Meet Me in St. Louis…to Eat! A Day of Mexican Food at La Vallesana and Chava’s

By Eva Pearlstone

Welcome to St. Louis!  For those of you who don’t call this city home, you probably know St. Louis as the home of the Arch, the Cardinals, and the Anheuser-Busch brewery.  Growing up in the suburbs, I didn’t get to go downtown very often.  It is an unfortunate fact that the county of St. Louis and the city are practically segregated from each other.  The county folk will venture to the city on occasion to see the zoo, the Science Center, or a Cardinals game, but mostly they stay away.  It’s a real shame, too, because most of the culture, and the food, that makes St. Louis so great is downtown.

After starting a new job in Illinois, I knew I needed to move closer to work.  In relatively short order, I settled on an apartment in Soulard, an area known for its bars and for the Soulard Farmer’s Market, which has been operating since the 1840’s.  After a life in the suburbs, I was excited to live somewhere interesting, and to get away from the malls and the usual dining options.  Living here almost 3 months has revealed a treasure trove of small, unique, and excellent restaurants that cater to every taste and budget.  Acting on a friend’s recommendation, I checked out some of the Mexican restaurants in the area first.  Something about the warmer weather makes me crave margaritas, tacos, and outdoor seating.  I want to highlight my two favorites thus far, one of which is better for lunch and the other for dinner.

Lunch: La Vallesana

Located at the intersection of Cherokee and California streets, La Vallesana is in a predominantly Hispanic area of town.  I say this is a lunch place for two reasons: they don’t serve alcohol, and I know that this is not the best area at night.  The boyfriend and I chose to sit on the patio (which is covered) since it was warm and sunny, and the inside of the restaurant appeared pretty dark and empty.  The patio was the popular choice this particular day, and we were lucky enough to get the last available table.  First, drinks.  I ordered a horchata, which I had read was the best in the city prior to coming here.  I was not disappointed.  Not only is it delicious and authentic, the serving size is way more generous than I was expecting.  I was glad I chose the medium (they only come in medium and large).  It was at least 20 ounces, and the cost was the same as a regular soft drink.  The creaminess paired well with the spicy food, but I almost couldn’t finish it. My man ordered a Coke, which turned out to be Mexican Coke – a pleasant surprise as it is pretty difficult to find in St. Louis.  La Vallesana also offers a number of different agua frescas, which I definitely plan to try on my next visit.

The menu at La Vallesana features tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and tortas, all of which can be prepared with a variety of meats that range from the safe choices (carne asada, carnitas) to a little more adventurous.  I didn’t have the courage to try the lengua (tongue) or the cabeza (cow head).  Perhaps next time.  We settled on three of the tacos, each with a different meat, and a chorizo torta.  The torta was a large sandwich featuring my meat of choice with lettuce, pico de gallo, cilantro, cheese, guacamole and mayonnaise on a soft Mexican roll that was toasted to a delightful crispiness.  It was messy, but the remnants of chorizo and pico de gallo were easily scooped up by the obligatory complimentary tortilla chips.  As for the tacos, it was all about the authenticity – two corn tortillas, meat, onions, and cilantro.  Red and green sauces are served alongside.  We sampled three different selections: carne asada, carnitas, and carne adobada.  My favorite of these was the adobada, which was smoky and slightly spicy.  The carne asada lacked flavor, but the red and green sauces helped with that.  I’m not normally a corn tortilla kind of girl, but these were super soft and had a milder flavor than most other corn tortillas I’ve had.  All meats were tender and well-cooked, and the meat to tortilla ratio was enough to fill us up even though the tortillas themselves were small.

We didn’t have room for dessert, but the menu features a wide selection of paletas (popsicles) and ice creams with traditional flavors like spicy mango, guava, and coconut.  Just another reason to return soon.

Dinner: Chava’s

The first time I went to Chava’s, it was a Saturday night.  Now might be an opportune time to explain the Soulard food and drink scene.  This neighborhood comes alive on the weekends.  All the cute little bars and restaurants become loud, fun, and full to the brim with people.  Chava’s is no exception.  Once we made it through the door, it was standing room only for a good 20 minutes before we were finally able to get seats at the bar.  This place is not for the claustrophobic.  As for the drinks, you are missing out if you don’t order at least one margarita here.  They are large (16 oz) and come in a wide variety of fruit flavors, most of which are blended from real fruit.  I had one traditional lime on the rocks, and one blended strawberry margarita. The strawberry was a little too sugary for my taste, but if you are into fruity, girly drinks, go for it.

Food-wise, this place is definitely Tex-Mex.  As soon as you sit down, you are greeted with the complimentary chips and salsa.  Their salsa is heavier on the onion (green and white onions are used) than most places, but it is very fresh.  The chips are nothing to write home about, but it’s always nice to have some salt to balance out the margaritas.  For the main courses, Chava’s does not skimp on portions.  Their build-it-yourself burritos are huge, as are their salads.  However, I’ve found on my visits there that you cannot go wrong with anything deep fried.  The beef tacos are simple – ground beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, and what looked to be Parmesan cheese straight from the shaker (the menu does not specify the type of cheese) – but it is the fried flour tortilla shell that really sets them apart.  After a couple margaritas, those tacos are exactly what you want.  That is, if you can eat more than one – they are very filling.  Another unique menu item is called El Mireko.  It consists of two deep fried chicken burritos covered in queso and topped with guacamole.  Not traditional by any means, but delicious nonetheless.   The entrees come with sides of rice and beans, which are both fairly bland, but the main dishes make up for it.

So, there you have it: an introduction to Mexican food in St. Louis.  Both very reasonably priced, both great for casual summer dining.  These are the kind of restaurants I enjoy: family-owned, small operations serving great food.  They’re not trendy, but definitely popular among the people in the community.  If dressing up and drinking wine is more your speed, I’ll be reviewing one of the area’s best restaurants in a couple weeks.  And of course, since the creator of the blog requested it, I’ll have Ted Drewes for you all as well.  Make sure to check it out.

Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill, Poipu, Kauai

It has been a long road back to being the King of Kauai chefs for Jean-Marie Josselin, since the demise a few years ago of his original restaurant in a Kapa’a mini-mall (the one with Safeway directions would always say), the critic’s favorite and universally beloved A Pacific Café. Josselin’s cooking at A Pacific Café was far more than just intriguing fusion for sunburned tourists wanting to taste Hawaiian food without the poi. A Pacific Café was revolutionary. The Hawaiian fusion presented by Josselin was a precursor for the likes we see today where Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco or Zahav in Philadelphia mingle a particular cuisine with influences from worldwide, making a fascinating gastronomic mash up that captivates diners visit after visit. It’s not fusion. It’s a thoughtful, global-minded evolution of a cuisine. A Pacific Café would have been on many of the “best of” lists and the desire of the foodie universe-blogger community that didn’t exist back in 1999. Most upscale restaurants on Kauai at the time were tourist traps along the ocean where the food wouldn’t try to compete with the view. A Pacific Café could’ve been in Studio City or Kansas City, there would be no way to know in that mini mall or in the dining room. The works of art on the plates could’ve held their ground in any major city. Kapa’a isn’t that different from San Francisco after all, they both have prominent Weiland whale murals.

For me, I can safely say Jean-Marie Josselin changed my life. Growing up, I was the opposite of a foodie. I loved frozen taquitos for snacks, egg mcmuffins for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly at lunch. As my family would visit Kauai each spring, my parents would go to A Pacific Café while my brother, my grandmother, and I would order pizza in and watch a movie. My parents would come back describing these masterpiece dishes with magical words in them like “firecracker salmon” and “mahi mahi,” and “ponzu.” Sometime around when I became old enough to go golfing finally, I also became old enough to go to A Pacific Café. A fervent passion for gastronomy ensued and has only increased to this day. Josselin’s mahi mahi with lime ginger sauce was the dish of my gastronomic adolescence, though it was so good our entire family would order it, not sampling much else, since we knew sharing the dish would cause somebody to end in tears. Josselin’s best selling 1992 cookbook A Taste of Hawaii was one of the first cookbooks I ever looked through, in addition to being one of the first cookbooks anybody created combining flavors of the Hawaiian islands with classical techniques (“New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific” says the book).

Josselin started expanding to other islands like his Hawaiian regional cuisine rival Roy Yamaguchi, even branching to Las Vegas with the restaurant 808. For a few years, Josselin created the pinnacle of Hawaiian dining when he took over the Beach House Restaurant, an elegant run of the mill romantic tourist trap with a stunning oceanfront location in Poipu. With the location and Josselin’s cooking, this was the summit of what dining in paradise could be.

Lots of possibilities can drag down a excellent restaurant: the chef becoming complacent, chefs making poor business decisions, over expanding. A chef can’t prepare much though for a nasty divorce. That is what buckled Josselin at the height of his popularity and talent. Gone went the Pacific Cafés and 808. Josselin vanished from the dining scene, breaking our hearts, and all of Hawaii’s.

Then in 2009 came the Shops at Kukui’ula in Poipu. With a 2004-like Red Sox comeback, Josselin bounced back from being throttled by the divorce and emerged with the same exciting cooking in a new format at Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, the master is back, and as good as ever now in 2012.

As the name suggests, Josselin’s follows more of the format you’ll find in Madrid or Barcelona, where have the menu is bite sized tapas to small plates, the other half is larger plates bordering on entrée size. There are no clunkers on the menu. There are some merely good dishes, some very good ones, and some that show a game-changing chef at the top of his game.

In the latter category would actually be two of his large plate preparations. Josselin has always been a master of fish, like with the aforementioned mahi mahi. Here the mahi mahi is sesame crusted, perfectly flaky over Asian noodles, and a stunning pure, but intense nori vinaigrette like you might find in an omakase from a kaiseki master in Kyoto. Possibly even better is the butterfish, as soft as the name suggests from slow cooking, with a soy mirin reduction. This being 2012, pork belly is on the menu surprise, surprise. However, if every pork belly were as luscious and riveting as this one braised for 36 hours, with a glaze of local rosemary orange honey, and julienned apple kimchee that is intriguing as it sounds, pork belly merits its place on every menu.

I couldn’t get enough of the kiawe roasted asparagus with a 61 degree poached egg and applewood bacon, a dish on every menu of every local, neighborhood bistro, but barely any achieve the smoky char from the kiawe wood, or the perfect poached state of the egg with a close, but not quite liquid center. Vegetables continue receiving praises with an avcocado sampler, where the centerpiece comes roasted, in tempura, as a cupcake in the form of mousse, paired with peanut butter. A simple salad is far from that with blistered charred tomatoes, roasted feta, olives, and avocado.

One of two carry-over dishes from A Pacific Café is the firecracker salmon, that slightly resembles a firecracker in appearance from the fish being wrapped in tempura and shaped like a firecracker, but the spice from cucumber kimchee and a sweet-sour sauce doesn’t exactly ignite your palate. The standout tapa is the Kekaha shrimp and duck confit taco topped with a papaya salsa that masterfully weaves Kauai, haute French cuisine, and Mexican street food into one blissful tortilla. Here, Josselin is local, worldly, contemporary, speaking of our time and place. Being the son of a Portuguese father, a German mother, a French trained chef who has made his culinary mark in Hawaii, Josselin comes from an incredible global background, and dish after dish, especially the taco, shows how he successfully applies his upbringing, training, and experiences.

