November 25, 2007

The Thanksgiving whirlwind, a redux (part 1)

I haven't had to travel "home" for the holidays since my undergrad days in Chicago, so traveling for this year's Thanksgiving weekend was a big adjustment for us. Round trip flights for two from Seattle to Oakland would have been in the neighborhood of $900 (total insanity), so we decided to hop in the hybrid and make a road trip of it. As it turns out, some significant gastronomic experiences were made possible, making the 1,700 miles of driving well worth it.

(According to a little informal research online, driving in the Prius also had roughly half the carbon impact of flying home... though the calculation is imprecise).

WEDNESDAY NIGHT: Portland, Le Pigeon

One of the things I love about living in Seattle is our proximity to Vancouver and Portland, giving us access to an abundance of different cultural perspectives. Food is incredibly important in each of these cities, and I find myself invigorated by the the range of culinary approaches represented in each place.

Having left Seattle in the early afternoon, we rolled into Portland just a few minutes before the 5 p.m. opening time of Le Pigeon, one of the restaurants I've been wanting to try for some time. Chef Gabriel and his team are creating some exciting food out of the tiny open kitchen, flanked on two sides by no-reservation bar seating... the absolute best seats in the house. The efficiency with which they are able to prepare and plate consistently high quality dishes with only six burners, a small grill, and a warming surface is remarkable.

The strength of the restaurant lies also in its philosophy: great food in a casual, semi-communal context. Get to know the person sitting next to you. Share tastes of your food. Talk to the chefs and staff about the food and learn a little more about what you're about to eat. All of these things add a meaningful layer of context to the concept of "meal", which we too often take for granted. And enabling this type of interaction amplifies the experience on all levels.

One of the more meaningful passages I recall from the Chez Panisse Cookbook is the discussion on the importance of good bread... simple and carefully crafted to impart depth of texture, and perfect when adorned with just a smear of sweet butter. Le Pigeon does it right, serving slices of baguette from Ken's Artisanal Bakery... more on this later.

Fois gras, beets, brioche
Unctuous, with a nicely balanced counterpoint from the lightly acidic beets; made even more decadent by allowing the brioche to soak up the melting fois fat as it sears in the pan before toasting it to crisp perfection.

Bone marrow gnocchi, snails, garlic, parsley
Instead of potatoes and flour, the gnocchi is made with a modified pâte a chou (a light pastry dough) utilizing a compound bone marrow butter. This "gnocchi à la parisienne" has a lighter texture but more decadent intrinsic flavor, and allows the chef to control quality and consistency in textural integrity when producing a large number in a small amount of time. The escargot were extremely tender.

Black cod, melted leeks and lobster puffs
Everything that is wonderful about black cod was masterfully highlighted in this dish. Paper thin, crispy skin; silky/buttery/velvety texture, blurring the lines between texture and flavor; rich, but pure and clean tasting at the same time.

Pork stuffed pork, winter veg and salsa verde
Shredded pork, wrapped with pork into a roulade, then poached sous-vide. A simple textural contrast to parallel the flavor contrast between the two combined preparations of pork.

Impromptu egg noodles with truffle and parmesan
Gabriel was explaining that Oregon truffles tend to be lighter than their european counterparts, but this season, their intensity has been much stronger. To illustrate his point, he graciously made a shared plate of the egg noodles with shaved local truffles and a healthy grating of fantastically woody imported parmesan. The truffle and the parmesan were a luxurious pairing, each with an equal voice in the dish.

Fois gras pumpkin pie with ginger foie mousse
Another example of a well-conceived combination of components to make a dish. The richness of the fois mousse combined with the traditionally spiced pumpkin puree, with just a hint of contrasting ginger notes. They make so many of their dishes look like simply-articulated expressions of great ingredients, but there really is a lot of thought and intention behind the concepts here.

Not a bad way to get primed for Thanksgiving. I'm jealous of Portland... there are some really special things happening here, things that might very well exist specifically because of the emerging culinary ethos and contextual setting that is uniquely Portland's.

(to be continued...)

Le Pigeon in Portland

November 11, 2007

a chinese "hamburger" and a great home cooked meal

Now that daylight saving time is over, the days are becoming remarkably short and winter is fast approaching. So far, the weather has actually been surprisingly mild, but thoughts of warm comfort food are already creeping into our minds.

