My first crack to check out Craftsman and Wolves
was at their grand opening...attempt. Unfortunately, they ran into some classic bureaucratic red tape and were unable to sell last week. As a result, they had all these pastries baked and ready for business yet no ability to sell. However, in a brilliant strategic move, they decided to give them away.
Slips of white paper on which was written the names of menu items filled a glass fishbowl. Upon entering, each patron had the opportunity to reach inside, pull out a card, and claim his or her prize.
It was akin to that crane game at the arcade where you could play until you won at least a little bit of candy - but classier. And much more delicious.
Excitedly, I reached my hand into the depths of the vessel, wondering which pastry would feel the wrath of my tastes buds...
Only a little disheartened, I gladly accepted my treat with open arms and went on my merry way. This wasn't what I was after, however. There was something else calling to me. Screaming my name. Beckoning from the case of goodies locked so seemingly far, far away and speaking to something within the very depths of my soul. Or my stomach. Whichever.
So the following week, I arrived bright and early to quench my insatiable cravings.
These two items look simple enough: a nice chocolate cake and a savory muffin of sorts. Or are they? With pastry chef William Werner
, there is a bit little more than meets the eye. My pastries had been...INCEPTED!
The Devil Inside
The Rebel Within
Let's start with The Rebel Within: you know, because breakfast comes first. This is everything I could possibly want in a complete breakfast (or lunch, or dinner...): an egg with a beautifully runny yolk inside of a savory muffin dotted with nuggets of pork, cheese and scallions all wrapped up into a portable package. It was my very own edible Russian nesting doll. Clearly, I didn't take this to go, though I could easily see myself noshing on this from the top corner down, and having the excess yolk run down into and be soaked up by the muffin itself.
Or, just stick a straw down the center.
As for the flavor - lights out. The buttery, cheese tough dough had significant substance without being overly dense. Pork pieces salted the batter and threw in a nice contrasting crunch to the otherwise fluffy muffin. The cheese and scallions held down the fort to keep it on the savory side, but it was clearly the egg that took this recipe from good to great. The whites were set and bouncy while the oozing yolk dripped liquid gold onto the plate below. All of this paired with an expertly pulled Sightglass
cappuccino and I was practically in heaven.
The Devil Inside was devilish indeed! Layers of chocolate cake were filled with toffee-chocolate ganache and, wait for it...
Some may ask, "Why would you put fat liver inside of chocolate cake?" To which I respond:
Why the hell not!
For me, it comes down to decadence. The liver wasn't overly present, but there is no doubt that it gave that dessert an extra layer of creamy richness. As for the cake itself, I can only say that I'm not generally a fan of chocolate and this was fantastic. The outside was a bit dry and had a rough texture, which I think worked in its favor. It almost created a shell that housed the otherwise moist interior. The ganache, which had more of a mousse consistency, made me want to spread it with a knife over the rest of the cake as a frosting. The smoked almond brittle atop the cylinder tasted burnt, though, so I left that alone.
Just then I heard the tiniest whisper of a voice. At first, I thought it was merely a figment of my imagination: a audible mirage.
"Ooh, we should have gotten that!"
It happened! It finally happened! For the first time since I began my culinary expedition around San Francisco, someone else ogled at ME!
Well, my food.
Regardless, Chris and Jess were the instigators of our conversation - not me. Elated beyond my wildest dreams, we chatted for a while and described our process of finding Craftsman and Wolves, other pastry passions of the city, and an analysis of our respective choices that morning. They shared the passion sesame croissant, which had mixed reviews. On the one hand, they gushed over the passion sesame paste that filled the layers of dough inside, yet they compared the icing on top to that of a Pop-Tart or Toaster Strudel. Flavor-wise, they loved it, but said they could have done without the topping.
More food recommendations, discussion of where to celebrate 'foiemageddon,' and general San Francisco chatter later, they exited stage right. Enter stage left another couple: this time, Alisha and her partner, Sharon Ardiana - owner of both Ragazza and Gialina. Having both been out here for a while, our discussion focused primarily on earthquakes and how much the city has changed over the past two decades. I was learning a tremendous amount until they had to flee, though not before eying my Devil and taking one to go.
After pictures for posterity, I took a nice long cycle about town until I found myself in the park with a hankering for muffin. Lo and behold, I had one waiting for me.
Never before have I had a muffin so brimming with blueberries. And these weren't your Little Debbie tiny BB sized blueberry pellets. These were huge, fresh, gushing, juicy blueberries that were packed into the unfathomably fluffy, airy muffin. The dough had an unexpected fresh lemony brightness without being a dominant flavor, and while the brown butter topping was tasty, I was hoping for a lot more crunchy contrast. A muffin top needs to have that signature "top" quality. As Elaine from Seinfeld so eloquently put it: "It's where the muffin breaks free from the pan and sort of does it's own thing."
