Archive for the Restaurants Category

The Lost Prawns: A Fable

Posted in Destinations, Food for thought, Restaurants, Susannah's Home with tags , on June 11, 2008 by Susannah

In March 2007, Andy and I took a weekend trip to Portland, Oregon. Neither of us had ever been before and we were both pleasantly surprised by the caliber of dining there. My most memorable course was an appetizer of jumbo prawns stuffed with jalapeño cream cheese at a downtown restaurant called the Veritable Quandary. Since then, I’ve not had a chance to return to Portland (yet), but I have craved the shrimp on multiple occasions. Whenever I think of the dish — not quite shrimp cocktail, not quite jalapeño popper, and the perfect blend of seafood, creole spices, decadent cream cheese and crispy breading — my mouth would water. Unfortunately, I was never able to locate a version of it in the Bay Area, nor could I ever find a recipe online: I went to the restaurant website, where the menu no longer listed the dish. I even went so far as to write Bon Appétit, but to no avail.

Finally, a last resort: I emailed the restaurant, asking them about the recipe. Had I made the whole thing up, or had there once been a menu item that was truly that divine?

It turns out I wasn’t imagining things after all; I got an email shortly following my inquiry. “We focus on farm-fresh local ingredients which means we end up changing our menu rather frequently. Unfortunately, we no longer have that particular item on our menu, so the recipe isn’t readily available,” explained the restaurant’s manager, Jason Gerlt. However, he was kind enough to dig up the old recipe and send it to me.

Moral of the story: If you ask for something, you might just get it!

Prawns stuffed with jalapeño cream cheese

Ingredients:

Large prawns (half a dozen to a dozen or so)

Flour, for dipping

Panko crumbs, for breading

Filling:
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 jalapeno, diced small
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
Salt and Pepper to taste

Sauce:
Pinch of garlic
3 scallions, diced
1/4 cup tomato, diced
2 cups heavy cream

Instructions:

1. Combine all of the filling ingredients until blended.

2. For sauce, briefly sauté the garlic, scallions and tomato. Add the cream and Creole seasoning, simmering until thickened.

3. Devein and butterfly shrimp. Stuff with cream cheese filling. Coat, first with flour, then egg wash, then panko crumbs seasoned with creole seasoning.

4. Deep fry until golden, and serve plated with sauce.

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Santa Ramen, Part 2

Posted in Ramen, Restaurants with tags on May 11, 2008 by Susannah

In my last ramen post, I compared the merits of the two popular ramen joints in San Francisco and New York, but felt I was a bit unfair comparing a shio (soy-based) broth at Manhattan’s Ramen Setagaya to a miso broth at the Bay Area’s Santa Ramen.

This past weekend I paid Visit No. 2 to San Mateo for just that reason: to try Santa Ramen’s shio broth.

Tonkotsu in Shio Broth at Santa Ramen

Stewed pork atop shio broth ramen

Following the advice from fellow ramen fiends, my friend Janice and I showed up to lunch at Santa Ramen at 11:30. There was already a line, and people who saw us headed there raced ahead to get a space in line before us.

I ordered my ramen in shio broth, and stewed pork atop my ramen, an offering that is known to quickly run out.

We both enjoyed the stewed pork — its gelatinous fat melted in the mouth instantaneously — but I wasn’t sure how it was any different from the traditional Chinese pork belly preparation, which imparts even more flavor. Santa’s shio broth was still much creamier than the one I’d tried at Ramen Setagaya, which also had a more complex flavor profile. Setagaya’s broth seemed lighter and more dimensional, possibly to the credit of its many ingredients such as dried seaweed and scallops.

Pizzeria Mozza: Trust the hype

Posted in Destinations, pizza, Restaurants, Reviews with tags , , , , on May 4, 2008 by Susannah

Pizzeria Mozza has held my attention since its opening in November 2006, for several reasons. It’s the first West Coast venture from celebrity chef Mario Batali and his longtime business partner Joe Bastianich. It’s also the result of an unusual collaboration between Batali and Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery. And on top of it all, the pizzeria emerged virtually unscathed by national reviews.

I don’t make it down to Southern California often, so as soon as the slightest possibility arose that I might be in the vicinity, I called to book a reservation. After a series of prompts and several minutes of waiting patiently, I spoke with a hostess who was able to offer me a Saturday dinner reservation a few weeks in advance at the only available time slot of of 10:45. I took it.

