Round Up Around San Francisco– Where Summer Is Winter and Winter Feels Likes Summer

Having grown up in the Bay Area until I ventured to cold weather Ohio for college, I never realized how upside down the seasons are in the city. Though summer produce like fresh tomatoes and peaches still listen (for the most part) to the seasonal calendar, it is amazing how warm January and February are here compared to the actual summer months when the fog rests atop the city for 20 hours a day. After winters in Ohio and France, I’ll take the “summer” winters in San Francisco any day of the week…of course having spent two of the past three winters in Los Angeles, San Francisco seems chilly by comparison.

Now as the calendar shifts towards the heart of spring, the Bay Area weather is shifting towards…winter with rain and cold, gray days. Before it’s time to start preparing for root vegetables and beef stew season I guess, here’s a run thru of the past month’s dining around San Francisco and the Bay Area. For a full review of Gary Danko, visit the previously posted article here.

Zuni Cafe

Judy Rodgers’ now over 30 year old institution on a still slightly gritty stretch of Market that isn’t really in any particular distinguished neighborhood, continues to produce some excellent examples of pure, seasonal Northern California cuisine, a Chez Panisse without the pomp and circumstance, along with cooking the standards that have been ordered by first-timers and regulars for three decades. The roast chicken from the wood oven for two remains mandatory and deservedly so, though the torn bread salad below always seems to steal the show. House cured anchovies with shaved celery satisfy, so does the simply caesar salad, but neither needs to be ordered repeatedly like the chicken, the dense gâteau victoire (a chocolate cake to trump all others), and the fascinating frozen yet not espresso granita. I always go with rookies, so the orders tend to be the same, but this time around I branched out successfully to enjoy the pillow soft Bellweather Farms ricotta gnocchi, served simply with spinach in a pool of butter, enhanced by the crunch of pistachio. Yes, the chicken does take an hour leading to long waits, but service is always very affable and spot on with answering questions. The design of the restaurant is quirky in a good way, leading to some great seats, and some uncomfortable banquette seats with no soft backing on the mezzanine level. Don’t forget the hamburger late night and at lunch, the best in the city. Zuni will thrive for another three decades.

Nopa

After several visits over the past two years, some things are constant at Nopa. Reservations are hard to come by, but are possible if you try for Sundays weeks in advance. The place is always packed with the big swell arriving after 9 pm. The pork chop, in whatever the day’s preparation is, remains the standard to measure all others. Cocktails tend to be very spirit driven, such as the mezcal heavy Manzanita.

New Discoveries? Outside of that burger at Zuni, the best burger in the city, needing no dressing even because of the caliber of beef. On a homemade bun that holds up to the juice dripping grass fed meat perfectly and a few pickled onions, perhaps a dab of harissa aioli meant for the fries and a topping of gruyere cheese, this is a truly magnificent burger. As is the roast chicken, possibly even better than the Zuni version. Here it came atop an addicting pile of bulgur wheat with asparagus, walnuts, and arugula. Flatbread is always mandatory, especially this time when topped with smoked bacon, potatoes, spring onions, and crescenza. The Moroccan vegetable tagine is always a good bet, but seemed to have a more robust broth. The most skillfully created dishes showed the talent chef Jossel has with vegetables: delicate Nantes carrots with a tapenade speaking of Provence and a salad based on toasted farro with avocado, spiced chickpeas, oranges, and some more of those Nantes carrots. The little fried fish are always the perfect nibble and the dessert list short and sweet. Go for the sopapillas or if available, a textbook pecan tart in a strong whiskey sauce with an excellent butterscotch ice cream.

Flour + Water

Two years in and Thomas McNaughton is firing on all cylinders, creating Italian inspired California cuisine or vice versa, at this loud, rustic, corner where modernity meets tradition and the Mission meets No Man’s Land. Pastas are always breathtaking, never straight-forward, often rich but with a gentle touch. Razor thin squid ink corzetti thrives with homemade pork sausage and clams, along with a Calabrian chile blast. So too does the paccheri with polpettine, brilliantly paired with woody broccoli di ciccio and briny taggiasca olives. McNaughton is a master with pizzas, which I consider the best crust in the city, and with Gialina, the best pizza period in the city. You can’t go wrong, especially the funghi pizza with nettles, taleggio cheese, and both black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms. Maybe the most intriguing fish was a citrus and olive oil octopus confit appetizer with the confit made the seafood seem like tuna fish. Atop marinated beets, kohlrabi, and radish, this was a brilliant creation from usually hum-drum ingredients. It’s hard to skip the chocolate budino for dessert with espresso caramel cream and sea salt, even when you can keep eating pasta after pizza. Service has found its groove, the room is great if you don’t mind knowing your neighbors, and come at 8 pm on a Thursday and you may not have to wait, which somehow happened for me.

