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Starring in a Sitcom Called Seven Hills

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When I think of Seven Hills, a few things come to mind:

1. It sounds like the name of an ABC sitcom that involves some washed-up actor or actress who chose a TV career for a change of pace instead if admitting their last five movies have made less than 25 million combined in theatre revenues.

2. It might be the title of a country song which describes the trials and tribulations of the contours challenging a John Deere tractor in the attempt to harvest a bumper crop of  wheat.

3. It could describe the geography of the walk from O’Farrell to this Hyde St. eatery in the Russian  Hill district.

In fact, it is a relatively quaint Italian joint located between the pier and the bustling, tourist-ridden O’Farrell street. It doesn’t get the fanfare and hype of the more visible eateries but  regularly sits in the top 25 of the 5000 San Francisco restaurants on tripadvisor.  We booked a table for six which seemed to take up a good portion of the restaurant as we were seated in the back corner.  The menu changes regularly but focuses on classic fare in a classic setting.  It’s evident when you read the menu that the place pledges allegiance to locally sourced food.  The vegetables, herbs and proteins come from a guy named Jim or Bob or Jim Bob and from places like Full Belly and All Star farms.

The service staff was cordial but a bit confused.  They had a couple of waiters taking care of our table who had different levels of understanding.  For example, I was offered a unique white wine by one waiter whereas the other had no idea what I was talking about when I ordered another glass.  That said, there was a definite and rightful pride in their demeanor when describing the rustic dishes.

The table agreed on an array of first plates to share which ranged from $9-15.  First, we were treated to an amuse bouche which was a delicious melon soup.  The duck liver pate was a bit unorthodox in that it was served chunky country style instead of smooth like the surrounding eateries. That said, it was pretty decent.  Other choices were the meatballs, arancini, burrata with tomato and prosciutto and carpaccio.  In summary, none were remarkable but none were bad either. If I had to pick, the meatballs won the battle.

 

Melon Soup Amuse Bouche

Melon Soup Amuse Bouche

Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with proscutto.

Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with prosciutto ($9-15)

In the meantime, as more people crammed into the small quarters, the temperature rose to the point of slight discomfort.  With more of a crowd the service got a little choppier.  For the main I ordered the squid ink (or neri) pasta. Like the Italian cliche, it was delicious in it’s simplicity but became a little monotonous even with the addition of a generous amounts crispy breadcrumbs.  I found the portion size quite ample and of good value for the price.

 

Neri (Squid Ink Pasta)

Neri (Squid Ink) Pasta

My Take

Seven Hills is the quintessential small family run bistro within a very diverse and vibrant dining scene.  It’s simple in it’s theme, decor and food.  There are no major surprises and I imagine no major inconsistencies. There’s a true commitment to partnerships with local farmers which comes out in the food.  If you’re looking for adventure, there’s a hundred other places.  However, if you want a safe haven for traditional fare or have a table full of people  who thinks Joe Bastianich should be canonized and lament the fact that Mario Batali will never open a restaurant in San Francisco, this could be your place.  Sure, there are service hiccups but it lacks the phoniness of chains and smiling hostesses who seem way too excited over the fact you might have a coat to check. After dining at Seven Hills, I think it can be described as a sitcom about an all American small Italian ristorante  frequented by Al Pacino and Tony Danza with cameo appearances by Ray Romano and Robert DeNiro (playing local farmers Jim and Bob) and lovable yet confused waitstaff including the likes of Joey Tribbiani.

Seven Hills on Urbanspoon

Holy Alioli! I had Croquetas at Coqueta

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When it comes to the restaurant scene, San Francisco is a well-oiled machine. It is a mecca for receiving culinary awards such as Michelin stars and James beard nominations. As a result, there is unity among eateries in this posh destination. For example, seemingly every restaurant website in the city has an sf on the end of the restaurant name on their website domain.  It’s a badge which lets the world know that “we are in San Francisco and you’re not”.  Take http://www.coquetasf.com for example. It’s the brain child of celebrity chef  Michael Chiarello and aims to bring trendy  Spanish tapas to the tourist-ridden piers of the city by the bay. This effort was awarded with a nomination for a James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2014 although in the end it was edged out by Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans.  I anxiously awaited the one month window to arrive so I could vigilantly get online and make a reservation.  Since the lunch and dinner menus are similar, I booked at noon to take full advantage of a sunny San Francisco day by the pier.  The decor follows the mold of many other San Francisco eateries in that it’s well decorated in a rustic yet modern fashion. In the kitchen area, shelves of jars and bottles sit beside pots that I’m not sure are ever used.  Place settings are available along a long marble bar while the rest of the restaurant consists of nice, high hardwood tables.  There is also area outside as well which provides protection from the sun but a nice view of the bustling pier and sparkling water.

Coqueta's Interior

Coqueta’s Interior

Like most tapas menus, temptation is plenty.  There are hot and cold plates with an array and meets, cheeses and vegetables.  What immediately caught my eyes were the pintxos; bite-size skewers carried around by the staff in an effort to challenge will power.  The platter was an attractive mix (from left to right) of  quail egg, asparagus, boquerones, chorizo and Serrano ham.  AT $2.50 a pop, they were well constructed with a nice combination of salt, sweet and acid.  To my surprise, the quail egg was the least enjoyable, while the Serrano ham with Manchego  cheese and the apricot conserva  was fantastic, offering fundamental spanish flavours and textures all in one bite.

