Mr. Flamingo, Mr. Featherstone, Mr. Pink and Ms. Sitherwood all in an Avian Mating Dance Orgy

Flamingos are one of the more recognized avian species in popular culture.  Whereas the bald eagle is synonymous with courage and nobility, the flamingo is a bit more mysterious and is often associated much less stoic characteristics.

The Flamingo hotel, for example, is the longest standing (and probably cheesiest) hotel on the famed  Las Vegas strip. Afterall, it is decorated with pink shag carpets and a live wildlife habitat featuring the namesake birds.

“Pink Flamingos” was a low budget movie directed by John Waters, the odd director who brought us the original cult classics “Hairspray” and “Serial Mom” was notorious for working  with even stranger actors and actresses like Divine, Traci Lords and Ricki Lake.

Although not entirely related, when I heard the name of the restaurant I couldn’t help of think of Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs .  In what I would argue is  the most famous Tarantino restaurant scene after the five-dollar milkshake in Pulp Fiction, Mr. Pink, played by Steve Buscemi, goes on a rant about the concept of tipping, arguing that it should not be an automatic gesture (he must have visited a few places in Toronto’s west end along his travels).

 

On the small screen, flamingos,  along with other Florida vestiges such as fancy cars, jai alai, dog racing, beaches and boobs were prominent in the iconic opening credits of Miami Vice.  Speaking of televisions shows, the short lived prime-time soap opera called Flamingo Road starred Morgan Fairchild and Mark Harmon dealt with the frantic and fast-paced lives of elite Floridians.

All of this said, perhaps the most recognizable use of the pink flamingo in popular culture is the plastic lawn ornament.  Primarily used to signify key life events (like a 50th birthday let’s say), this tacky accessory was first produced by Don Featherstone , an employee of the union plastic company in Massachusetts.  This achievment was significant enough to have him recognized  in a New York times obituary the day after his June 22, 2015 death.  Here are a few interesting facts about the pink flamingo:

  • They were initially offered in the late 50’s sold for $2.76/pair in the Sears catalog.
  • In 1999, the city council of Madison, Wisconsin voted the plastic flamingo, coined Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus by Featherstone himself, as the city’s official bird.
  • In the 2011 Disney film “Gnomeo and Juliet”, there is a flamingo named Featherstone which is an interesting twist given the well- established competition between the gnome and the pink bird for cheesy lawn ornament supremacy.

Probably the oddest use the Flamingo is the Quebec food company whose catch line is “an excellent source of fun”.  First, the primary foodstuffs produced by the Flamingo company are poultry products which is just weird.  Second, I don’t equate the consumption of chicken burgers as fun, yet alone an excellent source of it.

All of this said, I can only speculate as to the rationale behind Mr. Flamingo’s name.  I think some would  speculate that the bird symbolizes the simple yet swanky theme of the restaurant.  The menu consists of small plates which in many cases contain upper echelon foods such as oysters, fois gras and truffles.

Although, I would almost expect a cocktail to be named after Mr. Featherstone ,I couldn’t find one so I ordered the bourbon based Ms. Sitherwood ($14) instead.  The first page of a google search identified Ms. Sitherwood as the  Chief Executive Officer of The Laclede Group although I have no idea if that’s relevant at all.    It was served in a dainty glass adorned with mint leaves. The general vibe of the drink was a sophisticated but not mind-blowing  long island ice tea ($14).

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Ms. Sitherwood $14

Before I go into the food choices, let me say that the staff were extremely accommodating.  The menu prices listed on the web are for a specific portion but they were more than happy to modify the portions and prices in some cases (eg. oysters and scallops) so that everybody had at least one piece.  Futhermore, they split the bill in 5 and printed one out for each of us.  These things seem simple  but can be surprisingly hard to find among  many Toronto eateries.

