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Friday, July 28, 2006

Dining Notes: Sister Restaurants Edition

The concept of the sister restaurant has long intrigued me.   When the owners of a successful establishment decide to expand to a new location, how do they determine whether to open an exact replica of the first place or to open a related, but not identical, restaurant instead?   If the latter route is chosen, how does one decide the degree of overlap between the two establishments?   And does it go without saying that the second restaurant will perform as well as the original?   These questions were on my mind when I recently had the opportunity to dine a handful of times at two pairs of sister restaurants that span the Palo Alto to San Francisco divide:   Evvia and Kokkari, and Tamarine and Bong Su.

San Francisco's Kokkari and Bong Su represent a break from tradition.   In the past, restaurant owners would typically prove a concept in the San Francisco market and then bring an identical copy down to Palo Alto.   Il Fornaio, MacArthur Park, Scott's Seafood, and Straits are all good examples.   With Kokkari and Bong Su, however, it was establishments that were initially proven in Palo Alto that gave rise to related, but not identical, restaurants in San Francisco.   And while it's too soon to call this reverse migration a trend, I'll be curious to see whether others -- such as the relatively new Palo Alto restaurant Junnoon -- follow suit.

Evvia & Kokkari

It was no more than a few months after I joined my current law firm in late 1996 that Evvia earned a spot on my list of favorite Bay Area restaurants.   Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I had just spent two glorious weeks traveling through Greece before starting my new job;   maybe it didn't.   But the delicious and authentic Greek cuisine served at Evvia had an immediate impact on me, and the fact that the restaurant was just down the street from my office was an unexpected bonus.   Since those early days, my colleagues and I have visited the restaurant far too many times to count, and it long ago became our de facto destination for special occasion lunches -- be it for welcoming new colleagues, bidding farewell to existing ones, or celebrating birthdays, promotions and holidays.   And remarkably, as I look back upon the innumerable meals that I've had at Evvia over the past decade, I can honestly say that not a single one has left me unsatisfied.
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There's one dish at Evvia that particularly stands out in my book, and that is the Horiatiki or Greek salad.   Crisp cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, red onions and olives are tossed with tangy feta cheese, olive oil, oregano, salt, and a touch of vinegar.   The result is not only spectacular, it's an authentic version of the village salad served in tavernas found scattered across the Greek isles.   Another can't miss appetizer is the Tzatziki -- a creamy yogurt and cucumber dip served with soft wedges of delicious pita bread.   Evvia is known for its various lamb entrees, and the Arnisia Paidakia (lamb chops) and Lamb Souvlaki, in particular, are outstanding.   The Chicken & Mushroom Pita -- which, despite the name, contains no pita bread and is instead a spinach pie with chicken and mushrooms added -- is excellent, as is the Chicken Kabob (although I must confess that I enjoyed it more when it was served with wild rice rather than the arugula that accompanies it today).   Desserts are all quite good, but the Baklava and Galaktoboureko -- vanilla semolina custard wrapped in phyllo dough -- are personal favorites.   The atmosphere at Evvia is relaxed, and the service is generally efficient and professional.   It's no surprise, then, that Evvia remains my favorite restaurant in Palo Alto to this day.

When the news came out in late 1998 that the owners of Evvia were opening a sister restaurant in San Francisco called Kokkari, I was thrilled.   After all, the only thing better than having a restaurant like Evvia close to my office would be having a comparable restaurant close to my San Francisco home as well.   A few weeks after Kokkari opened, I grabbed a friend and headed to the restaurant for dinner.   A quick review of the menu was promising;   many of my Evvia favorites -- including the Greek Salad -- had survived the trip north, while the offerings that were unique to Kokkari were built upon familiar themes.   By the end of the evening, however, I was gravely disappointed;   the food was poorly executed, the service was uneven, and the overall experience was a far cry from that offered by Evvia.

