Baroo Brings It

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Long gone are the days when the term “health food” meant bland textures, weird grainy fake meat tastes, funky faux cheeses or a million variations on the veggie and sprout sandwich on cardboard stiff wheat bread. Thanks to the resurgence of macrobiotic concepts, the superfoods explosion, the contemporary plant-based and whole foods movements, and our general continuing enlightenment surrounding the importance of tending to that internal stove inside our guts that is our digestive system, health food has slowly crept up the culinary ladder as a viable competitor in the foodie world. Not only are many noted chefs exploring vegetarian dishes to co-star on menus alongside meat dishes, but some chefs are making a mark by focusing totally on more healthy fare that’s elevated for a sophisticated foodie audience. Matthew Kenney is a prime example of a chef who has turned raw food principles into some of the best tasting gourmet dishes I’ve ever eaten. When I lived in Venice Beach, I made it a point to walk to his Santa Monica restaurant (sadly now defunct) weekly for a plate of exquisitely stacked raw lasagna, or kelp pad Thai, which carried so much of a flavor punch that I was certain I could give up the fattier, meatier, carb-heavy alternatives if I were forced to make a choice. It has been exciting for me to search for and discover food of this sort and it has been sadly too few times that I have succeeded.

The Cute Gardener, who is not as big of a fan of this type of cuisine as I am, did a very sweet thing for my birthday this year. He took me to Baroo, a relatively new restaurant in Los Angeles that has been getting rave reviews for its largely vegetarian menu (of under ten dishes at any given time) and use of fermentation. Their most unusual dish Noorook even boasts the use of the latest trendy Koji (a steamed rice with koji-kin mold spores cultivated into it), which I was dying to try because of its reputation for being an authentic source of umami.

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I was also interested in a Chef who would name his restaurant after a bowl that Buddhist monks are allowed to possess and use for their meals until their last breaths. It brought to mind the time I sat sesshin with a group of Buddhists for three days straight in my twenties, during which we kept completely silent and did nothing but meditate for eight hours a day, only breaking every couple hours to run in a circle around the room to get some circulation, or at noon and night to eat. I had to learn a complex ritual of eating called Oryoki that required setting out my bowl, and a precise way to receive food, eat and wash my implements that emphasized presence, respect for the sacred and grace. I thought about this as we drove to the tiny, stark white space located within a minimalist and ordinary strip mall and bellied up to the tiny, unpretentious counter to taste five dishes lovingly prepared in front of us by Chef Kwang Uh and his team. I wanted to give each taste that same respect.

Respect was indeed due, for the meal was not only extremely creative and satisfyingly healthy, each dish was jam packed with so many layers of complex ingredients and juxtaposing textures that I realized with each bite that there was no way I would be able to find, or even make at home, food like this. I had my own little religious experience while sitting there.

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An example of what I mean:

Celeriac pasta: Handmade pasta with celery roots, celery crudité with pickled mustard seeds, celery ash and crispy celeriac chips.

Asian fever salad with a sous vide egg: Basmati rice, lemongrass and coconut foam, Asian-inspired veg mix, crispy shrimp chip, heirloom cherry tomatoes and line supreme.

Noorook (Koji): Job’s tears, kamut and faro, roasted koji beet crème, concentrated kombu dashi, toasted seeds, macadamia nut, finger lime and rose onion pickle.

Bibim salad: Grains with oat, quinoa & bulgur, vegetable crudité w/fennel, celery, asparagus, baby radish, heirloom carrot, toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, gochujang, san marzano tomato dressing, herb coulis, passion fruit powder, baby kale and Asian pear.

To wash it all down? A gloriously housemade Tepache with fermented cherry juice.

Of course, after the heavenly birthday meal, we drove to a burger joint to feed the CG who considered Baroo’s lighter portion sizes and fare mere appetizers.