The only disappointment in my C&W pig-out was the croissant stack:
In theory, this is a phenomenal idea. The worst part about chocolate croissants is that the filling is hardly ever spread out through the entirety of piece. Rather, it gravitates toward the center so that over the course of croissant consumption, maybe three or four bites contain chocolate. The stack attempts to solve this problem by piling three layers of flaky pastry atop one another with sheets of the sweet stuff tucked inside. Sadly, the whole cube was too soft with none of the crispy, shattering quality from the regular croissants. For lack of a better term, the levels just smushed together.
There is no doubt I'll be back. In fact, I believe my pictures have convinced a few of my friends so much so that we are going for breakfast this Saturday. I'm excited to venture into the realm of Werner's cube cakes, financiers, and eclairs as well as his more savory items such as his pain au cochon and market fresh sandwiches (he serves lunch as well!).
But it is hard to ignore that which is in all of us: be it a Rebel or a Devil.
The day had finally arrived, and as I walked around the gardens of Sunnyside Organic Farms
, I couldn't help but be reminded of how lucky I was to be here. Surrounded by beautiful scenery, produce, and people, there was an electricity in the air as my Twitterverse began to materialize before my very eyes into something tangible: something real.
Organic Tomatoes At Sunnyside Organic Farm
As the events inside of the greenhouse began to take shape, we were serenaded by the angelic sounds of Kim Kenny and the Otherlys
. The lead singer (I'll give you one guess as to her name...), actually made me do a double take as she began to wail: her soulful vocals filling room, all the while Boccalone and 4505 Meats were generously providing some tasty salty pig parts on which the guests could nosh.
Corey Nead Slicing Charcuterie
Kim Kenny and the Otherlys
At last, the real festivities began: ten chefs, ten dishes, and a lot of hungry people. Each chef had his or her own station from which they prepped, plated and served the guests who arrived in front of them. Judges however, had a separate table. I felt like royalty! And, to ensure that we received each dish and that nothing ran out, we were served rather than going to each station. What a luxurious life I lead...
Yet as I sat there, tasting these incredible dishes and loving life, I couldn't shake this unexpected, overriding thought from my head:
I feel like a dick.
Seriously, who am I to cast judgment upon the food of chefs who have been pouring their hearts, souls and talents into their food for just about as long as I've been alive (sorry...)? Learning the ropes of the restaurant business from the ground up, from dish-washing to culinary school to head chef honors, these people come from backgrounds and experiences the likes of which I can only venture a mediocre guess - all to be evaluated by a kid with a food blog. Sure, my palate has expanded tremendously over the past year, but it doesn't hold a candle to the knowledge and skills that these chefs possess.
In talking afterward with one of the chefs, he explained that it is all part of the handshake they make. The deal they strike. The bargain. It's part of the business, and each of these chefs entered into the Throw Down willingly with the understanding that this was the scenario. Additionally, he pointed out that our choices could have easily changed with something as simple as the weather - five degrees colder, rain, or a heat wave would have made me enjoy a completely different dish. "Food is as subjective as art," he added.
That only made me feel slightly better.
So chefs, take away from this what you will. But on this particular day, at this particular venue, at this particular time, with my particular tastes, the following is what I know to be true from my culinary point of view:
Chicken Salad, Beet Paint, Pea Shoots, Kumquat and Wasabi Powder
Chef Alli Sosan
undoubtedly put together the most attractive dish of the night: chicken salad with beet paint, pea shoots, kumquat and wasabi powder. I can honestly say I've never had chicken cooked quite that perfectly - tender, juicy morsels seasoned beautifully, and the pea shoots added a perfect crunchy counterbalance. Overall, a light and fresh plate, perfect for a summer picnic. The kumquat seemed almost like an afterthought, which was a shame because the salad as a whole lacked acid that could have been achieved with the addition of more citrus. The one bite I took with every element was glorious, but it wasn't sustained throughout the dish.
Rabbit, Crispy Cheesy Fingerlings, Brussels Sprouts, Pearl Onions and Dates
Rabbit was the protein of choice for Chef Marcel DeGrosse
. The fingerling potatoes were out of this world - crispy cheese on the exterior with a fluffy center made these tubers irresistible. The flavors were spot on, as the rabbit paired nicely with the sweet dates and pearl onions. I loved the texture of the Brussels sprouts: soft outsides with tender centers, but they were a bit bland. My biggest gripe with the dish, however, was as a result of the rabbit itself: I wanted so much for the meat to fall off the bone, but it was simply overcooked and a bit tough.
