Monday, December 27, 2010

FLORA OAKLAND... Ruminations, Reflections and a Happy New Year to all!

Flora's Gin Daisy
As the end of the year approaches, I find myself surrounded by notes from visits to so many delectable restaurants over the last year that I have yet to write about. While I must accept the reality that I won’t get to them all before January, at least I can end the year with one of my best experiences as Twenty Ten fades to a distant memory. It really has been a whirlwind of a year. They go faster with time, but I have enjoyed meeting many new friends with similar interests. The opportunities to experience the world as a writer have expanded. In November I was invited to judge the prestigious Chocolate Salon put on by Taste TV. Earlier in the year I was able to travel to New Orleans for the Jazz Festival... in the fall we joined our oldest in New York while she prepared to work Fall Fashion Week. Looking back, I have been one busy but blessed little foodie.

My year-end review of my notes, I came across a meal I had last October, that needs to be shared. It pretty much rocked my world. It was that good. But I digress.

Flora Oakland is one of the new-ish culinary lights in Uptown; situated about a half a block from the refurbished Fox Theater — a smallish space that formerly housed a florist. It’s decor is lovingly evocative of the 1950's, tiles adorn its walls, sleek lines shape the interior and high on the right wall hovers a giant retro poster of a Carter the Magician. Cool.

Chicken, Beans & Corn
But it isn’t the decor that beckons me to return. Flora has one of the best bars in Oakland. There are a few places around town whose mixologists really know their craft, turning out well-balanced and imaginative cocktails consistently. Though the list of excellent bartenders in Oaktown is growing rapidly, Flora was among the first to make a statement with their specialty drink menu. I for one really appreciate that drinks have evolved from the clumsy, overly sugared concoctions of the seventies and eighties into mixtures sporting fresh fruit, captivating flavors and inspired combinations.

It was at Flora that I first experienced one of my newest favorites, the Gin Daisy. As with many of these beverages the modern Gin Daisy is adapted from a drink recipe of a bygone time. A light, airy, blend of lime, lemon or other citrus flavors balanced smartly with the savory kick of gin. I can’t get enough of the version they serve at Flora. Sheer perfection. A traditional drink rescued from the pages of a dusty old bartender’s guide and the zeitgeist of another era to a tantalizing new realization. (I should note that Flora’s version will also kick your ass just a little) Cocktails and their history are a new delight of mine. Perhaps they rate an essay of their own, someday...

Poached Egg, Ratatouille and Polenta
 But on to the meal portion of the experience. The Better Half and I had been meaning to get to Flora to check out the menu offered by the newest chef, as we’d heard there was a changeover. After we ordered our drinks we made our decisions and committed to a meal. BH ordered a fried chicken dish accompanied by an amazing chile sauce and a delectable corn relish. It was both hearty and gratifying. My bite of his lunch was a perfectly balanced combo of tang, spice and crunch.

Now to my order, the Pièce de Resistance. My dish, described simply as a Soft Poached Egg, Polenta Cake, and Eggplant Ratatouille. Sometimes it is the simplest set of ingredients that when properly prepared can come together to rocket the tastebuds to ecstasy. It’s been months and I can still taste every mouthful of this dish. I am a sucker for softly coddled egg yolk over, well, almost anything. In this case, the combination of the buttery polenta and the tangy vegetable ratatouille combined with that egg yolk was blissful. I wanted to keep eating it forever. But alas, one can only eat wonderful things one meal at a time.

At the time, we were unaware that the Chef had changed yet again. Props to Chef Rico Rivera for this stellar combo of egg, veggies and corn. I’ll definitely be back soon to see what else you have in store. As year end approaches, I’m short on time. So tonight I will close out my notes by saying do drop by Flora and see what new creations they have going on here.

Check it out! And by all means have a cocktail.

Flora Oakland
1900 Telegraph Avenue
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 286-0100

Monday, December 13, 2010

OAKLAND STORIES: And In the Beginning there was Luka’s...

Luka's bar- features amazing cocktails
 Episode 3: Rick Mitchell of Luka’s Taproom

Before there was Pican or Flora, there was Luka’s Taproom. At the time Luka’s arrived on the scene, Uptown Oakland consisted mostly of vacant storefronts and dusty sidewalks devoid of much but the occasional panhandler poised outside the ramp down to the BART station. Most of the retail was long gone, so this part of my City was a place to travel through, not a destination. But that has changed. Thanks to places like Luka’s Taproom, Uptown Oakland is a happening spot.

In early October of 2004, Luka’s Taproom opened its doors. The building that currently houses Luka’s is the site of the former Hof Brau, an eatery that my father referred to as a “joint.” A “joint” was any smoky refuge with a full bar and a sandwich. The sort of place my dad might have dropped into for a drink and a bite to eat, before heading to his favorite bar for a night of trivia and cocktails. The Hof Brau sat at the corner of Broadway and Grand Avenue in Oakland, a narrow, dark restaurant with a smoke-filled bar to the left, the rickety stools along its weathered counter top usually filled with one or two of Oakland’s slightly more colorful citizenry. Old men mostly, perhaps war veterans, each with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey, neat. To the right of the bar was a steam table featuring all the specials of the day— and a massive turkey. They never failed to have turkey at the Hof Brau, all day, year round, a permanent Thanksgiving feast. Though it was decent turkey, this joint was little more than a cafeteria. A leftover of another time, another type of dining — a place where the food was fast and cheap, and the ambiance left a good deal to be desired. Hof Brau was long past its prime, as stale as the day old bread wrapped around its sandwiches.

Pomegranate Cocktail
 So when the rumors began that there was to be a renovation of the site by new management, it was exciting news. Those of us who listen intently to Oakland’s heartbeat heard bits and pieces of the goings on at the old Hof Brau. Over time the new restaurant began to take shape. It appeared that the new management planned extensive renovations, which would effectively turn the dusty and unappealing interior into a slick new gastro pub. Rick Mitchell is a savvy businessman, smart enough to ease Oakland into the idea of change with a nod to the past--- he retained bits of the original Oakland memorabilia that had for years adorned the walls of the HofBrau. Past and present would come together in the new Luka’s decor.

Details continued to leak out, providing glimpses into the menu. They had plans to feature mussels, and would also do a magnificent high-end burger. Soups, seafood, Belgian style fries in a cup with several kinds of dipping sauce. They had an actual chef, which was a big step up from the old guy at the steam table with a knife. And so the rumors continued for almost a year. It was heady stuff.

In 2004, the corner of Grand and Broadway was a wasteland of empty storefronts and office buildings. Six years later this area of Oakland, now labeled "Uptown," has a plethora of high-end restaurants. Luka’s Taproom was the turning point. When Oakland’s citizenry embraced fine dining with the advent of Luka’s it paved the way for others to get in on the game, and Oakland has reaped the rewards of their efforts. Endless hum-drum hamburger stands and mediocre sandwich joints have slowly been replaced with white table cloths featuring everything from sushi to foie gras. Those of us who worked in Uptown and who had found a significant absence of decent places to eat lunch were anxious to experience all this change first hand. Granted, there had been a few family style restaurants closer to Downtown that had come and gone, but they were modest little efforts, nothing like the restaurants that come to mind these days when we think of modern dining. Certainly all this new hustle and bustle signaled something good: with the smells of food cooking everywhere, Uptown had suddenly gotten our collective attention.  We collectively asked what's in store? To that end, I sat down with Rick Mitchell, the genius and driving force behind Luka’s Taproom, to ask him a few questions about his enterprise.

Q: Your restaurant is Luka’s Taproom and Lounge. How did the name come about?

RM: After my dog, Luka. She was famous around here.

Q: When you opened, what was your goal?

RM: I wanted to create a space that would be reminiscent of a couple of places I’ve seen [that] I liked. To put those together for an informal, bar-type atmosphere and also open [...] a hip-hop nightclub. I thought that [this would be] something that people in Oakland could identify with [...] So I just cobbled together the different pieces that I wanted.

