Archive for the 'food' Category

Craigie Street Bistro – Boston

It’s been a long time in coming, but while I was in Boston for a conference, I finally made it to Craigie Street Bistro which is run (and cooked) by Tony Maws. Amanda is friends with the Maws family, and we’ve benefited form Tony’s expert recommendations for French dining before.

And in the month since I’ve eaten there, CSB (to insiders) has won some major awards and accolades. So I figure I’ve got to get this post up in order to support their well-deserved reputation.

Unfortunately, the timing for my trip was lousy – not only did I just recover from being sick for almost two days, but Tony was on his first well-deserved night off in 4 months. On top of that, I was alone – a couple of understated invitations to what is essentially Boston’s best French restaurant conflicted with colleague’s plans, and the list of people I wanted to invite to the best 4-course meal of their recent memory was fairly short.

Nonetheless I persevered. The place is small, about 20 tables, and the first thing I noticed is that it’s understated. It’s in a walk-down space under the corner of a large old brick apartment building, but immediately it feels cosy. And there are wait staff everywhere – I think I counted 6-8 for what was apparently a slow night. They all looked like they could have been recruited from any number of the colleges nearby, but they were all relaxed, very well informed, and so comfortable with the foreign words in the menu I sometimes had to ask them repeat something because they glided through the descriptions so effortlessly. Tony’s printed claim that all staff went through intensive training was in evidence (the staff also eats at the restaurant on Tony’s dime).

Tony focuses on sourcing a lot of local food, as much of it organic and biodynamic as possible. As with anything, though, when he needs something superlative, he’s not above importing it, as attested by his Wine Spectator-approved French wine list, or the offer of fresh shaved (and freshly imported) Perigord truffles – the last of the season, apparently.

However, for those more fastidious about being truly local, there’s plenty to crow about. The menu is created new every day – in fact, my menu stated it was printed at 5:07 pm that day, after all the products had been delivered and inspected. That’s fresh food.

So not only does Craigie Street Bistro have a new menu every day, he also has a daily “menu” – i.e a suggested 5-course meal (including a completely separate full veggie version). Oh, with a short list of 10-15 suggested wines that would work with that suggested meal. I got stuck on the appetizers, so I decided to make a small tapas meal out of it.

I started with house-cured Portuguese sardines, which looked like they had been barely seared – they were still reddish, meaty but tender, and not flaking and falling apart like cooked sardines. The sardines sat on tiny cobblestones of preserved lemon, pickled peppers and artichokes, a combination that reminds me of North Africa… (Yes, the cobblestones too, for those of you familiar with their war of independence….).

Next was the octopus, a single tentacle nearly 8 inches long with cipollini onions and hearts of palm (Palmito!), incredibly tender except, well, yes, the crunchy sucker parts. Hmmm. I wasn’t sure I had been prepared to go that far because I’m a little squeamish about fish parts, but I finished it all.

I had accompanied this by a glass of rosé, a great and dry sample from – I actually don’t remember. The wine list is several pages long (his half-bottle selection has over 20 wines, and his glass list easily a dozen). However, I wasn’t that focused on the wines since I was still sick, and really what interested me after a day and a half of eating nothing but peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, miso soup and tea was … food!

Then the ragout came out. I don’t know what I was expecting form a ragout – some sort of down-home stew something or other – but this wasn’t what I was expecting. It was a delicate arrangement of house-made venison sausage, sheets of brussels sprouts (yes, just sheets, not the whole thing), honshi meji mushrooms, with a split-pea purée. Oh, and a poached egg on top. Whatever it was, it was unlike anything I’ve had before. And surprisingly, given all that was going on, everything tasted distinct – it wasn’t a blend of toppings like an “everything” pizza.

I had ordered a side of pomme aligot, which was made with so much laguiole cheese that I was forewarned it would come out almost gummy. Yup, that rhymes with yummy. I had actually canceled my order of the potatoes since I realized quickly the food was so rich I would be stuffed by then – but instead they came out with a “taster” version, and the chef (whoever it was that night) even threw in some of the famed truffle shavings.

I had finished my courses, but had a considerable amount of my second glass – a classic spicy and somewhat grassy Chinon red – left to go, so I relaxed and took in my surroundings. What I had noticed was that a good portion of the clientèle that night was the same kind I’ve seen in upscale restaurants near higher education institutions in the Bay Area (read: Berkeley). I know, people from East Coast academia hate being compared to their slacker casual West Coast brethren, which is partly why I’m doing it. Because the upshot is the same – there’s an demographic of landed intelligentry that eats at upscale restaurants near well-heeled universities as a given. Very polite, even politically relevant conversations, but the evening is nothing special, just another pleasant meal out.

