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Archive for March, 2012

Ahwahnee Dining Room, Yosemite National Park, CA

You don’t go to National Parks with dining and hotels as the focus. They shouldn’t be. National Parks are about re-connecting with nature at destinations of unspeakable beauty, where wildlife and breathtaking vistas captivate the senses, forcing us to effortlessly forget about the troubles back in reality. They are the place to camp, and dine on baked beans and s’mores over the campfire, or at least rest in basic, television and internet free hotel rooms. To put it bluntly, National Parks are places for watching deer, not eating venison in a syrah reduction sauce.

We all have been to or at least seen pictures of the visual splendor that is Yosemite National Park, a place of arresting natural beauty. Unlike any of its fellow National Parks interesting enough, this is really the only National Park where a hotel within the boundaries is a destination unto itself, and within that hotel is a dining room that is also a destination. The now 85 year old grande dame of National Park hotels, The Ahwahnee, still looks as striking as when Queen Elizabeth, Herbert Hoover, FDR and Eleanor, and numerous other major 20th century figures stayed there, though the 85 year old hotel doesn’t look nearly as young as my 86 year old grandmother, whom we recently took to Yosemite for her first ever time. The Ahwahnee doesn’t represent a Ritz Carlton type luxury. Instead, it is a rugged grand type of beauty, for where it is and how it fits majestically amidst that nature.

The Ahwahnee’s dining room is truly alpine grandeur, as if the dining hall of Hogwarts moved to the Sierra Nevadas. Floor to ceiling windows bring in daylight during the day overlooking meadows, while at night the windows combined with the 34 foot ceiling make the dining room feel as spacious as an NBA arena. There are warm wood panels, granite pillars, chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, foot tall candles on each table, piano music wafting in the air playing everything from “Jurassic Park”s theme to Elton John hits. The gentlemen at night shall wear collared shirts and the ladies pleasant evening dresses. The children who crawl through the mud en route to Bridalveil Falls during the day wear sweater vests to dinner that they will never wear again in their life (that was me years ago). This is special occasion, formal dining, the genre that is dying as fast as our precious natural space.

This being 2012, the menu has nods to ingredients from nearby and that are sustainable for our natural habitats. That rainbow trout comes from a nearby river. The roasted free range chicken is from none other than Mary’s, the source for every organic, sustainable chicken in San Franciso. On the other hand, there is no bacon wrapped anything here nor wood fired pizza nor even a hamburger. This is not a gastropub or local, neighborhood upscale comfort food focused restaurant like everything we see nowadays. The Ahwahnee represents elegant dining in elegant environs at elegant prices without the truffle, lobster, and foie gras excess associated with the subject.

A key to dining at The Ahwahnee is to not dine from a critical perspective. If you’re comparing equally priced restaurants in New York to here, it’s not even close really, especially with the food. This is still the type of place where the servers wear name tags. You don’t leave the Ahwahnee thinking about the food, unless it’s the dreadfully raw duck I had there a decade ago. The service is not perfect, but actually very talented at pacing the meal, helping with wines and menu choices, and deftly balances a balletic formality with down home, rugged personality. Remember, they probably have to sleep in tents then go change into tuxedoes each day for work.

So if there is no bacon wrapped something dish on the menu, there needs to be at least a pork crock pot with pork belly and pork shoulder, roasted to a pillow like softness. The pork belly avoids its usual overly fatty fate, perfectly accented by mustard seed, cabbage, and the cutest tiny dijon biscuits that are shockingly moist. If you need some more bacon, go for the lone fish dish of pan roasted Steelhead trout over salsify rissole and beurre rouge, with the saltiness of the Black pig bacon, and the bitterness of rapini. The waiters kept pushing the Mary’s free range chicken over a tomato jus, which was fine with the leg’s dark meat, but the white meat sadly, as is too often the case, was somewhat dry. I appreciated the bell pepper hash beneath the bird to bring some funk to the proceedings, though.

Heartier appetites can go for the braised lamb shank over couscous or a vegetable cassoulet with pumpkin in place of duck confit. No meal though is complete without the house prime rib. Even the yorkshire pudding and garlic mashed potatoes are a notch above normal. Just remember, a little horseradish goes a long ways. This is not melt in your mouth prime rib. It is stick to your ribs meaty, tender meat for meat lovers.

