Thursday, July 28, 2011

Frrrozen Pizza and Brunch - Two of My Favorite Things

Ahhhh, the pleasures of San Francisco and the Bay Area. And boy, what I wouldn’t give to be in San Francisco during these east coast summers...because while the temperature has been above 100° here in NYC a few times, and we're looking at 90°+ coming up soon, in San Francisco it’s pushing a perfect 6 – 0. Sweater weather, to be sure. That old saying, oft attributed to Sam Clemens, comes to mind; something along the lines of “the coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.”  But I digress.

Last month, Significant Eater and I spent a week in San Francisco, and had some pretty amazing meals. And on our last full day in the city by the bay, we indulged in two meals neither of which I’d ever think of having when we’re home; that’d be brunch and frozen pizza.

Our day started off nicely at Bar Tartine, in the Mission district.  Nothing too fancy – it was brunch, after all.  But high quality ingredients, expertly prepared.  For instance, we started off with a salad of little gems and smoked trout topped with crispy salmon skin – as delicious as it sounds...



Then I had baked eggs sprinkled with “dry vella Jack cheese,” and Sig Eater opted for a brisket tartine with a smoked onion marmalade and horseradish mayo; both were served with delicious roasted baby potatoes...


Bar Tartine would be my go to brunch place if I lived in San Francisco.  And if I normally ate brunch.  But even though I don’t do either of the above, I can highly recommend Bar Tartine.

Later that day, we headed up to Mill Valley, to hang with a couple of ex-New Yorkers who made the move west 10 years ago.  Now, they have kids in the house and chickens in the backyard. Seriously.  But since chicken wasn’t on the menu for dinner that night, and since no one really wanted to cook, we decided to get some take-out pizza; not just any take-out, mind you  – instead, this was take-out frozen pizza that was to be finished cooking at home.

Pizzeria Picco (and Picco Restaurant) are Larkspur (Marin County) mainstays, and have been for a few years. People love the restaurant, and pizza aficionados love the pizzeria.  But frozen pizza is a whole other story, and I’ve never had one that was any good; they’re usually cardboardy and just pretty darn awful. Trooper that I am, I was willing to give it a try – so we cranked the oven up to 500°  to preheat and off we went to pick up a few pies.   

Picco has four of their classic pies and one or two of their specialized pies available daily. They’re partially cooked and flash frozen and this is what you take home…


After a few minutes in that hot, hot oven (on a stone or pizza pan), an amazing pie emerges…


Now that's a thing of beauty, isn't it?  At least as good as any pie we've had lately; acutally, better than most.  A few of these in your freezer, and excellent pizza can be yours at a moment's (well, at least after the oven is preheated) notice.  Of course, I could never heat one of these up in my oven in NYC; no, not during the summer, when the oven NEVER is used. 

But hey, if we lived in San Francisco or even Marin, that might be a whole other story...

Monday, July 25, 2011

I Got Your Locavore Right Here

Today I needed to pick up a few "healthy" things, as my fridge was getting bare.  So I headed over to Whole Foods, which is where I go when I need an assortment of stuff, and don't want to go to 9 or 10 different places - at WF, it's all under one roof, and I like that.

You all know that I try to shop "local" whenever I can - or at least as local as the Union Square Greenmarket allows.  You know, it's not being shipped in from California at the greenmarket, 'cause that's not allowed.

Whole Foods, at least the ones that I know about here in New York, also try to carry some local products, in addition to the stuff they get from around the world.  I'm never surprised to see corn from Long Island, tomatoes from Jersey, apples and onions from upstate New York; well, you get the picture.

But I was surprised to see this - because as the sign above the display said, it comes from 3.4 miles away...


Yep, Gotham Greens, from Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Rooftop grown lettuces. As their web site states:

Gotham Greens is a New York City based company dedicated to growing the highest quality vegetables and culinary herbs for local restaurants and retailers. Gotham Greens’ premium quality, pesticide-free vegetables and herbs are grown in sterile rooftop greenhouses using clean, renewable energy. 

Fuggetaboutit.  And - take that, locavores!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Breakfast Before Bolt Bus Becomes Bacon

 Sunday - it's the day Significant Eater returns to our apartment in Washington, D. C. so she can get ready for a week at the job she loves -  serving the public. That's you and me,  federal taxpayers, and she serves even those who don't pay their fair share (you know, the millionaires, billionaires, oil companies and G. E., for starters).

I always like to make a nice breakfast; I think it's the most important meal of the day, as a matter of fact.  Normally, my breakfasts are pretty healthy  - some whole grain cereal or toast, fresh fruit, yogurt - stuff that's good for you.  But the other day I heard her mention the word bacon, as in she hadn't had bacon in quite a while, and it just so happens I had a pound of good stuff in the fridge - so...


Earlier in the week at the farmer's market,  I bought some nice tomatoes and a couple of pounds of potatoes.   The potatoes got cut up, blanched (btw, when you blanch potatoes or any other root veggies, start them in cold water)  and then pan-fried  in some of that beautiful bacon fat, along with onions, scallions, garlic, and smoked paprika with lots of black pepper...


