Yountville Day #2: Oppa Napastyle While I Dream of (Bistro) Jeanty

On my last day in Napa Valley I wanted to go back to Yountville one more time to once again experience it’s quaint beauty, not to mention the fact I was offered transportation in a small red convertible which made me feel like the numerous washed up yuppies back home I see driving around in their open top Chrysler LeBarons.  It is a very picturesque drive up highway 29 and the feeling of the fresh wind in my face trumped the sun scaling the top of my head (which is the main reason I have always found convertibles less than enjoyable).

This time I wanted to explore the V marketplace which houses a number of small shops and boutiques. I did a quick tour of a wine shop which offered a wide range of bottles at different types and prices. Not surprisingly, there was some ass hat walking around with his buddy pointing out every wine he has had in the place.  I normally wouldn’t care but there  was a pompous tone in his voice as opposed to a authentic and  organic bliss. In other words, it was more important for him to flaunt his status as a self-declared sommelier than a true wine enthusiast.

The highlight of the market was Napastyle, the Michael Chiarello market which offers a wide range of foodie friendly articles including various foodstuffs, kitchen equipment and knickknacks to enhance any home’s decor and entertaining potential.  They had a series of condiments available for tasting which were divine, especially the smoked and spicy olive oils and the fruit vinegar (especially the peach one from what I recall).  At this point,  we regretted out decision to have traveled with carry on luggage and sucked back a bit more oil before we left.

It was on the tail end of the lunch hour, so we decided to hunt out a place to eat.  I would be remiss if I didn’t try and add another star in my Michelin sky, so we decided on Bistro Jeanty, the French cafe in the heart of Yountville.  It was quite busy and the patio was full but we were able to secure a table inside.  I assume the decor was meant to be a recreation of a rustic and modest eatery in Paris as opposed to the clean and crisp feel of a place like Redd down the street.  The waitress arrived very quickly and happily explained the menu.  She was polite and courteous in a way that couldn’t be taught and I quickly felt quite welcome.

We decided to split a meal starting with Langue d’Agneau (warm lamb tongue and potato salad) for $15. This dish was a bit of a concession for me but I was curious to see if lamb tongue had the same distinct taste as the rest of the animal.  It did.  It was as tender as the potatoes and was well complimented by the acidic dressing and bitter greens. The fact that this rather heavy dish was listed on the “lighter side” of the menu was  a clear foreshadowing of our upcoming experience.

salad $15
Langue d’Agneau $15

Dish two was the Quenelles de Brochet  (pike dumplings with lobster sauce) for $15. The dumplings were as light and  fluffy as cumulus clouds in an atmosphere as thick as that of Venus (ok..this is the astronomy geek in me…Venus’ atmosphere is 90 times more massive than earth’s….and so was this sauce).   Taste wise what can I say.  It’s butter, cream and lobster.  Collectively, I enjoyed the contrast of the light dumpling against the heavy sauce and thought this dish was quite good.

Cassoulet (baked beans, duck confit, toulouse sausage and apple smoked bacon) for $26  was the final dish. Cassoulet is a bit of a generic term used to describe a bean based stew.  In fact, it is named after the dish the stew is served in more than a summary of the ingredients in it.  I equate it to pork and beans, the North American staple that involves a frantic search through the beans in search of the tiny sliver of bacon strategically placed in each can.  Instead with this cassoulet, the fruits of such labour included whole sausage and a duck leg. It was nicely seasoned and did bring back memories of a gold old can of Libby’s.  Once again, the dish was very rich and after a few bites, I threw in my serviette and called it  day. In fact, I didn’t even think about food for a number of hours afterwards despite walking around in the epicentre of culinary temptation.

Dump $15 and cross $26
Quenelles de Brochet $15 and Cassoulet  $26

My Take

Day one in Yountville featured fresh California fare at Redd whereas day 2 was in stark contrast with the rich French food at Bistro Jeanty.  The service at Jeanty was incredible. Despite the use of sauces as thick as the atmosphere of Venus, I wouldn’t call the food astronomical although stellar would still be an adequate description. The V marketplace, specifically Napastyle,  is well worth a visit even if to only indulge on a few olive oil and vinegar samples.  I the end, I envision coming back to Yountville since I haven’t even scratched the surface of culinary options in this small town.  There is Redd Wood, Bottaga, Bouchon, Ad Hoc and, of course, the Michelin star mecca which is the French Laundry.  This gives me an idea; I could transport a suitcase of money down to the Napa Valley, dump it on French Laundry’s porch in exchange for dinner and then use it to transport back a arsenal of of olive oil.  I guess that means I’d need to check a bag though.

