Where to...Eat, Now?

Life in San Francisco is hectic enough. Between our jobs, zumba-pilates-yoga-triathalontraining, family life, friends, fetishes and foundations who really has the time to keep on top of the restaurant scene? Obviously this is one of my greatest passions and I still find myself getting scooped or unawares of the next great food truck, pop up or dining hot spot. I can only imagine how daunting it is for people with normal time or interest.

Still, we're a food obsessed town. Everyone wants to try out the latest Beard-nominated phenom. When your friends come to town from Paris, you just want to give them that insider experience - don't you? But where to begin? How can you keep on top of things without spending days combing the interwebs looking for relevant information. And who can you trust?

Following is a breakdown of my favorite ways to get information about dining in San Francisco. But frankly, I think most of the resources I use are national, so if you find yourself in New York, Chicago or LA, this could easily be applicable.

THE LIST For the aforementioned 'friends in town' scenario - the best place to start is at our dear old friend sf.eater.com. On the "38 Essential San Francisco Restaurants" page, superstar editor Carolyn Alburger painstakingly updates monthly the "in" places in the Bay. She even comments on why places are added or removed. It's really the greatest resource we have for knowing where you 'should' be eating. There's even a handy map if you're trying to zero in on a neighborhood. Her list requires that a restaurant be open at least six months, so I don't consider this the cutting edge I often seek. It's more of a safe bet.

THE HEAT MAP For more of the cutting edge, Ms. Alburger has created the spectacular, indispensable "Eater Heat Map" where "More often than not, tipsters, readers, friends and family of Eater have one question: Where should I eat right now?" The question is deftly answered with the places that have buzz. While this list might cause debate amongst die-hard obsessives, it's a great resource for most enthusiasts.

THE NEWSLETTER Tablehopper is a newsletter that is published weekly by  Marcia Gagliardi, the queen bee of the Bay Area food scene. A subscription to her newsletter is an essential part of being-in-the-know. The minute something opens Marcia is there and reporting. She also keeps an updated list of 10 Places to Eat at Now that comes in handy on a search. In fact, if you compare it to the eater lists, places with overlap are a sure bet [wink wink].

NO RESERVATIONS Opentable is not only good for getting reservations, but in many cases, I prefer the reviews here over Yelp. They tend to be concise and trend in directions that can help you make choices (I'll comment about Yelp below). But most importantly, we often don't plan enough in advance to score reservations at places like Flour+Water and Frances. With Opentable, you can see what is available as you comb the lists above. I will often plug in my date / time and scan the available reservations before making a decision.

MESSAGE BOARD Chowhound is daunting. Unless you are prepared to navigate miles of message boards to find the pearl of wisdom you seek, you might want to try a different approach. If I am looking for something specific, like "Best Pizza in San Francisco" I will add "chowhound" to my google search and scan the lively debates. What I'll often find is that a thread will go on forever, but clear consensus forms, from which I can make a pretty solid decision. This has been my savior when seeking whitefish salad in New York, Deli in LA and hot dogs / pizza in Chicago.

NO WAY, JOSE Time to Yelp bash a little. I don't see much value in Yelp. When people are moved to post to Yelp, I question their motivation. I'm guessing it is typically when they have an experience that moves them to action, whether positive, negative or neutral, depending on the person themselves. But, what do we know about these people? And how are their opinions relevant to us? I could try to glean information from their profile or previous posts, but thats simply too much work. I often find that I don't get much help out of Yelp in actually making decisions. Sorry for the non-sequitor here, but I think it's relevant.

BLOGS, GLORIOUS BLOGS Lastly, the Bay Area is littered with media outlets and blogs, like my own, that can help you find some solid information. Here is a list of some of my favorites:

7x7 Eat + Drink San Francisco Magazine Eat & Drink SFGate Food SFBG Food & Drink SFWeekly Foodie Bay Are Bites KQED Grub Street SF Cooking with Amy Bay Are Foodie YUM SFStation KelsEats 

Now that I've added to the inundation of your life, I leave you with my favorite Dr. Suess, as it relates to seeking restaurants, from "Oh, the Places You'll Go":

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care. About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there." With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

Summer Side Dishes

For Victoria. I quit. That's right, for reals yo, I quit my job. It's a long story, and y'all knows I have no problem telling long stories, but I'd rather not get into it. In short, a year and a half ago I sold my company to a larger firm. We had big plans for the next stage. But it never really happened. I became disenfranchised, so a couple of months ago I decided to move on. Step out into the great unknown. Surrender.

As a result, life could not be better. Sure, I have real concerns about finances and building a new future. But without the heavy responsibility and [perceived] burden of work (for the first time in 20 years) I have found a level of calm and peace that has never existed in my adult life. I'm learning to listen to myself, the universe, my community. I'm diving head-first into the psyche of my 6-year old son. I'm getting caught up with the little things, taking naps, working out, lot's of yoga and really having fun. Plus, it's summertime.

Growing up at the beach, I always loved summer, which I suppose I took for granted. Now, living in a place where summer only peaks it's head out on rare occasions, I've realized how precious summer is to me. I've always been the host of the backyard BBQ and show up to potlucks with my summery salads and deviled eggs. But in this state of awareness I'm noticing that it's a deeper experience of connectivity to my childhood and freedom-by-way-of-beach-and-surf that signifies summer. It's about getting a little high on wine and talking with friends over the grill. It's about shucking oysters and steaming mussels, chasing waves, body surfing and time spent building sandcastles with my son. It's about that magic hour around sunset when the heat of the day starts to vaporize off of your body, ice rattles in the glass while sweat beads down your fingers  - I sink deeper into chairs, conversations, life.

I might not be able to help you get to this place. But what I can do is share with you a few recipes that will make the experience that much better if you happen to find it.

Grilled Radicchio with Anchovy Vinaigrette I love this earthy salad that comes together so easily and wows your guests. Soak some bamboo skewers for an hour. Take 3-5 medium heads of radicchio and cut them in half along the white center. Cut the halves into thirds lengthwise. Stack 4 wedges on to the skewers and soak them in an ice bath for at least an hour (this removes bitterness). To make the vinaigrette start with some coarse mustard and 4-6 anchovies. Mash them between the tines of two forks until they are near a paste. Add some minced shallots, black pepper and some thyme. Mix it all together with some sherry vinegar, enough to get it wet but not runny. Slowly drizzle in some good olive oil while whisking with the two forks until it emulsifies. Taste as you go and odd more oil if necessary. Drain the radicchio on some paper towels. Coat them lightly with olive oil and a little sea salt. Place the skewers on a hot grill for a minute or two, turning once. The leaves should just start to char, but not be close to burning. Pull them off into a wooden salad bowl. Toss with the vinaigrette, salt and pepper to taste and serve warm.

Lime-Pepper Corn A few tricks to making yummy corn. In fact, I may never go back to butter and salt again. Start with the husks on and soak them in water for an hour. Peel back the husks and bunch them together at the bottom (essentially turn them inside out to form a handle), wrapping and tying them with butcher's string. Soak them a little longer until they are ready to grill. Slice some limes and have your pepper grinder handy. On the hot part of the grill, place the corn and turn so that 1/4th of the kernels get color. Don't let it burn. You're just looking for a little smokey flavor and sugar sweetness from the grill. Pile them on a cooler spot on the grill until they are done cooking, just a couple of minutes, if at all. Rub the corn with fresh limes and then grind pepper right on to them. Serve hot.

Deviled Eggs Don't expect these to sit long. I've never made Deviled Eggs that weren't gobbled up before all my guests arrived. The secrets is to use farm eggs, of course. They just have a deeper egg flavor, rich and earthy. You'll want to use eggs that are at least a week old. This allows you to peel them easier because there is a membrane that loosens over time. Put the eggs in a pot and cover with water. Turn the burner to high. After it comes to a gentle boil take your pot off the heat and let sit for 9 minutes. Remove the eggs from the water and peel while running under cold water. Hold the eggs on their side and slice a tiny segment on left and right to provide a base when they are sitting, stuffed. Cut them in half and remove the yolks into a bowl.

