Wednesday, December 30, 2009

RN 74: Outstanding San Francisco Newcomer

We had not even spent a full day in San Francisco yet and already had had a delightful meal at Moss (see separate writeup) and now were meeting our good friends John and Glenn for a much-anticipated dinner at RN 74, one of the hottest places on the San Francisco dining scene.

We dropped by their apartment for a warm-up glass of champagne or two, never a bad idea, before heading over to the restaurant, which is located in one of the new glass monoliths that is dominating San Francisco’s South of Market district. We learned, to our delight, that John is a close friend of Raj __, the proprietor of RN 74, dating back to the days when they were both on the staff of one of Michael Mina’s first restaurants. John has now moved on to a different profession and Raj has advanced through the ranks and is now wine director for all of Mina’s 17 (!) restaurants. RN 74 is his baby, with Mina generously allowing him to choose the concept and the details more or less as he sees fit.

Raj met us at the door and generously treated us to a cocktail each…Michael taught the bartender his signature “Canton Negroni” which was not as good as the master’s but pretty darn good, while John had something made with absinthe which was quite interesting as well.

Eventually we were ushered to a round banquette in a prime corner of the room. The dining room is handsome and intended to evoke a modernist interpretation of a French train station. Tables appeared to be well spaced and the room had a nice buzz without being overly loud.

We had a wonderful time there. The name RN (for route nationale) 74 is a nod to the main highway through France’s Burgundy district and naturally the wine list is heavy on all sorts of wine treasures. With the wine director himself choosing for us, I was able for once to disregard the list and concentrate on the food.

And we ate very well indeed. Michael and Glenn had a hamachi appetizer, which was sushi-like in concept and flawless in execution. Michael felt it was one of the one of the best fish dishes he has ever had. John had a dish of clams and pork which must have been great since it all disappeared rapidly. I chose a dish of squash-filled agnolotti which was rich and satisfying. We also had a generous order of tempura mushrooms which the four of us shared. And what could be bad about that?

For main courses, Michael had, predictably, roast chicken, and John had a pork loin dish. Glenn and I chose the steak, which was one of the best I have ever had. John’s pork loin, which he generously shared, was also outstanding. Michael’s chicken was good, from what I tasted, but not as exciting (but then, it was roast chicken…what do you expect).

With the meal, Raj provided a glass of Albrecht Cremant D’Alsace rose as an aperitif, followed by a wonderful Chardonnay that he makes himself from vines grown in the central coastal area of California. Not surprisingly, it is very much in the French style with just a hint of oak and no malolactic fermentation, so quite clean and crisp. With the main course, we were served a fine Pommard which complemented all of the meat dishes beautifully without being as assertive as a New World red can sometimes be.

All in all a very fine experience, not cheap of course but then fine cooking in a stylish setting with delicious wine rarely is (pity, isn’t it).

San Francisco: Moss

We met up with our friend Jon for lunch in San Francisco. Jon is a local, an excellent cook and an avid follower of the SF restaurant scene. Moss is located in the new Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately with school out, the museum was mobbed. We could not even get close to it for parking and it took me a full 30 minutes after I dropped Michael off to find a space. He reported that there was a 45 minute wait just to get into the museum (there is no separate entrance for the restaurant). Fortunately they have figured this out and there is an express line for people with restaurant reservations.

Moss, the more formal of the eating places in the museum, is on the lower level and other than a living wall of plants, still rather sparse, the decor is unexciting to say the least. But this was all about the company.

That notwithstanding, the food was generally excellent. We started with a shared pile of vegetable fritto misto, pita with hummus and a green salad. I had a Moroccan lamb burger (terrific), Michael had the grilled yellowtail (good) and Jon had the day's special catch which was grilled halibut. Unfortunately the latter was severely overcooked, so much so that Jon (rightly) sent it back. A new plate appeared which was nearly raw in the middle but which was eaten, and enjoyed, anyhow. I had a couple of bites and thought it was delicious...if we eat tuna and salmon very rare, why not halibut? And, to the restaurant's credit, they comped the halibut, which was generous but really not necessary. Just fixing the error would have been enough.

We were in a festive mood and so started with a bottle of Roederer Estate Rose, one of our favorite American sparklers. Well, one bottle is never enough so we did end up supplementing this with individual glasses of the same to round out our meal.

It was hardly a cheap or fast lunch...had the halibut not been comped, the total would have added up to just about $200, although that did include $85 worth of champagne. The service was excellent and professional. The complications of being in the museum did not help matters although if one went on a school day I am sure things would be much easier.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Napa Valley Report

We were up in Napa on our traditional year-end visit to family and friends and had the chance to sample a number of dining establishments, fine and otherwise, in the area. Summary reports on these experiences follow, in roughly chronological order.

