Saturday, February 27, 2010

RN74 - Country French meets Urban Chic

Location: RN74  - Date: February 13, 2010

Dear Diary, Tonight I am dining in the French Countryside with my lovely companions. I can hear the train whistles in the distance, as our waiter has just delivered to us a lovely Burgundy. We clink our glasses in a cheery toast before beginning our meal ...

In actuality, I am dining at RN74, an intriguing new wine bar and restaurant named after a highway that runs through Burgundy's Cote d'Or. It takes the form of a re-imagined train station in the French countryside, as rendered uniquely urban by Michael Mina and his talented staff. The restaurant itself is situated on Mission in the Financial District of San Francisco.  It is a concept restaurant in that young, creative and imaginative vein that so many new establishments are adopting to remain a step ahead of their competition. The far wall of the dining area closest to the entryway contains a train departure and arrival board that marks the comings and goings of bottles of wine as they are purchased and consumed, rather than marking the arrivals and departures of trains. Upon entering, the interior immediately conjures up a sense of the lure of faraway places with its homage to a country train station, while at the same time evoking a big city “chic-ness” with it's slick surfaces and muted lighting, all of which puts the guest in a celebratory mood. Hats off to the vibe.  It is both distinct and inviting.

While this blog attempts primarily to celebrate and recognize the East Bay’s substantial offerings in dining by focusing on restaurants located on the “other side” of the Bay, one cannot live in the Bay Area and fail to frequent San Francisco occasionally. It just wouldn’t be right.
Upon arriving at RN74, we were promptly ushered to our table to await the arrival of the remainder of our party, the Grad Student and her date for the evening, a Grad Student friend of hers from Georgetown. Not one to pass up an opportunity for a cocktail, I ordered from their house cocktail menu while we waited — something called the “La Femme” a delightfully refreshing blend of Gin, apricot and orange. The spiciness of the gin blended well with the citrus of the orange. Apricots have a nice warm almost meaty consistency, so the thick finish of the sweet apricot delivered a complexity to the cocktail. I found it a delightfully sweet, yet vaguely spicy concoction.

My Better Half ordered the Caipirinha, a drink we only discovered recently. The Caipirinha is Brazil's national cocktail, and is traditionally made with cachaça, which is a Brazilian rum made from sugar cane rather than molasses. The drink is a simple one, a mixture of this uniquely flavorful run, muddled fruit (in this case limes) and sugar. This is a drink my BH and I have come to rely on as a uniquely reliable go-to beverage. The version served at RN74 was no exception to this rule. Well-made and fruity, the lime had been adequately crushed to release its flavors and the drink was a winner. The sip I had transported me, conjuring rum-soaked beaches, ocean breezes and sand between the toes.

As we sipped our drinks, we got a call. Our Grad Student, along with her grad student, had both been delayed by traffic on their return from the wine country. So the BH and I opted to order some appetizers to pass the time as we waited. We requested an order of the Smoked Sturgeon Rillette along with an order of Paté de Campagne. Let’s begin by discussing the sturgeon rillette. The rillette’s culinary backstory is this: it is a soft, fatty preparation of meat (traditionally made with pork), that has been cubed or chopped, then salted heavily and cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to be easily shredded. Lastly it is cooled down with enough of the fat to form a paste, similar in consistency to peanut butter. This lovely “meat butter” is served at room temperature and can be spread on toasted bread. The first rillette I ever had was at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville, where it was done to perfection with salmon and fairly smothered in butter.

The version of the dish at RN74 was its own unique little slice of heaven. The sturgeon meat was laden with just enough fat, mixed well while remaining somewhat chunky, retaining that hearty texture that is a vital component of the dish. The mixture was ladled into a ramekin and blanketed with creme fraiche. The thick, rich, cream worked with the fish beautifully, making its way into every scoop. We wasted no time loading up our toasts and digging in. Each mouthful conjured up a creamy bagel laden with lox, with a hint of Meyer lemon finishing it off on the palate. All these flavors came together in each decadent bite. I can honestly say I have yet to meet a rillette I didn’t love.