I have returned to Kokkari four times in the years since that first meal, most recently just a few weeks ago.   On each occasion, I have gone in hoping that my first visit was an anomaly, and I have come out convinced that it was not.   My last dinner at the restaurant included the Bizelosalata (bruschetta with fava beans that were grossly undercooked), the Makaronia me Horta (uninspired feta cheese ravioli featuring the same raw favas), and a Rotisserie Lamb Special (comprised of one pound of fat and bones and one ounce of edible meat).   The kitchen even screwed up my beloved Horiatiki;   a pool of olive oil simply sat below a pile of undressed cucumbers, and none of the ingredients were even remotely integrated.   As I left Kokkari that night, I concluded -- once and for all -- that Evvia is, by far, the better restaurant.

Tamarine & Bong Su

My first two meals at Palo Alto's Tamarine -- both shortly after it opened in late 2002 -- were disappointing.   To be fair, the decor was nice, the service was acceptable, and the food was fine.   But nothing about the overall experience was great, and it really needed to be given the rather high price point of the restaurant.   And so, in time, Tamarine was slowly pushed off my list of dining options.   If I wanted decent Vietnamese food in Palo Alto, I would go to the more reasonably priced Three Seasons;   and if I wanted something more upscale, I would go to Evvia.

I was finally drawn back to Tamarine about three months ago, when a departing colleague picked the restaurant as the site for her farewell lunch.   I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.   Virtually every dish we ordered was well-executed, much better than what I remembered from my early experiences there.   And on two subsequent visits, our meals were equally enjoyable.   Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that the food was at the levels found at The Slanted Door or anything, nor am I saying that the restaurant was suddenly spectacular in my book.   But for the price point and for Palo Alto, Tamarine now struck me as an attractive option, a clear step ahead of most of its peninsula competitors.

Tamarine offers a fairly wide array of appetizers, including the somewhat conventional but still enjoyable Tuna Tartare, mixed with cucumber and chili and served with wonton chips, and Salt & Pepper Calamari, served with a delicious cilantro emulsion dipping sauce.   There are also two noodle dishes worth mentioning here, namely the Wok Pho Noodles served with Chinese broccoli, beef and eggs, and the Tamarine Crab & Garlic Noodles comprised of mung bean noodles, Dungeness crab, garlic and peppercorns.   While the latter is quite tasty, I feel compelled to note that The Slanted Door's Cellophane Noodles with Dungeness Crab still reigns supreme.   With regard to entrees, it's hard to go wrong with the Shaking Beef, the Lemongrass Bass, the Tamarine Prawns, or the Mango Tilapia, while the Curried Long Beans and Black Bean Asparagus are good vegetable side dishes to round out the meal.   The kitchen offers a variety of single-serving flavored rices, of which I would readily recommend the Coconut Rice (flavored with coconut and vanilla), the Hainan Rice (chicken stock, ginger, and garlic), and the Empress Rice (garlic, leeks, ginger and egg).   Desserts are generally good, with the Warm Chocolate Cake being a perennial favorite.   Service is friendly, and the decor is nicely done.

My first dinner at Bong Su was right around the time that I "rediscovered" Tamarine, and I have since dined at the restaurant two more times.   Overall, I've been favorably impressed.   The menu plainly continues the theme started by Tamarine, and there are several points of overlap.   And while it's probably too soon to draw any definitive conclusions, my experience so far leaves me with the suspicion that Bong Su may be performing at a level slightly higher than its Palo Alto precursor.

Among Bong Su's starters, the Goi Kampachi is one of my favorites, with five thin slices of the delicate fish served sashimi style with a chili-lime sauce and slices of jalapeno.   Crab & Garlic Noodles, a crossover dish from Tamarine, is another good choice, while the Duck Mustard Wraps and Shrimp Cupcakes -- though fine -- are far from extraordinary.   The entrees I've tried have all been very good, but the Caramelized Black Cod and the Hokkaido Scallop Curry were truly outstanding.   The former consists of tender fish bathed in a delicious caramel sauce, while the latter has a green curry that can give the best Thai restaurants in town a real run for their money.   Lemongrass Bass and Hoisin Lamb Chops are also excellent main course options.   The flavored rices at Bong Su seem to be spiced slightly differently than at Tamarine (the Hainan Rice, for example, is described as having star anise instead of garlic), but I am here again a fan of the Coconut Rice, the Hainan Rice, and the Empress Rice.   Desserts are well done, but I have yet to try anything that struck me as spectacular.   The Lemongrass Ginger Creme Brulee had a pleasant flavor (though a bit heavy on the ginger), while the Black Sesame Banana Beignets consisted of tasty banana fritters, black sesame ice cream, and a chocolate dipping sauce.