1. Rutherford Grill: We stopped there for lunch while doing errands in the upper part of the valley. Good as always. We both had the Thai noodle salad (me with steak, Michael with chicken) which was generous, filling, and quite spicy. A glass of wine each. Note that although we arrived rather late for lunch (1:30 or so) it was quite crowded with a 30 minute wait for a table...fortunately we managed to snag a couple of seats at the bar after a short wait which worked out perfectly. As always, a convivial place for delicious, unfussy food in the valley.

2. Cook: We had dinner with Michael's cousin Kirsten who has lived in Napa most of her life and now lives around the corner from this relatively new place in St Helena. Very plain interior and a limited menu with a choice of four apps, 3 salads, 3 or 4 pastas, and four mains. We were in sharing mode and the three of us split fried calamari, a coppa plate, followed by some risotto and short ribs. All delicious. We started with a bottle of prosecco and switched to individual you can imagine from a restaurant right in the heart of wine country the selection was outstanding although most of the labels were quite unfamiliar. The pours on the wine were very generous including a "top-up" (which basically amounted to another glass) as we sat chatting after dinner. The food is not cheap (mains in the mid-20 range) and the decor is minimal but the quality coming out of the tiny kitchen couldn't be faulted. A small and crowded place (we sat at the bar again) filled with locals, mostly. Very Italian in its focus on a small number of ingredient-driven dishes.

3. BarBer Q in Napa. We had been hoping to get to Ubuntu in Napa but it was not in the cards for this trip so our friends, with whom we were staying and who live around the corner, opted for this small place unfelicitously located in the most crowded strip shopping center in Napa (with the local Trader Joes a few doors away). Not much on atmosphere but the food was good. Once again we sat at the bar mostly to avoid the long wait for a table. Michael and I split the "taste of the Q" special which for $36 included a couple of half racks of ribs, some chicken, pulled pork, sausage, and coleslaw. All was good to very good (Michael especially liked the chicken), nothing was memorable. Good value for money as portions were reasonably generous. I thought the pulled pork was a bit underseasoned and a little dry but maybe that's the local style. Our friends had the fried chicken, a Sunday night special, which I tasted and found excellent. Michael nursed a glass of Roederer Estate Brut through dinner and the three of us had a very interesting "Bride" from Black Bart vineyards which was a mix of Marsanne, Viognier, and Chardonay ($39). The earthiness of the Marsanne dominated and was a good mix for the rather rich food (Michael did get a glass in at the end). The bill for this was $140 before tax which seemed expensive for the casual nature of the place and the food but then there were four of us and we did spend $50 on booze, so maybe not so bad in retrospect.

4. Lunch at the Oxbow: The Oxbow is an attractive food market/restaurant court newly built in downtown Napa. We were there partly to pick up an assortment of spices for Michael's mom but took the opportunity to stop for a snack. There is a branch of the Hog Island Oyster Co so I stopped in for a quick dozen, being unable to convince any of my 3 companions to join me. Well, it wasn't quick but they were certainly good. The local Tomales Bay and Kumamotos and Olympias were among the best I've had. There were actually 5 types on my mixed plate and the other two weren't so much to my taste, being less briny and sweet. The dozen was also expensive at $30, I thought, with no accompaniments except lemon and a very good mignonnette sauce. I then walked over to join my friends at the local outpost of Taylor's refresher for a very good burger and B-quality sweet potato fries. Michael had an ahi burger which was equally delicious. Long wait at the Taylor's both there and at the Ferry Building in San Francisco...the food is good but, frankly, not that good.

5. Celadon: For our last dinner in Napa, we took our friends out to this relatively "fancy" (for the valley) place in a newer mixed use development in Napa. Nice big room, high ceilings with the sense of a loft. It was a rainy and cold night and for some reason the restaurant has gone with hanging plastic strips in lieu of a front door, which is neither attractive nor effective as the occasional cold draft buffeted our table from time to time. We had decided to go more or less at the last minute but they were able to fit us in at 8:15, which suited us fine. We had a couple of small plates to start, the steamed buns with pork belly (a kind of pork belly slider) and Maine crab cake, both of which were excellent. For mains, we had a sampler. In order of increasing success, Michael had a daily special pasta with crab which was misnamed (sold as papperdelle, but actually more like tagliatelle) which lacked any distinct flavor. My Moroccan spiced lamb shank looked like a huge portion but was mostly bone. Flavorful, not as tender as it could have been but with tasty couscous on the side. Gerry had a special skirt steak which I thought was very good, perfectly medium rare, but with a little bit of a funky taste typical of dry aged beef which he wasn't expecting. Keith's heritage pork T bone was one of the tastiest pieces of meat I've had in a long time. With a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay ($59), dinner came to $220 before tip. Good but not memorable.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fremont Diner in Sonoma: Best Breakfast Ever?

