September 30, 2006

Grabbing a late lunch... in MEXICO (Baja / Laja, part 1)

I had a work-related meeting on Friday in San Diego, so Lav and I decided to make a short getaway weekend out of it. While searching for things to do and places to eat, I came across two words that have since become magical to us: Laja Restaurante.

Laja is a quaint restaurant in Baja California featuring pristine local, seasonal ingredients, located about 10 miles north of Ensenada in the heart of the wine country of Guadalupe Valley...

Wait a second! Wine country in Mexico? That's right. Mexico was actually home to the first vineyard plantings in North America; the cultivation of wine grapes began over 400 years ago, and the region has seen a real renaissance of serious wine-making efforts over the past decade.

Good food and wine? That was all we needed to hear to rent a car and cross the border.

With all the information on the internet, there is a surprising dearth of commentary about travel and road conditions for Mexico’s highways. We had no idea how long the trip would take in its entirety, with the biggest question mark being the potential for an excruciating 3+ hour wait to cross back into the U.S. at San Ysidro. We decided to optimistically aim for this schedule:

  • 9 am: Leave San Diego for Tijuana; head for Ensenada on Route 1
  • 11 am: Arrive in wine country and visit L.A. Cetto, Monte Xanic, and Chateau Camou
  • 1:30 pm: Lunch at Laja (their earliest reservation)
  • 6 pm: Cross the border at Tecate via Route 3 (2 lane highway)
  • 7 pm: Return the rental car in San Diego and catch our 8:15 pm flight back to Oakland

Could it be done? With only 2 hours allotted to get to Tecate and wait through the line at the border, it seemed like a 50/50 chance we’d miss our flight.

The border crossing into Mexico was ridiculously easy. There’s no checkpoint; you just drive on through as if you’re driving into Nevada. Of course, within 47 seconds of crossing the border, we missed our exit and were lost for about 5 minutes in the outskirts of Tijuana. Nice move. Somehow, Lav pointed us back onto the right freeway (you’d think that following a numbered highway would be easier), and we got back on track. The coastal drive on Route 1 is pretty nice, with some spectacular views that are reminiscent of driving Highway 1 in California.

The rest of the ride was smooth sailing, with just three quick toll crossings along the way. The roads are in great condition, and it basically felt like driving in the U.S., but with lower speed limits (I’d read too many warnings about getting stopped for speeding by the Mexican police to test the speed limit). About 5 km north of Ensenada, we veered northeast onto Route 3 and were soon greeted with this glorious sign. Roughly translated, to me it said “Good things await ahead.”

The wine country in Mexico is like a mellowed out version of early Sonoma… small wineries along the ruta del vino, unspoiled and uncluttered by the madness of weekend tourists. Our first stop was L.A. Cetto, Mexico’s largest wine producer (, which is actually located at the northern-most end of the wine road, near the 73 km marker.

We sampled their Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon… pretty interesting how the climate here can accommodate quite a wide array of varietals.

More than the wines here, we were drawn to the extra virgin olive oil made from the winery’s estate-grown olives. Smooth and rich, with very low acidity and only a faint herbaceous note, Cetto’s olive oil is remarkably tasty stuff.

As we headed off to the next winery, we couldn’t help but notice how similar the landscape is to our own wine country. It really is beautiful and peaceful here.

We backtracked on Route 3 and arrived at Monte Xanic (, a facility tucked into the hillside. As their website explains, “Xanic” is a native Cora Indian word meaning “the flower that blooms after the first rains.” A fitting name for a winery making some special wines.

From the parking lot, we entered through a beautiful arched wood door, which led directly into one of the barrel storage rooms.

We had the opportunity to taste 11 different wines while sampling their estate-grown olives. The quality of these wines across the board was quite high. The most interesting aspect for me was observing the differences in vinification styles here, mostly in the white wines. The chardonnays tend to have substantial oak (although the winery also makes a completely un-oaked chardonnay as well). The sauvignon blanc is completely different; much more tart and citric, and with a hint of underlying savory/vegetal character... but with oak as well. As Ezrael, one of the managers of the winery explained, they are still experimenting with which varietals will thrive in the valley.

This is Jose, our new friend who was hooking us up in the tasting room. Chenin Blanc reportedly does very well in the Guadalupe Valley, which makes sense, since it can thrive in warmer climates than most other grapes. Monte Xanic’s version exhibits a tropical, Viognier-like nose of papaya and stone fruit, opening up to a simple, but delicious palate of honey, peaches and lemon rind. They blend in 5% Colombard, which adds a unique element of acidity not typically found in Chenin Blanc. Ezrael came by and gave us a special taste of their single varietal Malbec (which the owner had opened earlier for some friends) which was excellent. Dark and brooding, the Malbec had a firm core of dark fruit and plum, a luscious mouth feel and a medium-long finish evoking just a hint of earthy spice at the end (fennel seed?). Really, really nice.