A RETURN TO JOY AFTER BEING LOST AT SEA

 

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Blue prawn crudo and cauliflower panna cotta

One of the biggest sources of joy in my life is eating, making and exploring cuisine with the Cute Gardener. Another is listening to live music – from an extremely varied musical palate we share between the two of us. For that reason, Papilles Bistro (taglined: Art is to Refuse Mediocrity by Balthus) in Los Angeles has had a very special place in my heart. The tiny restaurant in a strip mall, reigned over by Chef Tim Carey in his ever present L.A. Dodgers cap, where you never know which few fabulous things are going to be on the menu yet everything is stellar, has been our pre-eat spot for nights filled with Stanley Clarke’s jazz at the Catalina Club, Da Camera Society’s chamber music at an estate of magnificent architecture in the ritzy hills, and good ole Neil Diamond at the Greek. Something about the combination of fine food, a Southern California evening and cocktails on the town along to the beat of great tunes fills me with sparkling joy and I have shared that often here on this blog.

 

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Octopus mole

Recently however, my posts have dwindled, and I am embarrassed to admit it has been because I have been leery of expressing joy. For multiple reasons. One, I have been in a state of dread leading up to and since our Presidential election. Two, because of the outcome of the Presidential election I have been chagrined (by friends and foes alike) for sharing my natural outpourings of joy. For example, on the night of the election, the Cute Gardener and I were at a steakhouse and after the meal, I was brought a large pink tuft of cotton candy. I took a photo of myself with that puff and put it on Instagram and noted that now, more than ever, we needed to try and personally experience joy, because our small little lives are really all we have. I wasn’t trying to say that my experience of joy would automatically bar any knowledge of the reality of many suffering on our planet. I wasn’t saying that my joy was something that I wanted to cloud other parts of me, like the activist woman with a writer’s mouth, geared for a life of written word service. I wasn’t putting my fingers in my ears and screaming “la la la la la la,” as if I wanted to become blissfully ignorant. I was merely stating that if we are in positions to experience joy, we should, because many aren’t and we are really lucky to have that opportunity.

I received a backlash. And it had everything to do with the Presidential election. And it threw me into a state of dread. And I wrote about my postpartum blues after the election for a literary magazine and I spoke about how many of us now feel frozen – frozen between enjoying our lives that we knew and being scared of whatever damage may come, not particularly to our lives, but to the lives of many others.

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Snapper

But … yesterday I read a quote in the Los Angeles Times by a writer named Jade Chang whose “Wangs Vs. The World” is becoming a bestseller. She spoke about being at a writer’s conference recently and how all of the panelists and audience members were kind of in the same frozen daze. They were asking, “Why even write?” She said, “We started talking about how joy itself is a rebellion, how living unapologetically is an act of defiance.”

It was enough to put some happiness back into my strut, giving me the confidence to share that strut here, where now I have come home to experience joy unapologetically. And it is entirely synchronistic that my first post back is about my experience last week at Lost At Sea, a new seafood restaurant in Pasadena, reigned over by none other than that favorite L.A. Dodger hat-wearing chef of mine Tim Carey.

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Butter poached lobster

The best artists in life know to move from project to project, passion to passion, without growing stale. They take their surroundings, the materials they’ve been given, and they mingle that with themselves to find inspiration. We see this happening now in Los Angeles a lot. Chefs will open multiple places, or pop up here and there, or float, giving their talents and their muse a large field to choose from. Carey’s food at Papilles is still exquisite and supreme but Lost at Sea is his outlet for channeling a deft and creative touch onto the Southern California fresh seafood scene. The niche is exemplary in his hands. Think tangy raw blue prawns aloft in a sauce of passion fruit, orange, guava and aguachile; octopus mole with sweet potato, Satsuma and sesame tuile; snapper with baby turnip, fingerling potato, spigarello, tarragon fumet and duck; butter poached lobster with black trumpet mushroom, celery root velouté, (the CG says any chef, like Carey, who is an alum of Patina-training knows how to make a superior velouté) fresno chile and parsley; or my favorite dish of all, (and perhaps #1 yet for 2017), a rich and decadent cauliflower panna cotta (which coats the tongue wickedly more like a mousse) topped with luscious uni, pop-in-your-mouth trout roe, sexy brown butter and the sprightly spritz of citrus. Yum.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring but I am happy that I can continue to find joy in food through my relationship with the CG while it lasts. And I shall.

