Apr
01
2014

Around the Bay

The brick patio of L'Auberge Carmel

The brick patio of L’Auberge Carmel where I enjoyed pre-dinner aperitifs, read books & inclusive hotel breakfast

CARMEL WEEKEND: Michelin-starred Restaurant & Romantic Hotel

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Welcome bottle of sparkling wine waiting in my room

Bottle of sparkling wine chilling in my room

Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel, a boutique hotel right in the walkable, intimate town of Carmel, is no stranger to awards. They are one of only 500 Relais & Châteaux privately owned hotel and restaurants in the world, awarded for being a standard setter in the combination of cuisine and charming hotel character. In 2013, Executive Chef Justin Cogley was named one Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, a title that historically represents some of the best chefs in the US.

Service is impeccable at the quirky, elegant hotel. From sunken tubs to breakfast in the garden/brick patio the rooms center around, the experience is pampering.

Each of the small handful of rooms is a different layout

Each of the 20+ rooms is a different layout

Similarly, a 12 course chef’s tasting menu ($145 per person, or a shorter menu $110), with three dessert bites from Executive Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza, is a pleasure from start to finish. The meal represents the region’s wealth of seafood and produce – a common theme all over California. The menu arrives as a list of ingredients merely hinting at the tastes in store. There’s only a handful of tables so the experience is intimate and the wine pairings strong.

Through my photos, journey through L’Auberge’s property and a few of the best courses at Aubergine, a winning California getaway.

Sipping a digestif post-dinner fireside in the intimate hotel lobby

I sipped a gorgeously funky, dry 2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Pezsgo Sparkling Wine post-dinner fireside in L’Auberge’s intimate hotel lobby

Kumamoto oysters topped with caviar in dashi broth and tied up inside an oyster shell, paired with Tissot Cremant de Jura Champagne

Kumamoto oysters topped with caviar in dashi broth, tied up inside an oyster shell, paired with Tissot Cremant de Jura Champagne

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My favorite course: just wowed by black trumpet mushroom in a sheet of French sheep’s milk Ossau-Iraty cheese accented by sorrel, dotted with chicken jus and gingerbread crumble – excellent umami drink pairing of Tannenbaum Imperial Korean Rice Wine made from rice neutral grain spirit & mushroom concentrate

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Artful presentation, tender flavor: dry-aged (28 days) ribeye, with a dusting of matcha green tea powder, lined with mustard greens, radish flower, kale, turnip, puree of Chinese shallots, parsley, almonds

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Lush Monterey abalone over hijiki seaweed with artichoke & tosaka seaweed, paired with lovely, rare 2011 Herri Mina Blanc blend (Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng) from Irouléguy, France

Dessert of pear sorbet over chocolate crumbs, topped with a celery leaf, next to walnut croquant & chocolate cremeaux

Dessert of pear sorbet over chocolate crumbs, topped with a celery leaf, next to walnut croquant & chocolate cremeaux

Lovely L'Auberge

Romantic L’Auberge

L'Auberge at dusk

L’Auberge at dusk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cookies & milk await in your room at night

Cookies & milk await in your room at night

Good night

Good night

Modern tub, old fashioned windows looking out over Carmel rooftops

Modern tub, old fashioned windows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jan
01
2014

Top Tastes

Campton Place's brilliant Spice Pot

Campton Place’s brilliant Spice Pot

Michelin-Starred Dining in San Francisco

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Saison's inviting bar

Saison’s inviting bar

We live in one of the great culinary cities of the world – and certainly the US – graced with many a Michelin-starred restaurant from Napa to the South Bay.

While I have dined at 30 of the 38 Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bay Area, and many more around the world, I’ve recently had a heavy dose of restaurants graced with this highest European accolade. In the last 8 weeks alone, I’ve dined at 1 to 3 Michelin starred destinations in Modena, Italy, Salzburg, Austria, Zurich, Switzerland, and A Coruna, Spain.

Campton's

Campton’s lime ginger ice

Coming home to meals at these two San Francisco Michelin-starred restaurants (two stars for Saison, one for Campton Place), I’m proud of our quality in the international mix – and that Campton in particular is half – or even a third – the price of the European restaurants.

SAISON, SoMa (178 Townsend St. between 2nd & 3rd Sts., SF 415-828-7990)

Granted, a $248 tasting menu (plus $148 for wine pairings) is such a steep ticket, I’d rarely be able to indulge – and certainly not on a writer’s income. But on a November visit to scout out the new cocktail menu at Saison, I was treated to a ten course dinner, and was frankly, blown away in a way I never was in the original Saison in the Mission, much as I loved that setting. Entering the new space, one faces a wall of wood logs, high, industrial ceilings, brick walls, open kitchen, and cozy nooks established with sectional mini-couches in the bar.

Saison's kitchen hearth

Saison’s kitchen hearth

With its two Michelin stars, I couldn’t help but recall three and one Michelin-starred restaurants I’d just had the privilege to dine in days before, having just returned from a three week trip in favorite countries, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland.

Saison menu

Saison menu

Dining here, my expectations were in check, not necessarily high. But by the end of the meal, I was proud of my hometown as interpreted through Saison.

Though there are too many fantastic restaurants in San Francisco to count, Saison has a global sophistication about it that immediately impresses. Chatting with Head Bartender Chase White (who was a chef in the kitchen at the original Saison), reminded me of conversations in any of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world as we discussed favorite restaurants, cities and bars around the globe. Executive Chef Joshua Skenes’ cuisine is forward-thinking, made with perfect precision and technique, service is impeccable, and the knowledgeable palate of staff like White is blessedly worldly and experienced.

