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Archive for March, 2012

Le Plat du Jour: Tuesday March 27, 2012

Lots of rain in the San Francisco Bay Area recently, which makes you think of hearty comfort food. Filling food to keep you warm…and of course a pint of beer to wash it down.

That must mean we are thinking of Czech cuisine! O.k., well most people don’t exactly think of Czech food with Italian or French or Prague as a gastronomic capital like Tokyo or Paris. That’s fine because they aren’t, by a long shot. However, there are some terrific dishes in Czech cuisine and some excellent places to dine in Prague, as highlighted by this Serious Eats slide show.

I had an outstanding time in Prague two years ago, part of a 5 city, 15 night trip through Central Europe, including Hamburg, Munich, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. These cities are all better known for beer, opera, art, and pastries, but just like here in the U.S., the local, sustainable, organic, lighten up your meal movement has swept through these cities too.

For beer, no city except Munich can compare with Prague. I must have spent at least half of my trip in pubs, sampling homemade beers at U Fleku and U Zlatéjo Tigre, Pilsner Urquell at Olympia, U Vejvodu, and U Rudolfo, and the real Budweiser at U Medvidku. I gather that the craft brew movement has picked up even more the past two years in Prague, making it the Portland, Oregon of Europe. Even the old stand bys, Budweiser (Czechvar in the U.S.) and Pilsner Urquell are far more nuanced and enjoyable in Prague than the imported variety here, much like Guiness in Ireland and Heineken in the Netherlands are completely superior.

But to eat? Beer is liquid bread, right? Unfortunately the servers of my former newspaper have erased all my articles prior to a year ago and my computer’s hard drive crashed last Spring erasing records of where and what I ate. I do remember an outstanding traditional and not too heavy feast of goulash (more like a sauce than the Hungarian stew-like version) ad dumplings at the gastropub Lokal.

What pops in my mind is similar to what the slideshow displays: roast meats, purple cabbage, dumplings. I had that trio at least three of four times. Along with exceptional bagels at Bohemia Bagels by the Charles Bridge (owners from the U.S.!) and refreshing, somewhat innovative Thai cooking at Noi. Yes, good Thai in Prague with pad thai to rival the best I’ve had in L.A. or San Francisco. It’s a small, small world.

Prague now has two Michelin starred dining rooms with The Alcron and La Degustation.

Yes, Prague is really about the sights and the beer. Great marionette theatre too. Luckily, you can eat very well there too.

All of this meat and dumplings talk makes me yearn for…sushi. In New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, a new film about the Tokyo sushi maestro Jiro Ono is showing the world about the incredible discipline and complexity involved in crafting arguably the world’s greatest sushi. Here’s a review of the film.

Unfortunately I could not visit the sushi bar of Jiro in Ginza while in Tokyo last June because he requires for diners to be able to communicate in Japanese, not exactly a strong point of yours truly. I did not have the chance to visit Sushi Mizutani either, considered the other King of sushi with Jiro in the Tokyo fish debates. Luckily I did have a mind blowing sushi marathon at Kyubei in Ginza, where uni after prawn after the most ruby red toro were placed before me. Jiro is presented as nothing but precise discipline during dinner service. My experience with Kyubei showed the same focus with the art of sushi, from massaging the still squirming octopus to the amount of wasabi placed atop the rice. Yet our chef loved to tell jokes and tell how he did not enjoy a meal at The French Laundry because the flavors were too salty and complex for his palate. At the three star Ishikawa in Tokyo, I also found that same focus of precision to the food, but also an unyielding glee in conversing with us as best as we both could.

Here’s what I learn from these experiences. Sushi at a place like Kyubei and I’m guessing Jiro will change your view of sushi forever. The fish is gold there.

Dining at a bar with the chef in front of you is immensely enjoyable, especially when the chefs are as fascinated to learn from you as you are to learn from them. It’s culinary diplomacy. This is why chef’s tables across the U.S. are becoming more and more popular (and expensive too).

Lastly, that discipline to cooking translates to cleanliness. Nobody wants to dine looking at a dirty kitchen. These sushi dens are immaculate, much like the sushi itself.

Monday Neighborhoods: 5th Ave. and Stetson, Scottsdale, AZ

The Phoenix metropolitan area is truly fascinating, rapidly becoming Los Angeles in everything from freeways and sprawl to a city so focused on suburbs that now has re-connected with its actual downtown core years later.

