Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cooking Demo by Craig Stoll, Delfina

My Saturday mornings are all about food.  I start with shopping at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, and then often attend cooking demos.  The Ferry Building always has one at 11am, and then sometimes a second one at 11:45am.  They are usually less formal, and focus on seasonal cooking, particularly on sourcing all of the ingredients from the market.  Williams-Sonoma often hosts a guest chef at 12pm, and their demos tend to be much longer and more involved, and take advantage of their huge demo kitchen.  Macy's has them at 2pm, sponsored by Kaiser, and they focus on healthy cooking.  The format and quality of the demos is pretty varied, ranging from 20 minutes to 2 hours, from local Michelin starred chefs, to culinary instructors, to visiting authors on book tours.  Sometimes the food is amazing, sometimes it is pretty crappy.  Some of the best cooks are horrible speakers, and some of the worst food comes from the most personable chefs.  You never really know what to expect.

I love going to the demos.  I've learned a lot of technique along the way, but I mostly love it for the unique opportunity to find out more about local restaurants, as most of the demos are done by local chefs.  I've discovered a number of great restaurants through the demos.  Or when I already know of the chef, it is a great chance to ask them questions and learn more about their work.  It can also be really delicious.  How often do you get food actually prepared by the executive chef of a restaurant, in a small batch, served immediately?  There is something to be said for the freshness of things without the delay of fancy plating, waiting for servers, etc.  The very best donuts I've ever had in my life have come from cooking demos, as donuts fresh out of the fryer just can't be beat.

I don't generally write up reviews of the demos, as it doesn't seem as relevant to anyone else, as you can't read my review and then go to the demo yourself.  Sure, you can check out the restaurant, but it doesn't quite seem as useful.

But sometimes, a demo is so great, I can't resist writing it up.  And this is one of those cases.  The demo was the complete package: an engaging chef, incredibly informative, generous samples of ridiculously good food, and recipes that are simple enough that I could actually conceive of making them at home myself.  You can't ask for more.

It was at Bloomingdale's, where I have never attended a demo before.  I actually didn't know they had them, until I was walking through the other day, and saw the sign, advertising Chef Craig Stoll's upcoming demonstration.  I immediately recognized his name, as the chef from Delfina.

Yes, Delfina.  The restaurant you always think of, but then realize you'll never get into.  Sometimes you "settle" and visit the pizzeria next door, but even that involves an epic wait, usually on the freezing Mission sidewalk.  I haven't been to Delfina in a few years, although every time I think of it, I want to go.  And I still haven't made it into Locanda yet either, which I really want to do, as their pastas sound amazing.  When I was in the hospital a year or so ago in Pac Heights, we ordered take out from the pizzeria there a few times, and that was quite the treat.  Everyone else had hospital food, and I had Delfina meatballs.  Mmm!

Anyway, I digress.  I was interested in what he'd be cooking, excited to see a chef of his calibre.  When I took my seat and glanced at the recipe booklet, I was thrilled.  Chef Stoll wasn't just doing one dish, he was making a 3 course meal of all of Delfina's greatest hits!  So not only was I going to see a great chef in action and hopefully learn a few things, I was going to get to eat some of Delfina's most famous dishes, AND take home the recipes for them.  Even if it meant spending a few hours of the sunny Saturday afternoon inside, this seemed like a great way to do it.

The demo was, hands down, the most engaging and entertaining one I've ever been to.  To be honest, I sometimes get a little bored, and generally wind up multi-tasking while I'm there.  My mind didn't drift for a second during this demo.  The chef shared so much knowledge, about cooking technique and ingredients, working so many tips naturally into his dialogue.  I've watched The Next Food Network Star on tv, and the coaches are always telling them to share facts and details but do so without sounding scripted, and this is exactly what he did.  And then he intermingled funny personal stories too.  He never sounded forced, and seemed so comfortable speaking in front of us.  Seriously, so much better than anyone I ever saw on that show!

He told us funny stories, like about why he choose to become a chef.  He reminded us that back then, there was no Food Network, no celebrity chefs.  It wasn't a sexy job, it was just going to a trade school.    So why do it?  Well, he was in high school.  And when he worked as a dishwasher, they treated him like an adult, even gave him beer.  And he cooked for a girl, and found it to be the best way to get girlfriends.  Done and done!

