Burma Superstar, Molly Shannon and High School Religion Classes

My last stop in the San Francisco area was at Burma Superstar, the iconic Richmond area eatery offering the mysterious food of Burma.  Although Burma is now technically Myanmar, I suppose not having to change the menu or threatening the near 25 year old brand is more important than geographical accuracy.  Plus, whenever I hear the name I think of two things; Molly Shannon and high school religion classes.  When Burma Superstar was only 7 years old, Molly Shannon and a much younger Will Farrell starred in Superstar which was based on the Saturday Night Live skit.  My daughter took quite a liking to the film and almost killed herself trying to do the razzle dazzle on a slippery hardwood floor.  On the positive side, it  opened up the door for me to add “don’t make out with trees” to the list of things to cover off in birds and bees talk we had later.  Regarding school, I had a Catholic education  and one thing you could count on was that once a year a teacher would forfeit the normal religion lesson to show the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar right around the time of the Passion.

Based on the numerous web reviews, I knew a visit to Burma Superstar even early on a Saturday evening would mean a line and I was right. We were politely told that the wait would be somewhere in the area of 45 minutes to an hour. I made a note that our table would be right after a couple of sweet old ladies who signed in just before me.   We were offered B*Star, Burma Superstar’s sister restaurant as an alternative and, after careful deliberation, we opted for the original instead of the sequel and walked around the neighbourhood for a while.

We were seated in a little less than 45 minutes and, as anticipated, right behind the old ladies. It  was a crowded and tight place but we had some reprieve since we were sitting right by the window. We started the highly recommended signature tea leaf  salad.  It arrived to the table separated into the numerous ingredients (including tomatoes, jalapenos, beans, seeds, fried garlic and a fermented green tea paste) which were skillfully combined table side.  The magic in this salad lies in the tea paste for unami and the aromatic fried garlic which elevate the other ingredients.  The textural differences were appealing as well.

Another house favorite is the pumpkin pork stew.  This is a bit of a misnomer since it is technically made with kaboucha squash.  Also called Japanese pumpkin, this gourd is revered for its aphrodisiac qualities which, if I would have known at the time, I may have avoided given the long plane ride home given the fact I was planning to  change into jogging pants.  It all worked out though. The gross, crowded red-eye home quashed any chance of arousal at 35000 feet. The prominent flavour in the curry was ginger which was a refreshing compliment to the squash. Although I enjoyed the uniqueness of the dish, the kaboucha was very dominant and it’s slimy/starchy texture wouldn’t work for everybody.

Pork and Pumpkin Stew
Pork and Pumpkin Stew

I’ll stop here for a second to provide an update on the old ladies that were seated just before us. They were within eyesight and I was impressed by a couple of things.  First, they there using the napkins bib-style, meaning they were really getting down to business. Second, each had an Asian beer in the bottle (screw the glass), which they were sucking back rapidly in between bites.  Third, those dishes just didn’t stop.  One after another, what seemed like a significant part of the menu arrived at the table and yet they tackled them all in that graceful old lady manner.  I think I actually teared up and hoped that one day, in my elder years, I could bust into a restaurant and show a bunch of privileged hipsters how to strap on the feedbag.

The third was the Burmese chicken and shrimp casserole. My rationale for this dish was simple; cook anything in a clay pot and I’m happy.  In addition, anything with peas makes me happy.  I really enjoyed it.  The use of the bone-in chicken, the perfectly cooked shrimp and the fact the dish had the elements of both Thai and Indian cuisine were all positives.  It was like a jacked up Pad Thai married  with a chicken and shrimp biryani.

Chicken and Shrimp Casserole
Chicken and Shrimp Casserole

For dessert I had to try the black rice pudding which we split as a table. It looked like my son’s attempt at a creative bowl of cereal in the morning.  It was well balanced between sweet and savory which was catalyzed by the fresh fruit and the abundant use of sesame seeds and almonds.

Black Rice Pudding
Black Rice Pudding

To end everything off, I glanced over at the old ladies who were looking quite content as they finished off a dessert of their own and  tipped my hat to them out of a combination of sheer respect and an overwhelming feeling of  awe.

My Take  

Burma Superstar is listed as a San Francisco must in almost every magazine and website in existence. It’s success has resulted in the emergence of a number of Burmese eateries including B*Star by the same owners down the street  which offers many of the same dishes. The wait is inevitable and long, the quarters are cramped and the food is good. I got schooled by old ladies and was scared to change into my roots jogging pants. In the end, I didn’t want to sing “Hosanna!” from the mountaintops (or my desktop if I was still in high school) or break into the razzle dazzle but I would rate it much higher than 32% on rotten tomatoes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis (starters):

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

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

Sardine Chips and Levain Bread
Sardine Chips and Levain Bread

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

Burrata and Strawberry Gazpacho
Burrata and Strawberry Gazpacho

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

Little Gems Salad
Little Gems Salad

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

Crispy Potatoes
Crispy Potatoes

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

Porcini Doughnuts
Porcini Doughnuts

The Pasta of Pastas

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

Pappardelle with Goddess Melon
Pappardelle with Goddess Melon

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

Garganelli with Sausage
Garganelli with Sausage

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

Tagliatelle with Duck
Tagliatelle with Duck

The Gospels (Mains)

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

Summer Squash Gratin
Summer Squash Gratin

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

Pork Loin with Cherries
Pork Loin with Cherries

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

Halibut and Grits
Halibut and Grits

Revelation (Dessert)

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

Coconut Panna Cotta
Coconut Panna Cotta

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

Chocolate Sable with Milk Ice
Chocolate Sable with Milk Ice

My Take

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

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