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Saturday, July 30, 2005

White Truffle Oil: A Small Bit of Luxury


One of my absolute favorite ingredients to work with in the kitchen is white truffle oil, so I suppose that it was only a matter of time until I posted something about it here.   For the uninitiated, white truffles are small mushroom-like fungi that grow spontaneously on the roots of oak trees.   The best white truffles in the world are widely believed to be those from the Alba region of Italy, where for a brief period of time each year – from around mid-November until the end of December – the peak of the crop is harvested.   Doing so requires significant manual labor and heavy reliance on dogs, their sharp sense of smell being the only practicable way to locate the truffles underground.   Once harvested, the white truffle is extremely perishable; it lasts no more than ten days, and any attempt to preserve it – through freezing, for example – results in a serious degradation in flavor.   It is this combination of labor-intense harvesting, extreme perishability, short season, limited supply, and extraordinary demand that explains why white truffles are among the most expensive delicacies in the world.   Last year's crop, for example, ran significantly upward of $3500 per pound.

Thankfully, there are ways to enjoy the wonderful, earthy and delicate taste of the white truffle year-round without completely emptying your bank account.   One of these is through the use of white truffle oil.   The name "white truffle oil" is actually a bit of a misnomer; the oil does not literally come from white truffles, but is instead olive oil that has been infused with their flavor.   There are numerous brands of white truffle oil available on the market, with significant variation among them in taste, intensity and price.   My favorite, by far, is the one sold by Urbani Truffles USA Ltd. in Pennsylvania.   Urbani is a family-owned business that is actually the largest United States importer and distributor of fresh truffles, so it's no surprise that they also offer some of the best truffle products around.   Urbani's white truffle oil has a high-quality olive oil base, with an intoxicating fragrance and intense flavor.

White truffle oil is not cheap.   Urbani's version typically sells for around $40 for an 8 oz. bottle, and I have seen other inferior brands in gourmet stores selling for even more.   One mitigating factor here, however, is that the oil is typically used only for flavoring; it is rarely, if ever, used for cooking, as the flavor is so delicate that it will be destroyed if the oil is exposed to direct heat for prolonged periods of time.   Furthermore, white truffle oil is so intense, that a very small amount goes a very long way.   Accordingly, an 8 oz. bottle of the oil will typically last several times as long as the 8 oz. bottle of olive oil sitting beside it on the pantry shelf.

The possibilities for using white truffle oil are virtually endless, although it seems to work especially well in combination with relatively mild flavors that are not overly assertive.   Swirl some into finished soups such as potato leek or cream of mushroom.   Try making it the star ingredient in a savory custard, or pairing it with a delicate flavor like cauliflower in a savory panna cotta.   Toss some gnocchi with white truffle oil and kosher salt, or drizzle some oil on top of ravioli stuffed with butternut squash.   Blend it into your favorite risotto recipe right before serving, or add to scrambled eggs, hollandaise sauce, or other egg-based dishes once they are complete.
Here’s a favorite of mine – sauté some shallots and fresh summer corn in a bit of olive oil, salt to taste, and then mix in some white truffle oil right before eating.   Even a decidedly non-gourmet dish like macaroni and cheese takes on an entirely new dimension when some white truffle oil is stirred in at the last minute.

I encourage you to experiment with white truffle oil and see what you can come up with.   Just be sure to add the oil to your dish after it has been completed and removed from the heat; never put it into a pan on the stovetop unless the cooking process is moments away from being finished, otherwise the oil will quickly lose its white truffle flavor.   (Note that the flavor seems to hold up fine when the oil is baked, for instance, in a custard, but I would still be wary of high oven temperatures.)   So, good luck, and please do let me know if you discover some particularly satisfying ways to use this great product!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

San Francisco Magazine: Critics' Choice Awards for 2005


Every August, the editors of San Francisco magazine put out an issue that is focused on features relating to food. Included in this issue are the winners of the magazine’s annual “Critics' Choice Awards,” in which a panel of food writers from around the country is asked to choose the Bay Area’s Best Chef, Best Pastry Chef, Rising Star Chef, and Best Wine Director.   Well, the August 2005 issue of San Francisco magazine just recently hit the newsstands, and the results are in.

The award for Best Chef this year goes to Michael Mina, of the eponymously named establishment that entered the San Francisco market last summer with a resounding splash.   Mina, of course, has a long and impressive history of success, most notably a nine-year run heading up the kitchen at Aqua.   At his new restaurant, Mina offers courses comprised of one primary ingredient prepared multiple ways – an intricate, and interesting, approach that is certainly distinctive.   My one dinner at Michael Mina was on its second night of operation, and it was very good.   And although that meal did not quite rise to the level necessary to compete with other top-tier establishments, I'm sure that the restaurant was still in the process of working out the kinks.
Accordingly, a return visit is definitely near the top of my to-do list.

This year’s award for Best Pastry Chef goes to Nicole Krasinski of Rubicon, a restaurant that I recently visited and reviewed.   Krasinski has often noted the fact that she is not particularly fond of sweets, an unusual trait that might explain her penchant for incorporating unusual ingredients – such as olive oil, basil, balsamic vinegar, or Pecorino cheese – into her desserts.   I have so far tried only two of Krasinski’s offerings: a Blueberry Meringue Tart was excellent in its simplicity, while an Apricot Tarte Tatin was, well, not so good.   I do look forward to sampling more of Krasinski’s desserts, however, especially some of her more innovative compositions.

The Rising Star Chef award for 2005 goes to Sean O’Brien, the former sous chef at Restaurant Gary Danko who struck out on his own late last year to become the opening chef at Myth.   I regrettably have not yet had a chance to make it over to the restaurant, but I’ve been hearing some incredible things for the past several months about the food coming out of O’Brien’s kitchen.   Prior to opening Myth, O’Brien spent his entire career working under Gary Danko – following him from The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, to Viognier, to Fifth Floor, and then to Restaurant Gary Danko.   It’s little wonder, then, that O’Brien has made such an impressive debut.

Finally, the award for Best Wine Director goes to Shelley Lindgren of A16.   There are few Bay Area restaurants with a greater “buzz” at the moment than A16, and co-owner Lindgren is undoubtedly a part of the reason why.
With prior experience at Fleur de Lys, Boulevard and Bacar, she was identified as one of the best new sommeliers by Wine and Spirits magazine last October.   Lindgren has developed a particular expertise in the wines of Southern Italy, which obviously pairs nicely with the Campania-region cuisine of Executive Chef Christophe Hille.   And notably, the restaurant offers forty wines by the glass, providing something for every taste.

So, congratulations to Michael Mina, Nicole Krasinski, Sean O’Brien and Shelley Lindgren on their San Francisco Magazine Critics’ Choice Awards!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Future of The French Laundry


As much as it pains me to type these words, I feel that I have to say it:   The French Laundry appears to be slipping.   Now, I should note at the outset that I am not ready to declare just yet that the restaurant has lost its claim to being the best in the region.
Furthermore, I would still recommend that those who have never been to The French Laundry make a point of trying to experience it at least once if possible.   But that said, I have reluctantly come to conclude that as the years have gone on, the restaurant has lost some of its focus, its attention to detail, its "finesse."   And at the same time, a small group of contenders – including the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, and Gary Danko – have continued a steady upward march, to the point where they are now well within striking distance of the Bay Area’s most famous dining establishment.

My first meal at The French Laundry in April 2000, without exaggeration, changed my entire gastronomical worldview.   Never before had I tasted such refined flavors and brilliant combinations, never before had I seen such amazingly constructed and intricate presentations, and never before had I experienced such impeccable service.   Simply put, Chef/Owner Thomas Keller revealed things that I – despite having previously dined at the Bay Area’s finest restaurants – never even imagined could be achieved with food or with food service.   Every element of that first visit reached perfection, and I left the building awestruck at what I had just experienced.

