Monday, February 22, 2010

Brooks - Attentive Service Outshines Complicated Food

Brooks in Ventura, California (Ventura County, south of Santa Barbara) is a bright spot in a culinary-challenged county. However, after two visits I'm convinced that the quality of the service exceeds the quality of the food, which is sometimes over-complicated or even served improperly.

On a visit in August, I had the beef short ribs which, while perfectly cooked and wonderfully tender, were served with an extremely sticky-sweet sauce that tended to overwhelm the plate. A dish this good deserves better than the equivalent of bottled BBQ sauce on top.
Then last night, we had the roasted artichoke starter, Romaine salad, and roasted red snapper. The artichoke dish featured a large portion of Brie encased in phyllo - yummy, but the portion of artichoke was too small and over-sauced. The Romaine salad is forgettable, overdressed and bland. And while the fish was fine, it arrived with lukewarm, slightly sweet saffron cream sauce and cold fingerling potatoes. At these prices, there's no excuse for dishes not arriving piping hot. Service (by Alana) was attentive and excellent, really exceeding the food quality.
The dining room is airy and modern with a high open ceiling, polished concrete floor and a loft-industrial feel. The space is divided by a long, bright bar into a lounge and dining area with open kitchen behind. Some diners might find it cold, but I find it to evoke an art gallery, calling for you to concentrate on your company, and your food.
I really want Brooks to succeed, but several dishes need to be re-thought and the kitchen needs to concentrate on perfection in quality.


"Chopped," one of Food Network's more compelling shows, pits four cooks--and they are not necessarily professional chefs--in competition to create the most innovative courses from a mixed basket of ingredients. As the cooks work through appetizer, main, and dessert courses in rounds of 30 minutes each (compressed for TV purposes), one cook is voted out in each successive round by a panel of food-industry celebs. Typically, at least one of the ingredients is unusual, or at least not normally used with the others. Imagine forming a main course using fresh bison, Belgian ale, and dried mango; these were within the basket of ingredients on a recent show. Yet for me, one of the great pleasures of cooking involves channeling "Chopped" in a personal way -- creating an interesting dish on-the-fly from unused or leftover ingredients found in the fridge in, as we say in Silicon Valley, real time. It's an opportunity to express creativity, without being voted off -- at least if you're cooking for yourself.

So as Sunday lunch approached this past weekend, I contemplated the following in my icebox: a ball of pizza dough (a really good local brand, actually, featured at Zanotto's in the Rose Garden); Gruyere cheese; a red onion; thick-cut pancetta. Having just returned from a trip after several weeks of nearly continuous travel, my fridge was vegetable challenged, but I was determined to succeed. Still another goal: use at least one of the myriad little jars and cans of tapenades, sauces, and other gourmet foods that friends gave me for Christmas in various gift baskets. How often do you find yourself tossing those into the pantry, only to discover them the next summer or fall? This year, I'm determined to use them soon, and well. A jar of Napa Valley mushroom tapenade spoke to me.
I set the oven to 550 and cut the dough ball in half--the dough balls available at Zanotto's will make a 14" to 16" pizza to feed four, so half was more than enough for me. I heated a tablespoon of butter in a skillet while slicing the onion lengthwise, and also cut the pancetta into 1/2" dice. The onion went into the skillet first for a couple of minutes to caramelize, with some salt. No pepper; the pancetta, while not cured with salt, is rolled in pepper so none would be needed in the pan. After the onion started to turn caramel colored I pushed it to the side and added the pancetta, taking a good six to eight minutes to crisp it. Meanwhile I rolled and pushed the dough into a rustic circle and tossed cornmeal -- the favored nonstick coating in pizza-making -- onto a pizza peel and a baking sheet.

As the onion-pancetta mixture finished up, the kitchen smelled fantastic, smoky and rich. I spread the mushroom tapenade on the pizza dough, topped it with the onion-pancetta mixture, picking over it to evenly spread out the pancetta chunks. Then I grated on the Gruyere and baked it for about 12 minutes to brown the cheese. Enjoyed during an English football (soccer match) on Fox Soccer Channel, it recalled the classic British dish of mushrooms on toast, made more complex and filling with rich onions and pancetta. And no one voted me off.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Roux the Day

Last week we ended a wonderful week of food and culture on one of America's most somber holidays, Patriot Day, September 11--perhaps appropriate, because the freedom to pursue the creative activities we had this week seems an essential goal of the present struggle.