He also told us a little about the history of Delfina, about how it was their vision to create a neighborhood restaurant, a place for friends to come eat a good meal, and allow him and his wife to not need to work for anyone else.  They felt that during the week, someone should be able to get a good simple plate of pasta without it costing too much.  And on the weekend, if they wanted to get dressed up and go all out, they could do that too.  Clearly, he was onto something, as Delfina is always so busy!

He also talked about social media, particularly about Yelp in the early days.  Delfina Pizzeria was known for the t-shirts the staff members wore, which contained snippets from some of their worst Yelp reviews.  He said this was their way of dealing with it, else they'd obsess over every single review and be really brought down by them.  He acknowledged that candid reviews can be really useful, as his friends come and dine and only tell him the good things.

While he spoke and prepared the dishes, his sous chef was on the side preparing the food in larger quantities for us, using components that "by the magic of television" were ready faster than the real required cook times.

The really stunning thing for me was how simple these famous recipes are.  The ingredient lists are short.  The cooking times and processes are not that involved.  I honestly think I could make these, and, while I sure love to eat, I'm not that great in the kitchen.  Chef Stoll stressed how good cooking can be about just taking high quality ingredients and treating them right.  I left the demo more inspired to try to follow the recipes than I've ever been before.  Seriously, get this man a TV show, or, at least, a cookbook.  He has some serious skills to share with the world, and a great personality to back it up.

Now, I really want to go back to Delfina.  And definitely to make it to Locanda!
Insalata di Campo | radicchio, frisee, arugula, pancetta, walnuts, Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinaigrette.  $10 at restaurant.
The first dish was a simple salad.  Just some bitter greens, in a vinaigrette, with some nuts and cheese.  Everywhere has this on their menu, right?  So what makes this special?

He credits the success of the dish to two things.  The first is the great vinaigrette.  It is made by macerating shallots in the vinegar to start.  I didn't realize the difference in the terms marinate and macerate until he pointed them out.  When you marinate, you are trying to pull the flavor into the thing you are marinating.  When you macerate, you are pulling out.  In this case, you are want the amazing flavor of shallots in the vinaigrette.  (And we all know from reading Kitchen Confidential that shallots are one of the keys to success.)  The other important element of the vinaigrette is the salt, amping up the flavor by adding far more than you'd expect.  He also talked about the different grades of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, pointing out that it isn't that one grade is "better" than another, just that they are different, and there are different times and places for different types.  Just like you wouldn't use a crazy expensive finishing oil for cooking, you wouldn't use a super aged balsamic here.

For the greens, he used a mix of radicchio for the bitterness and color, frisee for some crunch, and both baby and wild arugula.  In the winter, he said he would throw in all sorts of other greens.

The other key to this dish is the treatment of the pancetta and the walnuts.  They are done to order.  They do not pre-chop the walnuts and just toss them in at order time, but rather toast and chop them at last minute, so they can release all of their oils into the salad.  Same with the pancetta.  They don't just cook the pancetta all in one big batch early on, but rather are continuously cooking small batches all evening, and again, are chopping it to order so that it releases the oils and you get them in your salad.  And why chop it, rather than giving you a nice big chunk?  So that you get the pancetta in every bite.

One other tip we got was to use a vegetable peeler to shave the cheese.  I've always tried to use a cheese grater, and can rarely make lovely curls with it.  A plain old veggie peeler is how they do it!

This salad was really quite good.  Yes, it was a simple salad, there is no denying that.  But the greens were crisp and just the right amount of bitter.  And the whole thing had just the perfect amount of salt, in both the vinaigrette and then enhanced by the pancetta.  And just like he said, having a tiny piece of pancetta in nearly every bite really did make all the difference.  I'm not usually a big salad person, as it seems like a waste of stomach space, but I eagerly finished this!
Spaghetti | plum tomatoes, garlic, chili flake, extra virgin olive oil.  $9 at restaurant.
Next we moved on to Delfina's most famous dish: the spaghetti.  Everyone knows this as the best spaghetti in the city.  Chef Stoll joked that it has its own fan club.  And the shocking thing is ... this is a very simple dish, only a handful of ingredients.  The sauce is insanely simple: olive oil, garlic, basil, and tomatoes, canned ones at that.  Salt and pepper.  The pasta is just dried pasta.  And then it is topped with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.  That's it.  No frills.