Service at Bong Su is helpful and attentive, and the atmosphere is serene and refined -- an amazing transformation from the days when the space housed Max's Diner.   Indeed, the setting is such a welcome departure from the insanity that The Slanted Door has now become -- i.e., attitude-filled host staff, middling service, eardrum-shattering noise-levels -- that I have to say I would happily choose a dinner at Bong Su over one at The Slanted Door, even though the food at the latter still outperforms that at the former.


For reliable cuisine near my office in Palo Alto, Evvia and Tamarine will undoubtedly continue to be my destinations of choice.   And for very good Vietnamese food in San Francisco that is served in pleasant surroundings, Bong Su is well on its way to becoming a new favorite.   As for Kokkari, well, I've now had enough meals there to conclude that there's little reason for me to return.   But I guess three out of four isn't bad.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Restaurant Review: Junnoon

It's been a while since I've been as excited about a new restaurant as I am about Junnoon, the Indian fusion eatery that opened in Palo Alto back in February.   The concept is upscale, well-executed cuisine that cleverly fuses Western ingredients with Indian influences, and it's one that has never before been successfuly pulled off in the Bay Area.   Sure, there are pan-Asian restaurants such as Betelnut and Ponzu that try to give a nod to India.   But most of these places put a simple samosa, tandoori dish, or naan/roti selection on the menu and call it a day.   And as for the few places that actually have tried to present an entire menu of Indian fusion cuisine, none has truly soared.   Junnoon does.

The other reason for my enthusiasm has to do with Junnoon's location.   The peninsula has generally had a lackluster restaurant scene for as long as I can remember, and Palo Alto -- where I've worked for nearly a decade -- is certainly no exception.   For many years, the only excellent dining establishment in town was Evvia, the Greek restaurant that's the older sibling to San Francisco's Kokkari.   That changed a few years ago with the opening of Tamarine, a sophisticated Vietnamese restaurant that just recently spawned San Francisco's Bong Su.   Junnoon now stands poised to become the third great restaurant in downtown Palo Alto.

The Executive Chef of Junnoon is Kirti Pant, who worked previously at Cinnamon Club in London and Tamarind in New York.   Pant is obviously very talented and has put together a first-rate menu, and he's also had the benefit of getting input from Consulting Chef Floyd Cardoz -- Executive Chef at the groundbreaking New York restaurant Tabla, and one of the true masters of Indian fusion cuisine.   Sous Chef Shachi Mehra, drawing upon experience at Tabla and at Washington D.C.'s Bombay Club, rounds out the team leading the kitchen.
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Over the course of six meals at Junnoon over the past two months, I've had the pleasure of sampling a fairly significant portion of the menu.   While a few items
Junnoon: At A Glance
ChefKirti Pant
Address150 University Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Restaurant Website
may have missed the mark slightly, most selections are excellent and a few are spectacular.   Each meal begins with a complimentary plate of crisp roasted papadums served with an avocado-flavored raita, a perfect harbinger for the innovative combinations to come and one that immediately commanded my attention the first time it was served to me.   Now, I've been eating raitas my entire life, and the various dishes in which I've enjoyed avocado over the years are too numerous to count.   But it never would have occurred to me to combine the buttery smoothness of avocado with the tart yogurt of raita, nor could I have imagined how well the two would work together.   Kant's kitchen pulls this off nicely, adding just enough avocado to impart a whisper of its distinctive flavor.

