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Monday, October 31, 2005

Restaurant Review: Campton Place


Update:   Daniel Humm, the Executive Chef at Campton Place at the time of the below review, has since left the restaurant in order to take over as Executive Chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York.   Peter Rudolph is now in charge of Campton Place's kitchen, but I have not had an opportunity to visit the restaurant since Rudolph took the helm. You can read my assessment of Rudolph's cuisine at his prior position, as Chef de Cuisine at Navio, here.

Campton Place restaurant and its executive chef, Daniel Humm, have each achieved some truly remarkable feats over the past several years.   The restaurant started the year 2000 holding an unimpressive 2.5-star rating from The San Francisco Chronicle, and the chef at the time seemed to be struggling with a formula to get things back on course.   As the years went on, however, Campton Place did precisely that – earning steadily increasing accolades with each new review, and marching up The Chronicle's ratings scale in 0.5-star increments.   The culmination of this occurred just last month, when The Chronicle identified Campton Place as one of the Bay Area's seven 4-star restaurants.

Daniel Humm took over the kitchen at Campton Place in early 2003, and four months later – at the ripe old age of 26 – he drew a 3.5-star rating from Michael Bauer at The Chronicle.   Bauer described Humm as "a miracle worker" and a "shoo-in" for an eventual 4-star rating, and he positively gushed about Humm's talent and his menu.   In the ensuing years, The Chronicle named Humm as a 2004 Rising Star Chef, The James Beard Foundation nominated him for Rising Star Chef of the Year in both 2004 and 2005, and Food & Wine Magazine named him one of its 10 Best New Chefs for 2005.   And now, of course, Humm has joined the select group of Bay Area chefs who head up 4-star kitchens – a group that includes Thomas Keller, Ron Siegel, David Kinch, Hubert Keller, Roland Passot, and Alice Waters.

I had been to Campton Place for dinner once in the pre-Humm era, and that experience – coupled with other lackluster reports from around that same time period – had left me rather ambivalent about returning.   But the blaze of glowing reviews that Humm and Campton Place have earned could not be ignored, and so it was that I recently joined some friends for dinner at the restaurant.
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Menu


I began the evening with a glass of one of my favorite champagnes, the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé.   This was one of four selections available that night on the restaurant's champagne cart, a small mobile table on which a large
Campton Place:
At A Glance
ChefDaniel Humm
Pastry ChefGarrett Melkonian
Address340 Stockton St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Phone415.955.5555
ParkingGarage
Restaurant Website

metallic champagne bucket has been placed.   In front of the bucket is a small billfold that contains a description – and the per glass price – of each of the selections, placed vertically so that diners can easily read the information.   Although the wooden champagne cart at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton is probably a bit more elegant than the one at Campton Place, any restaurant that has a champagne cart gets extra points in my book!   I also appreciated the prominently displayed written description of the champagnes and their prices, which is something that most other restaurants do not offer.

The menu is divided into five sections, namely Appetizers, Soups, Aquatic Flavors, Fish and Crustaceans, and Meat and Poultry.   Diners can design their own 3- or 4-course menus, or they can opt for a 7-course Chef's Tasting Menu or a 12-course Chef's Tasting Menu.   The tasting menus, if desired, must be ordered by the entire table.   After giving it some thought, my three dining companions and I settled on the 7-course Chef's Tasting Menu.   As described below, however, the actual number of dishes delivered to our table was far greater.

Shortly after placing our orders, we were presented with a long narrow dish containing a variety of amuse bouche selections (Taste: 6.5 / Presentation: 8.0) (Ratings Explained).   I will not endeavor to describe each of these bite size creations individually, but suffice it to say that they were, on balance, good but not spectacular.   Next up was another amuse bouche, Sorbet of Heirloom Tomatoes with Pickled Cucumbers and Marinated Anchovy (T:8.0 / P:8.5).   The cool but soft sorbet carried the wonderful, concentrated essence of tomato – sweet with just the slightest amount of acidity.   Meanwhile, the tiny and perfectly-uniform dice of pickled cucumbers underneath provided a surprisingly big flavor, one that cut right through the sorbet and provided an excellent contrast.   The marinated anchovy provided nice texture, but it did not in my view contribute anything special to the overall flavor of the dish.

For the first full course, my half of the table received the Cauliflower Cream with Royal Sterling Osetra Caviar and Sea Urchin Foam (T:6.5 / P:8.5).   This dish was visually quite appealing, with a nice presentation of the cauliflower cream and caviar set down before us and then topped tableside with a perfect dome of frothy sea urchin foam.   In terms of taste, however, the dish did not fare quite as well.   The sea urchin foam was fine, but it had a mild flavor that did not seem to engage much with anything else on the plate.   Meanwhile, the cauliflower flavor in the cream was seemingly non-existent;   it was either washed away by something else on the plate, or it was not sufficiently there in the first place.   Only the caviar really shined, enough so that the overall dish was still quite good.   The other half of the table received the Sea Urchin Sabayon with Osetra Caviar, Sea Urchin and Clam Gratinee (T:8.0 / P:8.5).   A smooth, creamy custard with just a faint taste of sea urchin was punctuated with the same outstanding caviar as on my dish, while the clam gratinee served on the side was given a delicious twist by the unexpected presence of lavendar.