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Black cod poached in coconut oil

The dishes begin to arrive and it’s array of complex flavors in surprising iterations, properly sized so as to ensure fullness but not gluttony. The first seven courses on my visit were seafood, a fascinating round of dishes like amberjack (“coal-kissed fish”), subtly kissed with coalfire and cherry blossoms, topped with radish and plum paste. A sliver of Japanese mackerel is briefly placed over the fire, crispy with herring roe and feather boa kelp in a delicate vinegar broth made from mackerel bones. With vinegar bite and smoky-silky fish, the vivid flavor of roe and of-the-sea comfort of kelp meld into a fascinating whole.

Trout roe custard

Trout roe custard

My favorite seafood dish was a lively trout roe custard of custard and roe swimming in grilled fish bone stock (are you picking up on a bone theme here?) contrasted with brightness from “ember preserved” (roasted) tomatoes and a little tomatillo gelee. While that dish was the pinnacle, Monterey Bay abalone “roasted over the embers” (embers and fire are the other common theme) is almost meaty and hearty, accompanied by a little bowl of abalone liver broth.

One of the best dishes of 2013: savory duck liver toffee mousse

One of the best dishes of 2013: duck liver toffee

Chef Skenes creative sensibilities are showcased in combinations like black cod poached in coconut oil, dotted with the red flesh of sweet blood limes and a crispy garnish of paper-thin plantains. But it’s savory duck liver toffee, a mousse-like mound, that pushes through the stratosphere, a bewitching dish that could be both brilliant entree or dessert simultaneously. The silky liver mound is complex with dehydrated olives and caramelized chocolate bread crumbs, topped with milk and dark Bavarian dunkl beer foam. Grapefruit segments hide beneath the mousse, like winter-bright surprises, while a 1968 Boal Madeira makes for a lush, nutty pairing. All together, it’s a bit of ecstasy.

30-day Aged wood pigeon, pigeon boudin stuffed with shitake, warm spices, Blackberry PX sherry and Cognac, sunchokes, dates cooked in coffee, alliums

30-day Aged wood pigeon, pigeon shitake boudin, Blackberry PX sherry & Cognac, sunchokes, dates cooked in coffee

Two courses of dessert from Pastry Chef Shawn Gawle end the meal with the vibrant burst of raspberry marshmallow sorbet (the freshness of a sorbet, but textured like fluffy marshmallow) and Meyer lemon curd, herbaceous with basil. This is followed by a candied black walnut souffle, apples and ice cream, partnered with a honey-sweet glass of 1975 Sauternes that takes on a layered, funky sweetness with black walnuts.

Decadence in a glass: Le Parcoco

Decadence in a glass: Le Parcoco

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White crafts a No. 2

White’s cocktail menu is draw enough. Paired with a couple plates, the bar is an ideal way to check out Saison without the full price tag. There’s decadence for the taking in the case of a $58 cocktail (!?), Le Parcoco, using the best of the best. Del Maguey Pechuga mezcal is the pinnacle of the great mezcal line made in the classic pechuga style where a chicken is hung, dripping, over the still for a day while spirituous vapors condense into a clear liquid. The Pechuga’s citrus, earth and smoke is tempered by Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, given lovely bitter-sweet backbone from Campari and orange bitters, topped with Krug Grand Cuvee Champagne. It’s sheer decadence.

No. 1 Cocktail

No. 1 Cocktail

The rest of the cocktails are a pricey $18, a price that is still lower than cocktails in many major cities in the world – thankfully the quality and taste is high. Rather than named, cocktails are numbered, covering a range of flavor profiles. Recently, No. 1 is a vivacious, clean Daiquiri-esque blend of Plantation 3 Star Rum, with the purity of young coconut water and lime. This is the kind of drink I’m almost always in the mood for. White uses the Perlini Carbonation Cocktail System to carbonate the No. 2 with subtly bitter Byrrh Quinquina and California-produced Margerum amaro, sweet vermouth, and orange.

No. 4 Cocktail

No. 4 Cocktail

A vibrant standout is the rosy red of beets in the No. 4, a wonderfully earthy-bright concoction with Chamucos Reposado tequila, Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, orange juice, lime and a savory, spicy perk from Memphis BBQ bitters.

In the No. 5, Elijah Craig 12 year bourbon and lemon gain mystique from buttery-salty notes of grilled popcorn and salted caramel. These are the kind of cocktails I seek out: classic in ethos and technique (read: balanced, harmonious), yet inventive, challenging to the taste buds, even fun.

That description applies to the food as well. So excuse me as I dream of scooping up another bite of that lush duck liver toffee and toasting with a Le Parcoco in hand.

Live seafood tanks in Saison's kitchen

Live seafood tanks in Saison’s kitchen

CAMPTON PLACE, Union Square (340 Stockton St. between Post & Campton Place, 415-781-5555)

Campton's serene dining room

Campton’s serene dining room

Only in London have I been able to find a wealth of upscale, inventive Indian fine dining, along with curry houses and casual eateries. We have our share of chaat outposts, dosa destinations and curry houses from SF’s “Tandoor-loin” (Tenderloin) down to Indian-dense Santa Clara. But across the US – even in NYC where I enjoyed restaurants like the now-closed Tabla – there’s been little in terms of upscale Indian cuisine similar to what one finds in London at longtime restaurants like The Cinnamon Club.

Campton Place has been the fine dining restaurant of the Taj Campton Hotel for over 20 years. Though I’ve enjoyed meals in the spare, refined dining room every couple years over the past decade,  my latest visit this December was the best yet. Executive Chef Srijith Gopinathan is creating some brilliant French-and-Indian-influenced dishes blessedly strong on Indian flavors from various parts of that massive country (one of the great food countries I’m still dying to visit). The seamless service team is a strong as ever, attending to each need thoughtfully yet unobtrusively.

