Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Delicious, Inspiring Show

One night recently we were looking for movie to watch on Netflix.  We couldn’t really find one so we opted for a documentary series, Chef’s Table.  What a pleasant surprise.  The first episode was about Massimo Battura of Osteria Fransescana in Modena, Italy.  The show was about 45 minutes long and was beautifully filmed.  Unlike the 30 second blurbs you get on your favorite food network, with this you got depth.  You really got to know what makes Massimo tick.  The visuals of his food were drool-inducing.  The spirit and joy he displayed will make you want to get on a plane to Italy ASAP.  The interaction between Massimo and his wife and family truly illustrate the possibilities of following your passion and doing what you are meant to do.  

The second episode was about Blue Hill’s Dan Barber.  Still beautifully filmed and very intimate, Barber is a different sort of personality.  Fueled by childhood pain, he seems to be an obsessive perfectionist.  However, he also has a vision of food, flavor and the environment we all must listen to.  Blue Hill at Stone Barns has been on my bucket list since they opened.  One day I will be back east with enough money in the bank to make this happen.  This film only makes me more determined. 

I am looking forward to the remaining episodes.  While they certainly explore dining out and cooking at their extreme edge in flavor and expense, they explore food and vocation in ways worth considering.  You can spend $500 per person for such dining experiences, but you can also find local, reasonably priced places doing the best they can and delivering flavorful food, responsibly produced with love.  But you should watch this series to consider the possibilities.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Eating Salt Lake City (Part I)

If you have never been to Salt Lake City you probably have at least some image of what it might be like.  Most likely, your idea is wrong.  I work for 10 days each summer in SLC and confess that all my preconceived notions were wrong.  It is a fascinating city of contrasts.  It is cleaner than any American city I have ever been to.  Yes, there is a huge conservative influence, but it’s hardly a dry, passionless, sleepy, vanilla city.  In fact, some of my favorite restaurants and bars are in the Mormon capital.  This past summer I spent a few days of relaxation here on my way to Yellowstone from the West Coast.  Below are my foodie findings:

Late on the night we arrived we wandered into Martine, a Spanish place on East 100 South.  The kitchen was closing in just 15 minutes and they had just one couple still seated, yet cheerfully welcomed us and asked us to order anything we wanted.  So we did… we began with a couple wonderful mixed drinks, including the Nectar, summery, refreshing blend of Salt City vodka, Slide Ridge honey vinegar, orange blossom, fresh mint and soda.  Then we ate a late night dinner of four tapas plates, ceviche, a cold sweet pea soup with lavender and goat cheese, fried Brussel sprouts and roasted peppers.  Each dish was spectacular and of perfect proportions.  Flavors popped, textures balanced.  But the sweet pea soup is worth its own shout-out.  Creamy and bright, it was ideal for summer.  But the hint of lavender added something intangible but amazing.  Without being overbearing, it tasted like being on the slopes of the Pyrenees.  The goat cheese was almost literally the icing on the cake; it was some of the most amazing goat cheese I have ever had – creamy, subtle but bold.  Making our Martine evening even better was wonderful service that highlighted the contrasts of Salt Lake City.  Warm and friendly, and refreshingly honest, our server told us about her own experiences growing up in SLC, wanting to get out but not wanting to leave.  Open-minded, creative and truly enjoying sharing culinary experiences, our server and Martine itself flew in the face of many SLC stereotypes. 

Not ready to settle in for the night after 11 hours in the car, we hit up one of the favorite bars anywhere, Bar X on East 200 South.  Bar X is owned by Ty Burrell of Modern Family fame, and it sits alongside Beer Bar, about which I will say more later.  Bar X is dark.  No, really DARK.  Like you won’t see it all until your eyes adjust for 30 minutes DARK.  Classic speakeasy with heavy curtains, gilt mirrors, an odd chandelier, Bar X would be hip in any city in America.  We pulled up a seat at the bar and chatted with the bartender.  I ordered a favorite, the Sazerac (basically rye, bitters and absinthe), while my wife simply explained to the bartender what she liked.  He returned with a combination of cucumber and St. Germain among other elements.  Perfect!  And that’s Bar X – perfect for a cool drink, some dark, sultry atmosphere paired with cool music and an old movie on the lone television.  And you can bring in food from next door.  In fact, they’ll bring it to you.   

For breakfast the next morning (and lunch the next day) we wandered into Eva’s Boulangerie on Main Street.  From the outside, if not for its surrounding business you would sweat you were in Nice or Marseilles.  Yellow awning and bright blue trim announces Eva’s as a cheerful French café.  White tiled walls, bins of crisp, French bread and a line will tell you that you are about to be very happy.  The food?  I could eat here every day, possibly for each meal.  Over two meals, one with and one without the kids, we ate the croquet madame, the beet salad, the beat and avocado toast, the tuna Nicoise, a croissant sandwich, a baguette sandwich, truffle cake, a bowl of fruit, and more.  Every bite had wonderful texture and flavor.  Eva’s take great care in their sourcing and prides itself on serving some of the freshest and most carefully selected ingredients you’ll find anywhere.  I can assure that the croque madame was the best I’ve had on this continent and the beet and avocado toast was inspiring.  Simply put…eat here.   

