Once in a while I pass a place and just feel the need to drop in out of nothing more than curiosity. After breakfast, I was walking down Adelaide and saw Porh Pawh’s etched on a window covered with frosted glass. The name could suggest a spa or even a “spa”. It might also be a good name for a dog groomer (bring your dog’s Porh Pawh’s to us and we will make them feel better). The only real indication that something is inside is a small sandwich board on the sidewalk. What’s more confusing is when you look at the entrance there are pictures of retail listings listed beside the front door leading one to believe they may be buying a duplex as opposed to a salad.
I ventured inside. It looks very regular, like any building entrance, until you get around the corner. At this point you see a small. modest counter. Suddenly a small Chinese woman appears with a cloth around her head as she bustles around the kitchen preparing lunch. It reminded me of the scene from Gremlins when Billy’s father walks into the shop to find a unique gift and eventually leaves with a Mogwai.
The woman quickly came to the counter as I was staring at the menu which consisted of standard breakfast and lunch items mixed with Asian influenced salads. In front of me were baked goods in containers that looked like they were about to be carted off to a school bake sale. Since I just ate I was more interested in grabbing something for the road as opposed to a full lunch. I asked about the bake sale containers and I was told they were shortbread cookies, date squares and rice krispy treats. Further explanation informed me that her main intention is to try and make these goods as healthy and possible and I got a very detailed explanation of each. For example, the addition of oats and milled flax seed to the shortbread adds fibre and counters the absorption of the butter while the hidden chocolate centre enhances the flavour without the need for additional fat and sugar. In addition, the marshmallow component of the rice krispy square is minimized and replaced with cranberries and sesame seeds as healthier and alternate flavours.
I was compelled and ordered all three as well as a coffee which was fair trade, organic and made with the rarely used Aeropress method and served with a biodegradable lid and cup. It was a decent cup of coffee although it can’t replace a good, more traditional Amerciano. As I waited another patron came in and she greeted him by name and asked if he had a minute to talk after she was done. He grabbed a date square and said sure. I love shit like this and only imagined the conversation that would ensue.
As for the baked goods, I was honestly shocked. I’m not suggesting for a second that this is health food but it is certainly better than anything Starbucks will ever offer. It was unique and much fresher than the mass produced Starbucks garbage. The combinations of flavours in all three were almost bang on to their less wholesome alternatives. The sesame in the rice krispy square was brilliant as was the chocolate in the shortbread and the walnuts in the date square. She also gave me a sample of a gluten free muffin she was “testing”. She makes batches, freezes them and then periodically tastes them to assess their integrity over time. I think it was lemon poppyseed and was tasty although it still had that obviously gluten-free texture.
I love a good coffee shop/cafe and Toronto has no shortage of them. They are, however, usually overrun by hipsters and serve the same old cookies and squares as everywhere else. Stumbling into the almost hidden Porh Pawh’s was like walking into Mr. Wing’s mysterious shop in Gremlins. The soup was boiling, the goods were displayed and conversation was a bit like a high school chemistry class. The experience and the goods were as magical as Gizmo himself so I made a note to come back for lunch sometime soon and reminded myself that it might not be a good idea to get anything wet or eat the date squares after midnight.
My last stop in the San Francisco area was at Burma Superstar, the iconic Richmond area eatery offering the mysterious food of Burma. Although Burma is now technically Myanmar, I suppose not having to change the menu or threatening the near 25 year old brand is more important than geographical accuracy. Plus, whenever I hear the name I think of two things; Molly Shannon and high school religion classes. When Burma Superstar was only 7 years old, Molly Shannon and a much younger Will Farrell starred in Superstar which was based on the Saturday Night Live skit. My daughter took quite a liking to the film and almost killed herself trying to do the razzle dazzle on a slippery hardwood floor. On the positive side, it opened up the door for me to add “don’t make out with trees” to the list of things to cover off in birds and bees talk we had later. Regarding school, I had a Catholic education and one thing you could count on was that once a year a teacher would forfeit the normal religion lesson to show the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar right around the time of the Passion.
Based on the numerous web reviews, I knew a visit to Burma Superstar even early on a Saturday evening would mean a line and I was right. We were politely told that the wait would be somewhere in the area of 45 minutes to an hour. I made a note that our table would be right after a couple of sweet old ladies who signed in just before me. We were offered B*Star, Burma Superstar’s sister restaurant as an alternative and, after careful deliberation, we opted for the original instead of the sequel and walked around the neighbourhood for a while.