Next up was a sashimi dish – Trio of Hawaiian "Poisson Cru" with Kona Kompachi, Big Eye Tuna and Nairagi Toro (T:9:5 / P:8.0).   The quality of the fish here was outstanding, with clean distinctive flavors and soft buttery textures.   The organic soy sauce and the salt-lime dipping sauce that were served on the side were each outstanding in their own right, but together they reached astonishing heights.   This was a spectacular dish – delicious and elegant in its relative simplicity.

The third course consisted of two separate variations on the combination of watermelon and tomato.   I received Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato in an Almond Vinaigrette (T:8.0 / P:9.5), a dish comprised of several small "cylinders" of tomato or watermelon, each of different height and each stood on its end.   The presentation here was beautiful, and the taste was fresh, light, very flavorful and summery.   The herbs placed on top of the dish added a nice accent.   The other half of the table received a Watermelon and Tomato Tartare (T:5.5 / P:7.0).   This dish, though certainly interesting, had a very unusual flavor – probably due to the balsamic vinegar and pistachio that were used to flavor it.   While the kitchen deserves high marks here for pushing some boundaries, this clearly was among the weaker selections of the evening.

All four of us received the same thing for the next course, the Artisan Foie Gras Crème Brulee with Melon Consomme (T:8.5 / P:8.5).   The smooth, creamy richness of the foie gras "custard" found the perfect foil in the crunchy burnt sugar topping, while the melon consommé on the side served as an excellent palate cleanser.   I was not particularly optimistic about this dish at the outset, both because I generally prefer my foie gras in seared form and because my first exposure to foie gras crème brulee - at Philadelphia's Le Bec Fin - was a very disappointing one.   But Humm definitely won me over.

The fifth course was one of the best of the night, Aiguilette of John Dory "Sous Vide" with Saffron Fumet and Tomatoes (T:10.0 / P:10.0).   A fillet of nicely cooked fish was topped with thin coins of delicious zucchini, arranged in such a way as to resemble the scales of a fish.   An incredibly flavorful and creamy saffron sauce was then drizzled around the perimeter, with a small quenelle of tomato confit sitting off to one side.   The flavors and textures here came together spectacularly, the saffron from the sauce creating perfect harmony with the delicate fish and tender zucchini.   Meanwhile, the tomato confit on the side was simply amazing;   indeed, I don't know if I have ever tasted such concentrated and intense tomato flavor, as if an entire crate of tomatoes had been carefully reduced down to a single tablespoon.   An equally stunning presentation earns this dish a perfect 10 on both fronts.

I prepared myself for the likelihood that the next course would not live up to the last, but it turned out that I was wrong.   The Glazed Barberie Duck with Lavendar Honey and Spices (T:10 / P:10) was just as spectacular, with moist tender meat and crispy skin in a rich brown sauce that helped to amplify and deepen the flavors.   It was the lavendar honey, however, that was arguably the key ingredient here, contributing a wonderful floral undertone that give the dish that extra special something.   The visual appeal of the dish was also impressive, with the whole duck brought before us and then carved and plated tableside.   Another perfect 10 for both taste and presentation.

The cheese course came next, and the entire table was served a Fresh Andante Dairy Goat Cheese (T:7.0 / P:8.0).   A small piece of soft tangy cheese was sprinkled with dry herbs and fleur de sel, and then drizzled with olive oil.   The result was very good, if somewhat unremarkable, but the odd thing was that the only bread made available was olive bread – despite the fact that other breads had been on the table throughout the entire meal.   A perfectly fine dish overall, but I have certainly had better.

The Jasmine Orange Cappuccino (T:10 / P:10) arrived shortly after our cheese plates had been cleared, and this was by far the best palate cleanser that I have ever had anywhere.   Cold, slushy, bright, floral, fresh, refreshing – I could have easily consumed a liter of this deliciously spectacular concoction and have still wanted more.   What I found particularly interesting here was the way in which the brightness would at one moment seem to be coming from the citrus, and then the next moment appear to be contributed by the jasmine. Served in a small cup and made to resemble a hot frothy cappuccino, this selection readily deserves a perfect 10 for both taste and presentation.

The final full course of the evening was our dessert – a Valrhona Chocolate Pastilla with Orange Guajillo Confit and Chicory Milk (T:6.5 / P:7.5).   The pastilla was basically just a thin deep-fried wrapper containing molten chocolate, and the first attempt to cut into it with a fork caused an explosion of chocolate to spread across the surface of the plate.   The confit had both the sweet taste of orange and a slow burning heat from the guajillo peppers, and the frothy milk off to the side had the strong and unmistakable taste of chicory.   The components of this dish were all fine, but nothing stood out as particularly noteworthy, and the combination of ingredients never really attained any synergy.