Which brings me first to the concept of the chinese "hamburger." For quite some time now, Lav and I have been on the prowl for our go-to chinese restaurant... something that would have the same easy, down home goodness of a place like Shan Dong back in Oakland. Fu Man Dumpling House in Greenwood comes pretty close. A tiny, family-run operation in the smallest of strip malls, the restaurant features a variety of house-made Shandong style dumplings (think simple, slightly thicker, chewy wrappers), which you can watch being made through the kitchen window. While the simply boiled pork dumplings hit the spot on a cold day, the real king of Fu Man's offerings is their "hamburger" dumpling:

These collossal dumplings are made of seasoned ground beef (or pork), hermetically sealed in a toothsome wrapper, then steamed and pan fried until crispy. As the meat cooks inside, it gets basted it its own juices, intensifying the flavor of the filling. Lav hadn't had these since she was a kid, and her eyes sparkled with excitement when I pierced the golden, crispy exterior, releasing an explosion of juices--which you can mix with the dipping sauce to coat each delicious bite.

Randomness: It looks like Fu Man might have a Myspace page... or at least one that was created by a fan.
Fu Man Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

Later that day, we flipped our switches to the other side of the omnivore spectrum and had a terrific meal sans meat courtesy of our buds JR and NR. I only spotlight the vegetarian aspect of the meal because we tease NR a lot for being a vegetarian who loves bacon (like my veggie pal GH back in SF) and disdains mushrooms, eggplant, tofu and tomatoes... but is primed to espouse the glories of vegetarian pho with an unmatched passion.

There's something immensely comforting about enjoying a meal prepared from scratch by good friends. Part of it is realizing the time, effort and intention put into the meal exclusively for your benefit. It's also the experience of being welcomed into another person's home... the place where they themselves feel the most comfortable. And I love the fact that you have an opportunity to break bread and share of the essential communion of a "meal" -- a multidimensional concept weaving together food, drink, enlightened conversation, newfound community, and shared experience; a small respite from the barrage of meaningless noise that can be modern life.

We started with a salad of avocado, pommegranete seeds (effort appreciated), and beautiful freshly snipped kale (look at that color!) from the garden.

Next was a lovely penne in tomato sauce with braised slivers of caramelized fennel, topped with a nicely piquant bleu cheese.

JR, currently a budding breadmaking enthusiast, baked a fresh loaf of french bread. Really nice crust, with a slightly denser interior texture that had just a hint of sweetness. Look a that crumb!
And to finish, a decadent, home-baked apple pie... flaky crust, gooey interior, all-around decadent goodness.
Thanks to JR and NR for a great meal, West Seattle style. We didn't miss the meat one bit!

November 4, 2007

our monthly Vancouver "day" trip... 24 hours this time

We're continuing our quest to try all of the best dim sum spots in Vancouver/Richmond, and it's turning out to be an awesome excuse to stop by what is quickly becoming one of our favorite cities. On our most recent trip up across the border, we came up with a pretty decent 24-hour itinerary:

8:30 a.m. Cafe Besalu

Get your day started with pain au chocolat perfection at this quaint Ballard bakery. An 8:30 a.m. visit should have you there before the crowds get to their usual insane lengths, but don't linger for more than one double tall americano... hit the road by 9 a.m. so you can get through the border crossing in time for dim sum.

10:30 a.m. Peace Arch - Blaine, WA
Smile at the officer, bring your identification, don't make any jokes. When they ask you why you're going to Canada, tell them the truth... you're going to eat your way through the city.

11:00 a.m. First stop: Dim Sum (Richmond or Vancouver)
This trip, we hit the Vancouver location of Sun Sui Wah so La Verne could compare it to the Richmond branch. According to La Verne, the Richmond location is clearly superior. That's not to say this visit wasn't without its highlights. Among them:

Braised tofu with enoki mushrooms and nori. Deep fried tofu topped with enoki mushrooms and wrapped with nori, then braised in a rich, thickened chicken broth. Warm and satisfying, with a soup-like consistency from the absorption of broth into the tofu and enoki.

Deep fried savory taro dumpling (mashed taro, stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, shrimp and pork). Sun Sui Wah has a special skill with the fried items. The exterior of this dumpling was impossibly crispy, comprised of an effervescent lattice of texture. Not at all greasy (which tends to be the norm with this dim sum item at lesser places)... really superb, clean flavors.

Deep fried glutinous rice dumpling. My absolute favorite, this is pretty much the greatest dim sum item ever... magically transcending the barriers between sweet and savory, chewy and crispy... a profound study of mind-bending contrasts. Again, showcasing Sun Sui Wah's mastery of deep frying, I've never had a version of these dumplings that was quite as impossibly crispy on the exterior while at the same time having only a minimal amount of residual grease.

