Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chalkboard for Some Super Tasty Small Plates

So far, since coming back from NY, I make it up to wine country about once a year. Don't get me wrong  I love it up there, and though I have great ambitions to go more often, city living (work and the rat race) gets in the way. Best-laid plans aside, this summer included a little jaunt to Cloverdale and the surrounding area, including dinner at Chalkboard in Healdsburg.

Wow. The restaurant's website says its food is "a celebration of the best ingredients Sonoma has to offer." I'll say. A lot of the produce showcased in Chalkboard's small plates come from a dedicated 3-acre garden. And it was obvious once the dishes start parading out to our table. See for yourself.

This night, Chalkboard's bruschetta were flavor bombs  featuring heirloom tomatoes drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with a crumble of smoked egg yolks; summer squash caponata with ricotta and basil; and hickory smoked salmon with smashed avocado, creme fraiche and pickled onions.

Summer isn't complete without corn. Chalkboard's grilled Brentwood corn was incredibly sweet and juicy, and dressed to perfection with queso fresco, chipotle crema and cilantro. Loved the addition of grilled lime to balance sweet with tart and tangy.

Creamy luscious goodness in the guise of uni butter injected this bucatini dish with all kinds of umami. Oh, and the additions of gulf shrimp and roasted garlic were pretty awesome too.

Chalkboard's savory meat pasta  jalapeno cresta di gallo (aka rooster crest-shaped pasta) with corn, bacon, creme fraiche and a pork shoulder ragu  served as the ideal counterpart to the seafood pasta. 

The only dish we didn't absolutely love was this one: the San Marzano tomato braised meatballs with Pecorino and mint leaves. It was good, but just didn't pull off the richly complex flavor of the meatballs and spicy sauce at Beretta

No matter. Overall, Chalkboard delivered. Happy to come back any time.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ken Ken Ramen Still Packs a Punch

Ken Ken Ramen in the Mission is still kicking out some mean noodle combos since it went from pop-up to permanent status more than 2 years ago. It's still my go-to spot for savory, umami ramen. I'm especially fond of the spicy ground pork special with soft-boiled egg and milky pork broth.

But lately I've been jonesing for (a lot) more vegetables to accompany my noodles. And I've come on the perfect solution: to ask the Ken Ken Ramen folks for the miso veggie ramen with the pork stock (in lieu of the vegan broth).

Best laid plans ... the veggie substitution keeps slipping my mind when I get to the Ken Ken Ramen table, and I invariably request the porkiest option available.

Eh, no regrets. Pork is after all the best of all proteins  versatile, flavorful and ever so satisfying.

I leave Ken Ken Ramen a happy camper every time.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fresh Figs for Breakfast

What's summer in California like? Let me see ... oh yeah, it's about feasting on fresh-picked figs, juicy peaches and the sweetest tomatoes. A simple and yet glorious breakfast in the great outdoors.

These figs were plucked at their perfect ripeness just that morning. They're not something I grew up eating, but have happily added to my favorite things over the past decade.

And the rest of our farmer's market finds  including a hearty and wholesome bread (the loaf must've weighed 5 pounds) from a local bakery  made this a meal to remember. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Abbot's Cellar Surpasses Expectations

I'd heard mixed reviews about The Abbot's Cellar, sister to Monk's Kettleboth known for their wide selection of craft beers, but curiosity got the better of meand frankly, the food dotting the daily changing menu sounded pretty damn delightful. So I decided it was time to try Abbot's Cellar for myself. With cousin MC as my willing accomplice, I made a visit to the Mission restaurant on a night not too long ago, and this is what I found:

A gorgeous presentation of California's bounty with flavors that backed up the stunning display. Big stalks of crisp tender asparagus came bathed in creamy burrata and a healthy helping of sauteed maitake and other mushrooms.

Beautifully bronzed bacon of the sea (aka scallops) came paired with the crispiest fried sunchokes and wisps of green leaves. I'd say of the two appetizers, this one was my fave.

And then there was the home-made strozzapreti ("priest stranglers" in Italian) in a creamy carbonara with peas, both whole and smashed, and an egg to add even more richness to the pasta. Artery-clogging? Yes. Worth every bite? Hell, yes.

Did we really need to order the pork chop with honey-glazed bacon? Of course, we did. After all, a girl needs her protein and those baby carrots were the sweetest little things.

We even managed to save room for dessert (not pictured): a lovely chevre cheesecake topped with a dusting of pistachio nuts and drizzled with a sweet-tangy verjus reduction. Oh man, was that good.

Abbot's Cellar, you're alright in my bookand MC's as well.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Craftsman and Wolves' Crafty Creation

How best to describe the desserts at Craftsman and Wolves? Well, besides the fact that they are truly eye candy, they're also packed with complementary and contrasting flavors that set the Valencia patisserie apart from any other in the city. 

This cool creation was a vanilla bomb of creamy goodness, filled with an apple puree, sitting atop a springy graham crust.

