Crossing Cleveland’s Cuyahoga from a Faux Jewish Deli to a Real Italian Joint with a Flight in Between

After a bit of a break, the request to pay my $25 renewal fee for my web domain reminded me that I need to at least attempt to justify the cost to keep the name and a recent jaunt down to the Midwest seems a perfect start to the new fiscal year.

The intent was to eat my way through parts of Ohio starting in Cleveland and ending in Columbus.  As usual, these gluttonous escapades usually encompass a combination of James Beard nominees, triple D’s and some degree of celebrity chef stalking. I’m no stranger to the city of Rock and Roll but the Buckeye city is new to me.

I figured there was no better place to start than Ohio City, the trendy Cleveland suburb on the West side of the Cuyahoga river. The plan was to head to the Larder Delicatessen and Bakery, a deli nominated as a James Beard semifinalist in the best new restaurant category this year.  Set in a old firehouse, the interior looked like a library of hipster libations. Bottles of homemade palatable potions lined the walls and the utensils were shelved atop an antique stove tucked away in the corner. Despite the cooler full of kosher pickles and deli salads, it’s hard to call this a true Jewish deli.  Sure, I could have ordered gefilte fish or rugulach as well but there was no shortage of pork on the menu either.  In fact, I opted for a from scratch pork shoulder Reuben.  The bologna sandwich, which I assumed contained some sort of non-cud chewing creature but was too afraid to ask, was also unorthodox…at least in Cleveland terms.  It seems a standard Cleveland Bologna sandwich is adorned with lettuce, tomato and mayo whereas Larder’s take used carrots and old (sharp) cheddar.  Despite the deviations, both sandwiches were creative and thoughtful and demonstrated the from scratch mentality reminiscent of the phenomenal Reuben at Lucky’s cafe a few miles down the road.

Satisfied with foodstuffs, I wanted to tickle my thirst sensors with a jaunt back down the road to Bookhouse Brewing on W 25th.   This time the walls were donned with books instead of bottles and games instead of gherkins.  It seemed sensible to opt for a sampler of drafts which included Life in a Northern Town (the word northern is certainly subjective given my home town is over 800 km north of Ohio City although it could be paying homage to the 1985 Dream Academy song), Study Session IPA (a reminder of the many university exam cramming sessions that ended up with a pint in hand), Bricks and Mortar (such a hipster term)  and a brilliant Key Lime Three out of Five Gose. The experiment lead to a couple of Crowlers (specifically the first two), a 32 ounce emperor can spun to seal after filling.  I figured downing a half gallon of Key Lime would have been like eating a whole pie vs just a slice.

I had no idea as to the importance of summer family reunions in US culture.  Upon checking into the Embassy suites that night in Cleveland’s Beachwood area, I realized the lobby was inundated with red, yellow and green shirts representing a few clusters of families from all over America.  When I asked the bartender later that night, she informed me that a chunk of summer banquet business are family reunions and outlined the normal itinerary; meet, mingle (plus/minus argument), picnic, formal dinner, church and/or depart depending on the amount of time it takes to get home.  In fact, she was not attending her own reunion given the fact it was in Jacksonville, Florida which was too far and much too humid.

Dinner plans included a conquest of my only outstanding Diner, Drive-In and Dive in Cleveland.  Geraci’s, a long standing Italian joint originated in the University Heights area, recently opened a second location in Pepper Pike.  Although not the original and official DDD location, I chose the latter because it was a lot closer to the hotel and took reservations.   I felt like a little less of a cheater when I saw Guy’s smiling face hanging on the wall.

Geraci’s followed the classic Italian restaurant blueprint; bread, salad (Americanized with shredded mozzarella cheese), pizza, pasta and a handful of classic Italian desserts.  However, with a number of clever cocktails and craft beer on the menu, they did colour outside the lines a bit which did remind me that I wasn’t at the likes of  Tony V’s in Sudbury.  For example, cute clothes pins and Ohio’s own Raspberry-infused Watershed Gin resulted in a creation that was another notch on my pink drink bedpost.

