Saturday, June 30, 2007

Back on the Burger Hunt

Imagine my excitement when the waitress at Absinthe slid this hunk a-hunk o' burning love towards me. I do love me a good burger, and before I'd left for NY, Absinthe's held top honors in my book. (Schiller's is my Big Apple fave—perfect for a hangover.) Of course, the menu had been updated while I was gone. No longer do they have the caramelized mushrooms as an option. But no matter, I was thrilled to see a spicy onion and gorgonzola combination had taken its place and ordered it along with a side of fries tout suite.

Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. Oh sure, the tangled mess of onions were lovely, though not as spicy as I'd like. And they sure as heck didn't make up for the Niman Ranch patty, which was so underseasoned, I wondered if they'd even put any salt in it at all. On top of the blah-ness of the beef was the unwieldy herb bun; it was so dense, I had to chuck the top half and eat the damn thing like an open-faced sandwich—so not what I'm looking for when I'm jonesing for a burger that i can scoop up with both paws and mow down sans use of silverware. What a let-down. Oh well, at least the fries were munch-worthy as ever. I alternated back and forth between aioli and mustard then ketchup and malt vinegar and back again.

Next time I hit Absinthe for brunch, I think I'll go with what JC had: delightfully fluffy pain de mie French toast with orange-ricotta filling, fresh berries compote and maple syrup. In the mean time, I'm back on the hunt for the best burger that SF has to offer.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tres Bien

Just a little somethin' my friend brought over for a dinner party I threw at my house: Tres leches cake from Delessio. Most were daunted by its rich decadence (after all, it's been soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated, condensed and cream), but not I. Since the theme of my party was tacos and tequilas, I had a feeling when I asked my friend J to bring something sweet, this is what he'd deliver. Happily, I guessed right. Most folks insisted on a wimpy little slice but I went big as did J and we savored every bite. Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tickle Me Terzo

I didn't bother taking any pics of the parade of small plates that streamed out of Terzo's kitchen last night. Instead, I thought it more appropos to snap a photo of my dear friend so that you can see how happy we were with the fabulous food we inhaled, huddled on high stools scooted up close to the Mediterranean resto's bar. The three of us helped ourselves to wines by the glass as we proceeded to work our way through the following outstanding dishes:

- Thick, lumpy hummus drizzled with olive oil and served with housemade fluffy puffs of pita sprinkled with za'atar
- A huge pile of the most addictive crispety-crunchety deep-fried onions
- The most delicious golden and jewel-red beets, perfectly cooked and well-seasoned wth tahini, sumac, coriander and Morroccan olive oil
- Mozzarella di Bufala on bruschetta with Umbrian black truffle and olive oil (I savored every bite)
- Potato gnocchi with Niman Ranch ragu and reggiano (a tiny tad overseasoned but not disastrously so)
- Heirloom tomatoes (they're in season, hooray) with feta, dill and Umbrian olive oil
- A scrumptious slab of grilled sea bass with garbanzos and charmoula

and for dessert:
- A silky smooth and not-too-sweet ricotta cheesecake with nectarine compote and whipped cream

The barkeeps were extra gracious and attentive, the interior ever-so-inviting. It was easily the best dinner experience I've had in SF since my trip to Universal Cafe way back when.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Peanut Butter Surprise

Went to a catered company party a little while back and was happy to find that the food spread was really good. Highlights included a salmon mouse, veggie tapenade and smoked salmon. But the pièce de résistance was the dessert. Out came these little cakes. I couldn't quite tell what they were by the look of them. Truth be told, they weren't terribly pretty and even looked kinda dry. Could they be molasses-gingerbread cakes, I wondered. Well, what the heck. After loading up on all the savory food, I was ready for something sweet. So I grabbed me one of the little critters and took a big bite. Mmmm, turned out they were chocolate. And pretty tasty too. I took another bite, and what to my wondering eyes (and tastebuds) did I find, but a most wonderful center chock full of creamy peanut butter. The cake surrounding the PB had remained super moist, mimicking the texture of a molten cake except in this case at room temp.

Yummmmmm. I polished off that little cake in less than 90 seconds flat. And I raved about it for a good hour after. Thank you, Chive Catering. It was most certainly a great ending to the night.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Back to School II

More on Ruta's Indian feast ...

Under the lid: Goan shrimp curry with eggplant
In the wok: chickpea curry with fresh dill leaves

The enormous spread also included Marathi yellow fried rice, basmati rice, fried green beef, chicken in cashew nut sauce and cucumber salad with crushed peanuts.