The meal closed with a bowl of soft sugary beignets, and another long and narrow plate – this time carrying the mignardise.   Here again, all of the confections on the plate were very good, but nothing that one cannot find at other restaurants of this caliber.


Service and Decor


The one thing that really caught me by surprise at Campton Place was the service.   It was, in a word, outstanding.   So outstanding, in fact, that I can confidently say that it was just as good as any that I have encountered in the Bay Area during the past several years.

Our server was the consummate professional – knowledgeable about the menu, attentive to everything happening at the table, and responsive to our requests.   He kept a close eye on wine levels throughout the evening, refilling our glasses frequently enough to keep them from being empty, but not so often as to become an intrusion.   After presenting the duck to us and taking it over to the tableside carving board, he noticed me trying to take a picture of it from a bit of a distance.   He promptly lifted the pan and brought the duck back over to me, simply so I would be able to take a close-up shot.   And so it went the entire evening, his interactions with us becoming more involved when we were amenable and less so when we were engrossed in our own conversation.   It takes a certain talent to be able to "read" the mood of a table, and our server pulled it off masterfully.

The rest of the waitstaff were equally impressive.   They replaced silverware seamlessly and unobtrusively, presented dishes to everybody at the table at the same time, and maintained consistency both in the direction from which plates were served and cleared and in the side from which wine and water glasses were refilled.   My only minor criticism – and it's a personal pet peeve – is that the servers regularly brought courses to the table even when one of the diners had momentarily stepped away.   I realize that it's a major inconvenience for both the kitchen and the servers to have to readjust the timing of everything the moment a diner leaves the table, and I know that it's much easier said than done.   But a restaurant of this caliber ought to make the effort, and top-tier service – in my view, at least – demands it.   Regrettably, I have seen only one restaurant in the Bay Area that consistently abides by this principle, and that is The French Laundry.

There is one thing that sets the servers at Campton Place apart from those at other top-tier Bay Area restaurants, and that is the tableside service that they are expected to perform.   Sure, the Campton Place waitstaff do their fair share of pouring soups, adding finishing sauces, or topping dishes with foams – just like their counterparts at other establishments.   But they also go well beyond that, carving whole ducks out in the dining room, deconstructing and plating a whole branzino in salt crust before diners’ eyes, and even putting together a composed cheese course right out of the cheese cart.   In each instance, the servers handled the necessary tasks with remarkable aplomb, proceeding confidently and gracefully through the motions and producing plated dishes that rival those of the most obsessive chef.

There were other nice touches as well.   For example, it's my usual practice at the end of a meal such as this to inquire whether I might be able to get a copy of the menu to take with me.   Here, before I even asked, our waiter brought over a small piece of folded cardstock, inside of which was printed the entire tasting menu that we had just enjoyed.   Moreover, the menu had been signed and dated by Chef Humm.   As another example, Chef Humm himself walked through the dining room several times throughout the night, stopping at every table at least once to say hello.   It's thoughtful gestures such as these that define a great restaurant.

There is one final point about the service that I feel compelled to note, and that has to do with the time it took for our meal.   As we sat at the restaurant enjoying our dinner, the pacing of the meal seemed perfect;   not too fast, not too slow, and a relatively consistent interval between the delivery of courses to the table.   And it certainly did not feel like the meal was dragging on in any way.   Yet, I was surprised when I looked at my watch on the way out and realized that we had been there for four full hours.   Now, it's true that our 7-course meal actually ended up being 9 to 12 courses, depending upon whether amuse bouche and other extras are counted.   But four hours for a meal of this sort still seems somewhat high when compared to other establishments in this class, and I can only imagine how much longer we might have been there had we opted for the chef's 12-course tasting menu instead.   While I personally did not mind the duration of the meal, the restaurant should perhaps consider tightening up the pace a bit to account for diners who may not wish to set aside the entire night for dinner.

The décor and atmosphere at Campton Place are elegant refined, modern and understated.   Tones of beige and brown are periodically interrupted by peach and red accents, while white tablecloths and modern furniture give the room a sleek look.   A large hand-blown glass light fixture sits suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the room, its reddish tones and free flowing shape echoed in the small glass pieces that surround the candle on each table.   The names on the tableware are all first-rate – Bernardaud, Christofle, Spieglau – and the fabrics in the room are warm and inviting.   Overall, the feel is calm and tranquil – a marked departure from the hustle and bustle of Union Square that lies just outside the front door of the hotel in which the restaurant sits.