The coconut slivers, fennel fronds, kumquat and apple slices added personality to the diminutive dish.

And how fun that when you cut into the white sphere, it was like you were tucking into a soft-boiled egg. Craftsman and Wolves gets bonus points for finding humor in their creativity.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bratwurst on a Bun at Pig & Pie

Pig & Pie in the outer Mission has two of my favorite things though I have yet to try the latter. Maybe next time I'll make room for a slice of one of their daily specials (Wow, today's line-up includes Mississippi Mud, Pear Blueberry, Chocolate Cheesecake, Lemon Shaker and Apple ... mouth is salivating).

On this visit, I settled on the bratwurst on a bun, which came with a healthy helping of crunchy sauerkraut and a tasty squeeze of spicy beer mustard.

A bit on the pricy side at $8.50 (Really? For a hot dog?). But considering everything's made from scratch, and all of their porky pig comes from a "consortium of small family farms in Texas, hormone and antibiotic free," I figured it was worth the "splurge."

Indeed it was. After all, who doesn't love a good brat? 

And now for that pie ... 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dinner in Provence at Chez Papa Bistrot

The French mafia continues to establish its stronghold on San Francisco, what with multiple Chez Papas and Mamans, La Boulanges (which recently got snapped up by Starbucks) and so on opening up in the city by the bay. I think the Chez Papa Bistrot in Potrero Hill is the original in the "chez" group and though I've dined at all the others, I'd never had a chance to try the original. Until now.

Remembering that mussels were Chez Papa's specialty, JP and I started out with a heaping bowl of 'em Basquaise style. The bivalves had been simmered in white wine spiked with roasted bell pepper, parsley and spicy Spanish chorizo. We plowed through the entire bowl along with the accompanying pile of crispy fries.

For my main, I chose a quintessential Provencal dish, the bouillabaisse or fish stew, which came with a ton of lovely goodies including black cod, clams, mussels, prawns, bay scallops, fingerling potatoes, plus some crusty bread with rouille (basically, mayo flavored with garlic, cayenne, saffron, olive and pepper). Which reminds me, I've got a slammin' recipe for bouillabaisse that I need to dust off and bring back into my repertoire ...

Meanwhile, JP went for the braised beef short rib sitting atop mashed potato and a red wine demi-glace, accompanied by a bit of veg and a tangle of watercress. Not enough vegetables, was JP's complaint, though the moules frites app had filled him up so much, he left his plate unfinished.

No matter. We took the tender short rib home and made a hearty meat sauce to go with our pasta the next day. Yay for good leftovers. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Big, Bodacious Beignets at Brenda's French Soul Food

Donuts are a pretty wonderful invention. I remember when I was just a wee thing, my mom making them from scratch—not for any special occasion per se, just for the heck of it. I'd stand by her side at the stove, watching her fry up these fluffy cakes with holes punched out of their middles. Peering over the side of the pot as the donut holes (my faves, of course) bobbed around in the bubbling oil. Ever since then, I've always favored these fried sweet treats, though I do try to avoid eating them on a regular basis. (Daily donut consumption will most certainly lead to a big belly. No thanks!)

Of course, if I'm having breakfast at Brenda's French Soul Food, I can't say no to "New Orleans' favorite doughnut," the beignet. Brenda's beignets come with a tasty little twist ... and then some.

For one, Brenda's beignets are enormous. The fluffiest, bounciest fritters I've ever had. 

And since they're hot out of the fryer, as soon as you cut into them, the stuffing inside comes oozing out, with the most tantalizing aromas floating up to your face.

The crawfish beignet has a generous hit of cayenne to turn up the heat, with plenty of melted cheddar to boot.

While the Granny Smith apple beignet has the right amount of sweetness and spice with its shroud of powdered sugar and the addition of cinnamon, honey butter. 

The beignets served as the warm-up for what became a breakfast blowout at Brenda's French Soul Food, when in fact, JP and I realized too late that those beignets were so filling, we really could have done with half the food we'd ordered. Food comas quickly ensued and pretty much kept hold of us for the entire day. Ah well, lesson learned. And no regrets anyway—I heart BFSF.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Loving Every Bite of Our Park Tavern Pig-Out

"This is the best meal I've had all year," raved PH during and after our meal at Park Tavern. I have to say, the food was mighty fine. And I was pleased PH enjoyed every bite since we were celebrating her birthday. We found the spacious North Beach restaurant comfortable and inviting, seated as we were in the corner of a plush row of black leather banquettes, right off Park Tavern's massive kitchen.

Since it was her birthday, I was happy to oblige PH's choice of appetizers, which included the smoked deviled eggs capped with slabs of bacon, pickled jalapenos, chives and shallots. And who doesn't love a good deviled egg anyway? These are just about the best rendition I've had. SPQR's deviled eggs rate pretty highly, too.

We also devoured Park Tavern's crispy, airy wafers of deep-fried lemon that came with a nicely seasoned fava bean hummus, spiked with nigella seeds and nasturtium.