We were having such a good time at Monte Xanic that it was 1:30 pm before we knew it… so we had to skip the well-regarded wines of Chateau Camou, which was just up the road. That’s alright; that just gives us another place to try next time. It was time to eat.

(to be continued...)

September 28, 2006

A16: pizza excursion #2 at a real gem

Still in the mood for a great thin-crust pizza, Lav and I went to A16 in the Marina district. Chef Nate Appleman, a certified pizzaiolo, took over the helm from Christopher Hille (now a private chef in New York) earlier this year. Hille said the following of Appleman in the Chronicle: "Nate has been instrumental in A16's success since the day it opened. He possesses a tremendous talent for regional Italian cooking, has the highest standards for quality and is making the best salumi in America today."

We started with an incredible -- and I mean every bit of that word -- zuppa of zucchini, mussels, beans and grilled bread. The dish had six of the most fantastically plump and fresh mussels we've had in a long time. The broth was rich and velvety; the grilled bread unctuous from the char and high quality olive oil as it soaked up the broth. The outragous depth of flavor of this rustic, but refined dish had us exchanging looks of wonder and satisfaction as we took each bite.

Next, we had the house-cured bresaola, which is made of choice cuts of beef that are seasoned and spiced, then air-cured. It was served thinly sliced, dressed with just a squeeze of fresh lemon. Much leaner than other italian cured meats, but with a remarkably focused and intense flavor. Silky and succulent, it practically dissolved on the palate. It was stunning... this was truly great salumi.

Then, the pizze margherita. A wonderfully toothsome crust that was just lightly cripsy on the very surface (including the bottom of the pizza) while still being pliable and elastic -- and not at all soggy in the center. The pizza only used regular mozzarella, so the cheese wasn't quite as rich, but still delicious. The sauce was a picture of simplicity: bright acidity and just a light addition of basil to enrich the body... and perfectly proportioned.

Finally, a soulful dish of buccatini with clams, olives, blistered cherry tomatoes and fried bread crumbs. The buccatini was perfectly al dente, and the crunch of the fried bread crumbs in the background created a unique synergy. Texturally magnificent.

Just when we thought we were done, we convinced ourselves into sharing a honey semifreddo made with a rich cream and served with an almond shortbread cookie and macerated raspberries and figs. Maybe a little bit of an excessive finish to a fantastic meal.

2355 Chestnut Street
San Francisco, CA

A16 on Urbanspoon

September 24, 2006

Butter and licorice for dinner... toying with molecular gastronomy

Lav and I were having Vijay, Meg and Victor over for dinner last night, so we trolled ourselves over to Ver Brugge and Berkeley Bowl for all the essentials. I've been reading about Thomas Keller's butter poaching technique for lobster (Vijay noted that a similar preparation was used by Ron Siegel when he won "Battle Lobster" on the original Iron Chef in October 2000) and the merits of the beurre monte.

The science behind the technique seems solid -- if you heat a protein to a high temperature, it will seize up and toughen; keep the temperature low, and the meat will remain tender. I decided to try and adapt the technique for beef tenderloin. If medium-rare is between 130 and 135 degrees F, then slow poaching in butter at that temperature should theoretically yield an incredibly tender steak. I added some aromatics (shallot, bay leaf, garlic) to my poaching liquid in the hopes of imparting a subtle flavor in the process.


grapefruit, lime, mint, verget du sud marsanne

red onion, cucumber, heirloom tomato, avocado, cilantro

japanese black cherry tomatoes, warm bacon dressing

andouille, kabocha puree, coconut foam

potato puree, melted fennel, st. andre and bleu cheese béchamel, licorice reduction

golden raspberries, baby kiwi

The granita was intended to awaken the palate and appetite, and to provide some initial acidity as a complement to the roussanne we were drinking. There was also a spash of marsanne in the granita... I wanted to give Vijay a bit of insight into both of the wines he was picking up that night.
For the prawn ceviche, we went with a traditional combination of lime, cucumber, and red onions. I also added chunks of heirloom tomato for sweetness and cilantro to mellow the acidity of the lime and freshen the combination. Since the prawns were quite meaty, I also threw in some soft avocado and a drizzle of a smooth, buttery extra-virgin olive oil to add a nice roundness.