Conclusion


There can be little question that Campton Place is one of the Bay Area's best restaurants, and the plaudits that Humm has earned for the establishment are clearly well-deserved.   Humm's menu is well-grounded in the fundamentals to be sure, but it is equally marked by the pairing of disparate ingredients, the incorporation of modern techniques, and the exercise of great creativity.   Indeed, there are only a few restaurants in the Bay Area that produce dishes so distinctive that one could immediately identify their source simply through sight and taste;   Campton Place is one of them.   It's true that some of the innovative combinations that Humm offers work better than others.   Yet, I give him a lot of credit for not simply emulating the successful approaches of other chefs, and for instead seeking to blaze a path that is uniquely his own.   And given that Humm is still only 28 years old, we will hopefully have the privilege of witnessing his ongoing evolution for many years to come.



Campton Place
Food Taste8.58.5

Overall
Food Presentation9.5
Service9.5
Atmosphere8.5
Price$$$$$
Number of Visits: 2
Ratings Explained



Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A Glimpse Into My Kitchen


The latest trend to sweep across the food blog universe was launched a few weeks ago, when Mrs. D over at Belly Timber posted photos of her kitchen and shared some of her observations and thoughts.   Kevin at Seriously Good responded not only by doing the same, but by urging other food bloggers to follow suit as well.   The next thing you know, bloggers everywhere were posting their own .

In light of how much I've enjoyed peering into others' kitchens, I figured that I would go ahead and post some pictures from my own.   So here they are:



The previous owners of my home completely renovated this kitchen about five years ago, and I give them a lot of credit for doing a great job with the space that's available.   The things I appreciate most about the room are its overall look and feel, the wonderful appliances, and the open and airy layout.   It's great to be able to cook with friends or family without constantly bumping into each other.   I also like the fact that the critical shelves (such as those in the pantry cabinet) are on rollers, providing easy access to contents.   Finally, I'm grateful for having a generous amount of cabinet space - giving me plenty of room to store my dishware, glassware, pots and pans.

As for the things that I might have done differently, a greater amount of counterspace would probably be at the top of my list.   The surface area is usually sufficient for day-to-day needs, but I find myself pushing the limits anytime I cook something elaborate or whenever I throw a dinner party.   And those same situations make we wish that I had 6 burners on the stove instead of 4 plus a grill;   trying to figure out the correct sequence in which to rotate 6 pots of food onto 4 burners so as to get everything to the table at the proper temperature is a challenge that I would be happy to live without!   And finally, I hope someday to have the luxury of a second oven - again so that I have a bit more flexibility when preparing an involved meal.   These are obviously minor issues in the grand scheme of things, however, so I'm not complaining in the least!

Monday, October 24, 2005

"Inside The Kitchen" At The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay


The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, in conjunction with Gourmet magazine, is hosting a special food and wine event this coming weekend.   Called "Inside the Kitchen", this three-day extravaganza consists of a variety of lectures, demonstrations and meals spanning from Friday, October 28 to Sunday, October 30.   I should note at the outset that this is not cheap;   in fact, it is downright expensive.   But if you suddenly find yourself flush with disposable income and are looking for a culinary event on which to spend it, this might be for you.

The weekend kicks off with an Opening Night Benefit Reception and Dinner on Friday, hosted by Bay Area television personality Joey Altman.   A number of local chefs will be behind the stove, and diners will be able to watch them plate and finish their dishes in the hotel ballroom.   The chefs who will be participating include Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys, Roland Passot of La Folie, Michael Mina of Michael Mina Restaurant, Nancy Oakes of Boulevard, and pastry chef William Werner of the The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.   Sommeliers from around the Bay Area will also be on hand, offering wine pairings with each course.   Look for Larry Stone of Rubicon, Shelly Lindgren of A16, Eugenio Jardim of Jardiniere, Matthew Turner of The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, and Richard Betts of The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado.   The price?   $300 per person all inclusive, $75 of which will go to Meals on Wheels of San Francisco, Inc.   And as if that weren't steep enough, the hotel appears to be requiring an overnight stay for anybody interested in attending this dinner.

On tap for the daytime on Saturday are a number of lectures and/or demonstrations, including sessions on The Perfect Brunch, Afternoon Tea for the 21st Century, New World Wines, and Secrets of Weeknight Meals (the last of these being taught by Food Network host Sara Moulton).   Each of these presentations lasts two hours and costs $100 per person.   That evening, the hotel will present a Grand Cru Wine Dinner - with wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux poured by the sommelier from the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, and a meal matched to those wines by the executive chefs from the Half Moon Bay and Battery Park (New York) Ritz properties.   Here again, the price per person is $300 all inclusive, and an overnight stay appears to be mandatory for participants.