Click to add a blog post for Bistro Jeanty on 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

Some Expensive Zen at Atelier Crenn

Since I was going to be away from home on Father’s day,  I decided to treat myself to an early gift and make a reservation at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.  I figured I could break the bank and a little and treat myself to my first two Michelin star experience. My rationale was two-fold. First, they have a condensed tasting menu which allows one to experience the restaurant from $120, a far cry from some competitors who request more than $200 for their similar sized menu. Second, I’ve had a food crush on chef Dominique Crenn even since I saw her appearances on both Iron Chef America (in which she beat Michael Symon) and as a guest on Top Chef (in which she won the French vs Spanish food challenge). I walked up and down and up and down and up and down Fillmore to get there and was seated quickly as I waited for my work colleague who agreed to join me in order for this culinary expedition to begin.  In the meantime, I hit the washroom (or restroom as the Americans say). Even a two Michelin star restaurant adheres to the San Francisco norm of a unisex, single washroom philosophy.

Once my colleague arrived, we were presented with the aforementioned option of the $120 condensed menu or the more elaborate $195 one with close to 20 courses.  As stated above, I opted for the former. The menu is presented in poetic form, leaving the dishes to both the imagination and a reliance on tips your grade 12 english teacher gave you about how to interpret  Shakespearean stanzas or the opiod-filled sagas written by  Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  The menus seem to rotate according to the seasons, so I got the spring edition.  We did not opt for the wine pairing but were quite happy to indulge in a couple of the excellent Belgian beer from the small beer menu (I imagine even Chef Crenn couldn’t justify trying to serve a French beer with her food..I doubt a  Kronenbourg 1664 would make the cut).  In particular, the Strubbe’s Flemish Red ale was quite delicious and nicely complemented to the array of food that was served over the evening.

Spring has come with its cool breeze 

A spin on the French aperitif Kir, this amuse bouche was served with a warning; don’t bite it until it’s in your mouth. It had a delicate exoskeleton of a hazelnutty-cocoa filled with a cider-based elixir.  It certainly stimulated the taste buds and reminded me to quit thinking and let my peanut of a right brain run the show for once.

crenn amuse

Mellow serenades of colors liquid and orange

My initial thought was I might get a bowl of tiger tail ice cream. My mother, who grew up wishing she could have given birth to a Bengal tiger, would often truck us out to the ice cream parlor.  Whereas I would have an ice cream I hadn’t tried before, she ALWAYS got tiger tail which is orange flavoured with licorice streaks.  Thankfully, this was a duo of hors d’ oeuvres.  The first was an oyster seasoned with green apple, tobacco and coffee.  The second was a sea urchin mousse topped with salty caviar.  The texture of the mousse and the combination of flavours in the the oyster were sublime.  The coffee was ever so subtle but added a surprising and delightful  finish to the starter.  The poetry of the evening was further exemplified by the use of the urchin and oyster shell shaped dishes.

crenn seafood


A gentle smell, oceanic, of yummy feeling

Hidden beneath an array of green was a piece of Japanese mackerel which was served raw.  The freshness was evident but what blew me away was the cilantro ice dust which started benign but ended with a blast of flavour which filled the dimensions of my mouth like spray paint.   It was one the most surprising, elegant and magical movements of the evening.  The finishing touch was a fried foodie-friendly turnip which was strewn across the plate.

crenn fish

The half moon, silky and smoky

I think a French chef would be remiss without trying to redefine some of the more stereotypical homeland dishes which have been bastardized by years of American influence.  Take french onion soup for example. Chef Crenn replaces the salt-laden, broiled cheese and bread covered  thick broth with a more complex and refined base of caramelized onion with a delicate red wine vinegar gelled cheese dumpling bobbing in the middle.  The dark, scarlet broth surrounding the dumpling did in fact look like a moonlit scene. Tastewise, it was refreshing and it was quite  pleasurable cutting into the tender dumpling which  was a easy target once the surrounding gel dissolved into the broth. If anything it was on the sweet side but that didn’t take away from the experience.

crenn soup onion

 I refreshed as I gazed at your smooth green coat

The intermezzo was a simple pickled green strawberry salad with watercress and more magic green dust.  Sour, acidic, vibrant and palate cleansing.

