Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dinner @ Baker & Banker

I've been to Baker & Banker a handful of times, once for an awesome dinner about 2 years ago, once for one of the best brunches of my life, and once for a good, but not as amazing, brunch.  It is owned by a husband, executive chef Baker, and wife, chef Banker, who runs the pastry program and the adjacent bakery (aww, so cute!).  The signature dish is a mirin and soy braised black cod, with foie gras-shiitake sticky rice, and charred bok choy.  I got this the first time I went, long before I was obsessed with foie, and it was amazing.  I'd been meaning to go back to enjoy it again, and as the dish will have to be removed from the menu as of July 1, I needed to do it urgently!

I'm also always looking for good Sunday night dining options, and they are one of few places open, so last Sunday night, we headed to Baker & Banker with the primary goal of getting the cod dish.  Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my memories or expectations, but the foie gras and duck liver pâté we got as a starter was one of the best cold foie preparations I've had.

Service was fine, but like the rest of the food, forgettable.  There was a very long lag after we received our starters and before our mains.

The space is light, bright, and comfortable.  There is a tiny 6 seat bar, complete with purse hooks, available for walk ins, and the rest of the restaurant is reservation based.  Presentation isn't much, but matches the casual vibe and neighborhood feel of the restaurant.  

The highlight of the meal happened after we left the restaurant.  With the bill, the waitress brought us each a box with two random baked goods in it, explaining that it was a slow day at the bakery, so they had leftovers.  I adore baked goods, and have wanted to check out the bakery for ages, so this was awesome.  The items we received are not necessarily the things I would have picked, but they turned out to be pretty great.  I've reviewed those sepratately.

Overall, everything was decent, and I have no major criticisms, but besides the pâté, nothing made me eager to return.  I'll go back if someone else wants to, but I won't seek it out.  (Although, the bakery is another story all together!)
Sourdough bread, butter, salt.
I rarely care much about bread at restaurants, as it is usually not very good and not worth filling up on, but I fondly remembered the bread basket from my first trip to Baker & Banker.  As they also run a bakery, it makes sense that they would have high quality bread.  Last time, it was fantastic, definitely one of the highlights of the meal, and featured several varieties of interesting breads to choose from.  This time however, there was only one type of bread, a standard sourdough.  And being the horrible San Franciscan that I am, I don't like sourdough.  I was very disappointed :(

The bread was served warm, it was crusty, and good enough I guess, but, it was sourdough.  The butter had some large crystals of rock salt on top, and there was additional salt available on the table.
Foie gras and duck liver pâté with rhubarb and vanilla compote, served with grilled country bread from the bakery.  $18.
This arrived, not looking like much.  Just a jar of pâté, with some compote on the side, and bread.  Pretty standard.  I guess I was just feeling very let down after the bread basket, and all the mediocre cold foie preparations I've had lately, so I dug into this without much gusto.  It only took half a bite for my mind to be blown!

The pâté was actually two layers, one of the duck liver and one of the foie gras.  We didn't realize this at first, assuming it was mixed already, so my dining companion, who dug into it first, had his first few bites of the top layer only.  Whoops!  Both layers were amazingly creamy and smooth, really rich, and perfectly seasoned with the right amount of saltiness to compliment the richness of the livers and enhance the flavors.  Surprisingly, I preferred the duck liver over the foie, as it had even more flavor.  The foie layer was certainly good, but the foie flavor wasn't that intense.  Either layer was good on its own, but mixing the two together was also really good.

The compote was sweet, yet tart from the rhubarb.  It was really quite good, and I could imagine just enjoying it on toast on its own.  It paired wonderfully with the pâté.

The bread was a french country bread.  It was hearty tasting, with an amazing flavor from being grilled.  I think it had some sourdough in it, but it was mild, so I didn't mind too much.  It was served warm from the grill, causing the pâté to melt into the bread when you spread it on, like butter.  Since the bread was sliced fairly thick, it allowed the bread to soak up tons of the melted pâté.  I greatly preferred this to a more common crostini, which even if toasted and warm, just doesn't soak up the foie in the same way.  It reminded me of the waffles with foie gras at Spruce.  The bread was an integral part of this dish, but there wasn't enough of it.  We had to use some of the then cold table bread to finish the pâté, and really wasn't nearly as good.  The bread was also a little too oily for my liking.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been really down on cold foie preparations lately, but this dish made it clear to me what my preferences are for a cold foie preparation. The key elements, for me:
  1. Creamy, flavorful foie (torchon, pâté, mousse, terrine, etc, I don't particularly care).
  2. Seasoning.  It needs salt!
  3. Bread-like vehicle on which to spread it (can be a waffle or any sort of bread).  This has to be served warm so that the foie will melt into it, and it must be substantial enough to soak up the foie juices.
  4. Sweet component to pair with it (jams, compotes, reductions, syrups, fresh fruit, etc).
Obviously, there are cold preparations that I have also enjoyed that do not have these components (liked a shaved torchon served as part of a salad), but this seems to be a winning formula.  The ones I have disliked the most are ones that are in this style, but miss one of these marks (like being served with cold crostini).