Mozza sits on the edge of Hollywood, near a gas station and not much else. I can’t quite say I was expecting to see a packed house as we arrived late at eleven, but this was certainly the case. After being seated promptly at a center table, we studied the paper place settings with global pizza trivia as we munched on complimentary breadsticks and weighed our vast menu choices. (Who knew that mutton and paneer was a popular pizza topping in South Asia?)

Bruschette: pane bianco with olio nuovo

We opted to begin with the pane bianco bruschette (oven-roasted bread topped with olive oil) served alongside a Caprese salad. I’m not sure why the single slice of bread needed to cost $3, but the salad completely made up for it. While a traditional Caprese is made with fresh plum tomatoes, Mozza managed to take it to another level by using vine-ripened cherry tomatoes and slightly roasting them. The result: A sweeter, richer depth of flavor that married perfectly with the mildness of the mozzarella.

Mozza caprese

The squash blossoms, a popular dish in Mediterranean kitchens, arrived stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella cheese, then breaded and fried. The portion was somewhat undersized, but the crispiness of the squash blossoms, combined with the airy ricotta filling, was outstanding. The antipasti offerings were solid, and I would certainly go back to try more of them — the salt cod bruschette, cauliflower gratinate, arrancine and bone marrow al forno are all on my list.

Margherita with mozzarella, tomato and basil

In comparing pies, I’ve learned (from discussions on this blog) that one must compare a pizza to another pie of the same genre in order to be fair. Since Mozza essentially prepares a Neapolitan-style pizza, it was crucial to try the standard: the margherita pizza, made with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil, and baked in a wood-fired oven. Mozza’s Margherita was satisfying: the tomatoes were tart yet sweet, and the overall flavors well-balanced. The pizza had perfectly browned (but never burned) peaks, valleys and canyons surrounding vibrantly-colored toppings. The unbelievably thin crust was a feat in itself, and the dough crackled in a crispness that succumbed to just the slightest amount to pressure, even in the center of the pie. My only complaint was that it had less ingredients and more crust than I expected. To quote Frank Bruni: “The crusts of a few of the pies had rims so monstrously broad they muscled the toppings out of the picture.”

Pizza alla benno, with speck prosciutto, pineapple, jalapeno, mozzarella and tomato

Pizza alla benno: speck, pineapple, jalapeño, mozzarella and tomato

With a few exceptions, like the margherita, many of the restaurant’s offerings were a new take on traditional pizza combinations. The pizza alla benno was a Hawaiian-style pizza with speck prosciutto instead of ham. The pizza had a bit of a kick with the addition of jalapeño, which was a great substitute for the standard crushed red pepper — I would have liked even more of it. Overall, it was a nice take on the Hawaiian, but could have used a bit less pineapple as it was a tad too sweet.

Fennel sausage, panna and spring onion pizza

The best pizza of the night was the fennel sausage pizza. Arnold of Inuyaki called it a must-try, and it truly is: The sausage, which is made in-house, possessed a sweet-spicy anise flavor had me yearning for more.

Caramel copetta with Spanish peanuts

Just when we thought we were completely satiated, we were handed the dessert menu. Everything sounded so delicious that we proceeded to eat what could be considered another meal’s worth of desserts. Our waitress said she concurred so much with our dessert selection that she wished she could pull up a chair and enjoy it with us.

The first dessert I tried was a glorified sundae, with caramel gelato atop a caramel wafer, drizzled with caramel and marshmallow sauces, and sprinkled with salted Spanish peanuts (skin still on). The dish provided a stark contrast between the savory and the sweet. I loved the crispy, chewy wafer combined with the melting gelato as well. My only complaint was that the peanuts were a bit overpowering in the dish and should have been chopped into smaller pieces — because they were still whole, I felt a bit like I was snacking on gorp.

Butterscotch budino with fennel cookies

Our server sang the praises of the butterscotch budino as the restaurant’s can’t-miss dessert. She was spot-on: The pudding was an Italian rendition of dulce de leche, topped with thin layer of caramel, a dollop of cream and a pinch of sea salt, and fennel cookies on the side. The accompanying fennel cookies didn’t add anything to the dish and seemed to distract from the pudding, which was light, smooth as butter, and indulgent in a way that was not overpowering.

Banana gelato pie, with chopped nuts and bittersweet chocolate sauce

While I was prepared to find an assortment of gelati and a budino on the dessert menu, I wasn’t expecting to see a bombe. The banana gelato pie was a refreshing detour from the typical Italian dessert menu (please, no more panna cottas!) and possessed the authentic banana flavor that is both mild and strong at the same time.