Guy’s promise of great pepperoni was fulfilled on a simple pizza with some added sausage.  The crust was a bit on the crunchy side and overall the excessive saltiness was somewhat saved by the fresh vibrant sauce.  The same sauce was the basis of a very classic and delicious lasagna which would be the same way to describe the tiramisu.

In the end, it was a good day with a game of true and false, some sudsy studies and an old school Italian place which had a family vibe that partially replaced being left out of the multitude of family reunions at the hotel I was at. With the Cleveland core surrounded, day two would involve a trip downtown in search of another brew or two and a maybe a game of Symon says.

New Orleans Day 3: Beignets, Trolling in Area 3 and a Graham Elliot Doppelganger

My commitment to three square meals continued on day three in New Orleans; that is if you are willing to accept the fact that a beignet and a cafe au lait is breakfast. Instead of hitting the Cafe Du Monde’s original location, I opted for one close to the convention centre.  It’s hard to argue that dough deep fried in cottonseed oil and covered in powdered sugar can be a bad thing and I was neither let down or really surprised.  I was, however, more intrigued by the coffee.  Historically, chicory was added to coffee by the French during their civil war to preserve rations and that tradition continued from Acadians right through the Louisiana settlers.  The intense bitterness of this plant from the Dandelion family is likely part of the reason the cafe au lait is preferred to straight up black. That said,   I picked up a can and drink it black but it’s certainly a sipping coffee more than one you would down like a shooter during the morning rush.

beighnets-cafe-du-monde
Cafe Du Monde Beignets $5

Lunch was at Peche, which won the 2014 James Beard award for best new restaurant in the US and is part of the Donald Link empire. This seafood-focused eatery is conveniently located a few minutes from the convention centre so it was relatively safe even among the pop-up thunder storms which seem to blast through the Big Easy at any random moment throughout the work day.

Living in southern Ontario, my access to fresh oysters is few and far between and when I can get them, they are usually overpriced Malpeques so I was delighted at the chance to pound back a dozen gems from gulf coast for a buck or two each.  On this day the features included Louisiana Area 3 (shellfish harvest area are given a number which stop at 28 and luckily do not go up to 51).  Area 3 is the easternmost harvest area.  The others were from Alabama, specifically Dauphin island.  Let’s just say if I lived here I would have absolutely no chance of pernicious anemia, would have frank hypercalcemia and I could probably play Robert Downey Jr.’s iron man double.

peche-oysters
Area 3 and Dauphin Island Oysters (much cheaper than land-locked Ontario)

Looking back, I think I told myself I would order anything with the word Louisiana in it.   In this case it was the Louisiana shrimp roll which seemed a suitable lunch choice.  Much like it’s Canadian cousin, it features a soft bun stuffed with mayo drenched seafood.  It was the prefect lunch choice….good size, good taste and good value.  For dessert I couldn’t resist the strawberry custard which was a trendy version of the no-bake  old school strawberry cheesecake my mom used to make.

Although I didn’t have the full booze laden dinner experience, lunch gave me a flavour of the food and vibe of this accolade filled eatery which was impressive.  The service was prompt and courteous but pleasantly pompous.

After a number of modernized New Orleans meals so far, it was time to go old school and visit Brennan’s for dinner.  This well established destination has a long history in the big easy.  What’s not to like about it:it’s  been around since 1946, it’s cheesy and they use words like old-world elegance and pampering service in their description on the website. Plus, their chef’s, Slade Rushing, has a name that sounds like he should be designated chef for the Sons of Anarchy. After a sazarac in the roost bar, I rewound the clock and had a seat in the tacky rounded booth in one of the many dining rooms.