We were seated in a little less than 45 minutes and, as anticipated, right behind the old ladies. It was a crowded and tight place but we had some reprieve since we were sitting right by the window. We started the highly recommended signature tea leaf salad. It arrived to the table separated into the numerous ingredients (including tomatoes, jalapenos, beans, seeds, fried garlic and a fermented green tea paste) which were skillfully combined table side. The magic in this salad lies in the tea paste for unami and the aromatic fried garlic which elevate the other ingredients. The textural differences were appealing as well.
Another house favorite is the pumpkin pork stew. This is a bit of a misnomer since it is technically made with kaboucha squash. Also called Japanese pumpkin, this gourd is revered for its aphrodisiac qualities which, if I would have known at the time, I may have avoided given the long plane ride home given the fact I was planning to change into jogging pants. It all worked out though. The gross, crowded red-eye home quashed any chance of arousal at 35000 feet. The prominent flavour in the curry was ginger which was a refreshing compliment to the squash. Although I enjoyed the uniqueness of the dish, the kaboucha was very dominant and it’s slimy/starchy texture wouldn’t work for everybody.
I’ll stop here for a second to provide an update on the old ladies that were seated just before us. They were within eyesight and I was impressed by a couple of things. First, they there using the napkins bib-style, meaning they were really getting down to business. Second, each had an Asian beer in the bottle (screw the glass), which they were sucking back rapidly in between bites. Third, those dishes just didn’t stop. One after another, what seemed like a significant part of the menu arrived at the table and yet they tackled them all in that graceful old lady manner. I think I actually teared up and hoped that one day, in my elder years, I could bust into a restaurant and show a bunch of privileged hipsters how to strap on the feedbag.
The third was the Burmese chicken and shrimp casserole. My rationale for this dish was simple; cook anything in a clay pot and I’m happy. In addition, anything with peas makes me happy. I really enjoyed it. The use of the bone-in chicken, the perfectly cooked shrimp and the fact the dish had the elements of both Thai and Indian cuisine were all positives. It was like a jacked up Pad Thai married with a chicken and shrimp biryani.
For dessert I had to try the black rice pudding which we split as a table. It looked like my son’s attempt at a creative bowl of cereal in the morning. It was well balanced between sweet and savory which was catalyzed by the fresh fruit and the abundant use of sesame seeds and almonds.
To end everything off, I glanced over at the old ladies who were looking quite content as they finished off a dessert of their own and tipped my hat to them out of a combination of sheer respect and an overwhelming feeling of awe.
Burma Superstar is listed as a San Francisco must in almost every magazine and website in existence. It’s success has resulted in the emergence of a number of Burmese eateries including B*Star by the same owners down the street which offers many of the same dishes. The wait is inevitable and long, the quarters are cramped and the food is good. I got schooled by old ladies and was scared to change into my roots jogging pants. In the end, I didn’t want to sing “Hosanna!” from the mountaintops (or my desktop if I was still in high school) or break into the razzle dazzle but I would rate it much higher than 32% on rotten tomatoes.
On my last day in Napa Valley I wanted to go back to Yountville one more time to once again experience it’s quaint beauty, not to mention the fact I was offered transportation in a small red convertible which made me feel like the numerous washed up yuppies back home I see driving around in their open top Chrysler LeBarons. It is a very picturesque drive up highway 29 and the feeling of the fresh wind in my face trumped the sun scaling the top of my head (which is the main reason I have always found convertibles less than enjoyable).
This time I wanted to explore the V marketplace which houses a number of small shops and boutiques. I did a quick tour of a wine shop which offered a wide range of bottles at different types and prices. Not surprisingly, there was some ass hat walking around with his buddy pointing out every wine he has had in the place. I normally wouldn’t care but there was a pompous tone in his voice as opposed to a authentic and organic bliss. In other words, it was more important for him to flaunt his status as a self-declared sommelier than a true wine enthusiast.
The highlight of the market was Napastyle, the Michael Chiarello market which offers a wide range of foodie friendly articles including various foodstuffs, kitchen equipment and knickknacks to enhance any home’s decor and entertaining potential. They had a series of condiments available for tasting which were divine, especially the smoked and spicy olive oils and the fruit vinegar (especially the peach one from what I recall). At this point, we regretted out decision to have traveled with carry on luggage and sucked back a bit more oil before we left.
It was on the tail end of the lunch hour, so we decided to hunt out a place to eat. I would be remiss if I didn’t try and add another star in my Michelin sky, so we decided on Bistro Jeanty, the French cafe in the heart of Yountville. It was quite busy and the patio was full but we were able to secure a table inside. I assume the decor was meant to be a recreation of a rustic and modest eatery in Paris as opposed to the clean and crisp feel of a place like Redd down the street. The waitress arrived very quickly and happily explained the menu. She was polite and courteous in a way that couldn’t be taught and I quickly felt quite welcome.