The fillings are endless. Much like other recipes here, a lot is up to your creativity. Your base is typically mayonnaise, but I often use greek yogurt or even ricotta to fill or substitute. One of my favorite fillings is using Boar's Head Horseradish sauce mixed with the yolks. Plain and simple. But for a basic Deviled Egg, try this. Put a little dollop of dijon mustard, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of Tabasco and a shot of white wine vinegar. Mix half mayo and half greek yogurt until the filling is creamy. Salt and pepper to taste. Use a small spoon or pastry bag and fill the eggs generously. Top with smokey paprika or cayenne for a little heat or chives, fried basil or fried parsley for some herbaciousness.

Enjoy your summer and these side dishes. I've got a ton more where this came from, so if I can take a break from actually enjoying myself, I'll try to write more.

Radicchio Salad

For Katja. I get requests to post recipes all of the time. Well, part of my life moving forward is to try to answer these requests. Incredibly good cosmic ju ju. Plus, my therapist loves my embrace of community. He thinks I light up when I speak of the time I spend with my friends, family and mostly my son. I love to cook, but more importantly, I love the experience that cooking facilitates. It creates a forum for indulgence and connectivity. It's what makes life more enjoyable for me...

So, here's a Radicchio Salad I often call upon. I cannot take credit other than recognizing genius and reinterpreting it. I originally learned this in a class with Chef Hiro Sone of Tera in Napa. It's fast, simple and banging-good.

Take your radicchio (use the most light and whispy varieties - darker, denser types, like treviso, don't work as well) and peel off all of the leaves, discarding the thicker white sections. Soak the leaves in ice water for anywhere from 20 minute to a couple of hours. This will help remove some of the bitterness. It works great!

In a wooden salad bowl, put some finely chopped shallots. Add a small dollop of mustard (dijon preferred), a squeeze of honey and handful of herbs de provence. Your choice of vinegar will alter this dressing significantly. Lately I've been using a nice light pomegranate from "O". You can use a citrus, champagne or even balsamic, which Hiro used. Try them out to see which you prefer.

With a fork or wisk, beat the ingredients into a whirl and start adding some olive oil slowly, creating an emulsion as you go. Hiro and I both switch mid-way to canola oil to keep it lighter. You can use 1/2 and 1/2 or all of either if you prefer. Add salt and pepper to taste. At the end, plane some Parmigiano-Reggiano. You want to plane it to get the finest texture.

Dry your leaves thoroughly and break them up by hand, like above. Coat them with ample Parmigiano-Reggiano and toss them in the dressing. Crack some pepper on top. Croutons work well with this.

I hope this means Katja is planning to make this for tomorrow's gathering.

Hand-Crafting Pasta with the Epicurean Zealot

I'm taking it to the streets... that's right. Time for the Zealot to put up or shut up. In the coming weeks and months you will see real live food-related activity coming from this direction. Perhaps some surprises too. But for now, I've got a hot one that's gonna sell out fast.... Register for Hand-Crafting Pasta with the Epicurean Zealot in San Francisco, CA  on Eventbrite

In this hands-on course at the lovely Cookhouse Kitchen you will first learn how to make a silky 7-yolk pasta dough, the gold-standard for fresh pasta. While the dough sets we'll cook simple, yet flavorful sauce pairings to match our pastas.  Then, we'll craft a few shapes including flat and stuffed varieties.

The menu will be driven by what's available at the farmers market. Here is an example of a recent menu (4/15/11):

  • Hand-cut papardelle with fatted calf toulouse sausage and saffron sugo
  • Spring pea and pecorino agnolotti
  • Fresh ricotta triangoli with tomatoes, fatted-calf pancetta and asparagus

Following the class, we'll enjoy a family-style meal of our creations.

This course is designed for beginner to expert home chefs and focuses on the world of fresh pasta. You'll be surprised at how simple it is to craft unique fresh pastas that exceed the quality in most restaurants. You'll learn about what flavors and textures enhance the shapes and styles of pasta. 

Register for Hand-Crafting Pasta with the Epicurean Zealot in San Francisco, CA  on Eventbrite

We'll work in small groups so everyone can get their hands dirty and really learn the 'touch' associated with every aspect of the process.

Taste of Potrero

I've been a busy bee. Unfortunately I've neglected you. It's not that I don't love you. I do. Very much. It's just that something suddenly came up (props for getting the Brady reference). Well, lots of things came up. Divorce. Hanging with my son. Lots. And loving it. Single life. Working for the man after selling my business. Scheming and planning the next great business things (more to come on this soon, I promise). And...trying to flip the script on our neighborhood school as the PTA fundraising chairman.

That's right, the Zealot has a warm fuzzy center and is a big community guy. I live in Potrero Hill (actually I am in the Dogpatch now, but we still own our house on the Hill). Back in the day when my little'man was a nubbin, we struggled to find a preschool. When all hope was lost and we nearly ended up in a corporate droid factory, we stumbled upon a group of parents who were saving an Elementary School slated for closure. They had a mission to create a Spanish Immersion program at Daniel Webster Elementary and open a bi-lingual preschool to act as a feeder. While we weren't certain we wanted to be guinea pigs, the people associated with the project seemed to be determined and competent. With few options, we jumped in feet first.

The first year was rough. Teachers got sorted out. The partner organization proved to be incompetent and we decided to go independent. Our son was frustrated by having teachers come and go. But, at the same time, we were part of a community of people experiencing the same frustrations and working together, and hard, to change things. In fact, this group transformed from meetings, dropoffs and playdates to real friendships and a deep connected bond. We created a real neighborhood vibe, unlike anything I've seen in an urban setting. The school improved drastically in year-two and we got into a groove.

Then it was time to find a kindergarten. We were warned that getting into a San Francisco preschool was harder than getting into college. If that's the case, then getting into a private K program is like getting into the Ivy League. Getting into your public K of choice is like...well, winning the lottery. Well hike my skirt and call me Shirley. The process just sucked. We went on interviews with all of the elite schools and made friends with the admission directors. We put on the best face possible and sought out any conditions that might help us get one of the coveted spots. But we weren't gay, ethnic of any sort, newsworthy, notable or needy enough to pass muster. We got 'waitlisted'. As for the publics, we were put in our neighborhood Starr King General Ed program. Ugh.

Then, in the second round of lottery in the public system we received the good news that we were accepted into Daniel Webster Elementary's Spanish Immersion program, the very project that our preschool was built to feed. And so it was fed. Now, you might think we were ecstatic about this, but DW is no peach. Remember, the school was slated for closure and this dog has fleas. I've heard of schools turning around due to parental involvement, but DW was at the start of its turnaround. It looked like we were going to be guinea pigs again. But this time, I decided to step up and get involved. I volunteered to be the fundraising chair.

So, here were are, a year has nearly gone by. My son speaks Spanish, well. He's getting awards at school and I'm the proudest dad alive. Our teacher is dedicated to her students and while there is chaos around them, the Kinders are in a warm nest of support, nurturing and learning (who knew that there was homework in K? lot's of it. in Spanish). We've raised more money so far this year, than all of last year and our big event is yet to come. And so it comes...

TASTE OF POTRERO was the brainchild of a few of the parents in the school who wanted to up the ante of the bakesale fundraisers. We're real people, with real jobs and real connections. Why can't we have a real food event that would make the city stand up and notice. We've got event planners, winemakers, restauranteurs, admen and adwomen, pr types and on and on... So, on May 12th, we're going for it. We've got the recently Beard nominated Flour + Water and Bar Agricole. We've got neighborhood gems Contigo, Piccino, Skool, Grand Pu Bah, Serpentine and Slow Club. And...we've got the exciting stylings of Kitchenette, Tacolicious and Hapa Ramen. Clearly not your average bakesale. Click the logo for the official website:

There will be a dozen wineries, including Spain's best from Potrero's own Vinos Unicos and wine with a cause Greater Purpose Wines. Batiste Rhum Agricole is going to be pouring hand-crafted cocktails.

