Some Expensive Zen at Atelier Crenn

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

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

Home of the Brave: A Celebration of the American Culinary Trinity of Cheese, Gravy and Sauce

Perhaps it’s fitting I’m typing this as I fly over the Western plains toward San Francisco.   Home of the Brave are the four words which tell you the Star-Spangled banner is over and is usually held for about 16 bars while some celebrity exercises their creative right to make the song their own. It is also the title of a 1988 Toto song, perhaps a patriotic attmept to recreate the success they had in the early 80’s with the Grammy winning album IV featuring the song of the year Rosanna as well as Africa.  The phrase is synomonous with the USA, so it seems an appropriate name for a snack bar which celebrates Amercian culture and cuisine. Such a concept may be a daunting task however. There is nothing universally consistant with American food. Each region adheres to a philosophy and a stubbornness which is much an identity as an local accent. That said, gravy is pretty close.

Toronto’s homage to our southern neighbours sits hidden among King Street favourites Lou Dawg’s, Lee and Wurst.  Relative to other eateries, it about the size of Vermont, boasting a reasonably sized bar, a number of tablesand booths and even a few “patio” seats which overlook the King Street scene.  I was quickly greeting by the bartender who offered me a bar seat.  I sat and looked around.  A bustling open kitchen was nestled in the corner.  The bar area was decorated with American paraphernalia including references to many of the urban centres which make the USA the diverse and interesting country it is. From a drink perspective, they adhere to the American way.  They feature beer, wine and cocktails all produced or inspired by America. There are even a few cocktails created through feedback from the guestbook of American visitors. I was in the mood for a pint, so I opted for an $8 Sam Adam’s Boston lager which was frankly the only palatable beer on the draught list.  They do carry a few bottles from the historic Anchor brewery in the city I was in flight towards. The vibrant beer scene in the USA is misunderstood by so many Canadians who simply say “All American beer is water” and HOTB reinforces this misconception by offering crap like Coors Light  and Rolling Rock as essential American suds.

The menu is everything you would expect in a stereotypical American eatery, offering eats like Philly steak sandwiches, chicken and waffles and Maryland Crab Cakes.  In addition, almost every dish, including vegetables, contains one of the three components of the America culinary trilogy: Gravy, sauce, cheese or a combination of two or three.  In celebration of Napoleon Dynamite and his home state of Idaho, I was obliged to try the tater tots complete with the obligatory cheese AND gravy.  They were nasty, delicious chunks of what seemed like deep fried mashed potatoes which sitting in  a shallow pool of fat.

Tater Tots
Tater Tots $7

It was wing night (which means they serve wings…not the fact you get them for $0.36 each or whatever the going discount rate is) and I thought nothing could be more American than sucking back a pound of chicken parts.  The flavour of the night was Tex-Mex mole, a celebration of the Mexican influence on United States cuisine.  They came out quickly, doused in the promised spicy chocolate sauce and yes….topped with another sauce (sauce on sauce is Amercian food porn at its best).  The taste was quite acceptable and manged to marry the two southern flavours quite effectively. My only issue was the heavy breading on the wings.  Perhaps it’s a dedication to American art of deep frying everything, but I would have prefered the naked wing approach, especially with the rich flavour  of the abundant sauce.  My plasma might have been a little happier with me without the breading as well.

Home of the Brave Tex-Mex Mole Wings $12
Tex-Mex Mole Wings $12

 

I was feeling a little guilty so decided to try and balance things out with a little dose of a vegetable. Asparagus was in season, so I got an order.  Surprise… it was served with cheese and mushroom gravy.  I can’t complain about the taste or the cook on the asparagus..both were terrific but my guilt was hardly stifled as the nutritional value of the green spears  was negated by the other ingredients. The portion size, however, was not American because there was no way I could feed 4 people with this serving of “veggies”.

Asparagus with cheese and gravy
Asparagus with cheese and gravy $7

I passed on dessert even though two of my biggest vices were being offered; ice cream sandwiches and funnel cakes. I also passed on a very intriguing cobb salad served with a whole egg served in a half avocado, a concept I have since adopted into my homemade Cobb.

