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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Cooking Class with Ron Siegel

I have written here many times about the high regard in which I hold Ron Siegel, Executive Chef at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.   His cuisine is always interesting and innovative, his food is consistently delicious, and his restaurant is one of my favorites in the Bay Area.   So, you can imagine how quickly I signed up when I learned that Siegel will be teaching a class at Tante Marie's Cooking School early next month.

The session is entitled "Finished Dishes With Sauces", and it's described on the Tante Marie website as "an advanced class on presentation and taste."   Unfortunately, there will be no recipes distributed to attendees.   The class will be held on Tuesday, March 6, 2007 from 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m., and the cost of admission is $65 per person.   If you're interested in attending, you can sign up on the website or by calling Tante Marie's (415.788.6699).   But don't delay;   as of this posting, there are only 6 spaces left in the class.

I've attended several cooking parties at Tante Marie's over the last 15 years, but I have yet to take a cooking class there.   Accordingly, I'll be very interested to see whether the format and content compare favorably to those of other classes offered elsewhere in town.   With a talented chef like Ron Siegel leading the discussion, though, it's hard to imagine this being anything but a worthwhile afternoon.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Five Things About Me

My friend Joy recently tagged me with the latest meme to make the rounds in the food blogging community, the one in which we're asked to identify five things about ourselves that you probably don't know.   Now, I've obviously been careful to keep many details about myself hidden from public view, but when a request like this comes from one of my favorite bloggers, well, I'm happy to participate.   So, without further ado, here are five things that you likely do not know about me:
  1. I designed the rear defog system for the 1993 Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird.   Before entering the hallowed halls of law school, I spent four long and arduous years earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.   During one of the three summer internships I did at General Motors, I was tasked with analyzing the existing design for the Camaro's rear defog system, evaluating it against comparable systems found on vehicles from other manufacturers, and redesigning it to hit competitive benchmarks.   So, if you ever find yourself in a cold climate cursing at how long it's taking for the ice to clear from the rear window of your 1993 Camaro or Firebird, now you know who to blame.

  2. Other than food, one of my greatest passions in life is music -- especially electric jazz/fusion.   I don't mean by this that I simply enjoy going to an occasional concert.   No, my interest is probably more on the order of a borderline obsession, to the point where I've been known to attend every single show of a four-night stint when certain jazz artists come to town.   I even stayed in Philadelphia once for five days past the end of an exhausting month-long trial, just so I could catch a show that I missed when it came through San Francisco.   It's actually a minor miracle that the members of the Pat Metheny Group, the Yellowjackets, Steps Ahead, and Vital Information, among others, haven't taken out restraining orders against me.   Or maybe they have, and I just haven't been caught yet.

  3. I have played the drums for 29 years, and I thought seriously at one point about pursuing a career in music.   My three closest friends in high school were all drummers, and the four of us were completely immersed in our instrument -- taking private lessons for years on end, playing in every possible school band/orchestra, and putting together percussion ensembles to take to state-wide competitions.   In the end, though, pragmatism won over, as it dawned on me that trying to play the drums professionally might not put food (or at least good food) on the table.   I have nevertheless continued to play recreationally, and the very first purchase I made after buying a house four years ago was a seven-piece acoustic drumset to replace the electronic (read "quiet") set that I'd been playing while living in an apartment.   And yes, my neighbors love me.

  4. I love olive oil, but I hate olives.   I can't explain it, and I've tried repeatedly to overcome my serious dislike of the fruit itself.   Yet, time and again, my efforts have failed spectacularly.   Because of this, any chef who can make a dish featuring olives that I actually enjoy has my deepest admiration and eternal loyalty.   So far, only one individual has managed to pull this off:   David Kinch, with his black olive madeleines.

  5. One of the things that I'd love to do someday is to be an investor/co-owner in a restaurant.   I know, I know -- it's a notoriously challenging industry, the returns on investment are not great, and the work involved is undoubtedly thankless.   Still, the entire idea holds such allure for me, that I'm apparently willing to throw all caution to the wind for the right opportunity.
At this point, I'm not sure that there are any food bloggers who have not yet been tagged for this meme, so I'm not going to name anybody specifically.   Instead, if you're a food blogger reading this and would like to participate, please consider yourself tagged!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dining Notes: Circa

When my sister asked me in early January where I'd like to go for a celebratory birthday dinner, I rattled off a short list of places that I'd been wanting to try for several months.   High on that list was Circa, the Marina restaurant and lounge that's located in the spot that previously housed Cosmo's Corner Grill.   Not only had the restaurant been generating positive reviews and word of mouth since it opened last year, but Executive Chef Erik Hopfinger has a reputation that precedes him:   he was named one of the San Francisco Chronicle's "Rising Stars" in 2002, and he earned numerous accolades during his stints at Spoon and Butterfly.   Yet, what really drew me into the restaurant on that cold Sunday evening was neither the buzz nor the chef;   it was a dish.   And if you read my description of the dinner party that I held in my home at the end of last year, you'll probably
Circa: At A Glance
ChefErik Hopfinger
Pastry ChefLaura Mandracchia
Address2001 Chestnut St.
San Francisco, CA 94123
Restaurant Website

understand why just as soon as I tell you its name:   Lobster & White Truffle Mac-n-Cheese.