Claudine

The newest addition to Claude Lane (Gitane, Cafe Claude), a back alley in the Financial District, dominated by the glassed in kitchen and tiny horseshoe front bar, Claudine looks and is a jewel box. Lunch or dinner, be certain to start with the quintessential green goddess salad, given a spring freshness here from pickled spring onions and English cucumbers. If you come for lunch, the must order is a simple sounding open faced tartine, turned into a special occasion from dill gravlax, avocado, and Spanish black radish. It’s as satisfying a lunch there is anywhere.

Swan Oyster Depot

Since 1912, tourist after tourist after local have enjoyed the cracked crab with butter or on a bed of iceberg lettuce with louie dressing, and a pint of Anchor Steam at this Polk Street legend. The 18 stools at the counter means an inevitable line, but it’s always worth it for the classic San Francisco experience. It’s festive with the brusque yet comical Sancimino cousins hosting the eclectic clientele. The clam chowder is excellent but could use more clams. Besides the crab louie, the newest mandatory order is the house smoked salmon on rye bread. You won’t think of smoked salmon the same way again.

St. Michael’s Alley

Palo Alto’s only real stab at high end, California cuisine tends to be a tad stuffy and the preparations too rich and simple at dinner. My first lunch visit recently showed where this institution thrives. The salade niçoise is easily the best I’ve had, bountiful, fresh, with all the mandatory ingredients, plus perfectly seared ahi tuna. The reuben is spot on, even when it comes in a less glutinous (if possible for a reuben…) turkey version. Like the niçoise, salads shine such as the marinated skirt steak and cherry tomatoes one. And do be sure to try the ahi tuna sandwich, where the perfect sushi roll becomes a sandwich complete with the exact right amount of wasabi in the aioli and ginger in the slaw.

Bi-Rite Creamery

Salted caramel, roasted banana. Check. The problem is expanding beyond the dynamic duo. Brown sugar with a ginger swirl is a good contender, as is the pint only fascinating Mexican chocolate with salted peanuts. A seasonal orange cardamom shows successful ambition from Bi-Rite as does the plain ginger, both soothing yet packing plenty of spice punch. The winner could the ricanelas, a cinnamon ice cream with snickerdoodles. It’s the eternal problem at Bi-Rite. Which to choose? The legends or something new? You won’t go wrong either way.

Round Up Around Phoenix

Spring Training in Arizona provides the perfect opportunity to get a taste of a variety of teams for the upcoming season and a taste of a variety of restaurants in the Phoenix area. With games mostly during the day and not meaningful, you can sandwich games with lunch and dinners out, avoiding the mostly unexciting Spring Training cuisine (especially you, HoHo Kam Park in Mesa, home of the Cubs). Yes, the wok tossed Island soba noodles with a myriad of vegetables is very enjoyable for a game, but when they are the best option at EVERY ballpark…that’s when it is great to branch out and explore Phoenix. Having visited Phoenix a few times the past year and a half for various baseball activities, I have thoroughly enjoyed Pizzeria Bianco again and again, including this past visit, along with the excellent cuisine at Noca (only the freezing air conditioning duct above us held the dinner back somewhat), and possibly the greatest cocktail of my life, the beet yuzu gimlet from Jade Bar at the Sanctuary on Camelback.

Now, onto the dining stops of this past visit, besides the soba noodles on a freezing afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium.

The Citizen Public House

A litte over a year old, it’s already the center of Scottsdale’s food and drink community who want both in one place. All the cocktails I sampled were somehow off, in particular the Citi-Zen, a candy sweet-pear vodka based concoction that should not have passed the initial taste test. Fortunately, the cuisine from former Cowboy Ciao chef Bernie Kantak, is far better, often outstanding. The famed Stetson Chopped Salad from Cowboy Ciao has ventured the 60 feet with Kantak for the Original Chopped Salad, a dreamy mélange of smoked salmon, corn, black beans, buttermilk dressing, and all sorts of other treats, in a presentation as rustically beautiful as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Pork belly pastrami sounds like a 2011 nightmare, yet turns out to be exemplary with a touch of Germany from spaetzle and brussels sprouts sauerkraut. Kantak creates a top notch lamb burger dripping with tzatziki, and short ribs on a parsnip puree, perked up by its dry cherry barbeque sauce. Desserts are epic in size and flavor by Tracy Dempsey, also from Cowboy Ciao. Chocolate pecan bars with chicory ice cream, a chicory streusel, and a salted chocolate caramel sauce? Yes, please. I don’t need seconds, but I could always have more.