After the smashing success of the rillette, we were eager to sample the Pate de Campagne. This dish was a simple one. A healthy slab of a chunky-style charcuterie accompanied by salty green baby pickles — or cornichons, a dollop of hearty Bourgondy Mustard and a sampling of french prunes. This house-made meat was not quite as soft as a traditional pate, yet it’s slender cubed sticks were easily sliced thin and then layered with the toppings. This offering of pate’s “country cousin” was a min-buffet of flavors. I tried every variety of combinations I could manage: a bite layered with a thin slice of the briny pickle and a helping of mustard; a mouthful of meat spread with prune, or just prune and mustard. On and on. There were no combinations that I didn’t enjoy. The various versions produced dances of savory, sweet, salty and fatty in my mouth and all were just amazing. Like an amusement-park ride that constantly surprises with its new and unexpected turns.
Our companions were still delayed. We had more time to kill. So we ordered another round of drinks and the Hamachi Sashimi. It arrived rapidly, accompanied by a sliced curl of Daikon radish, some lovely Asian pears, hearts of palm and a smattering of pine nuts. Daikon is that nice mild white radish that is served with sushi for texture. In this dish the radish was left whole, sliced paper thin and layered over the fish. I took a small morsel of pear, a bite of fish and a slice of the radish and wrapped it together like a mini burrito. It added a lovely crunchy aftertaste of radish to the fattiness of the fish, which also mingled well with the pear. The fish was incredibly subtle in its flavors, maybe a little too much so after all the flavors of the two appetizers we had just enjoyed. I think my mouth was a bit on overload, as I found it a bit under-seasoned, but then I love stronger flavors, and am really a fan of heat. The BH, who loves more subtlety, found the delicacy of this dish exactly to his liking. It was, in fairness, a balanced symphony of nuance in its flavors.

The Grad Students Squared (hereafter GS2) finally arrived a bit stressed and mildly frantic after their ordeal in getting to the restaurant. The staff at RN74 could not have been more gracious and accommodating. We wanted to order a bottle of wine, and did so with the gracious assistance of our knowledgeable waiter. He briefly discussed with us what sorts of wines we preferred and immediately came up with a suggestion that gave us a nice, light and fruity mixture of pinot and merlot grapes that we all really enjoyed.
GS2 began to catch up immediately, ordering the Beef Carpacchio, an Agnoletti Pasta and the Confit of Duck almost as soon as they were seated. We were determined to salvage as much as possible of our dining experience. The Beef Carpacchio was delightful. It was well-seasoned, razor thin beef, accompanied by two crunchy fresh egg rolls that were likewise tasty.

A week earlier the BH had eaten dinner at RN74 with a group of business associates after working late at a mediation nearby. On that visit, he desperately eyed a dish of Pork Belly and Manilla Clams. Several of his companions that night were observant jews who follow the rules of kashrut when eating, so the thought of ordering a steaming platter of traife in their company seemed a bad idea and kept him from indulging. Needless to say he was thrilled to be back at the restaurant while the clams were still on the menu, with companions who would not be offended by his ordering it. Lucky for all of us. It was an incredibly creative dish. The crisp, fatty bacon of the pork belly, coalescing with the briny clams, all of it moistened nicely by a nice clear broth spiked with garlic and a hint of fresh tomato. YUM.

We arrived at our mains pretty rapidly, having lost the front half of the evening we were on a pace to salvage dessert. I had ordered the Pork Loin wrapped in bacon. It arrived, and the pork was as moist as pork can possibly be, giving way under my knife blade with very little pressure. Splendid. The BH enjoyed a perfect serving of lightly caramelized Sea Scallops, glazed a golden brown on top and soft and tender beneath, with the soft almost lobster-like sweetness of the meat seasoned to perfection. The Confit of Duck enjoyed by the male half of Grad Student-Squared was rich and savory, the accompanying lentils beneath the duck meat fairly melted in the mouth. The Agnoletti Pasta tasted house made and was creamy and savory, with a nice dusting of fresh-grated cheese. My half of GS2 shared a bite of her pasta with me (it was a special for the evening), and that bite produced a happy goodness in my mouth, the taste of truffles merging effortlessly with the cheese to glaze the palate in savory perfection. I can honestly say all four main dishes were stellar.

The service was extremely gracious about how late our additional couple arrived, they seated us without them and at one point came over to check on their arrival and to let us know that the next seating was at about 8:15. Rather than make us feel rushed, they delivered the information with the attitude that they would take care of us and manage the remaining time so that we could enjoy the dining experience complete in spite of the setback. They did just that. The staff handled our minor dining crisis with hospitality and aplomb.