That global background comes through again courtesy of the steamed Kauai shrimp and pork shumai dumplings in a spicy eggplant vinaigrette, again spanning the globe, and beautifully blending surf and turf. It’s a dumpling preparation where the filling actually can be deciphered easily. The other Pacific Café carry-over is the tempura wrapped seared ahi in a wasabi ginger beurre blanc, mixing hot and cold, flash and old school continental, vintage Josselin. The only slight misses came at the very start. Scallop pillows lack a defining taste in a somewhat weak cardamom coconut broth and the excellent short rib steamed buns could hold their own in any dim sum, but is too bready, needing more of a filling. Don’t skip dessert despite all these tapas. There are some textbook profiteroles with an incredible vanilla bean ice cream filling, topped with a chocolate sauce that could be drunk. Or the good chocolate souffle cake that becomes excellent from the excellent roasted banana sauce that steals the show.

The large plantation style room with an open kitchen on one side and large open windows around the rest on the second level of Kukui’ula can get very loud from the hardwood floors and the packed tables. To make matters worse, since this is a tapa-focused restaurant, each table is twice the size as normal ones with a grand lazy susan in the center for sharing. It’s a great idea and very useful, but also makes normal conversation impossible.

With this being a tapa-focused restaurant, pacing for servers and the kitchen becomes a problem as well, with usually too many plates coming at once, and then breaks where nothing is on the table for too long. After the first round we had to request for the pace to be slowed down. The other slightly annoying matter is that menus don’t appear until after the sangria cart swings by, so you don’t know whether you want another cocktail, or a glass of wine, or to go for the sangria. The sangria server needs to take a lesson from the maître d’s of France or New York power dining rooms where they proudly display the champagne and caviar cart like their own children. Here, she was so shy displaying the sangria I didn’t even know she was addressing our table. If you go for the sangria, the traditional red and the lychee are both superb. Do avoid the overly sweet pomegranate version at all costs.

We are fortunate that there are happy endings in this world. It was heart-breaking to see Josselin forced to leave Kauai. Luckily for the Garden Island, the master is back, and better than ever.

Beer of the Week: The Beers of Hawai’i

Hawaii conjures thoughts of mai tais, guava juice, pina coladas, maybe even pineapple wine from Maui.

But beer?

When we go to the beach, we want to look trim and fit from coconut water diets, not the beer belly gut.

However, it can’t get much better than a can of Maui Brewing Co.’s Big Swell IPA on the beach. The Lahaina based brewery has followed the likes of Oskar Blues and 21st Amendment in producing their beers in cans to avoid direct sunlight, a key skill in Hawai’, preserving the beer better from brewery to consumption. The other great part of canned beer, not too important in Colorado or San Francisco, is that they are safe to enjoy on the beach (no glass!).

That Big Swell IPA is a perfect rendition of the genre, complex and refreshing, without too many hops at just 50 IBU. The most intriguing beer is the CoConut Porter, a little lighter than the typical porter. Lots of coffee notes involved and a touch of coconut that makes the porter seem a bit sweeter in the end. Maui Brewing also makes a Bikini Blonde Munich helles style lager and the Mana Wheat Ale infused with pineapple. Pineapple, coconut…this is Hawaii beer.

The most well known Hawaii brewery is the Kona Brewing Co. on the Big Island. The Fire Rock Pale is an excellent refresher, crisp, almost like an amber ale. Unfortunately the Lavaman Red Ale is very vague, lacking any defining taste. Kona Brewing Co. exports its Longboard Island Lager to the mainland, available everywhere from Von’s in my college town of Claremont, CA to the O.Co Coliseum in Oakland, home of the Oakland A’s…I’ll probably avoid this lager because of its connotation for me with the truck garage that is the Coliseum. Other beers from Kona include the Wailua Wheat, the Pipeline Porter, and the Big Wave Golden Ale.

The islands’ newest and largest craft brewery is Hawai’i Nui, in Hilo on the Big Island, which also bottles for Mehana Brewing. Mehana makes an award winning Mauna Kea Pale Ale, Volcano Red Ale (sense a trend in the naming…), Humpback Golden Ale, and the A’lala Hawaiian Crow Porter. Hawai’i Nui crafts an exceptional Hapa Brown Ale, much more robust than a Newcastle, but not heavy, very deserving of its World Beer Cup Silver Medal in 2010 and the winner in 2010 in the U.S. Open Beer Championship for American Brown Ales. I enjoyed the slight notes of toast and a very good head to start off the pint. Other beers from Hawai’i Nui include the Kauai Golden Ale, Sunset Amber Ale, Southern Cross Belgian Style Double Red Ale (can you memorize that), and the Tsunami IPA, a big wave of hops.

Kauai used to have a west shore microbrewery in the Waimea Brewing Co., but its equipment has been sold to new owners and will open shop very soon nearby in Port Allen…that will have to wait until the next Kauai trip.

In the land of mai tais, the craft brewery movement has arrived, perfect when its time for a pint on the beach or afterwards watching the sunset.

Wine of the Week: 2010 St. Supéry, Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon blanc has a very bad reputation, often overly crisp, too thin, the white that serves as the opposite to chardonnay’s overly thick, buttery, oaky notes.

St. Supéry, the Napa Valley winery of the Skalli winemaking family of France, produces some of the rare Napa Valley sauvignon blancs that possess life and hold up to any food or on its own before dinner or during a party. I can’t think of a better white to sip during a dinner party in fact.

The 2010 sauvignon blanc I enjoyed recently at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in San Francisco brings an initial aroma of acidic citrus like lime or grapefruit, conjuring up thoughts of some of the great sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. The wine is youthful and lively, but also very smooth. Flavors balance perfectly with a hint of fruit mingling with a salty clarity and a bit of a woody note too. It’s not a fascinating wine, rather simple, but so enriching with or without a meal.

St. Supéry is an excellent choice to visit as well, one of the few Napa wineries that has terrific reds AND terrific whites to taste, with the sauvignon blancs being the showstopper. I last visited in 2010 and remember having excellent sauvignon blancs…though I doubt this 2010 was on offer. Either way, St. Supéry provides a great reason to return to sauvignon blanc.