We began the week browsing at the market, knowing we had a cardiac stress (treadmill) test looming just over the horizon, and therefore focused on fish. Impetuously, we purchased a couple of tilapia filets, not really knowing what to do with them; we've had them in restaurant dishes many times but haven't experimented much at home. Let's face it - displayed on ice at the market, it's not one of nature's greatest visual creations and, well, it's a flat, white fish. Visions of butter and lemon, and too much of them. We were thrilled, then, in browsing the extensive recipe collection at Epicurious, to find Lemon-Paprika Tilapia with Potato-Rutabaga Mash - and thrilled even further when we realized that we had every single ingredient in the fridge or pantry.

Coincidentally (we suppose), we had bought a couple of rutabagas just the day before with no specific purpose in mind, just the curiosity of trying a different root vegetable than our usual repertoire of potatoes and parsnips. Now, the perfect chance to test drive the 'rutes. The recipe is delicious and simple, benefiting from good paprika if you have it. The rutabagas add a sweet and even smoky undertone to the mash, and having a heavier starch is a nice counterpoint for a lighter fish. And this is a fast recipe that uses only basic techniques - great for a busy weeknight.

Our stress test went fine, although our doctor wouldn't be pleased about the next two nights' menus. Wednesday night found us at Draeger's Cooking School, located on the second floor of Draeger's expansive San Mateo location, for the souffle class. (While not on the current class schedule, this class is given several times a year.) The souffle entree, usually cheese, made periodic appearances in our mother's 1970s suburban kitchen, but it's not a dish we had previously mastered. As with many French classics, learning a few fundamental techniques gives you a "base" that can be adapted in endless combinations of flavor profile or keynotes. Our class, about about 16 participants, divided into 3 table groups and each turned out admirable versions of spinach, cheese, Grand Marnier, and chocolate souffles, under the friendly and skillful leadership of chef Abigail Bursak.

Honestly, they were ridiculously easy once we mastered foundation tasks like separating eggs, making a roux for the base and flavoring it or forming a custard, and beating whites to soft peak. Probably only timing is the reason that these light, fluffy marvels of kitchen chemistry don't appear on home menus very often, at least as a dessert--and people seem to love chocolate and Grand Marnier the most. Beating the whites, folding them into the base, loading ramekins and getting them into the oven takes about 20 minutes with experience, and baking only 10 minutes. Then they must be eaten immediately: Kings wait for souffles, but souffles don't wait for kings, and the comical collapse of a puffed-up souffle parodied so often in the comics really does happen, although it takes about a full 10 minutes outside the oven for a souffle to fall. The problem is that during the prep stage, you probably want to be eating your main course; the alternative is to shovel it down during the 10-minute baking time. Which some people may do regularly, or even enjoy, but we find it inconsistent with the elegance of a dessert souffle.

Thus we roared on into Thursday, slated to see the urbanized, updated production of Shakespeare's As You Like It at the San Jose Rep, part of artistic director Rick Lombardo's inaugural season. (Shows play through September 27.) But first, we elected to skip the usual stress of a rushed pre-theatre dinner by cooking our own pan-roasted steak with a crust of ground dried porcini mushrooms, a gratin of potato and--yes--rutabaga, and a fresh mixed tomato salad. We improvised all the recipes, and were delighted with the outcome. The sets, characters and staging in brief:

For the steak, we selected a nicely marbled boneless ribeye at Zanotto's, and decided that (at our age) it was large enough for two, so we bisected it. (You could also use a couple of filets mignon, which is what Epicure suggests for a porcini crust; our view is that the relative blandness of filet calls for a sauce and not a crust.) Trimmed of all visible fat to prevent curling, it was lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, then dredged on both sides in porcini powder, which we produced by running half a bag of dried porcinis through a well-cleaned coffee grinder. We pressed the powder firmly in place on the steak, then set it aside to come to room temperature. We set the oven to 425, then placed a cast iron pan--on which we planned to sear the steak--on the back burner, dry, and turned the burner to the "low simmer" setting. We find this trick ideal to preheat a searing pan before we need it. Set it and forget it.

Meanwhile we had set a pot of water to a simmer with salt and into this we slid thin slices of peeled rutabaga, followed 3 minutes later by an equal quantity of sliced white (or Yukon gold) potato, which will cook faster than the rutabaga. We let this simmer for 4 minutes and then removed the slides to a collander. We buttered a shallow glass dish and arranged one layer (OK, one with a few orphans on top) of potatoes in it, added cream to barely cover, a bit of salt and pepper, and a handful of freshly box-grated Gruyere cheese. This went into the oven for 15 minutes until the top formed a bubbling, golden, browned crust.