So why on earth is this so notable?

Let's start with the base of the sauce, the tomatoes.  They use canned tomatoes, always, even at the peak of tomato season.  He explained that fresh and canned tomatoes are just different things, one isn't better than the other, they just have different uses.  And for this sauce, canned tomatoes it is.  They also always use Californian tomatoes.  Every year, they do a blind taste test of tomatoes, tasting at least 25 different tomatoes from all over the world, and every year, they always pick Californian ones, like Di Napoli.  They also always use whole plum tomatoes, and break them down by hand.

Another notable thing is that this sauce has garlic, but it doesn't hit you over the head with it.  Italian food so often just blows out your palate by loading it up with garlic.  Not here.  He did mention one thing about garlic that I never knew.  When the garlic has a little green shoot in it, you should remove that.  Whoops, I've always added it!

The pasta is a similar story to the sauce.  They make plenty of fresh pasta at Delfina, and all the pasta at Locanda, including the dry pasta, is made fresh.  But for the spaghetti, they use a dried spaghetti (Rustichella d'Abruzzo to be exact).  And just like the tomatoes, he explained that dried vs fresh isn't a question of one being better than the other, just different.

When it comes to serving it, he gave some tips for ensuring that the sauce doesn't run off the pasta, but rather coats it.  They never ladle sauce on to the top of the pasta, always toss it, and cook it the last few minutes together.  This allows the pasta to soak up more of the sauce and for the pasta to release starches into the sauce so that it sticks better.  You don't want to wind up with a pile of sauce on the plate at the end.

The sauce was very rich from all of the oil.  Not only did it coat the pasta, it felt like it coated the inside of my mouth a little, which I didn't entirely like.  It clung to the pasta in a way I've never seen before, and he was right, there wasn't a leftover drop on the plate when I was done.  The spaghetti was the perfect vessel for the sauce, a little thicker than standard spaghetti I think, but it held the sauce very well.  The sauce was simple, there wasn't a ton of flavor.  It wasn't really something I'd rave about, as I like more going on in my sauce, but for a simple plate of spaghetti, this was indeed very good.  It also really made me want a glass of red wine!
Lemon-Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Berries.  $9 at restaurant.
And to finish, we were in for a serious treat: Delfina's famous Lemon-Buttermilk Panna Cotta!  I adore panna cotta, which is why my blog even has a label for it.  I hadn't ever had Delfina's before, although I've known about it, and have really wanted to go get it a number of times.

The panna cotta is another staple on the menu.  The flavoring and accompaniments vary with the seasons, but the base stays the same.  New pastry chefs are required to keep this dish around, as it too has its own fan club.

And again, a panna cotta is a fairly simple classic.  You can dress it up with all sorts of toppings, but what Delfina is known for is just the basic panna cotta.

Again we ask, what makes this so special?

Chef Stoll thinks that it is the combination of the lemon juice and buttermilk that they use, which give it a special tang and acidity.  I learned a few things during this part of the demo as well.  I have never made panna cotta before, and knew that it means "cooked cream, but didn't realize that it isn't really cooked.  It is set with gelatin in the fridge.  "Buttermilk jello" would be a better name for the dish.  He also shared the technique of using aluminum tins as molds, so that when you go to unmold it, you can just puncture a hole in the bottom to release the suction.

The panna cotta was absolutely delicious.  The buttermilk really comes through.  Again, just like he said, it was that tang that elevated this above any other panna cotta I've ever had.  It was deliciously creamy, although I think it wasn't quite set, as it got a tiny bit runny when I took a spoonful.  We had it topped with a sauce made from raspberries and blackberries, very sweet, but a good contrast with the tangy, citrusy, panna cotta.