FnB

Chef Charleen Badman and co-owner/sommelier Pavle Milic have created an exceptional example of the tiny, neighborhood, ingredient driven restaurant. There is an all Arizona wine list, prime seating along the L shaped bar around the central open kitchen, and barely enough room inside for a two seat table and a hallway. The much celebrated dish here is strangely enough revolves around leeks. The leeks come braised with mozzarella and mustard marinated bread crumbs, topped with a fried egg to be stirred amongst the others. It’s messy, wholesome, a bit on the excessive side for a vegetable dish, but altogether close to a masterpiece of simple ingredients that work wonders together. Chef Badman has a knack for vegetables, roasting humble carrots to filet mignon tenderness, joined by snap peas, dill feta cheese, and oil cured olives for a beautiful Spring and Greece influenced dish. She spans the globe, pairing mussels with quinoa in a tantalizing fish sauce broth from Southeast Asia and Harissa from Northern Africa, or roasted Jidori chicken atop spaetzle conjuring up Germany, and even crafts her own falafel from swiss chard. You must finish by way of chocolate bread pudding with drunken cherries, but the only slight faux pas is that the dessert menu is recited verbally. It’s hard to avoid proclaiming that every tiny neighborhood bistro aspires to be FnB.

Distrito

Philadelphia celebrity chef José Garces branches out to the Saguaro Hotel in Scottsdale, a flashy Las Vegas driven joint. The decor tends to dominate the focus of his main dining room, Distrito, but when the Encarnacion nachos arrive, a mountain taller than Camelback, with skirt steak and the like, eyes shift to the plates. Tacos are the centerpiece of meals here, generally excellent such as the fish taco with pleasantly fried mahi arriving still moist. The stand out is the cochinita a la pubil, an impossibly tender carnitas preparation where the pork shoulder is braised for hours in an achiote pineapple barbeque sauce. Garces does this dish proud, the pillar of Yucatan cuisine. Dessert must be the churros with spicy valrhona chocolate sauce and cajeta cream. The menu has far more choices available worth trying than you have space to eat, but do avoid the disappointing margaritas and the cocktails from the next door Whiskey Bar either have too little or too much of its namesake in drinks.

Vincent’s on Camelback

Over two decades old, Vincent Guerithault’s mainstay in a non-descript section of Camelback Road where Scottsdale somehow becomes Phoenix, the chef is clinging to the dying breed of classic French cuisine. Cream sauces, textbook souffles, formal service with tableside preparations, and a dining room that looks like your Grandmother’s living room all are attempting to survive in this gastropub, communal table, farm to table organic generation. Nobody asks where the smoked salmon hails from in the stellar quesadilla, given a peppery southwest tweak, the specialty of Vincent. Another specialty, the duck tamale is a mushy, dry mess that doesn’t in the least resemble a traditional corn masa tamale, and the promised Anaheim chile and raisins inside are barely recognizable. The sea scallops are too far on the rubbery side, their basil beurre blanc tastes of nothing but flavor-less butter and cream, though at least the macadamia nut crust provides some life.

Hits and misses continue with one soaring hit being the roasted rack of lamb with a fiery spicy bell pepper jelly, cleverly presented with a burning sprig of thyme. The desserts and service steal the show though, proving that classic French restaurants still have a place in our dining society. If only every molten chocolate cake (compliments of the chef too and far larger than any petit fours you’ve had before) or souffle were as perfect as these. The tequila souffle, as unwelcoming as it sounds, could be the state dish of Arizona.

Cartel Coffee

The “Blue Bottle” or “Intelligentsia” or “Stumptown” of Arizona, the Valley of the Sun’s outpost of the third wave coffee generation just might even be as good, or a risk to say, better than its big city colleagues. This is Cy Young Award worthy espresso– deep, rich, a touch of spice, of course with a sparkling water shot on the side. The flagship and site of the company’s roaster is a classic hipster college hangout in Tempe by Arizona State, right at home on Abbott Kinney or in the San Francisco Mission. I’m a bit partial to the Scottsdale cafe, reflecting the art and antique shop filled neighborhood, but far more than just coffee. What coffee bar also serves Oskar Blues and Green Flash beers? The hot chocolate here is excellent and the espresso just as good as in Tempe. Cartel just might have to follow the trio mentioned above and start expanding…

Ahwahnee Dining Room, Yosemite National Park, CA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Plat du Jour: Thursday March 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday Project: Orange Chicken with Golden Raisins and Figs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.