Jun
15
2014

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Creative Asian-influenced cocktails from Danny Louie at brand new Chino in the Mission

Creative Asian-influenced cocktails from Danny Louie at brand new Chino in the Mission

My Top Drink Recommends: June 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some of this coverage here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for the Bay Area here and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily.

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground daily looking for early standouts at each new opening, while sharing underrated places and dishes you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and, of course, plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

Spirits

4 NEW LOCAL SPIRITS from a rye and New Orleans-influenced coffee liqueur, to a California aperitif and a sloe gin

Cocktails

The 5 BEST MARGARITAS in San Francisco

6 early favorite cocktails from Bar Manager Danny Louie at CHINO

5 classic NEGRONIS to seek out in San Francisco

FIRST LOOK at THE INTERVAL at the Long Now Salon, complete with robot behind the bar and a Drinking Around the World menu (among 8 mini cocktail menus from Bar Manager Jennifer Colliau)

What to eat & drink at the new Paris-meets-NY chic hotel bar, THE EUROPEAN

NEGRONI WEEK Highlights

Coffee

Unsung Heroes: GRAFFEO COFFEE since 1935

Tea

Check out the new SAMOVAR: you’ve never had tea like this

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Mar
15
2014

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St George Coffee 2- Virginia Miller

St. George’s New Nola Coffee Liqueur

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

I adore New Orleans. I adore coffee. And I adore St. George Spirits. So I was (naturally) pleased to hear St. George was releasing Nola Coffee Liqueur. On its way to stores and bars as we “speak”, this new coffee liqueur starts local with cold-brewed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee beans roasted by Jewel Box Coffee Roasters, an up-and-comer in Oakland, just reaching funding for their business via Kickstarter.

St George Coffee - Virginia MillerSt. George distiller Dave Smith cold-brews the coffee with their vodka base, adds distilled French chicory root, Madagascar vanilla and organic cane sugar. It’s like fresh, bracing, cold-brewed coffee… meaning it’s beautiful neat, on ice. The liqueur is earthy and rich, with a whisper of sweet vanilla, and that New Orleans spirit from the chicory.

I’ll take it neat but it’s also a winner with cream. Sipping it on ice transports me straight back to the hot, sultry streets of Nola where I down chicory iced coffee as if it were water – and it’s nearly as thirst-quenching. Though I haven’t had a chance to experiment with it in cocktails yet, it begs for new cocktail recipes to showcase it, while it would immediately upgrade any “guilty pleasure” Kahlua-type cocktail (Mudslides or White Russians, anyone?)

The label is gorgeous, in keeping with the style of the labels and bottle shape of St. George’s gins and agricole rum, with nods to New Orleans: hints of purple, a drawing of St. Louis Cathedral and the ubiquitous symbol of the city, the fleur de lys. There’s also a tie in with California and their Dry Rye Gin: just as the Dry Rye sports a martini glass in a bear trap (California’s state animal being the grizzly bear), the Nola bottle shows a coffee cup and spoon in a bear trap as Louisiana’s is a black bear. New Orleans is the city where Smith fell in love with his wife, and as a tribute to her, the liqueur carries heart and soul behind its robust, balanced flavor.

Quoting the label – and New Orleanians: “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll!)

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Oct
01
2013

Imbiber

Red Rabbit's Krakow Salt Mine

Red Rabbit’s Krakow Salt Mine

DRINKING in SAC TOWN

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Grappling Hook at Hook & Ladder

Grappling Hook at Hook & Ladder

Sac Town, our California Gold Country capital… known for its politics, surrounded by the boundless produce of inland California which us city dwellers richly benefit from. It’s a town I stop to dine in on the way to or from Tahoe but have only stayed the weekend in a couple times, despite its close proximity to San Francisco. A recent revisit meant I trekked to at least eight spots a day, combing the city’s restaurants, bars, coffee houses and more (read about food/dining here; and my slideshow article on Sacramento highlights for PureWow.

While they’ve been a beer town for awhile, the formerly non-existent cocktail scene has grown exponentially the last five years, throwing its 5th Cocktail Week this August. Innovation isn’t the town’s strong suit, compared to what’s long been happening in other cities around the world – the focus is instead on approachable, straightforward drinks using quality spirits. Wine is growing in sophistication with some small producers exhibiting Old World restraint despite inland heat, as at Revolution.

Red Rabbit

Red Rabbit’s Chappelle Cocktail

Getting the worst out of the way, there was an appalling four spots in one weekend (far more than I experience at home or in frequent trips around the world) where service was lackluster to downright bad. In fact, for those I bothered to give a second chance to (something I typically cannot do, particularly when visiting eight places in a day), service only improved when meeting with a manager. A warm welcome, if not knowledgeable, engaged service, should be standard in raved-about places. Given the wealth of amazing spots in Nor Cal, it’s maddening to pay to be treated with indifference, or, as happened at a renowned cocktail bar, to leave a watery, tasteless drink virtually untouched, and not even be asked if everything was ok when I paid for it.

Compared to what we’re surrounded by in San Francisco, Sac might not (at first glance) seem to be making waves. But it’s a town that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Though you might see trends (gourmet donuts & hipster, third wave coffee, etc.) that have been established for years in other cities, Sacramento seems to be finding that sweet spot of embracing the bounty surrounding it and expressing it straightforwardly. Food and drink aficionados can find plenty to satiate here, graced with a California heartland freshness.

Wine

REVOLUTION WINES

Revolution Wines - Virginia Miller

St. Rey Celeste

At Revolution – a winery, restaurant and tasting room in the heart of town – Winemaker Craig Haarmeyer graciously tasted me through their wines from the barrel and the bottle. The whites are a balanced pleasure, like a crisp St. Rey Albarino ($22 per bottle) or grassy, floral, whole cluster Sauvignon Blanc ($19), rested in stainless steel. There are also nuanced reds like the Celeste Sacramento County blend ($30) or pepper-berry notes of a blessedly acidic Zinfandel ($26).

Haarmeyer is experimenting with Syrah grapes grown at over 2500 feet above the nearby town of Auburn. He wisely picks early, veering away from overripeness, ensuring elegant balance to his wines (not to mention the value for the quality). I was privileged to sample an experimental dry vermouth, made with rose petals, rosemary, black pepper, gentian, quinine and sage. I immediately began picturing its best gin pairing, imagining it in a martini – I hope it might be a future release.

Beer

TRACK 7 BREWING

Track 7

Track 7

Sac Town’s cult brewery, Track 7 Brewing, recently turned 1 year old, celebrating with a double-hopped version of their popular Panic IPA, a pleasingly bitter, lively release I had on draft at nearby Red Rabbit.

Friends and former home brewers, Geoff Scott and Ryan Graham, run a welcoming garage brewery where you can bring in your own food or eat from a revolving lineup of food trucks (like Chando’s Taqueria, Krush Burger, Orale Mole, Mama Kim Cooks, etc…), fill up growlers, and sample beers.

After sampling eight beers at the brewery, my favorites (besides the passion fruit bitter of the Panic IPA) are a bright and bready Delta King Saison or malty-earthy Soulman Stout. There are countless fantastic breweries in California, and Track 7 is one of them.

Bars

Inviting bar

Inviting bar

RED RABBIT

Besides being the kind of restaurant that serves winning fusion combinations like a pastrami stir-fry ($14.50), The Red Rabbit is a laid back, friendly, all-day watering hole.

Barman/Owner Matt Nurge (one of the cocktail pioneers in the area who helped open The Shady Lady) ensures quality cocktails ($8-9), heavy on classics like a Boulevardier or Chappelle Cocktail (gin, sweet vermouth, lime, falernum, pineapple). Try the signature house cocktail, Krakow Salt Mine, a salty-sweet refresher of Zubrowka vodka, apple cider, lemon, ginger beer, and kosher salt. The vibe is right at Red Rabbit: relaxed without sacrificing quality.