The appetizer selection at Junnoon is quite diverse, with meat, poultry, seafood and vegetarian items all featured prominently.   The Coriander and Fennel Chicken Tikka (Taste: 7.5 / Presentation: 5.5) (Ratings Explained) offers incredibly juicy cubes of marinated chicken, served with a flavorful mint sauce on the side.   Although the chicken could probably stand a bit more marinade, the dish is still very satisfying.   The Minced Beef Patty (T:8.0 / P:7.5) is a spin of sorts on the classic samosa, only here the meat is seasoned more boldly and then encased in a flaky puff pastry.   For something different, try the Tangy Semolina Shells (T:7.0 / P:7.0) -- small puffed shells (like those used in the Indian snack food known as pani poori), filled with nicely-spiced garbanzo beans and topped with tasty mint and tamarind chutneys.   Another excellent vegetarian option is the Sprouted Mung Bean "Chaat" Salad (T:7.0 / P:7.0), which is authentically seasoned with a pleasantly spicy kick and seems to be the most distinctive of the salads on the menu.   The Velvet Lamb Kebab (T:5.5 / P:6.0) is really a patty that's composed of lamb, cashews, ginger and clove.   But the lamb and other ingredients here are processed almost to the point of puree, resulting in a finished product that borders on a pate.   Although the overall flavor of this dish is good, the kitchen should consider less processing of the lamb and a slightly lighter touch on the clove-heavy spicing.

My favorite appetizer of all, however, has to be the Bombay Crab and Cod Cake (T:8.0 / P:8.0).   A mixture of sweet crabmeat and flaky cod is seasoned with fennel and onion seeds, after which it is pan-fried in order to yield a crisp and beautifully browned exterior.   The single cake is then placed in the center of a square plate, atop a lattice pattern of the accompanying sauces and with a mung bean "relish" off to one side.   The flavors here are wonderful, and the kitchen executes the dish flawlessly.

Before delving into Junnoon's entrees, I feel compelled to jump ahead in the menu to discuss breads, raitas, and chutneys.   The reason for this is that although these items are intended to be enjoyed as accompaniments to the main dishes (a role they play quite well), they can also serve as excellent appetizers.   Junnoon's naans are, in a word, fantastic. The Butter Naan (T:8.5 / P:7.0) is warm, soft, and just slightly chewy, while the Rosemary Naan (T:8.5 / P:7.0) adds the untraditional herb to great effect.   The Goat Cheese Naan (T:7.5 / P:7.0), which is stuffed with both cheese and chilies, is very good when eaten on its own, but it struggles to harmonize with other dishes as readily as the other breads do.   The "Lachha" Paratha (T:8.5 / P:7.0) is billed as a "fluffy layered tandoori bread," but it is just barely distinguishable from the Butter Naan.   Finally, the Bakarkhani (T:6.5 / P:7.0) has a pleasant saffron and fennel flavor, but the texture is a bit too dry to make it effective for eating with other dishes.

Junnoon also offers an impressive array of raitas and chutneys, good for eating with bread or alongside the main courses.   The Spinach Raita (T:6.0 / P:6.0) consists of cool, tart yogurt blended with just the right amount of spinach, while the Date and Walnut Raita (T:7.0 / P:6.0) incorporates pureed Medjool dates and walnuts for a decidedly innovative and sweet result.   The Tamarind Chutney (T:7.0 / P:6.0) and Mint and Cilantro Chutney (T:6.5 / P:6.0) are both very good, while the Garlic Chili Chutney (T:5.5 / P:6.0) and the Green Papaya Chutney (T:4.5 / P:6.0) struck me as being a notch or two below the others.   A good way to try several raitas/chutneys at once is to order the sampler, which gives you any three selections for $9.

Junnoon shines the brightest when it comes to entrees, and there's no shortage of outstanding options.   The Tandoori Halibut (T:9.0 / P:8.0) consists of a delicate filet of the white fish set in a pool of scrumptious coconut ginger sauce, while the pan-seared Rice Flaked Sea Bass (T:9.5 / P:8.0) comes crusted in crunchy rice flakes and surrounded by an indescribably delicious sauce made from kokum -- a sweet and sour fruit indigenous to South Asia.   Another fantastic choice is the Old Delhi Style Chicken (T:9.0 / P:6.5), thin strips of white and dark meat in a delectable butter and tomato sauce.   Sliced Flatiron Steak (T:8.5 / P:6.5) offers tender morsels of high-quality beef cooked in the tandoor, the smokiness imparted by the clay oven offset nicely by a sweet pomegranate molasses sauce served on the side.   The Tandoori Lamb Chops (T:8.0 / P:8.0) are also wonderful, though I couldn't help but wish that the hint of mace and cardamom that just barely peaks through could be amplified a bit more.