Plat du Jour: Wednesday April 11, 2012

Today’s catch of the day seems to be all about economics. Marginal utility, supply and demand, Keynesian cross, labor markets, incentives, oligopoly…I’ve always said and still believe the most useful class I ever took was high school Economics AP. Don’t quiz me on what most of these terms mean, but at least I still remember the buzz words!

Innovation and entrepreneurship are pivotal to economic success. These whiskey soapstone rocks will solve the problem of having drinks on the rocks diluted from the ice melting (what, ice melts?). Many of today’s mixologists claim that they freeze their ice or cut the ice in a way that it doesn’t melt…as fast. Guess what, ice melts, ruining drinks. That has been one of my biggest pet peeves with cocktails for a long time and is why my family got me these actually for Christmas last year. It’s a brilliant, innovative idea, that solves a distinct problem. Now, mai tais can remain cold and you still taste the pineapple-rum concoction. Whenever I go to bars and restaurants now, I almost always ask which drinks are served up and which on the rocks. Unless there’s a compelling case for a cocktail on the rocks, which I must down within ten minutes to avoid it tasting like water and juice, I always have cocktails served up. Problem solved now with these rocks that don’t melt. As to the whiskey straight on the rocks. Easy solution, just don’t have it served with these kinds of rocks that don’t melt. There are always plenty of rocks that do melt. Just don’t put them in my cocktail.

With Passover continuing this week, here’s an excellent economic dilemma: the matzo industry.

This is certainly a question my Economics AP would’ve presented to us. Here’s an industry that essentially is relevant for one week a year. Yet it is extraordinarily vital for that week. Then there are the barriers to entry: the kosher laws, the major company that almost owns the industry. Here we see more innovation with the little guys presenting variations on matzo, from sesame seeds to vegan. The greatest matzo recipe I’ve ever enjoyed is the addictive chocolate matzo one of my college friends makes each Passover. It could be a pastry at Pierre Hermé. Somehow I need to convince her for the recipe.

For our economics lesson, we need some economic theory on cooking and dining out from an economist and passionate foodie. We can talk all day about whether or not his theories are true. He’s wrong in that what is simple on a menu is best. Ever had a good salmon with lemon butter? He’s right in that immigration has absolutely helped the tastes of this country and walk into an Ethiopian restaurant filled with Ethiopians, and chances are it will be very authentic and satisfying.

Then the other side of economics: labor, where labor means jobs. Then there is the labor of just getting a job. And the labor of getting a job doing what you want to do, which for many including yours truly, is food writing. I also have always wanted to be a news or sports broadcaster. All through school everyone encourages you to connect with this person and practice like this. Then in college when it’s almost time to seek post-graduate jobs, the main advice you receive is: don’t go into broadcasting. Very enlightening.

The same goes for food writing. I’ve been told to write this, contact this newspaper or this chef. I applied and interviewed with Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. I wrote reviews for the college newspaper. I interned at the SF Weekly for the food section, and even wrote a 56 page thesis in French on the decline of formality in restaurants. Of course then upon graduating…the advice is like with broadcasting…you don’t want to go into this industry.

Former New York Times writer and Food52 editor Amanda Hesser yesterday wrote an excellent and helpful, though very discouraging article about her advice for aspiring food writers. Ultimately, the advice is don’t go into this industry, BUT if you want to, then understand the challenges you’ll face. With blogs, anybody can write, and those with the right voice, the right skills and the right passion can become the next Craig Claiborne. The food writing industry, like broadcasting, isn’t dying. It’s just vanishing from one medium and shifting to another. John T. Edge of The New York Times told me some excellent wisdom last summer that lots of food writers write about the same things: I ate here, I cooked this…the key is to find your niche and dig into that niche. Anybody who reads John’s articles knows how he has his niche and is brilliant telling stories within the niche of the creative small business purveyors and chefs of this country. Hopefully our platform here can continue finding its niche delivering and discovering insight into what defines our global food community and the many food and drink cultures, businesses, and traditions that we can learn from to make each meal a memorable one. Then in ten years…we may replace Pete Wells at The New York Times. I think the key piece of advice for everyone, food writer or not, is to never give up on your dreams.

That’s it for this economic Wednesday, see you Thursday!

Tuesday Project: Roy’s Blackened Island Ahi

After writing about the struggles of the Merriman’s “signature” ahi, let’s look at a very successful signature ahi dish from Roy Yamaguchi, his Blackened Island Ahi with Beurre Blanc and a Spicy Soy Mustard Sauce.

The first key is to have high grade ahi tuna, as ruby red as you can find. The ahi at Roy’s Poipu last week used in the appetizer portion of the dish was practically sparkling it was so pristine.

There is a fair amount of spice in the soy mustard sauce, so don’t go overboard with blackened crust. Make the mustard sauce first since it cools for at least an hour. Don’t skimp either on the butter in the beurre blanc and go heavy on the shallots. It’s a beurre blanc after all, not meant to be a dietetic sauce. Be sure not to start the beurre blanc too early as it must remain warm when plated with the fish, and you don’t want it cooking too long or the butter thins out and the sauce becomes barely relevant.

So, sauces ready, beurre blanc not cooked. Roll the ahi in the blackened seasoning, covering the filets, but not more than a very thin layer. With a very, very hot skillet, sear the ahi about 20 seconds per side…it is amazing how quickly a hot pan can turn the ahi from rare to medium rare, and trust me, you do not want medium rare.

Quickly put the seared ahis on one plate. Then plate the beurre blanc and top it with the ahi. Then add the soy mustard sauce, which Yamaguchi likes to artistically dot around the white beurre blanc. You can have a mound of steamed rice as a side, I prefer some soba noodles or even just green beans or cauliflower below the ahi, with some fresh bread to help absorb the sauce. And finally, do not forget the pivotal pickled ginger garnish atop the fish.