Since we had a fairly large table, we were able to order most of the menu.  First on the list was the steak tartare ($14) served with a quail egg and chips.  It had a symmetrical and pretty appearance and its moderate spice was driven more by pepper than other heat sources.

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Steak Tartare with chips $14

The burrata ($16) was served with a gorgeous  tomato salad. The cheese was seasoned nicely and had a beautiful texture similar to that of a soft boiled egg; firm on the outside and runny in the middle.

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Burrata $16

The lobster based oysters ($3.50/piece) wouldn’t have been my first choice but they fit the swanky theme of the place.  The lobster hollandiase had a sweetness and creaminess which nicely offset the salty and not over-cooked oyster, making  it a decent bite.

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Lobster Baked Oysters $3.50 each

Based on other reviews, the scallops with popcorn puree and sea asparagus ($22.50 as shown) could very well be their signature dish. It hit all the elements of such a dish; the scallops were cooked properly, the puree was divine and the sea asparagus added the colour, texture and taste needed to balance everything out.

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Scallops with popcorn puree and sea asparagus ($4.50 each)

The trout  was another tasty dish but  at this point the menu was getting a bit monotonous as many of  it’s elements were near identical to the previous two (oysters and scallops), adhereing to the theme of well cooked protein plus rich sauce plus green vegetable.

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Trout

On paper, the mushroom risotto topped with shaved truffle may have been the  pinnacle of Mr. Flamingo’s swanky small plate experience.  Although I’m not generally a risotto fan, I appreciated the avoidance of truffle oil as an excuse for fancy flavoring.  It was a nicely prepared dish but was still highlighted by rich flavours similar to many other items on the menu.

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Mushroom Risotto

The duck and steak were both nicely prepared but not unlike anything you can get at any other restaurant in the area.  It seems almost mandatory that these dishes appear on menus, prepared and seasoned the same way and served alongside the rather predictable sides.

After a meal in a place named after a suave and sexy bird serving oysters and  truffles,  I expected some kind of lavish desert. Instead, the sole offering was a donut with a sparkler in it.  It was a rather carnival ending to an otherwise posh meal.

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Donut with Sparkler $6

My Take

I may have missed my calling as an ornithologist so I’m never upset when I can eat at a place named after a feathered friend (yes I must admit I like eating some of them as much as I like watching them). After my dining experience, I can’t say I was as excited as the majestic flamingo during its mating ritual but it was still a decent meal.

 

Mr. Flamingo offers a mix of the standard sharing plates seen in a lot of the area’s eateries with the addition of a few unique ones, in particular the scallops with popcorn puree. In general, the majority of the menu is a bit monotonous in flavour though. Overall,  it was a good experience, highlighted by above average service starting with the fact they will actually split a bill, a fact that may even convince Mr. Pink to throw a few bucks on the table after all is said and done.

Mr Flamingo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Rich Table:The Last Supper, Dan Brown, Exodus 16 and Foodieism as a Religion

The fact that Rich Table was my last supper in San Francisco (this was from my trip back in June..I’m a little slow these days)  made me wonder what the famous last supper was like.  I mean, the biblical account by each of the disciples was fairly uniform.  Jesus took bread, gave it to his disciples and ate it as a symbol of his body.  He then took wine, proclaimed it as his blood and passed it around.  Sounds pretty simple but I wondered what would happen if Jesus was a foodie.  I mean, what if he wasn’t happy with a 21 Herod’s Fury Merlot and send it back or got upset over the fact the bread wasn’t served with EVOO and a crisp balsamic vinegar.