I was pleased to be greeted by a waiter who looked like Michelin star chef Graham Elliot. He was quick and courteous and knowledgeable;another reminder that there still is good and traditional service in the world.  He was pleased to discuss the many aspects of the menu including the specials which included steak Diane.  I quickly checked my phone to ensure I hadn’t stumbled upon a wormhole which transported me back to the mid 20th century when tableside flambees were all the rage. Despite the date confusion, my mind was made up..I was dining on American nostalgia tonight and it was gonna be good.

brennans-elliott
Graham Elliot?

I was at a large table so collectively there was good opportunity to get feedback on a number of menu items. Appetizers ordered included the Jackson salad, turtle soup and chilled fois gras. I opted for another bite of history…crab remoulade modernized with shaved jicama, avocado and a mango vinaigrette.  It was a smart and fresh summer starter.  I had a spoonful of the turtle soup as well which was bursting with great flavours but I pondered how anybody could eat it regularly in the midst of regular tropical temperatures.

As I mentioned, the steak Diane was automatic. The other choices at the table included the filet Stanley, grouper and lamb.  We also had a vegetarian at the table who was offered the chef’s special which more or less ended up being a plateful of sauteed vegetables. Back to my dish;  Graham cooked up the steak filet like a pro and entertained us with Louisiana banter the whole time.  It was served with potato medallions and a few carrots…brilliant.  The time machine was still working. It was exactly what I expected… a pan seared piece of steak covered in salty juices. The feedback from the rest of the table on the entrees was positive…even the vegetarian seemed satisfied…but that may have been a side effect from the protein deficiency.

Going to Brennan’s and not ordering Bananas Foster would be like going to McDonald’s and never trying a Big Mac.  This labour intensive dessert’s origins lie within Brennan’s seventy year history. According to Brennan’s website (which annoying has the heading Banana’s Foster…the misuse of apostrophes is a real pet peeve of mine) It was created in 1951 after the chef Paul Blangé was challenged to come up with a dessert using surplus banana’s from a family  business.  As mentioned, table side cooking was all the rage so the bananas foster was born. I’m a true believer that nostalgia tastes incredible so I wasn’t disappointed.  There were a smorgasbord of other desserts which arrived as well including a bread pudding, chocolate pave, creme brulee and crepe Fitzgerald (also prepared tableside). The savory palate at the table opted for the cheese tray which was nicely presented with a trio of offerings.

Brennan’s is a retro oasis in a culinary scene driven by an industrial revolution driven by hipster foodies who dismiss table side cuisine but drink Manhattans because they saw it on Mad Men.  This eatery doesn’t budge on bow ties, lavish decor, crafty cocktails and insisting waitstaff earn their gratuities.  The food is unapologetically  New Orleans with the odd twist here and there.  In the end, like a handful of other eateries in the Big Easy; one can rewind the clock and dine like a mid-century aristocrat for a couple of hours and if luck is in the air, you might actually have a masterchef flambeing fare table side.

Brennan's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

New Orleans Day 1: Hanging in The Garden of Eatin’with a Few MoPhos

I have heard mixed things about New Orleans.  Some have told me they love the party atmosphere while others say the city was a mess before Katrina and is even worse after. I landed with “New Orleans is Sinking” playing over and over in my head.  The flight from Detroit was decent and was made more exciting by a half dozen drunkish but well-behaved  guys who were on the way to a bachelor party.

My goals for the day were simple. First, I wanted to get accustomed to the weather which  characterized by constant humidity, warm nights and random thunderstorms.  Second, I wanted to explore the city a little and hit up a few DDDs along the way. Third, I was looking forward to ending by going to the James Beard nominated Mo-Pho for dinner.

