Jul
01
2014

Top Tastes

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison - interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison – interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

My Top Food Articles: June 15-30

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some coverage highlights here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for highlights 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).

My biggest feature article of the last two weeks hit yesterday, in line with Best Thing We Ate lists in each Zagat city around the US – here is my list of the top 12 Best Thing We Ate dishes in the Bay Area this year so far.

Interviews

Chef JOSH SKENES on SAISON’s New $498 Test Kitchen Dinners and Winemaker Dinner Series

New Bay Area Openings

What to eat at MARLA BAKERY’s restaurant, just open in Outer Richmond

First Look at BELCAMPO MEATS new San Francisco restaurant and sustainable, ethical butcher shop

New PIATTINI ADDS A SLICE OF VENICE to Mission St.

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

URBAN PUTT GETS BOOZE – and what to eat one month in at the quirky mini-golf restaurant/bar

Day Trip: Port Costa

If Savannah (or other quirky, historic Southern town) met a California Gold Country Western town, it might feel a lot like PORT COSTA, home to one of the country’s best dive bars and a cosmopolitan restaurant and cocktail bar

East Bay

Early Tastes at PERDITION SMOKEHOUSE in BERKELEY from Mikkeller Bar SF & The Trappist Founder

What to eat & drink at downtown OAKLAND‘s new CAPTAIN & CORSET

Secretly Awesome: TRABOCCO’s pizza and pasta in an ALAMEDA strip mall

Rockridge’s (Oakland) OSMANTHUS renews your fried brussels sprouts crush

Underrated & Established Spots

8 reasons to revisit LOCAL KITCHEN & WINE MERCHANT in SoMa

The 8 BEST HOT DOGS in San Francisco

Unsung Heroes: SF’s best Afghani food for over 20 years at HELMAND PALACE

The 10 BEST PLACE FOR FRIED CHICKEN in San Francisco

NICO ADDS NEW ROSE PAIRING and LOW PROOF COCKTAIL menus with these dishes

THREE TWINS ORGANIC ICE CREAM & GOTT’s ROADSIDE join forces

South Bay/Peninsula

LEXINGTON HOUSE, a destination restaurant and cocktail haven in LOS GATOS

Elegant weekend escape to CARMEL (where your boutique hotel houses a Michelin-starred restaurant)

Silky crudo, standout salads and Carlos Yturria’s cocktails at LURE + TILL in PALO ALTO

Events/Dinner Series

ICHI, Commonwealth and more join STONES THROW CHARITY DINNERS throughout the summer

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May
01
2014

Top Tastes

 A dreamy vegetarian course: tender potato gnocchi filled with liquid cauliflower sauce, colorfully marked by Pantelleria (Sicilian-style) capers and romanesco broccoli.

A dreamy vegetarian course: tender potato gnocchi filled with liquid cauliflower sauce, colorfully marked by Pantelleria (Sicilian-style) capers and romanesco broccoli.

Celebratory Spring:
Quince’s Artful New Menus

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Here’s my May 1st photo slideshow and article on a few of the great dishes from Quince, a 2 Michelin-starred, Italian-influenced fine dining great in San Francisco, for Zagat: www.zagat.com/b/san-francisco/quinces-spring-menu-our-12-favorite-dishes-tastes.

Splurge on the Spring menu: a $40 supplement adds in Tortelli alla Cecilia Chang, a decadent pasta tribute to the great Chinese restaurant legend and SF local, Cecilia Chang. The tortelli pasta is filled with smoked sturgeon and potato, marked by dill and generous dollops of caviar.

Splurge on the Spring menu: a $40 supplement adds in Tortelli alla Cecilia Chang, a decadent pasta tribute to the great Chinese restaurant legend and SF local, Cecilia Chang. The tortelli pasta is filled with smoked sturgeon and potato, marked by dill and generous dollops of caviar.

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May
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

Waldorf salad prepared tableside via cart with vintage apple peeler/dicer

Waldorf salad prepared tableside on a cart with vintage apple slicer (see details below under the Waldorf cookbook photo)

ELEVEN MADISON PARK: One of the World’s Great Restaurants

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Enter Eleven Madison Park

Enter Eleven Madison Park, facing idyllic Madison Square Park

Three Michelin stars, # 4 on Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (the highest in the US), a 28 rating for food, service and decor in Zagat, the accolades for Eleven Madison Park go on and on. Then there’s the impressive tome, I Love NY, a book released last year by Chef Daniel Humm and EMP’s General Manager Will Guidara.