 

My Take 

Despite horror stories I had heard about the service being similar to the treatment of a gay couple at a misguided and ignorant Rick Perry rally, I found the service prompt and friendly.  The atmosphere was fun and vibrant and I loved the open kitchen concept.  Given the shitty beer selection and the pledge of allegiance  to cheese and gravy, I’m still trying to figure out if the owners intend  HOTB to be an reasonable facsimile of the American eatery or a parody of the plated gluttony which plagues our neighbours to the south. If it’s the latter I think it’s a brilliant joke.  If it’s the former, it’s a stereotype worse than Canadians living in igloos. I mean, not everybody in American puts added fat on everything, right?  Sure, a rib-sucking Texan may cherish the menu but  I’m sure a clean eating Californian would cringe at the fact that this place even manages to make asparagus unhealthy.    In the end, Home of the Brave is a fun rendition of American food.  I wouldn’t, however, bring your vegan sister, a skinny first date or your dad if he’s on a statin. I would, however, bring a good old Ontario health card just in case. I don’t think Obamacare is ready for this place.

 

Home of the Brave on Urbanspoon

I Left my Heartburn in San Francisco

I recently went on a business trip to San Francisco and had the opportunity to dine at many of the numerous eateries that have made the city one of the most popular dining destinations in the United States.  From a handful of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives to a Michelin two star restaurant, it was a rather amazing culinary journey.   Before I break it down, however, I figure I’d share some general observations about this diverse city.

Crazy Cab Drivers

San Francisco cab drivers are insane.  Some of them look like they are hiding from the law.  Others speak of government conspiracies and try to set up ipad firewalls while dodging halted cars and aiming at unsuspecting tourists who actually think that they have the right of way (see drivers).

Homeless People

There are two types of homeless people in San Francisco.  The first are those who hang out along Geary and O’Farrell with cardboard signs and sob stories and those who Market and Taylor. The mental illness runs rampant and is quite evident as you walk the streets. The modern climate couple with the “we accept everybody” mentality probably helps the situation.  It’s amazing to see people crap on Detroit for its decrepit neighbourhoods especially when San Francisco has a lot of the the same.

 Small Beers

I’m not sure San Francisco knows what a pint is.  Most of the beer I ordered came in a concave glass that clearly was smaller than the pints I’m so used to.  That said, the average price of 6-7 bucks was far from a deal. That said, there is terrific variety of local brews ranging from black porters to watermelon wheat to the famous anchor steam.   After looking at the dainty glasses for a week, the first pint I drank upon my return to Canada looked like a Munich stein during Octoberfest.

Maps

Even google maps can’t properly depict the contours of this city.  I saw a few homeless guys at the bottom of Fillmore. Once I started the ascent,after further consideration I realized they were more likely Sherpas offering assistance for the 75 degree climb I was half way through completing.  Thank God I’m not prone to altitude sickness.  Meanwhile, Google maps made it look like a walk in the park with no warning that you might need a pickaxe to get to your destination.

Unisex washrooms

Whether a triple D or a Michelin two-star, the norm is to have one unisex washroom.  Despite the fact some are equipped with a urinal, I’m sure it sparks many arguments about leaving the seat up or pissing all over the floor. Just like being at home…

Drivers

Having spent enough time in Toronto where pedestrians reign supreme, walking in San Francisco is a life threatening ordeal.  Yellow lights and those red for less than three seconds means car will accelerate through intersection with no regard for hapless pedestrians trying to bolt across the street in the last seconds. Finally, a city with the realization that a couple of thousand pounds of metal will win against 175 lbs of flesh any day.

A Tale of Two Cheeses

Burrata has surfaced on a few menus in the Toronto area but it is a definite staple among a lot of the San Francisco hot spots like State Bird Provisions and Rich Table.  Perhaps it’s the versatility of this cheese or the fact that goat cheese is so three years ago, but Burrata graces many of the menus across the city whether it be in chilled soup, served with crackers or on top of garlic bread.

Mt. Tam is a creamy Brie like cheese that also finds it way into many dishes in San Francisco.  It adheres to the ever present “farm to table” philosophy of the city with no compromise on taste.  It was used with great success in a number of dishes, most notably State Bird’s quail egg skillet.

Duck liver

Similar to Cuban cigars, Canadians can indulge on Fois Gras at will.  Perhaps in response to the Californian law outlawing the selling of this delicacy in the state, restaurateurs have taken to selling duck liver pate instead.  It frequently appears on menus across San Francisco and is served with a jaded side of  “who needs force fed goose liver anyway” mixed with a little “at least our state can win a Stanley Cup!”.

My Take

San Francisco is a vibrant city with a patchwork of diverse neighborhoods.  It’s as dirty as it is fascinating.  The difference between condemned buildings, schizophrenic streetwalkers and Tiffany and Sak’s Fifth Avenue is a few blocks. The restaurant scene is filled with Michelin stars, James Beard awards, old school celebrity chefs, up and coming culinary geniuses, eateries carved out of rundown edifices and a spectrum of ethnic and fusion cuisine. I didn’t see a speck of Rice-a-Roni anywhere.

