Monday, July 21, 2014

Atlanta, Miller Union

While in Atlanta, based on a NY Times article, we visited Miller Union for dinner. In general, it was one of the better places we’ve been to in our several annual visits.

field pea hummus, housemade lavish. The lavish was solid, not greasy, but crispy and the right thickness and texture.

farm egg baked in celery cream, grilled bread. The celery cream was heated along with the bowl, then the egg dropped in to poach a bit and be broken up by the diner to further cook, sort of like a soondubu jjigae. This was a nice signature dish, and quite rich. The egg/cream combo was a little too liquidy to stay on the bread and the bread too crunchy to mop it up so I was at a bit of a loss as to how to eat these two elements together.

shrimp,watermelon, cucmber, hot pepper, cilantro, lime. A solid dish with interesting flavors and textures. Definitely one to have again.

rose basted fairy tale eggplant, greek yogurt, herb salad. Another solid dish with some strawberry reduction mixed into the yogurt to bring the , sweetness.

smoked trout mousse, housemade pickles, lavish. The mousse had a nice amount of smoke and the texture was excellent. The lavish was the same as with the field hummus, but that’s not a negative. A solid appetizer.

sauteed quail, basil aioli, farro, field peas and arugula. I wasn’t sure if it was the quail that they started with or if it was the execution but I have to say that I’ve had better quail in other places (e.g. Cotgona in SF). The seasoning was fine, but the meat itself was a slight bit chewy or tough, and that makes me think it might be a result of the saute preparation. Good, but not stellar.

duck leg confit, roasted peaches, oyster mushrooms, bitter greens, celery root. This was a very fine execution of duck confit and worth having.

grilled flank steak, snap beans, cherry tomatoes, new potatoes, benne tahini. The kitchen split a full portion of this and even the half was a pretty big plate. Nevertheless, this was a fine piece of meat. Don’t expect a steakhouse style steak on this. The nature of flanksteak is going to be that some parts are tougher than others. Still, the cooking and seasoning on this dish let it run with the best. The vegetables, potatoes, and tahini were nice additions. In general, the tomatoes at Miller Union were all excellent quality.

vegetable platter (fried okra, grilled summer squash & feta, sweet corn & field pea succotash, snap beans & cherry tomatoes, farro & summer vegetables). This is a platter of all of the menu’s sides and worth having. The grilled summer vegetables were excellent as was the succotash and snap beans. Worth ordering just to have a sampler of the sides without ordering each one.

We shared the desserts at the table and everyone thought they were great, especially the corn profiterole with corn ice cream and corn bread.

The food was A- and worth a visit. But the main reason to go here is the wine list. The markup was astoundingly low, somewhere between 10 and 50% versus a more typical 2.0 to 2.5x markup in other establishments. Although there were only a handful of 1er Cru, Grand Cru, or equivalents on the list, the wines we did have (2012 Mercel Servin Chardonnay Chablis, 2011 Le Ragnaie Sangiovese Rosso di Montalcino Tuscany, 2010 Michel Sarrazin ‘Sous la Roche’ Pinot Noir Givry Bourgogne and a few other by-the-glass wines) were all excellent values and enjoyable pours.

It’s worth the trip.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Il Casale, Lexington

We’ve been to Il Casale in Belmont a couple of times over the past few years and always liked it. So naturally we were excited to hear that another Il Casale would be opening in Lexington.

Unfortunately, it was a disappointment. We had:

  • polpo affogato octopus Neopolitan style braised in tomato, soaked biscotate. This was only ok. The octopus was tender enough, but honestly lacked a rich flavor or seasoning. The bread crumbs were bland and the texture uninspiring.
  • lasagna verde spinach, nettles, artichoke, mozzarella di bufalo, snipped herbs. The noodles were overbaked to the point that they had to be chipped off the side of the serving dish. The inside could have been a lot more moist.
  • nero di sepia chitarra pasta, cuttlefish, black ink, pepperoncini, parsley. The cuttlefish was good, albeit a little too salty. The black pasta was less cooked than al dente should be.
  • funghi, hen of the woods, beachwood and oyster mushrooms, caciotta. These were ok, although pretty rich both in terms of taste and price.
  • cicoria, sauteed chicory, pine nuts, raisins. Sure, whatever.

