November 15, 2009
So here are some quick snaps, just for the memories... working on perfecting our version of paella, which will be its own post if we can pull it off. And unbelievably, Thanksgiving is just around the corner...
October 8, 2009
And of course, there's the food. I've said before---and for now, I still believe---that (somewhat surprisingly) I've enjoyed eating in Seattle overall a bit more than eating in the Bay Area, mostly because the experience has tended to be more intensely personal, interspersed with moments of the imaginative and unexpected (thanks to places like Sitka+Spruce / The Corson Building, Spinasse, Harvest Vine, Lark and Miyabi, to name a few).
But after my most recent trip back to the Bay Area for J+L's uber wedding extravaganza, I was reminded of things that I do long for, whose replacement I've yet to find in Seattle. Like a wondrously crafted late night cocktail and resplendent steak tartare in the timelessly chic supper club ambiance of Bix... soul-satisfying varieties of chaat at Vik's... the delicately nuanced, sparklingly pure flavors of Sketch Ice Cream... the intense classical perfection of Aki-san's craft at Sushi Sho.
But things are not frozen in time. Eric and Ruthie shut down the Sketch storefront back in July (along with my favorite chocolate chip cookie) to prepare for parenthood; Aki-san, at the height of his Yelp popularity (after more than 24 years at the same location) put Sushi Sho up for sale and entered a well-deserved retirement, quietly disappearing and leaving us without his remarkable cold smoked salmon and passionately crafted nigiri. Devastating.
There's another restaurant I miss: Jojo on Piedmont Ave---on December 31, 2008, Mary Jo and Curt closed their neighborhood gem. This was a place full of heart and soul... the kind of cooking that made you feel loved and cared for whenever you stopped by. Terrific pate de campagne, a brawny flatiron steak frites with anchovy butter, and the first savory bread pudding I ever tried... all dishes that will endure in my memory. What could possibly fill this vacuum?
Enter James Syhabout and his spectacular new restaurant, Commis. I first heard about Commis through the SF Chronicle's food blog, and two things immediately piqued my curiosity. Chef Syhabout, one of the Chronicle's Rising Star Chefs in 2007, had already built an impeccable professional background: PlumpJack, Coi, three years at Manresa, time at El Bulli, the Fat Duck and Mugaritz... serious credentials, and seriously high ambitions. Then there was the thought of more modern cooking techniques replacing the warmth of country french cooking... would it work in that space?
I was dining with my mother and sister this evening. In fact, Commis was my mother's choice, as I'd given her the option of simple, rustic and homey, or innovative, different and modern. Now you should know, my mother isn't really one seeking after food and flavor experimentation, but in her own words, "If it isn't going to be interesting, what's the point?"
Exactly! She hit the nail on the head for something that has been bothering me lately about the restaurant scene. Due in large part to the recession, the prevalent trend has been towards simplification and making things more casual... the comfort of the familiar. And when done well, the trend is fantastic... less excess, no unnecessary frills. But isn't it possible to tone things down while still expressing serious creativity? Does every restaurant have to be reduced to serving a 1/2 pound burger on brioche? (Not that I don't love a great burger, but when it's on the menus of french restaurants...) It just feels like there's been a hit to the variety of points of view.
Commis bucks that trend. The first thing you need to know about Commis: They push the envelope with innovation and style, yet without being intimidating or impersonal. The dishes tend to capture both experimentation and familiarity without contradiction.
The second thing you need to know about Commis: While it isn't inexpensive or casual diing, cooking of this caliber and technique should cost quite a bit more. The food and experience were easily worth the $59 for three courses... and I'd trade the cost of two average meals for what Commis offers any day.
Here's the other thing about Commis: It feels genuinely personal. A month earlier, I had reservations to try the restaurant with some friends, but had to cancel at the last minute because the Bay Bridge was closed, making it impossible for us to get to the restaurant on time from our late flight into SFO. They graciously expressed their regret and understanding that we could not join them that evening. On this evening, both the host, Sarah, and Chef Syhabout made a point of saying they were glad we could join them this time. Nice... gesture appreciated.
The staff and other chefs were also a pleasure to interact with---Chef Zach prepared much of our food with equal precision. In fact, the economy of motion from the three chefs---assembling elaborate preparations in the open kitchen---was remarkable.
And now, the food itself. The restaurant was offering nine different dishes on its menu this evening, so between the three of us, we were able to try everything.
EARLY GIRL TOMATOES, PICKLED SHALLOTS, fresh cow's milk cheese with wheat bran, pursulane. Richly flavored tomatoes paired with a rich-as-brie cow's milk cheese, the wheat bran wafers adding a perfect textural contrast with an unobtrusive, light nuttiness... the baby pursulane adding just a hint of a sweet vegetal edge. A "wow" dish, sparkling in its flavors.
