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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Food-Focused Weekend

It's no secret that a great deal of my free time is spent on food-related activities, be it in the form of shopping, cooking, tasting, dining, thinking, reading or writing.   Yet, this past weekend was so packed with food-related events, that it probably set a new record even for me.   Indeed, it's now Tuesday evening, and I'm still trying to recover from it all.

I'll start with the gathering that I'd been waiting for the longest, the Second Annual Bay Area Food Bloggers' Picnic held on Sunday afternoon in sunny Lafayette.   In the year since I started this site, I've had several electronic exchanges with other food bloggers, but I had never had the opportunity to meet a single one of them in person.   That all changed on Sunday, when Owen graciously opened his home to host a picnic like no other that I've ever attended.   A lot has already been written to describe and document the event, so I will simply say this:   it was an absolute pleasure to finally meet so many of my favorite bloggers, including those with whom I have previously communicated at some length (Sam, Joy, Brett, and Amy) and those whose work I have admired largely from afar (The Bunrabs, Sean, Anita, Martha, Elise, Jennifer, Pim, Owen and Marc).   My only regret is that we didn't have more time, as there were so many other outstanding bloggers in attendance who I didn't get a chance to meet -- including Shuna, Cookiecrumb, Derrick, Heidi, Biggles, Garrett, Penny, Tea, Alder, Amanda, and many more.   In any event, special thanks to Owen for hosting the event, and to Penny and Sean for taking so many great pictures.

Going back now to Friday, I left my office promptly at 5:00 p.m. so that I could fight my way up the peninsula in order to pick Rhonda up for a special occasion -- the celebration of her birthday.   We'd been talking for over a month about how she might like to spend the evening, but it wasn't until a few weeks earlier that we had finalized the plan:   I would throw a small dinner party in her honor at a restaurant, inviting six friends to join us.   After investigating a few options, we were stunned to learn that we could get the chef's table at a restaurant that typically requires much greater advance notice for reservations -- Quince.   Although we had both dined at the restaurant a handful of times before, we were excited to return -- particularly since several of our friends had never been there and were anxious to try it.   Overall, we had a great evening.   The company was outstanding, the conversation lively, and the food -- well, it was occasionally brilliant, and overall very good.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
Early Saturday morning, I headed out for my usual destination -- the Ferry Building Farmers Market.   Only this time, I wasn't simply shopping for my weekly groceries;   I was also looking for ingredients for possible dishes to take to the food bloggers' picnic.   Now, I realized that I couldn't just throw something casual together;   this is, after all, a group of the Bay Area's most discriminating palates, folks whose passion for good food runs so deep that they felt impelled to start their own blogs.   So, I spent Saturday afternoon experimenting with a few options, only eventually settling on a slight variant of a dish that I served at a dinner party last year:   Chilled Crab with Mango, Red Onion & Creme Fraiche, this time served on toasted brioche and topped with chopped chives.

I finished up in the kitchen just in time to get ready for our Saturday night engagement -- a dinner at Winterland restaurant.   Shortly after it was announced a few months ago that the restaurant would be closing its doors for all but private parties, an enterprising person on Chowhound set out to determine whether she could assemble enough interested people to rent out the entire restaurant for a night.   Wanting to experience the cuisine of Executive Chef Vernon Morales one last time, we signed up.   And I'm very glad that we did, for the menu was innovative, interesting, and satisfying -- just as I expected it would be.

I spent Sunday morning preparing my dish for the picnic and Sunday afternoon meeting my fellow bloggers.   On our way back from Lafayette to San Francisco, Rhonda and I stopped for ice cream at Sketch -- a place that caught my attention when I saw Brett's post raving about it last month.   Our appetites sated by great food and delicious ice cream, we arrived back home in the early evening -- leaving just a few hours to wind down, to get ready for the new week, and -- most importantly -- to start worrying about where I would possibly find the time to draft posts about all of this!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Five Things

I recently came across a post at The Traveler's Lunchbox, in which Melissa poses an interesting question to food bloggers around the world:   what are the top five things that you have eaten that you think everyone should taste during their lives?   The answers can be specific ingredients, products, dishes, preparations, or restaurant selections, and Melissa asks that respondents try to include at least a few local items on their lists.