crenn strawberry

Walking deep in the woods, as the earth might have something to spare 

My grade 13 english course told me that this could either be mushrooms or a toothpick. Luckily it was the former.  A collection of fresh and rehydrated mushrooms were strewn across the plate and adorned with a variety of other earthy flavours, most notably what I think was a hazelnut  rosette on one side of the plate.  The lack of symmetry meant I didn’t get another one on the other side but instead was treated to more pixie dust so I was just fine.

crenn mushroom

These creatures, who move with a slow, vague wavering of claws

It only makes sense that a chef who practices poetic culinaria would name a dish after a line from a poet on the literary side.  “These creatures, who move with a slow vague wavering of claws” comes from the  “The Lobsters” written by  Amercian poet Howard Nemerov. It’s a sombre tail of the imprisoned somnambulists faced with the ultimate destiny of being served to humans beside a sauce of melted butter. Other than that, the only clue we received was a mysterious knife which looked too innocent to do anything harmful.  The puzzle was soon solved with the arrival of a chuck of brioche bread and flavoured butter.  Soon after, a lobster bisque arrived accented  with sweetbread biscuits and bone marrow and garnished with pickled onions and sea grapes. The soup was rich on rich which was cut somewhat by the acid in the onions.  Honestly, I found the brioche mediocre but the soup delicious. By the way, biting into a sea grape which, like a 4-year old with red smarties I saved until the end, tasted like biting into a mouthful of ocean.

Mystery Knife
Mystery Knife

crenn soup

Where birds sing and are causing ripples in the nearby water 

Now that we were getting the hang of the menu game, we arrogantly proclaimed that the next dish had to be duck.  I mean, the clue combined with a French chef at the helm made perfect sense.  Even Inspector Clouseau could figure out that one.  However, we were thrown a french twist when a piece of guinea hen showed up.  Served far from overcooked with some fried greens and a slightly rendered fat cap, it was a fine enough finish to the savory component of the meal athough likely the least remarkable.  Do guniea hens sing anyway?

crenn hen

Nature has churned up a tornado of milky , rich flavour

Ok, I made that one up but it sounds better than just saying the cheese course. My lack of will power coupled with the fact that I had to stare at these blocks and wheels of dairy goodness made resistance futile.  Of the four french cheeses available, we opted for a blue and a raw cow’s milk offering.  Served with honey and a cracker-like loaf, both were exquisite and a nice addition to the meal for an extra $25.

crenn cheese

Spring has come and is full of sweet surprises

Guessing which French dessert would be served would be near impossible, especially since we were humbled by the last course.  After a short wait, a trio of waitstaff arrived carrying two plates and what looked like a honeycomb.  The latter was placed between us and I had a sudden urge to play ping pong.  The dessert itself was a nicely executed combination of sorbet atop a lavender or chamomile or some kind of girly tea-flavoured cake accented with a few other sweet sauces but no table tennis paddles.  Hidden within the comb were the surprises: beeswax coated honey bonbons which brought me back to the days of spending nickles and dimes on wax teeth filled with some concoction of sugar and food colouring. Visual, it was stunning. Tastewise, it was quite acceptable as well.

crenn dessert 2

crenn beehive

Sweet raindrops speckle my satisfied tongue

This line is made up too.  It describes the trio of mignardises (ie little desserts) that arrived after the meal.  Homemade marshmallow kisses, guava fruit gummies and blackberry macarons we laid out on a glass platform.  Delicious!

crenn dessert

Mon Point de Vue

Atelier Crenn is definitely a bucket list restaurant for anybody who wants to experience a Michelin two-star restaurant, meet a celebrity chef or justify the copious amounts of time spent reading poems in high school.  Once again, my mom was right when she said “you’re going to need this stuff in real life some day” about my english classes.  I agree with the thousands of  reviews on yelp, urbanspoon, tripadvisor etc. which state that the food is whimsical, artistic, creative and delicious. One thing I found a little interesting was the fact that the menu was almost completely void in red meat and pork. Perhaps San Francisco rubs off on even the most discerning French chefs.The service aspect has been more of a contenious debate, however.  First, I appreciate Chef Crenn making the rounds. She was far from modest when I told her I was an adoring fan who knew she won both Iron Chef and the Top Chef competitions.  Second, I agree with some reviewers that the service is somewhat pretentious but I found nothing wrong with it.  Nothing bothers me more than phony waitstaff who assert their supposed knowledge above the heads of the very people they are meant to serve.  That was not the case here. Instead, I found it to be more of an orchestra of professionals.  For example, despite the fact I was seated against the wall  in the middle of the restaurant, the servers also approached the table doorside, even it if meant taking the longer route around tables.  At least 4 or 5 service staff delivered food throughout the night and each was as skilled as the next in explaining the dishes.