PACIFIC SALMON TARTARE AND CUCUMBER, marinated with meyer lemon, anchovy salt. Fresh and delicate flavors... maybe almost too delicate when compared to the other dishes (could not discern the anchovy salt, perhaps it was missing?)... the cucumber shaved impossibly thin and almost melting on your tongue.
WARM SUNCHOKE SOUP, lobster mushroom custard and crayfish butter, fried herbs. A well constructed soup, so rich and velvety... layers of creaminess.
SOFT FARM EGG WITH POTATO AND ALLIUMS, fermented black garlic and pork jowl. This dish was nothing short of spectacular, marrying richness of flavor and texture, and incorporating the captivating, complex sweetness of the fermented black garlic. Pork jowl and an egg cooked in an immersion circulator... unbelievable. You feel guilty that something could taste this good, and you keep pausing between bites to make sure the euphoria settles in fully. Easily one of the best dishes I've had this year.
GRILLED COD WITH FRESH CHERVIL MUSTARD, celery root and lettuce with roast shellfish juices. Beautifully prepared cod, the moist richness of the fish matched with the subtle fresh vegetable flavor of the celery root puree, and the shellfish jus adding just the right boost. Really impressively restrained and balanced.
POACHED THEN SEARED DUCK, MULLED BROTH, chanterelles and marjoram, sugar plum condiment. Two duck breasts bonded together with transglutaminase to form a better shape for slow poaching the meat to a consistent medium rare. The duck was slightly chewy, but the concept makes a lot of sense... they may just need to tweak the technique a bit. Paired with creamy cranberry beans which soaked up the terrific flavor of the mulled broth.
ROAST SIRLOIN CAP OF BEEF AND RIB, pearl barley enriched with parsnip milk, wild anise. In essence, beef two ways. A perfectly medium rare sirloin---uniformly and beautifully cooked. Underneath, a sous-vide portion of short rib, cooked just long enough to melt the collagen and tenderize the meat, but still pink on the inside. A decadent "risotto" of pearl barley and sweet braised stalks of fennel. Comfort food, significantly modernized by technique.
CREAM OF SUMMER MELON SOUP, blackberry, lemon balm and chamomile snow. Pure cantaloupe flavor... a bit hard to discern the other components of this dish, like the chamomile.
BLACK MISSION FIG TART, lavender almond, beeswax-scented ice cream. If only all desserts tasted this good... sweet, buttery, floral, nutty... a complex combination of otherwise elemental flavors. Fantastic.
I love Oakland... I always will. And I'm glad that Chef Syhabout loved Oakland enough to bring his craft home to the city where he grew up. I'm adding this place to the list of reasons to miss the Bay Area, and looking forward to the next opportunity to visit.
October 4, 2009
In its two years of existence, FoodBuzz has managed to connect and aggregate the content of so many people... it's pretty amazing. More importantly, the people at FoodBuzz are terrific---really passionate about food and about their work in establishing those connections and making partnerships.
This was my third visit to Spring Hill, and each time I've been, the food has grown in its polish and sophistication. We started with two amuses: a house-made cracker with foie gras and a riesling gelee (really nice texture to the cracker, the richness of the foie gras accented perfectly by the gelee), and a bite of dungeness crab and kampachi crudo (a bit more acid/vinegar needed).
Next, mussels roasted in their own juice, with lemon, butter and parsley, accompanied by a watercress salad. Simple and fresh, a nice expression of the mussels natural flavors.
We then enjoyed a bite of smoked oysters on house cured sopressata, with potato chips. This was probably my favorite bite of the evening. The smokiness of the oysters accented their natural briny sweetness, which, in turn, paired beautifully in both flavor and texture with the intense savory meatiness of the sopressata. This one raised eyebrows at our table... really delicious.
My main dish was one of Spring Hill's signature plates: sauteed black cod, fennel chowder with fennel frond oil and smoked king clam panzanella. Perfectly cooked black cod, its buttery silken texture contrasted by the light crunch of the panzanella.
With the richness of the meal, it was great to finish with the buttermilk panna cotta with huckleberries.
Special thanks to Ryan and Alexa for hosting everyone this evening, and to the dining companions at my table for the great conversation: Dianasaur Dishes, GastroGnome, OC2Seattle, and Going for Seconds. Hope to be able to share food with you all again sometime!
And a heartfelt congratulations to Spring Hill for being named one of Bon Appetit's Top Ten Best New Restaurants in America. Mark and Marjorie have created a fantastic place in West Seattle, and their efforts and warm hospitality are evident in the experience they provide to their diners.