Q: With all kindness to the memory of the HofBrau, I have to say this is definitely an improvement.

RM: (laughs) Yeah, well the thing about the HofBrau is that they made money the whole time and they were serving very pedestrian food. So, I figured if they made money here with that model, then I figured that I could make some money and perhaps do a bit better on that end.

Q: Why Oakland?

RM: I love Oakland.

Q: Are you from here?

RM: Well I [am now. I] live on the other side of the Lake. I moved here in 1992. I grew up in Culver City.

Q: So, you’re a native Californian?

RM: Yeah I love Oakland. I was working in San Francisco because I was practicing law, very briefly. Commuting every day to San Francisco. I just felt really disconnected from my home and my family, working in San Francisco, I felt I didn’t have anything in common with those people.

Q: Particularly for you kind of neighborhood business, when it’s your own neighborhood, it’s got to be more meaningful. I think that would come through in what you do.

RM: Yes. It’s my neighborhood. My dog was one of the most famous dogs in Oakland. I used to love to walk down the street with her. Nobody ever knew me, but they all knew Luka. Everyone I passed was like “Hey Luka!” It was great.

Q: Is she still around?

RM: No, she passed away about two years ago.

Q: So, how did you come up with your menu, and how would you describe your cuisine?

RM: Well technically, we call it California Brasserie Cuisine. We were trying to create something that was a little bit more beer focused.

Q: Like a Gastro Pub?

Mussels in savory broth

RM: Yeah, that’s accurate. But we started with the idea of the French or Belgian Brasserie which, well, they’d actually be very fancy. They’d have the Grand Plateau or the Oysters Half Shell or Choucroute Garnis. So rather than starting by borrowing from the English Pub or the German Beer Hall, we [tried something new]. We felt like those had been done. This was definitely designed to be sort of a more upscale French / Belgian take on things.

Q: That would account for your fantastic selection of Belgian Ales.

RM: and the frittes, and the mussels...

Q: So did you collaborate with Jacob [Alioto] to develop the menu?

RM: Well, In the early days we used to get together [for[ everything. I drafted up the first menu, and showed him what was in my mind, and he gave me his thoughts and opinions. But over the years he’s learned he doesn’t have to ask me questions to do anything. He’s pretty much got free rein now.

Q: So you know each other so well that he knows what you’ll like and dislike?

RM: Well, sure, but more importantly, he knows what our customers will like.

Q: Right now, your favorite dish on the menu would be?

RM: I guess I’d have to say the Rib Eye Steak. We seasonally change it up, but we’ve always got a rib eye, even though we change up the way we put it together.

Q: Your all time favorite Luka’s Taproom dish [would be]?

RM: My favorite thing that we ever did here? Jake’s best dish? Hard to say, but I think among Jake’s most brilliant ideas was the “Twice Cooked Egg with Tartare” or the “Avocado Tempura” which was a really nice foil for a lot of flavors. But the Twice Cooked Egg was something that most people had never seen before, so it was a nice touch.

Q: Can we discuss how the recession has affected your business? Either directly or indirectly.

RM: Well, I don’t mind talking about it. Really, definitely people have been laid off in the neighborhood and people don’t have the same kind of credit. People aren’t feeling as rich and spendy, so that much is certain.

Q: So less foot traffic?

RM: It’s hard to say. We still get a lot of traffic, but people might spend a bit less. It’s difficult to gauge, because there’s been so much change in the landscape of the industry in this area. So it’s hard to say how much the recession affects things, how much the changing landscape affects things. Maybe you have a lot more seats on the one hand, but you’ve also got the Fox Theater on the other hand. All these things are kind of new, so over the six years we’ve been here change [has been] the rule of thumb. The recession might have an impact, but lots of other factors can have an impact. There’s been so much change and all of it happens so fast. But we’re doing well. It’s nice that we’re established. I think other places that are trying to establish themselves may be having a harder time.

Q: Do you mind talking about Franklin Square, (a sister restaurant that has been shuttered since early this year)?

RM: Well I have a choice to make, and I’m not sure what to do. I can either reopen it, but I would have to spend less (on labor). It would have to be a simpler concept. I’ve also got three different groups who want to operate it. They’re all young people.

One wants to open basically a very similar concept, a wine bar with a simplified menu. Energetic young kids, they’d just live there and do all the work. I’ve got a young lady who wants [to do] flatbread sandwiches. She’s been selling them at all the Farmer’s Markets. [S]he was thinking about taking it over and doing basically lunch sandwiches, office catering. Maybe opening it up early and doing breakfast.  She’s got an existing business and she’s reasonably successful selling at the Farmer’s Markets. Then I've also got a guy interested in taking it over and having a Carribbean place. So I don’t know which one to do.

Q: How do you see food service evolving in the 21st Century?

RM: Oh, I don’t know. I feel that for the forseeable future, you’re going to see continued growth of the locavore ethic, and you’re going to hear a lot more about sustainability, even though we hear a lot about it now. Basically, you know, green trends, local trends. They’re the only thing that has any momentum in terms of food philosophy. And there’s money in it. At least that’s where we are in food right now. Something else could come up.

Q: Any other future plans?

RM: I’d like to get the wine bar squared away. And I want to open a steak house in Oakland. I feel like there’s a place for a nice steak and seafood place somewhere in Oakland.

Victory Cocktail -
Deserving winner
of the all-female
bartending competition!
 What do we say to that?  We say "bring it on."  Anything Rick Mitchell opens in Oakland is gonna first and foremost have amazing food.  I can still taste Chef Lori Hurlebaus' day scallops and those cakes of sweet corn that were almost a pudding...

Luka's Taproom & Lounge
2221 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612-3009
(510) 451-4677

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

CHOCOLATE~ Food of Mystery, Myth and Magic

Amano Artisan hot chocolate drink

Is there anything we can’t imagine when we think of chocolate? Its taste is transformative. Its presence on the tongue intrigues, the familiar slow melt from solid to liquid somehow reassures. This is a substance perfect in its texture and flavor. Dark and bitter or milky and sweet — there is something completely intoxicating about chocolate.

Its origin is the stuff of legend. Mired in mythology and a complex history of ritual, superstition and intrigue that brought the substance from the jungles of Mesoamerica to the tables of Spanish Kings. The earliest Mayans enjoyed “xocolatl” and believed the tiny beads found within the cacao pods to have restorative powers. The bitter brew made from grinding the seeds and mingling heated water, chile peppers, and cornmeal was a frothy ambrosia considered too precious for anyone but the tribal rulers and priests to consume. Eventually the spicy drink concoction evolved with the inclusion of vanilla or achiote, but no early version was sweetened, as sugar was unavailable in ancient Mesoamerican culture.

Drinking chocolate was an important ritual of early Mayan and Aztec life. In Mayan culture it was the beverage of kings. But in Aztec society, consumption expanded to various levels of that society’s upper echelon: rulers, priests, successful merchants, victorious soldiers, many such notables could partake of this sacred brew. Cacao seeds themselves were offered to the gods for favors and chocolate drinks were served during sacred ceremonies.

Columbus brought a sample of the first cocoa beans to Europe some time between the year 1502 and 1504, after his fourth visit to the 'New World'. But its value went unrecognized, despite his claims that it could produce a beverage that “builds resistance and fights fatigue.”

Saratoga Chocolates
 Some time later in 1528, Cortèz presented the Spanish King with cacao beans, preparing some of the beverage called chocolatl for him to taste. Cortèz’ royal version now had a major twist, the addition of sugar to the brew. When this sweetened mixture of cacao beans, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon was experienced by the Spaniards, the reception was universally positive. Chocolate soon became a coveted taste sensation, drinking it was fashionable and reserved for the Spanish nobility, and others who could afford the pricy import. Demand rapidly grew throughout Europe — the fruits of this tree from an Indian forest far away were coveted by everyone in Spain. Yet for the next one hundred years, chocolate was a secret that Spain managed to keep from the rest of the world.

