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Archive for February, 2013

Restaurants: Commonwealth, San Francisco

Perhaps chronicling an evening at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Restaurant turned me into a giddy eight year old again, but I feel like starting with dessert. No, that’s not because a doughnut is the first image diners see upon arriving at the restaurant on a still very edgy stretch of Mission Street, a street in the heavily gentrified Mission District where no stretch doesn’t boast a majority of businesses with gated windows. It’s true, Commonwealth’s predecessor at the space was the Hunt’s Donut Shop.

Hunt’s wasn’t exactly the new age style of haute doughnut, perfected across the country from Dynamo in San Francisco to Blue Star in Portland to The Doughnut Plant in New York. Hunt’s doughnuts were meant to be consumed, usually under some influence of something. They were not meant to be eaten and savored. You could get a dozen for a dollar. Talk about a good deal for breakfast each morning, future angioplasties unfortunately cost a bit more later.

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There were eight doughnut shops in the eight block stretch of Mission Street between 16th and 24th Street back in the early 1990’s, long before the Mission was on any dining radar for those seeking a James Beard award winning restaurant experience. Maybe Hunt’s Quality Donuts was the best of the box of eight?

I haven’t found any evidence of that. I have however learned that Hunt’s was the “epicenter of crime” for this area with no shortage of drug dealer, pimps, and whatever else happened at night. Hunt’s operated 25 hour days apparently. We can infer what we want from that.

Restaurateurs today love being archaeologists when creating new restaurants, discovering sketchy pasts, uncovering atmospheric layers that showed the venue once was a saloon, or a warehouse, or a 19th century mansion, or a 1920’s brothel, or in this case, Hunt’s Quality Donuts. Before Commonwealth took over the property, the venue was a Mexican restaurant with an exterior decor of flashy orange tiles that covered the Hunt’s signage.

The doughnuts have departed, and fortunately, so has the “epicenter of crime” stigma here at the restaurant on Mission, just north of 18th Street. The theme of desserts, however, has not left the building.

Housemase Potato Chips and Malt Vinegar Foam

Housemase Potato Chips and Malt Vinegar Foam

The dessert on my mind is Jason Fox’s interpretation of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, which may or may not have been on Fox’s mind when creating the dish. No meal is complete at Commonwealth without the peanut butter semifreddo, coated with chocolate ganache, and garnished by frozen popcorn. It’s been on the menu since Commonwealth opened in the summer of 2010. It seems to appear on every table, one per person. It’s everything a dessert is supposed to be. You will not share it. (more…)


Plat du Jour, Wednesday February 27, 2013: Thoughts on the 2013 James Beard Awards Semifinalists

Lots of news happened the past few weeks (what meteor?) while your faithful writer was on assignment outside of the country (it is amazing how liberating and efficient each day is when traveling without a phone or computer!). For the purposes of this food and drink savvy audience, of course the big news was last week’s unveiling of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards’s restaurant and chef awards semifinalists. The James Beards are considered the “Oscars” of the restaurant world. They are every bit as anticipated by the industry and every bit as controversial. Take your pick as to which is harder: seeing every film made in the year or dining at every restaurant in the country (that would be considered for an award, so Olive Garden doesn’t count).

Rich Table’s Sardine Chips

As a food writer, I’ve probably been to more of the nominated restaurants than the majority of the dining public, but that doesn’t mean I’ve even made a slight dent into the list of semifinalists. I know about most of the chefs and restaurants. I just cannot tell you for instance that Khong River House is a far better experience among the nominated best new restaurants compared to The Whale Wins. I can say that Rich Table would get my vote over Ox and State Bird Provisions, but all of them are very worthy honorees. Maybe The Whale Wins, though, would beat out Rich Table?

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The key to take away from this list and the final winners of the James Beard Awards in May is that this is a more a list taking the pulse of the dining scene right now than it is the Olympics awarding legitimate Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals. If the 2012-2013 season for restaurants showed me anything and is demonstrated by the semifinalists, it’s that creative small plates with lots of modern and ethnic flares are most in vogue and can be found all over the country from Mateo Tapas in Durham, N.C. to Bierbeisl on the outskirts of Beverly Hills.

I’m most excited about the “Outstanding Bar Program” category, the only category that seems very focused and accurate, and the one I’ve actually sampled through roughly half of the nominees and each one is stellar. My personal vote goes to Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, but how dare anybody make me choose that over The Cedars Social in Dallas, Cure in New Orleans, New York’s Pegu Club, or Clyde Common in Portland. Add to that Abbott’s Cellar, the beer bar in San Francisco that has changed everyone’s concept of a beer and food pairing restaurant. (more…)


Tasting Notes: New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO

“I’ll have a Fat Tire and that IPA from Fat Tire.”