Now, no person who appreciates good food could possibly limit himself or herself to identifying just five top items, so I initially dismissed this exercise as completely futile.   Yet, like Catherine over at Food Musings, I nevertheless found the question kicking around in my head over the course of several days, until I finally decided to just sit down and write this post.   I should note at the outset that I could easily identify 50 other things that are worthy of inclusion on my list, and I'm sure that as soon as I post this I will think of 50 more.   But for now, here's what I came up with:
  1. Fresh White Truffle from Alba:   There are countless ways to enjoy this indulgence, but my personal favorite is shaved over creamy risotto and then topped with sizzling brown butter and kosher salt.   I can think of no other home-cooked dish that I enjoy more.

  2. Vanilla Bean:   Take a plump, moist, pliable vanilla bean and prepare something that will allow its delicate flavor to take center stage all by itself.   For me, there's only one choice:   creme anglaise.   In a pinch, though, creme brulee can work as well.

  3. Seared Foie Gras with Brioche, Peach Jus, Tahitian Vanilla Butter (The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco):   This is one of the most brilliant dishes that I have ever tasted, in which the ingredients come together to create an indescribably delicious result.   Executive Chef Ron Siegel offers this creation only during the summer months -- which makes for very long winters.

  4. Agnolotti of Summer White Corn (The French Laundry, Yountville):   Polenta, risotto, butter, and mascarpone, mixed together and stuffed into fresh pasta.   Butter, chives, and corn juice combined into a rich sauce and spooned over the agnolotti.   And white truffle oil, fresh kernels of incredibly sweet corn, and shavings of fresh summer truffle to finish the dish.   My first taste of this Thomas Keller masterpiece back in 2004 is forever burned into my memory, and it remains one of my favorite restaurant dishes ever.

  5. Early Girl Tomatoes (from Dirty Girl Farm, Santa Cruz):   These tomatoes are unlike any that I have ever had anywhere else, and they are simply spectacular.   Flavor-packed, sweet, and delicious, Early Girls are perfect for tossing into salads, converting into soup, or eating plain with salt, fresh black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.
So, there you have it -- my list of five food items that I believe everybody should taste at some point in their lives!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Food & Wine Magazine: America's Best New Chefs 2006

As I continue to catch up on my work-induced backlog of posts, I wanted to take a moment to recognize this year's winners of the Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chefs awards.   Each year, the editors of the magazine conduct an extensive nomination and evaluation process in an effort to identify the country's ten best "new" chefs, defined as individuals who have been in charge of a kitchen for five years or less.   For those who may have missed last month's issue, here -- in alphabetical order -- are the F&W Best New Chefs for 2006:

Cathal ArmstrongRestaurant EveAlexandria, VA
Jonathan BennoPer SeNew York, NY
Michael CarlsonSchwaChicago, IL
David ChangMomofukuNew York, NY
Mary DumontThe Dunaway RestaurantPortsmouth, NH
Douglas KeaneCyrusHealdsburg, CA
Christoper LeeStriped BassPhiladelphia, PA
Pino MaffeoRestaurant LBoston, MA
Jason WilsonCrushSeattle, WA
Stewart WoodmanFiveMinneapolis, MN

As you can see, the group this year is geographically quite diverse, with cities from Boston to Seattle -- and several in between -- well represented.   And yet, a closer look at where the awardees have spent their careers reveals an interesting fact.   Six of the ten chefs have spent time working in San Francisco, six have put in time in New York, and four of them have worked in both.   Only two of the chefs -- Cathal Armstrong and Michael Carlson -- have worked in neither of the two cities.   If you ever need proof of the primacy of New York and San Francisco in the culinary world, there it is.
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There's more...
The sole Bay Area awardee is Douglas Keane of Cyrus, the Healdsburg restaurant that opened to great acclaim in the Spring of 2005.   Keane has an impressive resume;   not only did he work with the renowned Gray Kunz at New York's Lespinasse, he also served as opening sous chef when Gary Danko opened his eponymous restaurant in 1999, and he spent several years at Jardiniere -- including a stint as Executive Chef -- in collaboration with Traci Des Jardins.   In 2002, the San Franisco Chronicle named Keane one of its five "Rising Stars," citing his "French-inspired food that takes a few global turns" and noting his propensity for "pairing ingredients that . . . wake up the palate."