Part of a tasting menu is always the element of surpise and the openness of the layout of this place can spoil things a bit. I got really lucky for two reasons.  One, we were a few courses ahead of the table beside us so our experience wasn’t tainted by seeing them get their food first.  Second, they went all out and got the full tasting menu so we also got to see what we didn’t get.

In the end, Atelier Crenn was an investment in a great dining experience. It had all the elements of a night of fine dining including poetic references, shaking hands with a celebrity chef and fantastic food,great beer, exquisite cheese and magic fairy dust.  I can summarize the  experince in one poetic line: Looking up in the sky I see two rightful Michelin stars beaming down.


Atelier Crenn 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.

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.


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…


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……


Why an Elton John Concert is Like a Michelin Star Dinner.

A good meal is music to the mouth.  A good concert is music to the ears.  I went to see Elton John in London at Bud Gardens recently and saw comparisons between his concert and a good meal.

The amuse bouche was a stunning performance of “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. I somewhat naively picture Elton front and centre with nothing more than him and his piano gracing the stage.  Instead, he was on the left side with a complete band.  It was louder than I expected as well…perhaps in part due to the fact that three quarters of the audience was over 65 and probably needed a few extra decibels of help.  It was a good starting bite by hitting hard and setting the tone for the remainder of the evening.

Benny and the Jets was next and reminded me that, like many restaurants, aging doesn’t mean a change in quality.  Sure, Elton’s trademark magazeeeeeeeeeene has been replaced with a lower pitch version, but it’s still a damn good song.

Some of the most memorable restaurant experiences don’t necessarily involve food but often include the people around you.  Take for instance the old couple that sat in front of me.  He sat stoically  with him arms crossed most of the concert while she looked around like a nosy neighbour looking for dirt on the guy in Row H Seat 5 that she could share during tomorrow’s coffee session.  It lead me to believe that they probably got the tickets for Xmas, are against resale and wanted to humour their kids who bought them thinking that “Daniel” was a song they actually liked.  On the other side of the aisle was a couple who hit the aisles to dance feverishly to any fast song including but not limited to “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting (although it was a Monday and I’m not sure how they’d fair in a brawl..they were definitely lovers more than they were fighters).

The appetizers included a number of slower melodies including “Candle in the Wind”, “Levon” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.  The latter featured a yellow submarine type video montage of Elton’s life in the background including paying homage to his husband and kids. The bright lights of iphones  waved in the air and were used by  numerous concert goers to record clips of the show (or in some case the whole concert).  I got a kick out of one guy who whipped out an ipad to do the same.  It looked like a spotlight as the brightness of the screen emphasized the 8 or 10 annoyed face within his diameter.

Throughout the concert his showmanship matched the quality of each song; there was  frequent hand raising Alan Shearer style while breaking from a piano medley. He also ended each song with a bang on the piano or some kind of appreciative gesture.  He would wave, bow and solicit energy from the crowd in ways that made you forget he was 66.

The main course was surprisingly high tempo. Elton pounded the piano while his supporting band kept up with him nicely. The well dressed percussionist reminded me of a good bartender at a chic downtown restaurant.  He rhythmically rattled his instruments like a cocktail shaker. I imagine he would mix up a mean cocktail. Come to think of it, many Elton songs would make great cocktail names….

Love Lies Bleeding– Vodka, housemade clamato, spice medley, worchestershire sauce and spicy, pickled green bean

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road– Bourbon, Galliano, Fresh Lemon juice and gold flakes

Rocket Man– Bombay gin, muddled berries, lime juice, soda water and egg white cloud

Amidst the fast pace was the infusion of some slower tunes including the recent “Ocean’s Away” which is a tribute to the often forgotten veterans of WW1.   The video played in the background and created a sombre but not uncomfortable aura in the arena (even the crowd dancers took the opportunity to rest their weary limbs).

As Elton disappeared the crowd roared into waves of cheers and claps, demanding dessert to end a near perfect meal.  Elton complied, returning for a two song encore which featured songs on polar ends of his musical spectrum (I suppose a good dessert often uses the same mentality).   The first was “Your Song”, the haunting ballad which pays tribute to whoever you want it to.  He dedicated it to the fans who have supported him throughout the years.  I figured I would take the opportunity to follow suit and record a snippet  for my whoever.  He ended with the fast paced Crocodile Rock in which Elton summoned the crowd to sing along…a painful reminder of why most of the audience was singing from the crowd and not from the stage.