GRANGE

Elegant Long Island Iced Tea

Elegant Long Island Iced Tea

At Grange in the Citizen Hotel, engaging Bar Manager Ryan Seng (also one of the opening crew at Shady Lady) has created a strong cocktail program, and from what I could see, trains staff well based on the gracious service I encountered even when he was not around.

Seng runs a smart house barrel program with three personally-selected barrels of Bols Genever, Herradura Reposado tequila and Woodford Reserve bourbon he selected in their home country/distillery of origin (in fact, I saw his barrel of Bols Genever in the Bols warehouse outside of Amsterdam when I visited this May, ready to be shipped to California).

Tusk

Tusk

My favorite cocktail at Grange is Seng’s blend of all three house barrels into a boozy-elegant (yes, elegant) Long Island Iced Tea. I’ve never liked that sloppy, booze monster of a drink, but this version makes me reconsider. Another standout is the Grange Margarita ($14) made with their Herradura double barrel reposado tequila, house curacao, lime and agave, rimmed with smoked lime sea salt.

Tusk ($10), a savory-sweet blend of Four Roses bourbon, bacon vermouth and absolutely delicious candied bacon, is sweet and gratifyingly robust. Though I’ve seen bacon-infused whiskey many a time over the years around the US, Seng’s version is a crowd-pleaser.  Spectacular Spectacular ($12) is the aperitif of choice, using Hendrick’s Gin and Grange select barrel aged Bols Genever, mixed with plum, lemon and topped with Prosecco, making a dry, pre-dinner refresher.

HOOK & LADDER

Hook & Ladder's special brand branded via iron onto citrus peels

Hook & Ladder’s special brand branded via iron onto citrus peels

Hook & Ladder is a go-to for low key drinks, rotating cocktails on tap, and a solid collection of craft spirits. The bar is run by Chris Tucker, who was one of the pioneering bartenders to usher in Sacramento’s cocktail renaissance (another in the opening crew at The Shady Lady). He’s got other potential projects in the works, but at H&L, he’s the one person in town featuring a hand-cut ice program and an unusual (and smart) designated driver drink section where house ginger beer, honey blueberry lemonade or a strawberry shrub with soda ($3 each) are free for designated drivers.

Pimm's Proper

Pimm’s Proper

Besides local draft beers like Berryessa or Track 7, there’s wines on tap (like Saintsbury Chardonnay) or nearby producers I’ve enjoyed in recent years such as Lee Family Farm Rio Tinto ($9/32). The cocktail menu is straightforward and fun, offering Cheekies (one-ounce social shots), highballs, bucks, and rotating draft cocktails ($8-9) of classics like a Negroni, Bijou, Martinez, all barrel aged in a 6-gallon French oak barrel.

Pimm’s Proper ($8) is a variation on the Pimm’s Cup combining Pimm’s, gin, lemon juice and ginger beer, or there’s a Grappling Hook ($8) showcasing Candolini Grappa Ruta with Punt E Mes sweet vermouth and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. My favorite cocktail is seemingly simple: Tucker’s La Fresa ($9) mixes Espolon Blanco tequila with a house strawberry shrub. The shrub is all tart, vinegar brightness – as a good shrub should be – restrained strawberry made complex and savory by salt, pepper, coriander.

HOCK FARM CRAFT & PROVISIONS

Hock Farm's playful-chic decor

Hock Farm’s playful-chic decor

New Hock Farm Craft & Provisions, serves farm-fresh food sourced from nearby farms – far from a unique concept (think ubiquitous gourmet deviled eggs, fried green tomato BLTs, etc.), but it’s well-executed and comforting, the menu featuring a map highlighting the wealth of nearby produce and animal sources, county-by-county.

Bottled cocktails &  bacon popcorn

Bottled cocktails & bacon popcorn

What stood out at spacious, well-designed Hock Farm was Bar Manager/Managing Partner Brad Peters’ cocktails. “Bubbled and bottled” cocktails ($9) are straightforward – Aviation gin and house tonic or Papa’s Pilar rum and a house cream soda, effervescent and lively. An Irish banana colada ($10) combines Jameson Irish whiskey infused with banana and Perfect Puree of Napa Valley coconut and pineapple purees. It’s creamy, tropical goodness – with a touch of Irish.

LOWBRAU

LowBrau beer cocktails

LowBrau beer cocktails

Hipster Germanic fare it is, but what sets LowBrau apart from other such artisan sausage and craft beer joints around the country is damn good sausages on pretzel buns, killer sauces (they perfect curry ketchup), and alongside the beers, the addition of elegant cocktails, and an impressive collection of rare herbal liqueurs (Schwartzhog, Killepitsch, Rossbacher) and schnaps/eaux de vie (Schladerer Himbeer Liqueur, Schonauer Apfel, Freihof Marile Apricot brandy) from Austria, Switzerland, Germany.

Cocktails ($9) and beer cocktails ($7) include the likes of the Zimmerman Plan, giving smoky Del Maguey Vida Mezcal a kick of refreshing lime, orange juice, cilantro simple syrup, jalapeno and a fizzy splash of Hefewiezen. There’s also rare beers from Copenhagen or hot US craft beers like Prairie Ales.

ENOTRIA

Cocktails at Enotria

Cocktails at Enotria

Enotria is arguably the most advanced dining menu in Sacramento at the moment with impeccable wine pairings from Tyler Stacy. Cocktails ($12) by Russell Eastman likewise surprise, and are worth a visit to a somewhat generic-looking bar (the white light-draped outdoor patio is preferable). Employing savory and herbaceous elements in his drinks, Eastman avoids the “same old thing” a cocktail geek is used to expecting (i.e. classics), and instead creates cocktails more in line with a Scott Beattie ethos, utilizing produce and showcasing California bounty.

Eastman’s Electric Relaxation combines tequila blanco, Lillet Blanc, mezcal (for a hint of smokiness), lemon and thyme with a vibrant blueberry-white pepper shrub, resulting in a vivacious drink. A Salvador Dali mixes gin, Campari, lemon, lemongrass and sesame – blessedly heavy, almost textural, with the sesame, though I tasted little lemongrass.

Thankfully, one of the Sac’s best restaurants is also a great place to drink.

SPIRITS SELECTION

CORTI BROTHERS

Corti Brothers

Corti Brothers

From the exterior, Corti Brothers looks like the 1940′s-era grocery store it is, a bit dingy and plain in a nondescript area of Sacramento. Besides boasting an old school deli (take a number and expect a bit of wait) churning out hearty sandwiches, Corti surprises with solid beer and wine sections and an unexpectedly dense spirits selection – the best in the area. This is not an elevated liquor store like Cask in San Francisco or Hi-Time in So Cal, but it may be the best grocery store liquor selection I’ve ever seen. There’s an impressive array of small batch spirits, amari from Italy, Eastern European liqueurs and other rarities one would not expect to find in a place like this.

COFFEE

One of 2 Temple Coffee locations visited

One of 2 Temple Coffee locations visited

Find Sac’s best artisan, third wave coffee at Temple, Insight Coffee, or local’s favorite, Chocolate Fish. Insight in particular is obviously hipster and trendy (think artful graffiti, ubiquitous beards and handlebar mustaches, Chemex and Hario v60′s lining the walls) but the coffee is strong at all three coffee houses, providing a robust fix whether you order a cold brew or a pour over.

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Jun
15
2013

Around the Bay

Equator Coffee's first cafe in Mill Valley

Equator Coffee’s first cafe in Mill Valley


MARIN TALES: Coffee, Beer, Italian Feasting

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Join me at three Marin stops in coffee, beer and food, including one newcomer as of this week, another that opened in 2010 – now coming into its own, and one classic that remains great for a decade.

EQUATOR COFFEE at PROOF LAB SURF SHOP, 244 Shoreline Hwy, Mill Valley, 415-209-3733

Strada espresso machine

La Marzocco Strada espresso machine

Equator has long been a favorite Bay Area coffee, with 18 years roasting some of NorCal’s finest beans. I awaited their long-rumored cafe that never opened in San Francisco. Their first cafe arrives, opening June 21st in Mill Valley at Proof Lab Surf Shop. I attended a preview with female owners,        Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell (Brooke is also the master roaster), who founded Equator in 1995, roasting in a garage for years, then opening their roasting facility in 2003 in San Rafael.