Jane Wiedlin from the GoGos, who is always up to support a good cause is going to spin a DJ set. Some of the kids from Top Chef will be stopping by to shake hands and share some insights. There's even an aerialist acrobat scheduled to perform.

Tickets are $50 for general admission from 7-10pm and $100 for VIP, which gets you extra tastes and exclusive access from 6-7pm. A silent auction will feature city-wide treasures so bring your credit card or check book. Buy your tickets here:

Register for TASTE OF POTRERO&lt;br/&gt;<br /> &lt;i&gt;&lt;font size= 4  color= #606060 &gt;a food, spirits and silent auction gala to benefit the Daniel Webster Elementary School&lt;/font&gt;&lt;/i&gt; in San Francisco, CA  on Eventbrite

There are only 400 tickets and they're selling quickly. Come join us for a night in support of better education. The San Francisco Unified School District projects massive deficits next year. That means already bare bones budgets will be even tighter; “non-essential”/ non-classroom teachers will be the first to go and students are the ones who will suffer most. Without outside funding from donors like you there will be:

No Art, No Music, No Dance, No Physical Education, No Computer Specialists, No Field Trips, No Literacy Specialists, No Nurses, No Librarians, No Learning Support Professionals.

We hope to see you there. And I promise I'm coming back strong, soon. You can't keep a good zealot down.

Sons & Daughters Doesn't Suck

The other day really sucked. Colossal, epic, universe is fucking with you kind of suck. Mind-numbing, are you serious, can it get any worse - yes it can suckity suck suck. Yet, looking back, I can't help but feel like it turned out to be pretty good. It started with the fog. Did you guys see that? Pea soup, snow-blind fog at 8am. My view is what energizes me each morning. At the worst I can see boats in the dry dock - massive creatures my son claims are "bigger than whales". Not today! Cold, clammy and dense.

Now I love every second I spend with my son. He is the light of my world. I am guilty of being totally gay for my 5-year old boy, stealing wet kisses from his shayna punim every chance I get. He can do no wrong by me and I spoil him like crazy with divorced-dad-guilt....But the thought of another playdate at the Academy of Sciences (like the 5th time in 2 months) just wasn't screaming fun to me that day. There's the albino alligator, look! jellyfish, oh here's the rainforest. Again.

I know, I suck. We are so lucky to have such an amazing museum nearby and to share it with my boy is a treasure. So, as a result of my discontent, I got karmic bitchslapped. 4:00pm we're about to get in the car to go home and I discover my key fob has fallen off my Schneider bundle (huge points for getting the reference). Done poof, gone. Enter the mind of the 5-year old existential crisis. Quivering lip: "Daddy. If we can't get into the car, does that mean we can't go home and we're homeless?" No son, we just need to go to mommy's house and get the spare I left. "But if the cab doesn't come, how will we get there?".

An hour later and dozens of more questions we've journeyed from GGP to Potrero and back in a vomit-inducing cab ride (it was the Gypsy Kings music as much as the driving). During which, at some point, I receive text message from the sitter that she cannot come tonight. Really? Really? Mistake in her plans, so my plans are toast. I was supposed to have dinner at Sons & Daughters, a place I had already cancelled twice. I'm really not supposed to eat there.

Still during all of this, I am calm. I keep my center. I don't lose my cool, in fact, I welcome the challenges. How can I learn from this? What am I gaining? I shit you not! The Zealot is growing up people. I'm thinking about how the little man and I are getting some amazing mind-fuck-bonding going on. We're answering real questions. We're getting ok with the world. And from out of the blue, a family of fairy princesses and princes decided to invite my booger to sleep over, thus solving the sitter conundrum. Right with it all. Karma restored.

So, I'm back on track and the world is pretty wide open to me. I arrive early and walk around Union Square. And I cannot stop thinking that I never go to Union Square. But how festive! Yes, I must take the boy. Ice skating. Shopping. I feel like a tourist. When we sit down to eat it turns out that my companion also had a pretty shitty day. So we're both in the need of a drink and an experience please. In fact, I receive an "order for me" and "yes, I'd love to share" - which are two of the greatest phrases an Epicurean Zealot can hear. Why thank you, I will.

So we get the tasting menu x 2, different paths with four courses, plus amouses, totaling a bazillion dishes with wine pairings x 2. Now, mind you, I know nothing about this place. I keep up on the scene, but it escaped me. Maybe it's the generic name. Maybe it's the humble pedigrees of the two chefs. Maybe because it's in Union Square (though Opentable insists this is Nob Hill). So, I consider this order a risk, having been disappointed by Commonwealth on a few occasions and, while loving Frances, not feeling the backflip-enducing praise it gets. But give it your best shot fellas.

And so it was. Course after course after course. Without a misstep. You heard me. Everything was perfect. From a celery root soup with maitake, trumpets, enoki & cauliflower mushrooms to an abalone with burdock root and castelvetrano olive (say it three times - I made the waiter) to the finest wagyu zabuton steak I could imagine. We had foie and sablefish and none of the savory courses were less than outstanding. My only complaint was that the desserts didn't live up. The chocolate was ok and the foie seems contrived. But it was excusable in the grand scheme.

Frame of reference: I just returned from a 10 day sojourn to Basque Spain to eat. I ate. A lot. In really really good places. This region is the epicenter of modern food. And I tell you... that the best meal I've had in months was at Sons & Daughters. In San Francisco. My hometown. As we left the restaurant the cold didn't seem to matter. Strolling Union Square was even more charming with the glow of 8 wine pairings and a belly full of foie. The suckfest day was a distant memory and my faith in San Francisco dining rejuvinated. Turned out to be a pretty good night afterall.

The Social Media Narcissist

This may seem out of place on a food blog. You might also think that I have some sort of axe to grind. But honestly I wrote this blurb back in May and never found a forum to properly place the message. Last night I shared dinner with a fellow blogger who enjoyed this so much, I promised to share it with my audience (and hers, granting full permission to repurpose as she sees fit). I believe this is an outline of a treatise that deserves a lot more attention. Most importantly, it came in a lucid moment and succinctly summarizes my views on the current state of social media. Enjoy: Blogs are interesting. I have no real pressure to publish regularly, other than satisfying my readers or my own urge to purge my food-obsessed mind. But if I stop for a while, or indefinitely, life goes on. I'm one of thousands who have an urge to publicly expose themselves in some narcissistic "look at me and what I know" blog mentality. In fact, perhaps I'm one of millions. But who really cares?

Social networking takes that narcissism to new heights. Facebook is the ultimate narcissist tool. At first it was neat to reconnect with people I've not seen, nor heard from in twenty or more years. There's never been a tool in the history of mankind that allowed such connections to be reforged and maintained. My head would explode with excitement every time I made a new connection - there's Bob Greenspun, look it's Kelly Bryers, wow here's Sarah Glaymon!

Narcissus

But after a while it became clear that having access to these people made no real impact in my life. Did I care that Janeen Muth's son's birthday was today? Was my life affected by Beth Segal's night out? Do I really need to know that Milton Glenn was cooking Bourbon Shrimp? No disrespect people, but the answer is a resounding NO.

Moreover, did anyone really care about my opinions on atheism, politics or even food for that matter? Maybe. Certainly some people enjoy reading the blog and the associated posts on my Facebook page. But what's more interesting is why I would choose to share such opinions. Why I am posturing my opinions in front of all of these people? Clearly I am putting a lot of thought into what I write (especially with status updates), with an ultimate goal of influencing the opinions people hold of me. We all are! We're fucking narcissists.