These thoughts made me realize that being a foodie is like a religion if not a cult.  Think about it….can you not picture the foodie couple getting the kids ready in their little plaid shirts from the Gap so they can go to the 11 am seating at Sunday Brunch.  Instead of the Eucharist, they break and share aged cheddar scone and wash it down with french pressed coffee or a mimosa, Caesar or some other potent potable deemed acceptable on a Sunday morning. Any alms are already included in the inflated brunch prices

Ironically,  I stumbled across a website which used a scientific ranking system (science and religion don’t mix) for San Francisco restaurants based on a statistical formula which took into consideration everything from San Francisco Chronicle reviews to eateries awarded Michelin stars.  Rich table was ranked number 1, beating out bay area juggernauts such as Coi, Saison and Quince.  It’s another one of these places with a one month reservation policy but they were very polite in answering all my email questions and promptly booked me a big table when the time came. Due to the size of my group, I was told via email we would have a $65/person menu served family style.

Fast forward a month.  We had a short wait as the table before us was finishing up the earlier reservation.  It was buzzing for a Monday night and the small place was full of fragrant and savory smells.   After being seated, I realized I had a great view of the open kitchen. A friendly waiter soon arrived and handed us a few copies of the gospel according to Rich and I was reminded that it was a preset family style menu.  The menu contained 14 items divided by starters, pastas, mains and dessert.  I asked the waiter how many of each we could order and he politely informed me we were getting them all.

The flip side of the menu featured the beverage offerings which included almost a dozen beers, red and white wines and half a dozen cocktails.  I started with an El Jeffe which is a mezcal based drink with grapefruit, tarragon, aperol and bitters.  It was a refreshing summer drink with a nice amount of bitterness.  Throughout the remainder of the meal, the table developed an affinity for the Bobby Burns, a potent elixir of a holy trinity of scotch, vermouth and benedictine  and finished with bitters.  It started rough but finished smooth and a few of them went down as the night went on.

Genesis (starters):

Sardine chips, horseradish, creme fraiche– A thin slice of potato slitted,”stuffed” with a sardine and deep fried.  Served with a horseradish chip dip. Spectacular!

Douglas fir levain, house cultured butter–  Heavy, moist and extremely flavourful bread.  I had to limit consumption because  wouldn’t have had room for anything else.

Sardine Chips and Levain Bread
Sardine Chips and Levain Bread

Burrata Cheese, Strawberry Gazpacho, Chicken Skin and Almond-  This was one of the table favorites.  It was burrata elevated to  a new level.  The sweet/sour gazpacho would have succeeded as a stand alone in a big bowl, especially since it was sprinkled with some of the magic chicken skin.

Burrata and Strawberry Gazpacho
Burrata and Strawberry Gazpacho

Little Gems, Bottarga, Dill, Crispy Onion- An ingenious spin on a caesar salad that held it’s own against the other innovative starters on the table.  The balance of bitter/salt and cream/crunch was phenomenal.

Little Gems Salad
Little Gems Salad

Crispy Potatoes, Grilled Raddicchio, Garlic Chive and Comte– These went quick.  Once again, near perfect from a taste and texture perspective.

Crispy Potatoes
Crispy Potatoes

Dried Porcini Doughnuts, Raclette Cheese- I’m convinced that the manna which spilled from heavens in the Old Testament  may have been these donuts.  They were amazing as a stand alone but became a religious experience when the cheese dip was added.  A table of grown adults looked like a group of kids attacking a family pack of timbits or Homer Simpson hitting a Krispy Kreme when the red light is on.

Porcini Doughnuts
Porcini Doughnuts

The Pasta of Pastas

Pappardelle, Crayfish Oil, Goddess Melon, Pickled Jalapeno, Shiso– The pasta itself was done perfectly.  The array of flavours was a bit much for some but I thought it worked well.  The melon provided a surprising burst of sweetness which I admit was a bit odd but in the end the dish worked.

Pappardelle with Goddess Melon
Pappardelle with Goddess Melon

Garganelli, Housemade Sausage, Tomato Gravy, Basil- Once again, the pasta was spot on.  The flavours were very traditional which was almost surprising considering the uniqueness of all the other dishes at the table.  That said, it left you with that rustic, home-cooked feeling.