Long having respect for their ethically-sourced, robust coffee, I gained even more after meeting Helen and Brooke. In a male dominated field, it’s inspiring to see humble-yet-savvy business women with such taste for quality, concern for their world, and a pioneering spirit.

Equator is among the first and the only California-based Certified B Corporations, heavy on environmental sustainability and social responsibility, from bio-friendly farming techniques to health and 401k insurance for all their employees. Growing their own plot (200 seeds) of ultra rare (and expensive) Geisha coffee, sometimes referred to as “God in a cup”, they utilize profits towards meaningful contributions like micro-credit loans, and are a coffee of choice for none other than Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.

Gardens with 100% native California plants

Gardens with 100% native California plants

The light-filled, airy cafe is lined with surfboards. Front and back patios are surrounded by greenery from SF’s Flora Grubb Gardens, in a space designed by Boor Bridges Architecture. Making a statement in Equator’s signature red, the building stands out on a busy Mill Valley road across the street from chains like Starbucks and Subway. Proof Lab is a unique community center of classes and activities for youth alongside shops in an alternative retail model. There’s a surf shop, indoor skate ramp, a garden of 100% native California plants, biodiesel fill-up station, music and art labs, a natural backdrop to the Equator cafe.

Artful salad at Mill Valley Beerworks

Artful salad at Mill Valley Beerworks

Equator is serving high end single-origin coffees and espresso drinks made on a La Marzocco Strada espresso machine. Mochas are made with SF’s TCHO chocolate (notable for its “no slavery” mission and scientific approach to flavor profiles in chocolate). Baked goods are delivered fresh daily from nearby Beth’s Community Kitchen (my favorite bakery in the area), and gluten-free, vegan baked goods from Flour Craft Bakery in San Anselmo.

Here’s hoping this might signify more Equator cafes in the future, including one in SF.

Mill Valley Beerworks brewing in-house

Mill Valley Beerworks brewing in-house

MILL VALLEY BEERWORKS173 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, 415-888-8218

scone

Boysenberry, pistachio, brown sugar scone

Opened in 2010, Mill Valley Beerworks was one of the only places in Marin one could find a draft beer list reminiscent of the range and quality one can find in the city. As it’s now three years old, the restaurant and small brewery has evolved into the place for beer in Marin. Even if there are better local beers, the beer selection on draft alone is worth a detour for beer geeks, ever rotating with beers from Italy and Belgium to Canada and around the US. The bottle selection takes it even further, while house beers are interesting and varied. Local beers are plentiful, too – one might see something like San Francisco’s Almanac Farmers Reserve No. 3, a sour ale brewed with strawberries and nectarines, on draft.

Open faced salmon sandwich

Open faced salmon sandwich

In a narrow, cozy space of dark woods, pressed tin and communal tables (nevermind the somewhat uncomfortable wood stools), food is also of high caliber. Baked goods arrive on a wood slab (or are available for takeout with coffee up front). A warm boysenberry, pistachio, brown sugar scone ($4) is sheer comfort lathered with apricot jam happily contrasted by salted butter. At lunch/brunch (Friday-Sunday only), an open faced cured salmon sandwich ($13) topped with avocado and pickled red onion drizzled in house Thousand Island dressing, boasts pristine, silky salmon. Feel better about downing beer with artful salads like one of lemon cucumbers and roasted beets accented by pickled carrots, creme fraiche and cilantro sprigs ($13).

Beerworks has come into its own, feeling like an oasis for adults in the midst of family-friendly Mill Valley.

s

Veal bolognese spinach lasagne at Poggio

POGGIO, Casa Madrona, 777 Bridgeway, Sausalito, 415-332-7771
Sformantino

Sformatino (savory leek custard)

Opened in 2003, Poggio has been an oasis in touristy-yet-dreamy Sausalito. The coastal town that feels like a (rich) Mediterranean village has more mediocre (or worse) restaurants than it does great ones. But Poggio has remained great in its decade of existence, accomplishing that rarity: retaining chefs for years, in the case of Peter McNee who served authentic Northern Italian dishes here for 7 years.

Sc

Dayboat scallops

Poggio has always felt like an escape to Italy in Sausalito. I have memories of sun-splashed weekends lunching open air on fresh sardines and crisp Alto Adige white wines, contrasted by fog laden evenings wrapped in the warmth of Tony’s Negroni (Tony being the restaurant’s longtime barkeep; a Negroni being Italy’s greatest cocktail, and long a ubiquitous San Francisco favorite) and that sigh-worthy house bread baked in rosemary.

House cured prosciutto

House cured prosciutto

Visiting after new Executive Chef Benjamin Balestri came on board earlier this year confirmed quality remains, thankfully still under the guidance of Proprietor Larry Mindel. Young chef Balestri is a Monterey, CA, native who has cooked in Italy and New York City, and was schooled at the CCA (California Culinary Academy), where I used to work.

One warm Spring night, sformatino, a traditional, savory Italian custard – and a starter I feel compelled to order every time I see it on a menu – was a fluffy mound of leek custard paired with English pea puree, mint and ricotta salata ($10). Capesante dayboat scallops ($14) are salty, smooth and golden lined up over sunchoke puree and miners lettuce, punctuated by pancetta and almonds. Though a tad too heavy on the creamy lemon anchovy dressing, gem lettuces ($10) are lush in dressing, garlic and Parmigiano.

Whole roasted fish, fileted tableside

Whole roasted fish, filleted tableside

As it has been historically, strengths at Poggio remain house cured prosciutto – in March I savored meat cured for 24 months (during McNee’s run), delicately shaved and on a platter with pear, almond, arugula and Parmigiano ($14) – and sometimes blissful pastas, like spinach lasagna ($18), lush with bechamel sauce, Parmesan cheese, and veal bolognese, oozing comfort. Feeling transported back to coastal Italy happens when sharing a whole fish, like a roasted sogliola (petrale sole – $29) filleted tableside and served with a side of lemon-soaked artichoke, sunchoke and almond.

Here’s to another 10 years, Poggio.

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Nov
15
2012

Around the Bay

Jittery John’s bracing cold brew coffee sold and served at Doughnut Dolly

DOUGHNUTS & BAGELS in OAKLAND

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Beauty’s beauty of a bagel and lox

Bagels and doughnuts in their many iterations (beignets, malasadas, bomboloni, etc…) are two of the more comforting breakfast – or any time – foods. It’s tougher than it should be to find proper bagels, but alongside notable SF sources, the East Bay welcomes a few new arrivals.  I stop first for fuel at Berkeley’s just-opened coffee and wine bar Bartavelle for a well-executed Sightglass Coffee cappuccino in the tiny-but-charming former Cafe Fanny space next to Kermit Lynch and Acme Bread.

Coffee at the new Bartavelle

First, bagels. Like anyone who has ever lived near or in NYC, I miss New York bagels. There’s nothing like properly boiled and baked bagels, with dense, chewy insides and cracklin’ exterior, topped with excellent schmear and lox. In Manhattan, I’ve schooled my California born-and-raised husband, The Renaissance Man, on NY bagels, journeying to different neighborhoods, from Barney Greengrass and Ess-A-Bagel, to favorites like Russ & Daughters.

Outside NYC, we get little that is comparable. In the Bay Area there’s the likes of short-lived Spot Bagel or now the excellent Schmendricks in pop-up form at Fayes Video & Espresso Bar on Wednesday and Friday mornings or by individual order. I’m impressed by Schmendricks bagels from Brooklyn native, Dave Kover, his wife Dagny Dingman, lawyer-turned-baker, Deepa Subramanian, and her husband Dan Scholnick. While I anticipate a permanent storefront for Schmendricks, Wise Sons‘ bialys, as a cousin to the bagel, fill a void.