Often when people imagine Phoenix, they actually imagine the cactus and palm tree landscapes of the resorts in Scottsdale. Scottsdale interesting enough, is a virtual miniature clone of the entire Phoenix area, with diverse pockets from Old Town to luxury resorts to regular suburbia to rural Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s western home) to our focus today, the East 5th Ave. shopping neighborhood. East 5th, Stetson Dr., and Scottsdale Road create a three road ring of sorts with this region inside of it. The shops sell mostly upscale western gifts for the tourists who wander a few blocks from the much more touristy, over the top, western Disneyland-Cheesecake Factory excess of Old Town Scottsdale just to the east along Scottsdale Road.

This time of the year with Spring Training, the area seems like its San Francisco East with all of the Giants fans, including yours truly, in town. The E. 5th Ave Shopping Area is fascinating, with a touch of that touristy old west excess, combined with a little high class European influence, and some sleek cosmopolitan modern designs.

Fortunately for diners, food happens to be the heart of this shopping district.

Anchoring a prominent spot in the center of this ring at Stetson and E. 5th is the eclectic, funky, refined Cowboy Ciao, whose name is a perfect representation of the culinary mash-up served. The Stetson Chopped Salad and mushroom stir-fry are as legendary in the area as Chris Bianco’s pizzas. Along Stetson next door to Cowboy Ciao on both Stetson and E. 5th is the emerging empire of chef Charleen Badman and co-owner/wine guru Pavle Milic, anchored by the outstanding bistro FnB on the Stetson side. FnB’s braised leeks with mustard bread crumbs, and mozzarella, and a fried egg has acquired mythical status, and deservedly so, but I still can’t get the mussels in fish sauce with harissa or the homey chicken with spaetzle out of my head. On E. 5th, the team now have just opened  a new market called Bodega, a wine bar focusing on  Arizona wines called Arizona Wine Merchants, and a charming cafe for lunch, Baratin. The group reflects the neighborhood perfectly, with a focus on everything local, a touch of sophistication, and a slight flair for the old west.

Sticking with wine bars, Kazimierz World Wine Bar resides next to FnB on Stetson. Across the way on Stetson the Old West turns into the New West with the sleek, modern SouthBridge complex, including its Casablanca Lounge, along the riverwalk style revamped Arizona Canal. Continue the loop to E. 5th St., with gallery after gallery after shop, and you’ll find the Scottsdale outpost of the exceptional Tempe based coffee roaster and shop Cartel, who makes an espresso on par with the giants of Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. This Cartel shop, one of 4 in Arizona, happens to also have a shockingly impressive wine and beer list (Oskar Blues, Green Flash at a coffee shop?!), and a very satisfying hot chocolate too on the two days of the year its cold like during my visit.

Kitty corner to Cartel is Citizen Public House, run by the former chef of Cowboy Ciao, Bernie Kantak. Everything is spectacular, particularly that same chopped salad from Cowboy Ciao that made the trip across the street to the pork belly pastrami over spaetzle (what’s with this area and spaetzle?) that marries German influence with barbeque to desserts by Tracy Dempsey, again formerly of Cowboy Ciao. Again, the atmosphere is charming with a touch of old west and Manhattan sophistication, like the neighborhood.

The stunning centerpiece of this neighborhood is just outside the ring at E. 5th and Marshall. The traffic circle there rings around a central fountain, just like you might find in Paris or London…except this being Scottsdale, instead of Napoleon or Charles V., the fountain boats sprinting mustangs. This is the Old West after all. Except the Old West never tasted as good as those braised leeks at FnB.

Le Plat du Jour: Monday March 26, 2012

Back from a weekend jaunt to Yosemite, taking my 86 year old grandmother (who doesn’t look or act a day older than 26!) for the first time. More on Yosemite dining later this week. It’s not Paris, but it’s also not like camping. O.k., well, you can camp at Yosemite and eat freeze dry scallops, but I’ll take the Ahwahnee route instead.

This final Monday of March, the debates over Julia Moskin’s excellent article two weeks ago on cookbook ghost writers. Many celebrity chef-“authors” have fiercely denied these claims including Gwyneth Paltrow and Rachael Ray. Then Moskin fires back in defense of her research. Back and forth we go. Today more and more sniping and griping. It seems to be we all sort of agree, the celebrity chefs don’t write all of their cookbooks.

When I first read the article I had no idea what controversy would follow. I figured that chefs did not always write their books, much like I’m sure they always cook what you see on TV. What, you don’t think Emeril cooks everything on his show? What is important is that the people who do the work, get the credit. If some intern really wrote half of a cook book and tested all the recipes for some celebrity chef, then that is every bit the intern’s book as the celebrity chef. It’s only right.