I know I lumped all of our other meals in Napa in a single post but this was so exceptional it deserves a post of its own.

On a misty and cool morning in Napa, we had no pressing agenda and drove with our friends Gerry and Keith over to the Fremont Diner just over the Napa/Sonoma county line. Our hearts were immediately won over by the greeting from the two restaurant dogs, both Australian shepherds and extremely friendly. We were missing our own Aussie mix and were glad to give the two pups some much-appreciated tummy rubs.

Michael ordered ricotta pancakes and scrambled eggs with sausage. Somehow there was a mixup and I thought he was ordering for both of us (apparently not, but fortunately he was willing to share). Both were marvelous, the eggs had a deep rich taste that you only get from really fresh organic eggs, the sausage was chunky and spicy, and the pancakes were thin, light, and delicious. Keith had french toast which was a very generous portion of four thick slices. Both they and the pancakes came with a small pitcher of real maple syrup, none of this b.s. about charging extra for real syrup or substituting the nasty corn syrup based stuff. Gerry had a dish of beans with an egg on top. It wouldn't have been my choice but the beans were well cooked if a tad underseasoned for my taste.

This is the kind of breakfast you dream of, everything perfectly sourced, perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked. My only regret was that they had run out of biscuits so I couldn't have the biscuits and gravy. But here's a little story that tells how nice they are there. We arrive, I ask about biscuits and are told they'll be out in 20 minutes, so we order something else. Well, by the time we finish it's been 20 minutes so I go up and hopefully ask if the biscuits are done yet. The chef tells me he's very sorry, but he's having a little trouble with the oven and they won't be odne for another 10 minutes. I say no worries, thanks anyhow and we head out. I get distracted by playing with the dogs and it's a few minutes before we actually head for the car and the chef runs up to me and gives me a biscuit in a paper bag with a little container of charge! It was a very delicious biscuit in the true southern tradition, flaky and moist with a bit of sweetness.

I will be dreaming about that breakfast for months to come, I am sure.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rasika on Christmas Eve

Michael and I headed to Rasika after a hectic day of pre-departure activities for our traditional night-before-vacation meal. We always look forward to a great meal at Rasika and happily this year was no exception.

The streets of Washington were empty as we drove up…we found a parking spot right around the corner – but inside the restaurant was as warm and bustling as on any other night. We were greeted cordially and shown to a small table in the back corner of the main room.

In a somewhat adventurous spirit, we decided to try some new things this time rather than relying on our old standbys, although of course it was not possible to skip the awesome crispy spinach. We supplemented this with some sort of cauliflower appetizer and also the crab cakes (it is hard for me to give details as the only real complaint I have about Rasika is that the menus – both food and drink – are printed in impossibly small type for those of us entering our second half century, and not just we semi-elderly if my younger dining companions can be believed.

The cauliflower was outstanding. This is the second great cauliflower dish I have had recently, both at Indian restaurants, and I must say it is making me rethink my lifelong loathing of cauliflower. This particular dish was in a very spicy brownish/reddish sauce or coating, sprinkled with small sliced green chilies (one of which I made the mistake, rather absent-mindedly, of eating.) The texture was almost that of a shrimp tempura or tender chicken, but with a hint of underlying sweetness (like shrimp) that set off the spicyness.

Michael also loved the crabcakes. I thought they were good also, but being a son of the Chesapeake, my palate has been trained that the less you do to crabcakes, the better. This meat was also flakier and less chunky than blue crab, I suspect maybe Jonah or rock crab…not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they say. Well, for non-traditional crabcakes they were very, very good.

For main courses Michael had the lamb gucci korma and I had the duck. The duck was superb, small slices fanned out on a plate with a rich sauce and accompanied by delicious orange flavored rice (that Michael, uncharacteristically, requested repeat tastes of) and caramelized orange peel. The lamb was also delicious, in a very subtle light tan creamy sauce and falling apart in tender chunks that tasted of the essence of lamb, with a few morels strewn in the sauce for good measure.

As sides I also ordered a smoked eggplant dish that was sensational, a rich brown mound that was kind of the consistency and pretty much the appearance of a pile of refried beans, but very complex and subtly spicy. I keep ordering these exotic dishes hoping that they will change Michael’s attitude toward eggplant (similar to mine about cauliflower). I think I am making progress…he did go for a second helping of what turned out to be a very generous portion…but progress is slow. We also had some cucumber raita...well, I did, for some reason couldn’t get Michael interested in it, but it did nicely cutting the spice of the duck and eggplant.