Once I hit the hotel, I began my trek toward the lowering garden district which is characterized by small shops and some of the hottest restaurants in NOLA.  Among these eateries lie 4 triple Ds. My first stop was Joey K’s, an American restaurant with a cajun/creole flare and daily specials ranging from oven roasted turkey to ham hocks with lima beans. I was surprised how busy it was given the time of day.   I sat at the bar and was greeted by a friendly waitress who promptly served me a frozen goblet of Abita.  Afterwards, I chatted with the waiter and, given I had just landed, decided to go authentic with the eggplant napoleon appetizer ( I was drawn to the crawfish cream sauce) and rice and beans with smoked sausage. He chuckled a bit and suggested I stick with a side of the rice and beans since the appetizer was “big”. It was a good call.  The eggplant was huge and ridiculously delicious.  It was served piping hot and the sauce was the star.  The rice and beans were bona fide belly friendly and I was quite happy I didn’t opt for the full portion.

In the end, Joey K’s has a fun vibe, good service and great food whether you are looking for comfort food or authentic southern cooking.

Food-4.5 Guyz

Service- 4.5 Guyz

Vibe- 4 Guys

Total- 13/15

My second stop was Mahony’s Po’boy which was located just a little down the road in the Garden district.  It wasn’t nearly as busy as Joey K’s but it was a bit later.  Once again, I was greeted by a friendly waitress who recommended a Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager which was the perfect pairing for the heat and humidity.  The Po’Boy is a New Orleans staple which legend says was named after the fact that striking workers were named poor boys and that restaurateurs Benny and Clovis (great names) Martin coined the term for that reason.  The peacemaker is a particular po’boy which at one time contained shrimp and oysters but has evolved (at least in the case of Mahony’s) as a sandwich with one or the other.  After a chat with the waitress, I opted for the fried oyster version.  I realized I’m not really a fan. I love raw oysters and frying them is a disservice, especially when served between a toasted baguette, especially when the condiments are skimpy and the cheese isn’t melted.

mahonys sandwich
The Peacemaker $14.95

Food- 3.5 Guyz

Service- 4 Guyz

Vibe- 3 Guyz

Total- 10.5 Guyz

My third stop in the Garden district was the Creole creamery,a rather unorthodox DDD in the fact that all they serve is ice cream.  From reading the reviews, I was told to expect bold and unique flavours.  Deep down I was hoping for something really cool like rice and beans but that said, there was still some interesting choices.  Even better was the fact they offered a 4 scoop sampler for $4.50 which allowed for a little diversity.  I decided on cream cheese, hibiscus cranberry, thai basil coconut and magnolia flower. When I have ice cream I hope the custard base balanced enough to give great mouth feel but not so overwhelming that it masks the unique flavour of each offering.  CC passed the test.  Each scoop was distinct and recognizable.  The magnolia flower was the best of the bunch; it was subtle but very present. The environment was very American ice cream parlor but the service was quite laissez-fare.

creole creamery ice cream
Croele Cream Cheese, Hibiscus Cranberry, Thai Basil Coconut and Magnolia Flower Sampler  $4.50

Food- 4/5 Guyz

Service- 3/5 Guyz

Vibe- 3.5/5 Guyz

Total- 10.5/15 Guyz

I was hoping that a 15 km walk through the garden of eatin’ would burn some of the food I ate and get me ready for my nightcap at MoPho. Lead by James Beard and food and wine “best new chef” Michael Gulotta, MoPho is best described as Southeast Asia by way of New Orleans. I was excited to see how exactly the two would be fused.

The location is a bit of a hike out of our New Orleans core and the space itself is very stripmally. That said, the interior is a trendy interpretation of a Thai joint and they have a great and nicely cheesy patio out back which we braved along with the normal early summer humidity of Louisiana.

For the most part, the menu was straight forward Thai and Vietnamese with a little Southeast America in the form of Cedar Key clams and P and J oysters.  Other hints of New Orleans included Creole cream cheese (similar to the aforementioned ice cream) roti and  annatto (a condiment commonly used in Latin food sometimes in the Philippines) beignets. They also offer a nice array of local pints which strengthened the local flare just a bit.  