During that baking time, we had time both to prep the salad and grill the steak. The salad was pure summer simplicity. First we made a simple Sauvignon Blanc viniagrette in the bowl with extra-virgin olive oil, the SB vinegar, a chopped shallot, salt, pepper, and a dash of Dijon mustard to bind it. Whisked in the bowl, this had a beautiful color and a heady, sweet-savory fragrance. Then we tossed in halved grape tomatoes, halved cherry tomatoes, and seeded rough-chopped vine-ripe tomatoes, which was what we had on hand. You could use any kind. We added peeled sliced English cucumber, the slices cut in half to form half-moons, and a handful of Italian parsley leaves, not chopped - call it our Jamie Oliver dash of fresh herbiage. We tossed all this together, spilled portions onto plates, and topped each with a wedge of Gorgonzola. Mediterranean purists might add raw or caramelized red onion for a third note; with shallot in the dressing, we elected to skip it.

For the steak we simply brought the pan onto high heat, melted butter and a little olive oil, waited for the butter foam to boil off and then seared the steaks for about 6 minutes per side, watching for burning. Then the whole pan went into the oven for a couple of minutes while we arranged the table, set out the salads, and plated the gratin. Out came the steaks, onto the plates to rest slightly while we cleaned up the kitchen a bit. Five minutes later we were dining in luxury and the whole meal had taken less than 45 minutes from prep to table.

And Shakespeare? He might praise the innovation of Lombardo, but find it somewhat confusing. To be sure, this is an attractive, even cool production, especially in the second act when the forest scenes benefit from consistent and classy costuming and propwork. The first act might be called pretentious--characters at court with iPods? The wrestling scene staged to mimic, or satire, the WWF and covered on quasi-live big-screen video? It's daring, but the ultra-modernism of the first act doesn't seem to transition well to the forest. Still, the principal cast is extremely strong and sharp, and rise above the distractions we perceived in the first-act mechanics to deliver a memorably entertaining show. Anna Bullard gives a masterful performance in the challenging role of Rosalind. James Carpenter is inspiring as Jaques, and his delivery of the "All the world's a stage/Seven stages of man" monologue sets a standard to which others should aspire. Blake Ellis as Orlando is appropriately rakish, and Steve Irish as Touchstone is hilarious. (Cast biographies are here.)

We needed a good laugh after a long week like that, and we can't wait for the next one that's as rich in food in culture.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Wine Spectator (Table)

A pristine bottle of 1982 Chateau Pavie Bordeaux rested in a silver cradle just inches from my anxious fingers. John Slamon, sommelier at Fifth Floor Restaurant in San Francisco, faced the daunting challenge of wresting the cork--undisturbed since Ronald Reagan was President, the Cold War loomed still in Eastern Europe, and Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" was high on the charts--from the green grip of glass. He eased a Teflon corkscrew slowly in, set the grip in place, and pulled slowly, checking for cracks, taking a full five minutes to move the cork millimeter by millimeter out of position. Finally it edged free; he gingerly wiped the neck to remove any stray crumbs, then poured the dark-ruby wine into a decanter. Five hundred dollars worth of black spice fruit gleamed under glass within arm's reach.

We were seated at table 17, a remarkable location worth requesting at the time of your booking for its proximity to the wine preparation station of a restaurant that has one of San Francisco's greatest wine lists and a star in the Guide Michelin. Here, as we stepped through an utterly relaxing evening marked by perfection in service from Scott Stuart's team in the front of the house, you can observe the on-duty sommelier, the house manager, and others set out wines just selected from the cellar, and have a front-row seat as these wines are poured for inspection by the staff, decanted, and readied for service.

Expressing interest in the process, we were thrilled with Stuart's affable attention and the remarkable knowledge of the wine list showed by him, Slamon, and others on staff. Some might consider the table's location distracting given the continuous activity at peak hours, but we were delighted when Stuart offered to us, from several bottles destined for other tables, the 1/2-ounce taste he typically pours to check for "corking" or other problems. Accompanied by Stuart's commentary on location, flavor profile, and biographical profiles of the producers, we found the table location sublime that genuinely enhanced Fifth Floor's remarkable cuisine. The bottles and information marched forth randomly: 2003 Peter Michael "Les pavots" Bordeaux blend; Freeman chardonnay; and many others, in a fascinating review of what other guests ordered, and the sommeliers' views on each.