Probably the best panna cotta I've ever had.  I'll join its fan club.  And now that I have the recipe, I'm going to seriously consider making it myself.  Dish of the demo for me, but we could have predicted that, right?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Citizen's Band

[ Originally posted December 4, 2011.  Moving to blog after discussion of the place with a friend. ]

I was excited to go to Citizen's band because the menu sounded great (mac and cheese! burgers! warm pie and ice cream!) and I've really liked the baked goods from the associated bakery (Pinkies).  Unfortunately, nothing was very good, and I do not think I will be returning there.
Mac and cheese: Baked macaroni, cheddar fonduta, onion rings.  $8.
Ok, this *should* have been awesome, in a totally unhealthy comfort food sort of way.  Mac and cheese and onion rings, all in the same dish?  It was a square of pan fried mac and cheese, topped with more cheese sauce, topped with tower of onion rings, finished with grated parmesan cheese.

Unfortunately, it looks/sounds better than it was. The mac and cheese just wasn't that flavorful and the batter on the onion rings just tasted like bad old oil. I did like how the mac and cheese was pan seared though, so there was an entire layer of crispy bits!

$8 was a very good price for a dish this size.
Burger and house cut fries: Grilled Snake River Farms Kobe beef, Pinkie's challah bun, tomato marmalade, roasted garlic mayo, housemade pickles, cheddar cheese.  $13.
Another one that *sounded* great.  Quality beef, bread from their awesome bakery, housemade toppings ...

The fries were the most inconsistent fries I've ever encountered - some were crispy, some were soggy, some tasted like cardboard ... meh! And they all tasted like old oil like the onion rings.

The burger was also totally inconsistent - some parts well done and other parts medium well (the entire thing was overcooked, it was ordered medium-rare).  On the plus side, the cheese was well melted, the challah bun was decent, the bacon we added was tasty, and the house made pickles were pretty good. The roasted tomato marmalade that was supposed to be on here was pretty much non-existent.

$13 is a good price for a quality burger, but the execution was just all off on this.

Warm persimmon cobbler with Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous Ice Cream.  $7.50.
And yet another dish that sounded perfect, but was a disappointment.  I love warm cobblers/pies/crisps with ice cream and generally have pretty high tolerance for them not being awesome and still love them, but this was pretty bad. Served lukewarm (which I guess is still technically "warm").  Certainly not a cobbler as advertised ... as in, no cobbles, topping was just some oats/flour more like a crisp, except ... not crispy.  There was very little persimmon (perhaps 5 tiny chunks in the whole thing?)  The majority of the dish was poorly cooked, still hard, apples.  Overall it was just flavorless and goopy.  Sigh.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Soma Inn Cafe

I've been having fun lately playing with LevelUp and GoPago, using my free credits all over the city to finally check out places I've been meaning to go for ages, but somehow still hadn't managed to.  This past month, in addition to the normal credits on LevelUp, I had additional credits to spend at SOMA establishments.

One place I'd heard about was Soma Inn Cafe, a pretty nondescript cafe at 7th & Folsom - not exactly the nicest of neighborhoods or somewhere I'd naturally wind up, but not too far of a trek.  Their brunch menu sounded pretty good, and I've been in such a brunchy mood lately that I decided to check it out.  Their dessert menu also sounded fantastic, so I made a return trek just for dessert later in the week.

Soma Inn cafe is pretty basic and more like a diner than a cafe.  1-2 waitresses on staff at a time, along with a short order cook.  There is a long counter will bar stools facing the open cooking area, a few tables on the sides.  It wasn't busy.  It seemed like a number of people came in just to get coffee drinks to go.

I had a major gripe with the menu options, and lack of flexibility to change anything.  I wanted french toast, but not a ton of it.  The menu listed the french toast, 5 pieces, for $7.  The next item was the pancakes, a full stack, also 5 pieces, for $7, or a short stack of 3 for $5.50.  There was also a fancy french toast with berry sauce, bananas, and whipped cream for $9 and a fancy pancakes with the same toppings also for $9.  It looked like pancakes and french toast were equivalent value.  So I asked if I could get a short stack of french toast instead.  No.