But it couldn’t be contained forever. This water-based form of spiced and sweetened hot chocolate eventually began to make its way across the continent and throughout Europe. The sweetened mixture was soon improved further by the addition of milk, and in most versions removal of the chile pepper (though given some of the variations of chocolate and chile I have tasted recently, I remain unconvinced that this is necessarily an improvement). This newly evolved version of liquid chocolate was wildly popular, and began to be enjoyed by all levels of society that could afford such delicacies for another hundred years or so.

For centuries, a liquid form remained the only way to enjoy the fruits of the cacao bean, until in 1847 Joseph Fry discovered a process to re-solidify powdered chocolate. His discovery is accepted by most as the ancestor to all versions of the modern chocolate bar. Fry developed a process by which melted cacao butter could be reintroduced gradually back into the de-fatted cocoa powder base. This method returned the “Dutched” chocolate to a more solid form, creating a paste that could be pressed into a mold. Add a little sugar to the mix, and voila! The resulting bar was such a hit that people soon began to think of eating chocolate as much as they did drinking it. The chocolate bar was born.

Plumeria Flours
 Even the genesis of the word “chocolate” itself is shrouded in mystery. Most believe the term originates from the Aztec “xocolatl” which meant something like “bitter drink.” The tree's botanical name, Theobroma cacao, pays homage to its mythical origins. Translated from the Greek, "theobroma" means loosely "food of the gods.” The Aztecs believed that ancient prophets had brought the cacao beans to them, imbuing the tree itself with mystical qualities.

The substance is more than just luxurious and tasty. Chocolate has been found to posess chemicals that actually strengthen the enamel on our teeth. Small quantities of dark chocolate have been found to lower blood pressure in humans. Many believe chocolate is an aphrodisiac and while there may not be any scientific evidence to support that theory, eating it certainly can stimulate those pleasure endorphins. Chocolate is naturally dark, satiny on the tongue, rich and creamy. Chocolate is the food of the gods, the stuff of dreams. A substance almost sinfully good, chocolate is — magic.

With that kind of history, how does one fail to attend a prestigious Chocolate Salon when invited? The answer is you don’t! TASTE TV’s Fall Chocolate Salon was held at Fort Mason on a gorgeous November day. The two rooms were chock full — not merely of delicious samplings of chocolate treats, but of artisans who have dedicated their lives to discovering every nuance, every variation on a theme of flavor that this legendary substance can provide. Some of the Participants and a few taste highlights are listed below.

One of the first things we tasted were the Salt Side Down ( ) truffles, a lovely truffle creation intended to be eaten upside down in order to allow the salt to preface its flavor profile; TCHO ( offered samples in the form of tiny discs of dark bittersweet chocolate, one particularly successful variety was flavored with citrus; the fall pallette of the hand-painted shells of Landru’s ( ) marvelously crafted truffles were eye-catching.

Socola's Sister Act produces amazing wares
 A particularly enjoyable stop was the ChocolatiQue ( table. Their traditional family recipes combined with amazing flavor combinations were just outstanding. A truffle designed to warm in the mouth and recreate the sensations of Hot Cocoa was fairly successful at the trickery, and another that when eaten collapsed upon itself to recreate the flavors of a Root Beer Float was a hoot. The owner, quite proud of his family recipes for both toffee and fudge had every reason to be so, his grandfather & grandmother had left behind some fabulous road maps to confection heaven. So many creations, so little time.

Moving on to the Tea Room Chocolates ( their chocolate bars were perhaps the most memorable. I tasted their Milk Chocolate Bar Infused with Black Masala Chai Tea which simply put was one of the most transformative taste experiences I’ve had. Their tea-infused dark chocolates were creamy and flavorful and the pleasant sensation of eating them lingered with me for the balance of the afternoon. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the surprising combination of chai and chocolate in particular. Another extraordinarily memorable chocolatier proved to be Sterling Confections ( whose triangular truffle bars of a colorful fondant-like shell filled with delectable ganache were as stunningly lovely and creative as they were delicious. The soft consistency of the bar is designed to make slicing it a breeze.

Clarine's Florentines
Snake & Butterfly’s( wares are Organic & Fair Trade which for many is the only way to purchase. Good news for them, S&B’s treats suffer no loss in quality for being green. The thoughtfulness in their preparation shines through to the flavors delivered — all were just perfection. Same holds true of the chocolate offerings at Carlos Mann Nicaraguan Artisan Chocolates ( & Au Coeur Des Chocolats (  So many impressive artists in the house.

Another creative presentation were the chocolate covered Oreos delivered at Plumeria Flours ( Fun, fanciful and original, the cookies are covered in a creamy chocolate sensation and then decorated like flowers, baseballs, all manner and variety of artistically rendered themes. Jade Chocolates ( presented a Dragon’s Breath Bar which came near the end of my day, but tasting it knocked my socks off. The flavor profile was extremely complex. The bar is at first the sensation of a delicate crunch as the toasted sesame releases into the mouth in gentle pops, immediately the smoky tea-infused chocolate fills the mouth with that languine, creaminess that only well-developed chocolate can provide. Just as the chocolate begins to fade, the bar finishes with a subtle kick of chili in the back of the throat. SPEC tacular!

Vice Chocolates ( had easily the most decadent and eye-catching packaging I’ve seen in years. If chocolate is an aphrodisiac, then this is definitely how it should look! Christopher Michael Chocolates ( were passing out bits of bacon truffle toward the end of my day which I found intriguing.

They say we save the best for last, and perhaps that may be Amano Artisan Chocolates ( After so many tastings and so many many good flavors, we came upon Amano fairly late in the day. Almost at the point where my tastebuds were tuckered to the point of numbness. But not so once I tasted their offerings. The first item presented was a hot chocolate drink that could easily been a cup of the brew that first knocked the socks off of the King of Spain. A heavenly form of chocolate this liquid ambrosia. Every other item at their table that I tasted was some form of superlative artistry. This is an outfit that clearly has mastered the preparation and service of chocolate. Transformative stuff.

These artisans and more can be found at I suggest you visit a few of the ones that appeal to you for some decadent Holiday shopping. This was a delightful event, and I look forward to making it an annual treat.

Check them ALL out, and Bon appetit!

For info on Taste TV’s upcoming Salong:
Full list of participants -

Monday, November 22, 2010

ACQUERELLO - Dinner with the Deipnosophistae

In case you haven’t already gathered, dining and the rituals surrounding the consumption of food have always been the primary subject of this blog. The food alone is not really what draws me to the writing, although a marvelous feast is never insignificant. My muse is something less tangible than a good salad or a perfectly prepared steak. I write to acknowledge that there is something more to eating than the nourishment of the body. There is a nourishment of spirit that takes place when humans gather to break bread. I’m not the first to notice. In addition to meaning something like Dinner Table Philosophers, The Deipnosophistae is an Ancient Roman tale believed to have been written by Athenaeus. It purportedly recounts the events and conversations that take place over the course of three dinners shared between various artists, scholars, jurists, musicians, philosophers and other learned men of his day.  Written sometime around 300 A.D. Legend has it that Plutarch was among the guests.  As they discuss intellectual pursuits, sing songs and wax prolific on all manner of contemporary topics, the brightest among men exchange their ideas while partaking of meat, cheese, bread and wine.