The last day of the event offers a field trip, for $100 per person, to two regional farms - Harley Farms Goat Dairy and Farmer John's Pumpkin Farm.   And on Sunday afternoon, the weekend draws to a close with the Chef's Challenge and Grand Tasting ($150 per person).   The first portion of this is essentially an Iron Chef-type competition, in which two teams of chefs will have one hour to prepare a three-course meal using a secret ingredient.   The idea was to set this up as a Napa Valley versus San Francisco battle, so Keith Luce from Press and Scott Warner from Bistro Don Giovanni will go head to head with Ron Siegel from the The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco and Gregory Short from Masa's.   The competition will be hosted by Joey Altman and judged by Sara Moulton, Narsai David, Peter Rudolph, and a few others.   Immediately afterward, guests will get to sample signature dishes from the executive chefs of seven different Ritz properties.

The hotel is offering a number of different packages in which one-, two- or three-nights' lodging is combined with one or more of the above events.   Incredibly, if you and a companion want to go all out and stay at the hotel for three nights, attend all three dinners, and enjoy Sunday brunch at the hotel's restaurant Navio, you can do so for the bargain basement price of $3150 double occupancy.   And if you both want to go to all four of the Saturday classes as well, make that $3950!

I am all for supporting food and wine events such as this one, and I realize that the overhead involved precludes them from ever being cheap.   Nevertheless, some of the pricing here strikes me as being seriously out of whack, and I can't help but wonder what kind of a turnout the Ritz is going to get.   I also cannot fathom why the hotel decided to require everybody who wants to attend the Opening Night Benefit to purchase a package that includes a hotel room.   After all, this dinner is a fundraiser for Meals on Wheels;   you'd think that the hotel would want to encourage as many people as possible to attend - not artificially limit the guest list to those who are also willing to shell out the extra money for a room.   Put simply, this inexplicable decision makes it appear that the Ritz is more interested in lining its own coffers than in helping a good cause.

At any rate, if you end up going to any of these events, please do let me know!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Dining Out And Supporting A Great Cause


October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and selected members of the Bay Area restaurant community are doing their part by participating in "Taste for the Cure" - an event co-sponsored by the UCSF National Center of Excellence in Women's Health, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and the UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center.   Here's how it works.   Each participating restaurant has identified a goal in terms of the amount of money that it is willing to donate to the UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center.   When a diner visits one of these restaurants this week, he or she will be given a small contribution envelope along with the check.   If the diner elects to make a donation, the restaurant will provide matching funds - at least up until the point that its predetermined goal has been met.   And, of course, the restaurant can continue to collect contributions even after that point.   One hundred percent of the donated amounts will go directly toward providing patient services to women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The goals that have been set by the participating restaurants apparently range from $250 to $500 - not particularly high dollar values, to be sure.   Nevertheless, these restaurants really do deserve to be commended for their efforts, and for a number of different reasons.   First, every dollar counts, and the restaurants involved here are not simply turning over their own money, they're actually providing an incentive for diners to do so as well.   Second, the restaurants and the event itself are providing an important public service, raising awareness about this deadly disease and publicizing the important work being done at UCSF.   And finally, the establishments taking part this year are paving the way for what I hope will be broader restaurant participation - perhaps even at higher contribution levels - in future years.

Here, then, are the restaurants participating in this year's Taste for the Cure:So, if you have an opportunity to visit any of these restaurants between now and Sunday and are able to make a donation, please do so.   And even if you are unable, I encourage you to stop in at these establishments at some later date and let them know if you appreciate their involvement in this important event.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Another Simple Indulgence


A few weeks ago, I put up a post here describing an extremely simple but very tasty breakfast that I've been enjoying lately, namely fall pears combined with fresh ricotta cheese and lavendar honey.   I'd now like to tell you about an equally simple and incredibly delicious snack or post-meal treat, one that you may very well find to be dangerously addictive.

It begins with a slice of fresh pain de mie, the soft, sweet and buttery white bread that is available at many of the Bay Area's finest bakeries.   The Acme Bread Company in the San Francisco Ferry Building sells an especially good version that I buy quite frequently, but it's the one offered by Pascal Rigo's Boulangerie at Pine Street that reigns as my current favorite.   Next is a great product that I discovered during a recent trip to wine country, Cinnamon Pear Jelly from a company called A Perfect Pear.   Made from the juice of organic Bartletts, this spread has a uniquely spectacular flavor due to the presence of just the right amount of cinnamon.   I purchased my jar at Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg, but I have also seen it on sale at Andronico's here in San Francisco.   Last, but certainly not least, is the signature cheese from Cowgirl Creamery - Mt. Tam.   This triple-cream is made with organic milk from the Strauss Family Dairy, and it is simultaneously delicious, creamy and decadent.