Beauty’s Bagel Shop

Then there’s Montreal-style bagels, less chewy than a NY bagel, slightly thinner yet dense, with a touch of char from wood-fired baking. Beauty’s Bagel has been the rave of Oakland since opening this Summer, their bagels hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, then baked in a wood-fired oven. Yes, it’s NY prices: $9 for closed, $12 for an open-faced bagel sandwich, or $1.65 per individual bagel (in a few choice flavors like sesame, poppy, onion, or everything). But the quality is a significant step up from most. After apprenticing at a Montreal bagelry and working as a chef at Delfina, Blake Joffe and girlfriend Amy Remsen, made roughly 800 bagels a week at Addie’s Pizza Pie in Berkeley before opening Beauty’s. Serving Healdsburg’s coffee king, Flying Goat, they also craft chopped chicken liver, deviled eggs, cream cheeses/schmear and pickles in house, sourcing smoked trout and lox. It’s a fresh lox, scallion schmear, tomato, red onion and capers bagel sandwich that makes me smile, almost as if I’m back in Manhattan on the hunt for a perfect bagel and lox… including the Manhattan prices.

A box full of Donut Savant

On to doughnuts. SF masters the best in both old school Bob’s Donuts (particularly at 1 or 2am when they’re pulling those gems out of the oven) or the newer gourmet wave at Dynamo Donuts, with their beautiful Campari or spiced chocolate donuts, to name a few. Oakland gained two doughnut newcomers this summer, Donut Savant and Doughnut Dolly.

Doughnut Dolly, down a cheery Temescal alley

Downtown Oakland’s Donut Savant serves essentially glorified donut holes, their Twitter feed making me crave flavors like key lime, pumpkin or an Old Fashioned with Bulleit bourbon glaze, Angostura bitters cream and a twist of lemon, which they introduced at Oakland’s Art Murmur in August. This led to disappointment when first crossing the Bay Bridge weeks after they opened only to be met with a sign during regularly scheduled morning hours saying they’d return hours later with more donuts.

When I was able to trek back to the humble shop and find actual donuts, I bought every one in sight. Flavors were straightforward, rather than the interesting aforementioned. Chocolate coconut donut holes won over chocolate or vanilla, though a dark chocolate donut with a light dusting of sugar was plain but more satisfying. One topped with butter cream stood out with creamy contrast and candied ginger strips.

Doughnut Dolly’s filled doughnuts

Doughnut Dolly charms in an alley off 49th Street. Pastel-striped walls and a friendly woman graciously attending to each customer makes it feel immediately like a beloved neighborhood secret. By the bottle or glass, Jittery John’s (JJ’s) Cold Brew Coffee is bracingly strong, New Orleans’ style chicory coffee, made by a Oakland local – adding cream or milk makes one $10 bottle stretch to 4-5 glasses of iced coffee. Dare I say it’s almost worth stopping in just for this eye-opening brew that reminds me of Nola? Doughnuts are the filled kind (no holes), the strawberry jelly donut superior to a childhood favorite with fresh jam inside. On my visits, flavors were a little basic for my tastes, the “naughty cream” basically a standard vanilla, with the chocolate pudding-like vs. dark and seductive, but the donut itself has a soft, gratifying texture. When taking a few additional donuts home, a few seconds in the microwave ensured they melted warm in my mouth.

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Jul
01
2012

Wandering Traveler

View from my Kimpton RiverPlace hotel room over the Willamette River

Staying Satiated in Portland:
From Coffee to Bakeries

Hotel Monaco's chic lounge, scene of truly unique wine happy hours (see Red Star Tavern below)

Visiting over 50 places in one week, I may have just gotten started in Portland, but I certainly made a dent. So much so that I’ll need to break this into a 4-5 part series. Here’s my restaurant list – now I cover Portland’s famous food carts, ice cream, coffee (all important), chocolate, farmers markets, bakeries and other memorable snacks.

Soaking wet from rain half the week (no, it’s not just a mist), I biked to neighborhoods East, West, South and North with my usual (if cold and grumpy) tenacity to dig in and really taste the soul and breadth of a place rather than its tourist veneer. Join me as I eat my way through the rainy town up north.

FORKTOWN FOOD TOURS

Starting of a Forktown tour right w/ a sparkling aperitif at Besaw's

Forktown Food Tours are led in either the Alphabet District (Fridays 2-5pm) or North Portland (Mississippi Ave., Saturdays 2-5pm), worth $65 for three hours of tasting and exploring, meeting with owners and tastemakers behind each location. Starting at Besaw’s, an adorable, historic restaurant since 1903, I took a tour led by Forktown’s lovely founder through the Alphabet District, which I had explored a few days before on my own. Impressed with the range and quality of stops, from a distillery and bakery to ice cream and restaurants, the tours give you a real peek behind the food and drink businesses in the area.

FOOD CARTS

EuroTrash's chorizo & chips

In one week, you can merely scratch the surface of Portland food carts (often permanent carts vs. roving food trucks), a vibrant scene allowed to thrive due to looser city legislation and costs than we face in SF. There are numerous food cart “pods” throughout Portland – I visited the main ones downtown and the playful D Street Noshery across the street from Pok Pok on the East side of town. I sampled through about eight food carts on a couple different days, some delightful, others just ok, but taking in the scene in general is all kinds of fun (makes me grateful SF just launched the beer-friendly, permanent food truck “pod”, SoMa StrEat Food Park).

Downtown PDX food carts

Of Portland carts tried, EuroTrash was a standout, not just because of its bright, neon colors, but for good times with mostly fried seafood, like fantastic Squid Fana, a curried squid sandwich on toasted french baguette layered under spicy curry slaw, or fun, fried anchovies – order the heads separately. Chorizo and chips (house fried potato chips) doused in grilled chorizo, cilantro, giardiniera, and a curry aioli, are likewise memorable. Another cart winner? Addy’s Sandwich Bar serves fresh baguettes wrapped in paper, a worthwhile special-0f-the-day being a sandwich laden with pickled herring and avocado.

PSU FARMERS MARKET

Biscuits & chicken fried to order from Pine State Biscuits at PSU Farmers Market

The lush, shaded grounds of Portland State University’s campus in downtown Portland make a welcome setting for a bustling Saturday farmers market. The PSU market is an ideal way to sample a range of Portland bakeries (like Lauretta Jean’s Pies and Pearl Bakery, below), charcuterie (like Olympic Provisions), etc… all in one location, particularly if you have limited time in town. Seely Family Farm’s peppermint patties – made with natural Oregon peppermint – were a standout snack, but, of course, I am crazy about intense, fresh peppermint.

Portland obsession, Pine State Biscuits, however, were a disappointment. With the longest, slowest line by far at the market, I waited 30 minutes for a biscuit sandwich,

Walking PSU Market

grateful to scratch one of many breakfast go-tos off my list here. Chicken and biscuits are appealingly fried before you, while the restaurant’s classics are all here, including the beloved Reggie ($7): fried chicken, bacon, cheese, topped with gravy. I’m used to such lines at home for street food, etc…, and am a biscuit and Southern food fanatic, so it was rough to find the biscuit bland, not even close to the top 25 I’ve had, much less a “best”, and similarly so with the fried chicken. Oddly enough, the cheese is a bewildering grocery store-style slice thrown in the sandwich, every element but the gravy a letdown.

Ice Cream

SALT & STRAW

Dreamy ice cream at Salt & Straw

Worth crossing town for, Salt & Straw is truly exciting ice cream. With two locations (the first opened last Summer), I visited the brand new Alphabet District cafe, a white, airy space winning me over with common flavors done their way, like ubiquitous salted caramel which I first saw as an ice cream at SF’s Bi-Rite years ago before witnessing it pop up all over the country. Here it manifests a local slant using salt selected by Portlandian Mark Bitterman, author of the book, Salted.

Rather than one of the more unusual flavors (and I sampled over 20 here), I was surprised my favorite was Arbequina olive oil. I’ve had olive oil ice creams for years, but this one was uniquely vivid and creamy, standing out above combos like Apricot Sweet Heat with Bridgeport Beer and candied scotch bonnet peppers.