Keane struck out on his own in 2003, opening a casual comfort-food restaurant in St. Helena called Market.   His partner in the venture was none other than Nick Peyton, the nearly legendary maitre d' who had previously led the front of the house at such venerable institutions as Masa's, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, and Gary Danko.   To the casual observer, Market seemed like a surprising step for Keane and Peyton;   after all, both had spent their careers honing their crafts at upper-tier restaurants.   What was not widely known at the time, however, was that plans were already underway for the pair's dream restaurant. After some unexpected setbacks and the customary delays, Cyrus finally opened two years later.

Keane has earned positive reviews throughout his career, including 3.5 stars from The Chronicle while he was at the helm at Jardiniere, and 3 stars shortly after he opened Market.   But it's at Cyrus where Keane has garnered the most glowing praise, the effusiveness of which is sometimes almost shocking.   The Chronicle's lead food critic, Michael Bauer, had this to say:   "with the opening of Cyrus, Keane's star is no longer rising;   it's planted in the galaxy of top names such as Hubert Keller, Thomas Keller and Roland Passot."   Josh Sens, food critic for San Francisco Magazine, drafted a review suggesting that Keane's "flavors are so sharp, the combinations so creative but without strain, you might think you're eating at that true temple in Yountville" (referring, of course, to The French Laundry).   Sens went on to award Cyrus 4 stars -- a rating that he has bestowed on only one other restaurant in the entire Bay Area.

I had the pleasure of dining at Cyrus last fall, and I was impressed by what I thought was a very good meal from an obviously talented chef.   As I noted in an email exchange that I had at the time with Joy, there were several dishes that reached spectacular heights -- including a beautifully-cooked filet of Dover sole with beurre blanc, and a delicious hoisin-glazed squab breast.   The langoustine and pork dishes were both excellent, although the uni and turnips served with the former struck me as somewhat odd.   A major disappointment came, however, in the seared foie gras - which was served with a gingerbread crumpet that had zero gingerbread flavor, blackberries that were a bit too sour, a sauce that was not quite sweet enough, and a far-too-jarring abundance of parsley and chives on top.   Desserts were a mixed bag;   two of us received a dry and dull pain d'epice with an incredibly flavorful pear sorbet, while the other two had a dense and delicious chocolate cake with unimaginative meringue underneath and on the side.   The cheese course, on the other hand, was excellent.   Service was fine, but it was less than inspired.   As just one example, when I asked our server before the final savory course what was up next (so that I could order an appropriate glass of wine), he immediately and confidently told me:   veal.   Three minutes later, a pork dish arrived (and there was no veal on the tasting menu that night).

Still, I came away from that dinner at Cyrus -- my only one to date -- with the impression that the restaurant is on the precipice of greatness.   I'm not prepared to proclaim, as some are, that Douglas Keane is the second coming of Thomas Keller, Ron Siegel, or David Kinch.   But there's no doubt that Keane is playing in the same league as those gentlemen, and he certainly stands poised to make many outstanding contributions in the years to come.   His well-deserved recognition by F&W is an important confirmation of that fact;   after all, the magazine has established an impressive record of giving its award to chefs who have gone on to greatness, such as Thomas Keller (1988), Gary Danko (1989), Ron Siegel (1999), Hubert Keller (1988), Melissa Perello (2004), Hiro Sone (1991), Lissa Doumani (1991), Nancy Oakes (1993), Traci Des Jardins (1995), Gerald Hirigoyen (1994), Craig Stoll (2001) and Stuart Brioza (2003).