What you say in your blog, facebook, twitter, etc. is intentionally geared at perpetuating the story you've created in your head about your life to the masses. I went to this concert and you know about it so you can see that I am cool (which is clearly up for subjective interpretation because one man's cool is radically different from another's - like Bruce Springsteen is to The Flaming Lips). Look carefully at your friend's facebook updates, mine included, and you can piece together the puzzle of who they want you to think they are.

Moreover I believe that language, in general, is manipulative. Everything we say is designed to influence the people with whom we communicate. Listen to yourself objectively with this in mind and you will see that it is a rare word that leaves your mouth that isn't furthering the perception we want to hold of ourselves and create for others. The beauty of social media is that we have finally found a forum to spread the images across wide geography, generations, cultural divides and even time, as we reconnect with our past that would have never connected otherwise.

Quick Review: 25 Lusk

$13 meeellion dollars. For reals, yo. Pimp-ass fools spent $13m on a restaurant. So much for the recession. Last night I had the opportunity to dine at the spanking new 25 Lusk. The restaurant is housed in a former brick-n-timber smokehouse and is tres sexy. I've read a lot about this place, mostly regarding the design and the team of partners that include an Emeril alumn and some seriously rich dudes.

25 Lusk Smokerooms

First let me talk about the space. The place is clearly designed. To the hilt. Every detail is covered, with interesting sight lines and textural contrasts, insane lighting and nooks-n-crannies to get lost. There will definitely be a cocktail crowd here and they plan to serve the full menu in the smokehouse / bar area (which has low ceilings, a lot of exposed concrete, reinforced steel and conduit). There are various lounge settings with ski-house looking floating fireplaces. I wish that this place would attract the food obsessed and laid-back sorts, but I fear the douche factor could take over easily. This space has FIDI 'play-ah' written all over it.

25 Lusk Fireplace

Upstairs the vibe is more open. There is an amazing private dining room encased in glass that will certainly attract celebs and the SF elite. The main dining area is lovely, but it didn't give me a wow moment like downstairs. That's a lot of money for 'meh'. And, while the bathrooms are lovely, I think the material choices were based on form and not function. The stone floors show the drops of water as you reach for your towel and the sinks get trashed after a few washings. The men's urinal seems to have some technology that creates an artistic pattern out the impact of your stream. I could have peed all night.

25 Lusk Interior

The menu is currently limited to a dozen or so items and each thing we had was good to exceptional. Standout was a cauliflower creme brulée. It's the real deal and surprisingly incorporated truffles with success. The arugula salad was salty and uninspired but the pork cheek terrine more than made up for it. It was a little crispy on the outside and moist in the middle with a hint of sweet. A lovely cube of well-handled animal flesh. The only main we tried was the braised short ribs. There was a nice fat ratio and the sauce was a sublime wine demi that brought me back for dipping. Other mains looked solid - not a lot of risks here.

Cocktails continue the trend of innovation, and outshining the food. A lineup of playful, yet well-crafted drinks should make for some happy houring. The dessert menu didn't scream, so we passed. I'm wondering if they'll step it up when the menu kicks in full gear. I think desserts could really shine in this environment.

In general I think 25 Lusk is destined to establish itself in our dining landscape. While they play it safe on the menu, the food plays well off the decor. My concern is how could they possibly live up to the money they invested. They opened on Saturday and I suppose word is still getting around, as the place was fairly empty on Monday night. I'm guessing nobody is in this to make money.

Artisan & Audiophile

Una Pizza Napoletana is open. This is good news for San Francisco, bad news for New York City (you can have Nate Appleman, we’ll take Anthony). Yet, considering how many Neapolitan style places have popped up in the past few years you’d expect enthusiasm to be fairly low. We’ve got Flour + Water, Boot & Shoe, Zero Zero, Tony’s Pizza Neapolitana (please read my review) – not to mention the tried and true Pizette, Pizzaiolo, Delfina, Pico, Piccino, A16….Still, there was feverish anticipation of “the one” and I suspect there will continue to be a cult-like following for these pies. Una Pizza Napoletana

Story goes… Anthony Mangieri had a coveted outpost in New York and decided to pull up the tent stakes and head west. He is lauded as a prodigy and obsesses over the details on a very simple line up of true Neapolitan pizza making (for details check out the wiki). His reputation is pretty pristine and I heard the term ‘artisan’ thrown around a few times last night.

Again, we hit wiki for clarification:

An artisan (from Italian: artigiano) is a skilled manual worker who makes items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewelry, household items, and tools. The term can also be used as an adjective to refer to the craft of hand making food products, such as bread, beverages and cheese.

That seems very appropriate for Anthony, as you will decipher from my experience.

Anthony Mangieri Una Pizza Napoletana

The corner of 11th and Howard has an appropriate amount of funk for a destination restaurant. People who eat here won’t live here. There is a line. It will create controversy, but who cares. Stand in the line and wait till a table opens. Talk to your date (but don’t read every yelp review of the place out loud to her like the phlegmy guy behind me). Yes, they should just have a list so you can go get a drink. I don’t think Anthony is stubborn enough to force this forever. There was an  attractive hostess greeting people, chatting about the pizza, the history, the process. Unfortunately, she’s just helping out temporarily (and she’s taken, boys). I suspect they’ll figure this out over time and get someone to manage the flow.

The design is very clean, very simple. Soaring high ceilings with beams as the sole contrast. Nothing to distract. A small collection of tables and a lot of open space. My guess is that the layout reflects the speed at which an artisanal product can be produced properly. He could have more tables in here, but he probably couldn’t keep up (or would he want to).

Anthony hovers over a simple station with a few bowls of his ingredients and  a stack of trays of his pillowy dough (Note that when the dough runs out so does your luck). It’s a clean station for a single-minded task. This guy makes pizzas. 4 kinds. All fairly similar. No meat – no veggies – no soup for you! I kept wanting to liken this guy to the Soup Nazi – but when you speak with Anthony he is so damn nice and smiley that the comparison ends at his work station and limited offerings.

 

Una Pizza Napoletana Oven

 

So for two people we ordered three pies, expecting to take home leftovers (we didn’t). We tried the Marinara, the Margherita and the Bianca. Now here’s where I go off a little… For the past 7 years I owned a high-end audio, video and home automation business. As a result, I often come in contact with types deemed as “audiophiles”. Truthfully, I hate the fucking term. It’s so elitist and pretentious and almost always self-prescribed and inaccurate. But what it boils down to is someone who has a sensitive enough ear to be able to hear the subtle differences between way-too expensive equipment, with the ultimate goal of perfecting sound reproduction. What always impresses me about true audiophiles is their ability to do this, free from a side-by-side comparison. It’s as if there is a reference standard imprinted on their brain, which they can recall at any time to compare.

As a food critic and chef, I would say I have a fairly refined palate, trained over many years of tasting the things I love over and over and over. There are a few items where I actually may approach the reference standard. Pizza is one of them. What I am getting at here is that like an audiophile, I can recall the landscape of pizza I’ve tasted throughout my life and generate an opinion of the requisite components (dough, sauce, cheese). I sat down this morning to do a side-by-side comparison in my head. And then I realized how pretentious and elitist it was (the phlegmy guy behind me was doing it out loud, in line). Sure I could compare this pizza to all the others but I’ve decided to give that up. Here’s my take on UPN on its own:

The dough is the star. Anthony uses a process of natural leavening (you can actually see a video of his entire process here) which produces the perfect balance of crisp on the outside, chewy in the middle. He’s also not afraid of salt. This is simply the way dough should be. Combine it with the smoke, ash, burns from his obsessively-maintained oven and you have something exceptional. The cheese and sauce are also very spot-on – not too sweet, just the right fat content.