 

Stay tuned for reviews……

 

The Coast is not Clear: The Case of the Gluten Containing Eel and the Undercooked Scallop

After a trip to the Vancouver aquarium as part of a team building activity (even though only three of us went), we went to look for a quick bite knowing the evening fare at the meeting would be less than appealing.  It was an abnormally warm May day, so we wanted a patio,a drink and some decent food.

Coast is part of the Glowbal group conglomerate which owns a number of popular Vancouver restaurants. Having previously dined at Black + Blue and the Fish Shack with reasonable success, it sounds like a good idea, especially with the advertised cocktail menu and half price appetizers.  After making the uphill trek to Alberni Street, we were able to secure a table on the front patio. The three of us were wearing casual team-building clothes (ie. yoga pants and shorts). We were hardly dressed for the occasion, especially in the midst of the attire of the waitstaff and  numerous suits coming in but we were quickly comfortable in our outdoor seats.

Both my colleagues have what I consider excellent palates and both do not consume gluten.  One of them has also never tried nigiri, so we took the opportunity to run an experiment with the small list on the menu. My thought was to hit her with the ebi thinking it would best to start her off with something cooked not to mention the fact that there was no guilt based on the fact we were just at the aquarium watching numerous other species splash around. The waitress, however, insisted that we opt for the unagi (since it was cooked) although I thought eel may not be the best way to initiate a novice sushi eater.  The shrimp arrived without issue but the eel arrived coated in what appeared to be a brown sauce. Even as a gluten glutton, I have become aware that any brown sauce is an alarm bell, especially on a piece of sushi.  It usually means soy sauce which means gluten. Keep in mind the menu clearly stated this item was gluten free but after deliberation by the waitstaff and kitchen slightly longer than the OJ Simpson verdict, we were told it in fact contained gluten.  Big mistake.  In the end, I ate the eel (which was decent but expensive) and I succeeded in introducing her to the world of nigiri albeit a tame piece of cooked shrimp.

Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively)
Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively). Note the brown sauce…

 

I will give Coast credit for it’s buck a shuck special.  I indulged in a half dozen oysters, portraying behaviour similar to that of a five year old opening a new set of lego.  I become mesmerized by combining oyster flesh with pungent horseradish and some type of mignonette.   In fact, I don’t think anything gives me as much enjoyment in the area of seafood relations since Mr. Tecklenberg showed me how to hypnotize a lobster when I was 8 or 9 at a table in his namesake Sudbury restaurant. I was so giddy I forgot the picture.

Each of us weren’t up for a whole lot of food (beside the after effect of seeing a whole lot of underwater life), but we each ordered a dish and did a family style sorta thing.  First were the thai mussels (minus the bread).  They were tasty but a rather dismal serving for $19. Maybe it would have come with 17 pieces of garlic bread which would have made it a bit more economical.

 

Thai Mussels (18.95 or each)
Thai Mussels (18.95 or about a buck each..I’d rather have the oysters)

 

 

Second was the grilled halibut.  It made a lot of sense given the fact it was the season and there was not a hint of brown sauce anywhere on the plate.  Instead, it was served with a decent potato salad.  The fish was cooked nicely but it’s difficult to justify the $38 price tag.

 

Grilled Halibut ($37.95)
Grilled Halibut ($37.95)

Finally, my choice was the apple chopped salad ($12.95) with the optional upgrade of two scallops for a whopping ten bucks.  It arrived with a lone scallop and I made a note to see if it was reflected properly on the bill.  I never had the chance.  The salad itself was fresh, crisp and nicely balanced but when I cut open the scallop I looked at my colleagues and in my best Gordon Ramsey accent yelled “The f@*%ing scallop is raw”.  In fact, it was a bit of a relief because paying 5 bucks for a scallop the size of a jawbreaker just wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps the  biggest annoyance of all was when the manager returned with the plate to confirm with me that, after careful deliberation with the chef, the scallop was in fact raw and they would gladly take it off the bill.  I guess all those years of watching Hell’s kitchen finally paid off since it saved me the embarrassment of being corrected in front of my esteemed colleagues.

 

Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop
Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop

 

The source of much deliberation....
The source of much deliberation….

 

My Take

Vancouver’s Glowbal group seems to be like olives, cilantro or goat cheese; you either love them or hate them.  Some see the group as an innovative and eclectic collection of restaurants showcasing an incredible arrays of foods.  Others see it as an overpriced series of misguided trends in which the decor is more important than the food. The inability to properly display gluten-free foods combined with minute mussels and an undercooked and underwhelming five dollar scallop (that included  a second opinion on doneness) makes me lean toward the latter.  This was just a bad experience with no effort made to fix it.  Good thing there were crudites back at the meeting.  I swear a carrot stick never tasted so good.