Salt & Straw's menu

Banana walnut was evocative of childhood, while honey lavender is very different from Bi-Rite‘s more elegant, subtle honey lavender, which they were making many years before. Salt & Straw’s beauty is purple, floral, even soapy, but not overwhelmingly so. A rather genius combo is their fresh mint ice cream laced with candied lemon peel – my other favorite.

Salt & Straw sweet coffee offerings

Salt & Straw was just launching a much buzzed about round of custom ice creams in collaboration with individual restaurants, from Pok Pok to Aviary. For example, at new restaurant hotspot Ox, they’re utilizing the chef’s flavor profiles, making a foie with veal stock and s’mores ice cream. I’m in! I love everything about this place, from friendly staff to not-too-sweet flavored coffees, using Stumptown beans.

MIO GELATO

With only a handful of flavors at the Pearl District location (right by Powell’s Books), Mio Gelato is traditional Italian gelato in basic pistachio, lemon, mascarpone, and the like. But this creamy goodness is reminiscent of real, Italian gelato – a welcome treat when in the area.

BITES

LITTLE BIG BURGER

Little Big Burger

Little Big Burger is a local mini-chain doing your basic burger, cheeseburger and veggie burger, all small, all under $3.75. I’d heard the Pearl District location was the best so that’s the one I tried. Friendly servers and the right price made it an ideal snack, though the clientele was mostly teenagers and there was a minuscule smattering of cheese on one side of the cheeseburger. Though decent, I couldn’t help but recall similarly simple – but far superior - burgers at Super Duper in SF or Burger Joint and Shake Shack in NYC.

RED STAR TAVERN

Seductive bites & port/bourbon cocktail at Red Tavern

Inside funky, chic Hotel Monaco‘s Red Star Tavern, an unexpected delight arrived during a special media tasting: marshmallows encased in coffee crumbles and chocolate truffles rolled in tobacco. Served with a cocktail of 10 year tawny port, Bulleit bourbon, maple syrup and Angostura syrup, it was an earthy-sweet joy of a dessert. P.S. Hotel Monaco boasts a truly unique happy hour with wine, Voodoo Doughnut, balloon animals, and other quirky treats.

KENNY & ZUKE’S

Kenny & Zuke's satisfying Reubens

While some locals tell me Kenny & Zuke’s isn’t quite as consistent as it used to be, I found this funky, fun Jewish deli ferments some damn fine pickles (in cinnamon, allspice, mustard seed, etc…) and makes a mean Reuben ($13.45) with their own rye bread and house-smoked pastrami or corned beef in a coriander crust, cured seven days, smoked ten hours, then steamed for three. I prefer ultra-smoky pastrami on the satisfying Reuben (and you know I’m picky about my Reubens from coast to coast), especially paired with dry-hopped Oakshire Watershed Brewing IPA from Eugene on draft.

Bakeries

LAURETTA JEAN’S

Excellent quiche at Lauretta Jean's

With a shop for pick-up downtown and a weekly stand at the aforementioned PSU Farmers Market, Lauretta Jean’s bakes some blissful, all-American pies, lattice-topped and all. Rhubarb is a joy, while tart cherry is the ultimate: tart, juicy, flaky, nurturing. Their quiches are likewise strong – maybe the best breakfast item at the farmers market, like a fresh quiche of snap peas and fromage blanc.

KEN’S ARTISAN BAKERY

My top Portland bakery, after visiting Pearl Bakery, Two Tarts and PIX (all winners – Portland does it right on the bakery front), is Ken’s Artisan Bakery on the Northwest side. Properly done croissants (ham, thyme & Gruyere croissant!) and morning buns made me feel like I was back home, but with local touches like Oregon berries in a sweet pastry. Order a cup of Stumptown coffee to go with.

VOODOO DOUGHNUT

Sampling through a sugary Voodoo Doughnut spread

This is only listed because I’ve been asked by many what I thought of the famed, quirky doughnut legend of Portland? Yes, we’ve seen the maple bacon combo a thousand times now, and at Voodoo Doughnut, where they’ve been doing it for years, that bacon-y essence shines. But sampling through five of their doughnuts, including the bacon maple bar, I must admit I did not like one of them. I respect the kitschy playfulness… but each was sickly sweet, old school sugary, leaving me to scratch my head, just as I have for over a decade re: NYC’s Magnolia Bakery with those legendary cupcakes that taste like someone baked a mound of powdered sugar. It’s all too one-note for me – particularly when there are far more balanced, gourmet donuts (and cupcakes) out there. Realizing we’re talking about two different styles of donut-making, places like Bob’s in SF typify to me what classic, old school donuts should be.

Coffee

Heart's roaster & roomy interior

Obviously, coffee is as quintessential to Portland as constant drizzle. In visiting numerous roasters and local shops, I enjoyed plenty of fine coffee. Disappointed in the subtle, so-as-to-be-somewhat-tasteless coffee (not to mention cold, hipster attitude) at Heart in Northeast Portland, I enjoyed (but wasn’t raving about) Cafe Velo. Yes, I made the required Stumptown stop, though I’ve been drinking Stumptown for years, from NY to the West Coast. Below are my four standout coffee cafes:

STERLING COFFEE ROASTERS

Sterling Coffee Roasters is an utterly charming, old world-style coffee window in the Alphabet District, soon to move into a new, equally tiny space around the corner. As a sister outpost to Coffeehouse Northwest, the two smiling gentleman at Sterling are dressed like trendy, pre-Prohibition mixologists in vests, as classy as the beautiful wallpaper lining the closet-sized coffee haven.

Sterling Coffee Roasters

Both baristas were knowledgeable and passionate about coffee, preparing each cup with precision. They serve one guest roaster – on my visit it was Backporch Blend from Bend, OR, boasting almond butter notes. They also feature two additional, changing beans, typically one from South America, one from Africa, which they roast themselves – I enjoyed the Rosario from El Salvador with apricot & toffee notes.

They’re meticulous, even blessedly geeky about the details, like partly using organic milk for more grassy tones in their cappuccinos or not steaming milk past 130 degrees. One of their special treats is a European-style drinking chocolate (not as thick as ones I’d drink in Italy, but appropriately rich) using Michel Cluizel‘s Bolivian chocolate  – which they describe as adding “barnyardy” notes – with a pinch of Portuguese sea salt on top.

COAVA COFFEE

Coava Coffee

Coava Coffee’s expansive, artistic space houses woodwork, mural artists and all their in-house roasting. It’s such a cool space, most importantly serving impeccable coffee, that I trekked out to it twice when in the Industrial District.

They source, roast and brew single origin coffees from hand-selected farmers. It’s a special place and one of my top two (alongside Sterling) for coffee in Portland.

COURIER COFFEE ROASTERS

Courier Coffee

Sitting in the window at stark but friendly Courier Coffee Roasters with bike messengers, couriers and Portland hipsters is a happy way to while away time working on your laptop, reading or watching the world go by. Especially with cool tunes on the record player, accommodating baristas, and impeccable coffee, like a bracing cold brew served in a mason jar.

BARISTA COFFEE

With two locations (I visited the Pearl District locale), Barista is not a roaster themselves, rather it’s a small shop properly preparing some of the best beans on the West Coast, like SF’s Sightglass, alongside local Portland roasters. Bonus points for the historic, roughly one hundred year old brick building and wood deck from which to sip your chosen coffee.

Chocolate

CACAO

Sampling local chocolatiers at Cacao

With two locations (the main cafe in the Pearl District and one “jewel box-sized” outpost in the Heathman Hotel), Cacao is a chocolate haven of assorted chocolatiers and truffles from Portland and beyond, including Alma Chocolates (below), not to mention drinking chocolates, comforting on a wet, Portland day. I happily spent over an hour in this peaceful chocoholic respite.

ALMA CHOCOLATES

Alma Chocolates is among my favorite little discoveries in Portland, particularly the Thai peanut butter cup. Genius, is what it is. Ginger, Thai chiles, lime, even red volcanic sea salt, elevate this peanut butter cup (also sometimes found at the aforementioned Cacao). While in Alma’s cafe, you might as well order drinking chocolates (go for shaken and iced on those rare, warm Portland days), or keep it hot with the Caramelita, essentially a 4 oz. shot of decadent  habanero caramel, chocolate, milk and heavy cream (moans of pleasure). 