Forgive me for being (at) Lost at Sea.

 

 

 

Rebirth of the Palate at Kali

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It was two years ago this month that I lost my mother to a swift and sudden battle with a rare form of cancer. Since then, my activities on this food blog have been spotty at best. When one is enthralled in the grief that follows the loss of a loved one, time becomes veiled in a marshmallow fog moving at light speed one instant and slow as molasses the next. Then one morning you wake, clothed in the realization that life must go on. It occurs to me now that my lack of luster for celebrating food here has been intricately tied to the absence of my mother, who for many years was my blog’s biggest fan. Every time I would write an entry I would find her comments shining on my page as she reveled in the culinary adventures of the Cute Gardener and myself. She was so thrilled that I had found my perfect mate and that we were fellow foodies eating our way through a fantastic life together. Every time I wrote after her death, I would feel the gap in my life where her happiness for me had been so vividly present.

But the other night, the Cute Gardener and I dined at a splendid new restaurant in Los Angeles called Kali and my zest for presenting my palate on the page was rekindled. Fittingly, Kali is the Hindu goddess whose name means “She who is death” in Sanskrit. She sweeps into our lives to shake up our notions of time and with her appearance comes the inevitability of great change. She shakes our equilibrium and asks us to topple all that is static in our existence so that we can make way for the new. This luxurious and innovative meal ushered me back to the land of the living and reignited my desire to share my life in food again.

After a few years of watching the restaurant scene become embroiled in trends like charred Brussels sprouts, potted meats in Mason jars, kale, deviled eggs and pork belly everything, it was refreshing to find a chef doing creative things with bitter notes and unusual ingredients that veered more toward the kinds of food I like to eat. There was a discernable lack of overarching fat and a respectful nod toward the delightful and unordinary, making Kali my pick for best L.A. restaurant so far for 2016.

Some highlights included:

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A gorgeous, silken soup where wicked nightshade vegetables of eggplant, peppers and tomato were roasted to bursting then covered with tomato puree.

Soft and puffy mini rosemary infused loaves of bread accompanied by herbal whipped butter.

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A black barley “risotto” served al dente with tart black garlic and strands of wheatgrass; the nuttiness of the grains spiked by chips off the disk of nearly burnt, toasted taleggio cheese that topped its middle.

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A luscious hunk of black cod over fig and corn streusel.

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And my favorite of the night: cubes of gorgeously fried duck breast reminiscent of the texture of perfect pork belly with a surprising sauce of coffee, honey and cocoa, daubed with curls of purple carrots.

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For dessert, a creamy meringue ice cream was sprinkled with shaved frozen egg yolk tableside. Amazing!

It was the perfect meal to mark my entrance back into a lust for food writing, eating and recognizing that at the end of every cycle of death is a concurrent wave of rebirth.

 

 

Inspired by Heavenly Hominy

 

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Neal Fraser’s Pork Posole

Last weekend at a party, a mutual friend of ours was talking to the Cute Gardener and I about having a hard time making reservations for a super trendy restaurant run by a trio of guys who have become emperors of fad food and venues in Los Angeles. At one point, she asked if we’d join her if she ever succeeded in securing a table. We politely declined and admitted we were particularly picky about where we spend our time and our dollars when it comes to eating out. We aren’t the types to pull over at any old place while on a road trip and we tend not to frequent a place more than once unless it completely blows us away. We rarely, if ever, eat breakfast out because it is always better at home. The CG makes dinner for us most nights and honestly, most of the time, even his most basic dishes taste ten times better than anything we might find in a local bistro or gastropub. We spend a lot of time researching restaurants before we step through their doors. For us eating out is not about casually finding sustenance, it is about the ever elusive potential to encounter nirvana and then to be so inspired that we want to steal the ideas and replicate them at home. We want to be shocked, cooked for, surprised and delighted and we budget heartily to be able to do so like some people budget for adrenaline adventures, fancy toys, vacation homes or expensive clothing.