The real winners and the slight flair of creativity reside on the starters side. There is a beautiful winter panzanella salad with fried brussels sprouts leaves, chestnuts, pear, crunchy celery, and bland, stale sourdough croutons. The red curry mussels could be from Gary Danko, a real hit with some fennel and cauliflower added to the bowl. The serving size seemed a bit skimpy, especially for the $16 price tag with Ahwahnee inflation considered. Baby beets with arugula, candied orange, and Cowgirl Creamery’s chevre makes a terrific starter, as does the more imaginative red kuri squash flan with anchovy, olives, sundried tomatoes, and caramelized onion.

For dessert? The apple fig tarte tatin surprises with a textbook flaky pastry. Or go for gluttony and have the red velvet cake for two. The standout is actually the homemade gelato, whether it is apple-cranberry, hazelnut-praline, Macapuno coconut, or the magnificent passion fruit. Why would anyone order Häagen Dazs ice cream, also on the menu, when you can have this gelato?

Yes it is all overpriced and the setting outweighs the cuisine, but who cares especially when the food is actually this good? Whatever you do, please avoid the El Capitini cocktail at the bar with vodka, cointreau, pomegranate, and a champagne float should you need a cocktail. This is the reason some people swear off cocktails for being too sweet and imbalanced. I’m still trying to gain back my cocktail courage from this. Do yourself a favor and have a glass of port or Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs at apértif hour.

In this valley of Half Dome and El Capitan, it is hard for anything to be more memorable than the natural sights. The Ahwahnee comes close and we are very fortunate to enjoy good food and grand dining amidst this spectacular National Park scenery.

Wine of the Week: 2010 Arneis from Giovanni Almondo Roero, Piemonte, Italy

More and more wines from the Piemonte region are making their way to wine lists nationwide as sommeliers eschew the traditional France, California, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay route. This arneis provides a touch of sweet, a touch of mineral, but also a full body of a chardonnay without the oak. It is right at its prime, with a floral nose leading to that superb body recognizing a fresh bosc pear at first taste.

Domenico Almondo started his winery 32 years ago and now boasts vineyards producing Arneis, Nebbiolo, and Barbera, with up to 90,000 bottles made in total per year. Almondo still manages to keep his wine feeling personal, with a light touch apparent through each taste. Italian wine has an unfortunate reputation for reds being too weak and whites too minerally. Two young Italian-Californian restaurants in San Francisco boast exceptionally chosen, compact, exciting Italian wine lists, and I very much enjoyed this Arneis at both Piccino and Cotogna. Curiously enough I was just blind sampling at Cotogna a few of their white wine choices and felt this was the most riveting and refreshing of the options…the same I enjoyed days earlier at Piccino. Whether with the stellar farro with cauliflower at Piccino or any of the lighter pastas at Cotogna designed by Michael Tusk, be certain to sample this Arneis from Almondo.

Cocktail of the Week: The Promissory Note at The Alembic, San Francisco

The Promissory Note is an appropriate name for a cocktail in this economy, as the paragraph long description of this drink at the Haight District’s go to cocktail spot from the folks behind the nearby Magnolia Brewery explains. The bar writes, “In these economic hard times, everyone needs a little bailout. We’ve concocted a little stimulus package to help you throw caution to the wind.” The perfectly balanced drink with a little sweet and a little spice is no boozy Manhattan that will force you to throw caution to the wind after a few sips. It will force you to sip and savor this nuanced creation, playing Reposado tequila off dry vermouth, a touch of honey syrup, and the fairy herself, absinthe. That sweet of the honey and the anise from the absinthe holds out the strong part of the tequila and permits the rewarding agave taste notes through. Canton ginger liqueur also is added for a kick to round out the drink.

This is a perfect cocktail, the perfect bailout if the economy gets you down or the perfect drink to celebrate with when the hard times become a boom time.

Beer of the Week: Mammoth Brewing Co. Tuolumne (Epic) IPA

As mentioned in the upcoming review of the Ahwahnee Dining Room in Yosemite National Park, you don’t exactly plan to expand your food and drink horizons while at a national park. That being said, you will eat and drink plenty of rewarding tastes at Yosemite. We had intended to have lunch at the Wawona Lodge one day, but alas, it was closed for the season, great research job on my part there. The only option for lunch within an hour was to pick up some bland, pre- made sandwiches at the Wawona Grocery Store, and make do with an impromptu picnic.