With dinner we drank a very pleasant New Zealand chardonnay from the Martinborough region, one of the less pricey choices ($52) from Rasika’s extensive and rather expensive list. Delightful, on the crisp side like a decent white Burgundy and went very well with the food.

Michael was in the mood for something sweet afterwards. He thought he was ordering a chocolate samosa, probably for my benefit, but ended up with an apple jaleh which is a kind of caramelized apple beignet with cardamom ice cream. Tasty, but not something that I’ll have dreams about later.

As usual dinner at Rasika was no bargain, a tab of $165 before tip, but we did order generously: 3 apps, 2 mains, 2 side dishes, and dessert. And the quality of the cooking was, as always, superb. Service was, as always, polite and professional.

Friday, December 18, 2009

San Francisco: Maverick

By a stroke of luck, I happened to be in San Francisco on business and was there to celebrate our friend JP's birthday with him and his partner Rusty. After a warm-up glass or two of wine, we headed out to Maverick, a favorite of theirs in the Mission district near their home.

Maverick is a very small and atmospheric place with a nice, neighborhood, hip vibe. We were seated at a comfortable table and quickly began looking over the menu. I had had a particularly long day with no lunch so I was anxious to get some food on the table!

Rusty and JP recommended the fried chicken so that is what I fact we all had the fried chicken, which might not have given a very broad picture of the menu, but at least it cut down on sharing. Being hungry, I started with clams casino....kind of a throwback to the 60s, or 70s maybe...anyhow something I haven't ordered in I don't know how long. The clams were OK, not overwhelming. Four smallish clams with some bacon and breadcrumbs. Maybe I expected more, maybe too much. Anyhow, no need to order this again for another 20 years. Rusty had a salad which looked perfectly pleasant but unremarkable.

Fortunately, the chicken was delicious, with a seasoning that was maybe a tad thicker and a hair less crisp than perfection (and by perfection I'm thinking of Mrs Rowe's Restaurant in Staunton, Virginia) but plenty good nonetheless..the seriousness of the breading was made passable, even desirable, because it was deliciously seasoned. Kind of like a crispy cream gravy wrapped around the chicken, which was two generous pieces bedded down on collard greens. We had a small side dish of mac and cheese with it which I think JP liked more than me. It certainly wasn't bad (hard to make mac and cheese that is actually bad) but I thought it could have been hotter and cheesier.

With the chicken, we started with a bottle of "champagne" (actually a bottle of method champenoise rose from Alsacee), quite delicious, and switched to a Lang & Hall cabernet franc at the urging of the enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and helpful sommelier. He was right, it was a good "food wine" with a very nice mix of fruit and acidity that was not overwhelmed by the bitterness of the collard greens. Wine prices in general seemed fair for the still wines and a bit high for the sparklers ($40 for Gruet? I mean, really, I like Gruet, but $40 for a bottle that's $13 retail seems a little much).

All in all a very festive evening and a place that perhaps Michael and I will visit together when we are back in the Bay Area for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Masala Art: Nice local Indian

Michael and I dropped into Masala, only a few blocks from home, in the middle of a day of errands to check it out for lunch. What we found was very pleasing.

Michael is, rightfully, suspicious of Indian restaurants with buffets as these often are a dumping ground otherwise uninspired cooking. But at $9.50, we figured we had little to lose.

The space is clean and attractive although the layout is a bit awkward, perhaps due to the need to reserve enough space in the back for the buffet tables. We were initially shown to a table near the buffet (which is in a relatively dark and spare section of the restaurant) but when we hesitated were cheerfully ushed to another table closer to the front.

In fact, we were very pleasantly surprised by the quality of what we ate. Perhaps one positive is that the restaurant did not try to create 20 different dishes, all badly. What we had was, in addition to the usual rice, a ground-lamb-and-lentil dish (tasty), a curried chicken (delicate…not nearly as spicy as I would have wished, but otherwise good), a lentil dal (no complaints), something with cauliflower and peas (normally I hate cauliflower, but I went back for seconds on this one), and a very rich spinach dish…I suspect much ghee included. In addition there was a table with ingredients for a salad and toppings for the various dishes, a bowl of raita, and some Indian rice pudding (kheer) for dessert. Fresh naan was delivered to the table (and replenished).

I would say the food tended toward the delicate rather than robust, but it was all delicious and of course you can’t beat the price. We intend to revisit the restaurant in the evening and see what the menu has to offer, as a buffet doesn’t really show off the ability of the kitchen.