This was the case recently after a dinner at Chef Neal Fraser’s Redbird where we discovered a smoky, rust colored posole thick with rich pork and topped with pork belly. It was more of a robust chili than a traditional stew fortified with chewy nuggets of hominy. The restaurant is located in the rectory building of what was L.A.’s first archdiocese Catholic cathedral so I even felt the blessings of angelic intervention with each bite of food. Fraser had evoked something heavenly in my mouth.

Could it be true that I hadn’t had hominy—the distinctly meaty dried corn that is soaked and plumped to perfection in a mineral lime bath—since I was pregnant with my now 24-year-old daughter? I used to crave hominy in that weird, idiosyncratic and random way of mothers-to-be, stuffed into quesadillas at midnight with scoops of grocery store potato salad smothered on top.

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My inspired posole tacos

My reunion with Fraser’s trumped up hominy was so harmonious; I chose to delve into some posole making myself the next week on my night to cook. I found a fat can of hominy in my local Mexican food aisle and made this version going halves on the chilies. It was delicious as a soup but even better two and three days later, after it had thickened into the perfect topping for quick, impromptu lunch tacos dressed with radish, cabbage and cotija cheese.

Lazy Sunday at Running Goose

 

IMG_4175        The Running Goose’s famous salt cod churros

One of the great pleasures in life is lazy Sunday – the last day of a long week with no agenda other than to roam and have fun offline and out of the home. For the Cute Gardener and I, it often means three things: a big screen movie, casually adventurous eating, and leisurely day drinking.

A lazy Sunday eatery requires a certain laissez faire ambiance. It shouldn’t be too stuffy or highbrow, nor overly loud or busy (aka “currently trendy”). It should serve small things meant to be shared, have a decent wine or cocktail list, and provide a section of outdoor seating for enjoying the mostly glorious Southern California weather. Recently we discovered a gem called The Running Goose that easily fit the bill.

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The Running Goose touts itself as offering “California comfort food in Hollywood’s backyard” which is true. The restaurant is located on a cute section of Cahuenga boasting its very own organic herb garden on site, which patrons can easily stroll through while waiting for their food. It is also squeezed up against a towering loft building and the sounds of music coming from various open windows gives the impression of eating amongst a lively community on a lovely afternoon—all things conducive to lazy Sunday idling.

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Arriving late afternoon we had the entire patio to ourselves as an eager waiter polished glasses in the tiny indoor dining room by the bar and served wine to a dog lady yapping on her iPhone. With a bottle of wine, we ordered up a storm of dishes and wasted away the better part of the day under the electric glare of a heat lamp and the close proximity of a fire pit.

We had heard about their famous salt cod churros so we ordered a plate of that pronto. The crispy, fried wands came out hot and light, looking exactly like their Mexican donut cousins yet tasting like fish and butter as we dipped them sparingly into a lemon and saffron aioli spiked with tiny bits of nori. Based on the deliciousness and creativity of the churros, we ordered more small plates to share. This included an empanada appetizer filled with the darkness of mole on unctuous tender shredded lamb.

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Our favorite dish, the duck confit, was a gorgeous miniature pan swimming with generous chunks of meat, blistered cabernet tomatoes, ricotta masa gnocchi, basil and a poached egg. One tine poked into the yolk created a rich creaminess that weaved the entire dish into a luscious belly warming experience. Another dish of pork belly cazuela swam with hot Latin American pozole flavors and came with a lovely charred flatbread reminiscent of a tortilla to scoop the vibrant soup and bits of radish up with at the end.

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Things can also get wacky on a lazy Sunday after the bottle of wine has passed its halfway point. Sometimes when we find ourselves enjoying the food, we do crazy things like order beef ribs for dessert. Those beef ribs, unlike the smaller portions of everything else on the menu, arrived as big as a house drenched in pink pickled onions and leaves of cilantro. After stuffing a few final clumps of seasoned meat into my mouth, I drained the last of my wine glass and listened to the sounds of a neighborhood winding down for the week and gave myself permission to do so as well.