There is a lot of congruency between a good concert and a good meal. Restaurants and arenas are mediums for artistic expression. Sure, one stimulates the ear drums and the other the taste buds but in the end both reach out to the primal desires of human beings.  The importance of both food and music are evident in the earliest of civilizations. People don’t mind paying premium prices if the goods and services provided are suburb.  Finally, the music or food doesn’t have to appeal to everybody but it’s utter magic when it’s the right fit.  If an Elton John concert was a restaurant, I’m sure it would easily get two Michelin stars.

Chicago:Day 3:I needed pork brains to understand the lexicon of Andrew Zimmerman

Stop #1- Carnitas Don Pedro

Earlier in the week, I received an email that was sent to me by a colleague with  a simple question:

Want to check out Carnitas Don Pedro with me? Attached was a link from a recent Globe and Mail article titled “Overheard in Chicago:Three Pork Brain Tacos, please”. Published in May, it was Jacob Richler’s summary of a visit to one of the many “authentic” Mexican cantinas in Chicago. My answer was a resounding yes.

So…a Limey, a Scot and a Jew go to a Carnita joint….

Three of us hopped a cab and took the trek down W 18th Street.  As we approached our destination, I realized it was a far cry from the rich moles, vibrant cocktails and impeccable service I experienced at the equally authentic Topolobampo less than 18 hours earlier. No margaritas, no sommilier, no celebrity chef…just a cold soda and piles of pork served a dozen ways by people who have never had a food network special or  heard of a James Beard nomination.

We navigated through the busy store front (which doubles as a takeout counter) and sat at a modest table topped with napkins and a small, spanish menu.  We shrugged and collectively used our Canadian minds and shallow understanding of French to try and decifer the choices  until the smiling lady came over, smiled and politely pulled the menu out of the napkin holder and turned it over to the english side.  At the same time, plastic bowls of salsa, pickled jalapenos, cilantro and onions were placed on the table along with a paper container of  chicharrones, of as us anglophones say…. “pork rinds”.  They are sort of synonymous with an offering of bread at an Italian dinner. Like a good loaf of Italian bread,  the chicharrones were crunchy when you bit them but melted in your mouth shortly after.  It was kind of a bacon meets bread experience.

Chicharrones (aka Pork Rinds)

For the taco choice, we opted for the pork ribs which were simply prepared and presented bone-in. Warm tortilla shells were added to the table and assembly began.  The tortillas were warm, the meat was delicious and well worth any effort needed to dissect the small bones from the tender flesh.

Carnitas (Ribs)
Carnitas (Ribs)
Assembled Taco
Assembled Taco

We ordered the iconic pork brain tacos which were presented in taboo fashion. The brain was wrapped in a hard shell and held together with toothpicks.   The somewhat mushy texture of the filling  justified the crunchy exterior.  The taste was well….interesting.  It had a complexity and oddness synonomous to haggis.  They certainly wouldn’t be for everybody but there was a sinful satisfaction I got out chewing one down.

Pork Brain tacos
Pork Brain tacos

My reason for ordering Menudo soup was threefold.  First, although I didn’t indulge in too many cocktails at Topobambalo the night before, I wanted to see if Menudo, also called hangover soup, would clear up the my slight grogginess.   Second, I have a mild fear of tripe and wanted to see if I could eat something to overcome my phobia. Third, I wanted to convince myself that the word “Menudo” could mean more than the  boy band  (which eventually included Ricky Martin) that plagued my eardrums in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Although much better than the band, I have to admit I still have a slight disdain for tripe although the broth was a rich adventure in classic Mexican flavours including lime, chili, onion and cilantro.

Good Menudo
Good Menudo
Bad Menudo
Bad Menudo

My Take

Don Pedro’s makes you feel like you’re a member of a surrogate family for the hour you are there. The food is amazing and the staff are friendly, jovial and helpful.  You may get a few odd looks from the locals (afterall, we were the only Caucasians in the place, wearing dress shirts and taking pictures like idiot tourists).  The total bill for three of us was $19, about the same price as bringing a bottle of wine to your mom’s house for a family dinner….and last time I checked, she can’t make carnitas (I don’t even think she knows what they are).