My next several dinners at the restaurant brought more of the same, as Keller continued to raise the bar even higher.   Time and again, he left me shaking my head in wonder at his ability to create taste sensations like no other.   He prepared food items that I normally dislike in ways that made me love them.   He took a humble ingredient such as the parsnip, and worked delicately to isolate, distill down, and concentrate the essence of the vegetable into a single explosive bite.   He paired food items that previously seemed to have no affinity for one another, and demonstrated why the combination made all the sense in the world.   Indeed, what Keller provided was nothing short of an education - about the flavor, the texture, and the potential of the very foods that I had been eating my entire life.   And the service was spectacular – gracious, courteous, accommodating, anticipatory, and knowledgeable.    Keller was – in my book – a genius, and The French Laundry was the paragon of restaurants, light years ahead of its closest competitors.
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There's more...
The first less-than-stellar experience I had at The French Laundry was in January 2003.   The food remained at the same magnificent level as on earlier visits, but the graceful service – described as “balletic” by some – was clearly lacking.   Waiters were presenting and clearing dishes from random directions, refilling wine glasses by reaching across the front of guests, and thrusting baskets of fresh white truffles uncomfortably close to diners’ faces.   One obviously-new waiter even stood tableside for what seemed to be an eternity, faithfully moving one spoon over another in an attempt to form a quenelle of a nearly liquid cheese – apparently hoping that persistence might magically cause it to come into existence.   My next visit a few months later found the service to be similarly substandard.

Over the course of the ensuing two years, I told myself that the service issues that I had experienced were probably attributable to Keller’s plan – already underway at the time – to open Per Se, his multi-million dollar New York counterpart to The French Laundry.   Certainly Keller and his staff were a bit distracted, I figured, and once both restaurants were up and running at full steam, The French Laundry would naturally return to its inimitable form.   Well, my opportunity to test that theory finally arrived when two friends and I recently made the journey up to The French Laundry for dinner – my first meal there since Per Se opened in early 2004.

Much to my disappointment, the service was once again less than impressive.   As described more fully in a companion post, waiters repeatedly reached across guests, failed to describe courses fully and accurately, and neglected to monitor and ensure proper wine levels throughout the course of the meal.   Furthermore, the menu itself seemed to be a notch below what it once was.   Sure, there were several courses that were just as spectacular as anything Keller has ever created; but for the first time in memory, there were some courses that were not. And that, to me, was profoundly disappointing – in a way that is difficult even to describe.

So, what conclusions, if any, can be drawn?   Well, one thing I can no longer deny is that over the course of three consecutive visits, The French Laundry has exhibited service that has consistently been below excellent.   Is it downright bad, or rude, or offensive in some manner?   Of course not.   Is it still well above the service that the vast majority of our local restaurants provide?   Certainly.   But is it anywhere near what The French Laundry itself once offered – what Keller demonstrated could be achieved with the right mix of talented people, attention to detail, and a passionate commitment to excellence?   Absolutely not.

The quality of the food, meanwhile, has not fallen off quite as precipitously.   Yet, my recent meal at the restaurant included several dishes that – as described in the companion post – fell somewhere short of greatness.
Again, the food obviously was not bland, bad or inedible, and a meal at The French Laundry is still a special experience when compared to the overwhelming majority of restaurants in town.   But does the entire menu – from top to bottom – still reflect the brilliant conception, the meticulous focus on presentation, and the astonishing effects that each and every dish did three, four, or five years ago?   Unfortunately, no.

Now, one might argue that some of my comments – or perhaps even all of them – are merely nitpicking.   Maybe I’m just expecting too much, some might say.   To that, however, I have two responses.

First, it is important to keep in mind that I am not measuring the restaurant against some abstract, unattainable level of perfection that I invented in my head.   Rather, I am measuring it against the standard that The French Laundry itself previously set.   If that benchmark was attainable before, why shouldn’t I expect the restaurant to attain it now?

Second, and more fundamentally, when I am asked to pay $175 for a meal before the cost of alcohol is added in, when a 19% gratuity is automatically imposed regardless of party size, when a group of three walks out the door of a restaurant a grand total of $1000 poorer, I have no qualms about demanding absolute perfection.   To put it plainly, The French Laundry’s prices today exceed those of its competitors by a long shot; it’s only fair to expect its food and service to do the same.

And therein lies one of the basic problems that The French Laundry faces.   Over the past five years, the cost of Keller’s tasting menu has risen dramatically – from $105 per person to $175 (a 67% increase).   With inflation of that magnitude, diners have a right to expect that the quality of the experience will be at least the same as it was before, if not even higher.   And they certainly wouldn’t expect quality to decline as prices skyrocket.   Yet, as described above, that is precisely what has happened.

While all of this is unfolding at The French Laundry, of course, the rest of the market is not standing still.   There are certain chefs in the Bay Area – most notably Ron Siegel, David Kinch, and Gary Danko – who have steadily continued to invent, improve and refine, and who are doing some amazing things at their respective restaurants.
And importantly, each of these chefs is charging considerably less than Keller:   Siegel’s menu (9 courses) is $115, Kinch’s menu (10 courses) is $98, and Danko’s menu (5 courses) is $79.   As these gentlemen move closer to producing a menu that is just as good as Keller’s current one – and Siegel and Kinch, in particular, are very close – how much longer will diners be willing to pay The French Laundry’s prices?

In the end, I do not for a moment believe that Thomas Keller has lost his touch, that his extraordinary talent has somehow diminished over time, or that other chefs have managed to surpass him in creativity or ability.   To the contrary, I still hold Keller in the highest possible regard, both for the education that he has provided as to what is possible and for his phenomenal talent and vision.   No, what I fear is that the dizzying heights that The French Laundry once hit on a regular basis were reached only because Keller devoted every last ounce of his passion and obsession to that singular pursuit – energies that are now distributed and diluted across a mini-empire that includes two top-tier restaurants on opposite ends of the country.   And as long as that situation continues, I suspect that The French Laundry will not be able to reclaim its past glory.

But I cannot even begin to tell you how fervently I hope I am wrong.


Thursday, July 21, 2005

Restaurant Review: The French Laundry


I recently invited two friends to join me for dinner at The French Laundry, the legendary Yountville institution owned by the equally legendary Chef Thomas Keller.   When I sat down afterward to write my review, however, I found myself discussing not just the meal, but also my first visit to the restaurant back in 2000, the quality of the food and service over the years, and the position that The French Laundry holds vis-à-vis other restaurants in the Bay Area.   The result was an enormously long post.

So, in an effort to present something slightly more digestible, I decided to split my original draft into two halves.   In this post, I will provide my review of the restaurant – focusing heavily on my recent meal, but also drawing upon the impressions that I have gleaned from earlier visits.   In a companion piece, I will set forth my thoughts about how the restaurant has held up over the past five years and where it may be headed.

A quick note about the photographs embedded below.   As a review of my blog should make all too clear, I am still in the experimental phase of figuring out how best to capture crisp, well-lit images of dishes in dark restaurants.
One of these days, I will hopefully get it right.   Until then, however, the imperfect pictures included here should at least give you a decent idea of what the presentations actually looked like.   And clicking on any of the images will pull up a full-sized photograph.
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Menu


The first thing that struck me after my friends and I were seated is the new format of the menu.   Diners are no longer able to construct their own multi-course meal from a list of "a la carte" selections, as was once possible.
Instead,
The French Laundry:
At A Glance
ChefThomas Keller
Address6640 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
Phone707.944.2380
ParkingStreet
Restaurant Website
Keller now offers only three distinct options: a seven-course dinner menu, a nine-course vegetable tasting menu, and a nine-course chef’s tasting menu.   Even more striking, however, is the new price: each of the three menus costs an incredible $175 per person, with a $25 supplement for the optional foie gras selections.   After perusing the menus at great length, one of my companions ordered the seven-course dinner while my other friend and I decided to go with the chef’s tasting menu.   What follows is a course-by-course description of the latter.