All three pies were great, though I’d probably pass on the Marinara in favor of the Filetti. Generally I like a Marinara pizza on its own or along with a salad. But standing next to the other pizzas, it was a little lost. The cherry tomatoes on the Filettis we saw looked fantastic. The bianca started out as the surprise shining star. Fresh out of the oven there were hints of garlic, salt. The richness of the buffalo mozzarella popped in combination.

Una Pizza Napoletana Pizza Margherita

Moreover, I had an epiphany while eating the Margherita. It came after the pizza had a few minutes to settle. I often dive in while it is hot from the oven – cheese sliding around – roof of my mouth on fire. Yet, I confirmed last night that when a great pizza has time to settle a little (not too much for the cheese to harden and congeal), it actually gets better. The sauce intrudes slightly on the dough. The cheese distributes its fat and oils, the salt permeates everything. Try your pizza (just Margherita) after 8 minutes or so and you’ll see what I mean.

Una Pizza is a great place if you want to worship at the temple of pizza. Italians do this all of the time. Pizza is often consumed in the evening, by itself, over wine and conversation. The big meal is at lunch and takes hours with many courses. At UPN you get pizza, wine, beer – basta. And the pizza is near-perfect. I would wait in line any day to share with my good friends something that clearly contains so much artisanal skill, devotion to traditions, process and (yes the zealot is going to get cheesy) love.

New Skool!

For years I've driven up and down Potrero Hill, De Haro St. to be exact. Up to 22nd St. to my home. Down to Division St. for work. Back and forth, day after day. For the past two years there has been a curious sign on a showroom building at the corner of Alameda St. "restaurant space available". It was an odd location, but seemed to have a patio and from what I know of this neighborhood, a lot of potential. We've got Adobe, Advent, Zynga and every designer worth his salt within 4 blocks. And, we're dying for a real restaurant. I've dreamed often about selling my business and opening up something in that spot, who-knows-what, because I sensed this was a gem. Skool Sign

Grand Pu Bah tried, but it proved to be niche rather than the next Slanted Door. Pizza Nostra, from the Chez Papa gang, was a step up, but still didn't have the 'it' factor. There's a ton of adequate places nearby, from Patisserie Phillipe, Chez Papa, Sunflower, Aperto, Umi Sushi - but nothing would turn the heads of your garden-variety foodie. They're just neighborhood joints. Enter Skool.

The "space available" turns out to be a sexy spot for the next hot restaurant. I had lunch there today and got a lowdown from the owner. Apparently the landlord had a vision when he built the building years ago. He was willing to wait for the right people to come along to realize his vision. He built out the space with a designer's eye and the attention to detail is clear. The place just feels good.

The people he chose were the couple behind Blowfish, Andy Mirabell and his fiancée Olia Kedik. Moreover, they teamed up with another couple, Toshihiro and Hiroko Nagano in the kitchen. There's a definite young- entrepreneur vibe about the space, as the busy themselves to make your experience exceptional and to connect with their potential regulars.

Skool Aji Sandwich

Well, spank my ass and call me Sally, but I'm sold. The menu is loaded with healthy fish-forward options. There is a clear sophistication behind the cuisine and enough to keep me occupied enough to become a regular. I've only had the Aji sandwich with a side of fries and a cup of carrot-ginger soup, but I'm ready to go back for more. There's a coffee-marinated steak sandwich, flatbreads and a bunch of creative fish mains. I'll work my way through and offer a proper review top to bottom later.

What really has me sold is the idea of maximizing the sunshine of Potrero out on the patio, once they finalized their liquor license. Even on the rare foggy day the inside bar is a really appealing place to swill and they plan on some fab cocktails, designed by a Rye alum (I didn't get her name). Can you sayz happy hour?

Currently only open for lunch. Opening for dinner on July 9 Phone 415-255-8800 | Address 1725 Alameda Street, San Francisco, CA 94103Skype SkoolSFTwitter SkoolSFFacebook SkoolSF

Quick Review: Thermidor

Cool concept. Walking in to Thermidor, located in the ever-expanding culinary bastion of Mint Plaza, feels like stepping onto the set of Mad Men. The hostess was dolled up in a dress with a bow and could easily pass for a Don Draper conquest. The wood-panel decor nails the mid-century-modern vibe that has dominated the design world in recent years. This is the latest concept venture of Spork's Bruce Binn and Neil Jorgenson.

The food continues the theme with unwavering dedication. Though I barely touched the 60's, I still recall dishes like pommes Dauphine, celery Victor, scallops Newburg and sole amandine. I was excited to see chicken Keiv, one of my favorite indulgences from childhood, and Lobster Thermidor, the namesake and specialty of the house.

While the food was good, I think they are missing the boat at Thermidor. Most of the dishes we tried came out very traditional versus the modern interpretations I was expecting. It seems they are taking the theme somewhat too literally for my preference. I would have like to have seen them reinvent the form (perhaps unleash the Voltaggio Brothers on the menu?). Deconstruct!

The Pommes were fried potatoes, pretty straighforward. The Caesar salad was creamy, despite my inquiry and assurance that it was traditional style. The standout app was a potato chip with smoked fish, roe and créme fraiche. The mains didn't go much further than advertised, though the Sole Almondine did have a nice gnocchi accompaniment. The Lobster Thermidor was tasty enough, but again, lacking innovation and a painfully small portion at $32.

The cocktail menu actually delivers on the concept. Brooke Arthur has updated classics in a way that should inspire the kitchen. I'd come here for a drink anytime, and maybe jump over to 54 Mint (the authentic Italian place across the plaza) for dinner.

The Dinner Party Guest

I don't get invited to enough dinner parties. I backed myself into this corner. I believe it's mostly because I am a food snob and a vocal one at that. I mean who would want to cook for someone that has such high expectations for every meal he eats AND might just write about it online? And frankly, my friends are justified for their sensitivity. I judge. I notice subtleties. I criticize, even if it is in my own head. Who would want that pressure? Still, I have a dark, and very pedestrian, side to my culinary experience. I eat Spaghettios. I love Stouffer's Creamed Chipped Beef. I have a soft spot for all things crap (in fact I have a post queued up called "Eat Shit"). So, while I wear my judges hat in many realms, I try to spare my friends the expectation of performing for a critic. If you're reading this, I'll be expecting an inbox filled with invites...

A few months ago I was invited to a dinner by a relatively new friend we shall now call from this point forward "the Contessa". While technically not a Contessa by Italian aristocracy (I think), she has regal qualities, an impeccable social standing, refined tastes and a certain air of luxuriousness that follows her every move. She owns a Napa estate that makes Olive Oil for celebrity chefs. She pals around with the SF Opera elite. You wouldn't necessarily put us together...until we start talking about food. The Contessa and I are soul mates in our zealotry for everything about food, and especially Italian. So, when the invitation came to join her at a home of some friends for dinner, I didn't have to think twice.

Frankly, my life is so chaotic these days that I didn't pay much attention to the specifics of the invite. I knew they were friends and somehow into food but I didn't delve into the specifics. It was enough that the Contessa wanted me there. We'd play it by ear. My calendar invite read "Ciao Adam happy New Year!!! Tiziana wish to have confirmation you and me will go to her Piemontese dinner."

When we arrived at the lovely loft in Mint Plaza we met our hosts Tiziana and John. It turns out that she is a photographer, who specializes in food. He is an importer of Italian culinary delights (Un Po Pazzo - click on this link to visit), particularly from the Piedmont region. Tiziana is from Piedmont and I immediately knew we were in for a treat. When an Italian is cooking with confidence I'm putty in their hands. The traditions run so deep and food is so engrained in their culture that I am almost embarrassed to claim that I cook Italian food. The mastery and skill of Italian regional chefs, including amateurs and home chefs, makes my dabbling seem Mickey Mouse.