We ordered an array of dishes including the Som Tan salad, mimita brisket, clams, paella, the pork belly bowl, wings, brussel sprouts and the lamb curry. In general, the flavours were very South Asian and one would need to use their imagination a little to fully appreciate any huge gulf coast influence.  That said, the food had good, aggressive flavours and a nice amount of spice. If you are a fan of a delicate pho, “the standard” was a bit heavy compared to most I have had.  The roti and the beignets were delicious.  The brussel were the comfort foodie food and the wings were a decent representation of this seemingly southeast staple.

In the end, I was hoping for more of a Southeast meets Southeast experience but that said, it was still a tasty experience in Thai/Vietnamese fare.  In general, Day 1 was a good day. Traditional food started the day and some Asian fusion ended it.  It was clear I needed a few more days of stuffing my face before I could reach a verdict on the state of the dining scene in a city that the Tragically Hip have assured me has been sinking for almost 30 years.

MoPho Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rockin’ the Casbah at Aziza

I took a long cab ride into the Richmond district of San Francisco to have dinner at the Michelin star rated Aziza. It has an unassuming storefront  and after you open the curtain inside the front door and enter the restaurant, you are transformed into a Moroccan casbah with a variety of tables and booths scattered throughout. I was there with a large group and they were kind enough to wave the need for a set menu since it was later and night and the kitchen could accommodate.  Another thing I was impressed with was the huge cocktail list.  Almost two dozen libations were on the menu, each highlighting a fruit, vegetable or herb. It was more difficult choosing my drink that it was my meal.  Throughout the night I had three;  grapefruit (absinthe, peychaud’s, bourbon), thyme (thyme, cayenne, dry vermouth, blanco tequila) and celery (sage, agave nectar, gin).  I can’t say I had a favorite but they were all among some of the better drinks I’ve had this year.  They were frightfully addictive and beautifully represented their respective eponym. My colleague ordered the concord grape (concord grape, elderflower, peat smoke, laphroaig scotch). I had a sip and it was memorable, complex and aggressive version of the equally assertive grape.

Unlike other places (including most Michelin star restaurants), the menu is not written in hieroglyphics, Gaelic or some other language that gives food critics erections.  I will admit, my ego makes me a little reluctant to ask for clarification around a dish or try and pronounce something which would make my transient menu dyslexia apparent.  Instead, Aziza uses terms like olive, short rib, beet and sturgeon to describe their dishes.  Having said this, there is no compromise on the creativity of their fare.  Take the amuse bouche for example.  A trio of dip including hummus, yogurt-dill and piquillo almond were served with flatbread.  The dish managed to hit the mouth with some authentic Moroccan flavours while teasing  the tongue with hints of Greece and Spain.

Amuse Bouche
Amuse Bouche- Hummus, Yogurt Dill and Paquillo Almond

For an appetizer, I ordered a dish which was simply called cucumber. It had all the components of deconstructed deviled egg.  A soft yolked fried duck egg was served with was cucumber two ways; charred and carpaccio style. Spring onions and   vadouvan (similar to masala) mustard completed the dish. I must say this is the first time I’ve had charred cucumber and I was surprisingly impressed.  As a whole,the dish was a punchy interpretation of the picnic favorite and at $14, I thought it might have been the coveted golden egg.

Cucumber $14
Cucumber $14

I was pleased to see that the market fish of the evening was John Dory (not to be mistaken with John Tory who may be the man who will finally oust the large and in charge, arrogant, homophobic  and obnoxious Rob Ford from the Mayor’s office in October).  It’s not the prettiest fish, but it sure is tasty and there are  many suggestions of the origin of its name.  My favorite is a possible reference to the novel “An Antarctic Mystery” by Jules Verne.  “The legendary etymology of this piscatorial designation is Janitore, the ‘door-keeper,’ in allusion to St. Peter, who brought a fish said to be of that species, to Jesus at his command.” (St. Peter is said to be keeper of the gates of Heaven, in Spanish it is known as “gallo” hence “door-keeper”.) So while I was able to feast on a fish rooted in religion, it came with all the sacred symbols of food-a-ism…artichokes, ramps, favas, fiddleheads and raspberries. The tithe was a pricey $29.    The fish was delicate and moist and keep the overwhelming earthiness of the condiments at bay.  The raspberries added some sweet and sour bite and some ruby red colour to the plate.