Lobster in curry

Lobster in curry

Vibrant amuse bouche and palate cleansers like lime ginger ice dotted with edible flowers or a savory-sweet avocado, arugula, and green apple foam confirm that this meal is alive with flavor… and not easy to pair wine with. Thankfully, Campton’s wine pairings are in the hands of Master Sommelier Richard Dean and Director of Food & Beverage Rahul Nair. Dean was one of the first master somms in the country and is expert at complicated pairings, often focused on small producers, like the charming porcupine label of a 2012 Sergio Mottura Grechetto from Umbria, Italy, paired with Spice Pot, or a small production 2009 Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain Cabernet paired with lamb.

Hunter spice-crusted lamb

Hunter spice-crusted lamb

On the current regular menu ($70 for 3 courses, $95 for 6), Spice Pot “chaas” delighted me with its North Indian chaat-inspired flavors of tamarind, cilantro, carrots, sugar snap peas and potatoes inside bhel puri, and little puffed rice, swimming in a flower pot filled with yogurt. As the dish is set down on the table, liquid nitrogen around the base of the pot emits an atmospheric smoke. This dish is a prime example of the playful refinement with which Chef Gopinathan interprets Indian cuisine.

On the current Spice Route menu (a worthwhile splurge at $95 per person), a course of grilled cauliflower, kale leaves and grapes is gracefully touched with Meyer lemon milk and tart tamarind, paired with the mineral crisp of a 2011 Laurenz V Gruner Veltliner from an engaging Austrian winemaker I became acquainted with over lunch back in 2011.

Tandoori quail

Tandoori quail

On the regular menu is butter-poached Maine lobster tail surrounded by rolls of thinly sliced sweet potato, and edamame fennel vada (South Indian fritters/fried balls). Sitting in a curry of coconut, the lobster is accented by turmeric and tamarind, carrying coastal breezes and decadent luxury in each bite… not unlike another lobster gem of a dish up the hill at 1760. Seafood is a continual strong point, whether blessedly medium-rare scallops over an exotic yellow madras potato curry, accented by brussels sprout leaves and turmeric foam, or tender Atlantic Black Cod slow-cooked in a toasted shellfish (lobster, shrimp)and black rice crust.

Atlantic Black Cod with blue lake green beans

Atlantic Black Cod with blue lake green beans

Meat is likewise touched with a golden hand, particularly on the Spice Route menu. Tandoori quail is crusted in Hunter spice, a roll of juicy meat next to a pool of tomato curry, the highlight being an oozing, fried quail egg ravioli. Dean’s pairing of a 2011 Charles Audoin “Les Favieres” Marsannay has just the right acidity to contrast the richness of the egg.

Slow-cooked lamb rack crusted in a panch phoran spice mix (a mix including cumin, fennel, nigella, black mustard, fenugreek seeds) is surrounded by mounds of pine nut pilaf, pineapple nage (pineapple poached in a broth of white wine, herbs, vegetables), and Bloomsdale spinach.

Mignardise

Mignardise

Post-dessert, a small mug of cardamom-laced hot chocolate arrives partnered with mini-toasted marshmallows, while the mignardise platter is graced with seasonal pleasures like cardamom rosemary brown butter bread and pumpkin macarons.

Fine dining has diminished enough in recent years of strained incomes and a declining economy, but Campton’s current menu makes a case for keeping it alive: not as a stodgy remnant but a stimulating, international journey of flavor.

Saison's strategically arranged bar seating

Saison’s strategically arranged, intimate bar seating

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags: , ,
Nov
01
2012

On the Town

Young turnips rest under decomposing leaves that must be dug through by hand

One Night Only: SWEDEN’s MAGNUS NILSSON & SF’s DANIEL PATTERSON Cook Together at COI

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Near the kitchen, Coi staff welcomes Magnus on a chalkboard wall

Food lovers in the know are well aware of Chef Magnus Nilsson and his restaurant Faviken Magasinet in the furthest reaches of northern Sweden, the small restaurant causing the biggest food magazines in the world to trek hours from anywhere for a meal. They return glowing, with photo spreads capturing meats hanging from a rustic wood ceiling, ingredients like lichen, moss and open fire meats turned into delicious, elemental art, all sourced within miles of the restaurant, and the young Nilsson in his nearly iconic fur coat.

His just released new book, Faviken (with charming, traditional Scandinavian art cover), is a pleasure to walk through. Lucky us, Nilsson’s US book tour featured only two nights of cooking in the whole country, one in Charleston at Husk with Sean Brock, one on October 20 at Coi here in San Francisco with Daniel Patterson. I savored all twelve courses of the collaborative dinner and will let photos and brief descriptors do the talking as imagination could not quite envision the unique tastes and earthy experiences reflecting Bay Area ingredients Nilsson and Patterson foraged for themselves that morning.

Think tofu made from water sourced deep within the ocean around the Farallon Islands or turnips one must dig for by hand through a pile of decomposing leaves and you’re on the right track.