This was the dish of the evening for me, far and away.  $18 was a fair price for a good amount of pâté.  One dining companion, who is totally sick of foie gras and didn't particularly want this, happily consumed more than he expected to.  I'd return in a heartbeat for this dish alone, but unfortunately, it is no longer on the menu.  It has been replaced (obviously for the next few days only), with a foie gras torchon, served with stone fruit compote and grilled brioche, which I must admit, does sound pretty awesome.  If you go in the next few days, please get this, and let me know how it was!

I paired the pâté with a recommended glass of reisling.  At $10, it was a decent pour, and a great value.  I liked it, and enjoyed the sweetness paired with the foie.

Our vegetarian dining companion had a salad of County Line greens, strawberries, sheep's milk feta, smoked almonds, with Banyuls vinaigrette ($13).  It looked fresh and crisp, and he seemed to enjoy it.

Mirin and soy braised black cod, foie gras-shiitake sticky rice, charred bok choy.  $33.
This was the dish we were there for, as I  thought it was downright amazing when I had it before.  Tonight however, it wasn't very good at all.

The major issue was the execution of the fish.  It was mushy.  Served with the skin on, which was slimy.  I had a number of pin bones in my piece.  It also tasted a little fishy.  However, the mirin and soy glaze was sweet and delicious as expected.

The rice wasn't really sticky rice, more just kinda mushy as well.  It was really oily.  I didn't taste any foie.

The bok choy was grilled, and like the bread from the pâté, had a great charred flavor.

This could have been a good dish, but things did not come out well tonight.  And at $33, I really expected a higher level of execution than this.

My vegetarian dining companion had a goat ravioli, which didn't seem particularly noteworthy.
Plum and white nectarine crisp, brandysnap ice cream.  $10.
I was looking forward to dessert, before even seeing the menu, since I knew the pastry department was strong here, and I'm a bit of a dessert-o-holic.  And then when I saw warm fruit crisp with ice cream being delivered to tables around us all evening, I got even more excited.  If you read my blog, you know that I absolutely adore warm desserts paired with ice cream.  And I love summer fruits (stone fruits, berries, etc).

The crisp was indeed served piping hot out of the oven.  Major points for this.  But overall, it wasn't a very good crisp.  The fruit was overcooked and mushy.  It was also way too sweet.  Good fruit doesn't need that much sugar added to it, and the added sugar just masked the flavor completely.  The crisp layer was made up of oats with a great cinnamon flavor, and was quite delicious, but this layer was much too thick.  There was way more crisp than fruit.  It was perfectly cooked however, really crispy.

The brandysnap ice cream was really good.  It was creamy, had a good flavor, and paired perfectly with the crisp.  It melted into the crisp nicely.

There was also a very sugary tuile, which was kinda soft, had a strange mouthfeel, and wasn't very great.  And a random garnish of mint, which added nothing to the dish.

The $10 price seemed a little high when I saw it, but this was a huge portion of both the crisp and the ice cream.  Even if you love this style of dessert, you'll probably want to share this.  This dish was almost awesome.  There were enough great things here - served hot, amazing crisp layer, good ice cream - that I'd order another fruit crisp here in the future, and hope for better execution of the fruit component of it.
XXX - triple dark chocolate layer cake.  $10.
This is their signature dessert, and has been on the menu for ages.  We had it last time too.  3 different chocolate cake layers, covered in even more chocolate ganache, with chocolate drizzle on the plate.  It is chocolate overload!

Served with a scoop of cream on the side, which I mistakenly thought was ice cream, and took a huge spoonful of.  Whoops!  And another random mint sprig.

The bottom layer is a flourless chocolate cake.  It had a good chocolate flavor.  The middle layer is a chocolate cheesecake.  It had a great cream cheese flavor, and was my favorite of the layers.  Finally, the top is a devil's food cake.  It was very moist and incredibly dark.

None of this was bad, but I don't really get the hype.  Perhaps this just isn't my kind of dessert.  I found it pretty forgettable.  Like the crisp, at $10 it seemed a little high, but this thing was massive.  Truly massive.  Seriously, even I need to share the desserts here.
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