Ok, granted, that was a little bit of a strange request.  So I continue browsing the menu.  There is a breakfast combo meal: 2 eggs, hashbrowns or homefries, toast or 2 pancakes for $6.50.  That sounded like a great mix of stuff, except that I wanted french toast, not pancakes, but since they seemed equivalent price, I asked if I could get that combo, with french toast instead of pancakes.  No.

Ok, so still, I guess I was being difficult.  I see another breakfast combo, this one is: 2 eggs, 2 bacon or 2 sausage, and 2 pancakes or 2 french toast, for $8.  Aha!  I can get a combo with my french toast.  Except, I didn't want bacon or sausage.  But clearly, since this combo is more expensive than the one that had the hashbrowns in place of the breakfast meats, I could order this one, and downgrade to hashbrowns, right?  No.  I even said I was happy to pay the $8 price and get less value.  Still no.  I pointed out that as side items, the hashbrowns were $3 and the sausage/bacon $4.50, so this was clearly me getting something worth less, but paying more.  She still said no.  She said I could add on a side of hashbrowns for $3 and that she could just not bring me the bacon or sausage.  Seriously?

I really just don't understand.  From every indication on the menu, pancakes and french toast were equivalent value, so why couldn't I just sub one out for the other?  Or if that was too crazy, why couldn't I sub cheaper hashbrowns for more expensive sausage or bacon?  I understand not wanting tons of substitutions, but this seemed a little ridiculous.

Please Soma Inn Cafe, consider making it possible to get toast or pancakes or french toast in the first combo.  Or make pancakes/french toast available a la carte.  Or french toast short stacks.  Or at least, let me get cheaper things and charge me more!

Ok, done my rant about the menu.  I guess it wasn't the waitress's fault that she couldn't substitute anything.  What was her fault however, was my french toast, sitting up on the counter, waiting for her to deliver it, for about 5 minutes.  The cook yelled "pick up" about 5 times.  She wasn't really busy, was off busing tables and re-setting them, while my french toast sat there getting cold, not under a heat lamp or anything.  Maybe intentional since I was such a pain in the butt?

Grumble.  The whole experience left me very grumpy.  Yet, I still went back later in the week to get dessert, to use the rest of SOMA credits, since I'd seen bread pudding on the menu when I was there before, and I love bread pudding.

My plan was to pick up the bread pudding to have with my dinner. But, it was a hot day, and I saw ice cream on the menu.  So I asked what flavors of ice cream they had.  The server just looked at me and shrugged.  She asked her manager, who told me just vanilla.  I went back to my original plan of the bread pudding.  I asked how it was served.  She again told me she didn't know.  After a few minutes, she asked her manager, who told me that it was served warm, with 4 berry sauce, and for $1 more, it could be a la mode, which she recommended.  I explained that I was getting it for later, so I didn't want it a la mode.  I also said I didn't need it heated up, since I wouldn't be eating it right away.  She said they'd heat it up anyway.  I again expressed that I wasn't planning to eat it until later in the evening, and that I really didn't need, nor want, it heated up.  She told me she was sorry, but it had to come that way.

Uh what?  Again, no flexibility at this place at all!  It made me wonder if perhaps it was frozen?  I asked if I could get the sauce on the side, so it wouldn't make it soggy, and she gladly agreed to do that.  So strange.

Anyway, the food wasn't very good, the service pretty clueless, and I won't be going back.
French Toast: Lightly dipped in egg batter & cinnamon, grilled golden brown,  dusted with powdered sugar & maple syrup.  $7.
The french toast was very basic.  It was sliced nice and thick, but the bread was just generic white bread.  It wasn't particularly eggy or interesting.  I didn't detect much cinnamon flavor at all, and the powdered sugar was minimal and lost.

It was served with a side of "maple syrup".  It was clearly not real maple syrup.  It didn't even have a hint of maple flavor.

They were nice and generous with the butter.

I ended up bringing some of it home, and reheated it in the toaster oven wrapped in aluminum foil.  It worked far better than I ever imagined.  It didn't dry out at all, and was even more moist than when I originally received it, but it wasn't soggy or anything either.  I was a little shocked, it was much better re-heated.  Of course, I topped it with real maple syrup, which made all the difference.  The french toast just became a conduit for delicious syrup.  I also added some fresh strawberries from the farmer's market.  Mmmm!  And, to make it even more decadent, some fresh apricot whipped cream cheese.  Delicious!

