Michael Mina, San Francisco
Another city, another two and a half hour mouth orgasm.
We took in Michael Mina’s restaurant in San Francisco’s financial district, and as befitting an eatery set in the business area, it was all dark wood and towering mirrors with slightly inattentive captains (all follically challenged for some reason), bearded waitstaff and a predominantly male clientele, dressed in power suits and expense accounts.
We had decided beforehand to go with the Chef’s 9 course “Ketto ” tasting menu, but since there were two choices for each course and Di and I each chose a different one to share, it ended up being an eighteen course meal (smaller ones, of course).
Despite the boy’s club ambience, we knew we were in for a treat from the very first bite of the amuse bouche - an ethereal uni parfait, light as sea foam - as if the sea urchin had been deconstructed and transformed into a mousse.
We also sampled the King Crab tortelloni with baby shiitake mushrooms
I cannot possibly do justice to the menu here, but some highlights were:
- Bluefin Toro Sashimi with fresh local wasabi root grated at the table on a sharkskin grater.
- Japanese A5 Wagyu with miso-mushroom puree, charred onion and sansho jus
- Black Angus Prime Ribeye with black truffle and beef cheek ravioli
I will never again use the term “melt in your mouth” tender as it applies to meat unless it meets or exceeds the standards we experienced here!
If there was something to quibble about, it was their fowl dishes, which, while not at all bad, suffered in comparison to the fish and meat servings.
The desserts, while competent, also suffered a little from a “sameness” that made it hard to distinguish between them. However the mignardise (petit fours) were a marvelous climax to a wonderful meal.
Brown sugar wafers with jasmine vanilla creme, white chocolate bark (yum!)
Well worth the price of admission if you are in San Francisco.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Cannoli Showdown in Boston’s North End
From the doorway of the tiny storefront that is Modern Pastry, you can look up Hanover Street and see the lines snaking out of the North End’s reigning champion Mike’s Pastry and around the block. Could the cannoli really be that much better? The Chang family took it upon themselves to do a taste test to settle this once and for all (for the good of mankind, you understand).
Of course, there is never parking on or near Hanover Street, so I drove the getaway van and parked it several blocks away. The rest of the family was dispatched to the different stores with instructions to get the same or similar offerings from both establishments, to make a direct comparison possible. That was the plan. However, waving pastries in front of us is akin to brightly colored balls of wool or a laser pointer to a cat - we are easily distracted. Still, everyone came back with baked goods that were somewhat similar, so the test kitchen was still open.
We took the loot back to the van, which was parked on the 3rd floor of a parking garage. We opened the boxes like furtive conspirators and gazed in silent reverence upon the loot. Other vehicles circled while we tried not to look like bank robbers or drug addicts making a score.
Down to the business at hand. Fortunately, we had the plain cannoli from each baker to compare. Mike’s pastry was a little softer and slightly chewier and the ricotta a tad firmer than Modern’s. Modern’s Pastry had a crisp biscuit like finish which we enjoyed on the first bite, but which did not compare favorably enough to Mike’s to win us over. Both of their ricotta filings were thankfully not too sweet.
We went through a similar process for the Pistacchio,
and Hazelnut cream
We found differences in texture and taste, but not enough that they would sway us convincingly either way. However, there were enough plusses in Mike’s favor for us to declare it the overall winner. Other factors included Mike’s larger store interior and therefore greater selection, and the speed and efficiency with which they processed their thousands of customers.
At one point, Brandon laughed and remarked that we were took our taste tests quite seriously; to which I replied - You think this is a game?
And just to show how serious we are, we had a lobster tail from Mike’s, just to remind ourselves what we are capable of.
In conclusion, go to Mike’s. But if the line are too long, go to Modern. Cop out? Maybe, but in the game of life you cannot lose by choosing the wrong cannoli.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Brandon’s Night at Menton
We love our food. We get giddy at the thought of tasting an old favorite or something brand new. We talk incessantly about it, even when we’re eating. When we’re not talking about the meal we just had, we’re discussing memorable dishes that we had in the past, or planning meals we will have in the future.
So, yes, we like to eat. But meals are more than sustenance or nutrition. They are companionship and culture and shared experiences. Food, or taste itself, strangely enough, is not the memory. After all, unless we have the one in a thousand musician’s equivalent of perfect pitch, we are not going to be able to conjure up the exact taste of the dish we are remembering. Taste is evanescent, a shimmering mirage of something that thrilled our taste buds that one time. What we are recalling is an entire experience. A time when we shared something we loved with people we love. The aromas and textures and smells are embedded in our brains; not in their original forms, but as avatars of past sensations.
So all this talk of the best meal we ever had is largely academic, but highly enjoyable. Having said that, our meal at Menton deserves to be part of that conversation.
Brandon landed a job at Menton some months ago. It is one of the crown jewels in the Barbara Lynch empire, which also includes No.9 Park, B&G Oysters and Sportello. Menton is named for a town on the border between France and Italy and its cuisine reflects its dual influences. It is also one of the top restaurants in Boston.