Pixotes 3.50

Various Pintxos $3.50

It’s a daunting task taking four people with very different tastes to agree on a tapas spread, especially with a menu as complex as Coqueta’s. Anybody who has dined with me knows I’ll go for the eggs every time, especially with memories of the  Huevos Cabreados I had in Barcelona a few years back.  I went for the “Sunny side-up” Huevo With Shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing ($13).  The egg was cooked nicely and shrimp, despite the size and skimpy portion,  were seasoned and cooked well.  The potatoes were white and a bit flaccid and literally paled in comparison to their Barcelona counterparts. I think if you’re going to mash an egg into matchstick potatoes, they need to be able to hold their integrity to a degree.

Shrimp

“Sunnny side-up Huevo with shrimp, crispy  dressing potato and chorizo dressing  ($13)

A tapas meal is not complete without some Spanish poutine, also known as patatas bravas $8.  Although in some ways I’m a conservative when it comes to adherence to traditional dishes.  It’s rare that I make any food the first time without adhering to the traditional way of doing things. So, I’m a little skeptical when I get a haute cuisine version of a very traditional dish.  Hand dug potatoes replaced the wedges I’m accustomed to. The normally messy presentation of a piquant sauce and creamy alioli was  subbed for a tomato  base in a side dish and a white dollop atop a freshly dug potato.

Patatas Bravas

Patatas Bravas $8

The Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon (crusted Chicken and English pea croquetas with cured cara-cara orange) for $9 were ok.  Keep in mind I’m impartial  to croquetas to begin with and these were no exception.  Decent taste. The cara cara orange tried to cut into the creamy fried mix but it’s still a croqutea.

Croquetas

Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon $9

The Ensalada de Remolacha (Roasted baby beets with Sausalito watercress, beet vinaigreta, tierra and cabrales blue cheese snow $9) was a pretty dish which combined purple and gold beets with the green and white of watercress and cheese respectively.  It tasted pretty too.

Beets

Ensalada de Remolacha $9

The Calamares a la Plancha (Whole Monterey calamari on the plancha with onion jam and squid ink alioli) $10 was a creative yet authentic dish.  The  calamari was tender and the ink allowed for a little fun and tasty play time.  The jam was a surprising but delicious addition to the mix.

calamari

Calamares a la Plancha $10

I love deviled eggs, so my vote was for the Huevos Nacional (deviled eggs filled with spring pea, smoked pimentón alioli, on pickled saffron potatos and olive oil poached Bonito $7).  Beautifully presented, it was easily the most complex deviled egg I have eaten.  It was almost confusing although using a pickled potato as a pedestal is a tasty and practical idea I not might use myself the next time I make the picnic favorites myself.

Eggs

Huevos Nacional $7

The generous use of delicious fish highlighted the salmon ahumado (Smoked salmon queso fresco and truffle honey-$8).  Piled on top of fluffy cheese and sweetened ever so slightly, it was an interesting spin on bagel and lox.   Thankfully, the truffle was subtle and didn’t overpower the star of the dish and I found the sweetness from the honey instead of the normal use of salt from something like a caper worked well.

Salmon

Salmon Ahumado $8

Another pretty dish was the Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco (Wood grilled green and purple Delta asparagus with coal roasted romesco salsa, raw Manchego and Marcona almonds $14).  There was a smokiness to it that was tamed by the colourful accents.  The salsa was delicious.

Asparagus

Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco $14

The most carnivorous tapas order was the  Albondigas a la Feria (Grilled duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry and tempranillo salsa and crispy shallots $12).  I really enjoyed the flavour of the duck and pork together although a little greasier than I would have liked.  The chefs were stingy on the shallots which was a bit disappointing because it would have added a crunch to the meatball.

Coqueta Meatballs

Albondigas a la Feria $12

My Take

Eating at  a restaurant is like watching a movie. First, you need a plot.  Coqueta entered the already bustling San Francisco dining scene by offering Spanish fare with a Californian twist.  Second, you need a director, preferably a big name. Michael Chiarello certainly fits the bill. Next, you need to enhance the plot with a combination of a great setting and cast.  Coqueta’s decor and service were excellent. The waitress, for example, modified the size of the standard order to accommodate the four us (so we had enough but didn’t need to order two servings) with no issues at all   Since the James Beard awards are like the  Academy Awards of all things food, I was excited to dine in a restaurant who was shortlisted for best new restaurant nationally.  However, sometimes when I watch a Oscar-nominated movie,  I get lost in the complex plot and end up missing  the point.  A few dishes at Coqueta were like that;  it was a good experience  but a few dishes were confusing and overly complex.  The experience was helped by great service and a good location. Like the movies that don’t quite win an Oscar, I was curious to experience those who were just honored to be nominated.

Coqueta on Urbanspoon

Chopping the Dynamic Duo at the Tavern by Trevor

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Tavern by Trevor is another example of the cross-pollination that is occurring in Toronto.  Partly a way to jump on the small plate phenomenon that has taken the city by storm and partly a means of dealing with the inertia of local foodies to try surrounding neighborhoods, the tavern recently opened at the corner of Spadina and Richmond.  I was impressed by the small yet inventive and reasonably priced menu. Chef Trevor Wilkinson teams up with restaurateur Mike Yaworski in an odd couple type collaboration.   Chef Trevor is the owner of Trevor Bar and Kitchen which has sustained the volatile Toronto dining scene while watching others come and go along the Wellington Street stretch. He also recently appeared as a contestant on Chopped Canada this past year.