Sun Sui Wah on Urbanspoon

12:30 p.m. Chinatown Markets
After enjoying your dim sum feast, walk off the meal by touring through the Chinatown area in Vancouver. You'll come across all sorts of interesting food products; some of them are pretty tame, others more adventurous. Pay attention to your whereabouts, as Chinatown is adjacent to some of the grittier parts of Vancouver. We spotted a couple of used hypodermic needles by the sidewalk just a few blocks from these dried squid:

Fresh live blue crabs... a little odd to see these on the west coast. They must have been flown in from the Atlantic.

You'll also see some slightly more intense things, like this bucket of live yellow eels (the adult form of the American eel). Random fact: females can reach a maximum length of five feet, and males grow as long as two feet.

Dried gecko, anyone? Used for medicinal purposes (lung and kidney ailments), these geckos supposedly have a seafood aroma, with a very salty flavor.

Taiwan fungus, supposedly rich in nutrients like iron... and "delicious." A health food item eaten primarily to treat heart disease.

Ah, and back to some sights of things we're more accustomed to, like these roast ducks hanging in the window of the butcher shop.

1:30 p.m. Head off to Stanley Park
Stay active and explore the expansive forested sanctuary of Stanley Park. At just about 1,000 acres in size, Stanley Park is one of the great urban parks in North America, just a mile from downtown Vancouver. You could spend hours here exploring the forest and the waterfront by car, foot or bicycle. We visited just in time to catch the tail end of the intense, symphonic array of fall colors.

4 p.m. Some light shopping on Robson Street and hitting Yaletown for happy hour

Take a bit of time to check out the shopping scene on Robson (H&M is coming in the beginning of 2008, ensuring that Lav will be ready to visit at any time), then head over to Yaletown, Vancouver's uber-trendy converted warehouse district. Lots of cool little boutiques to visit and a good smattering of bars and restaurants. Stop by Rodney's Oyster House for freshly shucked oysters... $1 each if you can make it before happy hour ends at 6 p.m.

8 p.m. Parkside on Haro
Vancouver has a fantastic dining scene and no shortage of very good restaurants. Parkside on Haro is one of the real gems among neighborhood restaurant options. Located just a few blocks from Robson Street, the restaurant is nestled in the lower level of a building along an otherwise wholly-residential street. If not for the glowing blue sign, you'd probably walk right past it. Reminicent of an Upper East Side supper club from the outside, the place has tons of warmth and charm on the inside, casually sophisticated in its cuisine and atmosphere.

During our visit, Parkside was having its second annual Game and Wild Mushroom Festival, a great opportunity to eat some less common preparations. Our collective menu that evening:

Japanese mushroom consommé, wild boar gyoza
Napoleon of wild sockeye salmon, crisp potato, chive crème fraîche, pickled girolles and leeks
Quail ravioli with sage butter and black truffle
Paglia e fieno with wild boar bacon peas and chanterelles
Roast loin of red deer, celeriac purée, red currant jelly & mustard, brussel sprouts, bacon & walnuts
Panna cotta with wild mountain huckleberries

Parkside on Urbanspoon10:30 p.m. To the B&B
After dinner, head back to your bed and breakfast (instead of staying at one of the numerous posh but sterile hotels in the area) and relax with a bottle of scotch or port in the quaint charm of a slower, simpler Vancouver from days gone by.

The Barclay House is a good option, with comfortable and tastefully decorated rooms, champagne and fresh baked cookies when you check in, and a simple, flavorful breakfast to send on your way the next day, along with plenty of genuine smiles from the friendly staff.

November 3, 2007

"home" is a deep-fried crab

Last week, Lav conquered the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco. It was great to be back in the Bay Area--even though the visit was an incredibly short one--to see family and friends and enjoy the spectacular weather. Oh, and to watch my wife run 26.2 miles like it was no big deal...

As a "reward" of sorts, Lav got to enjoy the legendary salt and pepper crab at the R & G Lounge in Chinatown, courtesy of her parents. Though I burned no calories through any physical feats of endurance, I was allowed to partake as well.

What makes R & G's salt and pepper crab so fantastic? The sweet succulence of pristine, fresh dungeness crab, dusted with seasonings (salt, pepper, a hint of five-spice) and a waft of corn starch, flash fried until the shell is shatteringly brittle and the meat is transformed into the ultimate manifestation of rich, moist crustaceous decadence... overloading your senses with deep satisfaction. One of the great dishes in Chinatown.

It's good to be home, even if just briefly...

R & G Lounge on Urbanspoon