At this point, we opened up the 2002 Paul Hobbs chardonnay, Russian River Valley, that Vijay graciously provided. This was a lovely California-style chardonnay that exhibited balance even with the strength of its fruit core. More importantly, it led to an amazing pairing later on in the meal...

Originally, I wanted to serve a spinach salad with a warm bacon vinaigrette. Unfortunately, with the whole e. coli situation going on, baby spinach wasn't an option. So we picked up a bunch of frisee, which has the texture and bite to hold up to the bacon. We also found these incredible japanese black cherry tomatoes at the market, whose depth of flavor mirrored their deep ruby/violet color, while still maintaining some acidity. The manchengo shreds are there for depth of flavor, the hazelnuts connect to the hint of nuttiness in the manchengo, and the quail egg creates one final small layer of rich creaminess. A nice pairing with the chardonnay.

This scallop dish was my favorite of the night because I thought it had the best marriage of component flavors, with the added bonus of being a PERFECT match with the chardonnay. Pristine scallops have an inherent sweetness, with a nuance of the sea. This affords a great opportunity to capitalize on both sweet and savory components. In this dish, the seared scallop is scored on one side (for visual appeal and textural mouthfeel after caramelization) and paired with a kabocha squash puree, seasoned with a pinch of cinnamon, allspice, and cayenne. A dice of andouille is seared in the pan at the same time to add richness. The scallop is topped with spindle-like onion sprouts, which have the most delicate essence of onion aroma.

The most important component of the dish, however, was the coconut foam (not pictured). The rich depth of the sweet coconut aroma and flavor truly unified the sweet and savory elements of the dish, substantially elevating it. The savory unctiousness of the scallop and andouille, paired with the sweetness of the kabocha puree and the tropical notes of the coconut foam were truly an unexpectedly ideal marriage with the Hobbs chardonnay. For me, the combination was absolutely seductive and alluring.

Now for the experimental dish of the night. Grass-fed (leaner and meatier) filet mignon, poached in scented butter at 140 degrees for 20 minutes, then flash seared on one side for textural contrast. The licorice reduction was equally experimental; it was done to play off of the melted fennel served on top of the steak, but with an exponentially more intense flavor concentration. I was afraid that the flavor wouldn't match well, but there was remarkably little clash, and even those who don't like licorice (Lav) enjoyed the combination. Unexpectedly, the strength of the licorice actually opened up the silky texture of the filet.

The potato puree was made of creamer potatoes for natural sweetness and creaminess. The finish on the steaks was a bechamel made with st. andre and bleu cheese -- just some extra decadence, with the hint of sharpness from the bleu cheese as a classic contrast. Everthing about this dish reflects the meat's tenderness and silkiness. The butter poaching worked as intended, and the steak was just under medium-rare, with a velvety mouthfeel. We paired it with a 1997 Clos du Val cabernet, which was lightly earthy and elegant, but ended up being a little lighter-bodied than what was needed for the dish. Perhaps a young Pomerol from a hot summer vintage would have been the right match...

A well-made creme caramel is one of my favorite desserts. The rose component was inspired by Citizen Cake's use of rose water in its creme brulee. The aroma can be subtle, but it is such a good match with vanilla. Here it is served with a candied rose petal, golden raspberry and baby kiwis -- which we'd never seen before! The kiwis were fantastic... but the creme caramel was sweeter than I had intended.

Meg and Victor brought some delectably decadent truffles from XOX ( to finish off the meal. What a great way to cap off the night. The whole evening reminded me why I enjoy cooking. Sure, it's great when the dishes turn out as hoped, or when terrific food/wine pairings are discovered, but really, the most important part to me is creating a reason for friends and loved ones to get together and enjoy each other's company. There's really no better reason to do it. And Lav and I are truly blessed for each of the friends and family members who enrich our lives.

September 19, 2006

What makes a great pizza? A trip to Pizzaiolo to find out...

Lav and I finally had a chance to check out Pizzaiolo in the Temescal district of Oakland tonight. A visit to Pizzaiolo, of course, begs the question: Who makes the BEST pizza? No doubt, the Bay Area has really been infatuated with this conundrum of late, with classical neapolitan pizzas serving as one of the many targets of our food-obsessed pursuit of authenticity. As Mark Labberton says, we're really consumed, even crazed, about finding the "best" [fill in the blank... be it pizza, wine, ice cream, coffee, croissant, bistro... heck, even window cleaner]

Maybe in the past, I would have engaged in this debate, finding my favorite pizza purveyor and staunchly pontificating on its culinary superiority in every discernably critical category. But I think I'm entering into a bit of a mellower, relativist phase with respect to food. Particularly since we're blessed with so much good food around here, it sometimes feels wrong to say one place is somehow objectively "better" than another.