Market Fish $29
Market Fish $29

One of the reasons I chose Aziza was the reputation of multiple James Beard pastry chef nominee Melissa Chou. I chose the Vanilla Semifreddo with apricot sorbet, matcha and almond ($10). The crust was like buttery toffee crack.  Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the dish was delicious but that crust will stay in my lingual memory for some time to come.

Semifreddo $10
Semifreddo $10

 

I ended the meal with a delicious spot of mint tea.  Let me point out this was not a stagnant tea bag floating around a warm pot of water. It was a hot, steaming pot of real mint tea which went nicely with dark chocolates served at the end of the meal.

A real cup of mint tea
A real cup of mint tea $5

 

After Dinner Chocolates
Mignardise- Dark Chocolate

 

My Take

Moroccan food is a little mysterious. The flavours are a bit African, a bit middle eastern and a bit European. Most of my experience with this type of food has come from a recipe book and my red Le Creuset  tagine, so I was excited to experience it in Michelin star style. Although I can’t verify the authenticity of the use of fiddlehead ferns or ramps in Northwest Africa,  the dishes were diverse and delicious.  The cocktails were creative and nectarous. There was an irony in eating a fish which is also named after one of Jesus’ disciples in a restaurant whose country of inspiration  is 99% Muslim.    As for dessert, it definitely rocked the casbah.  Much like the 1982 song by the Clash with the same name which calmed Middle-Eastern tension  (at least according to the video), I think the crust on the semifreddo alone could extend the ceasefire in the Gaza war.  Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but I’m just a believer that a good meal can fix anything.

 

 

 

Aziza on Urbanspoon

A Cavalier Attitude Toward the Most Important Meal of the Day

There seems to be something about offering breakfast in a hotel.  I’ve stayed in numerous hotel across Canada and the United States and can make a few  general observations about the most important meal of the day:

1. Free breakfast usually involves a large common room populated with sports teams, messy haired kids wearing butterfly wings and hungover parents.  Some will settle for a cold boiled egg and plain bread because the line up for the waffle machine and the toaster is too long.  If you do get the the waffles, it’s a complex process of pour, fill, rotate and wait.  While waiting, you look around and make conversation with a family member, a stranger or the orange juice carafe  in an effort to avoid the jeers and dirty looks of the 15 people in line waiting for Belgian deliciousness. Kids are allowed to have free reign at the breakfast apparatus confirmed by the crunch of fruit loops beneath the feet of morning zombies.

2.  For those who prefer to eat a croissant while blow drying their hair, there is the room service option.  Fifteen bucks will get you a choice of baked goods (with preserves of course), a shot glass of orange juice, a carafe of house coffee and a individual tub of Activia yougurt delivered sometime between 6:45-7:00.  An extra 10 dollars will get you a “hot” breakfast with some eggs supposedly kept warm by the use of a plastic cover.  Either way, the tray ends up on the floor outside door and the faint smell of ketchup fills the halls along the walk to the elevator.

3.  For those adventurous enough to leave their quarters, breakfast at the hotel restaurant is a third option.  Similar to an amusement park, the convenience of proximal eating comes at a premium.   The biggest decision is the choice between the $30 buffet which allows for the dried fruit and nuts as well as the bacon, the $15 continental buffet which the excludes pork products and the premade eggs benny or the a la carte menu which frequently involves a double take at the prices.  That said, at least there’s free refills on the coffee.