Given the excellent time-management, we were able to enjoy dessert and coffee at the end of our meal. The three of us shared warm Beignets, an Orange Bavarois and a White Sesame Pot de Creme. The Beignets came with a warmed nutmeg-flavored creme anglaise. The cinammon and sugar-crusted dough, having been fried and still hot, absorbed the creme and was delicious. The Orange Bavarois was an exquisitely layered dish. The bottom layer contained thin slices of lady-fingers that had been made with just a hint of lavender, its middle layer was a lovely thick cream pudding the consistency of a creme brulee and the top layer was a thick slice of a perfectly ripe orange. This was a subtle dance of creamy vanilla, the sweet tang of the citrus, and the gentle savory air of the lavender floating throughout. Spectacular.

Lastly, we sampled a white sesame pot de creme slathered with a chocolate glaze and cherries over a delicate Bugne Lyonnaise pastry. Ahhhh. As I sipped my cappucino amongst such lovely company, I couldn’t help but be delighted that these are the meals of my life.

Although this delight is not in the East Bay, I suggest you treat yourself. Make the trek, check it out, and as always— Bon Appetit!

RN 74
301 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105-2243
(415) 543-7474

Dining time: so not their fault!
Table size: Roomy booth
Service: Excellent
Noise Level: Three - Four Bells
On this occasion it was not a problem, but it can get incredibly loud here

Thursday, February 25, 2010

SAN PEDRO SQUARE - San Jose Speedbump

Not every trip to a restaurant is equally memorable, but then not every trip out is experienced equally. Tonight we were in a hurry. We had a show to get to, and although we had left plenty of time for a fairly leisurely meal, the gods were having none of it.

We arrived at the San Pedro Square Bistro & Wine Bar early enough, we hoped, to catch a real cocktail nearby. We like a good margarita or two before a show. But there was nothing in sight, although ironically there was a closed Mexican Restaurant right next door. Maybe that should have been a sign.

We sat down and the waitress took our appetizer order. Since we were unable to locate a cocktail, I went with a Malbec they were serving by the glass and it was to my liking. We ordered the Garlic Shrimp, French Fries and the Chicken Wings. The shrimp was tender and the sauce a golden garlicky-goodness. The dish itself was appetizingly plated. The Chicken Wings (which were technically drummettes) were piping hot and had a nice barbeque flavor. Best of all, they were part of the evening happy hour appetizer menu, and were only $4.

Overall, I think the best offering was their fries. Served in one of those lovely paper cones to absorb some of the grease, the fries arrived steaming hot right out of the frier, and were accompanied with three really aromatic and complimentary dipping sauces. The first aioli was a lovely sun-dried tomato, another was a spicy wasabi and the last was aioli blended with a tapenade of olives. All three dips were clearly distinct from one another and offered a really and tasty variety of flavors against the steamy potato wedges. The fries made a really good impression on me and were a big hit at our table.

But then there was the wait. And the wait. It must have been a full thirty minutes from the time we had finished our appetizers until we could again get the attention of the waitress, and then she was forced to ask for a few minutes to finish up with other patrons before she would be back to take our order. I felt badly for her. She was polite (but harried) and it was clear that they were slammed at the restaurant and ill-prepared for the sudden rush of business. We were on our way to Cirque du Soleil and there was also a tennis match of some sort across the way. But none of that is the patron’s fault, and when a restaurant can’t take care of you, it’s off-putting. I think maybe it’s because you are so completely helpless. You can’t get your own water, or your own drinks, and obviously you can’t just head to the kitchen to put in your own order. Couple that with the fact that we had a deadline hanging over our heads in the form of an eight-o’clock curtain, and well, it was pretty stressful. Dining just isn’t as good when one is all stressed out.

The waitress made it back in another five or six minutes. We placed our orders and hoped we had enough time. We had a little leeway since we hadn’t managed a bar stop on the way to the restaurant. One of us decided on the Chicken Vostadana. Though the restaurant has named it differently, I believe the dish was in reality Chicken Saltimbocca. The name change might have been because the dish is more traditionally done with veal. It might have been a nod to it being a variation by the chef or a family member. But the ingredients are chicken layered with prosciutto and cheese and a touch of sage with butter. That’s a Saltimbocca if ever there was one.