Powerhouse chef team of Daniel Patterson (L) and Magnus Nilsson (R)

Entering Coi in North Beach for this one night only dinner; we are served sides of whole wheat milk bread & excellent rustic black olive caraway bread

Starting with “crackers and dip”: flaxseed chips with a dreamy, of-the-sea blue oyster emulsified dip (L) & brown rice crackers with kale dip (R)

Unreal course: “Earth & Sea” tofu made from deep ocean water pulled from a spot of the Farralon Islands, pasteurized & coagulate into ricotta-like tofu and served with cherry tomatoes & seaweed, in Silver Leaf olive oil

Most aromatic, striking course of the night: Pacific oysters moldering in redwood and pine

Chanterelle mushrooms, clean & unadorned with Meyer lemon, peas & lovage salt

Kohlrabi root crusted in tobacco & vinegar, laced with dill, edible flowers, Thai basil, mint and surrounded by pomegranate sauce

One of my favorite courses: Monterey Bay abalone grilled in nettle dandelion salsa verde, crunchy with spicy breadcrumbs

Cauliflower cooked in white soy and vinegar with S’Peters English Ale whipped cream

Emigh Ranch lamb slow-poached in olive oil & cooked over direct fire, with Swiss chard leaves & stems in garum (fermented fish sauce) and rosemary

Superb: almond milk ice cream dotted with wild bay oil and chocolate crumbs

Passion fruit-white chocolate baba topped with honeycomb, in shiso sauce

 

Finish: candied raspberries

Jul
15
2012

Top Tastes

Dominique Crenn wows at Atelier Crenn with a silken, edible nest filled with dehydrated vanilla pods over sweet corn and porcinis

VISIONARY CHEF COLLABORATIONS
at Manresa & Atelier Crenn

Chef Shewry's straightforward, elegant amuse: fresh walnuts in the shell

A strong concentration of the US’s cutting-edge chefs are right here in the Bay Area. Widely acknowledged in food publications and amongst global diners, there’s been an uptick in Bay Area creativity buzz in recent years. Collaborative dinners between local chefs and with chefs from countries beyond uniquely showcase the forward-thinking cooking coming out of our region. I’ve been privileged to attend recent one-of-a-kind dinners like the one this week between culinary “it” town Copenhagen chef Christian Puglisi of Michelin-starred Relae and Bar Tartine’s visionary chef Nick Balla.

Manresa's dining room

During a weekend in May, one of Australia’s star chefs, Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, joined the incredible David Kinch at Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month a series of collaborative dinners with guest chefs). Both chefs are known foragers, utilizing local bounty in their restaurants on par with art form, Manresa sourcing their produce from nearby Love Apple Farms (which hosts a series of classes on everything from gardening to cider-making). The few hour dinner was a dream of freshness in unexpected forms, heartwarming in taste – not merely visual.

Shewry started with walnuts in their shell, unadorned and tender, while Kinch offered carrots, clams and savory, textural granola dotting vegetable marrow bouillon. Shewry’s fresh crab and artichoke leaves arrived softly layered, dotted with citrus cream. Unlike any crab dish I’ve had before, it nearly dissolved on the tongue, fresh as the sea yet elegantly subtle. A stunner.

Shewry's crab & artichoke leaves - a revelation

As was his beauty of diced sweet potato, purslane and egg doused in a creamy pool of Cabot clothbound Vermont cheddar. Kinch’s gorgeous dessert was a silken, custard-like mound of white chocolate surrounded by crispy quinoa, goat’s milk ice cream, and a strip of rhubarb like an elevated fruit roll-up for the gourmand.

Manresa (namely Kinch’s cooking) is a destination any time, “the whole package” with garden-fresh cocktails, impeccable service and wine list. The partnership this particular weekend showcased two world class chefs side-by-side, expressing their gifts, melding their visions.

Manresa chef David Kinch's art form of a dessert melds goat cheese and white chocolate with rhubarb and quinoa

As part of SF Chefs‘ current Dinner Party Project, teaming up local chefs in themed dinners leading up to the big food and drink classic swiftly approaching August 2-5, inventive chefs Dominique Crenn and Jason Fox (Commonwealth) partnered at Dominique’s restaurant, Atelier Crenn, for a special dinner on July 8th. Both chefs connect over a similar ethos apparent in their delicate yet bold, often playful, cooking styles. Alternating courses, each flowed out bright with Summery spirit.

Campari Explosion!

An amuse bouche certainly did “amuse”, awakening the taste buds: little white chocolate shells dubbed “Campari explosion” actually exploded with vivid, joyously bitter Campari reduction, paired alongside a Campari/blood orange cocktail aperitif. Both chefs rocked the tomato in unexpected ways. Fox plays with green tomato in the form of a jelly disc gracefully dotted with silky uni, shiso mint leaves and refreshing cucumber granita. Crenn salutes the glories of red and yellow tomatoes in varying forms and textures – from peeled to sorbet – in a vibrant bowl accented by goat cheese, edible flowers from her home garden, and a strip of lardo, that beauty of pig fat salume, for rich contrast.

Commonwealth chef Jason Fox delights with a beauty of disc of green tomato topped with uni

Unpredictable touches jump out, like Fox’s frozen “white snow” over corn pudding topped with grilled sweetbreads and tempura-fried okra (paired beautifully with a 2006 Pierre Morey Bourgogne Chardonnay), or another Fox hit: bone marrow puree animating hearts of palm, skinned red potato and poached ruby fish, happily paired with a cup of duck consommé tea. The meaty tea seamlessly interacted with the vegetables and bone marrow, highlighting masculine mischievousness in Fox’s stylish cooking.

Crenn's dreamy melange of tomatoes in varying textures & forms

Besides her truly imaginative take on tomatoes, my other favorite Crenn dish arrived dramatically on a scooped stone slab graced with a chocolate branch and an edible, glistening silk nest filled with dehydrated vanilla pods over sweet corn and porcini mushrooms. Like a treasure found in an enchanted forest, the dish explored both savory and sweet whimsically, a feminine wildness tempered by refinement.