Then we ventured to the refrigerator cases and discovered Mammoth Brewing Company beers, from the somewhat nearby Sierra Nevada town of Mammoth, better known for being the closest decent ski area to Los Angeles. Our impromptu picnic soon became an impromptu beer tasting session. In Yosemite, Mammoth markets its beers with Yosemite themes, so the Epic IPA is Tuolumne (for the meadows in the park) IPA, the Paranoids Pale Ale is Yosemite Pale Ale, and the Real McCoy Amber Ale is the Ahwahnee Amber Ale.

I appreciated the amber, but it lacked the deep, balanced malt-hop depth of a winning amber. Better was the intriguing pale ale, with a tad bit more hop than most pale ales and a unique light citrus note. Though it doesn’t have a special Yosemite theme name, the Double Nut Brown Porter is a perfect example of the chocolate-coffee filled genre without being too light or heavy.

I cannot get over the Tuolumne IPA, however. Somewhere in the hoppy canyon between IPA and Double IPA, the 50 IBUs don’t overpower at all, but provide enough hops to even satisfy Pliny the Elder addicts. This is a beautiful IPA, even better during a picnic overlooking Yosemite’s breathtaking scenery.

Even better than having these beers during a picnic in bottles, the IPA and Nut Brown Porter are available on draft at the Yosemite Lodge’s Lounge.

Le Plat du Jour: Thursday March 29, 2012

This last Thursday of March brings sunshine to the west coast before another forecasted winter storm, all of this rainfall absolutely necessary after the summer-like winter we’ve been having.

Showing a visitor around San Francisco yesterday, we spent some quality time waiting in line and then enjoy excellent Dungeness crab louie and smoked salmon on rye at the famed seafood bar Swan Oyster Depot. As usual, the seafood could not be fresher and the sharp, witty Sancimino Brothers always there to re-fill your Anchor Steam or bring capers to top the smoked salmon. It is a truly unique and fascinating institution, truly one of a kind.

Swan Oyster Depot got me thinking though about the whole debate over restaurants being cash only or accepting credit cards, even at a certain minimum. Credit cards do cost the restaurants a fee and of course, cold hard cash is instant money, while the credit card payment brings cash to the restaurant over time. Most of the U.S. restaurant industry accepts credit card and certainly a high er percentage than in any other country. Yet, let’s use Swan Oyster Depot as maybe an example that should adopt the use of credit cards. I love their vintage old cash register, part of the charm of this now 100 year old business, along with one of the Sanciminos grabbing a pencil and paper to calculate your total.

That ending total though tends to be a lot higher than most other cash only places. With lunch, a drink, tax, and tip, a meal here can easily be over $30 per person. You hear the Sanciminos yelling out the likes of $60 and $70 per bill, followed by $20 bill after $20 emerging from wallets to the granite counter. That’s a lot of cash being thrown around. I have many friends and even family who do not carry cash period, whether it is just for ease of payment by credit or for safety reasons. I warned by dining partner beforehand yesterday that the catch on Swan Oyster is cash only…a reason that I have had friends not able to join me at other places because they simply don’t carry cash.

There are cash only places and then there are cash only places where diners will pay over $20. I am not anti- cash only establishments, knowing the pros for the business of not relying on credit card payments. However, are the pros for the business worth the cons for diners? What are your thoughts? Or at least should a cash only business accept credit cards at a minimum total payment like $20? Let the debate commence…(answers don’t cost anything by cash or credit card!)

In other news, I am torn about the cash only question, but as The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Jon Bonné wrote last Sunday about the wine list price and size question, I am all for shrinking the wine list to unique, creative, quality wines, just like I’m all for smaller food menus. Nobody wants to research through a phone book wine list, though it is a symbol of pride for fine dining institutions. Let’s keep this trend going sommeliers. Let’s keep wine lists focused, sharp, creative, and exciting to lower the stress and prices. Wine should be approachable and most of all, a complimenting part to the meal, not a huge hurdle in the way of the meal.