I arrived and decided to sit at the makeshift patio (a few tables plus a number of stools beneath a counter made of 2x4s which looked like an inventive RONA project) which took over part of the wide sidewalk along Spadina Avenue.   The waitress was quick to arrive with the food and drink menus.  Boozewise, there are three tap beer from the local Amsterdam brewery plus an array of bottles, big bottles and cans.  The wine list has around 10 bottles of both red and white wine with most in the $40-60 range.  There is also a half a dozen or so bourbons plus a small list of cocktails priced at $11/each. I started with an old-fashioned served with bourbon, sugar cube, angostura bitters and a lemon twist.  It was a decent drink but was served with too much ice making it difficult to disperse the sugar which had settled at the bottom of the glass.

Old-Fashioned $11

Old-Fashioned $11

For the most part, the food menu is structured by price points.  All “Bar food” is $11, salads are $10, “from the stove” is $15 and  entrees are $21. There are also a few sandwiches ($12-14) and sides are $5. There is also the ability to add a number of proteins to the salad.  I ordered the  green pea & lettuce with feta & mint salad and added ginger and garlic fried chicken. For the entree, I went with the bbq octopus, prawns & chorizo with fennel & radish in wild leek vinaigrette.  That’s when things got bad. The salad arrived in a large white bowl and presentation was far from remarkable. The only lettuce was romaine  and it was cut ribbon style with a knife (one of my pet peeves).  I don’t know if the lettuce was warmed first or just not fresh because I found myself pulling out  brown and wilted pieces. From what I could salvage, it was a good flavour combination but I certainly wasn’t enjoying the pea and feta hunting through a jungle of limp romaine. Turning my attention to the chicken, I was equally disappointed.  It was boneless and served with an aioli.  The pieces varied in size and thickness.  I cut into the first thick piece and it was pink. A second thick piece was also pink.  I cut into a third thinner piece and found it cooked properly and found the coating to  be very tasty.  When bringing this to the attention of the waitress, I was told that she just ordered it and it looked like that so it’s fine.  She left only to return a few minutes later to tell me that she checked with the kitchen and in fact the chicken was cooked and it looked like that because it was dark meat.  Then she proceeded to tell me that they were out of the octopus and asked  if I would like anything else instead.  I politely and thankfully said no.

Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7

Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7

"Cooked" chicken

“Cooked” chicken

 

Select Lettuce from Salad

Select Lettuce from Salad

My Take

This is one of the worst dining experiences I have had in Toronto in a long time. First, serve a cocktail that can be consumed properly.  Second, either use fresh romaine or don’t prepare it so it wilts. I thought the reason you used romaine was for the vibrant crunch.   Third, if the chicken is pink it is undercooked and the fact that I didn’t eat it should be a hint that despite the reassurances from the waitress and the kitchen (who actually didn’t look at the chicken), I was not happy with the dish.  As a footnote, I have asked 5 people since if the chicken looked undercooked based on the picture and all agreed unanimously.  Fourth, it you are only going to offer three entrees on a menu, you shouldn’t run out of one.  Furthermore, you shouldn’t wait until the   customer orders it before you realize it’s not available.  Fifth, if a customer is clearly unhappy with the experience, perhaps something should be done.  Even an apology would have been sufficient.  Instead, I left paying my bill having eaten only a few bites of salad and a couple of small, thin pieces of chicken. All I can say is this meal is a far cry from the Coq au Vin I had at Trevor Bar and Kitchen a few years ago.

For serving wilted lettuce, raw chicken and not having octopus….Chef Wilkinson..you’ve been chopped.

(I’m aware that in fact Chef Wilkinson did not in fact cook the food I attempted to eat but it is his name on the place!).

 

The Tavern by Trevor on Urbanspoon

Ironic eating as I Tip my Chapeau to the Big Ham (aka Le Gros Jambon)

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I love breakfast places.  I don’t mean places that serve an array of croissants, scones and in-house baked goods.  I’m referring to a place that serves hardcore, greasy spoon type petit dejeuner  which push beyond the boundaries of eggs and bacon.  I was on a recent trip to Montreal and during one of the boring sessions I was watching I started to flip through urbanspoon and yelp looking for an escape from the monotony of the day.  I narrowed down the list before consulting with my buddy who lived  in town about where to go.  When he mentioned Le Gros Jambon, I quickly agreed and was on my way.  The website didn’t rock my world  by any stretch.  It’s simply a freckled-face kid drinking a glass of milk with a link to a menu.  However, it has  great reviews and it was close so it made sense.