Coast Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

 

Turning Over a New Banana Leaf: A Delicious Primer on Malaysian Food

It’s always funny asking people what they want for lunch.  When you spend copious hours mulling over restaurants experiences, you get a reputation as the go-to guy. Here is an excerpt from a typical discussion with a friend or colleague:

Me: Where do you want to go for lunch?

Them:  I don’t know. You’re the foodie.  You pick.

Me: Well, tell me what you like.

Them: I’ll eat almost anything.

Me (with slight look of annoyance on my face):  Do you like Malaysian?

Them (with “I have no idea what Malaysian is”  look on face): Ya, sounds great.

Me: It’s kind of like Thai.

Them (with look of relief on face): Oh! I like Thai.

 

Now that that was decided, I trekked a few blocks from the hotel with a couple of colleagues for lunch at the Banana Leaf, a small Vancouver chain featuring fare from the South Asian country.  Geographically located along the spice route, Malaysia has a rich food history, influenced by near neighbours China, India and Thailand with a touch of input from the numerous other European countries which touched it’s soil during world expansion.  They rely on local ingredients but also import wheat and other staples.

The Banana Leaf is a small Vancouver chain which focuses on Malaysian cuisine.  The menu is quite expansive, reflecting the aforementioned diversity of the country’s offerings.  I went twice during a recent trip to Vancouver; once for lunch and once for dinner. For lunch, we opted for the safe newbie option of the tasting menu consisting of some of the more popular dishes. Here’s the summary…

Green Asian salad

This sizable  starter was a pleasant mix of tropical flavours including pineapple, papaya and coconut dressed in lemongrass vinaigrette. Very fresh and delicious.

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Green Asian Salad

Spring Rolls and Roti Canai

Appetizers with the  neighbour’s  influence of Malaysia  fills this plate.  The crispy spring rolls and  the delightfully chewy roti were served hot and served with sweet chili  and coconut curry sauce respectively.

Spring Rolls and Roti Canai
Spring Rolls and Roti Canai

 

Rendang Beef Curry

Considered a festive dish, it’s a celebration of  coconut and curry gravy surrounding tender beef. It was very well balanced with a nice kick of spice.

Rendang Beef Curry
Rendang Beef Curry

Gulai Seafood 

The vibrant stew with fusion flavours  mixing  turmeric with classic South Asian staples including ginger, galangal, lemongrass and tamarind.  The abundant proteins were cooked delicately, leaving the fish and shrimp tender and delicious.

Gulai Stew
Gulai Stew

Sambal Green Beans 

Chili and shrimp paste provide the base to this classic Asian dish.  Garnished with tomato and peppers, it was attractive and tasty.

Sambal Green Beans
Sambal Green Beans

Pisang Goreng

Fried banana and ice cream was served atop an absolutely delicious gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) sauce which had a sweet and bitter taste reminiscent of a good creme brule or a Mexican flan.

Banana
Pisang Goreng

 

Quick Take

Perhaps the craziest thing was the fact that all of this food was $18 a person.  I’m accustomed to tiny, expensive portions in a tasting menu but the sizes of these meals were far from “tasting”.  For the value, it’s arguably one of the better meals you can buy.

 

A few nights later I went for dinner…..

Green Papaya and Mango Kerabu ($8)

Another delicious salad consisting of a cornucopia of  Asian flavours including the title fruits with cucumber, carrot and jicama combined with sweet, sour and salty flavours of the dressing and fish sauce respectively.

G
Green Papaya and Mango Kerabu $8

 

Malaysian Spicy Papaya Seafood Soup ($6)

Hinted of Tom Yum but with bursts of sweetness from papaya right in the soup with a nice level of heat.

Spicy
Malaysian Spicy Papaya Seafood Soup $6

Pineapple Fried Rice with Seafood & Chicken ($15)

Visually appealing dish that didn’t quite match in taste.  It could have used a few more of the promised accessories (sunflower seeds, raisins, shrimp etc.) but it sure is pretty.

Pineapple
Pineapple Fried Rice with Chicken $15

Sticky Rice with Grated Coconut & Gula Melaka ($7)

Having already experienced the deliciousness of gula melaka (see above), I was keen to try it combined with coconut rice.  The toasted coconut was a great addition from a taste and texture perspective. Once again, it was reminder that Gula Melaka is like nectar from the gods.