I guess I don’t really feel compelled to go back given that pretty much every dish struck out.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

San Francisco, Bar Agricole

This was a solid dinner.

Appetizers: The Pickled carrots and mustard seeds were acidic and interesting. The Raw local halibut with sea salt and rye was tasty and the star of this dish was the rye bread which was rich. Marinated local anchovies were drizzled with EVOO and one of the best dishes I had. The pork filling in the Pig’s head fritters with sauerkraut was moist, tender, and had a great mouth feel (read: fatty smooth). The fritter coating was a little thick, but the meat made up for it. The sauerkraut was not as acidic as most and so tasted more like a cole slaw.

Mains: Grilled pork belly with nectarines, fennel pollen and arugula was an interesting combination of sugar, salt, and fat but some bites of the belly were a bit dry. Cedar plank king salmon with cucumbers, dill and tarragon was an excellent combination of protein and greens using 3 kinds of cukes all of which were enhanced by the herbs. The salmon had the slightest edge of smokiness and was pretty much sashimi. The Ferinata with porcini mushrooms and herb salad was a bit on the heavy end. Of the cheeses, the Chirboga Blue had a great balance of texture and salt, the Comte was good (not great), and the Tomales Farmstead Creamery Kenne goat cheese stole the show.

Desserts: The Spearmint panna cotta with cocoa cream and amaretti was good, not stellar. I noticed they cheated on the panna cotta by leaving it in a jar, thereby avoiding the issue of getting it on a plate unscathed. The Strawberry and tarragon ice creams with black pepper-lemon cookies was the winner of the two with the execution on the tarragon ice cream being fantastic.

Monday, July 14, 2014 Friday, July 11, 2014

San Francisco, State Bird Provisions

Believe the hype…

I made one quick visit there and liked pretty much everything I had. I’ll have to return to get the details.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

San Francisco, Rich Table

Rich Table

Food: B+. There were a lot of highs and a few lows (see below). In general, pacing was sporadic. There was a wild flury of small plates at the beginning and then long pauses between some courses. While it is true that they warned me up front that it would be a 3 hour meal for the chefs picks (it was more like 2 hrs), the fast and slow, on and off, delivery was a little strange.

Service: B+. I sat at the bar and the two bar tenders plus the other staff took good care of me. But I have to ding them on the failure to show a little love in return. I won’t go into details, but a simple “thank you” would have been nice.

Wine: A-. They had a pretty good wine list and it was not excessively priced. I had a Kermit Lynch selection and enjoyed it a lot. Somewhat better knowledge of the list would have been nice, but not necessarily expected.

Overall: B+/A-. For $80, it was a pretty reasonable tasting menu. I have mixed feelings about whether I’d go back. It’s definitely a good place to try once just to see what interesting things they’re plating. If it were in my neighborhood, I’d probably be a regular. But I’m a visitor and with so many other interesting places in SF to try, I’m not sure I want to go back.

Amuse Bouches and Small Bites

Although they arrived in a too fast a flury (there wasn’t enough space at the bar for all of them), they were all solid. Sardine Chips. horseradish, creme fraiche had a nice combination of that fatty fried taste (sardine) with crunch (chips) and fat (creme fraiche). It worked. Dried Porcini Doughnuts. Raclette seemed to be one of their signature dishes as everyone around was ordering them. The raclette was kind of a froth, foamy, whipped version and was quite interesting as a dip for the doughnuts which were more like Porcini balls than doughnuts. These were quite tasty and it’s good that they came at the beginning of the meal since they were pretty rich. Sliced Tomato. Sorghum, sorrel. This was a big juicy slice of tomato with interesting powders on top including the sorghum and some white chocolate. This worked well, especially with the sorrel. I enjoyed this but I bet a lot of people miss it because it’s only “tomato”. The oysters (Island Creek, CA) were excellent, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Shrimp: excellent. Several other small bites and amuse bouches appeared but they rolled in so quickly that it was hard to remember what they were. In general they were very good.