I totally screwed the pooch by breaking the yolks on what I wanted to be sunny side up eggs - but no worries.  I just covered the pan briefly, and when the eggs were barely cooked through, they topped the potatoes and were served alongside some of that beautiful bacon and sliced tomatoes...


And now, that trip on the Bolt Bus becomes that much easier. And I'll be joining Sig Eater in D. C. sometime Wednesday.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

That's Ssam Duck

In a recent post, I waxed rhapsodic about the Peking Duck at Peking Duck House here in Chinatown.  Now, while that duck may be the be-all and end-all as far as Peking Duck is concerned, it is not, by any means, the only duck in town.  There are literally dozens of places where you can get a roasted duck in Chinatown, mostly under $20, and even if you head farther north, you’re bound to run into a Chinese joint where roasted meats, duck included, are on the menu.                                                                                                                                    
 Usually, these places are serving your roast duck over a plate of plain white rice, topped with a little salty, fatty sauce that makes everything taste good.  Sometimes, they’ll incorporate it into a soup, as in roast duck wonton soup at Great NY Noodletown.  Trust me – it’s all good.  There’s very little you can do wrong to a duck, other than overcook the crap out of it, and most Chinese roasteries have it down to a science; oh, the breast will not be all nice and rosy red, because to do that would mean ending up with undercooked legs, thighs and wings, but in general the duck is good.
  
So where am I headed with all this?  A while ago, back in May, Momofuku Ssam Bar began serving an all-duck lunch; let’s call it their rotisserie duck program, for want of a better term; there are also a few non-duck items on the menu. I hadn’t been yet and with Significant Eater in town for her three-day weekend, what better time to make a go of it than this past Friday afternoon?  After all, Ssam Bar and it’s older sibling, Noodle Bar, have long been lunch favorites of ours, so off we went.
  
The “new” Ssam Bar has expanded into the space that was once Milk Bar, which is now across the street.  I was a little confused when we first walked into the Ssam Bar space from 2nd Avenue, but one of the lovely staff pointed the way for us.  You order at the counter and then they deliver the food to wherever you end up sitting – your choice.  The menu is above the counter...
From our seats (well, mine, at least), I had a good view of the rotisserie contraption.  It was late in service, so only one or two duckies were left spinning, getting all golden and delicious in the process…
Of course, for old time’s sake, we had to order the pork buns (perhaps the dish that elevated David Chang to cult-star status), and they were better than ever, with a nice slab of fatty meat nestled in the silky bun...
Another small plate we tried, simply called Broccoli Salad, had the broccoli tossed with a slightly funky smoked bluefish vinaigrette and topped with pieces of crispy duck skin, taking the crucifer to a new level...
We then shared two of the large plates; the first one out was a Duck Sandwich. I couldn’t quite figure out what part of the duck they were using; perhaps slices of the thigh or maybe a house made mild duck sausage?  Served on excellent bread, and lightly toasted and slathered with a mildly spicy mayo, with shredded lettuce and peppadews adding a nice crunch…
Our other lunch plate was the Rotisserie Duck over Rice, served with an all-you-can-add condiment tray including fried crispy shallots and a duck-fat scallion sauce. The nice portion of breast is cooked to a luscious rosy red and hides some pulled dark meat underneath. There’s a handful of greens (watercress here) and for an additional buck a stack of lettuce leaves…
And after a little manipulation of ingredients, a juicy, delicious wrap is born…
Guess what? They disappeared just as quickly. It appears as if David Chang has done it again, with a duck as good as any in Chinatown, and perhaps just a little more special.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Looking for Duck in Chinatown


Reliability. In the restaurant biz. There’s something to be said about a restaurant that you can rely on.  Especially if that something you rely upon is a particular dish that you want to be good each and every time you order it. When I was working "the line" at a hot downtown restaurant back in the mid-90s, that was something that was drilled into my head by the chef/owner over and over.  Make the dish the same way every time. That's what the customer comes back for - the same damn dish again and again.


In NYC’s Chinatown, there is just such a place. Strangely, or perhaps not so much, it’s eponymously named after its most famous dish, Peking Duck.  Now, you have to understand; I eat in Chinatown – a lot.  Most of it’s C and below level stuff, though I do have some faves (can you say Great NY Noodletown?). We live in Chinatown and I often get annoyed by Chinatown and its profusion of crappy restaurants using the cheapest raw materials they can find.  But I love Peking Duck House.


Now, you have to understand that Peking Duck isn’t one of those dishes that you can just “throw together” or “whip up” at home. It involves inflation of the duck's skin, scalding with boiling water, hanging, dripping, roasting, pancake making – basically,  it's just too damn much work. This ain’t no 30-minute meal, if you get my drift.


So enter Peking Duck House. It has been in business for over 25 years at 28 Mott St. in NYC (there’s also a midtown location), and I recently reacquainted myself with the place, after a long hiatus, when a friend wanted to go out for…guess what?