The meal began with not just one amuse bouche, but two.   First up was a single Gruyere Cheese Gougere (Taste: 6.5 / Presentation: 7.5) (Ratings Explained), best described as a "cream puff" that is savory rather than sweet.   The puff had a light, airy consistency and a very nice look, but the taste struck me as being good but not remarkable – the same reaction I had upon sampling this on earlier visits.   The second amuse bouche was Keller’s classic Salmon Cone (T:10.0 / P:10.0), a small black-sesame-laced buttery cornet filled with a dollop of red onion crème fraiche and a "scoop" of salmon tartare to resemble a miniature ice cream cone.   The taste was just as amazing as the first time I tried this clever amuse, with bright lemon oil punching the delicious flavor of salmon right through the cool crème fraiche – and all against the backdrop of a crispy cone.   With a presentation as incredible as the taste, this canapé easily earns a perfect 10 on both fronts.

Our first full course was another one of Keller’s most well-known creations, "Oysters and Pearls" (T:10 / P:10).   A rich, smooth, savory custard made of pearl tapioca is topped with two Beau Soleil oysters and a small quenelle of Sevruga caviar.   The taste was sublime, as the briny oysters and salty caviar were showcased against the indulgent luxuriousness of the underlying sabayon.   The dish also was beautiful to look at, with the dark color of the caviar jumping out against the creamy canvass of the custard.   Another perfect 10 on both taste and presentation.

For the third course, both my friend and I opted for the "Saute" of Moulard Duck Foie Gras (T:5.5 / P:9.0).   A generous serving of foie was served with cream of Arrowleaf spinach, a poached quail egg, frisee lettuce, and a thin savory wafer into which Applewood smoked bacon had been embedded.   The dish was visually quite appealing, but the flavor combination fell short of exceptional.
The fundamental problem here was that the primary flavors on the plate – the foie, the egg, the bacon, the spinach – all seemed to strike the same dark, rich, almost smoky note over and over again.   The overall effect was too one-dimensional, providing no interesting contrast to the richness of the liver.   While I certainly give Keller credit for going out on what seems like a culinary limb here, there is apparently a good reason why chefs everywhere favor pairing foie gras with something sweet.   I wish that Keller, just this once, had played it safe.

The fourth course was Sauteed "Fillet" of Columbia River Sturgeon (T:6.5 / P:8.0), a nicely cooked white fish in a mustard seed emulsion.   Off to one side was a "cassoulet" of pole beans and oven roasted roma tomatoes.   This selection was perfectly fine, but it desperately lacked that extra something that Keller usually manages to find in order to elevate dishes into the stratosphere.
Simply put, every component here was good, but neither the individual ingredients nor their combination was outstanding.

Things picked up again with the next course, Pan Roasted Guerro Negro Bay Scallop (T:9.5 / P:10.0).   A beautifully-browned scallop rested on top of a bed of Silver Queen corn, that was itself surrounded by a perfect circle of sweet corn sauce.   A "salad" of summer truffle was precariously perched on top of the scallop, and a thick puree of black Perigord truffle was artistically spread across the surface of the plate.   The taste here was excellent, with the natural sweetness of the scallop amplified by the high sugar content of the summer corn.   The truffle "salad" added a nice contrast in texture, and both the salad and the puree contributed an earthiness to the overall flavor.   In many ways, this dish exemplies what Keller does so remarkably well – pairing earth and sea, puree of one truffle with a salad of another, all to achieve a spectacular effect.   And the visual presentation could not have been more perfect.

For the next course, my friend and I both asked if we could replace the squab on our menu with an item from the seven-course dinner menu – the Agnolotti of Summer White Corn (T:10.0 / P:8.5).   I had been served this amazing dish on a trip to The French Laundry back in 2000, and to this day, it still ranks as one of the 2-3 best items – if not the best – that I have ever tasted at any restaurant anywhere.   It’s so good, in fact, that I was ready to go with the seven-course dinner had the kitchen declined my substitution request, and I was only half-joking when I told my friends that the agnolotti had virtually "changed my life."   More on that, someday, in a separate post!
A Perfect 10:
Agnolotti of Summer White Corn

The kitchen agreed to make the substitution, but only after confirming that we didn’t mind having two courses in a row with very similar corn sauces.   We, of course, did not, and the agnolotti more than lived up to my vivid memories.   Small pockets of fresh pasta dough are filled with a mixture of polenta and risotto that has been enriched with butter and mascarpone cheese.   A thick sauce comprised of butter, chives, and the juice from ultra-sweet summer corn is then placed over the cooked pasta, along with kernels of corn and a bit of white truffle oil.   The dish is finished at the table with grated fresh summer truffle.   Words simply cannot do justice to the result.   The sweetness of the corn sauce, the lavish decadence of the white truffle oil and fresh summer truffles, the perfect "bite" left in the corn kernels, the tender pasta – all combine to create an utterly intoxicating and aromatic composition that few others can even come close to rivaling.   It is dishes like this one that truly prove – and, indeed, embody – Keller’s brilliance.   The agnolotti is visually appealing enough, but its flavor is what deserves a perfect 10.

It would be hard for anything to follow on the heels of such perfection, but the "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee" (T:8.0 / P:9.5) did an admirable job.   A small square-shaped log of tender meat was cooked perfectly with an attractively browned crust and a medium-rare interior, and then placed in a flavor-rich bordelaise sauce in the center of a plate.   On one side was a beautifully cut and impossibly sweet baby carrot; on the other was a rich and buttery, crescent-shaped pain perdue topped with thick cepe mushrooms.   The overall impact of the dish was well-conceived and well-balanced; tender beef, red wine from the bordelaise sauce, and earthy mushrooms juxtaposed against a sweet carrot and buttery bread.   The only negative here was that the meat was not at the ideal temperature, arriving at the table barely lukewarm.   Visually, however, the plate was beautiful.

The cheese course was up next, and Keller selected "Chaource" (T:6.0 / P:8.0) – a soft, cream-colored cheese with a rich flavor and relatively sharp attack.   The kitchen paired it with roasted heirloom beets, pickled crabapples, frisee lettuce, and a beet vinaigrette.   Like the foie gras, however, this course desperately cried out for something – anything – sweet to provide the necessary counterpoint.   As it turns out, I happened to have selected a piece of raisin bread to eat on the side, and I also fortuitously ordered a great Sauternes – both of which worked wonders in rounding out the flavors of the plate before me.   But a fantastic composed cheese course should be able to stand on its own, without depending on the diner's choice of accompaniments to supply missing flavor components.   I have had some wonderful cheese courses at The French Laundry over the years, but this regrettably was not one of them.

The first dessert course was the Hayden Mango Sorbet (T:9.5 / P:10.0), served with a yuzu-scented genoise (an airy sponge cake), a goma nougatine (a sesame caramelized sugar), and a thick black sesame coulis spread onto the plate in two criss-crossing lines.   The sorbet had a deliciously pure mango flavor, and the sesame sugar added a wonderfully crunchy – and unexpected – texture to the mix.   Of all the palate-cleansing sorbets that I have had over the years, this one was undoubtedly the best.   The plating was amazing as well, meriting a perfect 10.