But, the actual version served in the restaurant, just wasn't great.  IHOP was better.  I would not get this again.  I had read good things about the version of the french toast that they cover in whip cream, bananas, and berry sauce, perhaps that would be been more interesting?
Cinnamon Bread Pudding.  $6.50.
This was the strangest bread pudding I've ever seen.  I tried a few bites right when I received it, to best be able to evaluate it.  It was not made up of chunks of bread, but rather it was just a solid mass.

My favorite thing about bread pudding is a crispy top and a moist interior.   This had neither.  It was all just soggy and the same dense consistency.  It weighed far more than it looked like it should.  This again lead me to believe that it came out of a freezer or something.

There was a slight cinnamon flavor, but besides that, it was entirely flavorless.  It did have some raisins in it.

So basically, this was just a flavorless blob.  I tried the 4 berry sauce, made up of blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and strawberry.  It reminded me of the nasty fruit stuff that comes in most yogurts with fruit on the bottom.  Cloyingly sweet, totally fake tasting.  I'm now glad I did not order the french toast with it, it would have totally ruined it.

The single fresh strawberry on the side was actually really good.  But, besides that, there was absolutely  nothing good about this, it was really quite gross.  I brought it home and tried it cold, I tried heating it in the toaster oven, I tried it with whipped cream, I tried it with ice cream ... there was just no saving it.  It was truly awful, and very not worth $6.50.
Soma Inn Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Foie Gras Wednesday @ Txoko

Wednesdays historically haven't been a very exciting day for me.  Hump day, sure, but really, not the best day of the week.  And then ... Txoko went and changed all of that.  A few weeks ago, they started up Free Foie Wednesdays.  The idea is simple: the first 50 people who show up get a ticket, that they can then redeem for a foie gras pintxo.

You know that I love foie gras.  And you know that I was totally enamored by Txoko when I attended a foie gras dinner there before the ban went into effect.  So why haven't I been mentioning this before now?  Simple, I'm not usually in San Francisco on Wednesday evenings.  But this time, they were upping the ante even more, bringing in a guest chef.  Instead of just one preparation of foie gras, there would be two.  And who was the guest chef?  Marc Zimmerman from Alexander's Steakhouse!

This sounds too good to be true right?  Not only could I legally eat foie gras, prepared by chefs whose work I really respect, in California, but it would be free?  There was no way that I could miss this.

I told Emil about the event, and he eagerly agreed to join me.  We arrived before the doors opened, to make sure we'd get one of the coveted spots.  In retrospect, I guess we were a little over-eager, but still, it was part of the fun.  The doors opened at 5:30pm on the dot, and we got our tickets.  I felt like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, grasping on to my golden ticket.  I had to keep checking to make sure it was there!

The kitchen didn't open until 6pm, but we sat up at the bar, and started figuring out our drink pairings.  Emil knew exactly what he wanted, but I was less decisive, and the bartender let me try out a couple sherries.  I settled on the same cream sherry I'd had at the foie dinner there, and it was just as delicious as last time.

I loved the entire experience of being there, from the staff who recognized us from attending the foie dinner, to the friendly bartender, to the excellent food.  And there is something about the decor and feel of the place that just make it so comfortable.  The perfect place to spend a Wednesday night.

I'd be back every Wednesday if I could, but like I said, I'm not normally in San Francisco on Wednesdays, so I'll only be able to make it from time to time.  But if you are in SF, you have no excuse  not to be there!

Duo of foie gras pintxos.  Priceless.  Uh, literally.
On the left was Chef Begg's offering, his play on liver and onions: Seared foie gras a la plancha, braised cipollini onions, crispy fried shallots, chives, and a sherry gastric.  We had a very similar dish at the Txoko foie gras dinner, with the only real differences being the smaller portion size and the lack of additional sauces on this one.