Celebrity chefs has an interesting day yesterday. Ever wondered what a day in the life of Mario Batali is like? Now you can follow him around, from business meetings to taping for The Chew.

Global superstar chef Gaston Acurio has dozens of restaurants now across North and South America, most recently branching out to New York where Pete Wells of The New York Times is not a fan of Acurio’s newest La Mar Cevicherià outpost.

I thoroughly enjoyed the one Acurio restaurant I have dined at, Astrid y Gaston in Santiago, Chile. Bold flavors, beautiful platings, and epic ceviche platters came one after another for our premier meal in a trip to Chile and Argentina. Acurio in his home country Peru, is an absolute icon, beloved for giving his country a real identity to set foot with on the global stage. When people think of Peru now, they imagine Machu Picchu and now cooking thanks to Acurio. I was at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York last summer when chef Dan Barber had just returned from a global food summit in Lima, Peru. Barber could not stop raving about the produce, especially the potatoes in Peru, and how Peruvians go crazy for Acurio as if he were the President or how Americans go crazy for TebowMania.

Finally on this Thursday, we’ll be heading out to Kauai for the week. It is the special destination for our family, where we have been visiting since long before Hurricane Iniki. For an island of its size, the dining options are shockingly impressive. We have our longtime favorites (Beach House, Roy’s, Lappert’s), newly discovered favorites (Hamura Saimin Stand, Kauai Kookie), and a list of new places to try (Josselin’s, Merriman’s, Kauai Grill by Jean-Georges…), please let me know if you any advice on places we must try! Mahalo nui loa!

Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco

It is seldom seen today in 2012 for chefs to open restaurants with their name as the restaurant’s name, unless perhaps there is some clever twist (here’s looking at you Baker & Banker). To name a restaurant after yourself takes courage for chefs. It means you are the destination. Your cooking will be evaluated by diners with your name in mind, along with the atmosphere and service too. Your deft touch searing the foie gras and reducing the demi glace needs to also have an impact on the roses in the central grand vase. Fine dining has always been about the food and the experience seamlessly blended into one spectacular vessel where money buys you royalty for a couple of hours. A fine dining institution that bears the name of its chef and owner– almost feels as if the destination is a genre-changing brand, like a Ralph Lauren or Versace. The name in the title speaks to magic and mystique.

Restaurant Gary Danko indeed does feature some magic and certainly no shortage of mystique. Opened in late 1999, Gary Danko’s dining room can be almost considered an old stand-by in today’s restaurant world where one year in business is roughly comparable to ten human years of life. Twelve years ago Danko garnered award after award for his young restaurant, including the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant back when nobody even knew the James Beard Awards existed. Even before opening his own restaurant, Danko received the James Beard for Best Chef- California, in 1995 at the Dining Room at the Ritz Charlton in San Francisco. Guess what news the James Beard Awards sent to Danko last week? He is now nominated in 2012 as a finalist for Outstanding Chef, for the entire nation this time around. If the James Beards are the Oscars of the food world, then Danko is Katharine Hepburn, nominated every year.

In addition to a closet full of James Beard Awards, Gary Danko is the perennial most popular restaurant according to Zagat’s San Francisco guide and The San Francisco Chronicle has made the restaurant one of its Top 100 in the Bay Area since the restaurant was born. Nobody here is trying to put expectations through the roof…

Yet if anything possibly does jettison expectations to soar even further, then have the chef’s name in the restaurant title. Even Paul Bocuse, arguably the most celebrated chef in the world, no longer has his name in the title of his famed dining room near Lyon, France. Interesting enough in the Bay Area, Danko is certainly not the most famous nor the most celebrated chef in this land of Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, and David Kinch. Those famed three chefs’ restaurants  don’t have their names attached to the title. Danko did not start the organic food movement either, or teach the world what sous-vide is, champion local and sustainable cooking, or even more shocking in this generation, he is not a Top Chef or Iron Chef. He is a chef. A very gifted chef too.