When in NY, I must have Finger Lakes Riesling

When in NY, I must have Finger Lakes Riesling

While I’m was not near as enthralled with Humm’s nearby restaurant The NoMad, EMP, on the other hand, is among the great meals of my life. Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, Chez Wong in Lima, Peru, Baume in Palo Alto, and other unforgettable meals made perfect with all the right elements and people… EMP is among that group. A short list given the 600+ plus restaurants and eateries I visit every year.

EMP is first and foremost about service. We chatted, engaged, connected with our servers, the sommelier, the floor manager. The harmony and flow of the staff (nearly 70 staff to 80 diners) is a finely tuned clock, just like the clock that looks like a giant Swiss watch in the kitchen, where we were invited for a liquid nitrogen cocktail while we watched the symphony that is EMP’s orderly kitchen.

We sit down to a letter opener and a card with our choice of four flavor profiles:

We sit down to a letter opener and a card with our choice of four flavor profiles: fennel, apple, maple, cranberry (we chose the former two)

Our own private tableside liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktail in the kitchen of EMP (see photos below)

Our own private tableside liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktail in the kitchen (see photos below)

Pickles & Rye sounded just my speed (rye whiskey, aged aquavit, white vermouth, amontillado sherry, honey, lemon, velvet falernum, orange bitters), but was a bit too sweet & muted in flavors despite the long list of ingredients; but I loved

Pickles & Rye sounded just my speed (rye whiskey, aged aquavit, white vermouth, amontillado sherry, honey, lemon, velvet falernum, orange bitters), but was a bit too sweet & muted in flavors with too long a list of ingredients; I was much happier with the focused, savory, layered notes of Celery Situation: Nicaraguan rum, aquavit, celery, grapefruit, lime

There are too many highlights. Dining here is four hour theater full of edible thrills, yet never feels flashy. The current incarnation of the tasting menu has just been around since Humm and Guidara changed the concept last year. I recalled the week in 2012 where Chicago’s Alinea (another 3 Michelin star restaurant) and EMP traded staff and kitchens for one week. I truly respect Chef Grant Achatz and see how his culinary innovation would experience synergy with Humm and EMP. While the food is impressive at both restaurants, I prefer EMP for warmer service and setting.

Here are some of the unforgettable dishes and moments from my April meal via photos:

Dessert is a Baked Alaska flambeed with rum tableside, then sliced up & brought out; it's a molasses rum raisin caramel cake filled with vanilla ice cream then served in fennel or apple sauces we chose at the beginning of the meal as flavor profiles via punch card

Dessert is a Baked Alaska flambeed with rum tableside, then sliced up & brought out; it’s a molasses rum raisin caramel cake filled with vanilla ice cream served in fennel or apple sauces we chose at the beginning of the meal as flavor profiles on the punch card

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One of my favorite courses: the NY pastrami sandwich reinterpreted & paired with soda (see photo just below to the left): here, rye bread is dotted with garlic, mustard and dill sauces, accompanied by pickled cucumber and endive sauerkraut

Pastrami arrives steaming, tender & fatty w/ sodas infused with flavor we chose via the cards we received at the beginning of the meal, modeled after classic Dr. Brown Cel Ray (celery) soda created in Brooklyn in 1869

Pastrami arrives steaming, tender & fatty paired with sodas infused with flavor we chose via punch cards received at the beginning of the meal; sodas are modeled after classic Dr. Brown Cel Ray (celery) soda created in Brooklyn in 1869

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Fascinating 2005 Chateau Musar from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a white blend of Obaideh & Merwah varietals, indigenous to the mountains, akin to Chasselas, Chardonnay & Semillon; Obaidah grapes grown in stony, chalky soils; Merwah vines grown in gravel on the seaward side

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cheese course arrives as a picnic in Central Park, with blue & white checked tablecloth spread across the table & picnic basket complete with ceramic plates slightly crumpled & looking like paper plates

The cheese course arrives as a Picnic in Central Park on a blue & white checked tablecloth spread across the table & picnic basket complete with crumpled ceramic plates, made to look like paper plates