Well, I'm sure you can see where this is going by now, so I won't belabor the point.   Simply toast a slice of the pain de mie, spread generously with Cinnamon Pear Jelly, and top with Mt. Tam cheese.   Now, of course, the general concept of combining toasted bread, a fruit spread, and good cheese is hardly novel.   Indeed, I hesitated briefly before posting this piece, for fear that I might be describing something so obvious as to not even be worth mentioning.   And yet, every time I tasted this particular trio, I found myself increasingly convinced that this was not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill combination, and that it was simply too good not to share.   So, if you get the chance, give it a try sometime and let me know what you think!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Recipe: Tomato Soup Inspired By Bistro Jeanty


One of the many things that I find rewarding about reading food blogs is getting new ideas for things to try in the kitchen.   Sometimes, it's learning about a food ingredient with which I was previously unfamiliar;   other times, it's getting inspiration to cook a particular dish.   And once in a while, it's both.   Such was the case with the latest obsession in which I have been indulging - tomato soup.

It all started back in August, when Pim - of the popular blog Chez Pim - posted an entry describing the dry-farmed "Early Girl" tomatoes that are grown by Dirty Girl Farm down in Santa Cruz.   In her post, Pim raved that "you've never really had great tomatoes until you've had dry farmed tomatoes," and she also assured that these are "just about the sweetest and yummiest tomatoes you could find, beating your fancy heirloom tomatoes by at least a mile."   Well, after reading a description like that, I obviously had no choice but to seek out these tomatoes on my very next visit to the Ferry Building Farmers' Market.   And let me tell you, was Pim ever right.   Early Girls are grown with less water, so they are smaller and much more flavorful than your garden variety and have an unparalleled natural sweetness.   To put it simply, I had never tasted a better tomato.

In the ensuing weeks, I became a weekly visitor at the Dirty Girl stall and found myself taking home one bag of Early Girls after another.   Occasionally, I would eat them with fresh mozzarella from Cowgirl Creamery, olive oil from McEvoy Ranch, and fresh basil;   alternatively, I would combine them with crisp cucumbers, slivered red onions, olive oil, oregano and feta cheese to make a Greek salad.   But in early September, one of my favorite food bloggers - Fatemeh at Gastronomie - posted about what she referred to as her "Tomato Soup Revelation."   The recipe that Fatemeh included in that post is an excellent one that I fully intend to try, but what it immediately reminded me of was my favorite tomato soup of all time:   the one served at Yountville's Bistro Jeanty.
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There's more...
The first time I tried the tomato soup of Executive Chef Philippe Jeanty, I was momentarily left speechless.   The characteristically sweet, slightly acidic taste of fresh tomatoes explodes on your palate, yet the flavor is also sumptuously smooth and infinitely rich as a result of the perfect amount of cream.   A single spoonful was more than enough to purge the name "Campbell's" from my memory forever.   It didn't take long for me to get online to search for the recipe, and it took even less time to find one that purports to be from Chef Jeanty himself.   And although I cannot confirm the actual provenance of this recipe, I can tell you that it is one that I have used several times to produce a reasonable facsimile of the version served in the restaurant.   Now, the recipe as written calls for ordinary tomatoes, which is precisely how I have always made it.   But what would happen, I wondered after reading Pim's and Fatemeh's posts, if I used Early Girl tomatoes instead?   Well, suffice it to say that ever since my first attempt to answer that question about a month ago, I have been converting pound after pound of Early Girls into batches of this delicious soup!

One of the things that I like about this recipe is that it calls for absolutely no broth or water, instead drawing all of its flavor from unadulterated tomatoes stewed slowly with onion, garlic, thyme and bay leaf.   And while it's true that some cream gets added at the very end, it tends to smooth out the flavors more than dilute them.   I'm not sure how much longer Early Girls will be around, but I strongly encourage you to get some if you can and try this soup.   And even if you are not able to get dry-farmed tomatoes, this recipe yields excellent results as long as you start with any decent tomato.

Tomato Soup
Inspired by Philippe Jeanty, Bistro Jeanty


  • 1.5 lbs. red onions, chopped
  • 3 T unsalted butter
  • 3 lbs. fresh dry-farmed "Early Girl" tomatoes, cut into quarters (do not seed or peel)
  • 9 whole cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 pinches of dried thyme
  • 1.5 c cream (half-and-half also works well)
  • salt to taste

  • white pepper to taste

1.   Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat, and the add onions.   Cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

2.   Add tomatoes, garlic cloves, bay leaves and thyme.   Stir well, and reduce heat to low - cooking mixture slowly and uncovered for 1.5 hours. (The mixture should sit at a low simmer.)   Stir periodically.

3.   Remove from heat.   Discard bay leaves, and run tomato mixture through a food processor or blender - working in batches if necessary.

4.   Strain soup through a chinois or other large-volume fine-mesh strainer - working in batches if needed.   The soup at this point will still be quite thick, so it may not readily pass through the strainer unaided.   A technique that I have found particularly effective is to use a hand blender, submerging it into the soup as it sits in the strainer and pulverizing the ingredients even more finely to allow them to pass through.

