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

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Reds Midtown Tavern

Another addition to the Yonge and Gerrard hotspot is Reds Midtown Tavern; the younger sister of Reds Wine Tavern in the financial district. The decor and set-up is similar.  It has a classy interior, boasting a fresh decor and a large bar as the centrepiece.  There is less emphasis on wine and more on cocktails and craft beer.  The first time I went to Red’s other location, it was shortly after the re-opening when Ryan Gallagher was still at the helm. The menu was heavy on fresh fish and seafood but this concept seems to be on the backburner now in favour of more traditional fare. You can still get a pan-roasted salmon and a cioppino, but the focus now seems to be on a generic mix of favourites such as pan-roasted salmon, steak frites and lamb shank as well as a daily curry hand-crafted by the chef.

For the first little while I felt like I was in the movie “Groundhog Day”.  There was a  repetitive nature of the evening as per the Bill Murray classic.  There was a bit of confusion around the service strategy.  As soon as I was seated some crispy potato flatbread arrived.  Wrong table.  Then a couple of beer came by.  Wrong table.  Finally, a runner carrying a vat of mussels walked toward me.  I just pointed to the adjacent table and said “It’s for them”. In fact, I thought I felt Punxsutawney Phil rub up against my leg once or twice.  There has been a surge of bubbly waitresses in Toronto as of late and this was no exception.  She arrived happy and informed me without breaking a smile that  they were out of the double dip and that “Sri Lankan beef” was the curry of the night. Come to think of it, she did remind me a bit of Andie MacDowell. I put in a drink order and she skipped away.  Sure enough, not two minutes later, I think I felt Phil again as another waiter arrived and told me they were out of double dip and the curry was Sri Lankan beef.

The cocktail list leans toward traditional with many priced at $10 or less. I asked for a highland old fashioned which came with scotch instead of one of the other traditional whiskies.  An orange slice lined the bottom of the glass, held down by a large ice cube.  It was well balanced, tasty and wouldn’t have been disappointed if I had to drink one over and over again.

Highland Old-Fashioned $10
Highland Old-Fashioned $10

The second cocktail I tried was another classic; the Negroni.  To me, a good Negroni should taste like cough medicine…and not the crappy generic stuff either. I mean extra-strength, cherry flavoured Benylin DM.  Red’s hit the mark with a decent $9 offering, made with gin and enough Campari to give it the taste and colour of a real good expectorant.

Negroni $9
Negroni $9

I’m a sucker for a good New England clam chowder, so I started with a cup of their North Atlantic Seafood  for $6.  There are a thousand interpretations on this classic dish. I quite enjoyed the flavour although it was thin for a chowder, there was more fish than clams and it was a bit on the sweet side.

North Atlantic Seafood Chowder $6
North Atlantic Seafood Chowder $6

Intrigued by the earlier attempt to give me some crispy flatbread, I decided to give it a try.  It was an interesting spin on a traditional flatbread, topped with an array of popular flavours like argula, balsamic and whole cloves of roasted garlic. I loved the crunchiness of the “bread”.  It was like a huge crouton underneath a standard Mediterranean salad. I was more than content with one or two small pieces and definitely would recommend as something you share.

Crispy Potato Flatbread $10.75
Crispy Potato Flatbread $10.75

I decided to venture into Asia and ordered the Thai slaw and the Sri Lankan beef curry, going against my cardinal rule of eating out…”if you’re not in a Thai restuarant don’t order Thai”.  Now I can add “if you’re not in a Sri Lankan restaurant, don’t order Sri Lankan”.  Neither dish was bad but just lacked that punch of  intense South Asian flavours, especially the slaw which was rather boring.  At $18.95, I’m convinced I could get a better curry somewhere else for half the price.

Thai Slaw $5.95
Thai Slaw $5.95
Sri Lankan Beef Curry $18.95
Sri Lankan Beef Curry $18.95

The roast chicken was a safer choice. It had all the fundamentals of a good roast chicken..crispy skin, moist meat and a flavourful au jus.  What lacked were the sides.  There was literally one fingerling potato (cut in half), a few pieces of asparagus and a few mushrooms.  For $18.70, I’ll let you decide.

Crispy Roasted Chicken $18.70
Crispy Roasted Chicken $18.70

My Take

Red’s midtown is a great place to grab a drink after work or meet a buddy for a few apps. It’s fun but also loud and chaotic. They have decent shareables, trendy yet traditional cocktails and a good beer list. I have to say it’s less appealing as a dinner destination given the generic nature of the main courses I sampled. In other words, it’s like a Moxie’s or an Earl’s or a Joey’s. Good atmosphere with average, overpriced food.