I enjoyed the Sunday morning walk through Old Montreal.  A mosaic of pedestrians littered the street.  After dodging clueless cell phone users and many spaced out shutterbugs, I arrived at the doors of this breakfast and lunch nook.  It was bustling with people cramming in and slipping out but I managed to weasel my way in the front door.  There were a couple of stools at the counter, so I was seated immediately.  A look around told me this was my kind of place.  It was set up like a 50′s soda shop that had been remade by somebody with a basement full of nostalgia including  posters, retro advertisements  and a mosiac of  licence plates.   Within a minute a pleasant waitress with no bias against anglophones came over and poured me a decaf. I gandered at the menu, skipped the burgers and sandwiches and went right to brunch.  There were typical items like eggs Benedict and french toast as well as trendy  items like huveros  rancheros and fried chicken and waffles.  In particular, I was interested in the mushroom toast which was described as “creamy mushroom sauce with smoked meat, two fried eggs served on toasted rye” which sounded perfect given it sounded like a nasty mess inspired by local flare. By sitting at the counter facing the open kitchen, I got to watch the meticulous and fluid construction of this interesting dish. First, the jalapeno-potato hash brown thing was dropped in the oil.  Next, the eggs were cracked onto the flat top.  The smoked meat and rye bread joined the party.  Then, within seconds of each other, the bread, meat, egg and mushroom gravy were piled precisely on the  pig shaped plate along with the aforementioned potato and a side of baked beans.  It wasn’t the prettiest dish on earth but my taste buds didn’t care. Although a tad more gravy would have been sloppy fun , it was delicious.

Mushroom Toast $12

Mushroom Toast $12

My Take

When it comes to breakfast, I’m in for either a cheap diner-style spread or something a little more creative and unique.  Le Gros Jambon is the latter.   Instead of  sipping French press coffee and biting  into flaky pastries, devouring the mushroom toast with pictures of  Mickey Mouse and a creepy freckled kid watching over me along the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal was as ironic as not eating a stitch of pork off a pig-shaped plate in a place named “big ham”.  More so, the service was not at all pretentious, busting  apart any stereotypes an anglophone in Montreal might have. In fact, it was as genuine as Mabel at the Streamside Diner speaking of her cat’s latest adventure with a ball or yarn or stories of her daughter’s success as the local hairdresser.

In the end, le Gros Jambon is a destination for foodies and which was built by smart culinary minds and those with a knack for interior design inspired by an outdated man cave.  It’s has a  busy, yet pleasant vibe complete with the ability to watch the cooks construct plate after plate in a melodic and methodological manner. For that I tip my chapeau to the big cheese, or maybe in this case, the big ham.

 

Le Gros Jambon on Urbanspoon

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: I Met a Hottie at Dottie’s

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I must confess that I didn’t do a lot of research prior to showing up at Dottie’s true blue cafe . Knowing it was a triple D and within walking distance of my hotel in San Francisco, I took a quick look at the menu and thought it was a typical breakfast/lunch cafe known for corn bread and jalapeno jelly.  My first hint that I had misjudged things is when I showed up at 9:15 on Thursday and there was a line.  I figured what the hell, I stood in line at State Bird Provisions the night before for 45 minutes with great results, so a short wait for breakfast in another odd neighbourhood couldn’t be that bad, even among the numerous schizophrenic homeless people who walked by looking to teach me a life lesson.   Since I was single, I managed to skip in front of 4 or 5 waiting couples and get a seat along the rail in less than 10 minutes. I felt pretty lucky having secured a second spot with a kitchen view in 2 days.

Rail view of kitchen

Rail view of kitchen

Shorty after, the seat became me became vacant and a woman I recognized from the line outside was seated beside me.  It was clear she was a regular when half the restaurant said hi to her when she sat down.  We quickly engaged in a conversation and I was able to get the following facts out of her:

  • The busy cook was the owner. He didn’t look like a Dottie.
  • The only time you can avoid a line is if you come during the week before 9 am.  If you come on it weekend, count on it being a day trip.
  • The old style brick walls at Dottie’s are somewhat unique to San Francisco and were not damaged during the 1989 earthquake.  I guess the three little pigs fable did have some scientific merit.
  • Dottie’s is known for it’s excellent baked goods (see sign below).  I was told that a gentleman comes in every morning and makes them in-house.  She pointed to a counter beside the kitchen where one could get any of the delightful treats to go.

The menu is large, especially when you consider the fact there is a blackboard full of daily specials including specialty sandwiches, frittatas, omelettes, french toast etc.  With all the temptation, I stuck to my general triple D philosophy which inlcudes trying their signature item/dish coupled with something I really like.  In this case, it was the louisiana hot link wth eggs served any style showcasing the grilled chili-cheddar corn bread and homefries with the jalapeno jelly of course.

It is very easy to destroy corn bread  and this was probably the best I’ve had including restaurants in Tennessee.  The jalapeno jelly was food crack (just to clarify..this was the hottie I met at Dottie’s and the not the aforementioned regular who was sweet but not my type).  Even the homefries rivaled some of the nest I’ve had.  They were tender and seasoned beautifully as also gave me a reason to use more jalapeno jelly.  The sausage was middle of the pack but didn’t impair my enjoyment of the dish as a whole. Some of the best breakfasts I’ve had have been from recommendations of Guy Fieri. Dottie’s is right up there with the likes of Lucky’s cafe in Cleveland and Honey’s Sit and Eat in Philadelphia.

Louisiana Hot Link with eggs any style $9.50

Louisiana Hot Link with eggs any style $9.50 served with chili-cheddar corn bread and jalapeno jelly

Following such a delicious breakfast, my eyes averted to the baked goods.  I already knew a jar of jelly was coming home with me so I supplemented it with a coconut chocolate chip muffin ($3) and a Dottie’s peanut butter bar($5) as a snack for the hotel room later. They were neatly wrapped in foil grandma-style which made me think of Dottie since it’s such a grandma name.  When taking pictures of these beasts, I put a fork beside them just  to demonstrate just how big they were.  Tastewise, they were delicious. The muffin was moist and abundent with coconut and the tasty base of the bar was covered in  with marshmallows and just the right amount of buttescotch chips.  I was thinking of inviting the whole floor over since I would have had enough for all of them.

