Attempting Piquant Progress after Last Year’s Spectacular State Bird Seance

I had the chance to get back to San Francisco in May for a wedding (yes I realize it’s July but other duties called) and one of my targets was the progress, the newish spin-off of the highly successful and quite enjoyable State Bird Provisions.  I went there last year and it was easily one of the best restaurants I went to in 2014.  The progress boasts a choose your own adventure 6 course family style meal for $65.  Keep in mind that the table needs to agree on six dishes which may prove to be a very daunting task depending on your table mates.  On this night I was meeting two people I had never met, so in essence it was a blind date minus the romance.  I had no idea what they liked to eat, what aversions they had and what their culinary hot buttons were.

It turns out these two were rather laid back and choosing the menu was really not that difficult. One was rather naive to the nuances of the foodie code (ie. ramps are another word for cool onions) while the other was driven by a value proposition which made her gravitate to ordering the perceived most expensive dishes on the menu.  I had no issues with this at all. So, after a deliberation much faster than the OJ jury, we chose our six dishes  and waited with anticipation. While waiting, I noticed the decor and buzz was less chaotic than its sister restaurant.  The service was more traditional meaning there wasn’t an army of cooks and chefs offering you a bite at every turn. It still had a high hipster factor, driven by both the staff and the patrons sitting at the bar and  around the tables.

The first offering with a complimentary amuse bouche which featured seven snacks including zucchini blossoms, sauced-up radishes, broad beans, fried mussels, a twist on chips and dips, spicy citrus and some jerky in the middle.  It was a pleasant start and opinions as to what was the best was all over the board,  Personally, I enjoyed the jerky and the citrus.

Amuse Bouche
Amuse Bouche

One of my choices was the salad of wild king salmon with basil-marinated zucchini.  The main reason was my vivid memory of a king salmon dish I had from State Bird the year before.  At this point it was evident that the menu description only offered a fraction of the secrets each dish held.  There were salty, crunchy and creamy tastes and textures immersed in the aforementioned listed stars of the dish.

Salmon
salad of wild king salmon with basil-marinated zucchini

Next were the razor clams on the plancha with kimchi piccata.  Other than sounding like a Jimmy Buffet tune, it was served with the very foodie friendly watermelon radish.  The star of the plate was a little less than spectacular but in the end the dish was pretty good.

Razor Clams
razor clams on the plancha with kimchi piccata

Third was a treasure chest of fermented sausage, trout quenelles and sweet onion-rice dumpling in a creamy pork broth.  I loved the absolute confusion of this dish. They pretty much took every food fetish I have and threw it into a bowl.  I’ll eat anything fermented, any sausage, any dumpling and any broth…especially if it is poured in front of me.  I’ll admit I was a little perplexed but it was like a buffet in a bowl in a blissful foodie dream.

Next was more sausage and seafood; this time lamb merguez (I conceded this dish given my distaste of lamb) with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid.  As expected, it wasn’t my favorite dish. Despite the crispiness of the squid, it wasn’t as texturally balanced as the other dishes.  The octopus was just ok.

Lamb and Octopus
lamb merguez with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid

I was probably most excited about the maitake, tofu and bok choy stir fry with smoked black cod ponzu. I love mushrooms, smoked food  and black cod and my bliss was amplified when it was presented covered in one of my favorite morsels…sweet peas. I was a little disappointed since the cod ironically lost that beautiful texture through the smoking process.  It was a little too salty as well.

Black Cod
maitake, tofu and bok choy stir fry with smoked black cod ponzu

The final dish (we decided against dessert) was the aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste.  Once again, the dish presented with a bit of a surprise when it was evident it was meant to be eaten like a cross between a lettuce wrap and a tequila shot. It only came with two legs (complete with the claws) for three people but there wasn’t  a huge fight over who got them.  The quail itself was cooked nicely and they were fun to assemble but the overall flavour was pretty average.

progress quail
aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste.

My Take

There is always a danger when it come to a spin-off or sequel , especially when the first effort is so good. The list of sophomore flops is endless; take Three’s a Crowd, Flo and Joanie loves Chachi for example. In the case of State Bird Provisions, there were high expectations when it came to its neighbour and sister restaurant, the Progress. Some of the dishes lived up to the State Bird name while others missed the mark.  The progress’ offering of the salad of king salmon and the treasure chest were amazing whereas the lamb/octopus and the cod, although good, missed the high bar set by its predecessor. So, the Progress is in no way the X-Files’ ridiculous spin-off  the Lone Gunman.  Instead, I see it more as Breaking Bad’s slightly more than mediocre Better Call Saul.

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Review: Breaking Bad at Carbon Bar

I finally got Netflix a few weeks ago. Part of the reason was to finally remove myself from the list of the 25 people who haven’t watched Breaking Bad. After watching a few episodes and watching it win at the Golden Globes, maybe I should pay homAge to the show that made chemistry cool again. Whether it’s the structural changes needed to denature the protein in an egg or the intangible spark which may exist with two people sitting across each other at a table, chemistry is an ingredient you can’t pull off the shelf. It can, however, be captured in those who understand and can embody the variables which may result in the sought outcome.  Just ask Walter White.