September 19, 2009
This evening, looking for a way for me to load up on some carbs for the triathalon tomorrow morning, we made a simple pizza of sliced summer squash, potatoes, rosemary, mozzarella and gouda, and a single blossom that was growing off the squash we picked from the garden. Tossed into a blistering 550 degree F oven, and the magical alchemy of a thin crust with fresh toppings emerges.
The flavors of the pizza felt as transitional as the seasons, as fall is definitely trying to creep in. Thankfully, it it looks like we have at least another week of this incredible Seattle summer left... just enough for one more harvest of tomatoes.
September 13, 2009
The last time I was in an H Mart, I remember marveling at the tanks of live spot prawns... a seasonal treat, usually from mid to late May through the end of the summer. Lucky for us, this time we were there right near the tail end of the season, and the tanks were teeming with fresh, live spot prawns.
What makes spot prawns so fantastic? They have a super clean, lightly sweet flavor and require only the slightest bit of cooking. Better yet, the spot prawns are phenomenal in raw preparations. When prepared from live spot prawns, the flesh has this unbelievable lightly firm, delicate texture... just a hint of resistance and the ultimate clarity of flavor. You'll recognize these gems as amaebi at your favorite trusted sushi bar.
Another great thing about spot prawns is that while most shrimp (either wild or farmed) are among the most environmentally destructive and unsustainable seafoods, spot prawn fisheries have the potential to be highly sustainable with minimal impact, if maintained properly. The Monterey Bay Aquarium rates spot prawns from British Columbia as a "best choice" for sustainability, with West Coast spot prawns in general a "good alternative."
The spot prawn ceviche preparation is incredibly easy. Take the live prawn and, using a very sharp knive, remove the head from the body as quickly as possible. Remove the shell from the body---gently---make a small incision to remove the vein, and cut the prawn into the desired size. At this point, you can already go ahead and eat the spectacularly fresh meat.
If you do decide to dress it for a ceviche-style preparation, use a light dressing to avoid overpowering the flavor of the spot prawn. We used a vinaigrette of 1 part meyer lemon juice to 3 parts high quality, grassy olive oil, and just a pinch of salt with a bit of chive to accent it. And just like that, you have one of the great dishes of summer.
But that's not all you can do... you still have the heads, which are more than half the weight of the spot prawn. Remove the thick exoskeleton sheath from the head, leaving all other exoskeleton intact (including antenna, legs, eyes, etc.). Dust with rice flour and deep fry in 375 degree oil until crispy, about 3 minutes.
In contrast to the body, the shrimp heads have an explosively rich, powerfully concentrated flavor of... well, shrimp... which pairs perfectly with the crispy texture. Everything is edible... legs, eyes, everything. Just make sure you remove that one external exoskeleton piece before flouring and frying... it's too thick to fry and eat. Serve with a lemon wedge, maybe a bit of aioli, and you're set.
Together, a perfect pairing of two polar opposites from the same product!
August 9, 2009
garden fava beans, chevre, pineapple mint
fried squash blossoms
chevre, sauteed summer squash, pine nuts
freezer-set quail egg yolk
balsamic syrup, pecorino, parsley
japanese cucumber, shallot, lime, olive oil
japanese cucumber, shiso + white balsamic vinaigrette
farmers' market beefsteak, garden sun golds, mozzarella, basil
chicken, gooseberry, balsamic syrup, parmiggiano, cracked almonds
bacon, wakame, favas
spaghetti e vongole
taylor’s manila clams, fish stock reduction
roasted bone-in ribeye
balsamic reduction, thyme
tonnemaker hill market cherries
With the beautiful weather of a perfect summer evening, I was reminded of the bounty of summer produce, the joy of al fresco dining, and the perfection of sharing a meal with great company.
August 5, 2009
In this recipe, the ricotta gives the gnocchi a fantastic light, pillowy texture---similar to the way it can lighten the texture of pancakes---making gnocchi that are a great base for simple summer flavors. The only adaptation I made to the recipe was the addition of some fresh thyme leaves from our garden.
Depending on the ricotta you use, the dough can be quite moist. The trick here is to use as little flour as possible... just enough to hold the dough together so it can be rolled, cut, and immediately dropped into a pot of boiling water. The less flour there is in the dough, the more etherially cloud-like the gnocchi will be.
We dressed the gnocchi with fresh corn sauteed in browned butter, sage, clove and oregano blossoms, and added just a few vibrantly flavorful cherry tomatoes from the garden. A quick, easy dish for a Wednesday summer supper.