My plate: A little bit (OK, a lot) of everything ... variety, after all, is the spice of life. Damn were the Goan shrimp curry and chickpeas smokin' hot. If I had to choose one, I'd have to say the oh-so-tender chicken in cashew sauce was my fave. We finished off with a lovely custard-like dessert made of yogurt, green cardamom, sugar, pistachios and saffron along with copious amounts of green cardamom tea. Note to self: wear a muu muu—to accommodate the ever-expanding belly—when cooking AND eating Ruta's food.

Back to School

One of the perks of being an editor with a cooking background is that I get to do cool food things—like attend a cooking school at the beautiful Berkeley home of Ruta Kahate, author of new Indian cookbook 5 Spices, 50 Dishes. After drinking a little bubbly and enjoying some Indian apps (such as crispy okra raita and thalipeeth flatbread), we sat down for a little show and tell led by Ruta. Then it was on to the main attraction: breaking up into pairs and attempting one of her simple dishes. My partner and I chose the eggplant with a sesame-peanut masala. Here's the blow-by-blow of how the little aubergines got stuffed:

The mise en place (meaning: everything in its place) was already prepped for us. All we had to do was a little cutting, chopping and grinding.

... and stuffing. Looks like Little Shop of Horrors, right?

Now into a hot skillet with hot oil.

Ruta takes charge.

After the frying, then 20-30 minutes of braising and voila! the finished product.

It was a feast to be remembered, and super easy to prepare. Time for a dinner party, Indian-style.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Farina gives me the warm fuzzies

I met a dear friend for drinks at Tunnel Top last night and after tossing a couple back (well, he did, while I half-nursed/half-sipped my one happy hour beverage ... too much booze at lunch, but that's another story), we decided that dinner was in order. Said friend excitedly nominated a new Italian restaurant he'd spotted on a drive-by the week prior. Sure, why not, I said. I'd love to check out a new place even though the thought of pasta after my 3-hour lunch at Slanted Door made my stomach churn. Still, I had a feeling that this was an opportunity not to be missed. After hopping out of the cab and onto 18th and Guerrero, we rolled on up to an already bustling eatery. Airy, lofty and welcoming, Farina reminds me of the size and feel of Chelsea's Cookshop. We sat down at the focaccia bar and proceeded to order a simple salad, homemade handkerchief pasta with pesto and filet mignon with roasted cipollini onions. The entree was fantabulous ... so much so that, except for a few wilted leaves, we scraped the dish clean. The tender meat gave way under the slight pressure of a butter knife; the sweet onions and tangy tartness of the balsamic vinaigrette reduction were divine.

We were also duly impressed with the soft and drapey hanky pesto pasta, which had just the right amount of seasoning and moisture (lots) in the sauce. The only (tiny) fly in the ointment was that the hostesses had failed to warn us that it was BYOB; it was left to our waitress to suggest (only after we'd ordered and then asked for the wine list) we go to nearby Bi-Rite and pick up a bottle. Farina's only been opened a week with as yet no liquor license in sight. I'm happy to bring my own bottle of vino, but it would be better to know sooner than later, so that one of us doesn't have to hump out to the store while the other sits waiting with the appetizer already hitting (and wilting on—i kid, i kid) the table.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

H is his name ...

Vodka's his game. OK, pretty hokey, but on this night, it was true. H, who owns Elixir in the Mission, was muddling up a storm for a special night during SF's cocktail week in which Square One vodka (which is certified organic—how's that for uber-crunchy and Californian?) was on the menu. What you see here is the Country Time, a delicious vodka lemonade blended with muddled blueberries and hand-crushed thyme.

We helped ourselves to one of these refreshing beverages in the shadowy library at the back of speakeasy Bourbon & Branch. I was glad to be able to check out the Tenderloin bar without having to go through the rigamarole of calling the unlisted number to make reservations and secure the password to get in the front door. Because we were guests at this special happy hour hosted by Tales of the Cocktail, we waltzed right through the door. I guess I'd go back again to see what it's like sans privileges, but it'll take some prodding to make it happen.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Forties + Fatty Crab = Fantastic

OK, it's not quite a 40 (though at 33.8 oz, it's close enough) and yes, my gal pal and I shared the one Asahi, but it really hit the spot on this hot steamy day in the city as a chaser to the spicy Malaysian food we three commenced to eat at Zak Pelaccio's ever-popular West Village eatery Fatty Crab, near the top of my list of places I had to hit during my trip to Manhattan.

I'd already had variations of a bunch of things, like the fatty tea sandwiches (now pork-filled, but duck when I was still living in NYC); crispy pork and watermelon pickle salad (cubes of crisped pork belly and fresh watermelon when I knew it once); meaty and messy chili Dungeness crab; and braised short rib pendang nestled on a bed of coconut rice. So on this visit, we decided to try a few new things:

The green mango salad (not pictured) started things off on the right foot. Fresh, super spicy and perfectly complemented with cilantro, thai bird chilies, basil, peanuts, garlic and lime juice.