Another very useful place within walking distance of our house…things are looking up!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Vidalia for Lunch

With a couple of valued clients, I recently visited Vidalia, a place where I have always enjoyed the food but not always the ambiance so much. In fact the last I was there for dinner with our good dining buddies David & Ra'ed, for dinner on a Saturday night, when the food was delicious but the place was so empty and quiet that it was frankly, a bit depressing and very much detracted from our enjoyment. Not the restaurant's fault, really, I'm sure they would have preferred lots more people there, but not ours either.

I'm sorry to say that lunch, which previously I had noticed was a more popular meal, was more of the same story. We had a really delicious although not "fancy" lunch. My guests both had Reuben sandwiches which they seemed to enjoy heartily. I took advantage of a $24 three course special, which had a few options. I chose the pozole, not a traditional pozole but a small portion of a kind of deconstructed dish with hearty and savory broth accompanied by some plump hominy kernels (hence the pozole, I guess) and some bacony, piggy pieces. Really a nice starter. I then followed up with a Cuban sandwich (I must admit I am a sucker for Cuban sandwiches) which was huge, greasy, rich, filling, and altogether satisfying. Compared to a classical Cuban sandwich it was a little light on the pickles (which I think provide an important foil for the richness) and used roasted pork belly instead of ham just for a little more decadence. It was almost more than I could eat (well, I was with clients so I was trying to be polite). And to top everything off there was a choice of pecan pie or lemon chess pie. Fortunately my clients were willing to help out with the pie, which was excellent, not as treacly-sweet as pecan pie can be....if they hadn't they'd probably have had to cart me out in a wheelbarrow. What a wonderful value for $24.

Service was typically professional. Well, it was easy, I think there were only four other tables occupied in the room. Worked for us because we were discussing private business, but it can't be good for the restaurant. I'm afraid if this trend continues Vidalia is not long for this world, which would be a shame because the food there is really delicious and I think it deserves a wider following.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Acacia Bistro: Nice Place in our neighborhood

Our good friend JP had returned to town from the wilds of San Francisco, where I hear it’s very hard to get a decent meal, so to celebrate we wandered down the hill to the newly-opened Acacia Bistro. We had been eyeing this place for about a month, intending to stop in, and heartened by the appearance of a decent place to eat within walking distance. The posted menu and wine list looked good and we were anxious to give it a try. In fact, we had given it a try a couple of weeks prior, with our friends Jeremy and Jen, but it turns out to be closed on Sundays, so we ended up at Buck’s Camping (about which see separate entry).

Anyhow, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way up front. The Washington Post writeup suggested that the owners, having changed concepts in mid-stream, had kind of run out of decorating money, and it shows, sort of. There are a lot of positives about the nice, clean looking, high ceilinged space. The big negative are the large plate glass windows overlooking a less than scenic corner of Connecticut Avenue – the space used to be a Schlottsky’s Deli and it still has a bit of that feel. Some kind of window treatment would do wonders.

The other negatives are that the tables are too small and the placemats are terrible. Well, that may seem like a minor thing to complain about but they tend to bunch up under the plates. We ended up rolling them up and sticking them on the spare chair. The tables, as I said, are too small for a place that specializes in small plates. What I find is with small plates, you end up with a lot of them and there was way too much balancing and shuffling going on.

The upside is that the food is very good and reasonably priced. There is a large portion of the menu devoted to flatbreads (basically, pizza). I didn’t think this was the most successful part of the meal as the pizza was a bit doughy and perhaps just a little underbaked. But the other dishes were terrific. I don’t remember all of them, but Turkish meatballs stands out [more] There is also a very interesting, well organized, and remarkably reasonably priced wine list. Of the perhaps 30 or selections, the vast majority were in the $30-35 range which is extremely fair these days. We started with a bottle of central California chardonnay –Santa Teresa Valley if I remember right – which was crisp and clean in the French style. JP and I moved on to a red from the Douro region which was very pleasant, earthy and gutsy in kind of a Spanish style without the dustiness and austerity that Spanish reds often exhibit.

The bill was very reasonable, just over $100 if I remember right and this was with two bottles of wine! Service was good if perhaps just a little over-solicitous…perhaps the waiter didn’t have enough to do.

Acacia also has what appears to be very generous happy hour specials (happy hour is from 430 to 8!) for people sitting at the bar, and I will have to check those out one day.

This is not the fanciest restaurant in the world, or the most perfect, but it is just the kind of friendly, interesting, reasonably priced, honest place that we all wish we had in our neighborhood. Now we do. Let's hope it makes it.