Gelati sampler with vanilla olive oil gelato, hazelnut gelato and blood orange sorbet

Since I was so in love with the olive oil dessert at Pizzeria Picco, I leaped at the chance to try the assortment of frozen offerings. We opted for a blood orange sorbet, which was tart and slightly cloying; a hazelnut gelato, which was not too sweet and reminiscent of roasted nuts; and the olive oil, which tasted more like vanilla with olive oil mixed into it. The olive oil gelato paled in comparison to Pizzeria Picco’s Da Vero-drizzled soft-serve.

Eating at Pizzeria Mozza, I couldn’t help but wonder how much Batali and Silverton were influenced by Bruce Hill, the chef and owner of Pizzeria Picco, whose pizza Batali swore was “so good, it’s enough to make you cry.” While Hill is certainly ahead with his olive oil soft-serve, Pizzeria Mozza might just take the pie…pun intended.

Pizzeria Mozza, 641 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 323.297.0101

Ramen Showdown: NY v. SF

Posted in Destinations, Ramen, Restaurants, Reviews with tags , on March 26, 2008 by Susannah

Who has better ramen: New York or San Francisco? My recent fixation with ramen brought about a bicoastal trek in search for the answer.

First Stop: Manhattan

In the East Village, just around the corner from Momofuku (New York’s other famed noodle house), lies the first U.S. outpost of Ramen Setagaya, a mini-chain of ramen shops originating in Japan. Setagaya has garnered solid acclaim this year.

Upon entering, I immediately noticed the pared-down atmosphere. The kitchen was entirely visible from the small seating area, which, besides having Japanese TV, was completely no-frills. Consequently, I was surprised to see a sign that said, “No takeout.”

Ramen Setagaya

The kitchen at Ramen Setagaya

The menu offered only one flavor of ramen: shio (or salt-broth) ramen with pork. The only menu options were in size and serving style: The ramen could be ordered piping hot in shio broth, or tsukemen-style, with thicker, cold noodles to be dipped in warm shio broth. I opted for something new and went with the noodles in dipping sauce over traditional soup ramen, since I love chewier, thicker noodles.

noodles

Tsukemen

Because I really wanted to enjoy the noodles like a traditional bowl of ramen, I wound up transferring all of the noodles into the warm shio broth. The cold noodles, with the warm shio broth, turned the temperature of the dish to lukewarm, which regrettably put quite a damper on my eating experience.

pork and broth

Shio dipping broth

Still, I couldn’t discount the tender, chewy cubes of pork, the extremely al dente noodles, and the broth, which was made with a cornucopia of ingredients, including pork, chicken, several dried seaweeds, fried onions and dried scallops. Each ingredient seemed to add another layer of complexity of the soup’s flavor profile: the scallops added a meaty texture, the seaweed a briny flavor, and so on. I only supposed this made up for the lack of add-ons (such as scallions, bamboo shoots and egg) that typically top ramen bowls.

The final product

Tsukemen immersed in shio dipping broth

My only other complaint was that, of all three waitresses at Setagaya that night, not one seemed to be professional and attentive. The sat in front of us, gossiping, even crouching down at one point to hide from the customers (even though Andy and I could see they were squatting on the floor, whispering in Korean). While we finished our meal, the waitstaff proceeded with their cleaning duties, and it was difficult to enjoy my delicious, aromatic pork ramen while I had the smell of Windex up my nose. And more importantly, I left with a bunch of burning tsukemen questions left unanswered: Why did the tsukemen arrive without toppings? And why was the pork in the tsukemen cubed, rather than sliced? Why didn’t the regular ramen have the option of being served with thicker noodles? (Her answer to this last question was, in not so many words, just because.)

FYI, to all the ramen aficionados out there: The questions still stand.

Stop Two: San Mateo (Bay Area)

A week later, I found myself standing in line at the renowned Santa Ramen, on the busy street of El Camino Real in San Mateo. My friend Steph has long touted Santa as the best ramen in the Bay Area, and my two-stop trek really is nothing compared to her six-stop ramen day tour (you can read her recap here). Santa Ramen, which is notorious for its long lines and taxing waits, recently moved to a larger location to better serve its clientele.

Santa Ramen interior

Santa Ramen interior

While I realize that should have ordered the shio broth (and yes, I feel guiltily unfair for not doing so), I went for the miso broth, which a Japanese friend recommended. It was creamy, to the point of being almost milky, although I’m pretty sure it contained no dairy whatsoever. The broth was cloudy, lacking any of the clarity that I saw in the my shio broth at Setagaya, but it was also the least salty broth, which I liked. Unlike Setagaya, my ramen came fully loaded with two oversized pork slices, a sheet of roasted seaweed, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and chopped scallions. I also added kimchi to my order, and Andy added a cooked egg.