When Brandon told us he wanted to get into the food business, we advised him to start at the bottom with basically any job, so that he could see if it was something he really wanted to do. We expected him to get a busboy job at a chain restaurant, an IHOP maybe, or at best, a good mid-range steakhouse. So when he instead was offered a position at Menton, we were as giddy with excitement as he was when he told us in a late night phone call. It was like getting an internship at Google or Apple, except for culinary arts.
When we finally got to see what his excitement was all about, we were blown away.
The menu has been posted on Facebook, but I am reproducing it here, for academic reference, of course. Just to be clear - this is a personalized menu, just for us; and yes, we had every item on it.
We had the chef’s tasting menu, which is a way for Chef Kristen Kish (winner of Top Chef Seattle) to show off her considerable chops. It was a parade of 19 dishes ranging from several amuse bouche and little off-menu treats, to carefully crafted and plated delights that became progressively more substantial. As difficult as it is to select favorites, we all agreed upon at least three of the dishes. Firstly, the Butter Soup. Yes you heard right – Butter. Soup. Oh spare me your disdain, you know you want it. Littleneck clams, Lobster and White Sturgeon Caviar served in a buttery broth that was lighter than you would expect and not cloying at all.
Next, White Alba Truffles over Farro, Vidalia Onion and Radish. We had murmured appreciatively all night as dishes were presented and tasted, but these dishes made us openly groan with pleasure. The truffle option normally adds $105 per person to the bill. Furthermore, this dish, like the butter soup, does not normally make an appearance on the tasting menu, but the staff wanted to make this a memorable night for Brandon. And lastly, the Seared Foie Gras de Canard with Escargot, Tarragon and Matsusake. You would think that the escargot would send the richness quotient of the foie gras over the top, but surprisingly, the unexpected pairing worked like a dynamic duo of intravenous umami.
What sets Menton above many others, besides its food, is its impeccable service. Empty plates are whisked away and places set for every single new dish. And all of this is done quickly and unobtrusively so as to allow conversation to continue uninterrupted. Of course since this was Brandon’s night, just about every server, captain and manager came around to deliver a dish or to introduce themselves to us, and to tell us what a fine addition he was to the staff. I swear he was blushing by the end of the night.
But the final surprise was that Brandon had prearranged to take care of the check. It was a grand gesture, and in hindsight, one that was completely in character with his generous nature and pride in his achievements. The tips are good at a place like Menton, but even so, the bill put a hefty dent in his savings. It made Diane and I quite emotional to think of the sacrifices he made to make this possible, and proud that he thought to make this his demonstration of appreciation. Almost by some mysterious osmosis, he has absorbed the significance of our family’s love for food and the meaning that is imbued in a perfect meal.
Note: We did not have the presence of mind to actually take photos, so these are from a great blog called tinyurbankitchen which is the 5th ranked blog on Urbanspoon - go check it out.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Monday, July 22, 2013
Sunday, June 2, 2013
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
A Tale of Two Restaurants
I am visiting family in Fremont, CA, which has developed into a mecca for Asian and South Asian food in the South Bay area, due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and the attendant influx of engineers and other professionals from India and China.
I have had two quite different dining experiences here in two days.
First, I tried the fare at House of Dumplings in Union City. Set in a small suburban strip mall, as many of the restaurants are in this area, its interior is a replica of many such Chinese eateries both here and in Chinatowns across the world - that is, spartan, utilitarian and less about the decor and more about the food. Some of the menu items pictured on the wall have English translations, but many do not.
We sampled the beans with fried tofu, Mongolian Beef, Soup dumplings Lamb Dumplings and Chicken and Corn Dumplings, and the Green onion pancake with egg.
The meal was not particularly outstanding, but it was cheap, honest fare in an unpretentious setting. A nice (unintended) touch was the owner and another worker, presumably a family member, preparing greens on an adjacent table. You could have been in any Chinese family restaurant in the world.
The second restaurant was Papillon, which bills itself as a French Fine Dining Establishment.
The restaurant is situated on a lonely stretch of Mission Boulevard and looks like it was lifted from the set of Casa De Mi Padre. The staff is friendly and accommodating, but the decor looks like it was left over from the 70’s, when the rustic adobe motif was still fashionable. It seems to have either been re-purposed from a Mexican Cantina, or is stuck in a Hotel California time warp.
The food similarly stubbornly clings to an aesthetic that was popular 50 years ago, heavily reliant on creams and sauces, and defiantly rooted in a French tradition that was already considered unfashionable in the 1990’s. I had the French onion soup, which was prettily presented with a puff pastry shell and the chef’s special - braised Kobe beef cheeks. The soup was quite good, if a tad salty, and the pastry was crisp and light as a souffle.
The Kobe beef cheeks were disappointing, however. Slow braising does nothing to show off the Kobe aspect of the beef, and it may as well have been chuck, although the wine sauce was rich and tasty, although, once again, over salted. In terms of presentation, the beef arrived in its own miniature dutch oven, surrounded by vegetables in a desultory arrangement.