Which leads us to the domain of the chef, in the heart of San Francisco’s tourist haven Fisherman’s Wharf. No tourist will stumble upon Gary Danko after exiting Pier 39, but there does seem to be a slightly higher ratio of tourists to residents than at many of San Francisco’s other premier dining rooms. The dining room itself is a bit dated and cluttered, feeling both posh from the beautiful china and glassware and lush flower arrangements, and worn with tinted black windows and banquettes that show some age. Diners here celebrate, which leads of course to noise. In a dining room such as this where tables are very cozy, the experience is far less elegant and intimate than it really should be at destination restaurants.

In fact I encountered a similar feeling recently at what I would consider a very similar restaurant to Gary Danko– Michael Mina. Yes, both chefs’ names in the restaurant name. Both experiences cost slightly less than the highest tier of Bay Area dining and feature less sous-vide, hay smoked, abalone  type cooking and ingredients than a Coi or Benu. Yet, both restaurants have a bit of fine dining identity crisis, where they strive to be formal, but the atmospheres are too bustling, too rushed to truly be “fine.” At Michael Mina, the tables have no tablecloths. At Gary Danko, the small tables themselves can barely hold a plate, a wine glass, and a water glass, and the tables are snug next to each other. I couldn’t help but listen to the couple’s issues at the table next to us.

Atmospheres certainly are not the only part of fine dining, however. If the buzz words lobster, truffles, and foie gras represent fine dining, then welcome to Gary Danko. The chef is a master with luxury ingredients and also knows how to make humble fish like salmon and the usually drab cheesecake into momentous occasions. Take the salmon for instance, usually a fish relegated to home cooking instead of in the hands of talented chefs. Danko wraps a salmon medallion in beautiful phyllo dough with a light dollop of not too spicy horseradish between the crust and fish. The balance reminds me of how sushi masters balance fish, rice, and wasabi with restraint in Tokyo. The spice comes through to liven up the proceedings without giving that wasabi nose-clearing kick that horseradish often does when piled into a prime rib filet. With some more gentle spice added from a mustard based cream sauce and the cleansing dilled cucumbers, the dish is not eye catching, but it is indeed jaw dropping after tasting. It shows the gift for combinations, such as horseradish and salmon, that Danko possesses. The dish perfectly shows Danko’s propensity for haute cuisine ingredients and cream based sauces, but with a lighter hand, and some flair for the exotic or for some spice.

Lobster shows up in a wholesome and luxurious risotto with butternut squash, shimeji mushrooms, and rock shrimp. Every menu has seared ahi tuna, but few match this pristine version over a lemon  soy vinaigrette, with avocado, enoki mushrooms, and just enough umami from nori. Danko’s famed glazed oysters are single bite sensations, topped with Osetra caviar, in a pool of a rich lettuce cream that would make Escoffier proud.

Subsequent bites through the long menu show that Danko might want to consider paring down some of the options. With some 25 to 30 savory options per night, nothing is an unabashed clunker, but too many dishes are not masterpieces like the salmon or the oysters. Striped bass is beautifully cooked, wrapped in crisp speck, but its sauce tastes of nothing more than clarified butter with a few notes of salt from the capers. The Moroccan spiced squab stops you in your tracks with its bold flavors. I could not eat enough of the couscous billowing out of the bird, studded with orange-cumin carrots, raisins, and almonds. The server will warn you that the squab will be served rare. Indeed it is and should be. Unfortunately, the meat is so thinly sliced, and the bird too thoroughly packed with a pound of couscous that the squab gets entirely lost in the couscous avalanche. The dish then seems more like a side dish than a meat dish and the squab meat often overpowered.

Danko’s lemon pepper crusted duck breast impresses too, sitting in wonderful celery root purée. Pity the duck breast though since its neighboring side of duck hash still gives me nightmares. Pallid, cold, and saltier than the Pacific, the hash is the, forgive the pun, the kitchen’s ugly duckling. It should never have appeared. How something more like what you get from a Jimmy Dean box in the freezer aisle appears on a plate at this otherwise outstanding restaurant is beyond me.

Don’t skip the epic cheese cart, but do not lose sleep if you pass up the chocolate souffle with creme anglaise and chocolate sauce. It should be more luxurious in appearance, more vivid in chocolate taste. The underwhelming sauces, the somewhat dry souffle, and a deflated top from too much time between oven and table deflated the dessert proceedings. Everything the oysters accomplish earlier in the night, the souffle did not. On the contrary, creme fraîche cheesecake is magical with caramelized pecans, rhubarb, and strawberry sorbet. Sometimes, good old fashioned cheesecake just beats classical French desserts. With mignardises, petit fours, and a lovely breakfast bread for the ladies the next day (or the taxi ride), celebrations continue long after the duck hash moment.