We left with a sense of bittersweet fondness, as places like The Running Goose don’t seem to last in our neck of the world. With El Nino heading our way, we knew the restaurant would be confined to serving out of the tiny dining room and the vast patio would be lost to storms for a whole season.

The Bratl – A Pork Whore’s Bliss

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In her famous book The Art of Eating, in the essay titled “Serve It Forth,” my literary food idol MFK Fisher writes:

“And sensible and kind she remains, although in her directions for Roast Pig she betrays some of that tenderness for sucklings which is even more notable in large men. My father, for instance, who flees sentimentality like the black pox, confesses that one of the loveliest things he has ever seen was—not a sunrise, not a sweet lass naked—was a litter of new piglets, pink and dainty.”

It is the perfect description of a Pork Whore—and I only know this all too well because I am wholeheartedly one of them. Although I can appreciate the desires evoked by sunsets and naked women, it’s a succulent piece of pork that gives me true shivers. And most likely, the particular pork dish I would choose at the moment is the Bratl crafted with an uncanny flair by my favorite Austrian Chef Bernhard Mairinger at his downtown Los Angeles snack shop BierBeisl Imbiss.

The Bratl is an exquisitely sinful sandwich consisting of either a short, round or long oblong home-baked pretzel bun. On one half of the bread sits three plump lengths of pork belly slab, fried to a crispy exterior around a meaty middle. On top of the high class bacon, sits piled a daintily-strung coleslaw, its dressing as appealing as cold milk on a torrid day, studded with seeds of caraway. A swath of good rustic mustard lines the lower bun lending a perfect, subtle tang. The soft innards of a few dill pickles are strung across the entire composition in flimsy ribbons of flavor that weave the whole thing together. I am always too full to finish the sandwich, yet somehow I always manage to anyway. It is a good thing I don’t live close by—otherwise, I would very quickly acquire my very own pork belly.

And, as if you needed anymore derogatory evidence of what a flat out pig slut I can be, I will relate a funny thing that happened while I ate my Bratl alongside my lunch guest who was equally oohing and aahing over her lingonberry studded schnitzel across the table. At one point in the meal, loud sirens started to blare and lights started to flash in the Spring Street Arcade building which houses the restaurant. A voice over the loud speaker started speaking in ominous tones telling all of us inhabitants to clear the area as their had been a major emergency. I still don’t know if there was an emergency or not. All I know is that we briefly looked around at each other—Chef Mairinger in the open kitchen, my guest, the other beer drinking businessmen and myself and then promptly, communally shrugged and dived right back into our food. It is just that good.

The Age of the Restaurant Gimmick

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Gorgeous apple starter from Maude

We live in the age of the gimmicky restaurant; an age that consistently leaves me hankering for the good old days when a meal meant a straightforward meal. I realize that competition in the culinary world is fierce and that the food business is one of the hardest industries to carve a living within—so I understand why chefs and restaurateurs are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to stand out from the crowd so as to attract their share of diners. But, sometimes, it goes too far as the Cute Gardener and I have seen all too frequently of late.

Take San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions, with its Americanized version of the dim sum joint, for example. It has been lauded as the greatest thing since the reversed foie gras ban. So like every devout foodie, we tried to get reservations when visiting the city last summer. The reservations game was a feat in itself as the CG spent many a day online trying to finagle our way in. Our actual visit was tepid at best. While we enjoyed a few of the items we ordered off the menu, the roving carts of additional options were a confusing mix of seemingly random dishes that didn’t pair well together or make choosing a wine for the evening very easy. I imagine they are shooting themselves in the foot by missing out on bottle wine sales because of the inability of guests to foresee what they might be eating. Also, after watching carts stroll the room multiple times hawking fresh fare like ceviche, it doesn’t seem that appealing to grab one on its fourth or fifth time around. By the end of the evening, all the cart items are offered in a sort of blow out sale, which made us wonder why we weren’t able to just know what we are being offered at the beginning of our meal. Overall, the concept just didn’t fly across cultures. At least in a real dim sum restaurant, everything is cohesive and makes sense.