The layout at Circa is rather interesting, in that the space is dominated by an enormous square bar and lounge that are located immediately inside the front door.   The comparatively small dining area is then located off to one side, almost as an afterthought or a begrudging concession to the people who might want to go to the restaurant to eat rather than simply to drink and be seen.   Now, that may be a perfectly good strategy for capturing the business of young singles in the surrounding Marina, but it seems to send a subtle message that the service of outstanding cuisine is not necessarily Circa's primary focus or most important concern.   And the dishes that we were served on our visit unfortunately reflected as much.
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There's more...
To be fair, very few of the things that we ordered that evening were downright bad or inedible.   But apart from the desserts, almost everything missed the mark in one or more important respects, leaving me seriously underwhelmed by the place.   Here's a rundown:

  • Pan seared Hudson Valley foie gras, wild blueberry demi-glace, peanut butter sauce on toasted brioche:   My first thought upon seeing this on the menu was that the pairing of foie gras with peanut butter is an odd choice.   If you think about these two flavors for a moment, you'll probably agree with me that neither is likely to contrast well against the other.   Indeed, the two actually seem to strike a similar tone, and even when either one of them is served on its own, it cries out for something -- such as fruit -- to pierce through its deep and rich flavor.   Doesn't it stand to reason, then, that if a chef decides to combine foie gras and peanut butter, he or she had better make sure to amp up the sweet/fruit component to contrast with both?   I thought so, but the amount of blueberry demi-glace on the plate here was so paltry, that it left the flavors of the foie gras and peanut butter in a muddled mess.

  • CIRCA sliders stuffed with black truffle and Brie cheese, served with Maui onion strings and house made ketchup:   These miniature hamburgers were tasty enough, but they fell far short of the high expectations that had been set by their billing.   Tell me you're giving me a burger "stuffed with black truffle and Brie," and I'm going to be waiting for something exquisite in which the flavors of black truffle and high quality Brie practically jump out of the bun.   That never happened.   The black truffles were barely discernible at all, and the Brie -- remarkably -- seemed like just another cheese.   On the plus side, the accompanying onion strings were very tasty.

  • Smoky roasted cream of tomato soup served with crustless grilled cheese bites:   This was a disappointment.   The soup was particularly acidic and had an odd sour taste, and I couldn't help but think about how Philippe Jeanty's tomato soup is orders of magnitude better.   Now, you would think that preparing a satisfying grilled cheese would be a piece of cake, a slow easy pitch down the middle that any chef could hit out of the park.   But the small sandwich bites served on the side of the soup here were terrible; the brioche was sliced way too thickly, and the cheese was barely melted.

  • Dungeness crab, Ahi tuna ceviche on torilla chips, avocado creme fraiche, sriracha chili sauce: This was one of the few brights spots of the meal.   The ceviche was fresh and nicely seasoned, and the creme fraiche added a cool creaminess against which the spicy kick of the chili sauce played well.   The tortilla chips, meanwhile, added a much-needed textural contrast.   A very good dish.

  • Morroccan Spiced Roasted Austrailian Rack of Lamb "Lollichops," mint chimichurri and pomegranate molasses:   Here was yet another selection that sounded wonderful on paper but fell flat in the execution.   The lamb itself was cooked well past the requested medium rare, and the sauces on the plate never really came together into a cohesive whole.

  • Lobster & white truffle mac-n-cheese:   The ingredients in this dish are so wonderful on their own, that it's almost impossible to imagine how the combination could be anything less than spectacular.   Yet, Circa's kitchen pulled it off.   I was hoping for pasta shells enrobed in a creamy sauce, permeated with a pronounced cheese flavor and punctuated with the distinctive flavors of lobster and white truffle.   What we got instead was a serious letdown.   The cheese sauce had a rather peculiar and somewhat unpleasant flavor, the white truffle was missing in action, and the lobster pieces were so miniscule and scarce that they may as well have been left out.   So, a dish that held such promise -- a dish that had lured me into the restaurant in the first place -- was an abysmal failure.
Desserts from Pastry Chef Laura Mandracchia were more successful.   An Almond & Banana Upside Down Cake was dense and comforting like bread pudding, its clean banana flavor complemented nicely by a delicious caramel sauce.   The Circa Housemade Dessert Sampler was a clever tribute to several of the childhood favorites of my generation, with "premium" homemade versions of Ho-Ho's, Oreo Cookies, Cracker Jack's, Truffles, Rum Balls, and Vanilla Milk.   All of the components here were good, but the real standout was the one thing that I, at least, never had as a child -- the vanilla milk.   As I sipped from the small shot glass, the chilled milk exploding with the bright floral notes of fragrant vanilla bean, I kicked myself.   Why in the world had I never thought of making this at home?!   As I'll describe in a later post, this small spark of inspiration quickly grew into a self-indulgent passion in the ensuing weeks.