Fox's rubyfish w/ bone marrow puree & hearts of palm

We’ll see more from both skilled chefs – and many others – during SF Chefs days’ long extravaganza, which I look forward to every year in tented Union Square (event schedule here). It’s a pleasure to witness our region’s best collaborate with each other and the finest globally, a reminder as to why the Bay Area is in the midst of yet another culinary renaissance, one of many the past few decades.

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags: ,
Jun
15
2012

Top Tastes

Acquerello’s dreamy cheese cart

ACQUERELLO: Fine Dining Gem

ACQUERELLO, Nob Hill
(1722 Sacramento St. between Van Ness & Polk, 415-567-5432)

“Chef’s surprises” to start

One doesn’t often hear about Acquerello in dining circles these days. But we should. Not readily visible from the street, the restaurant’s lobby opens into a glowing dining room that at first glance appears an older clientele’s respite for an elegant meal. After a recent return to this classic since 1989, I’d venture to say it is that but much more. I’d call it San Francisco’s great underrated fine dining destination, though it has received a coveted Michelin star for six years running.

Acquerello serves unexpectedly forward-thinking food alongside heartwarming classics, but it’s the service that initially stands out. Upon arrival, one is ushered to one of a few thoughtfully spaced tables, intimate yet engaged in a room transplanted from Italy. In soft peach and beige, its subtly dated in a European way, inviting and quiet under striking wood rafters – but not so quiet as to be museum-like.

Shot of carrot-apple-ginger juice w/ vanilla foam

A team of waiters, three sommeliers and co-owner Giancarlo Paterlini, alternately attend to each table, the head waiter having been at the restaurant since the 1980’s, along with Paterlini’s son, Gianpaolo, who is also the Wine Director, and chef/co-owner Suzette Gresham-Tognetti. One of the more delightful chefs I’ve ever met, Suzette came out and greeted those of us that lingered into the evening, clearly still so passionate about what she does. She works closely with young chef de cuisine Mark Pensa on all menus (classic tasting menu: $95 + $75 wine pairing; seasonal tasting menu: $135 per person + $95 wine pairing; a la carte: three courses of your choosing $70, four for $82, five for $95).

Delightful, delicious: “baked potato” gnocchi

For an experience of Acquerello past and present, I recommend both the classic and seasonal menu (if a dining couple, each could order one), although a la carte is an excellent way to try exactly what you wish.

There is nothing “done” about Acquerello past. In fact, this classic, “greatest hits” menu through the decades still offers some of the best dishes on any menu. It will be a gourmand’s loss when the ridged pasta in foie gras and Marsala wine sauce scented with black truffles goes away in a couple weeks. Ultimately the most ecstasy-inducing dish is this dreamy take on foie gras in sauce form over al dente pasta, long one of their most popular dishes. Another classic is juicy chicken breast decadently stuffed with black truffles over a leek custard and an artful mini-potato gratin, topped with shaved Cremini mushrooms.

Acquerello’s dining room

Dessert: cucumber sorbet w/ lime curd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To start, “chef’s surprises” are delicate hints of what is to come, like warm arancini of asparagus and Parmesan cream or profiteroles filled with lush herbed cream.

Saikou salmon: bright w/ horseradish

On the regular menu exist treasures like pear and foie gras “ravioli”: the chefs slice dry-farmed, organic Comice pears into thin, pasta-like skin, filled with truffled foie torchon. Saikou, a New Zealand farm-raised salmon, is bright and clean from high, cold elevations. They poach it for seconds in a layer of horseradish, crusting it with chevril, pine nuts and parsley, an herb pesto of sorts. Each dish explodes with flavor yet corners refinement, maintaining a Cal-Italian ethos, while not playing safe.

Snake River Kobe w/ shaved hazelnuts

On the seasonal menu, Chefs Gresham-Tognetti and Pensa work closely together on inventive takes to rival the better fine dining meals I’ve had. An amuse of raw yellowtail is alive with seabeans and arugula blossoms, while red abalone pairs with cabbage “seaweed” in porcini broth. Snake River Kobe beef is tender pink, cooked sous vide under shaved hazelnuts. The cheese course is a warm, oozing round of Gorgonzola DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protella, or Protected Designation of Origin) beautifully co-mingles with potato, onion, mustard seeds and nasturtium. Probably the most delightful, unique dish is “baked potato” gnocchi, a playful take on a baked potato, starting with doughy gnocchi topped with chive crème fraiche, pancetta and paper thin, fried slivers of potato skins.

Gorgeous Gorgonzola dish

Palate cleansers include a shot of carrot-apple-ginger juice with vanilla foam, or a refreshing starter of orange juice, vermouth, and bitters. On the seasonal menu, a vivid dessert from pastry chef Theron Marrs marries cucumber sorbet with tart lime curd, sweet strawberry consommé, and herbaceous mint granita. As at Gary Danko, the cheese cart is one of Acquerello’s shining glories. Covered to contain the stinkiest offerings, it is difficult choosing from unusual, mostly Italian cheeses. An impression was made with earthy Blu di Valchiusella from Piemonte wrapped in walnut leaves and an impeccable Beppino Occelli in Barolo wine leaves. On the cart, treasures await.

Sweets & espresso finish

Last but not least, with no less than three sommeliers, Acquerello’s extensive wine list is novel-thick, dense with Italian wines. There’s an impressive range of varietals and vintages stored in their wine cellars. Pairings melded seamlessly with each dish, whether a classic, lovely Nebbiolo d’Alba (2008 La Val Dei Preti), an unusual Langhe Rosso Burgundian-style Italian Pinot, or D’antiche Terre Taurasi Riserva, which transforms when sipped with fabulously rich veal and truffled mortadella tortellini Bolognesi.