Kant's proficiency with sauces is again on display in the Tamarind Glazed Muscovy Duck (T:7.0 / P:7.0), a peanut, sesame and tamarind concoction propelling the pan-seared breast meat to unexpected heights.   On one occasion, the duck meat was tender and well-cooked;   on another, however, it was slightly overcooked and a bit tough.   A good vegetarian entrée is the Fricasse of Shiitake & Oyster Mushrooms (T:7.0 / P:7.0), which consists of the two mushroom varieties sautéed with spinach and then placed over a bed of golden yellow sliced potatoes.   Although the mushroom mixture seemed to have little seasoning, the quality of the ingredients was enough to make this dish enjoyable.   The Malabar Chicken Stew (T:5.5 / P:4.0) is fine, but it curiously tastes more Thai than Indian and hence seems out of place on the menu.   Finally, while the Prawns in Coconut Mustard Sauce (T:5.0 / P:6.0) were okay, the sauce seemed significantly out of balance -- with the mustard overpowering and washing out all traces of the coconut milk.

The restaurant offers a number of side dishes, which can serve as lighter alternatives or supplements to the more substantial entrees. The Masala Smashed Potatoes (T:6.0 / P:5.0) are nicely infused with a robust combination of Indian spices, while the Beans Poriyal (T:5.0 / P:6.0) contain too much coconut, almost to the point of distraction. The best side dish by far has to be the Black Lentils (T:8.5 / P:5.5), which are slowly stewed in a mixture of tomatoes, garlic and ginger. The resulting flavor is complex and almost smoky, with a rich depth unlike any that I have ever tasted in lentils served at other Indian restaurants.

Junnoon's one weak spot, without a doubt, is in the dessert department.   The Mango Mousse (T:4.5 / P:7.0) certainly looks quite impressive, but it offers relatively little flavor -- mango or otherwise -- and hence falls rather flat.   The Saffron Kulfi (T:6.0 / P:7.5) is a decent rendition of the Indian ice cream, although the flavor is a bit muted due to sugar content that's just slightly below where it ought to be.   The Molten Chocolate Cake (T:8.5 / P:8.0), on the other hand, is outstanding.   Rather than merely replicating this now ubiquitous dessert, the kitchen infuses the cake with the pronounced flavor of cardamom, throwing in a hint of ginger and clove for good measure as well.   A scoop of ginger gelato rounds out the very enjoyable dish.   Finally, the Champagne Poached Fresh Peaches (T:2.5 / P:4.0) were a real disappointment;   the peaches were mealy with little sweetness, the poaching liquid seemingly contributed nothing in the way of flavor, and there was far too much cardamom in the accompanying whipped yogurt.

Service and Decor

Service at Junnoon is generally adequate, though uneven.   The members of the host staff are, without exception, gracious, welcoming, and responsive.   Every one of my return visits was met with an acknowledgement that I had dined at the restaurant before, and even minor problems were immediately and effectively addressed.   The wait staff, on the other hand, present more of a mixed bag;   a few servers are polished, professional, and knowledgeable, while many others seem to be in desperate need of additional training.   For example, one server -- when asked questions to which she did not really know the answer -- would simply venture a guess and announce it as such, rather than politely excusing herself for a moment to track down the correct information.   A different server once stood by silently as a busboy tried to remove a just-delivered plate of naan from the table -- even though our main courses had yet to arrive.   And on a recent visit, a busboy carelessly placed the large bag in which our leftovers had been packed right in the middle of our table -- completely blocking our views of one another and bringing an immediate and mid-sentence halt to our conversation.   Yet, on another visit, the service was perfectly fine -- attentive and responsive.   Overall, however, Junnoon will really need to raise its dining room service to a higher level in order to bring it into line with the quality of the food.