Lamb Tongue Amuse
 The trappings and traditions that accompany a group repast have always been as important as the meal itself — we draw strength from the company; pleasure from the camaraderie, intellectual treasure from the sharing of knowledge. The consumption of spirits (in moderation of course) serves to loosen the tongue, allowing those gathered together to speak freely. When we are truly among our peers we wish to share our best ideas, and draw inspiration from each other. Delicious food charges our brains with pleasureable endorphines, certain flavors resurrect specific memories from our collective history. There is more to loving a grandmother’s favorite soup than the right amount of seasoning on the palate. Each specific dish has the power to conjure an experience so clearly that we relive it in the eating. We need only find the right dish, with the appropriate combination of flavors. So we continue to seek.

It is these things that keep me coming back to the table. Food would be empty without the ritual, reduced to a meaningless intake of calories consumed with no objective other than survival. For though we must eat, if we do not learn to savor, we are missing the ultimate point.

Parmesan Budino ~ delectable!
My point on this occasion is that I found Acquerello in San Francisco to be an establishment that understands the ritual of dining in all its levels of profundity. While eating there recently for another auspicious occasion (the departure of the Grad Student for her European tour), we might just as easily have found ourselves in Ancient Rome dining with the Deipnosophistae. The ambience was simultaneously simple and opulent, white table cloths and butter yellow walls, the conversation stimulating, both from the multitude of well-informed staff and my companions at the table. At each table could be found simple flower arrangements of two or three fat and lustrous roses, each bloom harvested perfectly to best savor every moment of its efflorescence. The service a panoply attentiveness and well-executed procedure. The citizenry of Ancient Rome understood fine dining, and I had forgotten how well Italians remember this. It is no accident that this is a restaurant that recalls the history of Italy’s food legacy to perfection. Italians understand food, perhaps in a way that no other culture does, or perhaps we are just more in tune to the rituals. Either way, this meal was a feast for the senses, as well as the palate. No formal repast enjoyed by the original Deipnosophistae could have been better. For those who want something special, and wish to combine fine dining with all the sensational grandeur of Ancient Rome, still experiencing the more refined flavors and artistically classic presentations of today, then that meal should be had at Acquerello in San Francisco.

Red Abalone with Italian Butter Beans
Upon our arrival I remember being surprised that the interior was successfully maintaining a distinct old world charm without seeming at all stale or dated. We began by ordering a lovely bottle of Italian sparkling wine. Bella Vista Pasopere. The sommelier, sensing we were curious and eager listeners, gladly gave us a lesson in wine-making. He explained that Prosecco is made from the grape of the same name, and that it is a particularly sweet varietal. To achieve a “brut” Prosecco, the vintner must with-hold the dosage, a sweetened liquor that acts as a sugar agent to aid in carbonation.

The menu was a prix fixe designed and presumably prepared by Co-Owner and Chef Suzanne Gresham. The first treat that arrived from the Chef was a small cocktail. A refreshing combination of orange juice, sweet vermouth and bitters. The drink was a lovely melon color, its citrus flavor sweetened with vermouth and balanced with bitters — a perfect palate cleanser to begin the meal. That ceremony of cleansing the palate, a step in an evening that continued in a liturgy of ritual.

The amuse bouche arrived next. While not an Italian concept, it was wonderfully adapted to this Italian meal. It presented itself as a lovely bit of lamb tongue, gently stuffed with a seasoned goat ricotta, plated with a dash of cranberry relish. The colors were appetizing, the taste was refreshing and unexpected.

Chopped Beef Tartare
with Parmesan cream, Quail Egg and Truffle Drizzle
 In Italy, courses are generally offered in a particular sequence, in accordance with centuries of tradition. While those traditions have loosened over time, there is a progression to an Italian meal. Usually it would begin with antipasti, a course that would in America be called an appetizer. Then one proceeds to the Primo, which is usually a pasta, and then to the Secundo, which we would term the main, but is more accurately the protein of the meal, be it fish, chicken or meat. Of course nowadays a prix fixe meal has many more courses than a classic Italian meal, all of them smaller in quantity. But the concept of ritual progression is still honored at Acquerello, though elevated to something far more elegant than in times past.

My next course was a beautiful Parmesan Budino, sprinkeld with Mushrooms “Trifolati” and sprinkled with shaved Parmigiano “Vacche Rosse.” The dish was a creamy truffle-flavored bowl of something akin to a cheese pudding. It was like a savory dessert, softer than a risotto and somehow richer.

The rest of the family each ordered the Chopped Beef Tartare with Parmesan cream, Quail Egg and Truffle Drizzle.  My taste of their dish revealed the meat to have a spicy quality, just a hint of pepper enhancing the naturally fatty flavor of the raw beef, yet allowing the quality of the meat itself to remain the star of the dish.

Corn Pasta Ravioli with Brown Butter
For her second course, the Grad Student ordered the Ridged Pasta with Foie Gras, scented with Black Truffles and Marsala. The pasta was perfectly al dente, and the truffled sauce, gently sweetened with Marsala was provocatively creamy. The finishing touch was the rich, savory, foie in the dish.

The GS also ordered a Corn Pasta Ravioli with brown butter. She is allergic to fish, and most restaurants have been exceedingly accommodating. This ravioli was awash in the summery sweet corn, and smothered in gently browned butter. The dark rich smoky fat in the butter gave the corn a slightly melancholy air, as though it had been imbued with the end of summer. How appropriate for October, which is our Indian Summer here in California.

When the GS’s meal arrived it had put our own tasting menus off sync, so the restaurant thoughtfully provided the BH and I two a savory little taste sensation with which to bide our time while we awaited our own meals. We were presented with a tiny dish of two ravioli, one pasta pillow was a concoction of Teleggio, the other a mix of Asiago cheeses, each sitting gracefully in perhaps the best simple tomato sauce I have ever tasted. Since both my grandparents were from the old country, I can assertively state that I know my tomato sauces.

Cheese Plate Perfection
 The service was timed to perfection, and no sooner had I blissfully savored the last bit of tomato sauce around my tiny pillows of past, than my Lobster Panzerotti arrived. This was a lovely little mid-section of lobster served in a spicy lobster brodo with “Diavolicchio.” Diavolicchio Chile Peppers, also known as "little devil" chilies, are one of four varieties of hot peppers that bring the heat to the spicy cuisine of the Basilicata region of Italy. These little red peppers drying in bundles have been found hanging from kitchen ceilings all over Italy and were. The sweet pink meat of the succulent piece of seafood was a perfect foil to the kick of the peppers. All in all this dish had a lovely, well-balanced flavor profile.

Next up was a dish of Red Abalone with Italian Butter Beans, that I had requested as a substitution from the Chef’s Tasting Menu. The abalone was served with a chavel romaine in a piping-hot seaweed brodo. BH had the Butter-poached Lobster Tail, which was an abundance of seafood, including stuffed calamari and crusted mussels. The Grad Student had the Souvide ‘Bavette’ of American Kobe Beef with braised oxtail stuffed squash bone and basil. All three of these dishes were spectacular.

Succulent Lobster, with spicy Diavolicchio Peppers
 Being cheese lovers, and having sensed that this was an establishment that took pride in its table-side service, we thought we would let them do their thing. The cheeses were unique and all were uniformly excellent. The cheese selection that really stood out for me was a type called “cuzie.” Cuzie is an Italian dialect term for a goat cheese that has been aged in tobacco leaves. The unusual preparation was intriguing and as I am fond of most any aged cheese, I asked to try it. It was amazing. The tobacco leaf came through in the cheese and it was like a good cigar, without the nasty burn of the smoke or any associated health risks. Perhaps this should be the future of the tobacco industry. A healthy way to savor the natural smokiness of the leaf of the tobacco plant, and I swear it was delicious.

We shared three beautiful desserts, my BH ordering the Valrhona Dark Chocolate Ganache with bing cherries and mascarpone; I had the Bourbon Caramel Semifreddo with Amaretti Crumbs and a delicate drizzle of chocolate sauce. The whipped cream and bourbon pudding made this light, chilled flavorful delight. The Grad Student decided to join us and ordered the Vanilla Scented Panna Cotta with moscato poached peaches, plum sorbet and marcona almonds. Each dessert was a heavenly melange of flavor and texture.