The picnic basket box holds creamy Greensward cheese from Vermont, pretzel rolls, onion marmalade & a bottle of brown ale/beer brewed just for EMP

The picnic basket box holds creamy Greensward cheese from Vermont, pretzel rolls, onion marmalade & a bottle of brown ale/beer brewed locally just for EMP

The first bite: soft, savory black & white cheese-apple cookies arrive in a box tied by striped string; the meal ends with a similar box & identical cookies but sweet with cinnamon

The first bite: soft, savory black & white cheese-apple cookies arrive in a box tied by striped string; the meal ends with a similar box & identical cookies, sweet with cinnamon

Creek oysters from Eliot, Maine, in vichyssoise & caviar

Creek oysters from Eliot, Maine, in vichyssoise & caviar

Eleven Madison Park's iconic, lofty dining room

Eleven Madison Park’s iconic, lofty dining room

Bone marrow is filled with cream, beef tartare &  Petrossian's sturgeon caviar

Bone marrow is filled with cream, beef tartare & Petrossian’s sturgeon caviar

Bread course is another showstopper:

Bread course maintains excellence: rolls are made from Cayuga Pure Organic Flour with butter from Trickling Spring’s Creamery in PA, duck butter dotted with duck cracklings, and sea salt from the Hamptons

One of two dreamy Hudson Valley foie gras courses: this one seared with sunchokes, hazelnut crumble, solera vinegar; the second cured with sunchokes & fermented mustard seeds/greens

One of two dreamy Hudson Valley foie gras courses: this one seared with sunchokes, hazelnut crumble, solera vinegar; the second cured with sunchokes & fermented mustard seeds/greens

An 1896 Waldorf cookbook is a brought out & the Waldorf Salad recipe turned to before being prepared tableside before you from a Waldorf salad cart mixing Granny Smith apples, celery, pickled cranberries, walnuts, lemon mayo, Middlebury Blue cheese from Vermont... then a second course is served of apple over celery yogurt & house granola

An 1896 Waldorf cookbook is a brought out, the Waldorf Salad recipe turned to before being prepared tableside from a cart, combining Granny Smith apples, celery, pickled cranberries, walnuts, lemon mayo, Middlebury Blue cheese from Vermont… a second course is then served of apple over celery yogurt & house granola

Razor clam with kale puree, lobster, sea urchin tongue in pear gelee

Lobster, part one: with razor clam & kale puree, sea urchin tongue in pear gelee

Lobster, part two: butter-poached with razor clams & kale leaves, foamy sea urchin beurre manié ("kneaded butter" or a thicker flour butter)

Lobster, part two: butter-poached with razor clams & kale leaves, foamy sea urchin beurre manié (“kneaded butter” or a thicker flour butter)

Chef Humm's legendary dish: Normandy duck coated in whipped honey, crusted in lavender, cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns for a beautifully crusted skin, stuffed with a bouquet of lavender

Chef Humm’s legendary dish: Normandy duck coated in whipped honey, crusted in lavender, cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns resulting in a beautifully crusted skin, stuffed with a bouquet of lavender

Accompanying the sliced duck, a side of rich duck consomme to sip, accented with a rye crisp/cracker topped with duck sausage under melted Gruyere cheese

Accompanying the sliced duck, a cup of rich duck consomme to sip, accented with a rye crisp/cracker topped with duck sausage under melted Gruyere cheese

Our own private table set up in the EMP kitchen

View from our two person table set up in the EMP kitchen

Misting liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktails with peaty Laphroaig 10 year Scotch (the modern classic cocktail created by Sam Ross in the original Milk & Honey days is a combination of peaty Scotch - here in sorbet form, ginger - here in syrup form, lemon - here as a frozen dome)

Misting liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktails with peaty Laphroaig 10 year Scotch (the modern classic cocktail created by Sam Ross in the original Milk & Honey days) is a combination of peaty Scotch – in sorbet form, ginger – in syrup form, lemon – as a frozen dome

Eleven Madison Park's own bottling/house cask of Laird's Applejack (American apple brandy distilled in New Jersey) to finish

To finish: Eleven Madison Park’s own bottling/house cask of Laird’s Applejack, American apple brandy distilled in New Jersey

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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