February 18, 2008

the Bay Area is my Chinese mustard green

This weekend, as I hit the one-year mark for my relocation to Seattle, Lav and I found ourselves back in the Bay Area for E&D's spectacularly beautiful wedding at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Our visits back "home" are always fantastic because of the opportunity to see family and friends, and the chance to eat some of our favorite foods at places still unmatched in Seattle. Don't get me wrong... we've had some amazing food in Seattle and, more broadly, the Pacific Northwest. But this trip back home was a great reminder of some of the simple foods that make us long for the Bay Area... a melange of flavors that make it particularly difficult to leave.

Lav and I still haven't found our go-to sushi spot in Seattle. Sure, there's decent sushi around, but we haven't yet settled on a place that strikes us with that special interplay of phenomenal fish, unparalleled skill, and an intimate atmosphere of familiarity that we have when we visit Sushi Sho. So that was our first stop... we literally booked it straight from the airport with Lav's parents to see our old friends Aki-san and his wife, whose 24-year old restaurant literally becomes a second home to us for those precious few hours, usually to midnight, as we leisurely make our way through hamachi-kama (always a treat), chawan mushi (with scents of fresh yuzu from their garden) and creamy ankimo (with house-brewed ponzu) as a precursor to the best hamachi, kaibashira and house-smoked sake you've ever had... perfectly unctuous and sweet uni... and impossibly buttery, ultra-premium grade bluefin toro. And Aki's the only one who gets as excited as us when we order an ume maki with pickled daikon, shiso and bonito flakes to finish. This is the restaurant we've visited most in the Bay Area, and the gastronomic relationship that hits our hearts most profoundly.

The next morning, we thought we could fit in a meal and a snack before the wedding. Since we were staying in the South Bay, we had access to stellar Chinese food, which has been surprisingly difficult to find in Seattle. Sure, we get excited about Fu Man Dumpling and the Northwest Tofu House, but Lav has been in the mood for good xiao long bao for a while, and we haven't found anything in Seattle that can match the offerings of Hu-Chiang Dumpling House in Cupertino Village. We ordered an unbelievably good dish of wok-fried rice cakes with pork, ginger and the magical accent of lightly bitter Chinese mustard greens... literally stunning in its texture, balance of flavor, lack of greasiness (which can plague this dish at lesser places) and fragrant wok-seared aroma. We also had a small plate of thin, chewy Shanghai-style green onion pancakes... totally different than the thicker, sesame-coated Taiwanese version, with just a hint of intrinsic sweetness. And then an order of eight xiao long bao...

The soul (and gut)-satisfying experience of HC Dumpling's version comes from the near-perfect texture of the wrapper (just thick enough to remain intact, but thin enough to let the filling shine through) and the purity of flavor in the pork and broth. Powerfully delicious. And all that for $16.
Given our early "lunch," we'd no doubt need something to tide us over until the wedding ceremony. We found ourselves later that afternoon at the Ferry Building Plaza in San Francisco, where we seated ourselves at the Hog Island Oyster Co. in front of a platter of Sweetwaters and Kumomotos and a steaming bowl of clams cooked in a broth of wheat beer, garbanzo beans, chorizo and kale. The kale was a new addition to the dish, and its lightly bitter, peppery note added a delicious counterpoint to the natural sweetness of the clams and chorizo. Not that we haven't had fantastic oysters in Seattle, but the simple sophistication of Hog Island's oyster bar still feels a little bit more like home.

Sunday was my final day in the Bay Area, which meant getting a bunch of old friends together at Vik's, the long-since popularized but never disappointing chaat haven in West Berkeley. A big crew of folks meant that we could get all the favorites: lamb baita roti, masala dosa (my absolute favorite), bhatura cholle (Lav's guilty pleasure), pani puri, aloo paratha, chicken kathi kabab, biryani, and a little sampler of sweets. Vik's has sorta pimped out their space since we last visited, with a custom wraught metal sign out front and pretty high-style wood paneled seating in the midst of the cavernous converted warehouse space... we all rolled out of there looking for a couch to collapse onto.

Well, actually, not quite. Lav and I paid a quick visit to Eric and Ruthie at Sketch... me for my chocolate chip cookie and Lav for her burnt caramel ice cream with a light drizzle of olive oil and a touch of sea salt. The duo at Sketch have mastered capturing the exhuberant endorphin rush of childhood ice cream memories and reformulating it into a sophisticated, modern epicurian experience. The proof? We always walk out with a simple smile of deep-rooted comfort.

And perhaps no gastronomic return to the Bay Area is complete without a little home cooking. A simple meal with my mom before heading to the airport, where the chinese mustard green was again the star, delicious in the simplicity of its sweetness emerging from its pleasantly bitter edge... like a reminder that the bittersweet longing for Bay Area comforts can be a wonderfully appropriate emotion.

What colors and contrasts our experiences is that longing for the treasures of the past, as we embrace the new, exhilarating discoveries of the present and future, all combining to form the complex dimensional layering and texture of our lives. That's what makes me happy to be a "tourist" in the Bay Area, and what keeps me excited to return to Seattle.

1 comment:

  1. GAH! SUSHI SHO! i wish we could have made it up to the bay area too!

    your blog makes me way too hungry.