I had a Rack of Lamb with Gnocchi. I ordered rare. I shouldn’t have. My BH let me know he almost warned me off. I forget that rare in beef and rare in lamb are not the same. I’m so used to getting overdone lamb and it really needs to be pink to be good, but if it’s completely raw, which this was, it’s almost inedible. Although they technically executed the dish the way I asked them to, a good server would have let me know that rare is a raw in their establishment and at least made sure that was my intent. Lamb just can't be eaten raw.  It was the costliest dish on the menu, you’d think they’d want to get it right. Since the waitress was unavailable most of the evening I couldn't get her attention in order to request she take it back to the kitchen for a few moments more of cooking.  At least the gnocchi were good.

I have to note that when our food came it was not piping hot. It was more like room temperature, and had obviously been sitting for awhile before being served. That again underscored to me that the restaurant was not adequately prepared for the crowd they had.

BH had the Game Hen and it was tasty and well-cooked. The sides were nice and he enjoyed them. The last of us had the Fettucine Alfredo and he was likewise happy with his meal, but the lack of service hovered over the experience like the presence of some shadowy dementor.

We soldiered on, finishing the meal by sharing a creme brulee and a triple-chocolate cake. Both were excellent and we managed to get out of there in time to make it to the “Grand Chapiteau” before the show.

The bottom line is the prices are great for what you get. Most everything is pretty well executed, and the flavors are above-average. I can’t get myself to recall the evening as a complete success though. My companions were delightful and the meal was okay (although my own dinner was inedible) but they struggled to serve people properly. As an example, I asked them to bag my lamb. While I couldn’t eat it because it was raw, I could reheat it and it would be perfection. But they never brought it back. Since it was such a hassle to get her attention, I didn’t bother to chase down my leftovers. Those little oversights are the sort of thing one can forgive in a crunch when they happen once, but when they happen repeatedly throughout an evening that’s all you take away.

I must reiterate that the food was good enough, and priced well. Four of us got out for about $150 which seems like a deal these days. The service inconsistencies may have been an aberration. The waitress was polite. She was young and I think she tried her best. But the food was late and no longer hot, she forgot my meal, they left us sitting forever. Should she have been better trained? Maybe. I came away with more questions than answers, and I’m not sure I’d want to go back myself. That said, if you’re on a budget, maybe you should check it out for yourself. Good deals to be had. Bon Appetit!

San Pedro Square Bistro & Wine Bar
20 N Almaden Ave
San Jose, CA 95113
(408) 298-9463

Table size: adequate
Noise Level: barely THREE BELLS = Occasionally talking normally gets difficult
Dining Time: Barely made it out for the show

Monday, February 22, 2010

SOIZIC BISTRO - Dear Diary... YUM!

Date: February 3, 2010 - Journal Entry:

I came to this “foodie” party a little late, being cajoled and nagged into it by a good friend. Looking back, it’s ironic to think she needed to use so much persuasion, since I was practically raised in the kitchen and have always understood the importance of food in the bonding of family, heart and home. Feeding people to bring them joy was a tradition instilled in me by parents, aunt and uncles, and grandparents alike. As soon as I could eat, I began to be schooled in the “joy of feeding.”

Though late to the game, this new hobby of sharing the love proffered by those in the food biz has rapidly become one of the great delights of my life. Today I am at Soizic, so it seems only fair that I give a shout out to the woman who got me started along this path. Soizic was one of her favorite places when she still lived here in the Bay Area. Erin would make us come so she could savor their beautiful giant ravioli. She said they were the best anywhere she’d been. Having sampled them often, I must agree. Though she was from Indiana, she lived in San Francisco at the time, and she really, really knew her food.

I remember she used to plan every meal in advance before traveling and I would torture her about her compulsiveness. “How much do you want to be on a rigid schedule?”, I would ask. She patiently assured me that planning allowed her to enjoy the best meals on her trips, as it allowed her to secure reservations at all the best restaurants. She would return from her trips with stories of good times and fantastic foods, so as I began to travel more, I began also to follow her strategy. Needless to say I got recommendations from her for good places at which to dine as well. These days I wouldn’t venture anywhere without advance reservations. When I arrive at a restaurant and my husband and I are ushered to a table past the folks who are sitting at the bar for hours having ‘just dropped in spontaneously’ I have to say, it is so nice to be the people with reservations. Thanks, E!