A classic ahi preparation that doesn’t take too much time, but takes tremendous delicate care when searing. Fresh fish, a little spice…at least for a few moments you can pretend to be eating in Hawaii!

Plat du Jour: Tuesday, April 10, 2012

We’re back from Kauai, always a challenge to realize that every day this week won’t be filled with mai tais, pineapples, beaches, and golf. It’s now time to reflect on the lessons learned from Kauai’s emerging food community and restaurant scene. This week we’ll have a review of what I consider the four main restaurants of Kauai, starting with Merriman’s Poipu today, along with Friday a round up of the markets and food shops visited on the Garden Island, the best tastes of the week, and yesterday’s neighborhood article on Kukui’ula. Tomorrow we will also start our hopefully many articles to come from guest voices sharing their food communities, recipes, and insight on the food and drink world, beginning with the wonderful city of St. Louis, Mo.! (Meet Me in St. Louis…)

While away last week, the calendar turned to April, and for avid baseball fans such as yours truly, that meant opening day finally arrived to end the dark winter season of sports. My beloved Red Sox finally won their first game of the year last night after numerous bullpen collapses over the weekend.

In honor of baseball starting, here are some of my picks for the best foods to eat at ballparks across the country. Since 2003, my Dad and I have visited two or three new stadiums per season, adding up to a total now of 25 present stadiums where we have watched baseball (and eaten). Only Minneapolis, Miami, Tampa Bay, Houston, and Arlington, TX remain on the list (though the two Texas stadiums will not be on that list much longer…). Yes, ballpark food is overpriced and often very unhealthy, greasy, and underwhelming. And it’s a pain to eat in a cramped seat on a hot day or a cold night. But really, it’s baseball. Anything will taste good when you’re at the ballpark (as long as the Red Sox play better than last September!).

Speaking of the Red Sox:

Fenway Park, Boston: I’m a sucker for Fenway Franks. To me they actually do have more flavor, are plumper, and juicy but not too much so compared to other regular hot dogs. Legal Seafoods clam chowder is a great choice in April or the RemDawg (for announcer Jerry Remy) on Yawkey Way. Be sure to have a pint of the Green Monsta IPA by Wachusett Brewing Co. and cheer for A Gon, Papi, and Lesta’. Fenway happens to have exceptional food choices for a ballpark area from the Sausage Guy or Ken Oringer’s La Verdad Taqueria on Landsdowne to Island Creek Oysters, and really any place in the Back Bay is walking distance.

Citi Field, New York Mets: Home of Danny Meyer. That means Shake Shack and Shake Shack lines. No lines though for the excellent bbq sandwiches at Blue Smoke, the only place to get the also terrific Blue Smoke ESB Ale by Brooklyn Brewery. My broadcasting mentor Ted Robinson, a former Mets voice and New York native, led me a few years ago to the Mama’s of Corona stand for the excellent Italian sandwiches there at Shea. The stand is now at Citi Field. Some of the big league’s best food is at Citi Field, and hey at this moment, the Mets are undefeated!…

Yankee Stadium, New York: If you’re in the luxury boxes, I hear the food is spectacular from Morimoto, April Bloomfield, and other chefs. In the regular seating, go for the wok fried Asian noodles in the Great Hall, a Nathan’s hot dog, or the not cheap Lobel’s prime rib sandwich.

Citizen’s Bank Park, Philadelphia: Possibly the best for food and beer outside of San Francisco. Tony Luke’s roast pork with broccoli raab? The Schmitter? All excellent choices. Terrific beer from local stalwarts like Victory and Flying Fish.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore: One of the greatest crab cakes of my life. Baltimore must really know crab cakes if their ballpark even makes one this full of crab. Boog’s BBQ in rightfield is easily the most popular choice.

Nationals Park, Washington D.C.: See Citi Field above for Meyer, Danny choices. The outfield has a great Jamaican jerk chicken barbeque stand, freshly grilled, the envy of everyone around me. Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, and other local craft brews are available, but require a search to the leftfield scoreboard restaurant’s bar. Like at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the half smoke from Ben’s concession stand are only decent, the chili still thin and weak.

Turner Field, Atlanta: A horrid beer selection and the food isn’t much better. Atlanta’s local Sweetwater Brewery is sometimes available at one or two places. Some games the Chick Fil A is open, not that it is an upgrade over hot dogs. In the centerfield plaza, interesting hot dogs can be found such as the vidalia onion relish and cole slaw covered Georgia dogs, or others slabbed with heart attack toppings.

Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati: Every time, the bbq pulled pork sandwich from Montgomery Inn. Nothing else compares. Go to Graeter’s for ice cream after the game.

Progressive Field, Cleveland: Bratwurst with brown mustard. Save room and dine nearby at Lola or Greenhouse Tavern after the game.

PNC Park, Pittsburgh: Beautiful ballpark, poor team. Of course the famed Primanti Bros. sandwiches are the thing to get here, filled with meat, french fries, and cole slaw, all in one. Or think barbeque  at Manny Sanguillen’s barbeque pit, the chief pitmaster rival in baseball to Boog Powell in Baltimore.

Rogers Centre, Toronto: Don’t remember any special food. I do remember having a LaBatt Blue for the novelty of it in Ontario.

Comerica Park, Detroit: Terrible food options made me starve myself and eat a stale salad at a nothing Greektown eatery afterwards. The chili cheese coney dogs are signature Detroit though and not too bad for a snack.

Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs: No memory, but probably just had sausages and/or hot dogs. Just drink Old Style, America’s favorite craft brew.

U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago White Sox: Home to Chicago’s worst pizza. I love the outfield showers and organ music though.

Miller Park, Milwaukee: Why of course, bratwursts from Klement’s! Miller is acceptable to drink here too.

Busch Stadium, St. Louis: Excellent fresh grilled Italian sausages with peppers and onions. Toasted ravioli? Not that good in restaurants or the stadium. Budweiser on draft. Better idea: bring sandwiches from the Italian delis on The Hill like Amighetti’s and Adriana’s.

Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City: BBQ beef sandwich from Gates BBQ, almost as good as what you’ll find even at Arthur Bryant’s. One of the best ballpark dishes in the country.

Coors Field, Denver: Haven’t found any great food here, the Rocky Mountain oysters taste of nothing but fried batter. The beer selection is excellent with choices from Oskar Blues and Boulder Beer, and even a few beers brewed at the stadium available at the Sandlot Brewery in rightfield.

Safeco Field, Seattle: The Ichi-roll or any sushi. The Ivar’s salmon sandwich is very acceptable too. The stadium to go to for salads too.

O.Co Coliseum, Oakland: I’ve been stuck going to this atrocious stadium since I was one month old. Beer selection is pretty decent, with the likes of Lagunitas IPA up in the West Side Club, open to the public. The bbq sandwiches by Kinder’s are fine, but I always have the Louisiana hot link at the Saag’s Sausages stand.

At&T Park, San Francisco: The premier place to eat and drink in the big leagues. The centerfield plaza’s Krazy Krab sandwich could be a lunch item from Michael Mina. There is a new Anchor Brewery beer garden out there this season, go for the Liberty Ale on draft. There are of course Boudin clam chowder sourdough bowls, excellent sausages at Say Hey! Sausages, and dessert must be Ghiradelli’s ice cream sundaes. A little beer advice: It’s less expensive and the selection up to nearly two dozen craft brews on draft downstairs at the Public House by Willie Mays Plaza. Yes, you have further to walk with the beer, but it’s worth it.

Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles: I said this time and time again as a food critic in L.A. Dodger Dogs aren’t good. Sorry folks. Sandwiches from Canter’s are however worthwhile. Last time I was here I just had a pretzel and grapes the choices were so bad. Perhaps Magic Johnson will change this? My greatest food memory at Dodger Stadium was bringing one of my broadcast mentors in the press box, a Giants announcer, a bowl of udon from Sanuki No Sato, since his flight came in late and missed our lunch.

Angel Stadium, Anaheim: Nothing to write home about. The excellent Beachpit BBQ stand is gone now. At least Fat Fire is on draft…at over $11.

Petco Park, San Diego: Excellent fish tacos are all I remember, but everyone seems to eat before or after in the Gaslamp Quarter.

Chase Field, Phoenix: The options are no better at the D’backs home park than at Spring Training parks. The best beer is from Gordon Biersch. Maybe Chris Bianco can serve some pizza, Chris Curtiss some sandwiches, and Nobuo Fukuda some sushi in the future?

Alright, play ball!

Speaking of ballpark food, when I go to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, I’ll have to try this or at least see it. Everything is bigger in Texas I guess.

Chicago Magazine just released its new restaurants issue. Again, I am no expert on the Chicago restaurant scene, but I do appreciate reading about it. Chicago is no second city in food.

And finally this Tuesday, on the plane back from Kauai I read about this super fruit, the kerela (in the final paragraph). Perhaps like they do in Kerala, India, we should have some kerelas before eating that Champion Dog at Rangers Ballpark.

Happy Tuesday, tomorrow we’ll have a review of Josselin’s Kauai, insight on St. Louis, plus Wednesday’s Wine and Beers of the Week!

Merriman’s Poipu, Kauai

What exactly is Hawaiian regional cuisine? That is the great question when dining in the restaurants of the “fathers” of this cuisine, be it Roy Yamaguchi at his two dozen nationwide restaurants, or like our President at Alan Wong’s Honolulu stalwart, or Jean-Marie Josselin’s riveting tapas on Kauai, and since 1988 at Peter Merriman’s flagship in Waimea on the Big Island. Prior to this past week, I had sampled many of the dishes from Yamaguchi, Wong, and Josselin, both in the 90’s during the peak of the fusion revolution when their creations were copied coast to coast and you could find blackened ahi tuna in wasabi soy even in Helena, Montana. Recent visits to all three have shown not only no wear and tear over the past decade, but that they have in many cases cut down on expansion to sharpen their focus (Yamaguchi), avoided expansion despite being the choice du jour of the President and the Foodie elite (Wong), and gone through a nasty divorce, expanded, then lost all restaurants, and re-invented his restaurant style while staying true to his style of cooking (Josselin).

Then there is Merriman, now trying to follow Roy’s blueprint and put a foothold on each island. The emerging empire began on the Big Island, then shifted to Maui, and now has landed in the impressively gourmet shops at Kukui’ula, in Poipu, on the south shore of Kauai, steps away from Josselin’s new restaurant, and only a half mile from Yamaguchi’s Kauai outpost.

Game on?

Unfortunately, it’s more like the Pirates vs the Yankees for Merriman against the others if recent dinners are any example of what has been brought to Kauai. Let’s use ahi preparations as an example to compare each of the four fathers of Hawaiian regional cuisine, since all four consider their ahi creations as “signature.” Oh, how the word “signature” can be an excellent business choice much like everyone loves to see “homemade” or “Mom’s” or “famous.” Menu politics are fully at work at Merriman’s with his “signature wok char ahi.”Josselin beautifully fries his ahi sashimi in tempura, then serves it over an invigorating ginger beurre blanc. Yamaguchi’s blackened ahi comes ruby red atop a spicy mustard soy butter sauce. Wong’s nori wrapped tempura ahi with papaya ginger relish and soy mustard sauce should be the state dish of Hawaii.

And this signature wok char ahi at Merriman’s? It is nothing more than cold, limp, barely maroon colored sashimi as if it were served at a supermarket, atop a bed of cabbage slaw that seems more appropriate at a dive sports bar, and a wasabi soy dipping sauce that will move you like a five hour drive thru Iowa. For $38? Unacceptable. To call this a signature dish is both an embarrassment for Merriman to consider this his premier dish and highway robbery for diners expecting something remotely like at Roy’s or Alan Wong’s. Even worse, you can order a half portion of that ahi, at 3.5 ounces compared to 7 ounces I was told, for $32. $32 for an appetizer size of this ahi is plain wrong. It’s a crime really.