I mean, celebrate the food, people! This is damn good, and it’s not a given that you should have access to this. I was ecstatic. The time and energy that went into the preparation – not only by the chef(s) and wait-staff, but the people listed on Tony’s short-list of preferred farms and all their staff – this means something to them. They are putting a lot of their energy and soul into this – the least you can do is feel something! If you’re not ecstatic, at least engage! I would bet Tony would really appreciate someone who was passionate about something wrong with the place (price, quality, service, whatever) after months of scores of people coming through, dropping a couple of bills, and leaving with only a “value” memory of what they liked that night. No one inherently deserve this food; it’s a gift, a privilege – appreciate it, celebrate it!

OK, sorry, rant over. I finished – uncharacteristically – with a tea, and as a consolation prize they brought out a single pear gelato ball – covered with a caramel made of, get this, reduced goat’s milk. Only – no added sugar. Bra-a-a-ah…. ‘Twas excellent. And that goes for the whole experience. I think I smiled the entire T ride back….

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Back to the Source – Yoga and Terroir is back!

My wife Amanda Dates is hosting her second yoga and terroir retreat (a quick look at the first one here). We spend a weekend up in Marin, visiting farms and eating locally procured food cooked by fantastic home-chef extraordinaire, Russ King – book-ended every day by yoga in a yurt, overlooking the Pacific Ocean!

More details on the retreat on Amanda’s yoga website.

Chez Brunet in Lyon

On this last trip to France, Amanda and I went to Lyon for the first time.  Well, went “through” Lyon – it was a somewhat hectic “drive-by.”  We arrived at 8pm, having driven across the country from Normandy; then we left the next day, after arguing with the bank for 2 hours.  Nonetheless, the highlight was visiting a classic bouchon lyonnais – Chez Brunet.

I originally wrote up my notes about the experience as I nursed a (champagne) hangover the next morning in our hotel room.  It was very Henry Miller – a beautiful lady asleep on the bed, my cup of coffee I brought up to my room prepared by the desk person, tapping away at a keyboard in the half-light because I didn’t want to wake Amanda.  And as even Henry Miller will admit, that first draft needed some work; said beautiful lady reworked it and now it lives on the Craigie Street Bistro blog – as it should, since Chez Brunet was Chef Tony Maws’ recommendation in the first place.

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Restaurant Iberia – uh, Newark?

My wife and I went on a short trip to France this month.  It’s a mix of a much needed vacation for my wife, and a family plus business trip for me.  And yes, it isn’t a great combination since the vacation part gets short shrift, but this was our only time and opportunity.  On our way out, we had a 24 layover in Newark, New Jersey (long story) and we decided we should eat something that we wouldn’t find readily in France.  Being Californian, we figured we’d pick up some sushi – until we realized that Newark isn’t known for sushi, at all.  (Yes, that was obvious in retrospect, but we were tired and jet-lagged).  Instead, Newark is known for Portuguese food.  That didn’t fit our original criteria too well, but we opted for a reframing – we’d be eating a Newark “terroir” meal.

We ended up at Iberia Peninsula Restaurant, mainly because it was still open by the time we got there.  We balked at first because almost every dish hovered at around $20, and being from San Francisco, it’s tough (for us) to justify $19.95 for a plate of cod unless it’s sustainably caught, with a seasonal preparation featuring ingredients from farms we recognize, slow food blah blah.  But we were hungry, and this was the only place open.

And by the end of the meal, we were ecstatic, full, and not really that much out of pocket.  We had really had an amazing, and Newark “terroir” meal.  We started with deep fried calamari, which were fresh and soft, with a softer breaded covering than the usual pub-fare crisp. We originally figured we would split the house-special parrilhada (seafood platter) for two, but then saw one delivered to another table, and realized we didn’t have 4 more Newark constructions workers there to help us eat it, so we shared a paella marinera.

Sure, it’s technically Spanish, not Portuguese, but we were in an “Iberian” restaurant….  The thing came in a metal bucket 2/3 the size of a champagne bucket, the top overflowing with lobster.  There was so much lobster, it was as if we had ordered lobster for two, and paella for four.  Oh, and the paella was full of mussels, clams, scallops and calamari too.  Oh, and it was delicious.  We tried packing it down with a bottle of Portuguese white wine, but there was no way we could not eat it all – we couldn’t even finish the lobster!

The waiter was just as much part of the experience as the food.  Age indeterminate, he had salt and pepper hair and a perfectly understated way about him, the politeness and efficacy of Jeeves with the life-long-waiter appeal of a Parisian brasserie server.  Every choice of ours was a perfect choice, but recommendations were made if asked.  Affirmative was a slight nod and closing the eyes, all with a hint of a smile that indicated we were the smartest patrons in the room – or whoever he happened to be talking to at that moment.