So, congratulations to Douglas Keane - and the other nine chefs - on being named one of F&W's Best New Chefs in America for 2006.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

If you follow the worlds of food, literature, or public radio, you've almost certainly heard about Michael Pollan and his recently-released book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.   The book has generated a lot of discussion in the food community, including a very spirited and very public online debate between Pollan and John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods.   Over the course of a recent (and desperately needed) vacation, I finally had a chance to sit down and read Pollan's latest offering.

Overall, I found The Omnivore's Dilemma to be thought-provoking and informative, and I would highly recommend it to a wide variety of people.   Specifically, those who have any interest in the food that we eat and where it comes from should certainly read this book -- as should those who care about their health, the environment, the treatment of animals, or the alarming extent to which corporations and corporate interests have come to dictate governmental policy in this country.   In short, just about everybody in the United States really ought to read The Omnivore's Dilemma.   I say this not because this is necessarily the best treatment of the subject matter covered, or because I think the book is brilliantly written, or even because I agree with everything Pollan suggests.   No, I say this because the information that Pollan presents and the overarching lessons and trends he sets forth are things that have been kept, no doubt deliberately, from the American food consumer for far too long.

Pollan organizes the book around four very different meals and the food chains leading up to each, and he spins off into various related topics along the way.   The four food chains include the industrial (culminating in a meal at McDonald's), the industrial organic (ending in a meal made from items purchased at Whole Foods), the pastoral (leading to a meal comprised of ingredients from a sustainable farm in Virginia), and the personal (yielding a meal made from food that Pollan hunted, foraged or grew himself).   Pollan's treatment of the first three of these struck me as the most informative and illuminating, while his tale of his hunting and gathering experiences -- though mildly entertaining -- seemed much more self-exploratory and, frankly, self-indulgent.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
The most compelling aspect of The Omnivore's Dilemma is the stark contrast Pollan is able to draw between the industrial food supply and the sustainable farming practiced at Polyface, a small farm in Virginia owned and operated by Joel Salatin.   Salatin has created an almost entirely self-sufficient (i.e., closed) ecosystem that comes close to mimicking nature;   the grass, chicken, beef, turkeys, laying hens, rabbits and sweet corn that he raises are interlocked together in an amazing symbiotic symphony, the outputs of one serving as the inputs of another.   The net result is as efficient as nature itself;   there is no waste product, there is no need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or antibiotics, and each animal is able -- more or less -- to act out in precisely the way nature intended.   Thus, cows graze on grass to create beef, laying hens dine on larvae found in cow manure to produce protein-rich eggs, and manure from all of the animals nourishes the soil that, in turn, feeds the grass.

The industrial system, on the other hand, is characterized by waste, toxins, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, animal pharmaceuticals, degradation of the environment, exacerbation of global warming, abuse of animals, and adverse impacts on public health -- to name just a few.   How can any system with such gross inefficiencies and negative consequences not only survive, but thrive?   Easy -- capitalist greed, coupled with healthy servings of human arrogance, an uninformed and ignorant public, and a complicit government.   Pollan convincingly demonstrates that, for a whole host of historical, geopolitical, and economic reasons, our country's official policy has long been to encourage farmers to produce as much of one particular crop as humanly possible, and that one crop is corn.   This senseless "river of corn," as Pollan calls it, directly benefits a number of large corporate interests:
  1. the petrochemical companies that make the fertilizer and pesticide necessary to promote the crop's boundless growth;

  2. the feedlot operators that save money by using corn -- dirt cheap due to the glut of it on the market -- to feed animals that have no desire or natural propensity to eat it, such as cows and salmon;

  3. industrial purchasers of feedlot meat, such as McDonald's, that save considerable money by purchasing beef raised on cheap corn rather than on grass;

  4. the pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs necessary to enable the bodies of non-corneating animals to tolerate the grain, and to enable them to survive the horrid conditions that exist at industrial feedlots;