Garganelli with Sausage
Garganelli with Sausage

Tagliatelle, Braised Duck, Aged Sake and Almond-  This was my favorite of the bunch.  The use of sake reminded me of a penne alla vodka and the almonds nicely complemented the rich flavor of the duck.

Tagliatelle with Duck
Tagliatelle with Duck

The Gospels (Mains)

Summer Squash Gratin, Kale, Local Gouda, Mixed Herbs- Beautifully presented, this dish was a cross between scalloped potatoes and a mac and cheese with greens.  The abundant use of the herbs and crispy kale added a great punch to this common yet uncommon offering.

Summer Squash Gratin
Summer Squash Gratin

Pork Loin, Toasted Wheatberries, Cherries and Wildflower Honey- I’m a big fan of using cherries with most meats and pork is no exception.   The balance of the flavours was great and I really enjoyed the wheatberries. I wish the pork was cooked a little longer. I’m not adverse to a cut of pork cooked medium but I felt the slight undercooking of the loin affected the texture.

Pork Loin with Cherries
Pork Loin with Cherries

Alaskan Halibut, Corn Grits, Chanaterelles, Bouillabaisse, Pistachio- This was my least favorite dish of the evening. The halibut was a bit limp which didn’t lend well to the fact that the surrounding ingredients has the same texture.  It was like a big plate of mush.

Halibut and Grits
Halibut and Grits

Revelation (Dessert)

Coconut Panna Cotta, Toasted Meringue, Lime Crumble- Nice texture and nice flavours. This was a fresh way to end a large and rich meal.  I could have taken or left the meringue.

Coconut Panna Cotta
Coconut Panna Cotta

Salted Chocolate Sable, Milk Ice, Mint-Chocolate Mousse-  This one had mixed reviews at the table.  It was very minty and very chocolaty so those who aren’t extremists thought it was a bit much.

Chocolate Sable with Milk Ice
Chocolate Sable with Milk Ice

My Take

Although Rich Table hasn’t been blessed with a Michelin star by the food gods, it’s cumulative acclaim ranked it number one in San Francisco on sfist.com and statistics don’t lie.  It’s interior is somewhat humble but not overly crowded.  The large table beside the open kitchen makes for a great dining experience, especially if you are in a big group.  The service was professional and smart.  The cocktails were heavenly and wine list is reasonable including a reasonable corking policy which allows for the waiving on one corking fee if you buy a bottle there.  As for the food, there was a huge selection for a very reasonable $65 per person served family style.  The offerings were brilliant although the entrees were somewhat anti-climatic compared to the starters and pastas.  The porcini doughnuts (as well as the fowl at State Bird Provisions) are biblical, suggesting that if Foodieism is in fact a religion, San Francisco is definitely the Mecca of the foodie movement given these modern day  interpretations of manna and quail first mentioned by Moses in Exodus 16.  When thinking of my last supper at Rich Table, I couldn’t help but think of “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown and hoped that my dining experience wouldn’t be like the book; overhyped and lacking substance. Instead, it was much more “enlightening”, perhaps suggesting that if the Illuminati did exist, they would eat like this.

Rich Table on Urbanspoon

Starring in a Sitcom Called Seven Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Melon Soup Amuse Bouche
Melon Soup Amuse Bouche
Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with proscutto.
Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with prosciutto ($9-15)

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

 

Neri (Squid Ink Pasta)
Neri (Squid Ink) Pasta

My Take

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

Seven Hills on Urbanspoon

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

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……

 

Review:Toronto:Little Italy:Campagnolo

Campagnolo, a creation of Craig Harding,  sits quietly along the busy Dundas West dining corridor.  Well, quiet if you consider its subtle online presence versus local internet juggernauts  Pizzeria Libretto, Black Hoof and California Sandwiches.  Not so quiet when you consider it was voted one of 10 Toronto restaurants on Mclean’s top 50 in 2012 and has a food, decor and service Zagat rating of 27, 23 and 27 respectively. There was  nothing really fancy about either the inside or outside of this Little Italy venue upon arrival but it gave me a swagger  similar to walking into a queen street consignment store and buying a yellow Lacoste  cardigan.  I was seated right by the window and was subject to a rather annoying draft for a good part of the evening.