5.   Place strained soup in a large pot over low heat.

6.   Stir in cream, and then add salt and white pepper to taste. Serves 4-6.

If you wish to make the soup well in advance of serving, I suggest performing steps 1-4 (up to 1 day in advance) and then refrigerating the strained mixture.   Then, shortly before serving, complete by performing steps 5-6.   Similarly, if you want to freeze the soup, you will likely get the best results if you freeze after step 4 and then add the cream after thawing and reheating.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

StarChefs: San Francisco Rising Stars Revue


There's an interesting event coming up in San Francisco next week, one that will bring together several of the Bay Area's best and brightest young chefs.   The evening is presented by StarChefs, an online culinary magazine that boasts an all-star celebrity chef advisory board and over 14 million hits per month on its website.   Each year, StarChefs selects 3-4 cities in which to put on a "Rising Stars Revue" - an event in which up and coming chefs from the selected city each prepare a dish and present it as part of an extensive "tasting menu."   Chefs are nominated for "rising star" status by the StarChefs Advisory Board, and they are ultimately selected by the magazine's Editorial Board.   Rising Stars Revues were put on in 2003 in Boston, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Seattle, while the 2004 sites for the event were Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Miami.   This year, StarChefs has already presented the event in New York and Las Vegas, and San Francisco and Chicago will round out the schedule in the coming months.

The San Francisco Rising Stars Revue will be held on Monday, October 17, 2005 from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at Teatro ZinZanni (Pier 29 on The Embarcadero).   Regular tickets, $100 in advance or $125 at the door, allow diners to sample all of the chefs' dishes along with wine pairings selected by Rising Star sommeliers.   VIP tickets, which are $150 each, include a private pre-event reception with Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d'Or Champagne and caviar.   From the description on the StarChefs website, it sounds as though the dinner will be a "walk-around-and-sample" type of affair rather than a sit down meal.   Here is a list of the Rising Star chefs and the dishes that they will be presenting:

StarChefs' San Francisco Rising Stars Revue
Tasting Menu for October 17, 2005
ChefRestaurantDish
David BazirganBarakaFoie Gras Torchon
Paul PiscopoXYZSardine Farcie Provencal
Stuart BriozaRubiconTerrine of Guinea Hen with Brioche Butter
Daniel HummCampton PlaceSea Urchin Capuccino with Dungeness Crab
Chris CosentinoIncantoOctopus Crudo
Melissa PerelloFifth FloorPan Roasted Duck Breast, Duck Confit, Fingerling Potato Hash
Christophe HilleA16Tomato Caponata with Tuna Conserva, Capers, Basil and Dried Bread
Dennis LearyCanteenRoulade of Lamb with Romesco and Bitter Greens
Robbie LewisJardiniereMaine Diver Scallops with Housemade Pancetta, Meyer Lemon, Roast Garlic-Parsley Nage
Bill BunnTeatro ZinZanniChicken Breast Stuffed with Far West Fungi Wild Mushrooms and Prosciutto di Parma
Christine LawPostrioPoached Pear Baba with St. Andre and Black Pepper Ice Cream
Boris PortnoyWinterlandWhite Coffee Parfait, Coffee Earth, Fig Gastrique
Marika DoobFifth FloorChocolate Velvet Mousse Cake with Brown Sugar Bananas
Elise FinebergTaste CateringA Trio of Chocolate


With such a diverse lineup, this should certainly be an interesting event!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bay Area Restaurant News


There have been several interesting news items lately regarding the Bay Area restaurant scene.   Here are just a few of the stories that caught my attention:

Bong Su Restaurant & Lounge:   Tammy Huynh, executive chef and co-owner of Tamarine in Palo Alto, will soon be joining co-owner Anne Le in opening a sister restaurant in San Francisco.   Like Tamarine, Bong Su Restaurant & Lounge will present contemporary Vietnamese cuisine in a stylish atmosphere, but the menu will be much more regionally-focused with dishes that are specific to Hanoi, Hue and Saigon.   The restaurant is slated to open in January 2006 at the corner of Third and Folsom Streets, in the location formerly occupied by Max's Diner.   I have always found Tamarine to be good but pricey for Palo Alto, so I'm very curious to see how a similar concept fares in the San Francisco market.   An interesting side note here is that we seem to be witnessing a real expansion in the number of "modern" Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area, as a new generation of establishments follows the trail first blazed by Le Cheval in Oakland and The Slanted Door in San Francisco.   In addition to Tamarine and Bong Su, Three Seasons has quietly expanded to three locations in the Bay Area over the past few years, and Dragonfly just recently opened up in the Inner Sunset.   Add in the more established players Le Colonial and Ana Mandara, and it certainly appears that we have no shortage of Vietnamese dining options.

Scott Howard:   The chef who launched Fork in San Anselmo in 2001 and subsequently took it to great success has just opened an eponymous restaurant in downtown San Francisco.   Scott Howard is located at 500 Jackson, in the space that once housed Cypress Club and the unimaginatively-named 500 Jackson.   The menu is California-French with Asian and Mediterranean accents, the restaurant offers a raw bar, and the average check is said to be around $70 per person.   Howard, who once worked under renowned chef Norman Van Aken, had apparently been wanting to open a restaurant in San Francisco ever since he first arrived in the Bay Area in 2000.   Given the acclaim that Howard generated at Fork and the relative paucity of high quality restaurants in this tier, I look forward to trying Scott Howard soon.