I could see as I entered that Tiziana was organized and had put an effort into this meal, but I joked that it was probably effortless for her, even if it took her days. We started with a simple platter of the finest cheese known to man, in my opinion, Parmigiano-Reggiano. But this wasn't just plain old Reggiano. No, it was Vacche Rosse, a special variety of the lauded formaggio made exclusively under a traditional process including prime red cows. The taste was subtly different than your average PR. It was a little more mellow, like a nice aged Cab, with a more crumbly texture (it was aged 4-years versus the 2-3 year we typically eat). I wolfed down a bunch along with some homemade foccacia that was lovely.

I watched Tiziana working her salad, which included seasonal greens topped with some poached shellfish, including squid and shrimp. She mixed in some of the fish liquid with the dressing which added a hint of seaspray to the dressing, marrying the fish and the salad. I never thought to do that, but loved the result. Otherwise, your salad would just have a topping of fish, without any real tie to the entirety of the dish. Brava!

Next came the Agnolotti del Plin. Interestingly enough, the first time I tried this dish was the night before at Flour + Water. When it rains it pours! This traditional Piemontese dish is a pasta (Agnolotti) that is pinched (del Plin) to seal it. In both cases it was stuffed with a veal, chard, pork filling and served in a light butter sauce. Flour + Water did a great job. It was light and lovely. Their pasta was incredibly delicate, which I love, but I never would have guessed it was a little too soft, by comparison. But Tiziana had the home field advantage here and brought out subtleties that you'd be hard-pressed to find in a restaurant. The sauce was simple and sparing, just enough to kiss the pasta but not overpower it. The filling bursted with flavor, surrounded by a silk blanket of pasta that retained a little bite of al dente. Brava again!

If that wasn't enough, our next course was a brisket served with a deep, dark barolo sauce and a light vegetable melange. Her skill at cutting a brunoise was apparent and the lightly-herbed vegetables played a nice counter to the rich meat. As for the sauce, I can confidently say that I have never made such a lovely elixir myself. I find this type of sauce to be elusive for my culinary talents and I made a decision to try to add a few to my repertoire. It was rich and buttery and meaty and rich and barolo-y. I couldn't get enough.

I must comment that John was no slouch with his additions to the meal. He paired wines impeccably, all from Piemonte. The cheese was from his import company (I'm planning to buy some hunks if anyone wants to split the wheel up). He shared some tomatoes that he claims are far superior to your average DOP San Marzanos I swear by.  And his stories of his life's careers and capers were incredibly interesting.

Dessert was another regional treat called Bonèt, a custard with ground almond cookies. Paired with a perfect dessert wine (which I will count on John posting in the comments) the night ended on a high note.

As we walked out into the crisp night air I thought about a few things. First, I was wowed by a great meal. How lucky to share such treats with the Contessa and her friends. I cannot wait until I have the chance to visit her Napa estate or, better yet, meet up in Italy for the real thing. And...I love going to dinner parties. It's not just the food, but the company and the opportunity to talk in small groups. And for the rare opportunity I have to score an invite, I don't have to do the cooking.

Emelia's Pizza - The Long Awaited Review

I relish reviewing pizza. Any regular reader knows that this is probably my most common theme. Last year's onslaught of Neapolitan joints doesn't seem to be slowing in twenty-ten. Bring it on. Emelia's is a bit of an enigma. Yelpers just love it. Best they ever had. Gives Berkeley some serious bragging rites as a pizza powerhouse (adding to Arinelle and [uggh] Zachary's). There's a lot of mystery around the place. It's got odd hours and a rigid ordering process. In fact, they suggest you call ahead to reserve your pizza, requiring you choose your toppings at that time. They seem like very nice people, yet I sense an underlying Soup Nazi vibe...Still, there's a preciousness about it all.

The location is a little odd, a non-descript gas-station corner at Shattuck and Ashby. It's the sort of corner I've driven past countless times, but never had cause to stop. There's a gaggle of businesses that may or may not have included a laundromat, a taqueria, a cheesesteak place, a salon...The interior looks like a tiny East Coast slice joint (yet there are a couple of signs touting No Slices [For You]). One might say it's a bit of a hole in the wall, but I suspect if the mojo keeps going, and the owner is able to figure out a business model, they might ride a wave to better digs.

Emelia's Pizza - Berkeley

But really we're here for the pizza and Emelia's is an interesting bird. The construct defies any traditional stereotypes. It's not Neapolitan, though has influences. It's not New York style, though clearly has similarities. In a subtle way, Emelia's is defining it's own category. This presents me with a bit of a quagmire, because I cannot review it based upon references and drop into any hierarchy.

The 18" pie is the only choice with some straightforward toppings. The owner is very coy about his secrets, which I found a little unnecessary. I inquired about tomatoes and cheese and got nada. Even the best pizzaiolos are confident enough to share their ingredients. Hell, in Naples the law dictates the ingredients - it's no secret. The size is much more akin to New York style, yet the crust, thickness and toppings are clearly closer to Neapolitan.

The sauce was my least favorite part, though it was not bad. To me it could have been a little sweeter - it reminded me of Flour + Water on my first visits, which they subsequently worked out well. The cheese was outstanding and the crust was spot on, bottom to edge. There were brilliant bubbles from the oven and a little bit of the chewy, crunchy balance I like. The cheese was a fresh mozzarella variety, not quite as runny as a typical burrata, but close. A smattering of basil leaves were scattered about.

So, how to rank this? I'm jaded because I love the Neapolitan and New York forms unto themselves. They provide a great reference point. I don't think it stands up to the best of the best of the best. The owner spent time working for Pizzaiolo, but I think Charlie still takes top billing in the East Bay. Arinelle still nails the [inconsistent] title of proper NY slice in my book. But there is a solid place in the second tier for Emelia's. I can see craving it, which surprises me. This would be a GREAT party pie, as you get the flavor of Naples but the size of New York. Order a few, but call early.

Lastly, I gained some insight into the owner's strategy after happening upon a poetry slam at a dive bar up the street. He was packing up and I asked him about the name. His young daughter is Emelia. He's working his butt off to keep the quality high and churn out as many pizzas as he can, without missing out too much on her developmental years. As a dad, I get that. It makes sense for the odd hours and limited quantity. I wish him the best to scale his idea, hire some solid staff and capitalize on some damn good pizza.

Lafitte is a Butter Face!

Here we go again...it seems like I get a stick up my ass about a place and that's the motivation I need to write. My last post was weeks ago and life was going along just fine. Not too much controversy, minding my own damn business, keeping my head above water, blah blah blah. Then I had two instances to try out newcomer restaurant, former underground dining, 19th century pirate - Lafitte. First was a dinner and then I mistakenly booked a business lunch later in the week. I decided I'd give them a Bauer treatment and visit multiple times. Man was it ugly. Cincinnati Bengal

First, let's get the Butter Face thing out of the way. According to the urban dictionary, a butter face is:

A girl with an exceptionally hot body but an exceptionally ugly face. "Everything but-her-face is attractive"

I don't want to come off misogynistic, but "but-his-face" just doesn't have the same panache. Personally, I always liked the term "Cincinnati Bengal" which boils down to "Nice Uniform, Shitty Helmet".

So you enter Lafitte and realize someone spent some dough to make it look nice. Clean lines, pretty views - very much a part of the Embarcadero Renaissance that is happening right now. Not very underground. One could easily say that the 'uniform' is quite nice. Well done.

Lafitte Interior

Then there is the food. For clarification's sake, if you haven't picked up on where I'm heading with this you should be lobotomized I'll spell it out - the food is the 'face' or 'helmet'. And, fuck me, she's an ugly bitch!

I don't like to cast stones too easily well yes I do, and look how I've discovered this nifty stikethrough button woo hoo not only did I have two experiences to confirm this, but tonight I attended a food event where multiple trusted colleagues confirmed my assessment. Checking the Yelpasphere shows similar discontent. This dog has fleas.