Dessert
Sticky Rice with Grated Coconut and Gula Melaka $7

My Take

It is evident that Malaysian food is a mosaic of ingredients with ingredients heavily influenced by neighbours and past travelers looking for the same spices which filled many of the dishes served here. The $18 for the “tasting menu” lunch was ridiculous (in a good way) and included mountains of delicious  food.  The dinner dishes were also reasonably priced.  My colleagues, each with a different capacity to consume copious amounts of food, seemed impressed.  For the most part, the service was prompt (although a little slow and confused at dinner although I think one of our waitresses was in training) and courteous and the decor was simple but classy.  Banana leaf is a small Vancouver chain offering a lesson in the diverse and delicious fare of Malaysian, a cuisine often overshadowed by its more popular neighbours.  I’m just spreading the word.

Banana Leaf on Urbanspoon

Ap Gu Jung and Its Appreciation of Non-Korean Gluttons

Sometimes when I’m out of town I put a day’s worth of effort into carefully orchestrating a dining schedule. A combination of urbanspoon, yelp, the opinion of other bloggers and sometimes Guy Fieri drive my decisions, especially when time is a factor.  Other times, however, I take a walk and see what meets my fancy.  I was staying at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver and decided to take a walk down Robson with a colleague to see what I could devour on a break between my meeting and the planned rubber chicken dinner later in the evening. This part of Robson is dotted with a number of Asian eateries including Korean, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Japanese.   Based on the cozy decor and gluten-free choices (NB-not me), we sat down at Ap Ju Jung.  Despite the fact it was early in the evening. it was already half full. On top of that, I was the only Caucasian in the house so I was confident in this random pick.

After ordering, we were treated to a bowl of sweet potato soup which had a thin but smooth texture and a nice glisten.   It tasted a bit like baby food (although not unpleasant)  and erred on the side of sweet and was in stark contrast to the spicy dishes to come.

Sweet Potato Soup
Sweet Potato Soup

 

Next, we were both offered a tray of  banchan which consisted of seaweed salad, kimchi and what I believe was a sweet boiled potato. Whether it was our peckish nature or the deliciousness of the dishes, we devoured all three with relative ease  (in fact my dinner date  is well known for destroying a plate calamari on a good day so we can add seaweed salad to the list).  This resulted in a  second round of banchan which I found odd since everybody else around us shared one and didn’t get a second let alone a third.  Perhaps they sensed our grateful gluttony.

Banden- Seaweed Salad, Potatoes and Kimchi
Banden- Seaweed Salad, Potatoes and Kimchi

Shortly after, my homemade dumplings arrived dim su.  The dumpling itself was quite delicate and was stuffed with a tasty pork and chive mixture.  It was a great balance between dough and filling  The coarse filling had a great texture and wasn’t dry or watery.  I had no problem putting the quartet  away.

Homemade Dumplings $7.95
Homemade Dumplings $7.95

I also ordered kimchi stew with tuna.  I can’t complain about the lack of authenticity but it was a humble reminder that kimchi can be overwhelming when it’s the mainstay of the dish. Sour and spicy along with the odd bit of sweet tuna collided on the tongue resulting a pleasant train wreck of flavours. Due to the intensity of the kimchi, it was difficult to finish the whole bowl.

Tuna Kimchi Stew $9.95
Tuna Kimchi Stew $9.95

Not surprisingly, the calamari queen (isn’t that a Billy Ocean song)  ordered spicy squid with rice.  The first bite of squid I had was tough and rubbery but it must have been an anomaly because the rest was spot on.  There was good balance between protein and vegetable (mainly green beans and onions which  both kept their crunch) and the spiciness was aggressive but within the spectrum of a wandering Caucasian.

Spicy Squid and Rice $9.95
Spicy Squid and Rice $9.95

My Take

With the multitude of restaurants in Vancouver, it is easy to over think  each and every dining possibility. Sometimes I enjoy exploring neighbourhoods just to hit a random place along the way.  This was the case with Ap Gu Jung.  Offering an array of Korean cuisine in a clean and cozy environment, the food and service were quite good.  The gifts of soup and banchan were delicious and most appreciated.  The price points of the other dishes were quite acceptable.  Since we were there early, I can’t comment  on the night scene ( I noticed a set of drums on the second floor overlooking the main area), but at 530 pm you could have a conversation even with the funky music playing in the background. In the end, Ap Gu Jung’s gracious experience was much more Ban Ki-moon than Kim Jong-un.

 

Ap Gu Jung Korean on Urbanspoon