  5. the corn processors -- most notably ADM and Cargill -- that make an astonishing number of products derived from the crop, including vitamins, nutritional supplements, oils, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup; and

  6. the industrial giants that make the thousands upon thousands of processed food products -- cereals, snack foods, soft drinks, frozen dinners -- using the corn-based outputs of ADM and Cargill.
Faced with the choice of advancing these industrial interests on the one hand, or protecting the environment, public health and animal welfare on the other, which do you think our government has chosen?   Let's face it:   we live under a government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.   Compounding the problem further is the fact that the general public has been kept completely in the dark about all of this.   In fact, Pollan could not even get access to ADM's and Cargill's operations, purportedly due to some trumped up nonsense about "security" concerns.   Yeah, I'll say;   if the truth about the industrial food supply ever became common knowledge among the general population, the "security" of unconscionable profits that ADM and Cargill presently enjoy would come to an immediate end.

The Omnivore's Dilemma makes a slightly less compelling case when taking on what Pollan terms the "industrial organic" food supply -- i.e., the processors and distributors (including Whole Foods) that sell organic food on a large scale.   As you might expect, the exponential growth in demand for organic, pesticide-free produce has not gone unnoticed by the very players who pioneered or perfected the offending foods in the first place.   Moreover, this exploding market has also led to stunning growth for a few once-small organic producers, who now find themselves trying to produce their products on a massively larger scale.   Despite acknowledging that all of these "industrial organic" players have prevented millions of pounds of fertilizers from being deposited on thousands of acres of farm land, Pollan subtly takes them to task for using practices that are not sustainable.   And this, I believe, is where Pollan overplays his hand.   After all, sustainability is certainly a laudable and worthwhile goal, but to intimate -- as Pollan seems to do -- that a company like Whole Foods is barely distinguishable from Wal-Mart because neither is demanding sustainability is an unwarranted cheap shot.

This, no doubt, is part of what prompted Whole Foods founder and CEO, John Mackey, to pen an open letter to Michael Pollan, complaining about the various statements made in the book about the grocery chain.   Yet, The Omnivore's Dilemma raises some legitimate criticisms, including the fact that some of what Whole Foods sells is more PR than substance:   certain products marketed as coming from a pastoral haven where animals roam free, for example, are actually produced in conditions that differ imperceptibly from those that prevail at non-organic industrial feedlots.   Another fair point is that Whole Foods is increasingly procuring its produce from large centralized farms and then shipping it to stores around the country, rather than purchasing from local farmers as the glossy photos in its stores would suggest.   Mackey would be well advised to take these points to heart, and the debate he has had with Pollan suggests that he is.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is generally well written, and -- with a few exceptions -- it tends to flow relatively well from beginning to end.   One of the organizational choices that I found rather puzzling, however, was Pollan's decision to treat the "industrial organic" food supply in a single, enormous chapter dropped right into the middle of the several shorter chapters that deal with the pastoral food chain.   A better route would have been to give this topic its own separate section in the book.   But the single most distracting thing about Pollan's writing is something that also represents a failure in editing, and that is his propensity to use certain words over and over again.   If I had a nickel for every time Pollan uses the word "conceit," or "atavism/atavistic," or "prodigious," well, let's just say I could buy copies of the book for everybody I know and then some.   A minor annoyance to be sure, but an annoyance nonetheless.

When you think about it, there are few things more fundamental -- or more important to our health -- than the food that we put into our bodies each day.   And yet, so many of the decisions that are being made regarding our food supply -- including what gets produced and how -- are shrouded in secrecy and shielded from public view or discussion.   Meanwhile, the consequences of those decisions -- on public health, on the environment, on animal welfare, and so on -- are buried even more deeply underground.   That is the reason why books like The Omnivore's Dilemma are important and worth reading.   By exposing the food industry to the cold hard light of day, Pollan has given us the information that is likely at first to outrage, and then later to spur us to action.   And that is the only way that we, the people, are ever going to wrest control of our food supply away from the conscience-free conglomerates that are presently calling all of the shots.