The menu is ever changing and based on fresh ingredients but hinges on a few signature items which you can get regularly.  That being said, I was here a few weeks ago so a few of the items may not be available if you go today.

Must

There’s  no doubt about why Campagnolo is known for its roasted beef marrow…because its fantastic.  The buttery, rich flavour of the marrow is sliced by a sweet and sour plum marmalade and spiced up with a tender oxtail stew.  Its primitive presentation made me feel like a modern day carnivorous Fred Flintstone, although I was wearing shoes.

Bone Marrow
Bone Marrow ($13)

The rabbit cavetelli was another gem.  A good portion of  rabbit was braised to perfection and served in a vibrant, light sauce and finished with a few greens, a few pine nuts and salty cheese.  The pasta had the softness of a firm pillow, sending my tongue into a slumberful bliss. On that note, I will mention that my other party member  sent the spaghetti back, finding it too firm. The kitchen quickly made another and “overcooked” it according to the kitchen but importantly made the customer’s desire paramount vs the chef’s wishes.  I appreciated the “nobody’s wrong…we just differ in opinion” mentality and guarantee this would not happen at a few of the other eateries in the area.

Rabbit Cavatelli
Rabbit Cavetelli ($21)
Spaghetti
Spaghetti ($19)

Another signature item is the burrata served with roasted grapes to add some subtle sweetness to the rich cheese.  It was satisfying and simple to the point where the obvious quality of the product is not compromised by too many bells and whistles.

Burrata with Roasted Grapes
Burrata with Roasted Grapes ($14)

Maybe

If you’re going to ask me to pay for bread at the table, it better be good.  The homemade  bagettes and gougeres (cheese pastries) were delicious  but for four bucks were not significantly better than some of the complimentary loaves available at other places.

Bagettes and Gogueres ($4)
Bagettes and Gougeres ($4)

The shaved cauliflower salad was a seasonal offering.  Despite the attractive presentation and array of ingredients, the sulphuric taste of the  cauliflower was too prevalent. Whatever dressing was used in an attempt to unify this adventurous amalgam was off key. That being said,  my table mate disagreed and thought the salad has a fresh and balanced taste.

Cauliflower Salad
Cauliflower Salad ($11)

Mundane

Some restaurants are not known for dessert and don’t have the same passion toward the concluding course.  I suspect Campagnolo fits this bill.  With no dessert menu per se, we were offered a couple of choices and settled on the budino (caramel pudding).  It was a cloying concoction, topped with an ashy tasting sponge toffee.  Two bites were enough.

Caramel Pudding
Budino ($8)

The wine menu is quite small and quite expensive.  It’s difficult to find a red under $12 a glass.  The white list is a little more reasonable in price but still limited in choice.  In the end, I opted for mulled wine on the cocktail list which was a more modest $12 and offered welcome relief from the ongoing draft running up my back.

Mulled Wine ($12)
Mulled Wine ($12)

My Take

Campagnolo relies on a moderately sized menu of signature and seasonal  items to fill its modest sized dining area.  It’s trendy, in demand and has received accolades  from critics and diners alike, although it flies a bit under the radar on online social media sites.  The service was top-notch, friendly and informative  other than a moderate delay between starters and mains.  Despite an uncompromising approach to food, there is enough flexibility for the customer to be right despite differences in opinion with the kitchen.  They don’t apologize but make it right which is more important than offering comped drinks I don’t want. Bring your wallet  though; it’s not a cheap evening out.  In the end, Campagnolo is cool, crass and comforting and  does so by adhering  to their country bumpkin philosophy in a classy fashion.

Campagnolo  on Urbanspoon