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May
15
2012

Featured Neighborhood

Pristine sushi at neighborhood favorite, Hama-Ko

The Best of UPPER HAIGHT & COLE VALLEY

Walking Cole Street, connecting Haight & Cole Valley

I’m constantly asked what my favorite restaurant is. It’s an impossible question. Inquire about my favorite taqueria, German, tea house, French bistro, and I’m ready to talk. There’s a favorite for every style and mood in a metropolitan, dense city such as ours. My current home is on the cusp of Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley, which, like every neighborhood in our food-rich city, has its treasures. We’ll explore it’s best here.

I’m ever making a plea for quality spots to replace much of the touristy swill that lines Haight Street (FYI: the El Balazo space is up for grabs; Papazote will open in the former Eos space from the Mamacita folks). Funny enough, it’s the expanded Haight Street Market, new Whole Foods and Off the Grid Upper Haight that have improved the food tenor of the ‘hood. It’s understandable why Upper Haight rarely places on budding restaurateurs’ horizon: uber-high rents and less-than-food-saavy tourist crowds. But it only takes a few to turn a neighborhood’s tide (note: Western Addition, Dogpatch, et. al.), and we already have pioneers like Dave McLean who’ve made this a better eating and drinking neighborhood for all.

Alembic cocktails

1. ALEMBIC
Thank God for The Alembic. The bar has been one of SF’s best since it opened, thanks to bar manager Daniel Hyatt, whose expertise on American whiskey equates an ahead-of-the-curve selection. Alembic claims many gifted bartenders, like Danny Louie and Janiece Gonzalez, and I’m never disappointed when asking for an off-menu cocktail creation. The food is destination-worthy in its own right – maybe the best in the Haight. Whether at the bar with jerk-spiced duck hearts and a bowl of shishito peppers, or dining on caramelized scallops and sweetbreads over kabocha squash spaetzle, I continue to leave satisfied.

2. MAGNOLIA PUB & BREWERY

Beer flights at Magnolia

Owner/brewmaster Dave McLean opened Magnolia Brewery over 14 years ago, brewing the best beers in SF (in my humble opinion). Magnolia’s space has old world, gastropub charm in black leather and wood booths and antique floor tiles. They serve the best brunch in the area (sorry, Zazie and Pork Store), like decadent BBQ belly over Anson Mills cheddar grits, or quinoa hash and eggs if you want to cut down the fat quotient. For lunch and dinner, house sausages delight (rabbit currywurst!) as does savory mushroom bread pudding or a near-perfect Magnolia pub burger.

3. GIOVANNI’S PIZZA at CLUB DELUXE

Retro gem: Club Deluxe

Upper Haight’s best hidden gem is Giovanni’s, a pizza kitchen in the back of Club Deluxe (eat in the bar or take-out). Giovanni’s pies aren’t so much Neapolitan perfection as a mix between Italian and East Coast styles, with classic margherita and pesto pizzas. Diavola is spicy fun, laden with pepperoncino, salami, Parmigiano and a Belizean hot sauce, while Friggin’ Meatball is dotted with meatballs, smoked provolone and caramelized onions. Save room for a West Coast rarity: a fresh cannoli, sweet ricotta stuffing brightened with orange blossom oil.

Retro Ice Cream Bar

Club Deluxe’s drinks are of the Mojito, Greyhound kind. Not exactly a cocktailians destination. What makes Deluxe special? Nightly live jazz in a well-loved bar that thankfully hasn’t changed decor for decades, with 1950′s, cozy bar feel. Bands rotate: trios, duos, quartets, even organ, providing some of the best jazz in the city – generally free. If only, like New Orleans, our neighborhoods were lined with such clubs.

4. ICE CREAM BAR & SODA FOUNTAIN
I’ve written much of Ice Cream Bar here and in the Guardian, so I’ll send you there for fascinating details of this truly unique, 1930′s era soda fountain. It’s my top pick for dessert.

5. PARADA 22

Cheery Parada 22

Parada 22 is a vibrant little space with aquamarine walls and vintage South American food products lining the shelves. The casual eatery feels vacation-like, offering Puerto Rican food. My favorite dish here is Camarones a la Criolla: sauteed shrimp, tomato and onions in a dreamy-light cream sauce. Sides like plantains and red or white beans in sofrito-based sauces, are fresh and appealing. They’ve recently joined forces with sister restaurant Boogaloos serving their brunch every weekend.

5. THAI DUO

Inside Ploy II

PLOY II and SIAM LOTUS – While maybe not worth crossing town for, Haight-Ashbury has two unexpectedly strong Thai spots serving authentic dishes. Ploy II is upstairs in an old Victorian space, with dingy carpet and decor (elephants, tapestries) straight out of Chang Mai’s Night Bazaar. They do standards well, while I crave their mango panang curry: spicy, creamy with coconut milk AND peanut sauce. Siam Lotus also is reliable on Thai classics, though it’s their daily changing chef’s special board that sets them apart. Thankfully on the permanent menu, their Thai tacos are a must. Though the paper thin crepes fall apart to the touch, a filling of ground chicken, shredded coconut, mini-shrimp, peanuts and bean sprouts make for one of the more fun Thai dishes anywhere. When available, they rock a mango sticky rice.

6. HAMA-KO

Hama-Ko’s simple interior

Hama-Ko husband-wife owners, Tetsuo and Junko Kashiyama, may open when they are ready to open (vs. dependable hours), they may treat regulars best, service is slow, and certainly there are no California rolls. It’s straightforward sushi: silky scallops, bright-as-the-sea tai (red snapper), melt-in-your-mouth unagi and avocado maki.

This nearly 30 year classic is one of those neighborhood secrets that locals return to and fish devotees enjoy. You won’t find the rare fish found at Zushi Puzzle, but you will find impeccable freshness (Tetsuo sources his fish from the same place The French Laundry and Chez Panisse gets theirs, he proudly tells me) from a couple who cares.

The Rest

COFFEE

Brand new Flywheel Coffee

Coffee has long been rough in the Haight. Until Haight Street Market opened a Blue Bottle kiosk in their store, one couldn’t get a proper cup. While appealing cafes like Reverie boast a welcome back patio, and the La Boulange chain on Cole serves substantial pastries, none offers a cappuccino or espresso to satisfy coffee snobs. But just in the last week or so, there’s a quiet coffee revolution afoot with two new cafes. Flywheel Coffee Roasters looks like a hipster Mission coffee spot with a handful of laptops and industrial-stark interior. Though they aren’t going the foam art/microfoam route at this point and they have not begun roasting their own beans in-house as they plan to, initial cups are promising. The other new spot is Stanza in the Coco Luxe space. They’ll be doing coffee cuppings on the first Thursday of each month (7pm) and have their coffee roasted by Augies in Southern California. They DO have foam art and proper cappuccinos. A welcome neighborhood addition.

BRUNCH

Pork belly grits at Magnolia

I’ve never gotten Zazie‘s endless brunch waits. Sure, it’s a charming, little Parisian space, though I’ve had better luck with non-brunch meals. But for 1-2 hour waits (they do have a nice system now that alerts you when your table is ready), it’s amazingly mediocre. Personally, I wouldn’t wait any amount of time for mediocre. There are so many delicious brunches in the city, I am flummoxed as to why, after all these years, this remains many local’s favorite. The original Pork Store Cafe likewise has waits (though not as painful as Zazie’s) which I likewise don’t find worth it. I once had a “sausage” scramble here that was hot dog slices. Yuck. What it does have is quirky, old school diner charm and clientele. My brunch recommend in the ‘hood, though, is always Magnolia. Arriving before noon, I’ve never had a wait and the food is quality (plus there’s Blue Bottle coffee and beers).