Hamachi crudo. Rich Table Furake worked well and I liked the puffed rice in the Furake.

Seared sea scallops. Peas, bok choy. This was a bit of a disappointment, especially when so many chefs seem to have cracked the code on sea scallops. I can get behind a sashimi-like center for scallops but at the same time, the outside has to be really hot. I didn’t sense that they got the pan hot enough and so the overall cooking was just not on a par with (say) Quince’s uncooked-center style. The peas and bok choy could have been an interesting combination, but this dish was served without a spoon (I asked for one of course) and so it was hard to get much of the somewhat liquidy sauce in the same bite as the scallop.

Grilled New York Strip Steak. Stone fruit, aru gula coffee. This was pretty nice overall when taken all together as one bite (steak, fruit, herbs, sauce). The strip steak was not all that tender, but that’s mostly because it was such a lean cut. This is the trend in beef for better or worse.

Lemon verbena soda, cream cheese ice cream, pate de fruit. This really fell flat but I give them credit for trying something quite a bit different. Sorry. I guess this was supposed to be the kind of sorbet course. The soda was too thin in flavor. This tended to water down the ice cream which did not really have enough of the sweet creaminess that most pastry chefs have learned to make. As the soda broke down the ice cream, it left little lumps in the glass. Where was the pate de fruit through all of this? Down at the bottom of the dish waiting to be discovered after I drank off the soda (it had to be sipped because the spoon didn’t really get the job done).

The chocolate torta dessert — almost a parfait kind of deal — tended to be less sweet than most. This reflects the seeming trend of less-sweet, more bitter desserts that are popping up (like at Coi). It was nice, but if you’re going to do chocolate, then make it chocolatey and sweet please.

Monday, July 7, 2014

San Francisco: Bar Tartine

I’ve had a couple of really solid meals at Bar Tartine. Chefs Courtney Burns, Nick Balla, Caitlin and Tyler worked the kitchen and made a special effort to show me around the menu. I could try to describe their approach to food, but I think their words say it best:

Co-Chefs Cortney and Nick manage the kitchen of Bar Tartine in San Francisco. The food at this celebrated Mission district restaurant is hard to classify, except to say it relies heavily on local produce and the strong vision of it’s chefs towards layering bold flavors with powerful simplicity. Ingredients are painstakingly made in house. Aged cheeses, spices, koji, and bottarga to name a few, are all processed at the restaurant and form the foundation on which the constantly evolving menu is built. The menu at Bar Tartine is a celebration of diverse traditional flavors presented with a modern, post-regional generosity. A dinner might consist of flavors from Jutland, Hokkaido and Budapest within the same meal- the whole seeming utterly familiar. Varied whole grains and the use of fermentation inform the food, as well as the innovative natural leavened breads baked on premise daily by owner/baker Chad Robertson.

The highlights on the savory menu on my first visit were Chilled apricot soup with fennel and noyaux (the fennel was minimally prepared with lemon juice and was unique); Lamb sausage stuffed pepper with stewed purslane (the slice of toasted Tartine bread elevated this dish beyond the high level that the lamb had already achieved); and Rainbow trout with brown rice and cucumber sauce (this is not your father’s trout dish at all). On the dessert menu, I loved the Roasted peach with kefir and almond. The kefir, of course, was their own creation, as was the cheese in the Farmer’s cheese dumpling with white corn sauce.