On our plates: we began with Chef Jennie Lorenzo's signature crab cappucino, a riff on crab bisque that is more intensely flavorful and not as creamy as traditional bisque, topped with a truffle foam that provides a perfect earthy counterpoint to the crab. We followed with quail stuffed with a savory sausage filling, served with asparagus and pea succotash and garnished with an herb puree Madeira sauce that was so wonderful we resolved to attempt duplication at home. A good dark brown roasted poultry stock, fortified with just enough Madeira or late harvest wine, brewed with fresh herbs (we're thinking a pinch of fresh oregano and lemon thyme--and we may even dash in a 1/4 teaspoon of ground cumin, just because we're obsessed with it), ought to do it. We can nearly taste the roasting, caramelizing vegetables as we write; we told our server, Matthew, that Fifth Floor ought to bottle and sell that jus.

We finished our meal with coffee and doughnuts. Of course, at Fifth Floor, you don't get diner fare when you order this. Our just-fried mini doughnuts were creamy on the inside, crisp and sweet on the outside, competing with New Orleans beignets from Cafe du Monde in toasty richness. Coffee was a perfect warm, dark roast served in a French press.

We normally restrict our writing in this forum to South Bay locations, but we'll go anywhere when the opportunity to check off another Michelin-starred restaurant presents itself. And with all the action, information, and splendid bottles visible next to table 17, we're certain to return soon.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mediterranean Dreams in Downtown Campbell

Fans of Mediterranean cuisine now have two choices in downtown Campbell, with the debut of Cyprus Bistro Cafe almost directly across Campbell Avenue from downtown staple Olio Cafe.

While Olio's menu features dishes extracted from Italy, Spain and North Africa, Cyprus is inspired by Greece, Turkey and the Middle East in addition to its namesake island. Anchoring the kitchen is Omar Kannout; his menu will delight vegetarians and the many of us who are regularly seeking out local, organic ingredients, but fish, lamb and other meats are also carded. On a first visit, I enjoyed swordfish nicely grilled, not over-sauced and served with pilaf and grilled vegetables. Paired with an organic Italian pinot grigo from the restaurant's all-organic wine list, it was quite satisfying. A friend enjoyed halibut prepared in a similar manner. I'd like to see Kannout add tuna, salmon or other fish.

The mezze sampler plate with tabbouleh, dolmas, hummus and other dips is a great start for two and price at only $10. In fact, value is a theme throughout the Cyprus menu. Mixed salad for just $5? Got it. Delicious wines at around $25?--yes, and while you won't recognize some of the producers because they are small, certified organic, with limited duration, they are worth trying. The adventure of ordering an unknown wine is, for me, among the best reasons to seek out independent, neighborhood bistros exactly like this.

Service was appropriately attentive. Cyprus has been open just 3 1/2 weeks, and is clearly still working out a few bugs. On a Friday night one type of bread had run out by 7:30 PM and the young staff was a little scattered. For me, these issues are completely forgiveable, as I'm far more interested in supporting the dream of a new chef and owner than harping on little difficulties. We need independent, neighborhood cafes that take chances both with plates and wines.

Cyprus is open for lunch and dinner six days a week (closed Mondays), at 379 East Campbell Avenue; call (408) 370-3400 for reservations. Olio is at 384 East Campbell Avenue and is open daily, 5 PM to 9 PM and until 10 PM on weekends; call 408.378.0335 or book via OpenTable.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Symphony of Heirloom Tomatoes at Sent Sovi

Ripe, fresh tomatoes are an unquestionable delight of California summers, and our markets are overflowing with varieties both sweet and savory--cherry and grape (unfortunate names, these--appropriately suggesting the shape, but not the flavor of those other prized fruits); beefsteak; Early Girl on the vine; and a cornucopia of heirloom varieties.

I've spent much of the summer buying, cooking and enjoying all these, in their endless adaptations. A highlight: Last weekend, returning from a trip to Paso Robles, I stopped at the excellent fish market Pier 46 on Vineyard Road in Templeton and seized on 1 1/2 pounds of beautiful white sea bass, line caught off Santa Barbara, its skinless flesh delicately marbled with rosy streaks. Packed in ice and an insulated lunch box, it rode with me on the 2-hour trip back to San Jose, then was sliced into 6-oz portions, and pan roasted in a cast iron with olive oil and a half tablespoon of butter - seared on both sides for 3 minutes each, then into a 425 degree oven for 5-8 minutes of roasting. Removing the fish from the pan to a warm plate, I deglazed with Sicilian white wine, reduced it slightly, then tossed in chopped rinsed artichoke hearts, rinsed capers, chopped fresh herbs, sea salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, a handful of sliced Kalamata olives, and a cup of cherry tomatoes - their flavor intensified by halving them and slow roasting them in the oven at 300 for 45 minutes. Spooned over the fish and onto crusty bread, it was magnificent.