Stay tuned...the rest of my SLC reviews will be published here on September 13.  But there will be some other topics in the meantime.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sonoma for the Holidays

Much has been written about California’s wine country and its epic foodie spots.  In the summer and fall people head to Napa and Sonoma in droves sampling wine all day and eating amazing food into the evening.  Though I live than three hours away, I had never ventured that way until this past December.  Sonoma proved a great holiday and culinary getaway. 

My wife and I started the unwinding at Larkspur’s Pizzeria Picco.  Thrillist listed it as one of the 33 best pizzas in America, so I had to try it.  I can’t say I have had enough great pizza to list 33 places worthy of such recognition, but Picco did prove to have a delicious pie.  Sitting on the sidewalk patio eating pizza as a late afternoon snack a few days before Christmas at the start of a completely agenda-less retreat might have had some impact on the deliciousness of everything, but I do believe it was legitimately great.  We split a Rocket Man salad and had two Neapolitan, wood fired pizzas, the Yeti and the Cannondale.  The Yeti featured mushrooms, leeks, thyme, garlic and three cheeses.  The aroma was strong from this one.  The combination of the hen of the woods mushrooms with leeks was amazing.  Bubbled crust, light cheese, fresh light tomato sauce, and this pizza really had proper balance of all the elements.  The Cannondale (Marin County is a cyclist’s paradise) was topped with house-made fennel sausage that was ground so fine as to be delicate, paired with roasted peppers, basil and onions.  Delicious!  The sausage was by far the defining element and I wanted more, but again this was a well-balanced pizza.  Rounding out our late afternoon snack was a hoppy glass of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder Double IPA.  Welcome to vacation!

In Sonoma the next day we opted for the Sunflower Café for a late breakfast.  Seeming to be little more than a large coffee shop, Sunflower was an amazing surprise.  For breakfast we had a scone and Peruvian Chicken Sliders.  The scone was obviously fresh and so flavorful – a flawless accompaniment to a cup of coffee.  The sliders were packed with flavor, highlighted by a citrus chili sauce.  We lounged, savored and contemplated the day ahead.  Sunflower ended up feeling so relaxed we ended up there again the next day for lunch.  The kale and sausage salad and the Italian grinder did not disappoint.  If you are in Sonoma looking for a cheap meal, Sunflower Café will fit the bill…and they’re open for dinner.

After a day of wine tasting and good conversation (Madone, Chateau St. Jean and St. Francis) we ended up in Santa Rosa.  It was late afternoon and seemed to be a great time for a snack and a beer.   It just so happened that I knew Russian River Brewing was in Santa Rosa and would be a great snack stop.  And it could provide my second consecutive day with a Pliny the Elder, this time on tap.  Walking into the brewpub felt as though we had crossed an imaginary line dividing metro San Francisco from the Pacific Northwest.  Flannel and facial hair were everywhere, trucks filled the streets and beer was the beverage of choice.  The beer was beautiful, the food perfectly pub-ish, and atmosphere exuded holiday relaxation.  I can’t wait to return.

On our last night we took in our special treat meal, dinner at The Girl and the Fig, on the square in Downtown Sonoma.  A casual bistro atmosphere greeted us with a small selection of souvenir food item, after all this place has become a destination.  Our cheerful host brought us to a lovely table for two in a small, intimate but well lit room.  Our server quickly dropped by, Susan.  She turned out to be amazing, so before going any further, ask for one of her tables if you go.  On the walk to our table I spied a couple plates of steak et frites.  I am not one to ever get a steak in a restaurant, but something about the atmosphere and the look of the plate was flawless.  I didn’t even have to look at the menu.  But I did and saw that I would be challenged.  Cassoulet, pork bellies, short ribs…this was going to take determination to stick to my first instinct.  But I did and would not be disappointed.  Cooked flawlessly, juicy and over a bed of phenomenal pommes frites, this classic French bistro dish is at its best at the Girl and the Fig.  In fact, everything was great…the soup, the appetizers – chicken livers were worth the trip alone.  The Girl and the Fig lived up to the hype.

Sonoma lived up to its reputation for simple, unadulterated pleasures.  It reportedly lacks the glitz and glam of Napa, but offers more than the Paso Robles region for now.  If you are looking for some California Wine country relaxation paired with great food, but without ridiculous prices, Sonoma is your place.