So back to my meal. We began, as we often do, by partaking in a house specialty cocktail. These days if they offer a specialty beverager, I feel it’s my duty to try one and report in. Today I ordered a Chez Nous, which was a lovely brew of Courvoisier Brandy and Canton ginger liquor. The alcohol was cut with some fresh mango juice and lime which combined beautifully. It was tasty!

My BH enjoyed their signature Cosmo, which was a smooth blend of Hangar One Vodka and cranberry juice, layered with a hint of Mandarine Blossom and St. Germain. Top that all off with a splash of fresh lime and voila! The addition of the elderflower, which is a tiny bit herbal, made the drink much less saccharine and cloying than I am used to in a Cosmo. I thought it was much better balanced that way. The last of our company enjoyed the Basil Gimlet, which was a simple concoction of Tanqueray Ten and Lime, with a bit of Basil muddled in for good measure. The drink was refreshing herbal and very STRONG!!
We shared an order of their Baked Goat Cheese as an appi, and the cheese arrived warm and squishy having been rolled in bread crumbs and baked. It was accompanied with butter lettuce, and a few warm slices of toasted levain bread. The result was a deliciously creamy & slightly sweet spread that covered the bread well with a nice tangy balance of cheese and herbs.

Several of us also indulged in the Butternut Squash Soup, which was really that last breath of fall weather in a bowl. The silky pumpkin-esque flavor of the squash was spiced to perfection — the subdued subtlety of its flavors were rounded out with a light squiggle of creme fraiche and a handful of croutons laid gently over the top.

The BH ordered their Mussel Soup. He fell in love with the saffron cream broth and I was close behind him. It had this lovely cream and butter taste, with just a hint of the fennel coming through to tease the palate. The soup itself was full-bodied, a steaming bowl of hot, lovely mussels, all blanketed with golden broth and snuggled among Yukon potatoes that still had a bite to them. I like my potatoes to give me just a touch of resistance to the teeth, almost like biting into a grape. If their mushy, it’s no good. The addition of the spinach gave the dish a nice earthy finish. This was a rock-star version of a traditional white clam chowder. Inventive and pretty, that broth was heavenly perfection.

I ordered the Loch Duart Salmon. My girlishly pink slice of fish had a lovely crisp on its top, but remained moist and juicy inside. It arrived blanketed in delicious creamy goodness, and plated atop some lovely winter greens — capers, roasted red pepper, green beans, brussell sprouts, zucchini, cauliflower — all beside a creamy hot polenta amounted to an elaborate set of contrasting flavors all working my palate in harmony. There is nothing quite as satisfying as the taste of really well prepared fish. For me, it is always a delightful surprise. The house-made aioli added the perfect acid finish to compliment the flavorful, slightly fatty meat of the fish.

The BH ordered the Coq Au Vin, which I believe was what I ordered at my last visit. The only other place it might be better is Claude’s Bistro in San Francisco (or maybe I just remember their Coq au Van more favorably because they have such good-looking waiters and I’m always a tiny bit drunk when I’m there). But if there is a difference it is a subtle one. This dish should be chicken that has stewed for a good deal in red wine, braised until the meat is falling off the bone, seeped with the flavor of the stewed vegetables that accompany it. In this case pearl onions, crimson mushrooms, chunks of bacon and arugula. Today was polenta-fest at Soizic. As you can see, all the dishes were served beside the creamy rough-corn pudding that is a staple in Italy and has finally made its’ way to American tables.  This was a light airy version of the dish and quite tasty.

The Grad Student indulged in a beautiful Braised Short Rib which she said was done exactly to her liking. Our PFC tried the Smoked Penne Pasta with Mushroom, sauteed onion, sun-dried tomato and broccoli. The dish was being served with either mushrooms or chicken, but he requested both and they obliged. It was good, topped off with a lovely fresh-grated parmesan cheese.  Two solidly good, if not fanciful or awe-inspiring, dishes.

We did not linger for dessert, we were stuffed. Another extremely successful meal. Soizic is not the newest of Oakland’s treasures, but it is certainly a reliable visit. Check it out for yourself, and Bon Appetit!
Soizic Bistro
300 Broadway  (at 3rd St)
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 251-8100

Table size: adequate
Noise Levels:  ONE BELL = Pleasantly quiet (less than 65 decibels)
Service:  attentive and rapid
Dining Time: in and out in an hour when necessary