FOOD 

The original Cha Cha Cha

Kezar Bar (the one on Cole, not the pub on Stanyan) can occasionally surprise with above-average bar food, like giant potato pancakes with Andouille sausage, applesauce, sour cream – in a cozy, pub atmosphere. Despite the crowds and its faded glory, there’s still something appealing about the original Cha Cha Cha. Maybe it’s Mother Mary presiding over the bar, plants surrounding tables for that tropical effect, the festive atmosphere, plantains and black beans, or that damn tasty sangria. Citrus Club’s food is pretty hit and miss – downright average, really (who has time for that in this city?) – but many adore it because it’s cheap and easy Asian “fusion” (they mix and match Asian cuisines with abandon).

Burgermeister

For burgers, if you’re not eating Magnolia‘s fab burger, local chain Burgermeister is the best bet as Burger Urge just doesn’t cut it. Since the ’70′s, Say Cheese is a tiny Cole Valley gem of a market. Their small selection of cheeses, meats, wines, chocolates, is well curated, the staff are responsive and they make worthy deli sandwiches (like Cajun turkey, creole mustard, pepperoncini, pepper havarti), ideal to take to nearby parks.

DRINK

Classic Aub Zam Zam

Us spirits and cocktail lovers have a soft spot for Aub Zam Zam. These are not cutting edge cocktails.

Rather, it’s a slice of SF history, with a strong spirits selection and older, seasoned bartenders who are knowledgeable and sweet (since lovably cantankerous Bruno passed away, God rest his soul, there’s no kicking people out on a whim anymore).

They make a mean gin martini, boozy and bright. The space evokes the Art Deco era with an exotic, Moroccan slant. Divey and dingy, it’s a classic I hope we’ll never lose.

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Mar
15
2012

Wandering Traveler

Maki sushi-like presentation of Peruvian causas at Picca in Culver City

The Latest in LA FOOD

Spending nearly half my life in Southern California, I continue to explore LA’s best foods, often miles – and hours – apart. My latest return, staying in a modern, neutrel-toned suite with retro spirit at the new, peaceful respite of Hotel Wilshire, yielded more edible hits (and a miss).

Last issue I explored more LA cocktail havens. This issue it’s all about food, from brand new spots to a few classics.

BACO MERCAT, Downtown LA

Baco's own soda pop

Of my recent LA travels, Baco Mercat was one of the more gratifying (and fun) meals. In a historic building downtown, Baco exists in a narrow space with high, airy ceilings. The casual restaurant feels almost cafe-like with a bar and unique menu concept. A “baco” is essentially a sandwich of pita bread (chewy inside, crispy outside) overflowing with fillings like oxtail hash or beef tongue schnitzel.

My server pointed me to “The Original“: pork belly and beef carnitas in an almond-chile-garlic-based salbitxada sauce (a Catalan recipe). The meat is tender, as one would expect, and the sauce nutty and spicy. Only an excess of greens throws of the sandwich.

Baco's Original Baco sandwich

I was surprised to prefer the vegetarian offering, “The Fava Fritter“, lined with falafel, feta cheese and poblano peppers, in a Spanish, tomato and bread-based salmorejo cream. Baco also offers a few coca (flatbreads), and plenty of mini sides and salads, like a spicy green papaya, cabbage, lime salad ($6).

Playful Baco decor

Other highlights? Banana cream cannoli (desserts $7 each) enlivened by cardamom and butterscotch. Playful cocktails like gin-pop! made of their house Baco soda pop, gin, bitters, ginger. Sweet and sour house sodas like black mint (I wish the celery soda tasted more of celery). They also serve the already popular new Handsome Coffee (and sell their beans), started by three former Intelligentsia guys.

FUNDAMENTAL LA, Westwood

Dreamy vanilla cream soda

New Fundamental LA (opened last summer) easily vies for LA’s best sandwiches. In a spare space lined with communal tables., everyone orders the early crowd favorite: a chicken torta ($9) laced with tomatillo salsa, cotija cheese, crema, pickled jalapenos and guacamole.

But I fell in love with their take on one of the best sandwiches in existence, the Cubano. Their Cuban torta ($11) is pig happiness with pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and further decadence with a fried egg and pickled jalapenos. Soft yet crispy bolillo bread makes it, each part of the sandwich in perfect harmony.

Fundamental's Cuban Torta

Sandwiches rotate with further joys like meatloaf on brioche ($11) layered with celery root puree, pickled cabbage, and, to seal the deal, fried brussels sprouts. For dinner they offer a variety of small and large plates in addition to sandwiches.

Warm potato salad is one of the better I’ve had lately ($4). Yes, its warm, accented by hickory smoked bacon, eggs, creme fraiche, excellent with chunky blue cheese.

Though they offer fun beers, like The Alchemist/Ninkasi/Stone More Brown Than Black IPA, Fundamental’s must-order drink is their Vanilla Cream Soda ($3). Dreamy and creamy, it is easily the best cream soda I’ve had.

PICCA, West Los Angeles

My favorite dish at Picca: Locro de Quinoa

LA has a winner in Picca, a new-ish Peruvian restaurant. It is, hands down, the best Peruvian I’ve had in LA, and that includes Mo-Chica. Last issue, I wrote about LA cocktails, some of the most fun being at Picca, from a menu by Julian Cox.

Picca with Sotto below

One of my favorite Peruvian dishes, causas (basically a soft potato mound garnished with ingredients), come in a variety of renditions. They arrive small, looking every bit like maki (sushi rolls). I was taken with a spicy yellowtail causa ($7) dotted with spicy mayo, green onions and wasabi tobiko, as well as a shrimp causa ($6) with pickled cucumbers and yuzu kosho guacamole. Then there’s skewers (anticucho) such as juicy, grilled scallops ($9) given a kick from aji amarillio aioli and wasabi peas, or anticucho corazon ($8), tender beef hearts in creamy rocoto pepper walnut sauce.

Scallop anticuchos

Tiraditos are another favorite of mine, essentially sashimi-like platters of fresh, raw fish in South American sauces. Picca’s thinly-sliced seabass tiradito ($13) is simple and pure: pristine fish doused in soy, lemon and sesame oil with a dollop of sweet potato puree.

Pork rib crostini: sweet potato puree, feta cheese, salsa criolla

My top entree was not one I expected to fall in love with: Locro de Quinoa ($13), described as quinoa pumpkin stew. It’s far better than it sounds. Parmesan cheese, crispy tomato (yes, crispy), fresh corn, and a fried egg crown this bowl of comfort. Finishing one, I immediately craved another.

SOTTO, West Los Angeles

Grilled pork meatballs over snap peas, Pecorino, bitter greens

Last issue, I wrote about the delightful Kate Grutman and her cocktails at Sotto. Thankfully, Sotto’s food is no slouch and rounds out the experience. Of course, we’ve seen dozens of these Neapolitan pizza, gourmet Italian venues line the streets of San Francisco in past years. Sotto is not exactly revolutionary, but there aren’t (yet) many like it in LA with a couple exceptional bites worth noting.

A hefty chunk of rustic house wheat bread is the sort of bread I’m used to at home and can be ordered with olive oil or burratta cheese, but I recommend fatty, satisfying lardo pestato ($7) slathered on a slice. They do a fine Neapolitan pizza but not the best, and certainly no Pizzeria Mozza if you’re talking LA pizza.

Better than it looks: squid ink fusilli

What I found more exciting was their pasta. Sure I’ve had squid ink pasta many a time, but their squid ink fusilli lunghi ($16) is chewy, dark noodles enlivened with pistachios, mint and bottaraga (Italian salted, cured fish roe) – a brighter, more vibrant version than typical one-note squid ink pasta dishes.

I’ve heard complaints about distracted service – the place is continuously mobbed (I was pleased to find my nearby dining companion to be actress Maya Rudolph). But sitting at the bar I was well-taken care of. It’s the best perch from which to sip rare Italian amari and savor Italian pork meatballs.

MEZZE, Mid-City West

Mezze's atrium and olive tree

Mezze‘s open, airy dining room with a pristine, white kitchen within view welcomes immediately. Under a glass-ceiling, an olive tree stands in the center, evoking a Mediterranean garden patio. Drinks include a handful of cocktails, well-selected wines and beers, including a few limited edition bottles from the OC’s Bruery, and a robustly red house cherry coke ($6).