The staff were extremely gracious about making our substitutions work within the dinner service. It is worth remarking that overall the service at Acquerello was absolutely first rate. They were knowledgeable, organized and attentive to detail, which made the entire experience absolute bliss.

The Ancient Romans understood the value of progressive, ritualized dining. Whether instinctively or by trial and error, they recognized an inherent value to the human spirit of savoring each course gradually: first with sight, smell and then taste. This method of eating had stimulative benefits that went well beyond the taste buds alone, encouraging conversation and furthering a healthy development of human interaction. Though they may have indulged in their traditions a little too enthusiastically, that which remains of their customs has been refined into something that if not overdone, can greatly improve the human condition. I found my experience elevating, as though the Deipnosophistae were once again seated at the table.

Creamy Cheese beautifully displayed
 Check it out for yourself, and Bon Appetit!

1722 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94109-3619
(415) 567-5432

Monday, November 15, 2010

OAKLAND STORIES: PICÁN - Part Two: A Southern Dream Realized

Michael LeBlanc - Owner, Picán Restaurant, Oakland

At the time Picán Restaurant first opened its doors, owner Michael LeBlanc was taking a pretty big leap of faith. Opening a high-end restaurant smack in the middle of downtown Oakland at the height of an economic downturn takes genius, courage and, some might say, a big dollop of crazy. Whatever the combination of bravery and/or foolhardiness that might have conspired to bring Picán to fruition, the restaurant has been successful. It has weathered the depths of the recession, which means that people who were choosing much more carefully, chose to spend their precious entertainment dollars at Picán.

LeBlanc has made a name for himself and his eatery within the city, spearheading events that bring the community together and introduce people to the concept that Oakland is a hot spot for dining and a desired place to socialize. Picán has served as the flagship for Oakland’s newfound possibilities, attracting a myriad of patrons from within Oakland and around the East Bay. In addition, Picán is rapidly becoming a destination restaurant for the residents of San Francisco, which is no small feat. Getting people to cross The Bridge in the other direction says something about the restaurant that little else could say. Picán offers a beautiful ambience, reliably excellent food and, perhaps most importantly to its owner, a place to mingle with a mix of folk from all walks of life, a perfect mirror of the city that houses it.

When one asks LeBlanc to talk about his restaurant, he lights up – a man animated by his passion. Pican is for him far more than a business; it is an outward expression of his contribution to the betterment of society at large. It is a place that not only serves the remarkable food of the South with flair and artistry, but, more importantly to LeBlanc, that serves as a meeting place for a diverse group of man- (and woman-) kind. It is no accident that Picán seems to have slipped effortlessly into the role of Happening Meeting Place. LeBlanc made it so with a unique combination of vision and determination.

I recently attended a Bartending Competition Event hosted by Picán and Grand Marnier, and open to all female bartenders in the Bay. There the melting pot success of LeBlanc’s world view was effectively highlighted. Standing in a room humming with humanity, I found myself glancing around the lounge to behold a rainbow reflection of Oakland and East Bay society. A man sporting a soul patch laughing over a shared joke with an Asian woman; a cluster of sartorially resplendent Church Ladies savoring a round of cocktails; tight denim- and leather-clad college girls enjoying the vibe at the bar. Like a perfectly balanced cocktail, Picán seems naturally infused with diversity. Perhaps it is a reflection of the times. Maybe Oakland has at last grown up and come into her own, becoming the all-encompassing city she was always meant to be. Maybe it is evidence of LeBlanc’s subtle skill at showing people from so many walks of life a good time. Or maybe, it’s a little of both.

Table Prepped for Bartending Competition

When speaking with LeBlanc, it is the diversity of the clientele that really sets him glowing. Born in New Orleans, and having lived around the world, Michael LeBlanc is proud of the iconic gathering place he has created. LeBlanc and I are both children of the sixties, and, as such, he shared with me the joy he takes in watching this mesh of culture and experience. Watching people of all races and backgrounds fall into easy companionship — strangers and friends alike — LeBlanc and I cannot help but recall the dreams of our youth growing up in the turbulent sixties. The hope was instilled then that some day we might indeed overcome the scars of this country’s birth. I have to say the first time I walked into the restaurant for dinner, I felt the same way. It was like the dream had arrived. LeBlanc believes it is here to stay.

 Though he leaves much of the food to Chef DuPuis, LeBlanc, as a true Southerner, has a strong idea of the food he wishes to serve, and he is never afraid to speak up. He knows the tastes of his own upbringing, the richness of flavors, the specific foods that recall for him the best the region has to offer. To that end he insisted on having a variety of fried chicken on the menu. While skeptical, Chef Dean complied and the rest was history.

LeBlanc also shared with me a story of the origin of my personal favorite, a "fried peach pie" that was on the menu the summer right after Picán opened. At one point he found himself discussing Heubig’s pies with Dupuis. Heubig’s is a freshly baked version of a fried pie turnover packaged and sold throughout the South. Michael LeBlanc wanted his kitchen to produce an upscale variety. LeBlanc jokingly told me of his conversation with the kitchen and his efforts to convey how the pie was shaped and prepared. Not a cook, he guessed that the edges of the half-moon crescents would be forced into closure with a fork, much like my grandmother’s apple pie. "I don’t know how to make ‘em, but I know what they’re supposed to taste like!" LeBlanc joked. He is indeed a man with a hand in everything.

LeBlanc’s plan seems to be to bring them in with the food, give them great service, then wow them with the camaraderie of his great nightlife scene. When the company is good and the experience is unique, folks will naturally want to return for more. The decor of the restaurant is welcoming: open and sweeping, it’s lines evoking something very old and Southern, yet clearly modern at the same time.

Picán’s high ceilings create a sense of the columnar architecture throughout the South, reinforced by perfectly placed high doorways, while its comfortable overstuffed lounge furniture would fit perfectly within the hippest Manhattan Club. When glancing at the high doors at one end of the dining room, one is reminded intensely of the Old South — a whispered rustle of heavily starched hoop skirts whirling in a cotillion waltz. At the same time, the bulk of the restaurant’s decor is quite chic and current. LeBlanc has used shades of copper, a buttery tan and a brown that is so rich it appears almost black, all of which mingle to give the restaurant a distinctly urban feel. LeBlanc calls the decor "Modern Antebellum," which, in my mind, is a perfect description for conjuring a mental image of Picán’s interior. From its inception, Picán was intended to be a place that evoked Southern charm, Southern flavors and Southern hospitality, while exorcising the more unpleasant ghosts of her past.

Picán is a lovely place to visit. Familiar and welcoming, inspiring and exciting. Frankly, my dear, they had me at "Fried Peach Pie."

Picán Restaurant

2295 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 834-1000

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Oakland Stories: PICÁN - Part One: Tasting the South

Since early in her existence, Oakland has been viewed as San Francisco’s awkward and somehow less-desirable little sister. You know the type, the mouthy chick in the room with the chip on her shoulder, sporting a tramp stamp and holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. In reality, Oakland is far more complicated beauty, whose rich culture and history are well worth a second look. Sure, she may have her moments of urban chaos, but she is a girl who is definitely worth getting to know — smarter than she looks and with a lot to offer the right suitor. If you think you know everything there is to know about Oakland, you’re wrong.

In the past several years, there has been a cultural renaissance in Oakland, the genesis of which was the opening of several new restaurants. If you are as curious as I was to know why some of these restaurants are here, what they plan to offer us and whether they’ll stick around for a second date, read on.