Here’s a list of the best restaurants in the world most of us will never go to. Generally any list from a private jet lifestyle magazine in conjunction with NexJets will probably be lavish and expensive. Interesting how similar it is to the San Pellegrino Top 100, except that latter’s #1 Noma in Copenhagen, isn’t even in the top 20.

It’s great to see Paul Kahan, the very talented chef behind Blackbird, The Publican, and other restaurants and markets in Chicago get some attention. Laboring behind the giant legends of Grant Achatz and Charlie Trotter, Kahan was virtually unknown outside Chicago and the intense national food community until recently. I still am hoping to make it to Chicago soon to sample his restaurants, but I take my Dad’s word that Kahan is sensation. He describes his dinner at Blackbird last year as one of the best of his life.

Finally for this Monday, I will pass on my wisdom acquired from the weekend to jazz up the always exciting Monday afternoon.

Wine in eco friendly juice boxes ladies and gentleman. You can buy them at the Wawona General Store in Yosemite. I didn’t try any sadly. I can say though I am not the biggest Franzia wine out of the box fan, unless the choice at college party is that or Keystone Light.

Maybe they’ll be good…who says wine needs or bottle or cork? They’ve already proven the glories of screw tops…

Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix

Consider the humble pizza. Outside of hamburgers, it is the most consumed food by Americans each year. At its simple base, a pizza is a form of bread topped often with a sauce, some cheese, and maybe a vegetable or meat or both. That bread, the crust, can be changed into many forms, perhaps more puffy or cut square. The sauce can be tomato based or white sauce. The cheese can be velveeta or gorgonzola. The sausage could be artisan sopressata or Oscar Meyer pepperoni. The toppings can range from wild nettles to squid ink to poached eggs to canned artichoke hearts. Anything and everything can represent a pizza it seems. With all of these pizzas, there are very few truly spectacular pizzas that rise upon the competition. Amidst those dozen or two dozen per metropolitan area depending on if we’re talking about Billings versus New York, there is that rare masterpiece that sings like Paul McCartney and strikes you visually like a Monet Water Lilies.

New York and Naples are the capitals no doubt of pizza. One is pizza’s birthplace, the other is where pizza became a part of daily life worldwide. Phoenix, Arizona? The land of cactus as the land of pizza? When Chris Bianco moved out west from the Bronx, masterpiece level pizza followed with him. Pizzeria Bianco opened in 1994 then moved to its current, tiny location in an old charming machine shop at Heritage Square, an oasis of historic old buildings just east of the not so charming Downtown Phoenix. With just over 40 seats, the waits are as famous and necessary a part of the Bianco experience as the pizza itself.

It almost seems like an experience is truly necessary for this caliber of pizza. The legendary Di Fara in Midwood, Brooklyn requires a 45 minute subway ride from Manhattan, followed by a 2 hour wait in line to order, then another hour of waiting for the pie to be, then another 10 minutes for the pizza to cool to eating temperature. After two recent visits to Pizzeria Bianco, I have a system in place as well that makes this quite the experience. I arrive at 6 and put in the name. Then spend an hour across the way at the Rose and Crown Pub, perhaps watching some March Madness at this time of year. Then somebody goes to pick up my brother flying in to the airport and bring him back to Heritage Square. During that second hour, I continue the wait across Heritage Square with a glass of Arizona wine at Bar Bianco. Generally at the same time, that second hour ends with the arrival of my brother and the opening of our table. Perfect!

With that amount of planning, this should not be just another pizza. Indeed, the pies coming out of the wood burning oven imported from Italy are far from any other pizza. There is some sort of magic in the oven, in the ingredients, perhaps even in the Barbera to go with the pizza that makes Pizzeria Bianco truly the best pizza in the world. It’s a big proclamation said by many before, but there’s no other way to say it. This is transcendent pizza.

But whom of the pizzas to pick? This is part of why Bianco’s pies rise above the rest. The ingredients are thoroughly selected for quality and matching together like a 50 year old marriage. The Margherita is simple yet spot on with its San Marzano tomatoes, fresh pulled mozzarella, and a few snippets of fragrant basil. The Sonny Boy adds homemade salami and Gaeta olives, erasing the need for basil. I adore the Rosa that is in one bite crunchy, sweet, bitter, and funky with red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, and finely chopped Arizona pistachios. It is a mystery why more pistachios are not found on pizzas. The Biancoverde thrives again with that Parmigiano Reggiano, but gains another edge from the silky ricotta, and biting freshness of arugula. However, my favorite? It once was the Rosa, but I have fallen for the Wiseguy this time. The smoky, sweet wood roasted onions, complimented by fennel sausage evokes campfire tastes and smells, while remaining elegant. If there was such a thing as a perfect pizza, this would be it.