I finished with a cappucino just to see the crusty guy behind the counter make one on the enormous espresso machine.  We grabbed a cab to return to our hotel, with our tub of remaining paella in hand (really, a metal tub so we could reheat it at home if need be).  We asked the cabbie on a whim if there was somewhere we could find some homeless people to give the food to.  He didn’t blink – he knew that they were usually around the train station, and yes, Iberia always gives you too much food.  We found a guy in a wheelchair, and I hefted the remaining meal into his hands, and then returned to our hotel, amazed at the experience we never expected to find in Newark, New Jersey.

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An Empty Bottle is Full of Memories

[I can’t believe I made up that phrase in the title – but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t show up anywhere else on the web….]

Back to the Source

My wife Amanda Dates is a yoga teacher, and exactly one week ago my friend Russ and I were the “hired help” at a yoga / camping / terroir retreat that my wife had organized.  It was quite an event:

  • Camping at Slide Ranch in Marin
  • Yoga classes twice a day
  • Tours of farms and markets (Slide Ranch, Star Route Farms, Point Reyes Farmer’s Market, the PR Creamery, Drake’s Bay Oysters, and Green Gulch Farm and Zen Meditation Center)
  • Locally sourced food prepared on-site by Russ, including: home-made ravioli with cheese-chard stuffing; local soft-cooked scrambled eggs and Marin Sun Farm sausage for breakfast; Drake’s Bay oyster paella (and a portabella mushroom version for the vegetarians) – and of course tons of local cheese.

Needless to say, it was an amazing weekend given the locale, the spiritual focus and food.  And so last night Amanda and I prepared a simple meal (porcini quiche with pioppini mushrooms over the top) to celebrate not just a job well done, but a job fantastically done by our resident cook Russ King.  And with that meal, we popped open a bottle of Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Nuits, something I had been introduced to by my friend and French synonym, Grégoire Japiot.

Haute Cotes de NuitSo as I look at the empty bottle of Bourgogne, I think not only of the days of yoga and farms and the nights around the candle-lit dinners sharing stories and singing songs; I also think of the field on the hill in Burgundy, where Grégoire and I had a glass of Aligoté amidst Hervé Roumier’s Haute Cotes de Bourgogne vines.

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The perfect lunch

The other day, I took a lunch break and scrounged through the fridge (as I am wont to do) looking for sandwich makings.  It was a gorgeous day outside, and I knew I had the right ingredients for the perfect lunch:  sun, wine, sandwich, garden.

See, the sandwich was only part of the equation.  It consisted of:

  • Sliced whole grain bread
  • Mozzarella, thrown on one of the slices and slightly melted under a broiler.
  • Leftover king mushrooms (from the Ferry Plaza’s Far West Fungi), sautéed in butter and white wine.
  • Mustard, of course.

The wine was a German riesling (2004 Kalinda Hattenheimer Riesling Dry) that was not as dry as I thought it was going to be (it was American dry, not European dry), and I actually preferred it a day after it had been open.  And of course, since the mushrooms had been cooked with that very wine, it went together perfectly.

But the main reason this was the perfect lunch was beause I was able to sit in our beautiful garden in Oakland, with the heat radiating off the flagstones, and eat my damn good sandwich with a simple glass of wine, and not have a care in the world.

This experience is so much like many of my seminal food – and wine – experiences: it’s less about a particular fantastic meal or glass of wine itself, and so much more about the entire event.

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The secret of sandwiches

I’ve discovered the secret to making sandwiches.  (And I don’t mean I’ve discovered sliced bread.)  I mean, the secret to making sandwiches of various sorts work.  And that secret is mustard.  Well, it can be one of several liquid condiments, but I’m not a big an of mayo, and I haven’t tried others as extensively as mustard.

Again, what I mean is this:  I can scrounge through my fridge, find any sort of bread (baguette, sour, rye, crappy white, whatever), find something to put in between the slices, and it’ll work for me as long as I have mustard.  For example – I got nothing but cheese.  No problem.  Cheese, mustard, bread.  Let’s get crazier – I got tofu and cooked beets.  No problem – beets, tofu, mustard and bread.  That would simply not work without mustard, in my opinion.  I got a piece of quiche that’s not enough for a full lunch?  Leftover shredded-carrot-greens-apple salad and some hard parmesan?

As I said, other liquids will work.  I guess for me, the main isue is that my sandwich isn’t dry.  I’ve used leftover salad dressing, pasta sauce – even salsa, thrown in with whatever veggies and cheese I’ve got lying around.

Have mustard, will sandwich.

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