Dottie's Chipotle Pepper Jelly $9

Dottie’s Chipotle Pepper Jelly $9..a buck an ounce…cheaper than crack.

Coconut Chocolate Muffin $3

Coconut Chocolate Muffin $3

Peanut Butter bar $5

Dottie’s Peanut Butter bar $5

My Take

I think the foundation of a successful breakfast/lunch spot is to offer a normal menu and jazz it up with either a signature item/dish, amazing baked goods  and/or a day to day menu highlighting whimsical ideas by the chef based on available ingredients.  Dottie’s does all three.  The corn bread and jelly was phemonemal, the baked goods sublime and the board was “chalked” full of inventive dishes. San Francsicans love their lines, but they also love their food. The service was as friendly as the diners who frequent the place. The vibe was busy, fun and friendly. Based on past breakfast expereinces, I was convinced I would name my next pet Lucky or Honey but after eating here I may need to put the name Dottie in the mix as well.

Food: 5/5 Guyz

Service: 4/5 Guyz

Vibe: 4.5/5 Guyz

Total: 13.5/15 Guyz

For a complete list of my favorite diners, drive-ins and dives, please click this link:

http://fareeatales.com/2012/12/22/diners-drives-ins-and-divesthe-list/

Dottie's True Blue Cafe on Urbanspoon

Some Expensive Zen at Atelier Crenn

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Since I was going to be away from home on Father’s day,  I decided to treat myself to an early gift and make a reservation at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.  I figured I could break the bank and a little and treat myself to my first two Michelin star experience. My rationale was two-fold. First, they have a condensed tasting menu which allows one to experience the restaurant from $120, a far cry from some competitors who request more than $200 for their similar sized menu. Second, I’ve had a food crush on chef Dominique Crenn even since I saw her appearances on both Iron Chef America (in which she beat Michael Symon) and as a guest on Top Chef (in which she won the French vs Spanish food challenge). I walked up and down and up and down and up and down Fillmore to get there and was seated quickly as I waited for my work colleague who agreed to join me in order for this culinary expedition to begin.  In the meantime, I hit the washroom (or restroom as the Americans say). Even a two Michelin star restaurant adheres to the San Francisco norm of a unisex, single washroom philosophy.

Once my colleague arrived, we were presented with the aforementioned option of the $120 condensed menu or the more elaborate $195 one with close to 20 courses.  As stated above, I opted for the former. The menu is presented in poetic form, leaving the dishes to both the imagination and a reliance on tips your grade 12 english teacher gave you about how to interpret  Shakespearean stanzas or the opiod-filled sagas written by  Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  The menus seem to rotate according to the seasons, so I got the spring edition.  We did not opt for the wine pairing but were quite happy to indulge in a couple of the excellent Belgian beer from the small beer menu (I imagine even Chef Crenn couldn’t justify trying to serve a French beer with her food..I doubt a  Kronenbourg 1664 would make the cut).  In particular, the Strubbe’s Flemish Red ale was quite delicious and nicely complemented to the array of food that was served over the evening.

Spring has come with its cool breeze 

A spin on the French aperitif Kir, this amuse bouche was served with a warning; don’t bite it until it’s in your mouth. It had a delicate exoskeleton of a hazelnutty-cocoa filled with a cider-based elixir.  It certainly stimulated the taste buds and reminded me to quit thinking and let my peanut of a right brain run the show for once.

crenn amuse

Mellow serenades of colors liquid and orange

My initial thought was I might get a bowl of tiger tail ice cream. My mother, who grew up wishing she could have given birth to a Bengal tiger, would often truck us out to the ice cream parlor.  Whereas I would have an ice cream I hadn’t tried before, she ALWAYS got tiger tail which is orange flavoured with licorice streaks.  Thankfully, this was a duo of hors d’ oeuvres.  The first was an oyster seasoned with green apple, tobacco and coffee.  The second was a sea urchin mousse topped with salty caviar.  The texture of the mousse and the combination of flavours in the the oyster were sublime.  The coffee was ever so subtle but added a surprising and delightful  finish to the starter.  The poetry of the evening was further exemplified by the use of the urchin and oyster shell shaped dishes.

crenn seafood

 

A gentle smell, oceanic, of yummy feeling

Hidden beneath an array of green was a piece of Japanese mackerel which was served raw.  The freshness was evident but what blew me away was the cilantro ice dust which started benign but ended with a blast of flavour which filled the dimensions of my mouth like spray paint.   It was one the most surprising, elegant and magical movements of the evening.  The finishing touch was a fried foodie-friendly turnip which was strewn across the plate.

crenn fish

The half moon, silky and smoky

I think a French chef would be remiss without trying to redefine some of the more stereotypical homeland dishes which have been bastardized by years of American influence.  Take french onion soup for example. Chef Crenn replaces the salt-laden, broiled cheese and bread covered  thick broth with a more complex and refined base of caramelized onion with a delicate red wine vinegar gelled cheese dumpling bobbing in the middle.  The dark, scarlet broth surrounding the dumpling did in fact look like a moonlit scene. Tastewise, it was refreshing and it was quite  pleasurable cutting into the tender dumpling which  was a easy target once the surrounding gel dissolved into the broth. If anything it was on the sweet side but that didn’t take away from the experience.