You kinda can't go wrong with a dish like this.  Seared foie gras?  Creamy, rich, delicious.  Braised cipollini mushrooms?  Tender, sweet, a nice pairing.  Crispy shallots?  So insanely good, what every onion ring strives to be.  My memory of this dish from last time is that I enjoyed it more, I think the larger piece of foie worked better, not because of the size per se, but because it was better seared, which may have been tricky to do with this small piece.  I also thought the onion and shallot dominated a little too much in this version, since the ratio of onion to foie was different.  But, I'm nitpicking, this was a very tasty treat.

At the previous dinner, we had this dish paired with a cream sherry, which I did again this evening, at the recommendation of the bartender.  It was sweet, delicious, and a generous pour for $9.  Emil again opted for a less sweet sherry.

Chef Zimmerman's dish was, as always, a beautiful work of art.  A log of almond foie torchon, surrounded by almond crumbles, almond milk bubbles, lapin cherries, and garnished with shiso leaves and a feuilletine tuile.  I think there was a dollop of ume boshi and some balsamic as well.

I always look forward to Chef Zimmerman's mousses, as the consistency is just amazingly creamy.  This one was no exception.  I was slightly disappointed that the foie flavor wasn't quite as pronounced as I'd like, but the smoothness and creaminess were really perfect.  The little bits of almond crumble I found to be a bit strange as a pairing, I really liked the crunch they added, but they were somewhat bitter, which was a little harsh against the foie.  I wanted something to smear the foie on, and the cherries filled that role, and were a sweet, nice match, although not as sweet as cherries I enjoyed with my foie back in June, when they were more in season.  The component of the dish that I liked the most was the feuilletine tuile.  It was the perfect level of sweetness to pair with the foie, and I loved having the crisp form factor.  I think it would be really fun to have a play on chips and dip with something like this to dip into a slightly softer, more mousse-like foie spread.  Mmm ...

It was fun to have these dishes side by side, as they were totally different styles, both very representative of the chefs who created them.  Chef Begg's dish fit in perfectly with the restaurant and the style of food they serve,  rustic and satisfying.  Chef Zimmerman's dish didn't quite fit in with the style of Txoko, but is exactly what we are used to seeing from him at Alexander's, elegant and refined.  I enjoyed the both, and find them very hard to compare.
Pan Seared Day Boat Scallops, Baby Octopus, Crispy Okra, Sweet Corn Puree, Sweet Corn, Wild Mushrooms, Pea Shoots, Potato Coulis, Potato Crisps.  $28.
Long before I heard about Txoko for their foie, it was actually the seared scallops that I'd read about.  I love a good seared scallop.  At the foie dinner, we enjoyed a course of seared scallops with foie sauce, and our vegetarian companion ordered the regular seared scallop dish as his entree.  Tonight's scallop dish was a seasonal version of what he'd had, with corn in place of the now out of season asparagus.  All three versions I've seen of the seared scallops at Txoko featured potato coulis, potato crisps, and wild mushrooms, all ingredients I love!

There were so many elements to this dish, and they were all really quite good.  Fantastic, complimentary flavors, quality ingredients, all well prepared.  And of course, it helps that most of the components were among my favorite ingredients!

The bottom layer was a sweet corn puree.  It was creamy, sweet, and really good, even just on its own by the spoonful.  On top of that was the potato coulis, also ridiculously creamy.  The two were quite tasty together, and I also enjoyed using the corn puree as a sauce for the scallops, as the sweetness of the sauce really highlighted the sweetness of the scallops.

Speaking of sweetness, the corn kernels were downright amazing.  Yes, probably the most simple component of any of the dishes we had, but they were just bursting with sweetness, and were perfectly cooked, still a tiny bit crisp, not mushy at all.

The other vegetable component that really sung was the pea shoots.  There weren't many of them, but they were also perfectly cooked, incredibly tender, and had a lovely flavor.  The mushrooms were also flavorful, with a slightly hearty earthiness to them that balanced out all of the other lighter elements in the dish.

The potato sticks were another element that added balance, this time textural, as they were crispy, and added a great crunch against the very smooth purees.

The baby octopus really surprised me.  I didn't really expect to like it much, as octopus tends to be fairly flavorless and too commonly poorly cooked and rubbery.  Not only was this beautifully prepared and tender, without the slightness bit of rubberyness, but the flavor was really surprising, with a smoky quality to it.

