There is really no city in the world that has the same vibe as SF, and it was a pleasure to explore the food and culture from so many different angles all week.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

San Francisco: Ferry Building Farmers Market

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Situated right along the Bay in San Francisco is the Ferry Building. Every Saturday the building hosts a farmers market that shows off what the Bay Area has to offer. It has a mixture of produce and prepared food stalls. Many vendors offer samples, so we spend the first 20 minutes wandering around and seeing what was available. 
Although the focus was on prepared foods, there was some really amazing produce.
There are permanent vendors and even full restaurants inside the ferry building and pop up tents all around the outside. 
One of the first stalls that caught my eye was Chino.  A gaggle of Asian teenagers were hoarded around raving about the wonton soup.  After wandering around the market a bit, I made my way back to check out what the fuss was about.  
Although I had come back for the soup, I was immediately drawn to the man frying perfect little dumplings right out in the open. The guys behind him were making them right there.
I couldn't resist the freshness, so I ordered both the wonton soup and the dumplings.  This was one of my better decisions all week.  The dumplings were crisp on one side where the noodle met the grill, but soft and pliable all around.  The flavors were deep with cilantro and sesame seeds, and I doused it in soy sauce and a Chinese vinegar for some extra punch.  
The wonton soup was a cacophony of flavors.  At various points in the broth I tasted shrimp, lemongrass, chili, scallions, garlic, ginger, cilantro, and more.  The guy serving it referred to the heap of xo sauce he threw on top as an "umami bomb."  It was extremely flavorful. 
We sat outside and enjoyed out little picnic.  My dad found a smoked salmon vendor who was serving open-faced smoked salmon sandwiches to a long line of hungry patrons. My dad's was topped with cream cheese, smoked salmon, roasted red peppers, red onion, pickled shallots, and fresh dill. 
After our picnic, we wandered around inside simply admiring (and tasting) all of the different foods. 
If you are in SF on a Satuday, I cannot stress enough how amazing this market is! 


Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Day Trip to Napa

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Yesterday my dad and I headed out of San Francisco for a day trip to Napa.  To get ready, I read Wine for Dummies and got recommendations from friends and families on vineyards to visit.  To make it a safe and enjoyable day, we hired a driver, Barry, who had high reviews on yelp and was very knowlegeable, affordable, and timely.  In case you are looking for a recommendation, here is his website:  We made it to 4 vineyards and stopped for a picnic lunch at Oakville Grocery.  
December is an interesting time to go to the wine country because the grapes have already been harvested and the vines are pretty empty. 
As a result, the crowds are pretty slim and the weather is a little cool.  There are some advantages to going this time of year.  At all of the vineyards we received special treatment.  The pourers had extra time to discuss our palettes and preferences and give suggestions and extra tastings.  It was really special. 
Our first stop was Cakebread Cellars.  We did the regular tasting which included Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Reserve Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah.  Our pourer, Brian, also added in a special 2011 Zinfindel.  This was definitely the most intimate setting for a tasting.  We tasted at a station set up for only 4 people in one of the wine production and storage rooms. 
As a result, we got to hear not only about the wine but the history and politics of Napa. Incidentally, the other couple at our station hailed from the DC area.  Of the wines we tasted, all 4 of us enjoyed the Syrah and the Zinfindel the most. 

Our second stop was Paraduxx.  This was my favorite vinyard and best wines in my opinion.  Our pourer took time to explain the different growing regions of the grapes and helped us understand how that affected the taste of the wine. She also brought out various vintages to show us how aging certain wines makes a difference. 
Paraduxx was a really insightful and fun experience.  We tasted about 8-9 wines there and both of our favorite was the Z Blend, which is a blend of mostly Zinfindel, some Cabernet, and a splash of Merlot. 
Our third vinyard was unplanned.  As we were driving down Route 29 in Napa we passed Sequoia Grove. My dad yelled out in excitement and we did a quick u-turn.  Excellent decision.  
At Sequoia Grove we tried a bevy of delicious wines.  We really went there for the Cabernet Sauvignon that my dad drinks, but were surprised to like their 2009 Merlot and the Rebellious Red.  This was, interestingly, the only Merlot I enjoyed all day. 

Our final stop was Frogs Leap Vinyard. By this point our taste buds were pretty shot, but we couldn't have been in a prettier setting. The wine was served in an old house with wraparound porches and situated in the middle of a vinyard. 
At Frogs Leap we did the regular tasting, but got to try at least one additional reserve wine.  Although we were tired at this point, the wines were delicious and the setting was pleasant. It was the perfect end to our Napa day. 
Off now to enjoy our last day in San Francisco.  Headed off to check out the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building! 


Friday, December 27, 2013

San Francisco: Frances

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Last night we ate a staggering meal in San Francisco at Frances.