Without getting into much detail, I'll give you my basic impression.

For lunch there were several missteps. Little gems are a treasure to me and I've rarely seen them so beaten and battered and unkempt while dressed in a watered-down mess (served with a flavorless, mushy polenta 'cake'). The pasta dish I ordered was billed as 'Fusilli Pasta: lobster, pea shoots, & spring onions'. In the hands of a competent chef, that sounds rather tasty. One might expect some fresh, silky pasta in a pool of savory sauce and hunks of tender lobster for $18 at lunch. Rather, I received boxed dry fusilli (I ain't kidding, like Barila) served with micro bits of chewy lobster-like substance and some manky greens on top. To their credit, the sauce was ok. But the crown jewel was a 'dagwood' sando that had 4 monster slices of bread, stuffed with rabbit terrine, bacon and black bass. Really? Really? Thank god I wasn't paying.

Dinner was slightly better, but not that much so. A morel and asparagus quiche was served cold and flavorless. The squash blossom pasta was 'meh', as was the chicken with morels. The best thing of the night was Pan Roasted Padrons & Boquerones Vinagrette. But I could make that at home. Mine would be better. Seriously, I'll give you a recipe.

This all leads me to a gripe. I'll likely need to expand on this in another post. But just for argument's sake, how is it possible that a restaurant can be so oblivious to their misgivings when your entire world is in food? It wasn't hard for at dozen or so people with whom I've discussed Lafitte to uniformly identify multiple major problems. What's going on there that makes them so blind? I'm guessing that sometimes a butter face actually doesn't really know she's a butter face. Hmmm.

I suppose the word is out, because on both occasions the place was barren. With lines down the block at La Mar, Slanted Door and The Plant Cafe, it's not like the potential isn't there. It might be time to hoist the sails, matey, and head back to the underground. This butter face needs some reconstructive plastic surgery, stat!

Superhero Party + Italian Torta Recipe!

Today was my son's 5th birthday party. Yeah, the Zealot is a dad. And I love birthday parties. In the same way I like to shake things up for holidays, like Thanksgiving, I relish the chance to pull out something unique for my kid's parties. Frankly, it's mostly about feeding the adults, but occasionally I get into the kid food too. Captain America Birthday Boy

The first year we had a May-day celebration with pizza-on-the-grill. Everyone got to make their own with crazy toppings. The hot fire on the weber was perfect for smokey crisp crusts.

Pizza on the Grill Toppings

Years two and three we embraced cinco de mayo, one year with cochinita pibil - a yucutan pit-pork concoction that can knock socks. The other year we did carne asada, flank style.

Little Man and His Pinata

Last year I grilled some Fatted Calf sausages for a Pirate party in Ft. Mason, complete with a cannon and real live pirate actor guy.

Real Live Pirate Actor Guy

This year it was superheroes. Lots and lots of superheroes. Thirty of em. Plus their parents. The food was a challenge because we were at Potrero Del Sol Park with no grilling and blazing sun. So, for the kids we decided on simple sandwiches. But since my son was going to be Captain America, I decided to use his shield for inspiration and viola, a fucking Martha Stewart moment:

Captain America Sandwiches

For the adults, I threw together a faro, pasta, cherry tomato, ricotta salata and baby arugula salad. It was quick, simple and tasty. It also held up surprisingly well to the heat:

Salad with Faro, Pasta, Arugula and Ricotta Salata

But the real winner, at least in my opinion was a Torta I made on a whim hoping to find something that would work well at room temperature or sweatier. Since I had never made one, I was concerned. While it didn't rock my world, it was really quite good and I now have a better understanding of the form, to improve in subsequent tries. I'll share with you my experience  and a recipe below.

Torta with Bellweather Farms Ricotta and Boccolone Meats

So a torta is typically an Easter dish, that can include any combination of stuffings, like artichokes, cured meats, spinach, cheeses, etc. It's baked in a double pie crust and served room temperature or cold. It sort of resembles a quiche, except that the center is denser than a custard, especially when cold.

For mine, I scoured a number of recipes and determined to go at it freestyle. For the crust, I used Food & Wine's Flakey Double-Crust Pastry Recipe [click for link] but substituted the shortening with Boccalone Lard. I've been told that lard is actually better for you than the hydrogenated shortening and gives you better texture and flavor. I'll have to try both to give my opinion, but I liked the crust with the lard and it was definitely a conversation piece.

For the fillings I took Boccalone mortadella, prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) and capicola and pulsed them a few times in the food processor. This gave a nice ham salad sort of texture. I mixed it all with an egg to bind. Next I grabbed some stellar Bellweather Farm's Jersey basket ricotta. It has low moisture so it won't ruin the crust. I mixed it with some aged provolone and pecorino fresco. Lastly I sauteed some baby spinach, drained and dried it and tossed it with some reggiano and a couple of eggs to bind.

The assembly was simple. After laying in the pie crust I alternated meat, cheese, spinach then cheese, meat crust. Base it in a 375 oven for an hour or so, until the crust is golden then refrigerate over night.

I think the whole thing could have used more salt. But the earthiness of the lardo crust played really well with the meats and the cheeses added some sweetness with a little sharp kick from the provolone. The spinach was sort of prosaic and I'd love to give artichokes, chard or broccoli rabe a try. But most importantly it help up amazingly well in direct sun for a couple of hours. It didn't sweat or break down in the least.

Meatball Sunday Interlude

I talk a lot about meatballs. I also put my money where my mouth is sometimes. Here's some food porn of this Sunday's concotion. Zealot Meatballs

Check out my post about how to make meatballs for the guidelines. This version was beef, pork, veal (equal portions) with porcini mushrooms, Vidalia onions & ricotta. They are served over some lovely baby arugula, tossed in olive oil, sea salt and pepper - an warm Acme ciabatta and a mound of ricotta drizzled with more olive oil.

Veral, Ricotta & Porcini Meatballs

Meatballs, Baby Arugula Ricotta, Acme Ciabatta

Ring of Fire, Part 1

Ring of Fire, Part 1

Give me a fire and I will cook! My mantra for the summer is going to be something like this. I've never put it into words, but I am fanatical about cooking over a fire, ideally outdoors, even better in the wilderness. There's something primal about taming the wild fire and coaxing a culinary concoction and the more challenging the environment, the more satisfying the results. That said, I'm starting a short series on the subject. Upcoming posts will be about backyard grilling, followed by car camping and then backpacking. In each case, I will share some recipes, techniques, tools and tidbits on how to maximize each experience to the fullest.

But for now, I want to share a story about one of my favorite dishes to cook over fire and how I learned it...

I was working on an archaeological excavation in Israel in the early 90's at a place called Caesarea Maritima. The location couldn't have been more idyllic, perched on a flour-white sand beach on the Mediterranean Sea. The Israeli Olympic team had headquarters that provided us accommodations and there was a welcoming town nearby. The volunteers on the excavation were college students from across the country and you couldn't imagine a more exciting and alluring environment to spend a summer. I often recall it as summer camp for adults.

Throughout the summer I had the good fortune of working in a trench that turned out to be one of the top archaeological finds of the year. A wonderous Byzantine mosaic floor of a marketplace scene was identified in our trench and we spent weeks carefully removing the dirt and then chipping away a layers of oxidization to reveal the art beneath.

Zealot the Archaeologist
Zealot the Archaeologist

Our average day was as follows: Wake at 4:30am and have first breakfast. Dig at sunrise and return for second breakfast around 9am. By noon the sun was so hot that we'd head to lunch and call it a day. The afternoons were spent poking through the shards and tidbits we uncovered or just hanging out on the beach, surfing or napping. Early evening was time to classify our finds and we'd spend hours underneath tents of mesh netting picking through pottery bits. In the evening we'd have classes with the professors and usually wind up at the bar to get piss-drunk. Wake up - start over.