The décor and atmosphere at Junnoon are modern, chic, warm and inviting.   The designers have done a masterful job of giving the space a feel that merely hints at India, in much the same way that the menu merely hints at its cuisine.   The color palette is grounded in deep colors, and the bar is nicely configured to create a comfortable lounge area just inside the front door.   The tables in the dining room are covered with white tablecloths, and they are generally spaced a reasonable distant apart.   All in all, Junnoon has all the makings of a place "to see and be seen" -- well, at least to the extent that such a place is possible in the suburbs.


Indian restaurants in this country have long sounded only one note, offering food that -- while sometimes authentic and frequently tasty -- does absolutely nothing to push the envelope.   I've waited a long time for somebody to come along and elevate Indian cuisine to new levels of sophistication and refinement, specifically by combining the ancient, rich and wonderful culinary ideas of India with Western techniques and modern sensibilities to create an upscale dining experience.   New York's Tabla did precisely that when it opened to rave reviews back in 1998.   Now, at long last, Junnoon stands ready to do the same for the Bay Area.

Food Taste7.57.5

Food Presentation7.5
Number of Visits: 6
Ratings Explained

Saturday, July 08, 2006

No Place Like Home

I just returned from a trip to Wilmington, Delaware, where I spent two days preparing for and attending a major hearing in one of my cases.   Although we were obvously quite consumed with work during our brief stay, we did manage to squeeze in a working dinner one night at the restaurant in our hotel.   The Hotel DuPont offers surprisingly luxurious accommodations, and its marquee restaurant -- The Green Room -- has a decor and ambience to match.   The closest analog in the Bay Area would probably be the The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, only The Green Room is decidedly more opulent.   Needless to say, I was excited to see if the food would live up to the surroundings.

As I scanned the selection of appetizers, my eyes came to rest on the Seared Foie Gras -- said to be served with a slice of cinnamon brioche, a pepper rum reduction, vanilla meringue, and banana "noodles."   My initial reaction was that this sounded like a lot of components for one dish, but I somehow persuaded myself that no chef in a restaurant of this apparent caliber would throw together a melange of ingredients without regard to how they work together.   I was mistaken.   Although there may have been a few ingredients on the plate that played off of each other well enough, the overall dish was simply a mess.   The Seared Yellowfin Tuna that I ordered for my entree fared only marginally better, the overcooked medallions of fish having virtually none of the promised seasoning while also screaming out for salt.   A colleague who ordered the chef's "special" vegetarian creation was treated to a small mound of risotto in the middle of a large plate, surrounded by an odd mix of avocado slices, pearl onions and dull raspberries.   When presented with dessert menus, our entire table decided to pass.

Anybody who lives in the Bay Area and appreciates great food knows how lucky we are.   Not only do we have access to an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fresh produce and artisanal products, but our vibrant restaurant scene offers an incredible selection of remarkably wonderful cuisine.   Nevertheless, a visit to other parts of the country often provides a fresh perpective on the true extent of our good fortune.   What would it be like to have no access to world-class establishments like The French Laundry, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa and Masa's, old favorites like Aziza, Thep Phanom, Sushi Ran, and Evvia, or newer contenders like Ame, COCO500, COI, and Bong Su?   What if the highest-rated restaurant in town had no idea how to put together a satisfying dish, let alone an enjoyable meal?

After dinner at The Green Room, I worked for several more hours before finally heading back to my room.   As I sat there flipping through a "Best of Delaware" magazine that I found on my coffee table, I discovered that one of the places listed among the state's best restaurants was Applebee's.   That's right, in Delaware, Applebee's apparently scores quite well against its competitors when it comes to offering the freshest produce, the most interesting menu, and the best service.   I put down the magazine, turned off the light, and got into bed.   Lying there staring at the ceiling, the disappointment of my dinner still fresh in my mind, I thought about how grateful I am that I live in San Francisco and how anxious I was to get back home.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Incanto: "Strawberry Sagra" Dinner

After months of reading positive reviews from several esteemed food bloggers, I finally found some time last week to make my way over to Incanto -- the charming Italian restaurant located in San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood.   The meal that I had that evening reflected some of the most innovative cooking that I've seen in the Bay Area in quite some time, particularly for Italian-inspired cuisine and especially at that price point.