In fact, I swear Merriman’s must be run by the mob or just have somebody in charge of the pricing to quality to size ratio who is out get the diners or has no idea what he is doing. The same half portion concept applies to all fish dishes. Yes, some people do want smaller portions. No people don’t want to just donate money to Merriman’s as if it were a charity. The duo option where you choose two fish dishes for your entrée is an even worse deal at $46. Diners may as well do as we did and just share the large plates. I’m not usually one to snipe about prices, but in this case Merriman’s business practices are simply unfair and hurting their own business if the half empty dining room on a Friday night is any indication and how every local points you towards Roy’s or Josselin’s for special occasion dinners.

That being said, a good meal is still very possible at Merriman’s. Skip the ahi and go for the crispy day boat mahimahi, perfectly glazed with a soy citrus marinade conjuring thoughts of Nobu’s miso black cod, and a sesame grilled shitake relish. Merriman seems to have a fascinating talent of crusting the fish magnificently, whether it’s sesame seeds on opah over a spicy lilikoi sauce lacking the spice but saved by a papaya tomato relish, or a terrific macadamia nut crusted monchong, flaky at the touch of a fork, over a too greasy sake mushroom reduction. Other fish dishes are far less riveting– herb grilled ono with lemon caper sauce or Kauai Shrimp Scampi? I’ll take the monchong.

This being Kauai, fish should be the route to take, but meat lovers can go for the $48 16 oz. Kansas City cut rime New York teak with pinot noir butter. The lamb chops come from Colorado, but at least the swiss chard with it is from Kauai, and the creamed sweet corn from the Big Island if that matters to you. The history of the ingredients is so important on the menu that the seafood listing comes with where they were fished. It might be interesting for a moment, but ultimately is annoying.

The most impressive dish may actually be of all things, crab cakes, packed with crab like they do in Baltimore, perfectly teamed with cilantro and a papaya mustard. I could go for the coconut green curry steamed Manila clams too, but too many of the clams had already left their shells before arrival at the table. Like the signature ahi, the ahi poke with kukui nut and ogo tastes like nothing in the way that plain tofu does. I appreciated the tomatoes from Kauai in a salad with Moloa’a beets and Kunana Dairy goat cheese also from Kauai, and fresh papaya, but the pieces did not come together, with the macadamia nut vinaigrette too acidic.

That path continues to desserts. Malasadas, Portuguese doughnut holes, come stuffed with coconut and white chocolate, but the two fillings cancel each other out so it tastes like a plain crême anglaise. I’m torn on the crunchy Hawaiian molten chocolate purse. The chocolate filling is pure, rich chocolate, delightful bite after bite. There is too much phyllo dough wrapping the purses though, shifting the dish’s focus to being phyllo dough with some chocolate, rather than vice versa.

Then there is the service. It was helpful at first with good advice for ordering dishes and the pacing of the meal was fine. However, after every course the plates were removed long before all diners were finished. The sommelier never came until halfway through the meal, long after we were told he would come to help choose wines. The vibe of the restaurant seems a bit more pompous than it should be. In theory the room is elegant, yet really it’s another faux plantation style room. In theory, there’s an ocean view, if you look toward the horizon over empty lots and a golf courses.

In theory, that ahi with wasabi soy dipping sauce is a signature. It shouldn’t be, but sadly, it perfectly represents the dining experience at Merriman’s.

 

Monday’s Neighborhood: Kukui’ula, Poipu, Kauai

Today is the “day after” leaving a week on Kauai, the day where you realize not every day features guava jam on your toast, the dinner choice is fresh ahi or onaga, and the 6 pm hour doesn’t meant prepping mai tais for the sunset. If only every day could be Kauai…

We’ll cover the ups and downs of dining on the Garden Island, which certainly these days are far more positive and certainly exceed ho-hum luau buffets and poi.

I have been very lucky to visit Kauai now 18 times in my young life, though had not been in three years, which means I had not been to the new, impressive Shops at Kukui’ula. This is not a typical neighborhood I usually feature, where the shops, restaurants, parks, and such cover a specific identity with the locals living there. Personality is certainly not an adjective I would use to describe a development like Kukui’ula nor is it meant for locals. It is a shopping, dining, golf course and wealthy condo development made by mainland developers for mainland tourists. The architecture is classic faux 1800’s plantation style, with two story buildings surrounding a central plaza.

Yet, what a rich food neighborhood Kukui’ula is, even if it isn’t really a neighborhood.

The central neighborhood plaza has an excellent farmers market every Wednesday from 4-6 pm, perfect for picking up fresh produce ranging from the exotic (apple bananas, papayas…) to excellent asparagus and tomatoes from Kilauea (why are greens and tomatoes so much better from Kilauea?). I couldn’t stop sampling the coffee jelly or banana foster jam from Monkeypod Jams, made on the island. The Kauai Kunana Dairy, also in Kilauea, features all sorts of excellent chevres, even flavored with sundried tomatoes, and my family used their lemongrass vinaigrette for every salad we made on Kauai.

The centerpiece of Kukui’ula and the force behind the market is the Living Foods Market, the creation of Jim Moffat. Moffat was one of the leading chefs in San Francisco at Slow Club in the 1990’s, but Kauai’s surfing called him to the Islands. A few years ago Moffat opened Bar Acuda, a contemporary tapas spot in Hanalei and last year created Living Foods. As one of the employees of Living Foods, a native of Portland, Ore.,  told me, a native of San Francisco, Living Foods is a small outpost of Portland’s outrageous local food culture. It could be San Francisco too. It’s the Ferry Building on a very small scale. Yet for Kauai, it is a seismic change, and with slightly lower prices could be a place that turns Kauai into the next Copenhagen possibly.