Attached to the Hotel Zetta in San Francisco, the Cavalier offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Intrigued by it’s honorable mention in this years James Beard nominations, I wanted to experience at least one meal so I went for breakfast, especially given its proximity to the convention centre. It is constructed to look like a high end pub one may frequent after a game of polo or a fox hunt.  It’s a small menu with 4 or 5 standard morning items.  I opted for the breakfast sandwich consisting of eggs, crisp bacon, pepper cress and a mustard dressing for $13.  I was promised the crispy potatoes  were worth it so I added them for another $6.  I finished off the order with a $4 stumptown decaf coffee. The sandwich was delicious; all the components from the bun to the red onion, cress and mustard condiments hit the mark.  The potatoes, as promised, complemented the sandwich and the coffee was probably the best I had in San Francisco.  That said, it ended up being a $23 breakfast.

 

The breakfast Sandwich ($13) with fried potatoes ($6) and Stumptown coffee ($4)
The breakfast Sandwich ($13) with fried potatoes ($6) and Stumptown coffee ($4)

My Take 

I’m not saying that I expect to get a breakfast sandwich combo at a hotel for the price of an egg McMuffin combo.  Don’t get me wrong, the food was delicious and the service was pleasant but $23 is a little steep.  I would have liked to try lunch of dinner to assess the vibe (it was a bit dull and sleepy during the morning hours), but one can only hit so many places while in town. Maybe James Beard wasn’t  a morning person but hell, at  least there were free refills.

The Cavalier on Urbanspoon

Holy Alioli! I had Croquetas at Coqueta

When it comes to the restaurant scene, San Francisco is a well-oiled machine. It is a mecca for receiving culinary awards such as Michelin stars and James beard nominations. As a result, there is unity among eateries in this posh destination. For example, seemingly every restaurant website in the city has an sf on the end of the restaurant name on their website domain.  It’s a badge which lets the world know that “we are in San Francisco and you’re not”.  Take http://www.coquetasf.com for example. It’s the brain child of celebrity chef  Michael Chiarello and aims to bring trendy  Spanish tapas to the tourist-ridden piers of the city by the bay. This effort was awarded with a nomination for a James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2014 although in the end it was edged out by Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans.  I anxiously awaited the one month window to arrive so I could vigilantly get online and make a reservation.  Since the lunch and dinner menus are similar, I booked at noon to take full advantage of a sunny San Francisco day by the pier.  The decor follows the mold of many other San Francisco eateries in that it’s well decorated in a rustic yet modern fashion. In the kitchen area, shelves of jars and bottles sit beside pots that I’m not sure are ever used.  Place settings are available along a long marble bar while the rest of the restaurant consists of nice, high hardwood tables.  There is also area outside as well which provides protection from the sun but a nice view of the bustling pier and sparkling water.

Coqueta's Interior
Coqueta’s Interior

Like most tapas menus, temptation is plenty.  There are hot and cold plates with an array and meets, cheeses and vegetables.  What immediately caught my eyes were the pintxos; bite-size skewers carried around by the staff in an effort to challenge will power.  The platter was an attractive mix (from left to right) of  quail egg, asparagus, boquerones, chorizo and Serrano ham.  AT $2.50 a pop, they were well constructed with a nice combination of salt, sweet and acid.  To my surprise, the quail egg was the least enjoyable, while the Serrano ham with Manchego  cheese and the apricot conserva  was fantastic, offering fundamental spanish flavours and textures all in one bite.

Pixotes 3.50
Various Pintxos $3.50

It’s a daunting task taking four people with very different tastes to agree on a tapas spread, especially with a menu as complex as Coqueta’s. Anybody who has dined with me knows I’ll go for the eggs every time, especially with memories of the  Huevos Cabreados I had in Barcelona a few years back.  I went for the “Sunny side-up” Huevo With Shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing ($13).  The egg was cooked nicely and shrimp, despite the size and skimpy portion,  were seasoned and cooked well.  The potatoes were white and a bit flaccid and literally paled in comparison to their Barcelona counterparts. I think if you’re going to mash an egg into matchstick potatoes, they need to be able to hold their integrity to a degree.