I couldn't get over how amazingly perfect my main was: caramelized sea scallops that were fresh and juicy with a hint of the sea. They came with a joyous medley of crispy tempura maitake mushrooms, roasted sweet peppers and thin shavings of zucchini, all tempered by an earthy porcini cream and then brought back up with the tang of a grilled spring onion vinaigrettte. 

I got to nibble on PH's grilled pork chop. Holy bonanza. Served with morcilla sausage, brussels sprouts, wilted greens, tiny new potatoes, pickled onions and a savory mustard jus, this was the ultimate in indulgence. Of the very best kind.

We were on such a roll, we even managed to fit dessert into our greedy bellies before calling it quits. Who says gluttony is a bad thing?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hearty and Full of Heart at 54 Mint

54 Mint had been on my list of places to try for quite some time. When I asked cousin MC whether we should go here or to Park Tavern instead (yet another place I've sadly skipped in my food forays 'round town—though I've since filled that hole; blog post to come), she left the choice to me. MC said both were good, just in different ways. Ah well, since I was in the mood for some pasta, and comfort food to boot, I chose 54 Mint.

MC was game for trying the bruschetta served with a creamy spread of burrata, luscious sea urchin, shavings of bottarga (aka salted, cured fish roe) and a chiffonade of basil. Mmmm, a really good marriage of the subtle dairy and sea urchin flavors with the more intense, briney bite of the bottarga.

Brand new on the menu that night was the paccheri (tube-shaped pasta) in an uber-garlicky (maybe a tick too garlicky, though MC didn't think so) zucchini sauce with a generous helping of calamari that was so tender, we barely had to chew the delicate little rings as we polished off this lovely bowl of bouncy goodness.

Whoa. When we spied this mountain of meat at another table just over and yonder, we knew we had to have it: the Roman-style oxtail stewed for hours so that the beef was really only just barely draped over the bone—and came tumbling off as soon as we gently laid our forks on it. Tomatoes, pancetta, carrots, onions, and celery along with a medley of Italian spices kicked up the flavor quotient several notches. This is the kind of thing that spells comfort food with a capital C, and something I'll cook on occasion (mostly special ones and when I have time) at home.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rich Table, Wonder of Wonders

Rich Table is my new favorite restaurant. Thank you, SS for suggesting we hit the bar, reserved for walk-ins, at this most delightful eatery celebrating California's bounty. And thank god for catching a break when we snagged 2 seats within 10 minutes of our arrival—the place was packed to the rafters with ravenous diners, most with reservations made weeks in advance. The place has been getting a great deal of attention, all good. Needless to say, my expectations for Rich Table were high as we took our spots at the end of the bar, right next to the postage stamp-sized kitchen.

Wow. We set off on the right foot when Rich Table's server slid the bowl of blistered padron peppers and popped corn towards us. And those hefty slices of wild fennel levain bread with honkin' nob of butter.

Things continued to improve as we helped ourselves to the oh-so-fresh slivers of cured hamachi.

We also savored every bite of the juicy, sweet peach salad, which screamed of the last days of summer.

What a perfect dish this was: the trout in a green tomato broth with thin sheets of nori, corn, fig slices and a smattering of toasted almond.

I loved how the lightly dressed, citrusy shrimp and pea garganelli gave a good little kick with its pickled serrano peppers.

And more summer goodness in the form of a springy, blue corn cake with honey roasted plums and a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Happy happy. Good times. Rinse. Repeat.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bar Agricole Is Still Going Strong 2 Years Later

Actually, it's been almost two-and-a-half years since I first visited the spacious and modern Bar Agricole, which back then put out some really outstanding food. Another visit a year later proved just as rewarding. So when I was looking for a place that might please a friend with high culinary standards, I figured why not give Bar Agricole a third go 'round.

Bar Agricole didn't let me down. Said friend and Ialong with another paltucked into the buoyantly tender mussels, which came swimming in the most fragrant, lip-smacking white wine-cum-broth laced with fennel, green coriander and pancetta. We soaked the big, buttery hunk of toast that came alongside the bivalves into the broth and wished we had more bread to sop up the addictive liquid.

Other goodies included the fried green tomatoes and squash with tonnatowhich came out molten hot and crispy on the outside, juicy and sweet on the inside, accompanied by a tangy aioli; diminutive miso-pickled anchovies with horseradish and a swab of egg yolk cream below with a whisper of purslane on top; and jumbo rabbit meatballs sitting on a bed of creamy, buttery polenta with a kind of tomato pepper salsa that proved the perfect foil to the rich meat and corn side.

On that night, Bar Agricole was sporting an $85 pork chop on its daily changing menu. Say what? I asked the server if that was a typo. No, no. Not a typo at all. The meat weighs in at more than 2 pounds and takes more than an hour to cook, he told us. We decided to take a pass, though our curiosity was slightly piqued. ... Not enough to blow it all on one dish though.

And in the end, we didn't feel like we'd missed out. Not in the least.