On my second visit Chef Burns was running the kitchen like the true pro she is. Talk about performing under pressure, she dealt with at least two new trainee line cooks and a packed house, but never even broke a sweat. Simultaneously she handled expediting the outgoing dishes and firing lots of  “specials” for some joker of a blogger from Boston. Restaurant Manager Molly and bartender Ryan did a great job of keeping me abreast of the dishes, ingredients, and the Chefs’ philosophies about food. Overall, I truly enjoyed sitting at the back of the bar watching the goings on and really, really loving every dish that Chef Burns put in front of me. Honestly, I kept wondering when she would bring me something that I didn’t love.  But enough gushing. On to my notes:

Bread, Cultured nasturtium butter, Cultured radish butter, Green olive oil. The bread is, of course, Tartine bread, and it is, of course, excellent. San Franciscans generally swear by this stuff and I can see why. It’s probably the best sourdough that I’ve had out there. The two butters were unique and well-constructed (read: good unsalted butter base and not too much salt added). The Green olive oil was not green at all, but it did have nice chunks of green olive in it (so the “green” applies to the olives, not the overall result). All worked really well, even though the Tartine loaf stands on its own with no added fat.

Garlic pickled mushrooms. I loved the level of acid and pickling on this. There was some relatively subtle fat in this, perhaps oil, perhaps something else. In any case, I loved the overall package and this was my favorite of the vegetable small plates. A++.

Dill pickled celtuce, turnip and carrot. At first blush these look like pickled vegetables, but there was some sort of clever savory flavor incorporated into them. A+.

Rainbow trout with brown rice and cucumber sauce. When you think of trout you think of it being pan fried with the skin on, or maybe broiled or grilled. You think of your father’s trout recipe where you have to work around bones or fillet it at the table. At first I didn’t want to try it because I figured it would be boring. What was I thinking? Bar Tartine’s preparation is closer to trout sashimi and the trout has that nice salmon color to it. Combined with the fermentation steps for the brown rice, this dish is a winner. My A+ rating is affirmed by the number of times I saw this dish moving from kitchen to table.

Charred squash and tomatoes with bottarga. They are making their own bottarga and getting their tomatoes (I think Tyler told me they were Early Girls) from a local farm. The squash was grilled with some smoke. Have you ever had quinoa leaves? You have now. Fat, smoke, sweetness (from the tomatoes). Oh yeah! A+ (do you sense a pattern here?)

Chilled plum soup with fennel and noyaux. I’ll cut to the chase. This was, without a doubt, my favorite dish of any at Bar Tartine. I’m not even going to rate it except to say that it was a Religious Experience (tm). Loyal readers know that I am stingy with my “RE” ratings. I’ll just give you my raw (unedited) notes:

Wow! There’s a lot going on here. Complex. Dynamic. You never get the same mouthful twice. I love the subdued sweetness of the plums and the emphasis on the fennel using the fennel (prepared with only lemon juice) and the fennel pollen. The nuts add the texture. The portion of the sour cream was perfect. R.E.

When I gushed about this dish to Ryan and Molly, they rather modestly replied “Yes, the chef does a nice job with the chilled soups.” What an understatement. The chilled apricot soup (also one of the best dishes) had the emphasis on the apricots and their sweetness. Comparatively, I loved that Chef had the guts to deemphasize the sweetness of the plums and instead raise the volume on the fennel.

Beef tartare on potato flatbread. I had been eyeballing this on my first visit and it was on my bucket list for my second trip. Ho hum… another A+ dish. Please chef, could you try to deliver something to me that I don’t like? I keep thinking I’ve died and gone to heaven here. Seriously. excellent seasoning. Excellent textures and mouthfeel. Excellent execution of the flatbread in terms of thickness, texture, temperature. If you tasted this not knowing that it was beef tartare, I’m not sure you’d pick it as that. The sweetness was present and really elevated the dish.