Strangely enough, and indeed it would truly be a crime to do so, one could come to Pizzeria Bianco and have a terrific meal without even ordering a pizza. The epic antipasto platter of wood roasted vegetables, some Parmigiano Reggiano, and sopressata is a work of art. Possibly even more noteworthy than the pizzas are the spiedini, from the wood burning oven, delicate Italian fontina cheese carefully wrapped by proscuitto di Parma, as delicate as a ballerina’s step. Salads are perfect foils to the pizza, especially a caprese that beautifully teams the basil, local tomatoes, and handmade mozzarella together. Dessert? No need for that on the menu here, perhaps go to Sweet Republic in Scottsdale for some bleu cheese and honey ice cream afterwards.

As poetic as I can get with the spiedini, obviously the heart of Pizzeria Bianco are the six pizzas (there’s a marinara version too, which I’ve never sampled). Each time I put my name down at Pizzeria Bianco I think two things. With all of these hungry, impatient passionate food tourists and locals, how does the service staff stay so friendly and organized? Second, this pizza cannot possibly be as good as last time. Yet, the pizza continues to perform on an elite stage. The oven’s smoky perfume, the perfect ratio of yeast and flour to create a puffy yet slightly bready crust, the crunch of the pistachios, the exact right amount of mozzarella and basil, the sweet-smokiness of the fennel sausage, all add up to a culinary work of art.

Luckily you can now come for lunch at Pizzeria Bianco. The waits may be down then…or you might just be waiting two hours in the harsh afternoon sun instead of after sunset.

No matter the wait in the searing desert sun, Phoenix is lucky. Nearing two decades in Arizona, Pizzeria Bianco continues to make the country, possibly even the world’s premier pizzas.

Cocktails of the Week: El Presidente and the Moonraker from Bar Agricole, San Francisco

San Francisco’s now two year old Bar Agricole continues to break new ground, while remaining true to its heart as a modern urban tavern. Tavern? The James Beard award winning design inside and out on the patio where 350 days a year it’s too cool in the city to enjoy, are far from the taverns George Washington would imbibe in. Brandon Jew’s cooking, Andreas Willausch’s service team, cocktails by Thad Vogler and Eric Johnson, and the wine list from Mark Ellenbogen, combined to show that premier cocktails can be the center but also not the entire focus for an excellent restaurant. Though Bar is in the name, this is not just a bar by any means. On 11th Street, part of a block with a classic pizza by the slice parlor emitting the lovely scent of old grease and a nightclub, where the drink of choice of its visitors would be more like Four Loko than a Bobby Burns, Bar Agricole has been instrumental in making the western part of South of Market both safer and more relevant to the city’s overall culture fabric.

The bartenders stick to the classics done precisely with the highest quality ingredients. No foams, cosmos, spheres, and such here. This is home to a special old-fashioned or Ti Punch. Or even better, the Moonraker and El Presidente. The former, served up, is a handsome bronze color featuring both brandy and Denver’s Leopold Bros.’ Peach Brandy for a touch of sweetness. The fennel addition from absinthe and caramel notes of Cocchi Americano complete the magnificent drink. Perfectly balanced and not too strong, this is an idyllic cocktail pre- or even with dinner.

Not surprisingly with the restaurant name’s focus on rhum agricole, rum drinks are quite noteworthy here. El Presidente’s base is Demerara rum based, a 151 proof dark rum. Farmhouse curaçao adds a sugary depth for balance, with grenadine, and some citrus notes from orange bitters. Shaken and served up, this is a refreshing and thought-provoking cocktail. Not sure if it’s the favorite of Mr. Obama…

Le Plat du Jour: Thursday March 22, 2012

Just like how El Bulli and its molecular gastronomy became the fashion of last decade’s high end gastronomy, the “New Nordic” cuisine thus far has been the rage of the new decade since last year when Rene Redzepi’s hyper-local cuisine at Noma in Copenhagen supplanted El Bulli as the world’s “best” restaurant according to the annual San Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine rankings.

Best restaurant in the world or not, it is a fascinating place, almost a laboratory like El Bulli, just with fewer gels and foams. In fact, Chef Redzepi runs the new Nordic Food Lab on a houseboat in Copenhagen, discovering new scientific-gastronomic interactions between Nordic ingredients. At the same time however, there seems to now be the expected backlash against this philosophy of foraging, Nordic ingredients, and the ever-present “dirt” on your plate. The same happened with El Bulli and molecular gastronomy, where critics soon tried to play down the spherical olives at El Bulli, and detested the sight of any foams on a plate.