So I'd prefer to reformulate the question: What makes a good pizza?

Seems like it should come down to three simple, but essential categorical standards, which mirror the three simple, but essential components of pizza. We'll limit this discussion to thin-crust neapolitan pizzas.

CRUST: Perhaps the most difficult component, the crust must walk the tightrope between the lightly crispy exterior while maintaining the essential soft, chewy elasticity that gives it body. Thin, but not to thin. The best crusts come from a wood-fired brick oven. Temperature? As hot as possible! A blistering 905 degrees, according to the guidelines from the Italian Agriculture Ministry.

SAUCE: Simplicity and great tomatoes are the key to a profound sauce bursting with well-rounded flavor. Also, the amount is key; oversaucing leads to disaster.

CHEESE: Buffalo mozzarella, made on premises. Low water content.

Well, now that the stage has been set, it would appear that some commentary is needed for this evening's dining adventure.


The Place: Pizzaiolo has been open for over a year now, with chef-owner Charlie Hallowell -- a pizza fanatic by all accounts -- at the helm. Hallowell is an eight-year veteran of Chez Panisse. He and his business partner spent about a year and a half remodeling a former auto parts store themselves, stripping down walls, building booths and tables, and generally converting a utilitarian space into a chic, cozy urban setting in which to showcase their food.

The buzz on the restarant months before it opened has only increased as a loyal and devoted following has latched on religiously to the dishes coming out of the kitchen and its wood-burning oven. The place has been dinged for its service, but we were seated after only a brief wait and had a pleasant and efficient server.

The Pizza: Margherita di bufala

  • Crust: Nice lightly chewy elasticity, but could have used a bit more crisping in the 750-degree wood-fired oven. Seemed about 30 seconds underdone -- soggy in the center. Simple flavor, with just a hint of woody smoke.
  • Sauce: Fresh tasting and vibrant. The pizza may have been slightly over-sauced, causing the soggy center.
  • Cheese: Buffalo mozzarela made on-site. Good depth of flavor. Chewy and rich.

Other Dishes: Fried squash blossoms stuffed with salt cod brandade with romano beans & cherry tomatoes (I love salt cod, but Lav doesn't -- I thought it added a nice depth of flavor, but she found it bland... go figure); Bucatini all' Amatriciana (amazing textural mouthfeel, but a bit salty... fantastic olive oil)

Quote of the Night: "That pork shoulder was so f***ing good!!" -- declared by an apparently well-satisfied customer to the kitchen staff as he violently pounded on the counter with a closed fist 6 times.

5008 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA

Pizzaiolo on Urbanspoon

September 17, 2006

Lion's Head stew

Every so often, I need to prove to myself that I can make Chinese food, at least on a rudimentary level. This all stems from the time I made a couple of Chinese dishes for dinner one night for my mom several years ago. When I asked her if she liked it, she just said "Don't do that again..." Needless to say, I try and stick with the simple stuff.

Lion's Head stew (or 獅子頭) is a Shanghai dish (originally from Zhenjiang in the Jiangsu province, according to Wikipedia) consisting of large pork meatballs stewed with napa cabbage. The dish gets its name from the gigantic meatballs and the arrangement of the cabbage, which resembles the lion's head. This dish is totally comfort food for me... the texture of the braised/stewed napa cabbage and the rich resulting broth is perfect for cold nights. And luckily, it's really easy to make.

Ginger is absolutely critical for this dish. Most recipes call for minced fresh ginger within the meatballs. I thought I'd try a little variation, so I used a combination of minced frech and pickled ginger for the meatballs and a few small chunks of ginger for stewing in the broth itself. That's another nice thing about this dish -- it's really open to variations.

My version of the dish didn't really resemble a lion's head at all; you have to make HUGE meatballs for that. These were larger than a golf ball, but smaller than a tennis ball... just trying to keep the meat consumption a little rational. I think even my mom would have liked it. Maybe.

A drink and a sweet...

This blog isn't really for mixology, but I had to document this. I was just experimenting a bit as we got ready to celebrate Jen's 29th birthday. It has been a while since I've mixed any drinks, and the last martini I made was really sub-par. I could swear I didn't change anything this time around, but somehow this turned out to be, by far, the best martini I've ever made.