But a dish like that is best viewed like an old, sappy love song on the radio, compared to the symphony of tomatoes that chef Josiah Sloane is conducting this week at Sent Sovi Restaurant in Saratoga. I had the memorable pleasure last night of Sent Sovi's second Heirloom Tomato Dinner and its five-course menu showcasing Sloane's typically creative use of a remarkably diverse ingredient. As guests gathered, green zebra basil Champagne cocktails were poured - think Bellini, made with reduced intensified strained pulp of the green zebra tomato, a low-acid model. Just a hint of tomato-basil flavor remained, pairing comfortably with the sparking wine. Sloane had also set out five or six varieties of tomatoes simply chopped and dressed with olive oil, salt, and aged balsamic - a great idea for a Labor Day grill party.

The main menu opened with a triple gazpacho preparation including the classic soup in a shot glass, a cold salad of Early Girl and cucumber, and slow-roasted tomatoes on grilled bread - intense, savory, and rich. Sloane followed with his riff on components of the BLT, featuring slab bacon confit, house mayonnaise, more tomatoes and grilled lettuce. Next up: a salad of frozen Marvel Stripe tomatoes in a chilled martini glass wiped with basil paint. Who knew iced tomatoes could work so well in a salad? Sloane's "main" was grilled sliced filet with beefsteak tomatoes and a wine reduction, a perfect pairing for the lowly beefsteak, so often served unripe on hamburgers. The supporting cast for this dish included the remarkable Old Vine Petit Syrah (Lodi) 2005 from Trinitas Winery (90 points, Wine Spectator)-- a gutsy and inspired choice for Sloane, as Petit Syrah is so rarely served, or even considered as a prime wine list selection by the typical diner. After savoring the spice, weight, balance and chunkiness of the Trinitas, I do hope it becomes a regular on Sloane's list.

The evening ended with a play on lemon meringue pie, with Lemonboy tomatoes standing in for Meyers, a sweet and creamy finish to a terrific meal.

To see, hear and taste this symphony yourself, run, don't walk to Sent Sovi, as this menu is available only until September 13.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Time Magazine Cover: Sustainable Beef and Farming

Writing menu course descriptions has become an elaborate act of marketing. Regular South Bay diners will be accustomed to menu main course descriptions mentioning "Niman Ranch grass fed" beef or steaks, but few of us may know much about the ranch or why a particular restaurant might favor it.

It's worth investigating - just as Jeffrey Steingarten's Vogue Magazine article on the preparation of pork in France opened my eyes bug-wide (you can read it, reprinted, in his masterful 2002 book "It Must Have Been Something I Ate") - it's important for all of us to know where our foods come from, especially proteins because of the high costs involved in producing them.

While I normally view Time Magazine as disposable "news lite," its August 31 cover story "The Real Cost of Cheap Food" (posted online on August 21) provides an engaging description of the Nimans and how they raise beef in a manner that's wholly natural yet different from 99% of producers in America. Their cattle graze free on expansive land, fed only grass and hay--what they are supposed to eat. Quite recently, I owned land in San Luis Obispo County and had neighbors and friends that ran cattle in the same way; I can't imagine buying beef sourced from a Central Valley feedlot. If you've traveled central California at all, you know the sights and the smells--compare and contrast driving through Buttonwillow or Kettleman City on I-5, where the smell of manure is so powerful it permeates any passing car, even those topping 80 MPH, with the bucolic sight of scattered Black Angus wandering the golden hills around San Luis, resting under shaded oak trees, raised with the practices originated by the vaqueros more than a century ago. Beef sourced this way is healthier, tastier--and certainly more costly. You have to balance your sense of health risk with the demands of your budget.

You can read more at the Niman Ranch website, and order its terrific products online through the MySteak store run by Buckhead Beef. Labor Day grilling is right around the corner--so today's a great time to place an order and experience what steak is supposed to taste like.

And for an in-depth view of why and how cheap food makes you fat and likely causes innumerable health problems, I recommend Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" - an engaging book that may well change everything about what you eat, cook, or grow.