I’m reminded of a famous line from groundhog day in a conversation between Bill Murray’s character Phil and MacDowell’s Rita:

Phil: Something is… different.

Rita: Good or bad?

Phil: Anything different is good.

It’s not about whether Red’s is good or bad….it’s just not different.
Reds Midtown Tavern on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Richmond Station

Richmond Station posts the following message on their urbanspoon page: “Richmond Station is a stopping place, a bustling neighbourhood restaurant in the downtown core. We are committed to delicious food and excellent hospitality.” A simple message but one forgotten by many eateries in the area.

Upon arriving for my reservation, I was brought to a table with a great view of the open kitchen. Unlike some other restaurants which boast retro soda coolers or toque-wearing moose heads, the decor is a simple white tile, black accents  and classy hardwood tables. I was impressed with the layout of the chef’s table which seats about 8 people.   The wait staff were equally as classy, dressed in black.  Even the chefs were traditionally dressed, donning crisp whites and black aprons.

Richmond’s open kitchen with chef’s rail.

The hostess was very friendly, sat me quickly, provided a menu and I ordered a fantastic modernized version of a whisky old-fashioned cocktail at her recommendation. The waiter arrived  shortly after and immediately asked me my name which he used for the remainder of the night.  His service was impeccable, making menu recommendations while confidently explaining the restaurants concepts and philosophies. He seemed by my side all night, filling my water glass repeatedly and often explaining the station’s journey to date.

Old-Fashioned Cocktail

Excellent hospitality…check.

Now the food.

Must

The featured New Brunswick oysters were fresh and shucked without a flaw. The presentation was like a visual aphrodisiac, served on a bed of ice  with fresh horseradish and house made condiments  including a tangy mignonette, fresh marinara and spicy hot sauce.  I witnessed a definite devotion to “excellent hospitality” from the kitchen when the lady beside me still received all of the accompaniments when ordering a single oyster. At $3.5 each, there may be a temptation to break the bank of these tasty critters even before tackling the main menu.

Oysters with condiments

I received a lesson in  what a real lobster bisque is supposed to taste like.  Ignoring the trend to call any soup a bisque because it sounds better, Carl Heinrich’s team reverts to old school French methods, producing a thin but flavourful broth emulsified with  classic ingredients such as cream and seasoned with tarragon.  The result was a marriage of tantalizing flavours and although it did start to separate a bit toward the end, most will easily consume the majority beforehand.

“Real” Lobster Bisque

Keep an eye on the blackboard.  On this night there was a duck breast served on a braised duck leg.  The shredded leg was thoroughly cooked but still tender while the breast was sliced a perfect medium rare.  Both cuts were graced with a flavourful sauce and served with some vibrant greens.  This dish may answer the old question..am I a breast man or a leg man?  Based on this dish, my answer is both. Then again, maybe it’s the oysters talking.

Duck Two-ways

Maybe

Also on the blackboard was a 6 oz beef offering for $26. Beef is usually a safe bet and Richmond Station was no exception.  The seasoned beef had a beautiful sear and was sliced medium rare but was difficult to see amidst the jungle of greens covering the perfectly cooked steak.  The meat itself had a fantastic flavour but I wasn’t  fond of the bed of overly buttered chopped brussel sprouts which laid the foundation for the beef,  which just made the already rich tasting beef taste even richer.

Beef Special (see blackboard)

Mundane

The regular menu features a starter section highlighted by a $13 lobster cocktail.  Lose any premonition of a tall glass overflowing with fresh, chunky lobster.  Instead, expect a more measly presentation of 4 deep-fried lobster pieces served on a piece of lettuce with a dollop of cocktail sauce.  Sharing means you’ll only get two (or maybe three if you can mildly distract your table mate).   If you’re going to go fishing at Richmond Station, spend $14 and get 4 oysters instead of these land-battered crustaceans.

Lobster Cocktail

My Take

Richmond Station’s urbanspoon proclamation  claim holds true lead by a well-trained, courteous staff and a trendy menu with classic French influence overseen by a proven champion in Carl Heinrich (who even came out to ask how the meal was). The classic decor follows suit, characterized by a modern but bourgeois surrounding  reminiscent of the style of Candice Olson as opposed to Red Green, Bruce Wayne or Beetlejuice.  In the end, both the concept and the location create a perfect storm, appealing to celebrity chef chasers, downtown dwellers,  floating foodies and those who appreciate french inspired food without the confines of  bistros adorning white table linen and equally stuffy service.   I’ll come by again when they open for lunch, but for now I don’t mind this train stop along my voyage in search of culinary pearls.

Richmond Station on Urbanspoon