February 28, 2007

In search of comfort food on a cold night

Once, someone asked me what I would eat if I had only one last meal. When presented with that question, most people gravitate to comfort foods from their childhood... and for good reason. Those distinct memories of home-cooked meals we grew up with have an unparalleled significance embedded in that part of our brains where recollection and emotional attachment intersect.

Oddly though, the meal I picked out was coq au vin... because I have an equally distinct food memory competing for my rapt attention. I first heard the phrase "coq au vin" back during first-year french class in high school. I remember wondering what it tasted like, what it smelled like... but French bistro food wasn't exactly the most common thing for an Asian American kid in San Jose, CA back in 1990.

Several years later, I found myslf visiting Lyon, France and dining in a nondescript casual bistro down a secluded, cobblestone back alley. The only think I recognized on the menu was coq au vin, so I ordered it... and it was one of the most incredible taste sensations I'd ever experienced. The phenomenal depth of flavor, encased in an impossibly decadent brown braising reduction studded with lardons, and the meat of the rooster falling off the bone... it was even better than I had ever dreamed. Ever since that day, I've been a sucker for coq au vin, like the fantastic version at Bistro Jeanty... although I'll admit I like to have it with a side of pommes frites rather than the more traditional side of egg noodles.

So tonight, beginning my second week of being in Seattle -- and with the temperatures dipping below 40 degrees -- I was in need of some comfort food; coq au vin, to be precise. There'll be many ventures to find my favorite French bistro in Seattle, and tonight brought a solid first entry: the casual and very well-priced Voila Bistrot in Madison Valley.

Voila is a cozy neighborhood restaurant with a small, friendly staff happy to chat about Seattle with this California transplant. Dinner was a convergence of some of my "comfort" favorites... my martini was refreshingly icy, the coq au vin flavorful, and the pommes frites hot and crisp, accented lightly with fresh sweet garlic. As I took my first bite of baguette with a healthy smear of rich, sweet cream butter, I was reminded of a passage from Alice Waters' first Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (originally published in 1982) that I picked up from a used bookstore in the Mission District and first read in early 1998:

It is a mystery that the simple, homey process involving yeast, flour, and water is rarely duplicated commerically in a delicious and proper way. It is difficult to understand why there are so few good bread bakeries, and I must ask, Why is this so? My criterion for good bread is simple: it must stand by itself, perhaps with only the addition of a little sweet butter. Good bread has a look, a smell, and a texture that tells you it is "handmade." This means, at the very least, that the bread will have a final shaping by hand which produces the charming irregularities that seduce you immediately.
Yep, I couldn't agree more... that simple culinary ethic was pretty much what I was looking for on this cold evening in the Pacific Northwest. And just like that, February has come and gone.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

February 18, 2007

New beginnings...

The reality of life changes sometimes doesn't hit you until you're right in the midst of them, no matter how far in advance you plan. I'm in Seattle right now -- not for a visit, but for good... well, at least for the foreseeable future. This morning, I took a final stroll through the Jack London Square farmers' market with Lav on a spectacular, sunny day. When she dropped me off at the airport, I tried to keep a light-hearted attitude -- first, to keep her unemotional, but later, to keep my own emotions in check. Wow, is it really "goodbye" to the Bay Area? Am I really doing this relocation of my own choice?

Waves of intense feelings sat at the edge of my psyche -- predominantly fueled by the thoughts of being apart from my wife for four months (except, of course, for weekends and our vacation to Greece in April)... yeah, basically that part of the whole deal is pretty brutal, and makes it relatively unbelievable that I'm actually here.

But, on the plane flight over, I also found myself uplifted by the excitement of new opportunities to come... the new job, a new city, new personalities, new challenges, and hopefully even new successes. The beauty of Seattle is so striking on the final approach right before landing, with the sun glistening off the water and illuminating the lush, green landscape. Suddenly, I'm filled with the same intense optimism that made me want to take this job and make this crazy change to our lives in the first place.

On to food... Dinner tonight, as I'm writing this, finds me at Black Bottle in Belltown. I'm enamored with my glass of comfortably casual Cotes-du-Rhone, and sating myself on the perfectly cooked, velvety tender hangar steak, served with grated daikon and a salad of cucumber, scallions, watercress and fantastically peppery shiso, dressed lightly in sesame oil and rice vinegar. To my right, a crusty flatbread of prosciutto and bechamel. I'm liking this place a lot, from the sexy, industrial filament light fixtures to the stylish but casual urban crowed filling the place with life and energy on an otherwise subdued Sunday evening. Yeah, this feels right. I know we're here for reasons that go beyond my job, and reasons that may not even be in our control. I'm looking forward to seeing the full potential and outcomes of those reasons unfold. Yes, Seattle is definitely different than the Bay Area, but within its attributes is a thread of familiarity that helps me already feel at home.