The Shrimp Sambal complete with bibb lettuce, charred scallions, toasted coconut, cilantro and peanuts looked mighty purty, but didn't knock our socks off. The flavors just didn't pull together. Go figure.

The saucy, salty Lo Si Fun comprising fat rice noodles, Chinese sausage, shiitake and other veg was a bit overpowering. Loved the sausage and the poached egg on top, but coulda done with a bit less potency in the (too) salty sauce.

Turns out tried and true was what won the day. The Nasi Lemak was as delicious as I'd remembered it. A falling-off-the-bone curry chicken leg and slow poached egg come served on a fluffy heap of coconut rice and framed by upwards of 10 pickled and fresh sides. I like to refer to it as the Malaysian version of Bi-Bim-Bop. This is it pre-mixed. Post-mixed, it's absolutely divine.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Post-Drinking Pig Out

No. 718 Pan Fried Bean Curd (of the silken variety) with Soy Sauce was the best dish in the house at Congee Village in the LES. At least it was when I went with a posse of friends, all sporting big appetites after a long(ish) night of drinking. After walking by Barrio Chino and then Little Giant and noting the crowds waiting to get seated at both venues, I scoured my memory for a spot that could take 9 hungry folk without any restaurant pull or reservations. Cantonese hot spot Congee Village, of course. And we were in luck: As soon as we walked in, we were ushered to a huge round table, one of two on a dais, complete with lazy susan and the requisite bottles of chili oil, Chinese mustard and soy sauce. We plowed through a passel of MSG-laden (read: flavorful) and filling dishes including shrimp and vermicelli noodles, beef with veg, 2 kinds of congee (savory porridge, one with seafood, the other with abalone and chicken), another tofu dish, General Tso's chicken ... The damage? A whopping 13 bucks each. Good times.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Ellison and then some

I stick to what I said in my entry titled "The Flash": The Blue Owl is still one of my fave specialty cocktail bars in Manhattan. On my trip back, I was thrilled to see that the $5 happy hour special was in full swing so I helped myself to the muddled strawberry caipirinha, then chased that with the Ellison, a Hendrick's cucumber and rose petal-infused gin martini, with mint, more cukes, lime juice and a splash of bitters; it's the best antidote to the work blues and the sweltering summer heat (yes, it was damn hot during my trip to the City). What I also love about the Blue Owl is that you can get some great nibbles, if you're so inclined (which I always am): cheese, all sorts of olives and salumi. I spent a happy couple of hours in the low-key lounge before retreating downtown for more drinks and eats. Now THIS is living.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

True or False: Great Mexican in Manhattan?

True. To be exact, in the area where the Lower East Side meets Chinatown at a quintessentially downtown Manhattan resto called Barrio Chino (imagine a cozy space with exposed-brick walls that seats probably no more than 3 dozen including spots at the roughly hewn wood bar).

My California (and other) friends agree: There's just no place like it. No Cal-Mex burritos served here. Rather, this is a taco and tequila bar dishing up authentic Mexico City-style eats—this according to my Gourmet editor friend who spent years in that very town, part of it running a cooking school. In fact, she's the one who introduced me to Barrio.

I had been dreaming of the to-die-for chile en nogada (a poblano chile stuffed with spicy shredded pork drizzled with a walnut-cream sauce and studded with diced apple and pomegranate seeds). I've probably had it at least a dozen times, almost never straying from its siren call. Yes, it's THAT good. So, I was dead-set on ordering it this time 'round. But to my great dismay, it was nowhere on the lunch menu. Ah well, c'est la vie. All thoughts of the chile flew out the window when the dishes including the guac and chips, sopesitos, chile rellenos, quesadillas and shrimp tacos hit the table. None of the 4 of us could shut up about how spicy, delicate, fragrant (fill in the blank with ecstatic superlative) the food was—except for when we were stuffing our faces. Washed down with some delightfully coco-minty coconut mojitos, the meal more than exceeded my expectations. Wowza.

A Taste of Heaven

You better believe I made a beeline to Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery on my first full day back in the Big Apple since my move to the left coast 8 months ago. My three girlfriends, whom I'd just broken bread with at Barrio Chino (more on that later), escorted me to the homey little LES storefront—think yellow flowered wallpaper and brightly colored vintage sofas and chairs—so that I could satisfy my (sugar) sweet (sunshine) tooth. The Bob, red velvet, lemon, pumpkin, ooey gooey and coconut ... I've pretty much sampled all of the cupcakes as well as a few different (and enormous, I might add) slices of cake. But I'm a sucker for the Sunshine cupcake: a super moist and springy yellow cake with just the right amount of pastel-colored vanilla buttercream frosting on top. In a word: heaven.