Others in the party had the duck liver pate, Caesar salad and Angel hair pasta with artichokes to start, followed by the Beef Wellington, Salmon with herbed potato puree, Eggplant Parmigiana and Veal Scallopini with gnocci in brown butter. All were adequate, but drowning in the sauces.
We were asked if it was a celebratory dinner upon being seated, which it was, and I was duly presented with a special dessert at the end of the evening. I noticed a number of tables getting these, so I imagine that this is a something of a “special occasion” restaurant in the neighborhood.
If you are nostalgic for cuisine that is pre-nouvelle, or are looking to replicate the experience of dining in a fine French restaurant in the Nixon era, then this is the place for you.
So, two restaurants, two experiences, as a result of different expectations. House of Dumplings - honest and unpretentious - what you see is what you get. Papillon, though not exactly pretentious, is mired in the past and clinging to the glory days of Leave it to Beaver era concepts of what constitutes French Cuisine. The latter is disappointing because it takes itself more seriously and asks to be judged on a higher standard.
Another takeaway from this experience - Take Yelp ratings with a grain of salt - Papillon has a rating of 4 stars out of 5. Just to reinforce this, the Fremont MacDonalds also has a 4 star rating.
Monday, April 15, 2013
A Night to Remember at Anissa
For my birthday dinner (minus Brandon who was stuck in Boston eating grilled cheese - sorry son, we’ll make it up to you) we continued our special occasion tradition (which, to be honest, only began this year) of dining at restaurants owned by chefs who had competed, defeated or were actually part of the rotation of Iron Chefs of America.
For Brandon’s birthday we went to Morimoto for some unique sushi. For mine, we went to Anissa, owned by Chef Anita Lo, who co-owns Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. Ms. Lo defeated Mario Batali on a recent Iron Chef, so we had high expectations. I am happy to report that not only were they exceeded, but we agreed that we experienced probably the best meal we have had since we set foot on these United States. Possibly the best meal in our lifetime. Hyperbole? I guess so, since gustatory memories are by their nature transitory, but it really was that good. At the very least, good enough to be part of the debate of “Best Ever”.
Anissa is a small restaurant in the West Village and the understated decor reflects the serene minimalist fusion that characterizes Chef Lo’s culinary arts, a blend of her Asian heritage, French training and eclectic sampling of world cuisines.
The waitstaff was attentive yet unobtrusive, and happily provided detailed explanations of the many dishes that came our way. To sample the widest variety of dishes from the imaginative menu, we opted for the 7 course tasting menu, which is different for every table. There is also a 5 course menu, but believe me, you’ll wish you went with the 7.
They started us off with an amuse bouche of thimble sized tartlets of hake and potato mousse in a crispy shell.
Then we had
#1 - a Striped sea bass sushi (sorry no picture)
#2 - Their famous seared foie gras with soup dumplings and jicama ; every table, even if they didn’t have the tasting menu, ordered this dish.
#3 - Miso marinated sable with crispy silken tofu in a bonito broth - so good
#4 - Broiled Spanish mackerel with garlic fried milk, satsuma-imo and Korean chili
#5 - Grilled wagyu beef with escargot in herb butter, garlic chives and alba mushrooms
#6 - A cheese platter with a selection of sheep, goat and cows milk cheeses from Wisconsin, Vermont, Oregon, Italy, Switzerland and France, which we had with a glass of Smith Woodhouse tawny port
#7 - Since there were three of us, they gave us three different desserts which proved to be the highlight of the evening for the notoriously sweet- toothed Chang family.
- Pear posset with elderflower and shiso
- Poppyseed bread pudding with Meyer lemon curd
- Pecan and salted butterscotch beignet with bourbon milk ice
And for a blissful end to a wonderful meal: a selection of petit fours - mint chocolate truffles, candied ginger and coconut popsicles
We were sated, but not stuffed. A memorable evening, and we recommend Anissa highly as an addition to your foodie bucket list!
13 Barrow Street
New York, NY 10014
Sunday, April 14, 2013
We found a hole in the wall with even fewer seats (2), than Hua Ji.
Kababish is a Pakistani-Indian-Bangladeshi take out joint in Jackson Heights. Their specialty is the Gola Kabab, a soft, spicy kabab only made when you order it, so it is always fresh. It is best consumed with their garlic naan or paratha, both of which are also made fresh in their tandoor oven, and which we found to be very good. The Gola is a meat paste packed onto a long skewer and tied on with string, then grilled in a pizza style oven, a delicate operation which requires expert execution to
1. Keep it all together and
2. Cook it to perfection
It has the consistency of pate, if the pate was made in a spice furnace at the earth’s core. Yes it is hot, not off the Scoville scale hot, but hot enough that you know that your morning ablutions are going to be very interesting. Something less spicy to try next time - the Haryali kabab, made without garam marsala.
We also ordered the Chicken tikka masala, which was moist and delicious.
The vegetable and chicken samoosas were on the greasy side, but still very good.
Jackson Heights, NY 11372