My visit just happened to fall on the night that the restaurant kicked off its Summer Sagra Dinner Series for 2006.   A "sagra" is an Italian festival held to celebrate a particular seasonal food item, so that should give you a pretty good idea of the general concept behind this event.   Basically, on four selected evenings between late June and the end of August, Executive Chef Chris Cosentino prepares a four-course meal showcasing a specific ingredient from a local farm.   The star ingredient on the night of my visit?   Strawberries from Dirty Girl Farms.   Here's the special menu that was handed to us as we sat down:
  • Crudo of Diver Sea Scallop with Seascape Strawberry

  • Chandler Strawberry Risotto with Pecorino

  • Strawberry-Braised Pork Shoulder with Dandelion, Shaved Onion & Strawberry Salad

  • Strawberry Gelato Panino with Creme Fraiche Shooter
Now, we were also handed a copy of the restaurant's regular menu, which is still available on the nights when the sagra dinners are offered.   But really, could I possibly turn down the opportunity to sample a menu using strawberries in so many unusual ways, particularly in the context of savory courses?   Of course not.   I was immediately intrigued and irrevocably hooked, so I gave the regular menu no more than a passing glance before placing my order.
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Overall, the "Strawberry Sagra" menu worked very well, and certainly much better than I expected.   The Crudo consisted of delicate sea scallops bathed in olive oil, accented with a combination of fragrant basil, balsamic vinegar and pepper.   Sweet strawberries, sliced thinly and possessing just the barest hint of sour taste, played beautifully against this backdrop -- paradoxically standing out while at the same time melding seamlessly with the other flavors on the plate.   Perfectly distributed grains of kosher salt, meanwhile, seemed to explode on the tongue, markedly amplifying and heightening the overall taste sensation.   This was, to put it plainly, an outstanding dish from Cosentino.

The Risotto, which was lent a pinkish hue from the strawberries used during cooking, simultaneously highlighted the sweetness from the fruit, the nuttiness from the Pecorino cheese, and the herbal notes from the fresh mint.   Here again, I marveled at how Cosentino achieved such an ingenious balance, a culinary high-wire act in which the slightest tip in any direction would have sent the dish plummeting back to earth.   The execution was flawless as well, with the risotto cooked to just the right consistency and cool pieces of strawberry mixed into the rice just before plating.

Although the Pork was billed as having been braised with strawberries, the flavor of the fruit was apparently no match for the heft of the meat.   Still, the pork was incredibly tender, the accompanying sauce was intensely rich, and the combination was deeply satisfying.   Moreover, when I borrowed some strawberry slices from the accompanying salad and ate them with the pork, the result was amazingly good.   So, even though the strawberries used in the braising process had seen their contribution washed out by the pork, actual strawberries were more than able to hold their own with the boldly-flavored meat -- and to outstanding effect.

The Panino consisted of creamy strawberry gelato sandwiched between two thick pizzelle cookies.   A very small pool of chocolate and caramel sauces sat to one side, and a demitasse containing creme fraiche infused with lemon verbena sat on the other.   One problem here was that the ice cream sandwich had not been given enough time at room temperature before service -- making it nearly impossible, at first, to cut through the frozen pizelles with a fork.   The gelato itself was quite tasty, although the strawberry flavor was perhaps a bit more subtle than it should have been.   Finally, the so-called "shooter" of creme fraiche struck me as ill-conceived;   it added little to the panino, and I can't imagine anybody actually wanting to do a stand-alone shot of creme fraiche.   I must say, it's rather ironic that on a four-course tasting menu devoted to strawberries, it was the dessert course that impressed me the least.

Incanto will be holding three more sagra dinners over the next two months, and I have little doubt that Cosentino will present menus that are at once innovative, enticing and satisfying.   Here's the schedule:The Pepper and Eggplant Sagra dinners will cost $50 per person, while the Fig Sagra dinner will be $60 per person (all exclusive of beverages, tax and gratuity).