An Embarrassment of Pizza Riches:   It's no secret that the Bay Area has recently experienced a pizza renaissance, with A16, Pizzeria Delfina, Pizzaiolo, Little Star Pizza, and Pizzeria Picco all opening and/or becoming wildly popular within the last year.   But if you thought that pizza equilibrium had finally been reached, you were wrong.   There are at least three more significant pizzerias in the works, and that's just in San Francisco.   First up is Patxi's (pronounced "Pah-cheese"), a restaurant specializing in Chicago deep-dish pizza that will be opening soon at Hayes and Octavia.   This is the second location for the restaurant, the first having been launched in Palo Alto in 2004.   Next is Gitan, a pizza and pasta restaurant from prolific restaurateur Jocelyn Bulow that will be located at 300 DeHaro Street.   When a Frenchman who has built an empire of French-inspired restaurants feels compelled to open a pizza place, well, that's when you know just how powerful this pizza movement really is!   Finally, chef Joe Kohn and proprietor Sam DuVall - the gentlemen behind the Cuban restaurant Habana and the steakhouse chain Izzy's Steaks & Chops - are in the exploratory phases of planning their own pizza place.   This apparently includes eating their way through all of the Bay Area's hottest pizza establishments, and traveling to Argentina to find out how the Italian community there prepares this old standard.   So, stay tuned!

George Morrone:   In a post a few months ago, I noted that George Morrone was planning to relaunch his financial district restaurant Tartare with a new name and a revamped menu.   And on a visit I paid to the restaurant a few weeks later, virtually every employee on the premises - and Morrone himself - excitedly told me about the changes that were by then imminent.   Well, the restaurant closed its doors for the overhaul in early September . . . and then remained closed.   Then, a few weeks ago, Grace Ann Walden from the Chronicle explained why:   the investors behind Tartare were suddenly reconsidering the future of the restaurant, and it was unclear whether Morrone would even stay involved in any future plans.   Well, in today's Chronicle, Walden reports that the investors have thus far decided only not to decide - i.e., Morrone is still nominally on board, but the fundamental question of whether to reopen the restaurant with a new concept or to sell it off entirely remains unanswered.   In any event, although Morrone continues to operate his Novato steakhouse Boca, I hope that he finds another San Francisco kitchen soon so that he can share his considerable talents.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Simple Fall Breakfast - Northern California Style


One of my favorite aspects of Fall is the arrival of pears - from Anjou to Bosc, Asian to Bartlett, and everything in between.   And while I'm perfectly content eating any of these pears out of hand and unadorned, every so often I get the urge to venture out to see what else I can create using these versatile fruits.   Last year, it was a dessert - an Asian Pear Sorbet made with Gewurztraminer and speckled with fragrant vanilla bean.   This year, however, has brought me an extremely simple breakfast dish - one inspired by a recipe that I recently saw in Gourmet magazine, and one that is already threatening to become a daily ritual.   And best of all, it can be made entirely out of fresh, locally-produced ingredients that can be picked up any given Saturday at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers' Market.

To prepare one generous serving (or two lighter ones), get your hands on 4 oz. of fresh ricotta cheese - such as the incredible one offered by Cowgirl Creamery.   Mark my words, one taste of this ricotta and you will immediately wonder how you ever made do with that second-rate stuff found in grocery store tubs, and you may even ponder how it can be legal for these two products to share the same name.   Next, obtain 1 Anjou or Bosc pear that is fully ripe yet firm, and 1 jar of lavendar-infused honey.   If you find yourself at the Saturday farmers' market, look for great pears at the Apple Farm stand in back, and check out the Marshall Farms stall in front for a wonderful lavendar honey.

To assemble the dish, place the cheese in a thin layer on a small plate or in a wide bowl.   Peel the pear if desired, cut in half lengthwise, and remove the core from each half using a spoon.   Slice the pears thinly and fan out on top of the cheese, and then drizzle the pear and ricotta with 2 T of lavendar-infused honey.   And that, believe it or not, is it!   Nothing fancy or complex, but sometimes the most satisfying dishes are those that allow the freshness and spectacular flavor of the component ingredients to really shine.   And if you are one of those people who prefers something more involved, there are certainly endless variations you can implement on this basic combination of pear, ricotta and honey.   For instance, you might try adding an herbal component - e.g., by stirring some chopped fresh basil and/or fresh mint (around 2 t total) into the ricotta cheese before plating.   You might also experiment with using different types of pears or fruits, trying different flavors of honey, or adding chopped toasted nuts for a contrasting texture.   Finally, note that this dish can also serve as a great dessert.