I’ve heard that sort of request numerous times from beer drinkers who aren’t even novices to the genre. It’s the craft beer specialty mindset where one specific beer from a brewery achieves such an exalted status that the beer’s name supplants the actual brewery’s.

Quick, who brews Fat Tire Amber Ale? That’s a lot harder to swiftly think about compared to the brewer of the Lagunitas IPA.

Perhaps Lagunitas IPA cannot be included in this discussion, though it very much fits amongst its colleagues for iconic beers. I for one knew about Arrogant Bastard years ago, but had no clue who actually brewed the beer. The same for Black Butte, Pliny, and Fat Tire. These are the flagship beers of the craft beer movement that has swept across the country from beer epicenters like Portland and Denver to the tiniest towns of West Virginia and Delaware (can you think of a Delaware craft brewer? Don’t think too hard.).

Yours truly may almost always be the only writer behind these articles, but trust me, there were others tasters present.

Yours truly may almost always be the only writer behind these articles, but trust me, there were others tasters present.

These are also the beers that are starting to verge on over-expansion. Like with restaurant chefs, craft breweries can very quickly expand its output to too high a level and the product begins to be noticeably compromised. I always use the airport as an example when this really starts to be the case. Just ask Wolfgang Puck. And now, it almost seems you can find Lagunitas IPA and Fat Tire Amber Ale at as many airport bars as Stella Artois and Shocktop.

That’s a good thing in that travelers get decent to good craft beers, instead of the mass produced messes they used to be stuck with. That’s also a bad thing because what were often exceptional, very personal small batch beers are now a fraction of what they once were.

My family, many of whom live near New Belgium in Colorado, treat Fat Tire Amber Ale with the same reverence as John Elway.

IMG_8898After sampling all 17 beers recently on tap at New Belgium’s Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, it’s fair to say Fat Tire is very much in the middle of the pack at its own brewery. It’s not that it’s a poor product. It’s just nothing special. That was a universal opinion. The signature beer of a craft brewery shouldn’t be one you don’t remember at the end of a tasting, even with all of the stouts and Belgians pyrotechnics over the course of the sampling journey. (more…)


Cocktail of the Week: “Things Done Changed,” The Whey Bar, Portland, OR, Plus Other Portland Cocktail Notes

To close out the Portland reports on this Mardi Gras Tuesday, let’s celebrate with an exceptional riff on the classic Pisco Sour courtesy of the holdover room known as The Whey Bar, at NE Portland’s red hot Argentine-Portland inspired cuisine restaurant, Ox.

"The Things Done Changed"

“The Things Done Changed”

The “Things Done Changed” is a force, a glowing sunshine hue with a perfect frothy egg white shaken consistency. The key is the exchange between the smoked lemon and jalapenos with the Pisco, leading to a sensation akin to umami. I noticed some bacon on the palate, but also papaya salsa and bountiful fresh in season citrus without an ounce of bitterness. Unfortunately, the rest of the cocktails didn’t have the same fully locked-in balance or depth at Whey. I was underwhelmed by the “Shipwreck” with Bourbon, Rum, lime, and mint with a dash of Angostura Bitters, and the “Devil in a New Dress” with Tequila, Red Pepper, Combier Orange, Lime, and Mezcal, where the sugary orange notes commanded the proceedings, and  more spice and smoke would have elevated everything much higher.

The standard-bearer of the Portland cocktail scene continues to by Clyde Common, anchored by one of the country’s definitive cocktails, the Barrel-Aged Negroni. It’s deservedly a legend, made poetic by fervent admirers such as yours truly. Beefeater Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari, the classic holy trinity, are aged two months in Tuthilltown Whiskey barrels, then shaken with ice, served up in a coupe, and finished by an orange peel garnish. Somehow those two months of aging add vanilla and squeeze out the rosewater notes of Campari with the Juniper in the Gin, sharpening its focus while softening the edges, and together it soars every time.

Inexplicably, the Negroni was out one night. Hence, I was forced to sample a Boulevardier aged in the same manner, essentially the same drink with Bourbon swapped for the Gin. It’s enjoyable, but still just not the same. The Bourbon doesn’t click in harmony with the other elements as much.

