Saturday, October 6, 2012

COTOGNA: Strawberry Fields Forever

Strawberry Specialty Cocktail

About three weeks ago while checking my email, I found an invitation to attend an event celebrating the California Strawberry.  The event was hosted by the California Strawberry Commission, designed to educate the public about just what it takes to bring these summer delicacies from farm to table.  Each course of the meal was to feature strawberries, and the Chef preparing the meal was (Score!) the renowned Michael Tusk of Quince.  That was the icing on the cake, but if I’m honest, they had me at strawberries.

The event was held at Cotogna, Chef Tusk’s most recent entry on the San Francisco dining scene.  It presents as a modern Italian Pizzeria-slash-Bistro, and is a beautifully tricked out space, complete with giant wood ovens and a gorgeous bar.  Though not quite the pizzeria of my childhood, it manages to maintain the familial inviting atmosphere I recall from days spent watching my uncle toss the stretchy dough, flatten it tenderly, slather it with his special tomato sauce, finishing off the pie by covering it with all manner of toppings to order.  Cotugno had the effortless ease down pat, while updating it to a slick and modern interior.  This was a place I’d want to hang out even if I hadn’t been mesmerized into attendance by the promise of strawberry delights.
Strawberries & Prosciutto


Guests were treated to a menu designed by Chef Tusk specifically for the event.  Beginning with a specialty cocktail: a mixture of pureed strawberries with a bit of campari, a hint of anise and enough selzer to bubble it up nicely.  It was an intoxicating and refreshing beverage.  The hors d’oeuvres were a cacophony of strawberry surprises.  Among them: tiny arancini of fried strawberry goodness, a perfect fresh strawberry wrapped in a blanket of prosciutto and drizzled with a hint of balsamic.

But the magnificent strawberry and burrata pizzas that emerged from those wood burning ovens were the pièce de résistance: the creamy burrata melting into each perfect berry, the familiar toothsome crunch of the perfectly baked pizza dough—  they were a culinary treat I will remember for some time to come.  This was the kind of food that is so tasty you can’t stop consuming it because your brain wants your mouth to experience that thrill just one more time.  At least that’s what my brain was telling me as I consumed almost an entire pizza.  It seemed that over the course of the evening those ovens continued to produce the delectable treat on tray after tray; they came at me as relentlessly as circus performers exiting a clown car.


Pizza Magica!
Just EAT it!
The evening was coordinated for the California Strawberry Commission by Golin Harris, a company whose expertise at putting together a delightful evening while keeping the focus of the gathering front and center is impressive. And that is an understatement.  Among those present was Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones, but I imagine he hears it quite a bit) of the Tom Jones Farms in Monterey.  A strawberry farmer for decades, Mr. Jones told those present a great deal of fun facts about the strawberry.  The highlights for the health conscious are that strawberries are surprisingly low in calories (this I knew from my years of Weight Watchers, their Strawberry Shake, which, if memory serves, consists of a cup of strawberries and about two cups of cracked ice and comes in at under 100 calories). They contain enormous amounts of antioxidants, more Vitamin C than an orange and high amounts of folic acid and fiber.


We wrapped up our evening with several delectable desserts during the seated portion of the presentation.  Strawberries atop a creamy panacotta, a beautiful pistachio ice cream, with a light strawberry garnish over an airy meringue (like eating strawberry pistachio clouds).  By now I was stuffed, yet my table mates and I managed a final slice of the last pizza making its way around the room.  That pizza was one for the record books.

All in all, this was the kind of educational evening I’d love to repeat.  A far cry from the sterile classroom of my youth.  Perhaps that’s the solution for our schools. Serve up that knowledge with a platter of sweet, simple California strawberries.   Too bad they’re only in season from April to October. (Though this is peak strawberry season in California, a reader points out that these days strawberries are harvested and available year-round from growers in Oxnard, Santa Maria and Orange County.)

Cotogna is a lovely restaurant.  While my particular experience isn’t one that can be repeated, I can honestly suggest you check it out for yourself.  Make some memories of your own.  And do try the pizza.

Cotogna (Michael Tusk)
490 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 775-8508

And for more info on the California Strawberry - the California Strawberry Commission’s website can be found here:

Sunday, September 30, 2012

FONDA SOLANA FLASHBACK - Cinderella’s Mexican Feast & the Fairytale Ending

Not much left for the photo
of this Tequila laced concoction

It’s been almost two years, and I still salivate over the duck tacos.  The menu at Fonda Solana in Berkeley is a fascinating blend of elevated latin flavors, all served simply in shared-plates style.   They call it Mexican food, but it is so much more than that.

The occasion of my visit to Fonda (it seems they have all but dropped the Solana) was my daughter’s reunion with both her long-time paramour (now recently acquired husband) and the West Coast.  She’d missed the flavors of California and was needing a bit of reminding.  Dining out at Fonda Solana was just the ticket.  So we made our reservations and six of us headed there for drinks and delights.

Posole? Chicken soup?
Whatever they called it, it was delicious
What she didn’t know, but the rest of us did, was that next month, during her much-anticipated return to California, the boy would ask the girl to marry him. Their story was one of timing, and it was finally right.  Patience and commitment had brought this particular fairy-tale full circle.

But back to the food.  We ordered well, and soon found ourselves sated with the magnificent libations offered at this establishment.  As the courses came, we ooh-ed and ahhh-ed at the lovely presentations and blissfully developed flavors.  At the time I went the restaurant was one of the K-12 group that includes Lalimes and T-Rex (the latter having recently undergone a change in ownership).  To date, I have found a delightfully reliable uniformity of excellence in all restaurant establishments bearing the K-12 stamp.  Each one was worth a visit, many have seen return trips by this diner on the hunt for a food adventure.

The remarkably decadent
duck taco
Among my favorites of the menu we sampled included delightful empanadas drizzled in creme fraiche, hot fried cheese sticks full of oozy goodness while being light and airy as a creampuff, and a heavenly duck taco that incorporated pomegranate into the seasoning.  The duck taco was a revelation in flavors, but everything else was likewise delicious.

It was a magnificent way to relaunch my eldest child back into her native state and its myriad cuisines.  Mexican is something she felt she could never get in New York City, at least not to her California standards.  I can’t imagine NYC doesn’t have any good Mexican food, but on a budget perhaps extremely hard to find.  We reconnected over shared secrets and delicious food.  These are precious memories, which is I suppose why the surface now, on the almost two month anniversary of her nuptials with the lovely young man in the scene.

We talk often of food being love, and yes it is.  It can conjure love, secure love, bind love and remind us of times when we were loved.  It reminds of those who prepared it, the people we shared it with.  Our senses are so moved by the aromas, and the tastes can transport us to moments long gone but that will never be forgotten.  It is a meme I repeat, because it is like breathing.  Food and fond memories. The fabric of life.

Fonda Solana is a great meal if you like Mexican flavors, but don’t expect platters of heavy beans and rice.  The food here is delicate, though the flavors pack a whallop.  Pay it a visit and check it out, make a memory of your own.
Mexican "Wedding" cookies anyone?

Fonda Solana
1501 Solano Avenue
Albany, CA