The main dessert, and final course, was the "Tentation au Chocolat Noisette et Lait" (T:9.5 / P:10.0).   A quenelle of Madagascar vanilla ice cream sat on top of a thin rectangle of hazelnut streusel, while a milk chocolate "cremeux" (a mousse of sorts) flecked with salty hazelnuts sat off to the side.   The flavors here were fantastic.   The ice cream was clean and pure vanilla bean, through and through; the chocolate cremeux, meanwhile, combined perfectly with the hazelnuts.   There was, however, one important trick to eating this dessert, one that I only stumbled upon inadvertently.   The delicate flavor of the Madagascar vanilla could only be fully appreciated if the ice cream was eaten before the chocolate cremeux.   Once I took my first bite of chocolate, all subsequent tastes of the ice cream fell flat.   The presentation of this dessert was outstanding, warranting another perfect 10.

As always, the meal concluded with a few miniaturized desserts – the closing version of an amuse bouche.   The kitchen sent us a Tahitian Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee (T:6.5 / P:8.0) that had a fantastic vanilla flavor, but the sugar crust on top had been carelessly torched just a bit too long.   We also received an Apricot Panna Cotta (T:4.0 / P:4.0) that looked – and tasted – like a container of yogurt from the grocery store, with all of the fruit on the bottom and virtually no flavor on the top.
A nice mignardise plate arrived with the check, and the evening then drew to a close.

Service and Decor


The service was markedly off from The French Laundry’s once-exemplary levels, as it had been on my last few visits.   The problems began just a few moments after we had placed our orders, when the wait staff started putting down the silverware appropriate for our respective first courses.   Inexplicably, they proceeded as though my two friends had ordered the chef’s tasting menu, and I had ordered the seven-course dinner menu – a careless and completely avoidable mistake, and a bad way to start the evening.

And it did not stop there.   At The French Laundry, dishes are brought to the table by any one of a variety of servers.   Several of the individuals who presented our courses were painfully inexperienced, often arriving at the table with nervous looks on their faces and an inability to remember – or to articulate properly – the full description of what was being served.   We were thus treated to explanations such as “Calotte de Boeuf Grilee with cepe mushrooms . . . oh, and sweet carrot . . . and pain perdue . . .”   Another server seemed to have his descriptions down cold, but he spoke so softly that I could only make out every tenth word he said.

Our primary server also failed us.   While we were waiting for the agnolotti course to arrive, he emptied the last remnants of our bottle of Riesling into our wine glasses.   He did not advise us that we had finished the bottle, nor did I even notice this fact.   By the time we were done with the agnolotti, however, I had finished my glass of wine and had come to realize that our Riesling bottle had disappeared.   Although I hoped to order a glass of something to accompany the upcoming meat course, the server never bothered to check in with us – either to ask if we would like more white wine or to inquire whether we’d like to switch to a red with the beef.   Similarly, when we were on the verge of receiving our cheese course, I was the one who had to call out to our server – as he raced by the periphery of our table – to ask whether we could take a look at the list of Sauternes and Ports.   Only moments later, the cheese arrived – meaning that we would have certainly gone without our dessert wines had I not asked.

The table service itself was uneven.   In place of the synchronized placement of plates on the table and simultaneous unveiling of dish covers, we often saw timing that was either sloppy or entirely off.   Consistency in the direction from which dishes were presented or cleared was absent.   And at one point, our primary server reached across in front of me three times in a row, as he stood to my left and placed a cup with saucer to my right, then added a spoon, and then poured coffee.

The décor at The French Laundry is elegant, but understated.   The 17 tables distributed among the two floors of the charming cottage are covered in white tablecloths and first-rate tableware.   The colors in the dining area are comfortable, yet conservative; nobody would mistake the room, for example, for the richly opulent settings of Fleur de Lys or the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.   But perhaps the best way to summarize the surroundings is as refined and unobtrusivene, allowing diners to focus all of their attention on the food.   And in that regard, it works very nicely.   Finally, the bucolic setting of the building and the surrounding garden add nicely to the overall experience.

Conclusion


When measured against an objective standard – or, for that matter, against other restaurants in the Bay Area – The French Laundry continues to fare very well.   Several of the food courses served during my recent meal were absolutely spectacular, and even the remainder were somewhere between good and excellent.   And while the service certainly had its shortcomings, it was on balance competent and professional.   Thus, even though the cost is now pushing up against – if not exploding through – all limits of reasonableness, I would still encourage those who have never been to The French Laundry to try it if the opportunity presents itself.   It remains, without a doubt, one of the best restaurants around.

And yet, the prospects for the future are not, in my opinion, entirely rosy.   For more, please see the companion piece to this post.



The French Laundry
Food Taste9.59.5

Overall
Food Presentation9.5
Service8.0
Atmosphere8.5
Price$$$$$
Number of Visits: 7
Ratings Explained


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Restaurant Review: Navio


Update:   Peter Rudolph, the Chef de Cuisine at Navio at the time of the below review, has since left the restaurant in order to take over as Executive Chef at Campton Place.   Aaron Zimmer is now in charge of Navio's kitchen, but I have not yet had an opportunity to sample Zimmer's menu.

There’s an old adage that says that any restaurant that offers diners an outstanding view will necessarily have mediocre food.   Such establishments can easily attract customers, the theory goes, so they have little incentive to concern themselves with what is actually being put on the table.   So, what happens when an elegant hotel chain known for outstanding cuisine sets up a location on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean?   Is the adage finally disproved, or is it merely confirmed once more?   That is what I hoped to find out on a recent visit to Navio, the flagship restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.

The kitchen at Navio is led by Chef de Cuisine Peter Rudolph, a 33-year old graduate of the California Culinary Academy who has been with the restaurant since July 2002. Rudolph spent the early years of his career training within the Ritz-Carlton system, completing stints at the hotel’s properties in Marina del Rey and Atlanta.   Since arriving at Navio, however, Rudolph has focused his attention on what is billed as "coastal cuisine" – dishes in which locally-caught seafood, artisanal products, and coastside produce are all featured prominently.   Under Rudolph’s tenure, the restaurant has earned a 3 star rating from The San Francisco Chronicle.

My recent visit to Navio was not, strictly speaking, my first; I had been there a handful of times before, namely once for lunch and three times for breakfast.   But I have always believed that the true measure of a restaurant is in the quality of its dinner service, so I was anxious to see what Navio – and Rudolph – would be able to do in that regard.   And so, on a recent Saturday evening, I met a group of friends for dinner in Half Moon Bay.
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Appetizers and Main Courses


Our entire table was served one of the chef’s tasting menus, giving us a good opportunity to experience the breadth of Rudolph’s culinary compositions.   We began with the Seared Pacific Salmon Sashimi (Taste: 4.5 / Presentation: 5.5) (Ratings Explained) – a paper thin slice of fish having crisp baby green beans and a tiny dice of cucumber distributed across its surface, with a small scoop of horseradish ice cream off to one side.   The salmon itself had a good flavor, and the familiar concept of pairing it with horseradish worked well (as it almost always does).   But it was Rudolph’s use of ice cream as the delivery vehicle that was particularly clever, as it had the effect of softening the attack of the horseradish while also providing a cold, creamy contrast to the texture of the fish.   The green beans and cucumber, on the other hand, were misguided; neither one of the ingredients was particularly obtrusive, but neither seemed to have any purpose on the plate either.   The dish as a whole was also undersalted – a problem exacerbated by the lack of salt shakers on the table.

Next up was the Maine Lobster Tail (T:7.0 / P:8.0), served on a bed of parsnips with pine nuts, Meyer lemon and burnt honey cognac sauce.   This was easily the best course of the evening, with the sweetness of the well-cooked lobster played wonderfully against the deep, complex richness of the foamy burnt honey cognac.   The parsnips added a nice mild undercurrent, but the pine nuts seemed like an unusual – and unnecessary – addition.   The flavor of Meyer lemon, meanwhile, was not properly incorporated into the dish; my last two bites contained a surprising burst of brightness that the first several did not.   That the kitchen would allow such a well-conceived dish to be marred by such a careless mistake obviously reflects poorly on its attention to detail.