Among Oakland’s new residents are Pican, Tamarindo, Camino, Commis, Plum — it’s a rapidly growing list — and each place has a personality all its own. Oakland’s newly thriving restaurant industry and the accompanying accolades to the City they’ve brought along with them, has been a genuine thrill for this lifetime resident to witness. Watching each new establishment arrive and begin to mesh with the fabric of Oakland is a joy. In the past several years the blooming restaurant industry in Oakland has begun to reshape the way the rest of the Bay Area, and gradually the rest of the world, views my City. When it comes to gastronomic offerings, Oakland’s profile now rivals that of San Francisco and Berkeley for exquisite dining, fine and otherwise. In an effort to document Oakland’s journey to the culinary Big Time, I decided to touch base with a few of the restaurants that have had a part in the City’s transformation, conducting a series of interviews with the movers and shakers in the industry that is reshaping the way the world-at-large views the city of my birth.

Tasting the South

One of the first to open the floodgates, Picán Restaurant, seemed a very good place to start. I recently sat down with Picán’s Executive Chef, Dean Dupuis, and owner, Michael LeBlanc, to chat with them about how they view Picán’s role in the revival of Oakland and their part in the “Uptown” movement.

Dean Dupuis - Executive Chef, Picán Restaurant, Oakland

Duck Ham over Cornmeal Biscuit
 Chef Dean Dupuis is the real deal. An affable guy who enjoys his craft, Chef Dean was generous with his time and forthcoming with his answers. Chef told us that when Picán opened in March 2009, he was among the first to be hired. As such he has shared this journey with owner Michael LeBlanc from day one, and the two are a formidable team. In the beginning, Chef Dean and LeBlanc hammered out the design of the food that would be served together. In Chef’s own words “Michael gave me free reign when it came to developing the menu.  Anything that had to do with food was left to me, [though] Michael did have a few dishes he wanted to see. For instance, Michael wanted to put fried chicken on [the menu], and we went back and forth about that. I said “'Who is going to order fried chicken?' Come to find out, it is our most popular seller times two.

Seared Foie Gras
& Pepper Jelly
 Dean went on to describe the cuisine at Picán as Contemporary Southern Food, reporting that Owner LeBlanc terms it “Paula Dean meets Alice Waters.” A self-taught Chef who learned food from others in the industry and the “school of life,” Dean also confesses to being a bit playful with the menu items offered. He gave as an example his Smoked Alligator Nachos, explaining that LeBlanc had asked him to find a way to include an alligator dish on the menu in an effort to incorporate even more traditional foods of the American South. Intended to be served as a bar-food item, the dish was originally titled “Smoked Alligator Natchez” as a play on “nachos.” Chef said that when patrons didn’t pick up on the joke he found himself having to tinker with the title. Another dish that did catch on right away with patrons was their Bayou Paté, a cheese and blue crab dip accompanied by house-made barbeque potato chips. The playfulness of the preparation and whimsy in the naming is something of which Chef Dean is extremely proud. It’s abundantly clear that Chef Dean is supported in his artistry by LeBlanc. In addition to the wonderful food, this sort of symbiotic teamwork may be one of the reasons Picán is finding a permanent spot in the hearts of its patrons.

Fried Green Tomatoes
 Both men evidenced a small frustration at those who insist on trying to buttonhole Picán into the “soul food” genre. Perhaps it is because Oakland has traditionally been a place where one could find good “soul food” offerings from the many of its residents who are southern transplants. But this is not what Picán offers, nor how it wishes to be defined. Rather both men see the restaurant as a broader sampling of every food one might sample below the Mason-Dixon line. As DuPuis put it “I wouldn’t categorize us as a 'soul food' place. It’s Contemporary Southern. We’ll do fried chicken; we’ll do ribs, but we’ll also do Bourbon marinated Salmon, which is really a much more California-oriented dish with a Southern flair in the Bourbon. We like to fuse Southern ingredients with a California spin to get a result that is unique to us.

Pork Belly with Cola Caramel

DuPuis says that although he is dedicated to the food of the South, the restaurant also believes it is important to support local growers, so he sources as much local produce as he can. At the same time Picán supports the South by importing rarities from across the heart of Dixie. Recently Dean made a trip to New Orleans to meet with current White House Chef, Cristeta Comerford, New Orleans' own John Besh and other Chefs from across the Country, to explore ways to assist the local fishing industry in NoLa that had been affected by the spill. Chef Dean brings in most of Picán’s Blue Crab directly from New Orleans, so upon his return he made an effort to lend a hand to a New Orlinean adversely impacted by the oil spill by sharing his personal source for the delicacy with other Bay Area restaurants. His effort was successful, and Chef was able to directly impact the fisherman’s business for the better.

It is his willingness to go that extra mile in everything he does that makes Chef Dean Dupuis so impressive. While local sourcing is hugely important to him to help reduce Picán’s carbon footprint, so is obtaining the authentic ingredients that will give his food its regional character. Straddling that line is something Chef Dean seems to understand naturally, and his success at this balancing act is reflected in the nature of the food served. “I bring in my pork from Alabama. It’s the best pork I’ve ever had. Some things I’ve insisted on remaining Southern. I won’t use Dungeness Crab here, I feel Blue Crab is more representative of our vibe. [...] It’s a different texture, a different flavor. Dungeness Crab is great, but here [at Pican] Blue Crab is where it’s at [...] it feels Southern and that’s a big thing for me.

Chef Dean loves living in Oakland. He loves the vibe, the diversity, the energy, and the access to a variety of great ingredients for his kitchen. Though Southern food will always be his first love, living in Oakland has brought him a new perspective on other flavors of regional cooking. When at home Chef confesses to eating and preparing the ethnic foods that are abundant here. “Vietnamese. Korean. Thai. Mexican. I find myself cooking them at home as well. Vietnamese is my latest down time passion.”

 I’ll admit to some curiousity as to how Chef creates a new dish. I asked him whether it was the result of careful planning, happy accident, or a combination of both. His response: “Both! Absolutely! [...] Once in awhile, sometimes at staff meal, we’ll make something, we’ll just bang something out, and a flavor will hit and we’ll be like, 'we should try this in another form on the menu'. [...] I like to mix a lot of other cultures and cuisines into my food. I’ll put fish sauce in my Southern cooking. [...] I have a Pork Belly on the menu now that I make with coca-cola caramel glaze, but it’s a [Vietnamese] caramel. It’s made with a ginger, garlic, chiles, fish-sauce, so it’s a savory [...] then I add coca-cola, so it ends up being very Southern.

When I asked Chef Dean what dream dish he wanted to add to the menu? “A month ago I would have said I wanted to put foie gras on the menu ---  but I just did. So now I do like a Southern foie gras. [...] In the South, Country Ham biscuits is a big thing. So I make “duck ham.” So that’s with the duck foie gras, which is seared [...] Then I make a ham biscuit, and put a little homemade mustard on a cornmeal biscuit [&] pepper jelly. [...] It’s fun. It’s Southern. It’s Upscale. It’s Picán.

As it so happens, I dined at Picán the evening after the interview and was able to sample some of Chef Dean’s new dishes. The Foie Gras with Duck Ham Biscuits was mind-numbingly delicious. I am a huge fan of ham, biscuits, pepper jelly and foie gras, so the combination of them all in one dish was my idea of bliss. The BH had the Seared Sea Scallops. Inspired by Chef Dean’s talk of the South, I had two additional appetizers instead of a main: the Fried Green Tomatoes and the Pork Belly with the Caramel sauce. As you can see, good stuff!
Stay tuned for Part Two: A Southern Dream Realized, an interview with Owner Michael LeBlanc
Picán Restaurant
2295 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 834-1000

Sunday, October 31, 2010

HIBISCUS OAKLAND - Uptown’s Tropical Contact High

Salt Fish & Ackee
Hibiscus in Oakland is a warm, inviting trip to languish beside the blue waters of the Caribbean. The interior of the restaurant is a cool blue vibe, with unusual lanterns providing illumination that looks a bit like upside-down orchids glowing just beneath the ceiling, or depending upon the perspective, floating in the sky. The restaurant’s interior is architecturally clean, the wide open spaces of the dining room somehow managing to evoke the sensibilities of a modern resort in Antigua or Trinidad, while remaining slick and urban at the same time.