crenn soup onion

 I refreshed as I gazed at your smooth green coat

The intermezzo was a simple pickled green strawberry salad with watercress and more magic green dust.  Sour, acidic, vibrant and palate cleansing.

crenn strawberry

Walking deep in the woods, as the earth might have something to spare 

My grade 13 english course told me that this could either be mushrooms or a toothpick. Luckily it was the former.  A collection of fresh and rehydrated mushrooms were strewn across the plate and adorned with a variety of other earthy flavours, most notably what I think was a hazelnut  rosette on one side of the plate.  The lack of symmetry meant I didn’t get another one on the other side but instead was treated to more pixie dust so I was just fine.

crenn mushroom

These creatures, who move with a slow, vague wavering of claws

It only makes sense that a chef who practices poetic culinaria would name a dish after a line from a poet on the literary side.  “These creatures, who move with a slow vague wavering of claws” comes from the  “The Lobsters” written by  Amercian poet Howard Nemerov. It’s a sombre tail of the imprisoned somnambulists faced with the ultimate destiny of being served to humans beside a sauce of melted butter. Other than that, the only clue we received was a mysterious knife which looked too innocent to do anything harmful.  The puzzle was soon solved with the arrival of a chuck of brioche bread and flavoured butter.  Soon after, a lobster bisque arrived accented  with sweetbread biscuits and bone marrow and garnished with pickled onions and sea grapes. The soup was rich on rich which was cut somewhat by the acid in the onions.  Honestly, I found the brioche mediocre but the soup delicious. By the way, biting into a sea grape which, like a 4-year old with red smarties I saved until the end, tasted like biting into a mouthful of ocean.

Mystery Knife

Mystery Knife

crenn soup

Where birds sing and are causing ripples in the nearby water 

Now that we were getting the hang of the menu game, we arrogantly proclaimed that the next dish had to be duck.  I mean, the clue combined with a French chef at the helm made perfect sense.  Even Inspector Clouseau could figure out that one.  However, we were thrown a french twist when a piece of guinea hen showed up.  Served far from overcooked with some fried greens and a slightly rendered fat cap, it was a fine enough finish to the savory component of the meal athough likely the least remarkable.  Do guniea hens sing anyway?

crenn hen

Nature has churned up a tornado of milky , rich flavour

Ok, I made that one up but it sounds better than just saying the cheese course. My lack of will power coupled with the fact that I had to stare at these blocks and wheels of dairy goodness made resistance futile.  Of the four french cheeses available, we opted for a blue and a raw cow’s milk offering.  Served with honey and a cracker-like loaf, both were exquisite and a nice addition to the meal for an extra $25.

crenn cheese

Spring has come and is full of sweet surprises

Guessing which French dessert would be served would be near impossible, especially since we were humbled by the last course.  After a short wait, a trio of waitstaff arrived carrying two plates and what looked like a honeycomb.  The latter was placed between us and I had a sudden urge to play ping pong.  The dessert itself was a nicely executed combination of sorbet atop a lavender or chamomile or some kind of girly tea-flavoured cake accented with a few other sweet sauces but no table tennis paddles.  Hidden within the comb were the surprises: beeswax coated honey bonbons which brought me back to the days of spending nickles and dimes on wax teeth filled with some concoction of sugar and food colouring. Visual, it was stunning. Tastewise, it was quite acceptable as well.

crenn dessert 2

crenn beehive

Sweet raindrops speckle my satisfied tongue

This line is made up too.  It describes the trio of mignardises (ie little desserts) that arrived after the meal.  Homemade marshmallow kisses, guava fruit gummies and blackberry macarons we laid out on a glass platform.  Delicious!

crenn dessert

Mon Point de Vue

Atelier Crenn is definitely a bucket list restaurant for anybody who wants to experience a Michelin two-star restaurant, meet a celebrity chef or justify the copious amounts of time spent reading poems in high school.  Once again, my mom was right when she said “you’re going to need this stuff in real life some day” about my english classes.  I agree with the thousands of  reviews on yelp, urbanspoon, tripadvisor etc. which state that the food is whimsical, artistic, creative and delicious. One thing I found a little interesting was the fact that the menu was almost completely void in red meat and pork. Perhaps San Francisco rubs off on even the most discerning French chefs.The service aspect has been more of a contenious debate, however.  First, I appreciate Chef Crenn making the rounds. She was far from modest when I told her I was an adoring fan who knew she won both Iron Chef and the Top Chef competitions.  Second, I agree with some reviewers that the service is somewhat pretentious but I found nothing wrong with it.  Nothing bothers me more than phony waitstaff who assert their supposed knowledge above the heads of the very people they are meant to serve.  That was not the case here. Instead, I found it to be more of an orchestra of professionals.  For example, despite the fact I was seated against the wall  in the middle of the restaurant, the servers also approached the table doorside, even it if meant taking the longer route around tables.  At least 4 or 5 service staff delivered food throughout the night and each was as skilled as the next in explaining the dishes.

Part of a tasting menu is always the element of surpise and the openness of the layout of this place can spoil things a bit. I got really lucky for two reasons.  One, we were a few courses ahead of the table beside us so our experience wasn’t tainted by seeing them get their food first.  Second, they went all out and got the full tasting menu so we also got to see what we didn’t get.