We started with baked clams with chives, bacon, and cherry tomatos. Rich, savory, creamy, and delicious. 



Next we got a linguine appetizer with green garlic and big, savory, melt-in-your- mouth shrimp. They were incredible.  

I love fish, so for my entree I got the black cod with a sunchoke and chanterelle confit. It was light and delicious. 

My dad got the bivette steak. Similar to a flank steak but thicker and served over farro grains.  Rich, succulent, and delicious. 

At a recommendation, we got the lumberjack cake. It's hard to imagine a  fruit, nut and date cake in such a delicate setting, but if was incredibly light.

Overall, unbelievable meal from Frances. Thank you, California. 


Thursday, December 26, 2013

San Francisco: A Chinatown Christmas

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Christmas in Chinatown is madness. Spicy, savory madness.  I have never seen so many people jonesing for Chinese food at the same time.  We waited over an hour to get into the famous Sichuan place, Z&Y on Jackson Street!  But I can attest it was worth the wait!

Since I really have no idea what ingredients were in most of our dishes, this will mainly be a photo essay.
First we got the Tan Tan noodles.  They were coated in a light but flavorful chile oil.  Not too spicy.  This was both of our favorite dish.
Next we got the crispy garlic shrimp. They were fried and coated in a panko breadcrumband jalapeño coating, with extra for topping. I've never had shrimp served in this dry manner, but it was delicious. 
 Next we got a scallion pancake that was rolled with thinly sliced beef and cucumbers.  Like a Sichuan burrito, this was perfect to dip in all of the different sauces from our other dishes. 
Our spiciest, though by no means the spiciest of the Sichuan dishes, was the Sichuan Chicken.  Served in a sauce of Serrano chilis, red and green bell peppers, and onions, this was perfect over steamed rice.
There are a lot of great options in Chinatown.  We also tried to go to R&G Lounge and Great Eastern - both of which are Cantonese. The crowds were too much!  Here is a shot just trying to get in the door at Great Eastern! 
But we both were really happy with Z&Y.  Since we were a little unfamiliar with Sichuan cuisine,it was a unique and totally different dining experience. 
Hope you all had a lovely holiday! We are off to the Mission District today!


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

San Francisco: Perbacco

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Merry Christmas!  For those of you just joining my live San Francisco food tour, my dad and I had our Chistmas Eve dinner last night at outstanding Italian restaurant in the Financial District called Perbacco.  Just as an aside, we had drinks before dinner at a speakeasy-type craft cocktail bar called The Burritt Room. Yelp led us to this gem right off Union Square, and we never would have found it on our own.  It was on the second floor of a hotel that looked seedy on the outside, but was lovely on the inside.  The bartenders took time to help us pick a flavor profile and craft a cocktail of our liking.  Highly recommended. 

Back to Perbacco.  It being an Italian restaurant, we were hoping for 7 fishes, but got 3 and a duck! Not too shabby. Here is the run down.
We started with an Old Fashioned and a Moscow Mule. Can you guess whose is whose?
After drinks at the bar, we moved to a table in a dining room that had the markings of a modern city place with an exposed brick walk and a fine dining  restaurant with white table clothes.
On the dinner table were breadsticks and a pesto-like dipping sauce that also included parsley, breadcrumbs, and "any herbs lying around the kitchen."
We got two appetizers. The first was a half portion of a pasta dish called Stracci. It included spinach pasta and was toped with a light lamb ragu.  The pasta was al dente and the ragu was flavorful.  Good but not mind blowing. 
The second was roasted octopus in an herb sauce. It was a little on the chewy side, which disappointed me a little, but the flavor was good.
The real star of the night was the entrees.  I ordered black sea bass with a grapefruit and crab sauce.  It was up there with one of the best fish I've ever been served. The pictures can't do it justice, but the skin was crisp on the outside and flakey on the inside.
The sauce was light in texture but extraordinarily complex.  There were at least 5 or 6 components that I could not identify but could taste individually.  They worked together in perfect harmony. There was the acidity from the grapefruit, balanced by a sweeter sauce and a tiny bit of a purée.  With the umame from the fish and crab, it was a symphony. 
My dad got the duck entree, which was also amazing. It was presented as two very large pieces of crispy and slightly sweet duck breast, a crunchy crostini with caramelized onions, and served over kale, turnips and other assorted vegetables. All were perfectly cooked. Most impressive was the lack of fat on the duck- very hard to do and keep the flavor. We loved it!
Even though we were totally full, we sprung for a hazelnut cake with a white chocolate hazelnut sauce that was served with a pear sorbet. Along with some decaf lattes, it was perfection. 

Despite that we were still on East Coast time and were technically eating dinner from 11pm-2am, this was a fantastic meal. Worth seeking out if you're in San Fran!
Today were off to Golden Gate Park and Chinatown. More on what I expect to be an amazing Chinese food dinner later!