Another restaurant that tried the dim sum concept was The Church Key in Los Angeles. We had heard rave reviews about the place from friends and were looking forward to eating in the brightly lit dining room we had seen on the show Best New Restaurant. On the show, there had been flaming cocktails and roving carts offering so many side dishes that many patrons had to turn their “dim done” cards up on the tables so as not to be constantly disturbed. On the night we went, we visited the website for a look at some of their signature drinks and dishes and read about the restaurant’s fun style which apparently carried right down to the interesting flight attendant-like uniforms on the servers. When we arrived though, it was as if we had entered a time warp to a totally different restaurant that had kidnapped The Church Key’s space and replaced it with a new identity. No flight attendant uniforms clad the blasé wait staff. One cart of food came by our table during the entire two hours we were there and the falafel we chose off of it was gluey and seemed like it had been re-fried after being made a couple days ago. Although we saw people with some of the better-known gimmicks, like the bowl of shared alcoholic punch, it was nary to be found on a menu. The room was dark. It was as if the owners and chefs had gone on vacation and the kids were left to tend house and decided to do their own thing, including throwing leftovers in the microwave. Or perhaps the restaurant was simply suffering from being born with too many gimmicks that didn’t holdover or translate as viable or economically sound options in the long run.

Last week we went to Maude, which is the high-end restaurant brainchild of Australian Chef Curtis Stone in homage to his grandmother. The gimmick is relatively simple: take one seasonal ingredient and make it shine across nine or ten dishes done creatively in haute gourmet fashion. We like Curtis and were looking forward to eating there for the year  it took us to finally get a reservation. Because it is so difficult to get a reservation, it is hard to plan a visit there around an ingredient of your choosing. We missed out on figs, morels, and other things we might have preferred to the apples we were served all evening when we finally got in. We had a marvelous evening there and the food, for the most part, was superb, but it was decidedly hard to eat apple dishes all evening with a high level of enthusiasm when we were forking over two hundred bucks a pop for the meal. Out first, and possibly only, opportunity to eat food from a chef we’ve long admired was perhaps demeaned by the proliferance of one certain taste in every dish.

We know novelty has its merits and tricks can be fun, but our palates are starting to suffer from the constant barrage of foodie trends, leaving us hungering for the old fashioned, the tried and true, and the solid. We are left in want of just simple good food, done well, alongside something to drink that matches and a server who knows the proper ratio between professional and friendly. Thank goodness there are still places around like Patina.

Nacho Weakness

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Gus’s BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos

I believe it is true in the case of anyone who calls him or her self a foodie that they are more often than not a lover of all foods with little exception. Perhaps an allergy keeps them away from hot spices or an early, traumatic bite of mayonnaise from an overeager sandwich-making mother might form a lifelong aversion to the spread; but these are rarities. Part of being a foodie means having an adventurous and ever-curious palate. So we eat all kinds of things considered both high and lowbrow and tend to live by the “one bite rule” of boldly trying everything once before making absolute decisions. We are more prone to continually tasting new things than we are to consistently repeat old things. But there are those special “weakness” dishes that every foodie can account for that they will eat time and again, even hunt through endless cities for, and revisit the same locations on multiple occasions for—demonstrating the kind of behaviors borrowed from addicts and hedonists. My Achilles Heel, without a doubt, remains a towering plate of nachos.

I have come a long way since my high school days when I would come home off the big orange bus and head straight to the kitchen where I would pile a paper plate with Tostito rounds, a pile of grated cheddar, a dash of garlic salt and then nuke it to oblivion. This always produced a kind of nacho Frisbee that I had to pull apart—a chewy here and crispy there disk of salt and fat with no real culinary value. But the initial lust was the same as it is today—a want for a crispy chip, a hankering for gooey cheese, and a desire to dip that all into toppings that when blended create an effortlessly delicious and creamy swath of lust. This is my comfort food of all comfort foods.