Pork Ramen with Miso Broth

Pork Ramen with Miso Broth

The noodles were enticingly al dente, but I wished they had absorbed more of the soybean flavor of the miso broth. The bean sprouts added a bit of crunch, and I enjoyed the two elements, crunchy and chewy, that I experienced when biting into the noodles. The sour, pungent, crisp kimchi was one of the highlights of the meal. The pork, which should have been one of my favorite elements, wasn’t warm enough, moist enough or fatty enough. As my friend Fumiko would say, fat is essential to any good ramen.Next time, just to be as fair as possible, I’ll be sure to order the ramen in a shio broth (although I didn’t see tsukemen as an option on the menu).

The Verdict

If I could have it any way I wanted, I think I would pick and choose, just like in a salad bar:

Broth: the miso, from Santa Ramen

Noodles: the tsukemen, from Ramen Setagaya

Pork: the cubed pork, from Ramen Setagaya

Egg: the barely-cooked style from Momofuku

In short, the verdict has remained somewhat elusive. I’ve determined that this simply requires that I perform another taste test.

That, plus I just heard there’s an even newer, bigger and better ramen haunt in town: Ippudo. The pork-based broth supposedly simmers for fifteen hours…

Ramen Setagaya, 141 First Ave., New York, New York 212.529.2740

Santa Ramen, 1944 S El Camino Real, San Mateo, Calif. 650.344.5918

Clinton St. Baking — the brunch to top them all

Posted in Destinations, Restaurants, Reviews with tags , , on March 21, 2008 by Susannah

Brunch is my favorite meal–I’m constantly trying new places. Over the years, I’ve managed to find places that satisfy specific brunch cravings (pancakes, eggs benedict, French toast, etc.), but have never found a spot that can successfully execute all brunch dishes.

That all changed when I set foot in the Clinton St. Baking Co. I was in Manhattan for the weekend and meeting up with my friend Kara, who immediately recommended this place, citing its amazing brunch. I was thrilled (as I always want to sample everyone’s favorite spots), but after a wait of at least one hour I was beginning to question whether the wait would be worth the while. Even Kara, who loved the place but had been waiting at least two hours, was starting to lose patience.

We were soon reminded of why she’d brought me here, notwithstanding the insane wait. The menu was filled with unusual yet comforting brunch dishes, including pulled pork with grits and a buttermilk biscuit sandwich made with homemade tomato jam.

The warm brioche french toast was crisp on the outside, melt-in-your-mouth soft on the inside, and topped with caramelized bananas, toasted pecans and maple butter. It was like a cross between banana nut bread, with all the nutty flavor of the pecans, and bananas foster, with a glaze reminiscent of burnt caramel.

Brioche French Toast

Brioche French Toast (image: nycfoodguy.com)

The Southern Breakfast included eggs, which we ordered scrambled. They were as light and as fluffy as eggs come. The biscuit was even more delicious. It wasn’t overly buttery or crumbly, just rich and soft.

Southern Breakfast

Southern Breakfast (Image: Wonjae Y., Yelp)

Sugar-Cured Bacon

Sugar-Cured Bacon (Image: Princess M., Yelp)

Without a doubt, the highlight of the meal was the bacon. I ordered it alongside some cheesy grits, which were also fantastically cheesy, soft and creamy. I am no stranger to bacon, cooking and dining with it frequently. But never have I ever had a bacon experience like the one I had. The bacon, which was not yet cold, was chewy in places, crispy along the edges, with just the right ratio of meat to fat melting in my mouth. What truly made the bacon the pièce de resistance, however, was the fact that it was sugar-cured. The sweet smokiness really put the whole meal over the top.

It was well after 3 pm when we left the restaurant, but I left full and very, very happy. I don’t say this, ever: It was well worth the two-hour wait.

Clinton St. Baking Company & Restaurant, 4 Clinton St., New York, New York 646.602-6263

Ad hoc, take 2: The letdown of the season

Posted in Restaurants, Reviews with tags , on March 5, 2008 by Susannah

pig

image: ad hoc website

Last month I tried ad hoc for the first time and enjoyed it so much I practically ran home to rave about it. Naturally, when I had an opportunity to return last weekend, I jumped at the chance to go back.