August 3, 2009
I live too far away to try Kogi, and I haven't had a chance to check out Marination Mobile yet, but we had some leftovers from a dinner we hosted this weekend, so I thought we'd make a little Asian-inspired taco of our own.
Kogi and Marination Mobile, here is my tribute to you. I'm going to call it teriyaki-glazed chicken taco with sesame wakame salad, crispy fried chicken skin and Sriracha.
Keep up the good work...
July 14, 2009
Nothing quite hits the spot like a great burger. Back in the late 90's, J and I were on a quest to find the best burger in San Francisco, sampling a new spot every week. We eventually had to stop because the magnitude of the calorie consumption was beginning to have a palpable effect... but not before our dedication to the journey was rewarded with some truly fantastic bites.
As great as it is to hit up your favorite burger joint for their best, making your own burgers can be just as good. With all of the great weather lately in Seattle, we've been grilling like maniacs. When grilling your own burgers, here are a couple of simple tips to ensure the right texture, juiciness and flavor:
1. Get great meat, freshly ground if you can. I prefer grass-fed ground chuck for a robust but clean flavor.
2. Season the meat well. Really well. As in lots of salt and pepper, particularly if you're making thick patties. You'll need to season thoroughly to make sure the flavor expression permeates throughout each mouthwatering bite.
3. Avoid ultra-lean ground beef. You don't want anything leaner than 15% fat, otherwise there won't be sufficient fat to render while cooking, keeping the patty super juicy and flavorful.
4. Don't over-handle the meat. Form the patties gently and somewhat loosely, with just a slight indentation in the middle to end up with a nice, level patty after grilling. Handling the meat too much or packing it together too tight will result in a tough patty.
Other than that, grilling the burger is super simple. For a 7 ounce patty, you can grill over medium high heat for 5-6 minutes per side for medium doneness. For this burger, I went with a brioche bun, caramelized onions, bleu cheese, a slice of a brandywine heirloom tomato, bacon and arugula. Add a nice pile of fresh cut, piping hot, crispy fries and a glass of Washington syrah... and I'm having a hard time thinking of anything more deeply satisfying.
June 14, 2009
This was our long-anticipated meal at Asador Etxebarri, the pinnacle of our food adventures in Spain, and easily among the five best meals I've ever had in my life. This is the kind of place you want to visit before you die.
It has been two years since the last time I felt so impacted by a meal. The last time was a 24-course extravaganza at the hyper-modern gastronomic temple of Alinea. This meal at Extebarri was, in almost all senses, the complete opposite. One single cooking technique: grilling. But grilling in its most monumentally perfect form. Charcoal, made by the chef from local wood, each one specifically selected for the particular item to be grilled. A custom-designed system of grill racks, able to be independently raised and lowered for the utmost control and precision in heat. Special custom made pans, some pierced by lasers to create holes large enough to allow smoke to permeate, but small enough to keep liquids from falling through. You've never seen anything like this in the United States.
But how would we get by at the restaurant? We don't speak any Spanish, and by most appearances, they didn't speak any English. With an examination of the menu and a noble attempt at communicating our preferences, we were able to coordinate one shared tasting menu with three additional dishes for the two of us.
Phenomenal texture, with each gem of fat giving way and disintegrating into pure richness.
Butter, as its own course? Absolutely. Scented with sweet smoke aromas. With bread or without...
jamon iberico de bellota
Pasture-raised black iberian pig, finished with a diet comprised exclusively of acorns... cured for 1-3 years. Sure, this wasn't the only place to get the famed pata negra, but the richness and decadence seemed appropriate for this meal.
At the risk of shameless hyperbole, this was possibly the most perfect prawn in the history of humanity's consumption of seafood. It arrived, a single naked prawn, slightly larger than my hand, unadorned but for the crystals of sea salt on the shell. The barely still- translucent shell around the head revealing the abundance of shrimp innard flavor. The flesh was cooked to that precise moment when it transitions from translucence to opacity... but halted just before, rendering an incredible texture--almost as though still alive (think of just-killed amaebi).
I've never experienced quite this level of technical achievement in the cooking of a prawn. The flavor was impossibly good, the first bite a dizzying euphoria, the smoke from the grill somehow permeating the flesh of the prawn uniformly and with the lightest touch. I'm not quite sure how to explain it, but the undertone of smoke was more a seasoning than a flavor, as though the smoke was controlled to impart just enough of itself only to heighten the divine intrinsic freshness of the prawn. Any more smoke would have detracted from the prawn, any less and you wouldn't have noticed it. The genius here is Chef Victor Arguinzoniz's remarkable ability to walk that tightrope. My eyes bugged out and a grin came over my face after that first bite... a grin that made me look 10 years younger, based on the picture Lav took of me. Yes, it was really that good.