What makes a perfect plate of nachos for me? Thick house made tortilla chips with a wicked crunch are essential. I have bypassed ordering my favorite dish at many a restaurant upon hearing they use store bought chips. If they aren’t house made I will make an exception, but it better be a damn good chip befitting my description above. They can’t be flimsy or fragile in order to be able to heft up a good amount of dip and they better not get soggy before I reach the bottom of my pile. Then it is all about layering toppings in a balanced ratio so that it’s possible to get a bit of each in every bite and one ingredient better not run out faster than another. Whether it is a traditional plate of Mexican style nachos with beans, guacamole, sour cream, shredded beef or chicken and a savory chorizo cheese sauce or a gastro pub artisan plate with carne asada, queso cream and diced tomatoes, the ratio is elemental. Other than that, I am not a nacho purist.

Potato nachos

Napa Valley Burger Company Nacho Waffle Fries

Today, I don’t eat nachos much. My hips would be gargantuan and my heartbeat an erratic misfire of cardiac pulsations. But I have become a nacho connoisseur, seeking out the best from a sea of the ordinary rest, and when I find them, it’s just like unwrapping that exact thing we want on Christmas morning. So instead of a top ten nacho list, I keep mine at a manageable top three.

  1. TLT Pork Belly Nachos in Westwood, Los Angeles, California – This perfect one basket meal for the UCLA college students consists of braised chunks of tender yet crusted pork belly, pico de gallo, and a signature pinkish cheese sauce over fresh chips.
  1. Gus’s BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos in South Pasadena, California – I will sidle up to this bar again and again for a lazy Sunday afternoon cocktail and a plate of these exquisite nachos to share with the Cute Gardener. The best homemade tortilla chips hands down come topped with pulled BBQ pork, four cheese sauce, BAKED BEANS (!), smoked mozzarella, jack cheese, tomato, red onion, guacamole, pickled jalapeno and a drizzle of BBQ sauce.
  1. Nacho Waffle Fries at Napa Valley Burger Company in Sausalito, California – Perfect puffy waffle fries with airy centers and crispy nooks and crannies are piled high with shredded cheese, chopped bacon, guacamole, sour ream and house pickled, tangy jalapenos. It is like a potato skin that has gone to finishing school and returned home knowing how to salsa.

I have visions for my nacho future, too. I am always dreaming up combinations. Lately, I have been visualizing and looking out for a good plate of Peking duck nachos. I have never seen nor heard of this but imagine it as something dark and smoky, sweet chunks of hoisin-coated duck with tiny slices of green onion, a cooling white cream sauce, and those crispy Chinese noodles fried to powdery smithereens on top. Maybe this college football season while the CG and I resume our seasonal Saturday spots on the couch I will do some nacho experimentation and create a top three for the home.

The Elegance of Hiro Sone – My Favorite Chef

Chef Hiro Sone makes a tartine of foie gras stuffed morels

Recently, while sipping a Van Gogh’s Revenge—a cocktail of Bols Aged Genever, Cointreau, Yellow Chartreuse and Angostura bitters served neat in a bucket glass, the Cute Gardener and I had a conversation about our favorite chefs. We were sitting in Ame in the San Francisco St. Regis eating the most elegant food of my life and I knew hands down that Chef Hiro Sone was my man.

What criteria make a great chef in my eyes? There are the obvious things required for stellar food like the ability to coax great taste, layer flavors, mingle interesting textures and create gorgeous presentations on the plate. But the dishes that become truly memorable for me are the ones which are seemingly simple yet excruciatingly complex. They emit an air of elegance that reflects a chef’s voice and passion in an unerringly consistent fashion. Hire Sone has all of the above.