We decided to split a meal starting with Langue d’Agneau (warm lamb tongue and potato salad) for $15. This dish was a bit of a concession for me but I was curious to see if lamb tongue had the same distinct taste as the rest of the animal. It did. It was as tender as the potatoes and was well complimented by the acidic dressing and bitter greens. The fact that this rather heavy dish was listed on the “lighter side” of the menu was a clear foreshadowing of our upcoming experience.
Dish two was the Quenelles de Brochet (pike dumplings with lobster sauce) for $15. The dumplings were as light and fluffy as cumulus clouds in an atmosphere as thick as that of Venus (ok..this is the astronomy geek in me…Venus’ atmosphere is 90 times more massive than earth’s….and so was this sauce). Taste wise what can I say. It’s butter, cream and lobster. Collectively, I enjoyed the contrast of the light dumpling against the heavy sauce and thought this dish was quite good.
Cassoulet (baked beans, duck confit, toulouse sausage and apple smoked bacon) for $26 was the final dish. Cassoulet is a bit of a generic term used to describe a bean based stew. In fact, it is named after the dish the stew is served in more than a summary of the ingredients in it. I equate it to pork and beans, the North American staple that involves a frantic search through the beans in search of the tiny sliver of bacon strategically placed in each can. Instead with this cassoulet, the fruits of such labour included whole sausage and a duck leg. It was nicely seasoned and did bring back memories of a gold old can of Libby’s. Once again, the dish was very rich and after a few bites, I threw in my serviette and called it day. In fact, I didn’t even think about food for a number of hours afterwards despite walking around in the epicentre of culinary temptation.
Day one in Yountville featured fresh California fare at Redd whereas day 2 was in stark contrast with the rich French food at Bistro Jeanty. The service at Jeanty was incredible. Despite the use of sauces as thick as the atmosphere of Venus, I wouldn’t call the food astronomical although stellar would still be an adequate description. The V marketplace, specifically Napastyle, is well worth a visit even if to only indulge on a few olive oil and vinegar samples. I the end, I envision coming back to Yountville since I haven’t even scratched the surface of culinary options in this small town. There is Redd Wood, Bottaga, Bouchon, Ad Hoc and, of course, the Michelin star mecca which is the French Laundry. This gives me an idea; I could transport a suitcase of money down to the Napa Valley, dump it on French Laundry’s porch in exchange for dinner and then use it to transport back a arsenal of of olive oil. I guess that means I’d need to check a bag though.
I had an English teacher in grade 9 who I remember well. First, he was a huge Arlo Guthrie fan. While donning his leather jacket, he would play Alice’s restaurant in class as a reminder of what a generation influenced by Guns n’ Roses and Poison was missing. At the time I thought he was a bit of a dork but as I matured I gained a greater appreciation for the folk rock of the 1960-1970s.
The reason I mention this was the fact that I remember this same teacher introducing me to the magnificent works of e.e. cummings, the American poet who died a decade before I was born. From what I recall, cummings was known for his descriptive verses which elevated the feeling of an experience to new levels. In particular, I remember the phrase “puddle wonderful” which describes a feeling that really can only be compared to hopping in a post-storm pool of water with an indescribable bliss. He was also known for his preference for lower case letters which may subconsciously be the reason why I sign my emails with a small ‘s’.
Like many things in high school, I doubted I would ever have the need to pull it out my memory vault but it surfaced when I attended a wedding in Napa Valley (I’ll get back to this), specifically at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone. This beautiful property boasts one of the most unique and coveted culinary programs in the United States. It is also a perfect venue for a wedding and I was lucky enough to be invited to one in May.
The wedding was small and had some stereotypical but also a few surreal elements. There was an Irish priest named Peader who was either really funny, really drunk or both. He was pretty close to a Simpson’s character. The ceremony was outside so his voice was somewhat muted by a flock of birds who chirped as they watched from the crevices in the old building in the backdrop. It wasn’t creepy in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way….more like Cinderella when the animals united to fix her dress in time for the ball. Instead of the traditional bible readings, one of the passages was “I carry your heart” from the gospel according to ee cummings which brought back high school memories that I found to be puddle-wonderful.