February 11, 2007

A fantastic first day of being 31 years old

I'm a lucky guy, cuz I'm married to a lovely woman who knows me like no one else. It'll be tough spending time apart as I relocate first to Seattle (she's not joining until the end of the school term). We'll have visits pretty much every weekend, of course, but that just won't be the same. Oh well... absence makes the heart grow fonder, right?

So the wife outdid herself and got me a totally killer birthday gift: a new lens for our digital camera. She's more of the photographer between the two of us, but I've been trying to figure out for the longest time how to take pictures with more dramatic perspective. This new lens is a huge step in that direction... it's so clear and precise, I feel like I'm shooting pictures with an entirely different camera!

She took me to enjoy a beautiful sunny day (after days of pretty hard rain... ah, Seattle, how dreary wilst thou be?) in the city, so we hit the Ferry Building for my last visit to the Hog Island Oyster Company. It also gave us a chance to try out the new lens a bit...

I took this photo of the brownies in the display case from a distance of at least 10 feet

Organic fruit... of course. I suppose they'll have an abundance of apples in Seattle.

Deliciously sweet clams cooked in wheat beer, with the insanely unctuous gruyere "grilled cheese" sandwich in the background.

We were pretty much reeling from the decadence of the grilled cheese sandwich (which was followed about an hour later by a terrific salumi plate and some wine tastings at Nectar), so there was really only room for a salad for dinner. What better way to end a birthday than going to an old favorite, Bistro Liaison in Berkeley, for my absolute favorite salad nicoise.

It's good to be 31! So let's see here... so far, I've lived in San Diego for about 3 months, Chicago for about 3 1/2 years, and the Bay Area for over 26 years. How long will we be in Seattle? I guess we'll have to wait and see...

February 10, 2007

An awesome last day of being 30 years old

For my birthday this year, we decided to throw a party at Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur, home of pretty much the greatest thin crust Neapolitan style pizza we've ever tasted. With a real wood-burning brick oven (clocking in at 986 degrees F, no joke!), perfectly executed pizzas are whipped out in less than 90 seconds -- with beautifully blistered, crisp exteriors, balanced by chewy and pillowy interiors, and topped with phenomenal ingredients. Man, I'm going to miss this place.

We wanted to give the party a bit of a social ethic; with all of the wonderful food we were about to enjoy, it seemed like an appropriate thing to also raise some money to donate to a food-related cause.

The original concept was to try and raise enough funds to purchase several goats for a needy family or village overseas through World Vision. Thanks to the amazing generosity of our family and friends, we ended up raising WAY more than I ever expected... We ended up with enough funds to purchase:
  • A "trio" of dairy animals: a goat, a cow, and a sheep — the "big three" milk producers

  • A share of a deep well to supply clean, fresh water

  • A supply of water purification tablets for a school

  • A further contribution to the development of clean water sources

  • The provision of $455 worth of clothing for needy families abroad (enabled by the matching of World Vision's corporate partners)

  • The provision of $1800 Worth of Necessities for needy families in the U.S. (again, thanks to the matching program of World Vision's corporate partners)

  • Financing for an empowering small business loan (a model of micro-loans similar to the program conceived by this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner)
Here are some of the fine folks who helped make this happen:

The loft gang intensely examining the fresh, organic and seasonal ingredients in the radicchio salad...

While Andrew and Marie look on...
Trying to get the pizza addiction going on at an early age...

The "Men with Beards" table...

Jay and Em discussing the merits of Steve Young vs. Joe Montana with my mom, while Ray shares some ideas for film roles for my sister...

A satisfied table of pizza afficionados, many of whom were with us on our first visit to Pizzeria Picco on that foggy winter evening...

Steve is... well, he's just being Steve...
How great is this? For the first time since our wedding 3 1/2 years ago, I've got all my groomsmen in the same place at the same time.
It feels fantastic to be able to have a great time at a party while also pulling together some resources for those in need. I'm truly blessed by the showing of generosity from our family and friends, and I hope each of them is equally enriched by the impact of their awesome contribution.