For a special occasion, up against hot newcomers and pricey minimalist restaurants, I’d place Acquerello as one of the best fine dining experiences in San Francisco: a place with a sense of history and vision for the future.

A corner booth

Pear/foie ravioli

Written by in: Best Of,Top Tastes | Tags: ,
Feb
01
2012

Around the Bay

House eggnog with nutmeg foam served in egg shells

Experimentation: alive & well
at BAUME, Palo Alto

Baume’s glowing sign outside dated, nondescript strip setting in Palo Alto

There are meals that live on in memory: a diorama of conversation, heartwarming food, and that misty glow from a fine bottle of wine. Then there are the game changers, meals that are an elaborate tapestry, weaving complex threads of creativity into an unexpected whole. True: experimentation is useless if it is not also delicious. But if the food is as impacting to the taste buds as to the eye, it borders on art.

Bread course: fig pistachio “focaccia”

Baume (pronounced “bo-meh”) vies for the latter category at a level not seen enough in the Bay Area. Having lived in numerous parts of the country, including near major food cities (New York and Los Angeles), and ever eating my way across the globe, it’s easy to list San Francisco as one of the world’s great food cities. We breathe food from our pores, the quality of ingredients and passion for good cooking as high as you’ll see anywhere… and has been for decades.

Liquid nitrogen Baumetini with sparkling sake, passion fruit ice

Here I never suffer for impeccable presentation, ethnic authenticity, or heartwarming perfection. Where I find myself hunting for inspiration is in the realm of, for lack of a better term,  molecular experimentation? Molecular gastronomy has been deemed by many as “out” (or according to Britain’s seminal chef Heston Blumenthal, “dead”), a “trend” that watched its glory days die with the closing of legendary El Bulli. But if, as Thomas Keller posits, the issue is in the terminology, since the ripple effect of Ferran Adria has so permeated restaurants everywhere as to become “standard”, then experimental cooking is far from irrelevant.

Though the Bay Area has pushed boundaries for decades, one finds countless perfect Neapolitan pizzas or whole animal menus here, but only a handful of molecular menus. Maybe it’s our fierce devotion to purity, our desire to be above pretense, our commitment to letting ingredients speak for themselves that makes the Bay Area somewhat skittish around fussy equipment, even as we played out sous vide and foams along with every other leading food city.

Caviar parfait with green apple, puffed rice, carrot, smoked creme fraiche, gold flecks

We have our masters (e.g. Manresa, Coi, Restaurant at Meadowood, Benu, the great French Laundry). We also claim that growing category of fine dining, molecular cooking in affordable, casual formats (AQ, Commonwealth), a godsend to those of us who want boundaries pushed but not under the weight of stuffiness or stratospheric costs.

The study of science and gastronomy has been greatly advanced by locals like Harold McGee and Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas. While we have made notable inroads historically and new ones of late, I wish for just a few more Alinea and Jose Andres’ The Bazaar-type restaurants on our varied culinary map.

Craving comfort and loathing pretension as much as anyone, I don’t want to see us shrink from boundary-pushing. There’s room for it all. With the “dumbing down” of fine dining everywhere in recent years, many fear appearing ostentatious. Hence, “upscale comfort food” has taken over formerly more creative menus ad nauseam. Such a climate makes moves like chef Dominique Crenn opening Atelier Crenn all the more bold.

Alba white truffles shaved generously over cauliflower tapioca risotto

Fatty suckling pig in crispy skin is a winning main with braised endive and ginger sponge foam

Thankfully, Baume is not staying in the safe, comfort zone. Foams may be long over, but for an adventurous food lover, to sit down for three hours with merely a list of ingredients, nearly 20 bites and courses, is an exciting event.

Baume has become one of our best fine dining restaurants. It is artful, employing molecular processes alongside classic French technique. A list of ingredients like vadouvan, Calvados, kabocha, caviar, and like, tease but essentially give little intimation of what lies ahead.

Naming Baume one of 2010′s best new restaurant openings in both SF Guardian and the Perfect Spot, I found Chef Bruno Chemel’s vision inspiring, even as the restaurant was still discovering itself. Returning at the end of 2011, it is coming into its own. Prices reflect this “sense of self”. Formerly just over $100 per person, it’s now a whopping $168 without drink. Add on wine pairings and it’s $288 (or $368 if you desire the premium wine pairing). It’s one mighty expensive night out. But there are more courses than there were before, more intermezzos, bites, and delights at every turn. If you’re going to splurge, Baume is one of the more experimentally satisfying fine dining options in the Bay Area.

Beets and onions with shot of celery beet juice

The setting is understated, modern, but still a little staid, even museum-like. Thankfully, intimacy and bright orange and brown tones keep it from being cold, with one small room of 4-5 tables and additional individual tables behind curtains. Service is seamless, though with this many courses, expect to see waitstaff often throughout the meal. I am always impressed when I can ask even a server filling my water about ingredients and all are well-versed on each dish. This level of care is crucial in a place like Baume. I’m glad to say their staff seem clued in on the vision.

Even a menu of expensive aperitifs (four, ranging from $15-28) is elevated since my last visit. A Baumetini ($18) is dramatically presented with sparkling sake poured over liquid nitrogen lilikoi/passion fruit “ice”, an icy haze erupting from the glass, while the taste is tart, intense, palate-cleansing.

62 Degree Egg over lentils w/ vermouth sabayon

On a white, indented ceramic block sits a round roll of fig pistachio “focaccia” – the bread course. Looking more akin to mochi, the warm, green roll perks up in yuzu glaze and salt flecks. Moving on to juicy beets and onions in panko crumbs with a potent shot of celery beet juice, it’s clear this meal won’t be typical.