Delicately sweet flesh, tender and flaky, with a focused, purity of flavor. One of Lav's favorites of the meal.
oysters and sea foam
Grilled oysters? You bet. Sea foam? Yep---an emulsion of the juices released by the oyster upon shucking. This was another one of the dishes that expressed the absolute precision of Chef Victor's grilling technique. Somehow, by gently grilling the flesh of the oyster, it was able to simultaneously express a heightened flavor of warmed oyster flesh while maintaining the plump, crisp texture of just-shucked raw oysters. Mind-boggling.
This seemed somewhat controversial... grilled caviar? Believe it. The gentle heat and smoke elevated two primary flavor notes: buttery goodness accented with wafty ocean scents. Surprising.
One of my favorite things to eat while we were in Spain. Tender, sweet and succulent, this dish also had the perfect caramelization of the flesh for just the faintest crisp exterior.
Despite the magnificence of everything we were eating, this simple dish stuck out in my mind as one of the more profound successes. A study in the perfection of the sweetness of truly fresh peas. Three perfectly unified flavor notes: sweet pea (warm enough to extrude some juices, still fresh enough to have some crispy snap), gentle smoke, and a beautifully rich sliver of pork lardo.
purple potato, mountain mushroom, farm egg
At first, I didn't understand this dish at all. a lightly smokey mash of sweet purple potato with paper-thin shavings of local mountain mushroom which, served raw, tasted somewhat dry and quite woody (like balsa wood). Not a great combination of flavor or texture... that is, until we realized there was a gently warmed egg yolk hiding under all of the mushroom shavings. We stirred the three ingredients together, then tried another bite. The result was a remarkable synergy between the smooth, sweet texture of the potato marrying with the now earthy (rather than woody) flavors of the mushroom, moistened/enriched/flavored by the elemental creaminess of the egg yolk. Really surprising.
Probably the most ordinariy of the dishes we had, these grilled clams still had an outrageous sparkle of freshness with slivers of crisp, sweet garlic. Again, just the backdrop of smoke to accent the flesh of the clams.
Served in a compote of caramelized onions reduced in squid ink, I believe these tender squid were grilled with a different type of charcoal than the octopus. The smoke flavor was less sweet, but equally gentle. The combination of the squid ink into the onion "jam" was masterful---sweet, briny, earthy... perfectly integrated.
Back in 1999, I had my first steak at Peter Luger. Renowned for the quality of its house-aged steaks (each side of cattle personally inspected and selected by the daughter of the founder), I'll be the first to admit that Peter Luger has off days as well as days when they're on their "A" game. That first bite of thick-sliced porterhouse still sizzling on the plate and dressed with melted butter was an instantaneous "moment." It became the steak against which all others would be compared, but which none would quite match...
This steak kicked Peter Luger's ass.
The approach to steak in many of the asadors of Spain is completely antithetical to the American approach. Here in the U.S., we slaughter our cattle young (no older than three years of age). For the majority of their short lives, our cattle get relatively little exercise as well... both are done to keep the meat tender. In Spain, the most prized beef comes from the Galician Blonde cattle. These cattle are most often put to work for the majority of their lives, developing tough, lean muscle fibers. At 9-12 years of age, the cattle are "retired" from their labor and given a couple of years of leisure, during which time they are fattened significantly. At the time of slaughter, therefore, the cows are actually quite old. The combination of work early in life and leisure later in life results in beef that is intensely flavored, but still well-marbled with fat. The tenderizing comes from 90 days of dry aging, during which time a significant amount of beef is trimmed off. Whatever it is that they're doing, I'm a believer. I've never had a steak (cooked absolutely rare, but with a beautiful crust nonetheless, and with no blood extruding from the slices) so incredibly flavorful, so impossibly tender. And I have no expectation of ever having a superior steak.
Some additional thoughts.
This meal was where I realized that many restauarants in Spain do not mark up their wines at all... zero, nada... the price on the list is the same as, or extremely close to, retail. Fantastic.
We were lucky enough to have a brief chat with Chef Victor. We tried in earnest to express our effusive praise for the unbelievable meal and our incredulity that everything had been prepared essentially with the same cooking method. He smiled and humbly said "It's just meat and fire..." (a rough translation), asked us where we were visiting from, and bought us a digestif to wrap up our meal as we savored our fleeting moments in this spectacular temple of gastronomy.
I can honestly say that I still ponder this meal from time to time, that my perspective and appreciation of what can be done to food has been dramatically expanded, and that I wonder on a regular basis how this crazy magician is able to do what he does in his workshop... what a treasure.