I first tried his food at the St. Helena restaurant Terra where I encountered an apple basteeya that made my mouth cry, topping off dish after exquisite dish where creativity abounded. Ame was no different, our choices veering towards the sublimely Japanese offerings that included bites of delicate fish in poignant broth; droplets of yuzu on tender vegetables, an ethereal chawan mushi custard, soft fried oysters swimming in earthy dashi and beignets black pepper infused crème fraiche for dessert.

I will let the following photographs of the dishes speak for themselves.

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Broiled Sake Marinated Alaskan Black Bod and Shrimp Dumplings in Shiso Broth

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Grilled Maine Lobster Tail, Hokkaido Scallops and Cuttlefish on Risotto Nero with Sauce Americaine and Yuzu Kosho Aioli

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“Kaisen” Sashimi Salad with Japanese Cucumber, Hijiki, Tobiko Caviar and Yuzu Soy Vinaigrette

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Tempura of Miyagi Oysters in Dashi Broth with Wakame Seaweed, Grated Daikon and Trout Roe

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“Chawan-Mushi” Japanese Savory Custard with Lobster, Sea Urchin, Shiitake and Mitsuba Sauce

Meat Fest at Cockscomb

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Duck Liver Croque En Bouche with Strawberry Gastrigue

I have been a fan of Chris Cosentino for a little under a decade now. Ever since discovering his big congenial personality and passion for all things meat on the now defunct show Chef vs. City, on which he would run around with Chef Aaron Sanchez to reveal the zany culinary seams of cities across the US, I have been hankering to try one of his meals. Sure, I have been to Boccalone, his salami emporium in San Francisco’s Ferry Building for a cone of cured meats and enjoyed a cup of crispy pig ears before his PIGG disappeared from Los Angeles’ Umamicatessen. But I wanted a proper sit down dinner, not just some convenience pork parts.

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Beef Heart Tartare with Grilled Bread and Greens

This is why Incanto was on my travel list for years—his Italian restaurant in San Francisco, which had an Instagram account I drooled over nightly featuring butchered delights and creativity surrounding meat that was unparalleled. Think homemade fettuccine with duck hearts and behind the scenes glimpses of hanging intestines and gleaming silver tables full of liver cornucopias and raw meat pies pre-oven. I loved the idea that the high end crowd sitting in the dining room, slurping up fancy wine and enjoying the fruits of the chef’s efforts had no idea of the real carnival happening behind the swishing door between them and the kitchen. It was as if Chris had found a place to play and was finally doing the things he loved the most.

Unfortunately Incanto closed before I had the chance to dine there. A new place in Noe Valley called Porcellino (or, piglet) opened where Chris served casual food like sandwiches and pastas to the neighborhood community and I wondered what was up. No more meat extravaganza? No more Top Chef style over the top dishes? No more photos of giant boar heads awaiting a steam bath to retrieve their glistening gelatinous innards?

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Cornish Game Hen Tetrazzini with Fried Fideos, Mushrooms and Cream Sauce

Luckily, the intrepid Cute Gardener who does things like keep his eyes on the whereabouts of my favorite chefs for me learned that Chris had opened a new restaurant in SF’s SOMA district called Cockscomb and earlier this month we visited after a couple days of grueling hikes at Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta ready for reward in the form of a meat extravaganza.

What we found was a bustling joint marrying the best things about Cosentino: a casual, friendly down to earth attitude, no nonsense yet interesting food and ultra unctuous meat parts. The Chef himself manned the floor mingling with guests, throwing orders at cooks and servers across the bar, and glancing at cutting board platters of roving pin steaks as if he were finally at home in a place that fit.

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Zampini of pork and fennel sausage, fried oysters, corn, tomato and shishito peppers

Although he clearly has it in him, I am not sure if Chris is a high-falutin elegant restaurant type of guy at heart or a fame seeking, celebrity chef although his gregariousness fits naturally in the limelight. I think he may have finally found his groove with Cockscomb.

I just hope his current patronage of hipsters and tech industry, disposable income young uns have the kinds of adventurous palates that will allow Chris to incorporate some of his more daring offal offerings (the kind his first wave of fans are known to follow him for) onto his menu in the long run.