The scallops were right on flavor-wise, with a beautiful sweetness to them.  Sadly, they were overcooked for my liking, cooked a very solid medium all the way through.  Still tender, not overcooked to make them rubbery or anything, but I certainly prefer them slightly rare on the inside.  The sear on the outside was good, but it was better last time we had them.

The only element of the dish that I didn't like was the crispy fried okra.  The breading fell off the moment it was cut into and it tasted too oily.  And, being okra, it was pretty slimy and just not something I cared for.  I appreciated the idea of the southern style pairing of the crispy okra with the corn and potatoes, but it wasn't for me.

I really liked this dish.  I thought so many of the flavors were incredible and the treatment of the ingredients was well done, and everything came together nicely, with flavors and textures that complimented each other.  I hesitate to say this, but I think I actually enjoyed this more than either of the foie dishes.

$28 was an great price for a very large dish of scallops.  We assumed there would just be two or three scallops for this price point, but instead there were five, and the sides along with the scallops were substantial, including several pieces of octopus.

I'd get this again anytime, and would even go back on a non-foie night for it, although I think I might specifically ask to have the scallops a little less cooked next time.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Milkshake from Holy Grill

A beautiful San Francisco afternoon and LevelUp credits burning a hole in my pocket.  What is a girl to do, but go on a mission to get something cold and delicious?  I had a few of my SOMA specific credits left to spend, which I could combine with the initial seed money from individual restaurants to buy big ticket items, like ... milkshakes!

I browsed through the list of SOMA merchants, and went to the nearest one that had milkshakes: City Kinetics.  But when I arrived, I was told they no longer had shakes!  I pulled up the app again.  I had a few options, like Burger Joint or going back to Bistro Burger, but then I found Holy Grill, which promised milkshakes made from Mitchell's Ice Cream.  This sounded promising!

So I trekked there, further than I really wanted to go, but it was sunny and nice out, and in the end, I didn't mind, although it wasn't the nicest walk.  Holy Grill is a very casual, order at the register sort of place, with a few tables inside and outside.  Most people seemed to be getting burgers and fries.

Service was friendly, the place was clean, no complaints.  Good for the sort of place it was.
Strawberry Milkshake.  $3.99.
On the website and online ordering tool, Holy Grill offered 3 types of milkshakes: vanilla, chocolate, and cookies & cream, all made with Mitchell's Ice Cream.  I've actually never had Mitchell's before, although everyone says it is great.  Since I'd had a fairly mediocre Oreo milkshake the day before from Bistro Burger, I was excited to try another similar shake, the cookies & cream.  But when I arrived, she told me they only had vanilla and chocolate.  I might have made a pouty face, and definitely took a minute considering my options.  I didn't really want a chocolate or vanilla shake, and considered going to spend my credits elsewhere.  Then she offered, "or, I could make a strawberry one too".  I asked if that meant that she'd add some strawberry syrup or fresh berries, and she said fresh berries.  Ok, I was intrigued.  Not what I'd normally go for, as you can probably tell from my last few milkshake posts, I'm more of a candy girl (oreo, mint chocolate chip, etc), but fresh fruit sounded promising.

The shake was made classically, with ice cream and milk in a real blender.  I only mention this since I've seen a few now like the one from Del Taco that was made with a mix and a strange milkshake machine.

There was no offer of whip cream, which they certainly lose a few points for.  I love my whipped cream on top!

The shake was very creamy and perfectly thick.  It stayed a really nice consistency the entire time, not melting and separating like the Bistro Burger one, and not too thick to drink the like the Del Taco one.  And unlike the Bistro Burger shake, it was served with a wider straw, which allowed me to easily consume the thick shake.  The consistency was key, but the flavor is what really made it.  Really fantastic strawberry flavor.  Turns out, fresh strawberries blended with ice cream are delicious!

This was the best shake I've come across recently, obviously better than the Del Taco and Bistro Burger ones, and slightly better than the one from Roxy's Cafe due to the surprisingly good strawberry flavor in it.  I'd consider getting one again if I was in the neighborhood, although, I guess I'd have to bring my own whip!