The third course was the Organic Free-Range Chicken with Sweetbreads (T:3.0 / P:4.5), a dish that sent my taste buds plummeting after the heights reached by the lobster.   The small medallions of chicken were admittedly quite moist,
Navio: At A Glance
ChefPeter Rudolph
AddressRitz-Carlton
1 Miramontes Point Rd
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019
Phone650.712.7040
ParkingValet
Restaurant Website
but the extremely fatty skin that was left attached was more befitting of a bad airplane meal than a gourmet dinner.   The accompanying sweetbreads were flat and unremarkable, and the brown sauce smeared onto the plate was thick and ordinary.   In short, this dish was uninspired, and the menu as a whole would have been better without it.

The Boneless Rack of Colorado Lamb (T:5.0 / P:7.0) was the final savory course, and it – not surprisingly – fared better than the chicken.   A tender piece of meat, cooked nicely to medium-rare, sat in the middle of a large plate, surrounded by smoked eggplant, English peas, fava beans and fresh garbanzos.   The component ingredients here, for the most part, were very good when tasted alone.   The lamb was moist and flavorful, and the English peas, favas and garbanzos were all fresh and nicely prepared.   Only the eggplant had an unpleasant taste, with burned overtones suggesting that the attempt to smoke it had gone too far.   But the fundamental problem with this dish was the lack of any cohesion between its various parts.   What do English peas or fava beans have to do with garbanzo beans or eggplant?   And what exactly is the relationship between lamb and any one of these?   I, for one, do not know, and the combination ended up tasting like a cacophony of musical notes, all from different keys.

Cheese and Dessert Courses


At this point, the meal moved into the cheese course – Fresh Robiola with Macerated Organic Strawberries (T:3.5 / P:3.0).   The Robiola had a soft, billowy texture and an exceedingly mild flavor – so mild, in fact, that it was dangerously close to being washed out entirely by the accompanying strawberries.   The strawberries, meanwhile, were themselves rather uninteresting; thin slices macerated in something with virtually no detectable flavor were simply placed in the middle of the plate.   The final element here was a large slice of grilled thin bread – the same bread, apparently, as that found in the bread basket.   Overall, this course struck me as pedestrian and unimaginative.   There seemed to be little thought put into the interplay among the flavors, and even the presentation looked lackadaisical.   It was almost as though the kitchen had forgotten to plan a cheese course, so the staff scrounged around the pantry in order to throw something together at the last minute.

Desserts were markedly better.   The Roasted Banana Crème Brulee with Coffee Financier and Mocha Ice Cream (T:7.0 / P:7.0) was excellent, with a miniature custard on the left side of the plate and a small cake with ice cream on the right.   The crème brulee had a pure and delicious banana flavor, while the coffee in the financier was echoed by the mocha ice cream.   My only criticism here is that the dish seemed more like two separate desserts sharing a single plate than an integrated whole.   In place of the customary post-dessert petit fours and truffles, the pastry chef served each of us with a set of five thin wafers (T: 7.0 / P:8.0) – dark chocolate with ancho chili, caramel, white chocolate with pistachio and curry, caramel tuile with saffron, and milk chocolate.   These were all delicious, innovative and nicely presented – exhibiting the kind of creativity and forethought that was sorely lacking from many of the earlier courses.

Service, Atmosphere and Value


The service at Navio is good, though not quite as polished as that found at top-tier establishments in the Bay Area.
The host staff and floor manager were courteous and accommodating; the wait staff was attentive and responsive.
Where Navio misses the mark, however, is in some of the finer points.   During our meal, the waiters tried to coordinate and synchronize the placement of food before us, but they did not consistently serve and clear plates from the same side.   When I asked a waiter at the end of the evening for a copy of the menu that had been served to us, he returned with one that I was informed was “pretty close.”   The only water options presented were sparkling or still (each over $7 per bottle), leaving it up to us to ask specifically for tap water.   These may not be big things, but a truly outstanding restaurant does even the little things correctly.

The atmosphere at Navio reflects a tension between two competing desires – to be an elegant Ritz-Carlton restaurant on the one hand, and to be a more casual “coastal” setting on the other.   Thus, white tablecloths, quality stemware and fine china can be found fused with relatively casual furniture in a room designed to resemble the hold of a ship.   The result is incongruous and dissonant.   The views, of course, are simply stunning.   The restaurant sits at the northwest corner of the hotel, and the Pacific Ocean is visible from every table in the room through a bank of tall windows that runs across its entire length.   On those rare nights when the fog stays away, the view of the sun setting over the Pacific must be amazing.

I must add one final note here, and that is regarding value.   The fact that Navio is not hitting the highest levels in terms of food, service or atmosphere is not, in and of itself, all that troubling.   After all, the Bay Area has a wide range of restaurants at different price points, and lower-priced establishments make no pretense about trying to compete with those in the upper-tier.   No, what makes Navio’s performance so disturbing is that it actually has tried to position itself – in terms of price – right beside some of the region’s most outstanding restaurants.   For example, it recently raised its corkage fee to $50 per bottle – a level so outrageously high, that the only other restaurant in the entire Bay Area that feels it can get away with imposing this amount is The French Laundry.
Likewise, Navio’s six-course chef’s tasting menu costs $85 per person – placing it in roughly the same range as places like Gary Danko, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.   Judged against this company, Navio falls woefully short on all fronts.

There should be no mistake that Navio has potential: the chef has the talent, the wait staff has the skills, and the restaurant has the perfect location.   But unless the restaurant is ready to abandon all claims of competing in the big leagues, it desperately needs to do two things: make a real commitment to consistent excellence on all fronts, and redouble its efforts to achieve that goal.   Until that happens, I’m sorry to say that the old adage referenced at the outset of this review will remain entirely valid.


Navio
Food Taste4.54.5

Overall
Food Presentation5.5
Service5.5
Atmosphere5.0
Price$$$$$
Number of Visits: 1
Ratings Explained


Sunday, July 17, 2005

Farmers' Market Update from July 16, 2005


In a recent post, I noted that the folks from Paredez Farms have been selling some excellent stone fruit at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market over the past several weeks, and I suggested that they might continue that trend at the market held on Saturday, July 16.   Well, I can now tell you that they did not disappoint.

Paredez delivered another installment of outstanding Catalina Plums and White Peaches, quite possibly even better than those from last Saturday.
But Paredez also had two additional offerings in the mix this time around, both of which are equally delicious.   The first are Flavor Rich Pluots, which have a greenish-red exterior and a very pleasing balance between sweetness and just a hint of sour.   The Paredez stand also featured some wonderful White Nectarines, labeled “Honey B12.”   These fruits are not only deliciously juicy, they look beautiful as well.

Frog Hollow Farms, based in Brentwood, is widely known for its outstanding organic produce, and this week’s farmers’ market demonstrated why.   The Suncrest Peaches they were selling are sweet with an explosive burst of flavor, and their Golden Sweet Apricots will live up to anybody’s mental impression of what the perfect apricot should taste like.

But the best fruit that I tasted at the market came from Kashiwase Farms, located in Winton.   Kashiwase is a source
Left to right:  White Peaches, Catalina Plums, "Honey B12" White Nectarines, Flavor Rich Pluots (all from Paredez Farms), and Arctic Jay White Nectarines (from Kashiwase Farms)
that I have long found to be reliable for producing excellent organic stone fruits, although their crop this year has been somewhat slow to attain the right sugar levels.  This week, however, one of Kashiwase’s selections reached perfection.   The “Arctic Jay” White Nectarines are now amazing, with a pure bright flavor, a soft juicy texture, and an unadulterated sweetness that tastes like summer itself.   I only hope that the next few weeks of Arctic Jays are able to rise to these same heights.