In the end, Atelier Crenn was an investment in a great dining experience. It had all the elements of a night of fine dining including poetic references, shaking hands with a celebrity chef and fantastic food,great beer, exquisite cheese and magic fairy dust.  I can summarize the  experince in one poetic line: Looking up in the sky I see two rightful Michelin stars beaming down.

 

Atelier Crenn on Urbanspoon

State Bird Provisions: Quail More Popular than the Former Vice-President

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I have a confession. Let’s set the stage.  State bird in San Francisco is known for next to impossible reservations.  At midnight pacific time, a small block of reservations open up for the date exactly two months later.   So, I crawled out of bed at 3 am eastern time, wearily opened my computer, entered the security code (the demand for reservations  forced them to implement a security measure through open table similar to the one where you buy concert tickets) which I thinks was either “goodluckbuddy” or “youareafool”  or “gobacktobed” and was shut out.  It seemed my only opportunity would be to get in line and wait it out with the rest of the lottery losers. Despite the fact that state bird has very minimal outdoor signage, it’s not hard to figure out where it is….it’s the place with the line.  Located on the not nice side of Fillmore, I arrived about 45 minutes before to find about 15 people waiting.  During the wait, I thought about other things I have waited 45 minutes for:

  • I waited 45 minutes with my daughter  to get on that swan ride at Wonderland. You know, the one where you ride a plastic bird at a quarter mile and hour in 2 feet of stagnant water for what seems like an eternity so your kid can feel like the queen of water fowl.
  • I once waited with my grandmother for 45 minutes in anticipation of the next K-mart blue light hourly special.  Elated by securing some  fancy glassware she just bought, she was more than happy to wait for the opportunity to snap up the next deal on women’s hosiery.
  •  My mother asked to me wait in line for almost an hour to get her a limited edition commemorative royal family beanie baby a number of years ago.  I stood in line with a bunch of blue hairs bragging about their collection ranging from the Princess Diana purple rose bear to some rare fish named Bubbles.

Come to think about it, I ordered a pizza in university circa 1993 that I’m still waiting for so  I guess 45 minutes isn’t that bad.  As time went on, the line got longer and it also got fatter.  I never read the memo where one person was allowed to get there early and hold two or three spots for friends showing up later.  By the time 530 rolled around, there were more like 20 or 25 ahead of me. When the doors finally opened, the line quickly funneled in to the open doors.  Group by group, patrons were seated.  I was starting to sweat a little when I finally got to the front of the line.  The two groups in front of me were still waiting for truant tablemates so they were asked to move aside until the whole party arrived.  I gladly proclaimed “Table for two and  we are both here!’.  The woman at the door (who turned out to be one of the owners), yelled out 3/4 as we entered State Bird Provisions.  It turned out 3/4 means we were seated right in the middle of the chef’s table.  Let the fun begin….

Hanging with some carrots and peppers at seat 3/4

Hanging with some carrots and peppers at seat 3/4

The concept is simple.  About half the menu is served dim sum style.  As members of the illustrious chef’s table, you not only get to witness the creation of this dishes, you also have first dibs at the eats.  As each comes up, the chef explains the dish (don’t ask before hand!), tells you the price and you decide if you want it.  My will power melts like hot butter when offered food so I had a hard time saying no.  If you agree, the chef, waiter or any other staff member checks off the number that corresponds to the cost.  The other half of the menu consists of  larger dishes which you order a la carte.  Included in this are things like trout, bone marrow and the famous pancakes. Given the fact I tried a number of dishes, it makes sense to list them in order of preference to try and bring some order to what turned out to be a night of modest gluttony:

 

1/2 dozen cast iron quail eggs $12

The best dish of the night.  Six quail eggs are flash fried in a hot skillet among a flavourful broth boasting a nice blend of heat and acid.  I asked the chef about it and he let me know the heat came from pressed jalapeno juice (not brine from a jar of picked peppers).  Brilliant! It was also served with chunks of Mt. Tam cheese, pea hummus and a few garlic chips.  I discussed this local cheese in a previous blog but as a reminder it’s a local brie-like cheese that added a wonderful silkiness to the dish.  Combined with the earthiness and freshness of the  hummus and along with peppery arugula, it was a complete dish that was a cross between a destructed omelette and having the supernatural ability to consume many components  of a tasty volcano.

1/2 Dozen Quail eggs

1/2 Dozen Quail eggs

Air-dried beef with chili juice, rice powder & garlic chips $8

I got to watch the creation of this dish from start to finish.  It’s remarkably simple.  Quality beef quickly fried on a flat top along with copious amounts of  rice flour (which i thought was salt until he added about a cup of it on the beef)  which browned nicely, keep the meat moist and added a delicious crisp coating.  It was topped with fresh scallions and garlic crisps for extra visual effects and flavour.

State Bird Beef

Bad picture of air-dried beef with chili juice, rice powder & garlic chips $8

 

State Bird with provisions $9

California has the privilege of having one of the only edible state birds.   I find it interesting that I can’t pick a trillium in Ontario but I can eat a quail in California. I’m sure this liberty isn’t granted in every state. After all, Robin au gratin  from Wisconsin or Tex-Mex Cactus Wren from Arizona certainly does not sound as appealing as a chunk of deep-fried Californian quail.The coating on the half bird was crispy and seasoned nicely.  It was a tricky but enjoyable navigation to eat the small bird in fried chicken fashion but well worth the effort. Useless trivia fact: the cardinal is the most common state bird (7 states-Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana and both Virginias)  followed the Western Meadowlark (6-Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wyoming) and mockingbird (5- Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Texas).