I went with Citadelle, which has 19 different botanicals. It really does have an incredibly complex flavor that is both floral and savory at the same time. The juniper, coriander, cardamom and star anise are the components that I find the most prominent. With so many dimensions, the martini evolved quite a bit as it went from ice cold and viscous to moderately chilled, with the bouquet really exploding as the drink's temperature increased a few degrees.

Le Petit Ecolier: One of those ingenious combinations... pure butter cookies topped with bars of dark chocolate. Stone-cold proof that not all pre-packaged foods are bad.

Here's Jacob, lighting the birthday cake(s) for Jen (the blurry one) with a look of steely determination. Princess cake from La Farine. Yum. Happy birthday Jen!

September 9, 2006

How can anyone hate brussel sprouts?

The brussel sprout is such an undeservedly maligned vegetable, often scorned and derided as “bitter”, “slimy”, “weird”, “icky”, and “stinky”. I never had brussel sprouts growing up; the first time I ever had them, they were roasted until slightly blistered with a bit of browned butter, which coaxed out the inherent sweetness, combined with a fragrant smoky nuttiness… awesome. We nabbed these little gems from the Yasai market.


    capellini with roasted brussel sprouts, tomatoes and sweet corn

    pollo arrosto di modena with rosemary and garlic, roasted potatoes, balsamic pan jus

    almond polenta pound cake with strawberries, figs, peaches and crème fraiche
    2004 eric kent pinot noir, stiling vineyard, russian river valley


      I picked up a bottle of the 2004 Eric Kent Pinot Noir a couple of months ago just because the story behind the effort is compelling ( The winemaker, Kent Humphrey, basically decided one day that he should turn his passion for wine into a full-time job. With no formal wine-making education or training, he worked for a couple of different wineries, starting in entry-level jobs, until he picked up enough knowledge to go out on his own. Each new wine features the work of an emerging artist, and a portion of the wine sales is donated to support the arts. This bottle features the work of Kevin Keul (

      The wine itself was quite ripe (15.2% alcohol… whew!) with a nose of sweet roses and intensely concentrated cherries and dark plums. Pretty huge, but remarkably soft on the palate. There was a sweetish, nuanced undertone that I had a hard time identifying… maybe a spice like nutmeg, but not quite.

      I wanted to feature the brussel sprouts prominently in a pasta dish. I still can’t quite let go of the summer, and the sweet corn at the market is just about gone, so this might be the end of the summer veggies. The capellini is from Trader Joe’s. TJ’s dried egg pastas have a really amazing al dente texture when cooked. I’m a big fan.

      This was also our first stab at roasted chicken. We went with a Rosie chicken from Petaluma Poultry—certified organic and free-range ( I don’t want to get into a rant about industrial farming methods, but seriously, any cursory research into mass-produced poultry can be really frightening (deformed, debeaked, genetically-modified… you name it). Anyhow, the effort for roasting at home is rewarded mightily with fantastically juicy meat, crisp, paper-thin golden skin, and the potential for great pan sauces from the drippings.

      Some roasted purple and white creamer potatoes, which get really sweet and tasty in the oven.

      We capped it off with a polenta pound cake. The crème fraiche makes everything delectable.

      September 4, 2006

      Lunch for Jason's 31st Birthday

      Here's a lunch menu we put together for Jason's birthday this year. We're just at the end of the season for peaches, corn and tomatoes, so we made sure we got them on the menu. The lunch gave us a great reason to open up the bottle of 1999 Opus One Jason gave us for our wedding.

      A couple of the dishes feature products from Sketch, a terrific ice cream shop in Berkeley ( where the owners, Eric and Ruthie, make some of our favorite treats.
      Sketch Ice Cream in Berkeley
      * * *


      2005 DOMAINE GEROVASSILIOU MALAGOUSIA, thessaloniki, greece

      SALAD OF HEIRLOOM TOMATO, roasted golden beet, frisée, chèvre

      TOURNEDO OF MONKFISH, sweet corn and mushroom polenta, american osetra, RES peperoncino oil

      GINGER-MINT ELIXIR, farmer’s market cherries, almonds

      1999 OPUS ONE, oakville, california

      QUARTER OF QUARTER POUNDER, 1 oz. ground sirloin, st. andre, caramelized shallot, crispy mushroom, sketch brioche, pommes frites

      BRAISED NIMAN RANCH SHORT RIB, smashed red country potato, carrot, brussel sprout

      MAKER’S MARK AND COKE FLOAT, sketch vanilla ice cream, warm chocolate chip cookie
      * * *