So off we went, 3 or 4 of us from the building.  And all I can say is this place totally rocks - at least for the Peking Duck.  I’m not responsible for the rest of your order.  Remember, the whole of Chinatown is fairly mediocre; the whys of that are a subject for another post (lousy cooks, shitty ingredients – you be the judge).


The way the menu at Peking Duck House is set up, they try to trick you into ordering a lot more food, for a lot more money, than you really need.  The “special house dinner,” or the “Peking Duck dinner” are just money grabbers, so do as I do.  Order a whole Peking duck, a couple of apps – say pickled cabbage and mock dock made from tofu skin, a safe vegetable dish (forget about stuff like snow pea leaves – not gonna happen) and another stir fry and you’ll easily have enough food for 4 people.  And it’ll end up a lot cheaper than the dinners they put together for you.

What emerges from the kitchen around 15 or 20 minutes later is a thing of beauty. All glistening, drippy, and mahogany. Of course they show it to you, and then a guy with really good cleaver skills expertly cuts the meat and skin off the bone, till all that’s left is the carcass.  A few times I’ve ask for the carcass to go, and get some strange and annoyed looks, but that’s duck soup…and here’s our duck, all cut up and ready to go…
Then it’s all up to you, brushing your pancake with hoisin sauce, getting the right percentage of meat vs. skin, adding the scallion flourish, the rolling up of the package and taking that first bite of one of the still great dishes in Chinatown.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Coast. Commonwealth. Comstock. A Day's Work

One of the things Significant Eater and I like to do when we’re visiting California is to take a nice drive; it’s a car culture after all.  I mean, people drive to mail a letter, if you get my drift. 

So on a rare for California in June rainy Tuesday, that’s just what we did.  We set out for Pescadero, a little town snuggled just off the coast somewhere between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. I remembered and had always wanted to get back there, because in “town” there’s a famous old tavern serving some of the best artichoke soup this side of, well, Castroville.  Heading down I-280, the Junipero Serra Freeway (hey, it’s California) affords some great scenery for an interstate that basically runs through the middle of Silicon Valley.  That’s because there isn’t much to the west of it except state Fish and Game Refuge and a large reservoir system – which is just fine. We cut over to Route 1 on the coast via Route 92, which is a nice, windy road (with a couple of local fruit and veggie stands; we bought some early, delicious cherries) that runs out to Half Moon Bay, and from there headed south – we’d “explore” Half Moon Bay on our ride back to the city.

The main street through Pescadero is called Stage Road, and that’s where our destination, Duarte’s, has been since 1894...  


We ate in the bar room, where this guy watches your every move…


Seriously, how great is a place that not only has a head mounted on the wall, but the whole series of velvet paintings of dogs playing poker?  The actual bar is the original, as our server and bartender, the ever-friendly Larry, pointed out.

So, how was the soup?  Actually, it might have been ever better than I remembered.  It’s offered two ways; pure cream of artichoke or split half and half with their cream of green chile. Both were brought out for us to sample, and we opted for the half and half, “like the locals do” according to Larry…


I rounded out my meal with some local fried smelts and a huge cracked Dungeness crab, while Sig Eater had the fried oyster sandwich. Hey - it ain’t haute, but it’s good. Before leaving, we walked out back, where the restaurant has its own vegetable garden. No surprise as to what’s growing back there…


We headed back up the coast, all the way into San Francisco – there’s some stunning scenery along the way, but don’t go hiking up or down any of the hills.  Many years ago, I nearly got arrested for doing so – they’re muy peligroso and the CHP doesn’t want to spend the time or the manpower rescuing any dumb tourists when they get stuck or fall…


Dinner that night was at Commonwealth, one of the new wave of San Francisco restaurants that I’d heard and read good things about.  Before we left for dinner, I snapped this shot from one of the windows in our rental…


We arrived as the restaurant was  preparing for its first wave of diners; it was early because that was the only reservation available, but dining at the bar is obviously an option…


My starter of spring peas, yuba, black trumpet, silken tofu, etc. was very good – and foamy…


As was the soft-shell crab (hey, not everything has to be local), exquisitely fried and there’s that foam again. Oh, make that an emulsion, a yuzu kosho emulsion, to be exact…


Grilled squid with a bacalao croquette was hard to pry away from SE, but I managed a few bites…


And my main, a spin on surf on turf, was a spot prawn perched atop a portion of “young hen,” with asparagus, spring onions and crushed fingerling potatoes. They do chicken well here.  For dessert, the two of us split the “peanut butter semifreddo with chocolate ganache and frozen popcorn,”  basically, a really great frozen Reese’s peanut butter cup.  

Our verdict – this meal doesn’t need to compare itself against any from New York – and certainly not at this price point. We’d return in a second, and I’ll send anyone going out west here too.  "Fig man” included.

Since it was an early dinner, and since I didn’t drink at dinner because I was driving (a plus – the restaurant has its own parking lot), we ended up walking over to Columbus Avenue once more, to Comstock Saloon, where the drinks, be they classic or modern, are delicious; and the d├ęcor, like the original bar, is from the early 1900s.  And you’ll really know you’re in San Francisco, and perhaps think you’re in another era, when you look over and sitting on the bar next to you you see this…