Everything that I've read to date about Chris Cosentino has impressed me, from his support of sustainable agriculture and local farms, to his commitment to procuring animal products that have been Certified Humane, to his desire to honor the whole animal and avoid waste through the serving of offal -- the animal parts that most chefs simply discard.   And now I've had the pleasure of experiencing Cosentino's creative cuisine for myself.   Still, having visited Incanto only once so far, I'm not yet in a position to offer any sweeping conclusions or pronouncements about the restaurant.   All I can say is that I can't wait to go back.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

"Dine Out With Visa" Promotion: Diner Beware

Each January for the past five years, VISA and the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau have jointly sponsored Dine About Town -- a promotion that enables local diners to enjoy a three-course dinner at participating restaurants for $31.95.   The event has apparently been quite successful -- so much so, in fact, that its sponsors have now launched a new promotional program to follow in its footsteps.   This one, called Dine Out With Visa, will be held at various Bay Area establishments from July 1-31, and it offers diners a four-course dinner for $54.95 (exclusive of tax and gratuity).   A complete list of participating restaurants, along with program details, can be found here.

I've always liked the concept behind the original Dine About Town, because it gives people a financial incentive to explore restaurants that they otherwise might not be inclined to try.   It does this, of course, by promising a three-course dinner for $32 at restaurants at which an appetizer, entree and dessert would normally cost more than that amount.   When I first heard about the new Dine Out With Visa promotion, I couldn't help but wonder whether the same incentives actually exist.   Is $54.95 for a four-course meal really a bargain at the restaurants that are participating?

Consider the Nuevo Latino restaurant Destino, which is one of the program participants.   Destino's four-course promotional menu will give diners three options for the first course, three for the second course, and three for the dessert course.   The third course offers no choice and is simply identified as "Seasonal Quinoa Taboule Stuffed in Organic Heirloom Tomatoes."   The cost for this meal, presumably, will be the standard advertised amount -- $54.95.   Notably, however, Destino already has a three-course prix fixe meal on its regular menu, one that's identical to its promotional menu save the Quinoa Taboule.   The price?   $31.95.   So, if there's no change in portion size between the regular menu and the promotional menu, it appears that diners will essentially be paying $23 for Quinoa Taboule -- an absurd amount given the price point of this restaurant.

Let's take another example, this time from the Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial.   Its Dine Out With Visa menu also offers diners some options, but one available combination consists of the following four dishes (with the restaurant's regular menu price for each selection indicated in parentheses):   (1) Canh Chua Chay ($9);   (2) Cha Gio ($11);   (3) Ga Roti Xa ($23);   and (4) Chocolate Flourless Cake ($8, since all desserts are priced at $8).   Notice anything odd?   That's right, if you order these four items off of the regular menu, you'll pay only $51 -- $4 less than what the four-course meal will presumably cost you under the promotion.

Another baffling example comes from Aziza, the Moroccan restaurant located in the Richmond district of San Francisco.   This restaurant is offering a promotional menu that is seemingly identical to the prix fixe menu that is always provided whenever a party of 8 or more dines at the establishment.   The former will presumably cost $54.95 per person;   the latter costs only $45 per person.   Even more perplexing, Aziza regularly offers diners in parties of less than 8 a five-course tasting menu for only $42 per person.   Again, assuming comparable portion sizes, why would anybody pay $10-$13 more for the same food?

Although I've described a few of the troubling examples above, there are other restaurants participating in the new promotion that are in precisely the same boat.   Now, maybe these establishments are actually planning to increase portion sizes for the dishes that appear on their promotional menus.   Or perhaps they intend to embellish these dishes by using higher-grade or additional ingredients than are used when the same items are served off the regular menu.   Or maybe they're not planning to charge the full $54.95, despite the fact that this is being advertised as the going rate under the promotion.   I certainly hope that at least one of the foregoing explanations is true.   In case my hopes are dashed, however, just beware:   don't assume that you're better off proceeding under the Dine Out With Visa promotion than you are simply ordering off the restaurant's regular menu.