Despite Pete Wells of The New York Times‘ rave review of Noma co-founder Mads Refslund ‘s New Nordic cooking at Acme in New York last week, this week Ryan Sutton of Bloomberg was not a fan. The always sharply opinionated Josh Ozersky this week also played down the role of naturalism in cuisine that Noma is so passionate about.

On the other side, just to show the importance of Redzepi on overall global culture today, the chef on the cover of Time, though for some absurd reason not on covers in the U.S.

Is New Nordic cuisine the next molecular gastronomy where it is the worldwide phenomenon and then chefs soon start rebelling against it. In short, a little bit because the emphasis on foraging and preparations like “dirt” will grow quickly tiresome much like how El Bulli turned kitchens into labs. However, unlike molecular gastronomy which is merely a concept that can be concocted anywhere, New Nordic cuisine is meant for and can only be truly interpreted in the Nordic countries. It is a cuisine based on the ingredients available in the harsh climate of Northern Europe. If a New Nordic restaurant opened in L.A., it could not possibly be the same. That restaurant could interpret the preparations and even important Nordic ingredients, but no, it cannot be the same.

New Nordic cuisine is close, if not already a worldwide phenomenon, and its critics have already arrived with its spread. Really though, everyone should understand just what a phenomenal concept it is and the creativity behind it from Nordic chefs like Mr. Redzepi.

Le Plat du Jour: Wednesday March 21, 2012

Spring is here, which means it’s one of the best times of the year for seemingly everything. The snow will soon be melting. March Madness basketball leads to opening day for baseball. Movies? Ok, well this is the slow time for film season, so catch up on the classics or see the new season of “Mad Men.” Of course Spring means Spring Break, so perhaps off to Cancun or Key West next week?

But at the bistro, it means the end of root vegetable season and the arrival of bright, beautiful Spring produce. I was thinking this morning what will I be most excited to see at the Farmers Market tomorrow?

Strawberries: Already seen these at a few places. Nothing can beat a plump, as red as Santa’s suit strawberry. Plain, with chocolate, or better yet in my favorite chocolate-strawberry tart with walnut crust, the classic Spring fruit.

Asparagus: The classic Spring vegetable. The perfect side, steamed or grilled, or use the tips in rice and pasta stir fries. I particularly love them in an asiago based risotto with caramelized scallops. White asparagus in parts of the world reach their peak in about a month. I remember being in Munich right when the first white asparagus arrived. They thrive apparently in Bavaria and every restaurant insisted I try them. On their own they are sensational. Unfortunately most restaurants drowned them in hollandaise sauce. Nothing wrong with hollandaise, just that it completely covers up the wonderful asparagus below it.

Fava Beans: Perfect with a nice chianti…or in a puree or with the beans, shelled, and used in salads or pastas. Fava bean puree on a crostini may be the the single greatest hors d’oeuvres created.

Artichokes: Saw some fresh ones in the Artichoke belt recently (Watsonville-Castroville-Pescadero in Northern California). Perfect on their own, in salads, or like at the famed Duarte’s Tavern, pureed for a soup.

Carrots: FnB Restaurant in Scottsdale’s chef Charleen Badman is a wizard with vegetables. Last week she used the fresh carrots as a foil to dill, oil cured olives, feta and snap peas for a perfect spring fish heavily influenced by Greece.

Rhubarb: Under appreciated, great for desserts and sweeter sauces with fish or meat. Ray’s Boathouse near Seattle has an excellent recipe for salmon with a rhubarb compote and balsamic marinated strawberries. Very simple, very delicious, very Spring.

Peas: Eat your peas! Fresh, beautiful peas add crunch, color, and even a touch of sweetness to a side or sauce. I still vividly remember my lamb chop at The Kitchin in Edinburgh years ago with about 4 different variations of pea sauces and sides involved. The dish was as green as Ireland.


Also on this Wednesday, Marilyn Hagerty, America’s favorite food critic, reviews New York legend Le Bernardin.

I’m guessing Grand Forks doesn’t have any Eric Riper caliber chefs, but you never know.

Michael Bauer of The San Francisco Chronicle raises an excellent point that has already frustrated me: how inept restaurant websites can be. At least 25 % of websites make it impossible to find the hours and days of operation. Even worse, many restaurants feature flashy minute long introductions and exotic texts and graphics that make your computer crash. Keep it simple, most visitors just want to know who is the chef, what’s on the menu, where are you located, and when are you open.

Finally, the return of “Mad Men” tonight means a return to stuff whiskey drinks as The New York Times writes. Time for that Manhattan or old-fashioned!