Shrimp
“Sunnny side-up Huevo with shrimp, crispy  dressing potato and chorizo dressing  ($13)

A tapas meal is not complete without some Spanish poutine, also known as patatas bravas $8.  Although in some ways I’m a conservative when it comes to adherence to traditional dishes.  It’s rare that I make any food the first time without adhering to the traditional way of doing things. So, I’m a little skeptical when I get a haute cuisine version of a very traditional dish.  Hand dug potatoes replaced the wedges I’m accustomed to. The normally messy presentation of a piquant sauce and creamy alioli was  subbed for a tomato  base in a side dish and a white dollop atop a freshly dug potato.

Patatas Bravas
Patatas Bravas $8

The Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon (crusted Chicken and English pea croquetas with cured cara-cara orange) for $9 were ok.  Keep in mind I’m impartial  to croquetas to begin with and these were no exception.  Decent taste. The cara cara orange tried to cut into the creamy fried mix but it’s still a croqutea.

Croquetas
Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon $9

The Ensalada de Remolacha (Roasted baby beets with Sausalito watercress, beet vinaigreta, tierra and cabrales blue cheese snow $9) was a pretty dish which combined purple and gold beets with the green and white of watercress and cheese respectively.  It tasted pretty too.

Beets
Ensalada de Remolacha $9

The Calamares a la Plancha (Whole Monterey calamari on the plancha with onion jam and squid ink alioli) $10 was a creative yet authentic dish.  The  calamari was tender and the ink allowed for a little fun and tasty play time.  The jam was a surprising but delicious addition to the mix.

calamari
Calamares a la Plancha $10

I love deviled eggs, so my vote was for the Huevos Nacional (deviled eggs filled with spring pea, smoked pimentón alioli, on pickled saffron potatos and olive oil poached Bonito $7).  Beautifully presented, it was easily the most complex deviled egg I have eaten.  It was almost confusing although using a pickled potato as a pedestal is a tasty and practical idea I not might use myself the next time I make the picnic favorites myself.

Eggs
Huevos Nacional $7

The generous use of delicious fish highlighted the salmon ahumado (Smoked salmon queso fresco and truffle honey-$8).  Piled on top of fluffy cheese and sweetened ever so slightly, it was an interesting spin on bagel and lox.   Thankfully, the truffle was subtle and didn’t overpower the star of the dish and I found the sweetness from the honey instead of the normal use of salt from something like a caper worked well.

Salmon
Salmon Ahumado $8

Another pretty dish was the Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco (Wood grilled green and purple Delta asparagus with coal roasted romesco salsa, raw Manchego and Marcona almonds $14).  There was a smokiness to it that was tamed by the colourful accents.  The salsa was delicious.

Asparagus
Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco $14

The most carnivorous tapas order was the  Albondigas a la Feria (Grilled duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry and tempranillo salsa and crispy shallots $12).  I really enjoyed the flavour of the duck and pork together although a little greasier than I would have liked.  The chefs were stingy on the shallots which was a bit disappointing because it would have added a crunch to the meatball.

Coqueta Meatballs
Albondigas a la Feria $12

My Take

Eating at  a restaurant is like watching a movie. First, you need a plot.  Coqueta entered the already bustling San Francisco dining scene by offering Spanish fare with a Californian twist.  Second, you need a director, preferably a big name. Michael Chiarello certainly fits the bill. Next, you need to enhance the plot with a combination of a great setting and cast.  Coqueta’s decor and service were excellent. The waitress, for example, modified the size of the standard order to accommodate the four us (so we had enough but didn’t need to order two servings) with no issues at all   Since the James Beard awards are like the  Academy Awards of all things food, I was excited to dine in a restaurant who was shortlisted for best new restaurant nationally.  However, sometimes when I watch a Oscar-nominated movie,  I get lost in the complex plot and end up missing  the point.  A few dishes at Coqueta were like that;  it was a good experience  but a few dishes were confusing and overly complex.  The experience was helped by great service and a good location. Like the movies that don’t quite win an Oscar, I was curious to experience those who were just honored to be nominated.

Coqueta 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……