But that duck hash. And the squab lost in translation. The merely o.k. chocolate souffle. There seems to be a sign of some slippage perhaps now from the kitchen that can quickly be remedied. My bigger point to bring up is from the design side of the experienced presented by the restaurant. Diners can order three courses for $71, four for $89, or five for $105. You can order any course from any category, so perhaps three meat dishes, and the restaurant in theory will make appropriate adjustments. $71 for oysters, lobsters, and quail stuffed with foie gras is a good deal, and you will be full. $71 for sorbet sampler, cheese plate, and crispy farm egg with polenta and frisée…maybe not such a good deal. Nobody probably does that type of meal at such a special restaurant, but my point is that too much awkward dysfunction frequently arises from this style for its own good. Our table mentioned how we would share everything and we will not have the exact same amount of fish dishes as appetizers, for example. The waitress still insisted that “somebody” had to order each dish. Then we receive the bill later, where since “somebody” had four dishes brought to them and somebody else had two, that former diner was charged a four course dinner and the latter two dishes à la carte, which in theory is not even an option. The issue quickly was solved, but should not be an issue to begin with. With the strange menu style leading to off timings if diners are not having the same courses or awkward passing around of plates of sharing, along with the too cluttered, becoming dated room, diners can feel a touch too uncomfortable for a celebration.

Then there is the problem of the mobile cheese cart. Our corner table was isolated from the servers and the rest of the restaurant for a good twenty minutes while our neighbors watched the presentation on the difference of that goat cheese from Nicasio versus that French creamy one. I’m all for detailed cheese presentations and mobile carts. It is a major design flaw though that our table was in cheese cart Siberia for this long, unable to order wine for a half hour. Again, this should not be an issue. Nor should waiters asking us to lift up our menus and put them on the floor or banquette when presented with the amuse bouches. And then there’s the waitress agreeing that the coffee is not so special here and that they should go get Blue Bottle or Sightglass like the rest of the city.

Twelve years is a long time for a restaurant and for that time Gary Danko has performed magic from his kitchen. There may be a few slip ups today and far hotter, younger chefs on TV or making outlandish statements and dishes. At Restaurant Gary Danko, fine dining strives to remain in the name and on the plate, and with a few brush ups, I am sure it will for decades to come.

Tuesday Project: Orange Chicken with Golden Raisins and Figs

Today we head to Syria for an outstanding orange chicken, studded with sweet golden raisins and figs, more sweetness from caramelized onions, and a very pleasant blast of curry spice. The dish is very balanced, not too sweet nor too much kick to dull the palate.

The recipe comes from Jennifer Felicia Abadi in her book A Fistful of Lentils.

Start with the sauce, where the base of it is fresh, pulpless orange juice. Chopped onions added to the sauce are even more enjoyable in the final plating when they are caramelized. I don’t find that the potatoes, whether yukon gold or red, add a new dimension to the dish nor do they help absorb the excellent sauce. They simply absorb the color it seemed. Cubed butternut squash is an excellent replacement, perhaps with some cauliflower too, which is a better sauce absorber than potato and also provides some levity and another blank canvas to absorb the beautiful curry powder color of the sauce.

Plump golden raisins and fresh Black Mission figs are perfect for the dish, but regular raisins and dried Mission Figs are very acceptable. The fruits with the curry powder and the soy sauce provide the heart of this dish, the perfect compliments to the tender white and dark meat of the chicken. That last part is the key. Like with a coq au vin, do not dare having 100% breast meat. The fat from the skin provides depth to the sauce and keeps the meat more tender.

45 minutes seems to be the more appropriate time simmering for the chicken and sauce together. I have never tried the Syrian rice recipe recommended with the dish, but couscous or quinoa both work beautifully as a platform to absorb the sauce.With this starch base, who needs the potatoes anyways?

Paired with a syrah or even a jammy cabernet franc or possibly even minerally white like Gruner Veltliner, this is a perfect simple and vibrant weeknight dinner proving chicken can be far from boring.