The menu is carefuly crafted to feature an updated take on Carribean-Creole, and Chef Sarah Kirnon's sense of adventure really comes through in her food. Chef Sarah's menu of bold flavors and innovative dishes is a delicious introduction to the flavor profiles of her childhood---  albeit fine-tuned, and cleverly honed for the palates of today's sophisticated diners. She crafted the menu as an homage to her childhood in Barbados, where she grew up cooking beside strong Barbadian women, her grandmothers.

Having grown up at the side of strong Italians who were my own culinary role-models, I can relate to Chef Sarah’s expression of their passion in her cooking today. In Sarah’s own words “For me the words Caribbean and Creole go together. Due to the region's ethnic diversity, the food is a patchwork quilt of colors, textures and flavors, woven from the cuisines of Africa, Europe, Asia, India and South America. This far-reaching blend puts the food in the realm of gustatory extravagance with our mouth-searing hot sauces, fragrant marinades, fiery spice rubs and perfumed preserves.

Mac n' Cheese
 We dined at Hibiscus twice over the summer, and I can’t wait to get back. The dishes were extremely consistent and the flavors really inviting. I tried several things I’d never had before, including Salt Fish &Ackee. When we ordered the dish, I had no idea what it was, but the waiter was patient and knowledgeable, describing something that sounded a little like a Caribbean ceviche. It’s essentially a fish that has been cured in acids, seasoned and served with sweet peppers, leeks, cherry tomatoes and radishes, along with ackee, a fruit that was brought by Captain Bligh from West Africa to Jamaica in 1793.  The flavor of the fish itself was light, like ceviche, but the spices were more complex. This dish was inventive and inviting.

A more traditional dish the BH and I shared was their Baked Mac & Cheese. Even those who aren’t Mac & Cheese hounds like I am would find Sarah’s take on the dish to be bliss. Hearty with Wisconsin cheddar, torpedo onion & nutmeg, the thick, creamy, melted cheese coats every piece of pasta evenly and the crust atop the “pie” had a heavenly crunch. Half the battle in creating a successful Mac & Cheese dish is consistency. The noodles must be al dente, and the cheese must be creamy without being runny. The consistency here — perfection.

BBQ Pork & Chips
 I love BBQ pork. Every time I see a menu that features a form of BBQ pork, whether pulled or shredded, I feel compelled to try it. Hibiscus' version is a rich, tangy barbeque sauce over the moist meat of the pig, accompanied by a soothing avocado butter, no doubt meant to be a foil to the hot sauce. The sandwich menu was titled simply “Cuttahs” the island name for bread-filled savories. I found my “cuttah” a magical blend of BBQ pork and island seasonings, and my mouth got lost in the flavors of Sarah's hearty and searing house made hot sauce. The lovely house made chips were a nice foil to the rich flavors in the rest of the sandwich.  As for the hot sauce, Chef Sarah’s special recipe, the sauce is made from the fiery scotch bonnets (the hottest of all habanero-type peppers). She uses a base of sweet carrots to give the sauce a nice thick base, and the resultant combination of the carrot and the heat of the peppers is a spicy wake-up treat. I have to say that this condiment is not for faint of heart or culinary lightweights. Sarah’s hot-pepper sauce will definitely kick your ass a little, but in a good way. ... I promise.

The Better Half ordered Miss Ollie’s Fried Chicken. I tasted it — golden and crisp on the outside, the crust resistant to the bite just a little, its meaty interior moist and tender fairly melting in the mouth. The chicken came with a side of buttered new potatoes, that gave a nice “pop” when bitten, like a lovely cherry tomato filled with buttery goodness. The accompanying sides of Riverdog corn and sauteed lacinto kale were likewise toothsome. The corn was sweet and the greens were tender, both exactly as they should be.

Miss Ollie's Fried Chicken, Sweet Corn and Kale
Hibiscus has a vibe all its own. The heart of its appeal is clearly in the passion of Chef Sarah to evoke the flavors of her childhood and instill in generations of her new patrons the love of island food that she enjoyed throughout her life. The authenticity in the flavors, the welcoming decor, all of these things work together to make Hibiscus a unique and repeatable experience. Check it out for yourself, and Bon Appetit!

Oh yeah, and the drinks are amazing!

Hibiscus Oakland
1745 San Pablo Ave.
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 444-2626

Noise Level: Two Bells (Moderate)
Table Size: Adequate
Service: fantastic
Parking: the streets here are tricky, so parking is a bit difficult, but manageable and definitely worth the effort
Dining Time: Can get in and out in a lunch hour

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ROAD TRIP 2010 #3: New York City - “The Lights are Much Brighter There...”

Coffee Mastery at Eleven Madison
 Early in September, the BH and I journeyed to the East Coast to visit our eldest daughter. Though we had definitely called ahead to secure reservations at two of Manhattan’s top eateries, we decided against planning our meals every single night, leaving a few slots open to just feel our way through the City. Our daughter had arranged to take several days off work in order to visit with us and to prepare for Fashion Week, where she would be working such shows as Catharine Malandrino, Vena Cava, Cushnie et Ochs and Monique Lhullier. She suggested we do “touristy things” like museums and Central Park. She also hoped we could spend some time hitting her favorite dining spots. Now that she’s a local, we figured “Why not?”

Sticky Toffee Pudding @ Schiller's
 The night we arrived she and her roommate met us at a spot she’d selected just for her parents, — New Orleans-themed diner Mara’s Homemade. Knowing her mother and father have been carrying on a love affair with New Orleans since we visited post-Katrina, she figured that Mara’s would be the perfect decompressor on our first night in the City. The Artiste is a recent convert to all things NoLa herself, having fallen hard when we dragged her along on one of our trips down for Jazz Fest. She thought this place would bring it home. We were essentially dropped right into the sights, sounds and smells of the heart of the Quarter without ever leaving Manhattan. Excellent instincts, that kid.

Buttery Crab Fingers at Mara's Homemade
 The menu at Mara’s was a wild combination of Kentucky Bar-b-Que and traditional New Orleans Seafood, but there was an item on the bill that I’d never seen, something called Crab Fingers. The claws of the crab are beautifully cleaned to reveal nothing but “fingers” of succulent sweet crab meat, and that meat is soaked lavishly in a well-seasoned, peppery butter. Black butter is a standard in the South. Gotta love it. The claws are prepared in such a way as to make it easy to suck the meat right off the tips of the shell, a little like tearing the meat off the tip of a drumstick. Sort of. Definitely finger-lickin’ good.

The front of house gal is truly delightful. Eating at Mara’s is like you just dropped by her home and are having a quick drink before she makes you dinner. Though the place is beyond small and waiting for a table can be uncomfortable (they don’t take reservations, there are only three to four seats at the bar and no room to stand) she makes every effort to mitigate the discomfort of the patrons stuck standing in the narrow doorway during the wait. During our meal, I ordered a shot of tequila, and since we’d had to wait a bit for our table she brought me a killer shot, pretty much a half glass of the good stuff. Between the stiff pours and the dead-on rendition of Louisiana BBQ shrimp, I thought this place was NoLa-riffic!