Halibut in pumpkin scales, coconut vadouvan emulsion

In 2010, Chef Chemel’s most memorable dish was a 62 degree egg. This is the only dish I recognize from the year before, silky as ever, though presentation is different over lentils in a vermouth sabayon, topped with tiny sage leaves and toasted garlic bread crumbs.

“Echire” French butter served with additional house breads

Produce proves to be a realm where Chemel shines. A delicate Autumn salad is one of the most beautiful and finest tasting dishes. It combines bits of apple, pear, squash, and vivid red leaves with acorn wafers. The dish blossoms with a gorgeous pairing of 2005 Domaine des Baumard Clos du Papillion Savennieres from the Loire, a 100% Chenin Blanc that surprises with orchard fruit contrasted by mineral earthiness.

Other stand-out moments included the add-on course (yes, for even more money) of Alba white truffles from Piemonte, Italy, in season and available for a matter of days. They generously shaved a luxurious truffle over cauliflower tapioca risotto, pairing it with 2006 Morey-Coffinet Morgeot Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Burgundy.

Cheese course served with sweet Sauternes wine from Bordeaux

Fatty suckling pig in crispy skin is a winning main with braised endive and ginger sponge foam. Apple plays prominent  in both freeze-dried green apple slices and a sauce of balsamic Calvados (French apple brandy). A bright, acidic 1999 Heitz Cellars Trailside Vineyard Cabernet from Napa alternately displays a raisin richness reminiscent of port, making an ideal apple-pig companion.

Dessert comes in four parts, but it’s a liquid shot that leaves an impression: fizzy, young coconut water soda with a lychee float. After dessert, I was served house eggnog with nutmeg foam in an egg shell. Perfect for December, it’s a playfully refined statement to end a nearly three hour feast.

One of my favorite courses: an artful Autumn salad

Additional courses:

Matsutake mushroom consomme steeps tableside

- Caviar parfait with green apple, puffed rice, carrot, smoked creme fraiche, gold flecks
- Matsutake mushroom wasabi consomme with 2007 Chateau de Fonselette Blanc, Cotes-du-Rhone – surprisingly excellent pairing, bringing out sweet, mulled cider notes in wine
- Halibut in pumpkin scales with coconut vadouvan emulsion
- Lobster with vanilla coffee foam, lavender, mushroom, paired with 2009 Kistler Chardonnay Les Noisetiers, Sonoma Coast – wine is full bodied, with mineral, passion fruit notes
- Intermezzo: green apple sorbet over green apple sand with marjoram
- Grass-fed filet mignon with leek terrine, truffle jus, black shaved truffle, paired with 2007 Bernard Burgaud Cote Rotie, a Rhone Syrah with dry mouth feel, tart, earthy notes
- Cheese course: funky, earthy, French cow’s milk cheese, L’Ami du Chambertin served with grapes and frisee; creamy, earthy, raw sheep-cow’s milk cheese Il Menalat Robiola, Lombardia, Italy
- Dessert: Pink ruby red grapefruit mint gelee; a “Rocky Road” redux including vanilla orange marshmallow and liquid nitrogen-toasted walnuts; coconut passion fruit blanc mange with Madelienes on a bed of guava

Dessert courses served with coconut water soda

Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,
Apr
15
2010

Wandering Traveler

JOSE ANDRES’ THE BAZAAR
LOS ANGELES

Truly “The Ultimate Gin & Tonic” ($18): w/ your choice of gin (Distillery N. 209, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Hendrick’s) & Tonic (Fever Tree or Stirrings), loaded w/ edible flowers

I’ve been privileged to savor the wonder that is molecular gastronomy done right, whether it be at Alinea, Baume or even the creativity of Coi. In visiting The Bazaar at the SLS Beverly Hills Hotel, I arrived with tempered expectations but left wowed. From DC/Spanish chef genius, Jose Andres, the meal is a wonderland of inventiveness that never commits the cardinal sin of molecular cooking: all style, no substance (or flavor).

Popping-fresh in your mouth are liquid balls of tomato & mozzarella w/ a drizzle of basil in “Not Your Everyday Caprese” ($12)

One after another, his stellar (if tiny) dishes parade out, adding up to a big bill, though each item may only cost around $10. As opposed to astronomical, fixed price tasting menus at all other molecular restaurants, one of many things I love about The Bazaar is that you order a la carte, even in the bar, as much or as little as you wish. If I lived nearby, I’d try a new bite or two regularly, eventually working my way through the entire menu. This is now my all-around favorite LA restaurant.

Cotton Candy Foie Gras ($5) dissolves to a foie center

The space is stunning, Alice-in-Wonderland eclectic but with a classy bent. It could easily be gimmicky, but it works – and I appreciate getting a ‘show’ in setting as well as food for my money. Moving from the general dining room, through a chic bar to the museum-like dessert area, is all part of a drama that works…

For a cocktail hound like  myself, one of the many joys here is that cocktails are equally inventive: whether it’s a margarita with salt foam instead of a rim (I wish all margaritas could be this balanced: salt permeates, but never dominates, every part) or a liquid nitrogen caipirinha prepared tableside, you’ll experience classic cocktails in ways you’ve never had them before.

Brussels Sprouts ($8) w/ lemon puree, apricots, grapes & lemon air/foam

There is a menu of “traditional” Spanish tapas, including a top-notch Spanish meat and cheese selection, but I stuck to “modern” tapas as this is what you can’t get elsewhere.