So, if you happen to be at the farmers’ market next weekend and are interested in stone fruits, definitely check out the farmers and fruits mentioned above.   And as always, be sure to taste before you buy.


Gourmet Ice Creams: A New Breed


If somebody asked me to list my favorite dessert items, ice cream probably wouldn’t make it into the top five.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good ice cream as much as the next person, particularly when presented as a counterpoint to a dense chocolate cake or other rich dessert.   It’s just that I wouldn’t go out of my way to order ice cream in a restaurant, or to buy it from a store.   But could this be simply because I haven’t had the right ice cream yet?

This month’s issue of Food & Wine Magazine includes a short note about three ice cream producers that immediately caught even my attention.   These companies are changing the very definition of gourmet ice cream, offering flavors – and charging prices for them – that make Haagen-Dazs seem like the Good Humor company of my youth.   Because the magazine description was very cursory, I felt compelled to do some further investigation of my own.

The first company is from right here in the Bay Area, Petaluma to be precise.   Laloo’s was founded less than a year ago by a former Hollywood executive, with the goal of creating "a creamy, indulgent ice cream using high quality ingredients."   All of the company’s offerings are made with goat’s milk, which is said to have lower fat and lower lactose levels than its bovine counterpart and which, according to Food & Wine, gives the ice cream a "pleasantly tangy" flavor.   Laloo’s ice creams are available in several flavors, including Vanilla Snowflake, Black Mission Fig, Deep Chocolate (made with Scharffenberger cacao), Strawberry Darling (strawberry with a balsamic vinegar swirl), Molasses Tipsycake (molasses with oatmeal cookie), Chevre Chiffon, Pumpkin Spice, and Chocolate Cabernet.

Laloo’s sells its products in a variety of stores around the Bay Area, as well as online.   Now, for the price: a pint of Laloo’s ice cream will cost you $8 plus shipping, with a 4-pint minimum for online/mail orders.   That translates into $32 per half gallon, or $64 per gallon pre-shipping – obviously, not for the light walleted.   Laloo’s hands out samples from time to time at locations around the Bay Area, and its website even includes a calendar of such events.
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If you feel that Laloo’s is far too cheap for your lavish lifestyle, however, fear not; the other two companies mentioned in Food & Wine charge even more.   First up is Capogiro Gelato Artisans, a company founded by a husband and wife team in late 2002 after returning from a trip to Italy.   Located in Philadelphia, Capogiro uses only “local hand-picked produce and milk from grass-fed, hormone-free cows” to produce seasonally-dictated gelatos and sorbettos “in small batches each morning.”   The company apparently offers over 250 distinct flavors to restaurants in the Northeast, and it sells over 100 different varieties in certain gourmet grocery stores – the precise selection changing with the seasons.   Some of Capogiro’s more unusual and interesting flavors include Blueberry Thyme, Orange Cardamom, Burnt Sugar, Mexican Chocolate (with ancho chile and chipotle powder), Rosemary Honey Goat Milk, Lime Cilantro, Strawberry Tarragon, Ginger Sesame Brittle, and Lemon Opal Basil.

Capogiro products are carried in certain Whole Foods stores on the East Coast, but the company also distributes them directly online.   Orders must be placed in six-pint increments, and the company has a number of “packages” pre-assembled in which the six selections are variations on a theme (e.g., Nuts, Chocolate, Tropical, Herbs & Spices, etc.).   A single six-pint order of gelatos or sorbettos will cost you an incredible $60, and shipping charges can add another $55.   That translates into $77 per half gallon, or $154 per gallon!

The final producer is Ecreamery - an Illinois-based company that traces its origins to a Chicago storefront opened in 2000, but which is now a subsidiary of a larger corporation with 20 years of experience in the ice cream industry.   One of Ecreamery’s major points of novelty is that it provides consumers an opportunity to custom-design their own ice cream flavors.   The customer begins by specifying the creaminess of the base mix to be used, selecting from 8% milk fat, Italian-style gelato base, “gourmet” 12% milk fat, or “super creamy” 14% milk fat.
Up to two flavors selected from Ecreamery’s rather extensive list are then blended into the cream, and one or more “toppings” (such as fruit or nuts) can be folded in at the end.   Some of the more atypical flavor choices offered include: Anise, Cardamom, Cantaloupe, Chocolate Merlot, Clove, Cola, Cucumber, Durian, Hot Pepper, Maiz, Ube (purple yam), and Avocado.   The company also sells some pre-fabricated flavors, including Avocado Coconut, Cucumber Dill Weed, Queso (cheddar cheese and vanilla), and Hot ‘n’ Sour.

It’s not clear whether Ecreamery distributes its pre-fabricated flavors through any retailers, but the company certainly sells all of its ice cream online.   Each order is made in a one-gallon batch, and a custom-designed one-flavor ice cream will cost you $80 before shipping.   If you opt for a second flavor to be mixed in, that will set you back an additional $10; each topping you select will add $5 more.   With express shipping charges running as high as $59, the grand total for a two-flavor, two-topping gallon of ice cream can easily reach $160!

So, in the end, is any of this ice cream really so delicious that one could justify spending more on a single gallon than some people spend for an entire grocery shopping trip?   I don’t know.   The one thing that's clear, however, is that these three companies believe there’s a market for such super premium ice creams, and that consumers will be willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on their products.   Only time will tell whether they are right.


Saturday, July 16, 2005

Same Blog, New Format


Those of you who have visited this site before will immediately notice some rather significant changes in its overall look and feel.   Rather than boring everybody with the details of this transition here on the front page, I'll reserve my comments about this for the extended text.   Please click below if you would like to read more.
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When I decided to start this blog, I knew next to nothing about website design, HTML, CSS, etc., thus explaining why I was immediately drawn to the simplified user interface offered by Blogger.   Shortly after signing up and picking one of the service’s pre-formatted "templates," I began experimenting to see how various modifications to the template would impact the appearance and behavior of the blog itself.   After playing around with this for some time, I eventually managed to change the margins, background color, and layout of the original template to something that I found a bit more to my liking.

As I continued to experiment with HTML and CSS, however, I discovered an array of additional methods and "tricks" for getting my site to look and behave as I would like it to.   A fantastic resource in this regard has been the Food Blogs S’cool site, in which a large number of food bloggers from all over the world confer regularly in order to assist one another and share thoughts about website design and implementation.   The founder of Food Blogs S’cool is Sam Breach, whose wildly successful and popular food blog – Becks & Posh – has also been an extremely valuable resource for me.

The revision at which you are now looking is an attempt to move my site a bit closer to what I ultimately envision, although I undoubtedly still have a long way to go.   Here is a short summary of the changes that have been recently implemented (or that soon will be):
  1. New color scheme:   Although I felt that the colors used in the previous version were preferable to those offered by the template with which I began, I was never really all that enamored with them.   When I came across the colors you see in the current revision, however, I knew immediately that a change was needed.
    Hopefully, you will agree with my assessment that the new color scheme is much more pleasing to the eye than the old one.


  2. New title bar:   The old title bar came straight out of the original template, and I was never happy with it as it was very plain and utterly drab.   The new title bar is intended to reflect the spirit of the site, and to do so in a more distinctive, visually-appealing manner.


  3. Links to other food blogs:   In the right column, I have now included links to some of my favorite Bay Area food blogs.   I will soon be adding a separate list of links to favorite food blogs from outside the Bay Area as well.


  4. Truncated front page posts:   Some of the front page posts, particularly restaurant reviews, are necessarily quite long.   In order to enable readers to quickly scroll past these if desired, I will now be including only the first portion of long posts on the front page.   The full post can be accessed by clicking on the “There’s more…” link at the bottom of the truncated front-page version, which will then redirect the viewer to a separate page containing the full text of the post.   Shorter posts will still appear on the front page in full.
Please note that the content of the site, including all old posts, remains the same.