Goat cheese stuffed grape leaves with buckwheat. The grape leaves were grown by a friend of theirs. This was an excellent dish, well constructed. My notes are not intended to undermine this A+ dish at all, but all I wrote was “nothing to complain about here.”

Smoked potatoes. A signature dish, these are wicked good, and wicked filling. Smoked with alderwood smoke (very popular in the SF food scene these days), it fills the kitchen and restaurant with the savory aroma. I took half of them home and had them the next day when they were just as good cold.

By this time I was getting pretty full, but don’t worry. Knowing that I wanted a complete tour of the menu, Chef was plating relatively small portions for me so that I could go the distance. I had secretly been wondering if the Poached chicken with padron peppers and skordalia was going to be the obligatory chicken dish on the menu. Oh, how naive I was. When chef asked me if I could take the heat, I naturally replied “Bring it!” (I think I actually said a bit more politely that I would happily eat whatever she put in front of me, but you get the idea.) Bring It she did.

I know I’ve used this phrase already but it applies here too. This is not your father’s chicken dish. This dish was Hot! and I don’t just mean in spice level. I’m wicked impressed that Courtney and Nick have the guts to put this on the menu. Boring chicken? Not!

They’re starting with a really prime product (the chicken) and poaching it to keep it moist. Hey, everyone hates dry white meat so why not poach it? Generally, with a saucy dish like this, you want the flavors to meld, but I think this may be an exception. Crisp and distinct flavors carried the day for this bowl. It was just downright hot (I mean that in a good way) and simultaneously had very, very refined and complex flavors. The padrons had a wonderful texture and I think they were generally cooked whole. In fact, they were firm enough that I am willing to bet that there was some padron incorporated into the poaching liquid to bring a baseline heat level and then more were cooked into the sauce just prior to plating as a way of raising the heat level to a diner’s desired level. In any case, there they were, seeds, membrane, and all. The skordalia brought fat and texture. I truly loved this dish.

I needed to vent about this dish to someone and I knew Chef Courtney was busy so I chose Molly. Me: “Molly, it took true guts to put this dish on the menu.” Molly: “Many people from out of town don’t like it. The true San Franciscans love it. But no matter, Courtney and Nick don’t cook for tourists, they cook what they think they’d like to eat. They cook for themselves.” News flash: It works! Courtney, Nick, please invite me to your house sometime. I’ll bring the wine.

I had the grilled carrot cake which reminded me that the desserts at Bar Tartine are not about sweet ice creams, chocolate, and caramels. The general trend seems to be moviong away from the Boulevard style desserts (Boulevard is my favorite SF whipping boy) of sweet ice creams, chocolate, and caramel. Bar Tartine’s desserts are about Burns and Balla’s roots: fermentation, roasting, emphasis on subtle, complex and dynamic dishes. Heck, let’s throw in textures while we’re at it.

The grilled carrot cake dialed down the sweetness and I had to remind myself that this is a good thing since I’m still not completely caught up to this new dessert train. The flavors really started to grow on me. There were nice flavors and interesting flavors.

The pate de fruits (they called them something else on the menu, but this is the general idea) were subtle, interesting, not sugary sweet. They stimulated your senses rather than leave you with a sugar craving.

My true favorite was the Roasted peach with kefir and almond. The kefir was thick. Very thick. Not smooth, but it didn’t matter. It brought the richness and fat to the dish. As Chef Courtney said, the peaches remind you of canned peaches from your childhood. I never did find the roasted element in them, but no matter as they were simply so ripe and firm. The almond tuile gave it the crunch. A complete package even for an old fogey like me.

Overall this was an A+ meal. I loved every bit of it: the food, the service, meeting and talking to the chefs. Thanks folks.

Friday, July 4, 2014

San Francisco, Saison, petit fours

petit fours

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

San Francisco, Saison: ice cream, grilled sourdough

Monday, June 30, 2014

San Francisco, Saison, black walnut

black walnut, souffle and ice cream