State Bird "Provisions"

State Bird with provisions $9

King Salmon Tartare with Pickled cucumbers and toasted quinoa $10

A very quirky fish girl snuck up behind us offering a tartare prepared table side.  The salmon looked beautiful so it was hard to resist.  The tartare was scooped atop some modestly pickled cucumber and topped with a delicious blend of toasted quinoa and roasted seaweed. Nothing beats freshness and the salmon fit the bill.  No need for crostini..the quinoa mix gives it the perfect amount of crunch.

KIng Salmon Tartare

King Salmon Tartare with Pickled cucumbers and toasted quinoa $10

Guinea hen dumpling with aromatic broth $3

I missed the first go around of these single dumplings soaked in broth.  Thanks to one of the chefs who hunted one down for me a little later, I was able to indulge.  Dumplings are a simple creation that can be screwed up quite  easily.  The dumpling was crisp but not overcooked and the filling to dough ratio was perfect.  As promised, the broth was aromatic although a little surprising.  I’m used to salt as the predominate taste in a dumpling broth and in this case it was more sour and complex but delicious nonetheless.

state bird dumpling

Guinea hen dumpling with aromatic broth $3

Raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut & sesame $3

I love oysters. They are a glorious way to begin a meal.  I have been teased by friends of mine that I look like a kid in a candy store when I order them.  I take great pride in the careful construction of the oyster including ensuring it is loosened from the shell and has the appropriate amount of horseradish, mignonette, seafood sauce etc. In other words, every mollusk is a canvas and I get to play with the paint.  Keeping that in mind, I found the oyster delicious with balanced and unique seasoning.  It’s just a shame I couldn’t play with it some more.

Oyster

Raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut & sesame $3

Duck liver mousse with almond biscuit $6

Although no dish was sold to us in used car salesman style, the most boasted item was the duck liver mousse which has been a staple since State Bird opened. I took the opportunity to take a jab at the chefs but reminding them that duck liver is not as common in Canada because we can still serve fois gras in restaurants and duck liver is a weaker substitute.  The mousse was smooth, light and fresh but what impressed me the most were the almond biscuits.  In most cases, the savory and liver-bitter spread is served with a neutral crostini but the sweet biscuit brought it to a new level.

Duck Liver Mousse

Duck liver mousse with almond biscuit $6

“Caesar Salad” $5

A unique spin on the classic caesar, it had all the elements with a few surprises like pickled vegetables. It was a good salad, just not as remarkable as the other menu items.

Caesar Salad

Caesar Salad $5

Mushroom farro spezzato with smoked egg $8

I’m pretty sure I have this dish right.  I remember it describe as similar to porridge.  The flavour from the nicely cooked mushroom was front and centre but I did find the dish got boring and predictable very quickly.  It wasn’t bad put did pale in comparison the number of other dynamic and taste bud teasing dishes I ate during the night.  I loved the smoked egg yolk but it got a little overpowered by the predominant mushroom flavour.

Mushroom farro spezzato with smoked egg $8

Mushroom farro spezzato with smoked egg $8

Garlic bread with burrata $8

Although I enjoyed watching this dish being made more than any other, in the end I was a little disappointed by the flavour.  The dough is rolled with precision,dropped into hot oil and fried donut style.  It is then seasoned and finished with the new San Francisco treat and ubiquitous bay area cheese…burrata.  The underseasoned crispy bread coupled with the bland and sloppy cheese just didn’t work for me although I did enjoy the aggressive use of the black pepper.

Garlic Bread with Burrata

Garlic bread with burrata $8

 

BONUS: Shots of ‘world peace’ peanut muscovado milk! When we decided to pass on dessert (we both had other engagements to attend), the staff almost looked sad.  They take enormous pride in their dishes and would let us leave without having a shot of the world peace peanut milk.  One word: outstanding. It was a delicious nectar which collected the X-factor of the delicious legume into one delightful shot.

 

Peanut Milk

A Shot of ‘world peace’ peanut muscovado milk

My Take

There were some initial annoyances and misconceptions that I had about State Bird Provisions.  First, I found the reservation system stupid and annoying.  Second, star sightings like Ryan Gosling  and the national hype made me think the vibe would be pretentious.  My mind was changed with  the fact that when I emailed them in advance to ask a few questions, they were authentic and cordial in their responses. Once you are in the place, you are treated like royalty or a VIP member of an exclusive party.  No fewer than 6 staff members talked to us, told us their stories, explained the food and beamed with an authentic pride unlike most restaurants I have dined in.  They got to know you, asked for opinions and treated you like a human, not a credit card. In summary, it was delicious FUN.  They didn’t need gimmicks or loud music or dorks with attitude dressed like fools to create a self-serving brand.  Instead, a cool concept with great service and fantastic food with the customer as the focal point is what earned this place a Michelin star.  As for the 45 minute wait, the experience inside made it well worth it.  It’s not like I haven’t wasted an hour or two of my life before; I did watch the Place Behind the Pines after all.

 

State Bird Provisions on Urbanspoon

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