I wish I hadn’t. Continue reading

Fried chicken at ad hoc: A religious experience

Posted in Restaurants, Reviews with tags , , on February 12, 2008 by Susannah

ad hoc

I have wanted to try ad hoc‘s food since its opening in 2006. The newest of Thomas Keller’s Yountville restaurants, it was initially supposed to be a temporary restaurant based on a prix fixe family-style menu. Today, the menu still stands, but its short-lived status does not: In September 2007, due to popular demand, the restaurant became a permanent fixture.
Perhaps part of the reason for the restaurant’s popularity is its fried chicken, which has a cult following like none other. Fried chicken night is hard to catch (pun intended), as the chicken is made twice monthly and only on Monday nights. For those of us who have 9 to 5 jobs, the chicken is particularly elusive, but a few weeks ago, I finally bit the bullet and made the hour-and-a-half drive up to Yountville from San Francisco.

Despite arriving on time, we waited at the bar with a drink for at least 15 minutes. We were finally seated in a cozy corner table. We were handed menus (although we didn’t need to order) and house bread. The bread basket was filled with two different kinds of bread: a triple alliance loaf with spelt, rye and flour, and a pain de campagne. While the pain de campagne was a rustic country bread with a similarity to sourdough, the triple alliance bread had a true coarseness to it, and was what I would have imagined to be true peasant bread.

Our first course, a contemporary twist on Cobb salad, began with baby iceberg wedges, which were covered with a vinaigrette of olive oil, vinegar, mustard and Worcestershire, then topped with kalamata olives, ham, parsley, red onions and soft-boiled eggs. While it didn’t have many elements of a Cobb salad (bacon, avocados, Roquefort cheese), it was well-balanced and light, a perfect start for the rest of the courses to follow.

baby iceberg cobb salad

But it was really nothing compared to our second course of buttermilk fried chicken, which was about to change my life. It was everything I’ve ever wanted in fried chicken: crispy on the outside, with a substantial breading that put every other fried chicken crust to shame; moist, juicy and tender on the inside, yet cooked through and not greasy; meaty, with little to no bones; just seasoned and spicy enough so that no hot sauce was necessary.

buttermilk fried chicken

Our waiter Nessim explained the many elements that contribute to the end result, starting with the ingredients. The chickens are local, organic, free-range young chickens, which explains how I was able to eat through an enormous thigh and have nothing to show for it save one small bone. The hens arrive fresh from Modesto, as the kitchen never freezes the poultry, and are brined for 12 hours and dredged in a coating of all-purpose flour, cayenne pepper, paprika and other spices, dipped into a bath of buttermilk and then dredged into the flour mixture for a second time, fried and topped with thyme.

Here’s where things start to get ambiguous: Fellow blogger Arnold posted Keller’s fried chicken recipe a while back when it was published in Food and Wine. The recipe is similar but doesn’t match up exactly: the breading doesn’t include cayenne, and more significantly, the chicken is breaded once, not twice.

Along with the generous portions of chicken, I enjoyed a glass of cava, a great wine to cut into the heaviness of a deep-fried chicken leg. The chicken was served with giblet gravy, which was good, but I’m not a fan of giblets. Collard greens and black-eyed peas were served alongside the chicken, and they were nearly just as delicious. The collard greens really stood up to the chicken and black-eyed peas; they weren’t overcooked and limp (common mistakes), and the leaves were kept whole rather than chopped into tiny pieces. The black-eyed peas were flavored with bacon (typical) and curry (atypical), and this added a great touch to the the traditional Southern meal.

Buttermilk fried chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas

Our third course was a cheese course, with two cow’s milk cheeses: Red Gold from Elk Creamery in the coastal Mendocino town of Elk, and Pug’s Leap from down the road in Healdsburg. They were accompanied by raw almonds and organic clover blossom honey, which was some of the most aromatic honey that I’ve ever had, with notes of apricot and vanilla.

Ad hoc cupcakes

Last (and least), Andy and I had a trio of cupcakes for dessert. We had a vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting and chocolate ganache filling; a chocolate cupcake with white chocolate frosting and filling; and a “madeleine” cupcake with cream cheese frosting and lemon curd filling. Having tried many different kinds of cupcakes, I can say with confidence that these were not remarkable at all — the cake was dense and somewhat dry, and the frostings were all cloyingly sweet.

Given the exceptional fried chicken, however, anything else would have been (indulge me this one time) just icing on the cake. By the time we drove home from Yountville through the foggiest of driving conditions, it was nearly midnight, but I didn’t mind much. I was already dreaming of when we’d be going back.

ad hoc, 6476 Washington St., Yountville, Calif. 707.944.2487