Chef Micah Wexler was just nominated for a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year. He works deftly with Mediterranean food keeping it light, flavorful and gourmet without being fussy. An array of colorful beets ($12) is playfully contrasted by crunchy, fried chickpeas, while dollops of sheep’s milk yogurt add creamy sensuality. An exemplary beet dish.

Excellent beet dish

An Arabian classic shakshouka ($13) is a heartwarming bowl of eggs, onions, tomatoes, and in this case, sweetbreads, with yogurt and pita to scoop up the stew-like dish. Egyptian Rebel fries ($13) are crowd pleasing, reminiscent of Canadian poutine, the fries covered in heirloom beans, beef brisket, Syrian cheese. Wood-fired Merguez flatbread ($14) is crispy thin dotted with fontina cheese and tomato jam, gently spicy with aleppo pepper.

Wexler indeed shows “rising star” promise, and I would gladly return for more.

SON OF A GUN, Mid-City West

Pretty if unexciting Son of a Gun cocktails

Son of a Gun was a royal letdown. I should have known. The can-do-no-wrong chef duo of Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo already won LA over with their uber-popular Animal restaurant, which I found overhyped when dining there at the beginning of 2010. I should have learned my lesson, but staying at Hotel Wilshire merely a mile away, the New England-influenced seafood menu and charming fishing decor propelled me there regardless of my hesitations.

After braving the annoying no reservations policy and an early line pre-opening to then sit at a noisy communal table, unable to hear my friends, I found my server knew nothing about their cocktails ($8-12). It should have been a warning to stick with wine from their celebrated menu and sommelier. But cocktails looked good, running the standard classics from a Boulevardier to an Aviation. But execution was flat, signified by the modern classic Penicillin, which here tasted watered down, lacking in Scotch or ginger punch.

Miniscule bits of burrata & uni

To add insult to injury, we all left feeling ripped off – a problem I rarely complain of, though I eat out at good 10 times a week. I usually prefer small plates both to sample more and finding greater creativity than in a traditional meat and veg entree format. At Son of a Gun, “small” plates is an understatement.

Delicious but small shrimp toast sandwich

A mini-lobster roll with lemon aioli sounds like a steal at $7, but in two bites, it’s done. Shrimp toast sandwich ($11) is utterly delicious,  saucy with Sriracha mayo, but is the smallest $11 sandwich I’ve ever seen. Even a tiny scoop of pimento cheese with chips is $10.

Their popular fried chicken sandwich ($11) loaded with spicy B&B pickle slaw, is the one “normal-sized” sandwich, but is an obvious rip-off of the supreme Bakesale Betty’s fried chicken sandwich, which was around years before… and is superior.

Mini lobster rolls

Don’t expect any better by ordering higher-priced plates. An unexciting alligator schnitzel ($18) or insanely miniscule and odd uni, burrata, radicchio “entree” ($19), even a refreshing finish of frozen lime yogurt with graham cracker crumble and toasted meringue ($6), were all quite small. Four of us left hungry and annoyed, $200 later. Dropping $100 per couple with drinks is understandable, but rarely do I get so little for that at a casual restaurant.

Next time Jon and Vinny open another restaurant, I’ll know what to do.

KOBAWOO HOUSE, Koreatown

Bossam pork platter

Korean food in LA… you hear so much about it. The hype is warranted on volume of restaurants and food options alone. I can’t say I’ve yet had a Korean meal in LA that blows others way out of the water, but please do tell me where I must go.

On my latest visit, I was perfectly content at Kobawoo House, a family style dining room lined with wood and communal tables. Be forewarned: there’s a wait even on a weekday at lunchtime (thankfully, Bourbon Street Cafe – below – is next door so you can grab a coffee while you wait).

Delicious seafood pajeon

Seafood pajeon is a giant pancake of goodness, laden with octopus, squid, scallions and the like. Definitely up there in terms of great pajeon – and the size of a two to three person pizza. Their popular bossam ($15.99 small, $24.99 large) is tender pork steamed in a variety of spices with lettuce leaves and different ingredients to wrap it all up in. This is interactive food at its best. Miso stew is a soybean paste stew that arrives so boiling hot, it wasn’t till near the meal’s end I was able to take a (still hot) satisfying slurp.

Kobawoo is an ideal place to fill up for less (the Renaissance Man and I could not finish all we ordered for $35) with a group of friends or family on quality Korean food.

Snacks & Desserts

BULGARINI GELATO, Culver City & Altadena

Down a desolate walkway next to a grocery store: LA's best gelato

LA isn’t the ice cream city SF is. Though I enjoy LA’s Scoops and Pazzo Gelato, you won’t find the shining equivalent of Humphry Slocumbe, Bi-Rite or even Mitchell’s here. But LA does have Bulgarini Gelato.

Leo Bulgarini’s obsession for perfection shines best in his nut gelatos. A Roman native, Bulgarini and his Pasadena-born wife, Elizabeth, hunted for the best ingredients for two years in Italy, studied two months with a third-generation Sicilian gelato master, then on to Milan to perfect their gelato-making skills.

Their Sicilian pistachio is unlike any other. Same goes for Kona macadamia nut. And Mandorla Sicilian almond. It tastes as if Bulgarini uses double the amount of nuts anyone else does, allowing for a nutty intensity greater than in even the best of pistachio ice cream. Macadamia nut is my favorite but taste each if you can.

Bulgarini's lucious gelato

Sourcing coffee from Naples, cocoa from Santo Domingo, and hazelnuts from Oregon, quality is evident in these expensive gelatos. I liked other flavors, like Florentine chocolate with salt, but prefer general flavors at any of the aforementioned SF shops.

However, each of Bulgarini’s nut gelatos are better than any I’ve had throughout Italy or the US. A glorious excess of nuts takes on a textured but creamy body. Perfection.

SIMPLE THINGS SANDWICH & PIE SHOP, Mid-City West

Welcoming Simple Things

Mini-pies ($2.50 each, plus small $5.50 or full size $20) aren’t life changing at Simple Things Sandwich & Pie Shop, but they are fun, particularly key lime. There’s other baked goods and daily-changing sandwiches, salads and soups. The bright white and grey space is accented by yellow lamps, as cheery as the friendly servers. It’s a worthy sweets stop when on 3rd Street, with a far smaller selection but a more peaceful setting than always-mobbed Joan’s down the block.

TAMARIND AVE. DELI, Hollywood
There’s Jersey-style deli sandwiches, including pastrami, brisket and salumi, at Tamarind Ave. Deli, tucked off a non-descript Hollywood street. But that’s not worth going out of your way for. Rather, the joy is an impressive collection of classic, old-timey American sodas lining the walls of this charming, little take-out spot.

FONUTS, Mid-City West
I must admit I’d rather have a traditional donut than what the new Fonuts is calling (rather cheesily) “faux donuts”. But if I think of them as baked donut cakes, they are quite good. Crowd-pleasers include maple bacon and strawberry buttermilk.

Coffee & Juice

Sodas at Tamarind Ave. Deli

Coffee favorites in LA this time around? Bourbon Street Cafe in Koreatown with its Asia-meets-New Orleans-meets-third wave coffee offerings, from siphon to pour-over.

In Mid-City West (near West Hollywood), Commissary prepares coffee right, featuring three different beans from small coffee brands, including our own excellent Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. I enjoyed a cup made with Victrola beans from Seattle (while at Commissary, don’t forget to pop into fabulous butcher shop Lindy & Grundy next door).

Commissary coffee

Spring for Coffee is a closet-sized shop in Downtown LA selling some of the West Coast’s best coffee beans, more than half of them from SF (from Blue Bottle to Ritual). They make a proper cappuccino and espresso, too.

On the juice tip, Sustain Juicery, a tiny shop downtown in LA’s garment district, is expensive ($7 each) – as any quality juice shop is – blending refreshing, bright winners like the classic green: kale, spinach, apple, celery, cucumber, parsley.

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