Overall, Hopfinger and his kitchen have their work cut out for them if they ever want to make Circa a destination restaurant.   Dishes need to be more thoughtfully conceived, more tightly focused, and -- most importantly -- more precisely executed.   But maybe that's not the goal.   Maybe the only objective is to draw revelers into the bar for a night of drinking, and to serve them passable food when they get hungry.   And maybe for that purpose, the food is good enough.   Maybe.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dining Notes: COCO500

One of the few places in San Francisco that I've visited several times without ever mentioning here is COCO500, the Loretta Keller establishment that rose from the ashes of what was once Bizou.   My first dinner at the restaurant was in early 2006, right around the time that a consensus seemed to emerge in the food blogging community that COCO500 was the toast of the town.   And I shared in that assessment.   The food, in a word, was wonderful, from the spectacular flatbread with squash blossom and white truffle oil, to the delicious and flavorful halibut, to the scrumptious sweet summer corn.   I was hooked, and my initial meal at this South of Market hot spot was followed by a rapid fire succession of several more, all of which were thoroughly satisfying.

Now, unlike some, I have never been that enamored of the service.   I've generally found it to be competent and functional, but never particularly attentive and occasionally somewhat neglectful.   And I'm not alone in this assessment;   both Fatemeh and Catherine had initial visits to COCO500 in which the service was so subpar, that it apparently dampened their enthusiasm about going back.   Yet, each of them did eventually return, and to service that was much more impressive.

Well, I had dinner at COCO500 last night, and I can certainly say that the experience left an impression.   The food was, as always, well executed and very tasty, and the table service was perfectly fine.   The problem?   The host staff.   When Rhonda and I arrived for our 8:15 reservation, the hostess told us that "our" table was just finishing up and that we would be seated shortly.   No problem, we thought -- we'll just wait in the bar.   As we sat down, my eyes scanned across the dining room and happened to notice a vacant four-seat table, along with several other such tables at which parties of two were dining.   "That empty table is certainly being held for a party of four with a reservation," I said to Rhonda.

Ten minutes passed.   Fifteen.   Twenty.   Thirty.   And all throughout, three facts remained unchanged:   the vacant table remained unoccupied, the people seated at our table remained planted in their seats, and the hostess remained completely indifferent to our plight.   Not once was there an effort to assure us that we would be seated soon, not once was there an attempt to pacify us with a drink or appetizer on the house, and not once was there even a hint of an apology.   At the 35-minute mark, we finally lost our patience and approached the hostess.   Her response?   "Oh, did you not want to wait any longer for a two-seat table?"   Yeah, that's right -- we've been sitting here in the bar starving, waiting for a couple of oblivious diners to leave our table and staring at a vacant four-top for the last 35 minutes, all because we were actively hoping to be crammed into a small two-top instead of being given all of that uncomfortable space that comes standard with a larger table.   I was not amused.   And needless to say, the hostess offered no apology and no "thank you for waiting" as we were finally seated at the table that had been collecting dust all night.

A dinner reservation represents an agreement between restaurant and diner, a social contract that imposes certain obligations on both parties.   The diner is expected to show up on time, and the restaurant is expected to have a table available and ready.   Of course, the vagaries of daily life require that a certain grace period be afforded to both sides, and 15 minutes strikes me as a reasonable amount of time for this purpose.   But after that, the situation changes.   If a diner shows up more than 15 minutes late, the restaurant should be free to give away the table;   and if the restaurant cannot provide a table within 15 minutes after a reservation, then it should immediately take some form of corrective action.   Most establishments, understandably, do not want to nudge a lingering party out the door, for fear of coming across as rude.   Yet, at the same time, indulging the lingerers requires the restaurant to breach its agreement to seat the next party -- a gesture that is no less rude.   While this may seem like an intractable situation, there's a relatively easy solution:   provide the waiting party a complimentary beverage or appetizer to make the delay more tolerable, give them a free appetizer or dessert once they have been seated, or take something off of their ultimate dinner bill.   A small gesture like this, coupled with a sincere apology, goes an incredibly long way toward preserving goodwill.

What a restaurant should never do is what COCO500 did last night:   ignore the waiting guests for 30+ minutes, and then do absolutely nothing to make up for, acknowledge, or even apologize for the delay.   And just in case you were wondering -- I did watch the front door of the restaurant for the rest of the night to see whether some later party of four would be displaced by our having taken the big table, but no such party ever arrived.   In other words, the hostess apparently kept us waiting for 35 minutes for a hypothetical party of four that might walk in off the street without a reservation.   Not a smart move, and not one that earned the restaurant any points in my book.

There's no question that the food at COCO500 has been consistently good, to the point that several people I know have been persuaded to overlook bad service experiences and pay the place another visit.   But is that really what the restaurant wants to aim for?