Watch Out What Might Happen When Served This Mezcal Pisco Sour at Clyde Common

Watch Out What Might Happen When Served This Mezcal Pisco Sour at Clyde Common

After numerous visits to Clyde Common, itself also a terrific restaurant attached to the über-hip Ace Hotel, my most recent stop was the first time with Jeffrey Morgenthaler tending the bar. Morgenthaler is the mind behind Clyde Common’s game-changing cocktails and one of the country’s leading “mixologists,” a pioneer for championing barrel aged, bottled, and carbonated cocktails. None of the other cocktails reached the Negroni’s lofty heights, though a version of a Pisco Sour with Mezcal called “I Punched You in the Nut” was close. I asked about the name’s history. Fortunately, it’s only the drink’s name, not what is served as a garnish with it. (more…)


Beer of the Week: Gigantic Brewing Co., Gigantic IPA, Portland, OR, Plus Lots More Beer of the Week Quality Beers Abound in Oregon

I had for the longest time been under the impression that Portland, Oregon only boasted some 45 or so breweries, a runaway winner for the title of city with the highest population of breweries in the country. What a fool I was. Now, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild, the Portland metro area is 68 breweries strong, most of whom (not named Widmer) can be considered microbreweries or much smaller nanobreweries.

At least I’ve made a small dent into those 68 breweries, visiting a dozen or so over time.

IMG_8571The gem of this most recent trip to Portland’s breweries was Gigantic Brewing Co., a not so enormous year old operation from Ben Love and Van Havig that is producing some incredibly gigantic beers.

It’s not easy to craft an IPA that stands out above the competition in this hops to the exponential power mad city. Somehow, Gigantic’s Gigantic IPA is the genre perfected. It is now one of the standards that top tier IPA must be measured by.
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Keeping Portland’s Food Unique (And Sometimes Weird)

Which is the “weirder” city between Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas, the two well-known cities that pride themselves on mottos preaching “Keep Portland (or Austin) Weird.”? That’s hard to say. They’re both truly unique cities in their own (sometimes weird) ways.

Which city has “weirder” food?  Again, spend some time at Portland’s food carts or Austin’s food trailers and you’re bound to find some distinctly quirky creations that usually are equally unhealthy.

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On both sides of the Willamette, north and south, Portland’s dynamic dining scene is certainly no longer a little regional secret. Yet, what is it that necessarily makes Portland such a stand-out? Is it the endless days of rain? Is it the beautiful parks and gardens? Is it the abundant ingredients chefs can grow and buy from within the city and the surrounding areas?

Perhaps, it just might be those brilliant, daring minds of Portland’s chefs who are not afraid to push the envelope. This isn’t a Nathan Myhrvold-Ferran Adrià type of cutting-edge, avant gârde horizon changing type of cuisine. Sous-vide doesn’t even seem too fashionable in Portland compared to the rest of the country. The futuristic techniques and high wire acts fit in the big ticket dining cities. Here, it’s about channeling your passion to the plate.

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It’s that these chefs are so good at finding a particular niche and sprinting away with these fascinating visionary concepts.That is what makes Portland’s unique and weird at times dining scene, truly Portland. (more…)


More Espresso In Portland…Where It Appears To Rain Coffee

It’s not a little known fact that Portland boasts quite the coffee culture. Think about coffee and you imagine  several cities synonymous with either rain or café culture: Vienna, Rome, Buenos Aires, Seattle to name a few.

But, who in the world has 30 coffee roasters within one city? 30. Not a dozen, which even the mightiest of dining scenes like San Francisco and New York  haven’t even reached yet.

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Hey, Portland, Oregon isn’t a normal city when it comes to eating and drinking. After all, those 30 coffee roasters pale in comparison to the hundreds of food carts and roughly 45 microbreweries now.

Starbucks isn’t from here, but Stumptown started on SE Belmont Street. I’ve enjoyed Stumptown roasted beans in New York and obscure San Francisco Bay Area towns. Is Stumptown more Starbucks or one of the little roasters of Portland still?

Heart's Roaster

Heart’s Roaster

Whatever we consider Stumptown, there is no doubt that they led the charge of what is far and away the country’s most dynamic coffee culture. Yes, blue sky is a rare sight. But, it’s not the cloudy days that makes Portland’s coffee roasters and cafés so successful. It’s the people and the companies themselves. If Honolulu had roasters and baristas of this caliber, we’d be rolling up to grab a macchiato after every surf session instead of shaved ice.

Stumptown’s cafes around Portland continue to be local and visitor favorites, whether it’s the hip school hangout at the Ace Hotel, or the original and its annex for cupping at SE Belmont. There is no shortage of competition though for the now nationally well-known pioneer. (more…)