Carbon (the foundation of organic chemistry) is a new restaurant/lounge that has opened at the corner of Queen and Church. Owned by the Note Bene group, the website describes it as a place “where fun-loving aficionado’s, gourmands and bon vivants meet to share un-pretentious snacks, plates and platters delivered with impeccable hospitality in a space inspired by the storied pAst of a rock’n’roll discotheque, an upstart TV station and a media giant’s studio”. When you walk in, you’re not sure if you’re entering a dance club or a Moxie’s.  Smiling woman greet  you and offer to take your coat.  When you climb the few stairs and turn the corner you walk into “the space”.  It has dimensions that could double as Walter’s meth lab. It’s a roomy, square dining area with a big bar, an open kitchen and a combination of booths and tables. The ceilings are high and it’s decorated in a simple but attractive fashion.

From the bar, there’s a decent cocKtail list, a nice array of wine and a somewhat unimpressive list of cliche Beer.  I started with the Smokin’ Manhattan ($14), made with tobacco-infused Maker’s MArk, bitters and a couple of booze soaked cherries.  It was well made but the price put it on the upper limit of acceptable.

Smokin' Manhattan $14
Smokin’ Manhattan $14

The second drink was the Carbon bar Caesar ($16), made with tequila, chiLi, lime, clamato and a 37 spice rim.  It was surPrisingly unremarkable and nowhere worth the price.

Carbon Bar Caesar $16
Carbon Bar Caesar $16

The hit of the night seemed to be the Volstead which a few of my friends at the table ordered. Made with gin and Montenegro and flavoured with lemon, orange bitters and Cucumber, it’s a perfect summer drink that still holds it own during the winter months.

I ended with a Kensington brewing company Augusta ale which was one of the only draught beer worth drinking.

The menu is small plate and mainly focuses on the trenDy cuisine of the southern US with a spattering of favorites from other parts of the earth.  It’s always interesting going out to a restaurant with the concept of sharing when you’re with “peskies” (a generic term which includes the likes of  peScatarians, those with gluten intolerences and pescatarians with gluten intolerences).  The waiter was excellent.  He knew the menu cold.  For example, he identified there would be gluten in the soy sauce of the jerk cornish hen and in the sugar coating of the pecans in the celery, apple salad.

We sampled a number of dishes so I’ll be short but sweet:

Hot Mess ($11)-sweet Potato, cheese curds, Crema, pickled jalapeño, chopped brisket

It tastes like it sounds.  A well executed and modern Version of Canada’s iconic poutine.  Delicious.

Hot Mess $11
Hot Mess $11

Raw Salad ($12)– avocado, pear, radish, sHaved coconut,corn nuts, coriander, lime viNaigrette

Fresh, acidic and pRetty.  Definitely a sharable because it starts Snappy but can a bit boring after a Few bites.

Raw Salad $12
Raw Salad $12

Quezo de Cabeza ($13)- Fried suckling pig, pork ‘n’ beans, Hen’s egg, pickled Beets.

The perfectly cooked egg sat atop this childhood favorite.  It had great flavour although I wished the pork was fried a little more and was a little less fatty.

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Quezo de Cabeza $13

Blackened Sea Bass ($22)– yuCa, chili, lime, coriander, tomAtillo chutney

The tender bass was complimented with an array of flavours but the highlight was the tomatillo chutney.  A well balanced dish.

Sea Bass $22
Blackened Sea Bass $22

Jerk Cornish HeN ($18)- black eyed peas, Coconut milk, mango & papaya salsa

Although the chicken was moist, the seasoning was a little lack lustre. The dish had a uNiformly smoky flavour which could not be overcome by the timid salsa.

Jerk Cornish Hen $18
Jerk Cornish Hen $18

Oak-Fired Octopus ($21)- okra, sAusage, hominy coRn & lobster gumbo

All the components of gumbo with the addition of tender pieces of Octopus.  It worked.

Oak -Fired Octopus $21
Oak -Fired Octopus $21

Porcini and Grits ($19)- grits, sautéed porcini mushrooms, deep fried egg Yolk, crisp kale, huitlacoche dust (a type of corn fungus)

The table consensus was this was the best dish of the night.  The flavour was incredible but very rich so definitely recommend as a shared plate. The crispy kale was a great touch. It could have used  more mushrooms.  Great for the pEskie at your table as well.

Porcini n Grits $19
Porcini n Grits $19

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream ($9)- rice pudding, barberries, wild blueberries,candied sunflower and pumpkin seeds, spiked eggNog

Sparked a little controversy at the table.  The rice Pudding was average but the addition of the other ingredients pumped it up.  The ice cream was seasoned well with earthy spice and sweet pumpkin. I think warming the rice would have added to the overall experience.

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream $9
Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream $9

Sorbets and Ice Creams ($3)– apple, lychee kombucha, buckthoRn, goat’s milk ice cream & Wild honey

A refreshing and delicious finish to the meal.  The buckthorn seemed to be the favorite. Was initially served with graham Crumbs but that didn’t work for the peskies so it was replaced quickly and without question.

Apple, lychee kombucha and buckthorn ($3 each)
Apple, lychee kombucha and buckthorn ($3 each)

My Take

Carbon is Note Bene’s response to the continued demand for casual eateries which serve good food instead of standard and water downed versions of foods that were popular two years ago. I think they succeeded. The cocktails are a bit pricy, especially the less than impressive caesar.  The beer selection is more trendy than it is good.  Otherwise, it’s a safe but well executed menu that was not shy on flavour.  The highlights were the porcini ‘n grits, octopus with gumbo and the sea bass (especially the tomatillo chutney). The service was incredible and environment (including the music) was current, hip and applicable to the diverse clientele scattered across the roomy  interior.  Like Breaking Bad, Carbon makes chemistry cool again. In this case, the chemistry is a mix of great food, courteous and intelligent service and a great environment.

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