Mara’s Homemade
342 East 6th Street
New York, NY 10003-8727
(212) 598-1110

Next morning we met for a Saturday brunch at Schiller’s Liquor Bar. Schiller’s has an unusual-sounding name for a chic little pit-stop featuring amazing brunch food served in delightfully retro surroundings resembling nothing so much as a soda bar straight out of the 1910's, but it was just that. I half expected Judy Garland to come bouncing into the room singing Clang Clang Clang went the Trolley! The food was solid. BH had an omelette and the Artiste and I had the Eggs Benedict. Both meals were a classic hearty take on the familiar, mine came with lovely hash browned house potatoes slathered with caramelized onions. For dessert we shared a Sticky Toffee Pudding, a dish that my Makeup Artist daughter had raved about all through breakfast and was anxious for us to try. We did, and it was OUT of this world. The pudding was essentially a toffee-caramel explosion. Caramel pudding, soaked in a healthy ladle of caramel sauce accompanied by vanilla ice cream. All in all, Schiller’s was a perfect brunch experience. The decor early Americana, and the food really strong. Good prices for Manhattan, and excellent ambiance.

Schiller’s Liquor Bar
131 Rivington Street

Antique Garage - Humus Treats
 New York, NY 10002-2402
(212) 260-4555

While shopping in Soho Saturday afternoon, we wanted to take a break for a snack before dinner. I had heard that the Antique Garage offered lovely sidewalk views and comfy sofas, in addition to tasty bar treats. So although the Makeup Artist had never been, we opted to rest our weary dogs at the Antique Garage, taking seats facing Mercer Street late on a Saturday afternoon. The snacks we chose were Humus, a nice simple offering of chickpeas and pita; and Borek, a tasty roll of phyllo dough stuffed with feta and a hint of parseley. We were on vacation, so of course we ordered cocktails. The drinks were all mixed with fresh ingredients, they were refreshing and well-balanced. Apparently Antique Garage lives by word of mouth alone, keeping the foot-traffic to those who walk by or seek to find, and a find it is.

Antique Garage Restaurant (Soho)
41 Mercer Street
New York, New York
(212) 219-1019

Bagel of Ice Cream @ WD-50
 WD-50 was one of the places we had reserved as a treat for ourselves and the Artiste. She’s living on a salary that simply doesn’t allow her to treat herself to meals of this sort, particularly in New York. So the opportunity to head out for a meal at the premier molecular gastronomy establishment on her fair Island, Wiley Dufresne’s ground-breaking WD-50 was really appreciated. When we arrived at WD-50, I found the interior to be chic and inviting. Very spare, a long dining hall at the end of which is a stainless steel glow of a large open kitchen. As we are being seated, we notice that the Master himself is in the house. Wiley Dufresne is cooking in full view of all the patrons. Nice touch.

More Magic from Chef Dufresne
The colors alone are a show in this soup.
The meal was just delightful. We all immediately decided on the tasting menu, and allowed the Chef to take us on his little journey of flavors. We enjoyed such things as (lox & bacon title). This dish was memorable in that the bagels themselves were ice cream, and the lox was a freeze dried meat. The dish was cold, but the flavors were vivid, intense and appealing, which would seem impossible in such a presentation. While every dish was a journey in twisted sensation, the BH found the (bearnaise & beef title) among the most clever. It was a complete reversal of the expected, with the beef arriving in the form of a broth and the bearnaise sauce the form of a solid. The fact that it was delicious an added bonus in the amusement. From the first amuse bouche to the last dessert, which was something called a chocolate packet (you gotta taste one, I won’t spoil the surprise here), every dish was beautifully prepared, creatively plated and an achievement in artistry unlike any other I had tasted. If you enjoy food and it’s preparation, you simply haven’t lived until you’ve visited WD-50.
50 Clinton St
New York, NY 10002-2401
(212) 477-2900

Chef D's Magical Dessert, part 1
 We’ve established that my daughter is a struggling artist in the Big Apple, so she capitalized on every opportunity to eat well on her parent’s dime. Her choice for Sunday brunch was Sarabeth’s West. Sarabeth’s is a bakery that began in 1981, and soon spawned two restaurants, Sarabeth’s West (Upper West Side) and East. It’s no surprise, given the incredibly quality of preparation and ingredients served here. The French Toast was fluffy and fat as summer clouds, powder clinging to its sweet, chubby surfaces reminding me of loose powder on the cheeks of a cherub. We all ordered a variety of their Four Flowers Juice. One of us in a mimosa, and the other two straight. The Artiste also ordered up one of their spicy-good spins on a Bloody Mary. The juice was astounding in color, its special blend of orange, fresh pineapple, banana and pomegranate juices all blending to make a drink the color of a Tahitian sunrise! The Bloody Mary was crisp, tangy and hot, everything it should have been.

Sarabeth'sWest - Fluffy French Toast
 This place was exactly what one would want in a bakery turned breakfast joint. Flaky fresh-out-of-the-oven basket of rolls and sweet breads. My Eggs Benedict was perfection, its poached eggs just runny enough, the hollandaise light and tangy, draping the dish with flavor rather than drowning it in sauce. Everything followed along those lines. The baked goods and juices being perhaps the most memorable.

Sarabeth’s (West)
423 Amsterdam Avenue (@80th Street)
New York, N.Y. 10024
Phone: 212-496-6280

The day we went to the Met, we decided to snack “low rent” at a happening little Manhattan burger franchise the Shake Shack. This place might best be described as NYC’s In-and-Out. The burgers are juicy, they have locally-brewed beers of the week and the cheesy fries are artery-hardening perfection.

Cheesy Fries!
Shake Shack
Upper West Side
366 Columbus Avenue (at 77th)
New York, NY
(646) 747-8770

We managed time for the Bourgeois Pig, one of the Makeup Artist’s favorite joints, which was a lovely wine bar featuring endless forms of fondues. Loved it.

Bourgeois Pig
111 E. 7th Street
New York, NY
(212) 475-2246

Salmon Rillette @ Bouchon (Chef Keller)
Among our other food-related experiences was a nice “quick” lunch at Bouchon in the Time Warner Building. We were supposedly going to just have a snack, but after visiting the building tired and two of us actually hungry, we stopped at the bakery thinking it would be quick. After a quick peek at the menu the BH spotted a salmon rillette we had sampled at Bouchon in Yountville. Realizing that this was likely to be the same preparation, we went for it. It arrived exactly as we remembered, a creamy serving of smoky salmon sealed in butter. Magic in a jar! (Just sayin’)

Bouchon Bakery (in Time Warner Building)
10 Columbus Circle
(West 59th Street)
New York, N.Y. 10019 USA
(212) 823-9366

The last big outing we had planned was the grand re-opening night at the newly refurbished Eleven Madison Park. I had been unable to secure reservations at this immensely popular Flatiron District restaurant last Christmas when we’d gone to New York to visit the MA. It was definitely worth the ten-and-a-half month wait. From the subtle menu consisting only of sketches and single word suggestions, to the elaborate steam and fire show wielded by the charming young coffee steward, the staff was perfection and the food was absolutely delightful.

Lobster @ Eleven Mad
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave
New York, NY 10010-3643
(212) 889-0905

Another evening found us at dinner with Mike squared, Two Guys names Mike who are married friends of the Artiste. Mikey L suggested we try Maria Pia for some affordable and delicious Italian cuisine. I hadn’t had Italian in New York since I was there 25 years ago pregnant with my second child and the smell of garlic was so overwhelming I almost lost it at dinner. This place was superb. The house-made pasta perfectly al dente, and the sauces rich and well developed. Molto Bene!

Maria Pia
319 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019-6441
(212) 765-6463

Chef Humm's Beet Marshmallow
(tangy, mouthwatering puffs!)
Eleven Madison
 We ended our trip with a final brunch, this time at Pastis, which I didn’t know at the time was a sister restaurant of Schiller’s. The food is comparable, although the ambiance here is country French European, rather than the turn of the century Americana at Schiller’s. Both provide solidly good food at reasonable prices in a really nice atmosphere.

9- 9th Avenue
New York, 10014
(212) 929-4844

Any of these places can provide a good time, on a wide variety of budgets.  There are just too many wonderful places to eat in NYC to manage them all on a single trip.  Luckily for me I have a kid living there and an excuse to return!