Restaurants abound in Kukui’ula, from Bubba’s Burgers to a contemporary Mexican bar and restaurant, Tortilla Republic, that seems more at home in Scottsdale than Poipu, but earns rave reviews. We’ll cover the two main restaurants, Merriman’s and Josselin’s, from two of the fathers (with Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong, and co…) of Hawaiian regional cuisine, Peter Merriman and Jean-Marie Josselin, later this week, but both reside upstairs, across the plaza from one another in the center of the neighborhood. They seem like the Big Brothers, watching the rest of the neighborhood from high up. Ice cream thrives here courtesy of Lappert’s, home to the second to none Kauai Pie flavor. Spruced up hot dogs with tropical toppings followed by shaved ice? Got that with Uncle’s Shave Ice and Dude Dogs (a clear copy of the nearby institution Puka Dogs). Savage Shrimp used to be a food truck parked nearby, but has made that enormous move in the opposite direction of most chefs these days, serving fresh shrimp in garlic scampi in an actual shop now.

With shops like Hawaiian Salt, Red Koi Collection, and Ocean Opulent Jewelry, this isn’t exactly a food neighborhood in Portland or Brooklyn. With this array of culinary choices from some of Kauai’s leading chefs and food advocates, Kukui’ula counts as an excellent food destination neighborhood. The tourists love it, now hopefully the kama’ainas can benefit from the markets and restaurants of Kukui’ula too.

The Bites of March

The Alembic, San Francisco:The Promissory Note cocktail

A spectacular, mellow blend of Reposado tequila, dry vermouth, canton ginger liqueur, honey, and a brief bite from absinthe. Served up, this is everything you want from a cocktail: some spice, some sweet, some booze notes, all together refreshing and thought-provoking.

Bi-Rite Creamery, San Francisco: Mexican Chocolate with Salted Peanuts flavor

The salted caramel and roasted banana flavors can be the most memorable bites of any month, so we’ll go with the rookie here. Available only in pints, cinnamon meets dark chocolate with some crunch. It’s the perfect teammate to either of Bi-Rite’s legendary flavors.

The Citizen Public House, Scottsdale, AZ: The Original Chopped Salad

So good it has its own facebook page. It looks like a rainbow and has every ingredient of the rainbow. The keys are the buttermilk dressing to add a unifying central taste, the smoked salmon for a unique touch from the usual salad ingredients, and the crunch of the pepitas.

Claudine, San Francisco: Avocado Toast with Dill Gravlax, Lemon, and Spanish Black Radish

The most satisfying lunch possible, especially with the green goddess salad on the side. Pristine smoked salmon, a squeeze of lemon acidity, the bitter radish, the creamy avocado, all on thick, buttery toasted sourdough. I could make this a weekly habit.

Destination Bakery, San Francisco: Irish Soda Bread

I still can’t figure out how to make an Irish soda bread not dry. The folks at Destination Bakery in sleepy Glen Park, known for its busy BART station at rush hour and the excellent pizzeria Gialina, sure have with an excellent special rolled out for St. Patrick’s Day, packed with raisins and carraway seeds. This is sweet and savory baking at its best, perfect with a Guinness.

Flour + Water, San Francisco: Squid Ink Corzetti with Pork Sausage, Clams, and Calabrian Chiles

You could pick any dish at Flour + Water as a stand out. I was fascinated by the corzetti, circular, flat, and large ravioli, stained black by the squid ink, mixed with the rustic taste of the sausage, the ocean notes of clams, and spice from the chiles. A perfect example of what makes Flour + Water some of the most riveting cooking in the country.

FnB, Scottsdale, AZ: Roasted Carrots with Snap Peas, Oil Cured Olives, Dill, and Feta

As beautiful as it tastes, Charleen Badman elevates carrots to unforeseen levels. With the freshness of spring in the snap peas and influenced heavily by Greece’s cuisine, a truly special vegetable side dish from…carrots?!

Gary Danko, San Francisco: Horseradish Crusted Salmon Medallion with Dilled Cucumbers and Mustard Sauce

The key to this dish is the restraint: not too much mustard in the cream sauce but enough to be there, enough horseradish to make you aware but without the overboard nasal kick. Wrapped in brioche, the salmon melts upon the touch of a fork. Excellent signature classic by Chef Danko that hasn’t worn out one bit.

Nopa, San Francisco: Grass fed Hamburger with Pickled Onions, French Fries, and Harissa Aioli

The juiciest of beef patties needs no help, though the teammates of this perfect hamburger elevate this to an even higher level. Nopa has got this down pat, from the meat temperature to the homemade brioche bun that doesn’t let the package fall apart.

Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix: Wiseguy Pizza with Wood Roasted Onions, House Smoked Mozzarella, and Fennel Sausage

Throw a dart and pick your favorite pizza at Bianco, it’s impossible to choose. I’ll side with the Wiseguy today, with its smoky toppings that create a fascinating sensation with the smoky crust, tempered gently by the sweet notes of the onions. No big deal, but maybe the best pizza at the premier pizzeria in the country.

St. Michael’s Alley, Palo Alto, CA: Ahi Tuna Salade Niçoise

Take the greatest salade niçoise and eliminate the decent tuna fish for beautiful ruby red seared ahi tuna. With plenty of hard boiled eggs, green breans, oil cured niçoise olives, this is the perfect entrée salad.

Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco: Smoked Salmon on Rye Toast

It is as it sounds. Add a few capers perhaps. Bite after bite of smoked salmon elegance, enhanced by the funk of the rye base.

Vincent’s on Camelback, Phoenix: Tequila Gold Souffle

No, it doesn’t taste like a margarita. A textbook fluffy souffle meets a creme anglaise enhanced by the sweetness of agave will make everyone forget about what bad souffles and tequila taste like until the next time you have one too many Jose Cuervo shots.