Carnitas Don Pedro on Urbanspoon

Stop #2– Sepia

I chose Sepia for dinner for a number of reasons.  I was entertaining a wine afficianato, trying to appease somebody with a simple palate and make a steak lover happy. In addition, a Michelin star and my curiousity over the cuisine of  Andrew Zimmerman (not Andrew Zimmern), the executuve chef who has received numerous culinary accolades over the past few years didn’t hurt.  My simple palate reference is no disrespect to either the diner or Sepia itself, but the concept of sticking to seasonal, fresh and local food.

Of course, things never work out.  For a number of reasons, my party dwindled from 8 to 5.  Other than the rather snooty hostess nobody seemed to mind.  We were asked to sit at the bar for a few minutes while they rearranged the table.  I grabbed a beer and before we were seated, we were asked to settle the bill…which I found a bit odd since we weren’t leaving.  I was hoping this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the service to come.

Based on the storefront and bar, the dining room was surprisingly large and made the fact that this was a 19th century print shop a little more believable.   The tables were spaced nicely and the noise level was moderate. Our waiter arrived shortly after and took some time to explain the premise of the menu.  When he left, they turned to me and started asking numerous questions about the menu.

Ok….here’s a small rant.  I don’t like the word foodie.  I like food, I think I know food but I don’t consider myself a foodie.   Other people do, however, and ask me to explain everything.  Foodies are like Alex Trebek.  Alex reads out question after question and acts like he actually would know every answer if he didn’t have them in front of his face. He shakes his head and proclaims “Oooo, I’m sorry, the answer is French Polynesia” like you’re a freaking idiot.  Many foodies are self-proclaimed experts who check out the menu in advance so they can look intelligent in front of their guests when they can explain what brandade is. Otherwise, they either do the smartphone check  under the table or excuse themselves to the restroom and pull the google stall search to prepare for the anticipated questions.

I did my best with the barrage of questions (at least I knew what matcha was)  but when the waiter returned he was asked about chermoula, ramps, roman gnocchi, togarashi, artichokes barigoule and bavette (see below for answer key).  Without hesitation, he answered every question without a hitch in a friendly and non-condescending manner.

The amuse bouche was a simple strawberry and a thin fennel slice on top of some soft cheese.  It tasted exactly like it looked but the small piece of fennel gave it a crunch that really worked.

Amuse Bouche
Amuse Bouche

For the appetizer, I opted for the crispy egg (surprise, surprise) atop mushrooms, asparagus and ramps.  The egg was a perfect soft boiled, the batter was crunchy and not greasy and the bed of stew was delicious.  At $15, it should have been a golden egg.

Crispy Soft Cooked Egg
Crispy Soft Cooked Egg

For the entree, I went for the waygu bavette and pastrami with a potato cake served in the middle.  The pastrami was brined nicely and tender to the point where  a knife was unnecessary.  The bavette was cooked medium rare and was seasoned delicately.  Despite the small portion size, the dish was decadent and I actually didn’t finish it.

Bavette and Pastrami
Waygu Bavette and Pastrami

A special shout out goes to the duck fat fried fingerling potatoes. Need I say more???? They tasted like they looked.

Duck Fat Fried Potatoes
Duck Fat Fried Potatoes

For dessert, I opted for the ginger snaps with ricotta, tarragon mustard ice cream, walnuts and honey.  It was  a bit tricky to eat but was presently beautifully and tasted the same.

Gingersnap Dessert
Gingersnap Dessert

The consensus at the table was that the food was top notch.  The winners were the english pea agnolotti starter, the bavette entree  and the malted milk chocolate mousse for dessert.

My Take

Sepia is a true testament  to local, fresh and well prepared food.  Despite the complex menu descriptions, the flavours are surprising simple and can appease all palates.  The service staff is knowledgeable and not condescending.  The meal flowed nicely although it did take a while to put our orders in (partly due to our culinary illiteracy).  The portions are smallish, the prices are highish but good value is there just given the quality of the food. I’ll take french cuisine for $600 Alex.


Brandade- an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil

Chermoula-s a marinade used in Algerian, Moroccan  and Tunisian cooking.

Ramps- An early spring vegetbale also called a wild leek.

Roman Gnocchi- Potatoless gnocchi with lots of Parmesan cheese

Artichokes barigoule- artichokes with onions, garlic and carrots and wine

Bavette- bottom sirloin/flank steak

Togarashi- Japanese chili peppers or chili pepper products

Sepia on Urbanspoon