Since half the joy here is the work of art inherent in each course, I will let my photos do the talking, urging you to dream of what intense flavors and unexpected tastes could surprise from each plate. Better yet, make sure you visit next time you’re in LA, whether for a couple bites or a full evening extravaganza… bring a sense of adventure and wonder.

Margarita w/ salt foam & Manhattan w/ liquid cherry sphere ($16)

Light Sweet Potato Chips ($10) w/ Star Anise/Tamarind Yogurt

The Bazaar’s striking space melds modern playful w/ LA elegance

Japanese Tacos ($10) melt w/ the sweetness of grilled eel, shiso, cucumber, wasabi w/ the added crisp of chicharonnes on top

Possibly my favorite bite of all: “Philly Cheesesteak” ($8) reinterpreted as an airy bread dissolving in your mouth to a hot, oozing white cheddar fondue center w/ Wagyu beef over the top

Liquid Nitrogen Caipirinha prepared tableside from a roving cart was served as a frozen glass of ultra-boozy cachaca w/ lime & edible flowers, dissipating on the tongue

Foreground: brilliant Cesar Salad ($8) rendition as sushi-like roll w/ quail egg on top; Background: Watermelon Yellowtail Nigiri ($12) w/ fresh wasabi, jalapeno, red wine, soy

Soft steamed buns hold King Crab w/ pickled cucumbers ($18 for 3)

Dessert is a mix-and-match extravaganza of choices like bonbons (earl grey, rice crispy), to pate de fruit (saffron w/ edible paper), cookies, pastries, candy (lime fizzy rocks, caramelized sunflower seeds); some fared better than others but the stand-out, besides pate de fruit, was dessert entree ($12): Nitro Coconut Floating Island in passion fruit & vanilla

Apr
01
2010

The Latest

BAUME: Molecular Gastronomy in Suburbia

Minimalist presentation cheese plate: Swiss Tete de Moine comes in shaved curls that melt like velvet or buttery wings, while a fritter is oozing with the same cheese, accented with yuzu marmalade

Photos & Articles by Virginia Miller

As far as I’m concerned, there’s room for it all. I crave artistic, mind-blowing experimentation as much as I hunger for pure, simple comfort food. We excel in the latter in San Francisco but I don’t see enough of the former. There’s Coi and Daniel Patterson bringing us fine dining in ways we won’t see it done anywhere else. But where are the all-senses-engaged gastronomy temples like Chicago’s Alinea or the whimsical decadence of Jose Andres The Bazaar in LA (my review and photos coming next issue)?

“Baume-tini”: sparkling sake with bursting passion-fruit lilikoi pearls

Thankfully, the Bay Area just gained a molecular gastronomy gem from Chef Bruno Chemel (formerly of Chez TJ in Mountain View), who opened Baume in a non-descript, ’70′s-looking Palo Alto building on California Street.

This is expensive, special occasion dining, but only weeks into opening, I’d already say it’s one of the more rewarding options for the price in all of the Bay Area. Service is well-orchestrated, timely and warm, each server informed and seemingly happy to be there.

In a simple but striking dining room of brightly elegant orange and warm browns, choose from five ($78), 10 ($108) or 15 courses ($158), plus more for wine pairings (I heard the table next to me ask to split a wine pairing and was delighted they accommodated – ideal for tasting but not wanting to go overboard).

Foie gras comes with apricot miso, a sliver of candied pineapple and a hoppy shot of house pineapple beer

As a guest of the restaurant last month, I was offered the 10-course meal and ready for whatever Chemel might serve. I hear he may slightly alter a dish each night, and, naturally changes the menu often. As an eater who’s about food first, I crave adventure and artistry… but never at the expense of taste or with pretension. Chemel manages to succeed on all fronts and I can imagine his menu only ripening with time.

The meal hit its highest note early with a 62 degree sous-vide egg (this type of a dish is also a highlight at Coi) served in a bowl with wild mushroom and Noilly Prat (French dry vermouth) foam. I closed my eyes, letting out a moan of delight at first silky bite. Paired with shots of fresh celery and lime juice with roasted rosemary stalks, it was the best course of the night.

Thoughtful wine pairings took it further… and at quite a range. It could be anything from a local 2008 Viognier from Jazz Cellars, to Blandy’s 10 year Malmsey Madeira with dessert. I especially savored two Chardonnays: first, an ’06 Collovray-Terrier “Vielles Vignes” Pouilly-Fuisse (mineral initially but after sitting there awhile, became buttery). Then, a 2007 Windy Oaks “One-Acre Estate” Chard from the Santa Cruz Mountains, with a mineral acidity reminiscent of white Burgundy wines.

I’ll share just some of the beauties of the meal here through my photos…

The piece de resistance: 62 degree egg with celery lime juice shots

Paper-thin nori-shoyu flatbread with tofu parsley spread and an aged balsamic “butter” so addictive I ate every drop

Striped bass over bouillabaisse gelee, topped with a transparent purple potato chip

Asparagus Salade in shallot vinaigrette – simple, gorgeous with Parmesan, edible flowers, creamy hollandaise pearls

Palate cleanser of lavender foam  frozen with liquid nitrogen – nitrogen ‘smoke’ playfully expels from your mouth

Grass-fed filet is prepared sous-vide, completely dry yet miraculously juicy with orange vinaigrette and spring onion

A dessert extravaganza, from pastry chef Ryan Shelton, is an ode to the strawberry: mini donut with strawberry gelee; chocolate tarragon ganache and burnt almond “rocks’’, and my favorite: a dry strawberry ice cream soda with sorbet-like float

Written by in: The Latest | Tags: ,

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