That is basically all for now, although I’m quite confident that I’ll think of several new changes to implement just as soon as I finish with the current ones.   So, stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

SF Ferry Building Purveyor: Paredez Farms


Catalina Plums
In a previous post, I wrote about the amazing variety of farmers that can be found each Saturday at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market.   I’d like to take a moment now to turn the spotlight on one such farmer – one that is currently selling some of the best stone fruit of the season so far.

Paredez Farms sprawls across 370 acres in Exeter, roughly 250 miles southeast of San Francisco.
The farm has been owned by the Paredez family since 1918, and current owner Frank Paredez took over the operation in 1980.   The farm employs 45 part-time workers along with 30 seasonal workers, and 15 members of the Paredez family work full-time on the farm as well.  Paredez Farms produces a variety of stone fruits, including apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums.   Paredez also grows grapes, oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes.
Catalina Plums

For the past several weeks, Paredez has been offering some incredible plums and peaches.   The Santa Rosa plums from a few weeks ago were fantastic, their rich, red exteriors shielding a soft, sweet succulence on the inside.
Just as the Santa Rosas were finishing their all-too-brief run, the Catalina Plums took their place.   These have deep purple skins with a golden yellow interior, creating a striking contrast when you cut one open.
The flavor is sweet and complex, with just the right hint of sour undertone to create a delicious result.   The Catalinas were in plentiful supply at the Paredez stand this past Saturday, so they will hopefully be making another appearance this coming weekend.   Get some if you can!

Another outstanding fruit being sold by Paredez right now are the White Peaches.   These have the perfect color and texture, and an even more incredible taste.   Each bite is a juicy explosion of pure peach flavor, with a
White Peach
sweetness that is rare even in fresh fruit from the farmers' market.  So, again, keep an eye out for these at the Paredez stand this coming weekend.

Finally, let me point out what might be obvious to many, and that is that the quality and flavor of fresh produce can fluctuate from one week to the next, even at the same farm.   Accordingly, while Paredez has had several weeks of outstanding stone fruit so far, you should definitely taste before you buy.


Saturday, July 09, 2005

Restaurant Review: Sushi Ran


It was several years ago that I first started hearing incredible things about Sausalito’s Sushi Ran.
The place was said to have amazingly fresh fish, inventive sushi rolls, and delicious non-sushi fare as well, and the lines to get a table were reportedly out the door.   Indeed, the reviews were so glowing that I made a mental note at the time to plan a dinner there at my earliest opportunity.
And yet, until just a few months ago, I never got around to doing so.   What a mistake.

In the ten weeks that have passed since my first visit to Sushi Ran, I have been drawn back six times.   And on each visit, I have enjoyed some wonderful food – be it a daily special, a newly-discovered menu item, or an already-established favorite.   It is little wonder, then, that the accolades continue to pour in.   Sushi Ran was named by the Chronicle as one of the Top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area in both 2004 and 2005, and it consistently places near the top of Zagat’s list of the Bay Area restaurants with the best food – right alongside such venerable names as the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and La Folie, and just a single point behind The French Laundry and Fleur de Lys.

Sushi Ran is unique in that it effectively has two executive chefs, with Haruo Komatsu responsible for all sushi selections on the menu and Scott Whitman charged with all non-sushi dishes.   Both gentlemen are very talented.
One of my favorite starters is the Wagyu Beef Sushi (Taste: 9.0 / Presentation: 7.0) (Ratings Explained), which appears from time to time on the dinner specials menu.   Komatsu starts with a small, thin slice of Kobe-style filet that is cooked to
Sushi Ran: At A Glance
ChefsHaruo Komatsu
Scott Whitman
Address107 Caledonia St.
Sausalito, CA 94965
Phone415.332.3620
ParkingStreet
Restaurant Website
medium-rare perfection, and he then drapes it nigiri-style over a small bit of rice.   The meltingly tender meat yields an intensely rich taste, almost as though the flavor of an entire steak has been distilled down and concentrated into a single delicious bite.   A small amount of wasabi nestled between the beef and rice provides a nice contrast, and the two pieces that arrive in each order are visually appealing as well.

Komatsu’s other sushi offerings are also excellent.   Several regular menu items – including Marinated Sake Nigiri (T:7.5 / P:8.0), Unagi Nigiri (T:8.5 / P:7.5), and the Kamikaze Roll (T:7.5 / P:7.0) – seem to excel not so much due to their preparation (which is either minimal and/or relatively standard), but rather due to the high quality and freshness of the ingredients themselves.  The Asparagus Maki (T:8.0 / P:7.5), meanwhile, provides a nice change of pace from the tempura-battered version found at most other sushi restaurants.   Here, thick stalks of bright green asparagus are cooked just long enough not to lose their crunch or color, giving the finished rolls a nice look and a clean flavor of asparagus.   Indeed, a theme connecting the above items is that in each instance, the true essence of the primary ingredient comes through unfettered.
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But Komatsu is equally adept at forging disparate flavors into complex and clever combinations, and his sushi specials are where he really shines.   A Spicy Kani Maki special (T:9.5 / P:9.0) was fantastic, with delicate pieces of
Salmon Maki Special
crab played off of asparagus, cucumber and basil oil.   In a Hamachi Maki special (T:9.5 / P:9.0), Komatsu paired fresh Yellow Tail with, of all things, small bits of pear – topping each of the six pieces cut from the roll with a small dab of mustard.   The result was simply outstanding.   And a Salmon Maki special (T:7.5 / P:8.5) included extraordinarily fresh tomato salsa sitting atop a roll containing salmon and avocado – a Mexican take on sushi, of sorts.   There was, however, one sushi special that fell a bit short.   The ingredients in the Salmon Skin Maki (T:4.5 / P:8.0) included mild flavors such as lettuce, which did not seem to have enough heft to counteract or complement the strong impact of the salmon skin.
Nevertheless, all of the above rolls showcase Komatsu’s extraordinary creativity, and the presentations in each case were truly elaborate and impressive.   It’s a shame that these rolls are not on the regular menu.

Turning to the non-sushi side of things, Whitman has a number of tricks up his sleeve as well.   His best dish by far – one that I believe attains perfection in taste and should not be missed – is the Lemongrass Broiled Butterfish (T:10.0 / P:9.5).   Three small filets of fish are coated with a paste comprised of lemongrass, galanga, kaffir lime
A Perfect 10:
Lemongrass Broiled Butterfish
leaves, garlic, paprika, turmeric, oyster sauce and sugar, and broiled until perfectly cooked.   The three filets are then placed on three corresponding beds of baby green beans, which have been evenly spaced across the length of an oblong plate.   The presentation is enticing, and the flavor is spectacular.   The taste of the butterfish and lemongrass immediately hits the palate as does a pronounced sweetness, but the remaining ingredients quickly coalesce into a complex medley that evokes the spirit of a rich Thai curry.   The nicely cooked baby green beans add the perfect complement, both in terms of texture and taste.   Whatever you do, do not miss this dish!

Whitman also offers a Miso Glazed Black Cod (T:9.5 / P:9.0) that is outstanding, with the delicate filet punctuated by the sweet and smoky richness contributed by the miso.   The Vietnamese Shaking Beef (T:8.0 / P:6.5) is another excellent choice.   Tender pieces of filet mignon and slivers of onions are sautéed in a generous amount of flavorful sauce, and the combination is then served over a large leaf of lettuce.   One point of criticism here, however, is that the meat is presented on a flat plate with no spoon, making it virtually impossible to enjoy any of the accompanying sauce.   The Caramelized Shrimp (T:6.5 / P:6.5) is tasty, but it needs to be eaten with a substantial portion of white rice or else the caramel sauce can get too cloyingly overpowering. A dish from Whitman that misses the mark is the Seafood Trio (T:3.0 / P:6.0), which consists of ahi tartare, spicy prawn tempura, and smoked salmon on a single plate.   The tartare has a strange tanginess and too much lemon oil, the shrimp tempura has an average flavor but a soggy exterior, and the smoked salmon is reminiscent of a cream-cheese rollup one might find at a cocktail party.   This is definitely one item to skip.