When it was determined that our mosaic floor was of significant importance, a team of Italian preservationists were called in to take over. The site was too delicate to leave in the hands of students any longer. Because the Israelis didn't speak Italian and the Italians barely spoke English, let alone Hebrew, I was asked to stick around and translate as necessary between the crews. It was a wonderful opportunity. And mostly because I got to hang out with the Italians!

Which brings me to the relevance of my tale. Despite having lived a year in Italy, I had never had proper bruschetta (and let's clear this up again people - it's pronounced Bru-Schket-Tah or Bru-Sket-Tah, depending on where you're from - please stop with the Bru-Shet-Tah!) The Italians showed up and immediately adapted their lifestyle. It wasn't hard for them to track down the right tomatoes, the right cheeses, the right pasta. It just seemed to magically appear, as if we were in Tuscany. And it was often cooked over fire.

When Bruschetta is done properly, it has a balance of flavors that combine to create a treat for the ages. Many cultures mimic the form, like Pa amb tomàquet, the Catalan bread where they rub tomato on toast and season with olive oil and salt. Or, Lathovrekhto, the greek style bruschetta that may include vegetable spreads or just oil and salt.  But, it is the Italian variety that reins supreme.

The origin comes from the word bruscare, which means to roast over coals. In it's purest form the bread retains the smokiness and char from the grill, which is then rubbed with garlic and coated in olive oil and salt. By rubbing the garlic you get the essence without any bitterness. The play between the smoke and the sweetness of the oil, drawn out by the salt is just perfection.

But where it really gets interesting for me is when you top the bruschetta with some Roma tomatoes, cut to a brunoise size, tossed with olive oil and salt and heaped on top. Add some basil if that's your thing (I like it chiffonade if so...) Of course a shot of fresh-cracked pepper is essential. The cool-sweet tomatoes add a another layer to the experience and it all just comes together. Something so simple, yet so perfectly right.

The Italians would end their day and set up their grill on a nearby golf course as we watched the sunset - drinking, singing, dancing, joking and eating. And eating. And drinking! I learned bruschetta here. It didn't take much. It will last a lifetime.

Crab Cakes

I am so backed up with posts that I might explode. Just because the Zealot isn't writing a lot, doesn't mean my world still doesn't revolve around food. Au Contraire, Mon Fraire! But I struggle with where to being again. How do I separate the wheat from the chaff? I think the best place to start, and the biggest disservice I did to you, was to leave you high and dry at Thanksgiving. I'll make up for it. I've got some doozies. Thanksgiving is my holiday, bitches. That's right, I said it. I own it. I consider it a personal challenge to remain inventive in the face of honoring traditions and meeting (or exceeding) expectations from TDays past. Plus, I am working to let go of my obsessive control and include others in the process. Add all of this up and the fact that I am often drunk (see below) mid-way through the evening and it is a herculean effort to rock TDay.

Epicurean Zealot Crab Cakes

This year I've got two standout dishes that I'll share. Today it's my crab cakes. Later on I'll share the sweet potato gnocchi dish I unveiled this year. Let me start by explaining my two most important TDay traditions. First, the middle of November is the start of dungeness crab season in Northern California. Some years the first crab I taste is on Thanksgiving. This year I had a week or so to revisit my sweet meat before popping out some cakes for the holiday.

My other tradition is tequila. It's a convoluted path to tequila but ultimately I owe Uncle Lou thanks. You see, when I lived in Colorado my Aunt and Uncle (Lou's brother-in-law) had recently moved from the east coast to Colorado springs so they could opt out of the rat race and smoke a lot of dope. Lou was a tour guide of sorts to the laid-back Colorado mountain life. He was an animated character and over-the-top personality that ultimately turned out to be scumbag. But Lou gave us tequila at Thanksgiving. Nobody was spared a shot and it really amped up the festivities.

Epicurean Zealot Crab Cakes

Back to the crab. Those unfamiliar with dungeness might not appreciate the stringy texture (compared to your average lump meat or Maryland claws). It is incredibly laborious pickings, but the effort rewards you with sweetness and a fresh sea flavor that I love. My journey starts with a call to the docks - Larry of the "Genesis" and Crabs Ahoy (408) 489-4808 or Bill of "Cricket" (925) 757-8615. The past few years have been slow for the crab fishermen so it's best to call down to one or more of the boatmen to see if they have some catch. Then we hop in the car and drive 30 minutes to Pillar Point Harbor, outside of Half Moon Bay to buy some buggers fresh off the boat.

Back at the homestead we boil a monster pot of water with bay leaf and peppercorns and drop our friends in for 12-14 minutes. I leave them in a sink to cool down before the long task of cleaning and cracking and picking. There is an art to this and if you're a newbie, you'll want to google some instructions. At the end you'll have a big pile of crab meat. I got about 30 crab balls out of six crabs. You do the math.

Epicurean Zealot Crab Cakes

At last we make the cakes. But I said balls. What gives? I've discovered this year that I think I prefer a round crab cake in a ball over the traditional form. It looks better and the pent up steam inside billows as you cut into them. Moreover, the crust to crab ratio seems ideal. Here's the drill:

In a large bowl toss your crabmeat gently (you don't want to break it up too much so you get big hunks of claw meat in every bite) with enough good mayo and a little sour cream (this year I tried Greek Yogurt instead and it was AMAZING) to wet the crab but not drown it. Add a few dashes of worchestershire and tabasco (enough to taste but not overpower). Then some dijon mustard (a spoonful or more, depending on your preference, but again don't overpower). Next throw in some chopped green onions, a lot of them - don't be shy here. This is the best contrast flavor to the crab. If you are making more than a crab's worth, I would add about an egg for every two crabs. The binding becomes necessary when cooking in quantity. Then, add some panko breadcrumbs, enough to give the batter some stick to it. It should hold it's shape for frying. Salt and pepper to taste.

I like to use a butter and oil blend. Olive oil alone would be fine. Form the cakes into golf balls. Then roll them in panko to create a crust. Cook them over medium high flame until the brown and rotate them multiple times to get all sides brown. Handle them carefully as they will fall apart without much effort. Because you are cooking on multiple sides, as opposed to two with a traditional cake, I feel the insides cook better and have a steamy quality.

Epicurean Zealot Crab Cakes

I served this year's cakes on a strip of pureed red pepper and horseradish sauce. You can do whatever suits you. Make sure to have a citrus (lemon or lime) wedge. Serve em hot. At least a half dozen of our guests this year said these were the best crab cakes they ever ate. It might have been the freshness. Perhaps the recipe is that good. Maybe they were just too damn drunk to know. So, the moral of the story is to serve tequila with your crab and you too might be the star of the night!

Khao Soi to Warm Your Bones

It's time again for that special soup that I wrote about [link] to make an appearance. Wednesday night from 5-8pm Grand Pu Bah will be dishing out the steamy elixir known as Khao Soi. I strongly suggest you call for a reservation (415.255.8188) and while you're at it, sign up for a Thai Massage before or after your dinner. They are offering a special $1 per minute in conjunction with the soup thing. Get 2 hours. Trust me.

Color Me Kindle

KindleI just received a notice that if I do not update my blog within 60 days I cannot be a part of the Kindle store. Well, if that ain't a kick in the pants, I don't know what is! Really, Kindle? Little ole' me? Ok, I'll bite. Here's an update: The Zealot has been grounded for a while. I sold my business last month and now actually have a boss and a real job. Don't feel sorry for me, it was a great deal and I am in a great position in the new gig. I couldn't be happier to be free of the stresses of entrepreneurship. What a fucking grind the last 20 years have been!

As for food, it's been a great time. I have a ton of posts backlogged and as I get settled I'll get cracking on content. I'm not going away and, in fact, I'm stepping up my game.

So, hang tight, you little kindler types. The Zealot returns......