After the ceremony, the festivities moved inside where one could roam around and look at a variety of cooking utensils and hundreds of corkscrews on display. It was a foodie zoo (would that be called a foo?). There was also a stellar market place that was in plain view but guarded by glass walls and a less than enthusiastic security guard who looked more inclined to drink bourbon with us than make sure we didn’t steal spatulas. While I began down the path of mild intoxication we were treated to a few starters including a delicate scallop which swam in a delicious and spicy puree and a mini bulgogi soft taco which didn’t disappoint. There was also a duck empanada (not pictured) which rounded out the delicious and diverse hors d’oeuvres.
Growing up, in addition to learning about the literary merits of American poets, I was exposed to many Northern Ontario weddings which involved rubber chicken dinners and cash bars. The closest thing to culinary innovation was half a dozen Parisian potatoes to complement the prime rib and green beans. Move the venue from Sudbury to the Napa Valley and make the wedding couple a pair of urban foodies instead of a blue collar uncle on his third marriage and watch the sparks fly. In this case, the food was presented in four food stations which were chosen based on the ethnicity and preferences of the bride and groom. There were French, North African, Filipino and Korean posts. My objective was to try a little of everything. The first station featured a salmon en croute but with a twist; the addition of black cod (since it is the bride’s favorite fish) served with an herbaceous salsa verde. There was also an arugula and endive salad. I love black cod and will be first to admit it would be tough for it to hold up in both taste and texture in a en croute preparation but it was saved by the salmon. The salsa verde was brilliantly fresh and a perfect condiment for the delicate cod. The addition of the bitter greens was a smart contrast against the sweet whitefish.
The North African station featured spiced game hen with a tajine of quinoa and spring vegetables along with a dollop of preserved lemon and olive tapenade. Personally, the hen was my favorite dish of the night. It was moist and bursting with flavour. The quinoa let the hen shine but didn’t disappoint on it’s own. I love preserved lemon and I loathe olives, so I was curious to try the tapenade. The olives won but that’s not to say that it wasn’t a smart combination for those that enjoy the nasty little fruit.
The focus of the Filipino section was suckling pig which was complemented with truffled mac and cheese and a chilled spinach salad and pickled vegetables. There was also a pineapple mayo and some fish sauce to add some sweet and salt respectively. The joke at our part of the table was whether the truffled pasta was authentically Filipino or a creative interpretation orchestrated by the groom. The pork by itself was a little underseasoned but the diverse flavours which surrounded it were more than enough to compensate. I thought the spinach salad and pickled veggies were brilliant.
The final stop was Korean which featured short ribs as the headliner. I was intrigued by the loosely defined “risotto” which was a porridge of multiple types of rice along with barley. The station was rounded out with a sugar snap and sprout salad and kimchee as a traditional condiment. The ribs were a bit flimsy but well seasoned. I am typically not a risotto fan but I enjoyed its complexity and mouthfeel. The salad was fresh but I would have loved a little more crunch from a few more snap peas.
Each station was paired with a California wine which included a Charles Krug Sauv Blanc at the French station, the Morgan 12 Clones Pinot Noir for the North African offerings, the Caymus Conundrum for the Filipino food and the Ravenswood Vinters Blend Zinfandel partnered the Korean fare. I thought the choices were quite complimentary. I’m still a little naive when it comes to all the elements of the marriage between wine and food but I could appreciate these pairings. I had tried the Caymus in the past paired with pasta and was excited to see it on the list. As for the Ravenswood, I liked it so much I sought out and purchased a bottle when I got back to Ontario.
Dessert (or mignardise) followed the choose your own adventure theme and offered a variety of trendy confections including macarons, eclairs, truffles, creme brulee and chocolate covered strawberries which hit the spot in between the IPAs and the 90’s pop blaring across the dance floor. The wedding cake was a stunning croquembouche.
I was quite keen to attend this wedding in Napa Valley even if it meant a cross continent flight and I wasn’t left disappointed. Beautiful scenery, great food and a good group of people made for a fun weekend. I think this is a good blueprint for weddings whether the couple of honour are a pair of foodies or not. A short ceremony infusing a stereotypical Irish priest, the infusion of the works of an modern American poet in addition to the typical biblical stuff and visually stunning surroundings was a great trifecta. As for the reception, the wide variety of sentimental and meaningful food choices was brilliant. The idea of wine pairings replacing the typical chardonnay and cab sav house wines at the table elevated the experience even more. I tip my hat to the CIA Greystone for great execution of a rather complicated meal. Most importantly, I would like to congratulate the bride and groom and wish them all the success in their future endeavors and I selfishly encourage them to consider revisiting this concept again in the future.
In sum, I’ll use the same Virginia Woolf quote that was scripted on the back of the wedding program; “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”. I couldn’t agree more.