Desserts are very good.   The Bananas Foster (T:9.0 / P:6.5) is fantastic, with banana slices sautéed in a decadent sauce of butter, rum, brown sugar, banana liqueur and cinnamon.   An interesting twist here is the use of ginger gelato
Bananas Foster
with toasted coconut in place of the more traditional vanilla ice cream, giving the dessert a decidedly Asian flair.   Another good option is the Chocolate Bombe (T:7.5 / P:8.5), a half-dome of chocolate ganache enrobed in a soft coating of dark chocolate and sitting on top of a crisp cookie.   The dessert is surrounded on the plate with a light milk chocolate sauce that has been sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts.

The service at Sushi Ran is somewhat mixed.   On the one hand, servers usually do a good job of keeping things moving along smoothly.   The food is delivered to the table at an excellent pace, and there is seldom a long wait time between the arrival of one ordered item and the next.   On the other hand, the staff is not always as informed as they should be about the wines offered by the glass or even certain items on the menu.   They also do not reliably inform diners of when a side of order of rice might be appropriate, such as with the Shaking Beef or Caramelized Shrimp.   Additionally, there are times when the regular server for the table may not check in frequently enough.   Overall, the service can best be described as competent but not outstanding.

Sushi Ran’s décor is both comfortable and unremarkable.   Light wood and large windows that let in ambient light create a certain airiness in the room, creating a casual feel.   And while there are certainly a few accents here and there that add a modern Asian touch, the overall feel of the dining area is one of relative austerity.   The sushi bar in the front portion of the dining room is great for seeing the amazing selection of fresh seafood and watching the sushi chefs at work.   But the seats are placed ridiculously close together, so waiting for a table is the better – and more comfortable – way to go.

In the final analysis, Sushi Ran is well-deserving of the high praise that it has received.   Indeed, my recent visits fully confirmed the accuracy of those reports that I first heard several years ago: the restaurant really does have fresh ingredients, innovative chefs, and a significant base of loyal customers.   Through this combination of factors, Sushi Ran has pushed its way toward the top – quite possibly earning the distinction of being the best sushi restaurant in the entire Bay Area.

Sushi Ran
Food Taste8.58.0

Overall
Food Presentation8.0
Service6.0
Atmosphere5.0
Price$$
Number of Visits: 7
Ratings Explained



Recipe: The Slanted Door's Shaking Beef


The Mission District of San Francisco is today known as a kind of proving ground for restaurants, a place where chefs can introduce new concepts and cuisines and then test, refine and perfect them before exposure to a broader audience.   The restaurant that arguably ushered in and cemented this reputation more than any other is The Slanted Door.

Opened in 1995 near the corner of Valencia and 17th Streets, The Slanted Door quickly became a phenomenon as word spread about Chef-Owner Charles Phan’s delicious Vietnamese food prepared with a California influence.   The original space was small and sparse, with concrete floors, unadorned cement walls, and virtually deafening noise levels.   When Phan decided to expand the Valencia site in 2002, he temporarily relocated the restaurant to a vacant and larger spot at the corner of Brannan and Embarcadero.   This location had a completely different feel than the original, with white table cloths, casually elegant décor, and a warm, relatively quiet atmosphere – a marked improvement, in my opinion.   By 2004, however, Phan had decided not to return the restaurant to its original home, but to take up residence in the San Francisco Ferry Building instead.   This custom-designed setting offers sweeping views of the Bay, but the table cloths and quiet elegance of the preceding location have given way to a sparseness akin to that of the original.

Many have said that The Slanted Door has lost something along the way, and I unfortunately have to agree.   Put simply, the current incarnation of the restaurant is cold and impersonal.   The décor consists of stark colors with little warmth, modernistic furniture with no sense of refinement, and a palpable dearth of noise-muting fabrics.
The host staff can often be downright rude, acting as though they are doing you a tremendous favor by merely allowing you to eat there.   For example, despite a posted sign indicating that the restaurant will open at 11:00 a.m. for lunch, the host staff will often open the door whenever they please – the long line of guests outside be damned.   And the wait staff, though not affirmatively impolite, are frequently indifferent and inattentive.

Yet, the one thing that cannot be denied is the quality of the food.   Yes, it’s true that price and quantity seem to be moving in opposite directions as the years go on, with the former rising as the latter falls.   But while the value of the food may legitimately be called into question, the taste of it cannot.   Spring Rolls, Cellophane Noodles with Crab, Caramelized Shrimp, Claypot Chicken, Sugar Snap Peas – all have held up extremely well since those early days on Valencia Street.   But the very first dish from Phan that captivated me, the one I still view as a must-have on any visit and that tastes as good as ever, is the Shaking Beef.   Tender cubes of filet mignon are sautéed with red onions and a soy vinaigrette, and then served with a pepper and lime juice dipping sauce.   The result is outstanding.
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Phan has published his recipe for Shaking Beef several times, most recently in an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle.   The recipe, which is set forth below, is not at all difficult.   But before you get too excited, I must warn you that even if you follow the directions precisely, you may not end up with a dish that tastes exactly like the original.   This may be because some of the ingredients are listed only in generic terms (e.g., light and dark soy sauce); it may be because the specific brands that Phan uses make a big difference in the ultimate flavor.
It may even be that Phan has slyly left off a key ingredient or two.   Nevertheless, the below recipe yields a delicious dish, so I encourage you to try it.   And who knows – with a little experimentation and tweaking, you may be able to get even closer to the version served in the restaurant.

Shaking Beef
Charles Phan, The Slanted Door

The Meat
2 T chopped garlic
1 t sugar
1½ t salt
¾ t fresh black pepper
2 T neutral cooking oil, such as canola or corn oil
1½ lbs filet mignon, cut into 1” cubes

The Vinaigrette
¼ c rice vinegar
1 T sugar
¼ c rice wine
4 T light soy sauce
1 T dark soy sauce
1 T fish sauce

The Dipping Sauce
Juice of 1 lime
½ t kosher salt
¼ t fresh black pepper

The Stir-Fry
4 T neutral cooking oil, such as canola or corn oil
3 stalks green onion, cut into 1” pieces
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
2 t butter
2 bunches watercress, for garnish

1.   Prepare marinade by combining garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and oil in a large nonmetal bowl.   Add filet mignon, combine and marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for two hours.

2.   Prepare vinaigrette by combining rice vinegar, sugar, rice wine, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce and fish sauce.   Set aside.

3.   Heat a wok over high heat.   Divide beef, green onions and red onions in half, as you will cook in two batches.

4.   Add 2 T oil to the wok.   When the oil starts to smoke, add first portion of the beef in an even layer.   Let it sit until a forms a brown crust, about 2 minutes.   With a spatula, flip the beef over to brown the other side, about 1 minute.

5.   Add first portion of the green onions and red onions and cook for 1 more minute.   Pour half of vinaigrette down the side of the wok, and then shake pan to release the beef and toss with the vinaigrette.   Add 1 t butter and continue to shake pan until butter melts.   Remove the meat and onions from the wok.   Keep warm.

6.   Repeat steps 4 and 5 with second portion of meat, green onions and red onions.   Place the watercress in the middle of the serving plate and spoon hot beef and onions on top.

7.   Prepare dipping sauce by putting salt and pepper in small ramekin and squeezing lime juice over it.   Serve alongside the beef.   Serves 4.