Twenty Five Pound Porcetta, 4505 Meats
Porcetta, Crispy Skin, Mango Chutney, Arugula Salad, Head Cheese
As some of you may know, I'm a man who enjoys my pig parts, so when 4505 Meats brought this puppy to the table, I knew I was in for a treat. A 20 pound porchetta was carved into thick slices and served alongside a spicy stone fruit chutney with an arugula salad and a small block of head cheese - all topped off with a square of crispy pork skin. The porchetta was flavorful thanks to the fantastic seasoning along the edges, but a little bit dry. I wish they had served the chutney in layers between the slices of porchetta so that it formed its own sandwich of sorts, because while the components alone were good, the combination was killer. The sweetness from the peaches and nectarines balanced the spice of the jalapeño therein as well as salt of the pork, while the juice from the fruit created a pseudo-sauce when slathered across the top. The greens added a peppery bite, but the head cheese seemed to be out of place and didn't add too much as far as I'm concerned. Though it was not unwelcome.
Wagyu Beef, Butter Lettuce, Green Avocado Sauce, Blue Cheese, Radish, Tomato, Pepitas
Snake River Farms
provided the Caliente Sisters
with the Wagyu beef that anchored their harvest greens salad with avocado sauce, bleu cheese, radishes and toasted pepitas. The Wagyu was marinated with Serrano pepper which gave a decent kick, though not one so intense that even a spice-wuss such as myself could appreciate it, especially with the creamy, tangy avocado dressing to offset it. The steak was cooked to perfection, and the fresh harvest greens were a great bed on which to rest the heavy protein. This was a solid dish, to be sure, and is something I would happily order at any restaurant multiple times, but there was nothing that stood out and wow-ed me. A delicious, perfectly executed, staple of a salad.
Crawfish Crème Brûlée
Savory crème brûlée - a bold choice from Chef Grant
. Skeptical, I figured I might as well crack the surface and dive in spoon first. The torched cheese on top mimicked the traditionally "brûléed" sugar, but with a stringy finish rather than a solid break. The "crème" had the lightest, fluffiest, pillowy mouth-feel I could have ever imagined, almost akin to whipped cream with a pudding-like smoothness. Yet in each bite, that otherwise soft interior was broken up by gigantic chunks of crawfish. The flavors were distinctly Cajun, but not overpoweringly so, even a bit subdued by the extraordinary creaminess.
Veal, Panzanella Salad
Smoked Fig Cake, Figs, Morel and Chanterelle Mushroom Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
We were treated to an extra dish thanks to Chef Pampuch
. For his main course, we were treated to a medium-rare slice of veal with a panzanella salad, radishes and tomatoes. The meat was ideally pink, and disintegrated as I took each bite. The bread in the panzanella salad was soft and wet yet sill maintained some of its interior texture, which I quite enjoyed. Overall, the judges concurred that the entire dish was just too over-seasoned, and masked the delicate flavor of the veal itself.
As for dessert, we were all blown away. The smoked fig cake contained nuggets of walnuts and served as the base for an incredibly unique morel and chanterelle mushroom ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. I think we got this a bit too late, as it turned into more of a foam by the time touched it. Regardless, the flavor was spectacular: a salty, earthy flavor brought out the sweetness in the figs, which married perfectly with the olive oil and sea salt drizzled over top in true Italian fashion.
Braised Snake River Farms Wagyu Beef Agnolotti
Chef Alex Tamburro from right here in the Bay Area gave us agnolotti (which, as he explained, is essentially ravioli made from one sheet of pasta, hence only three crimped edges) with braised Snake River Farms Wagyu beef in a tomato sauce with thinly shaved cheese and basil. This dish made me truly understand what it means to layer flavors. The sauce first gave off a fresh tomato essence, followed immediately by a savory unctuousness created from what I can only assume was a veal or beef stock, and finally tailing off with a buttery finish. While pasta was a little too al dente, the filling was superbly tender and juicy. As you cut into the agnolotti, the interior spilled out into the sauce to create a beef and noodle soup of sorts, which was a fun little activity.
Cajun Sea bass, Cornmeal Dusted Oyster, Root Beer Braised Greens, Cheese Grits Watermelon Gastique
Well butter my behind and call me a biscuit. This was the definition of southern cooking. A cornmeal dusted oyster, Cajun sea bass, root beer braised greens, cheese grits and a watermelon gastrique courtesy of Chef Jeremy Enfinger
. This was by far and away the dish to which I was most looking forward, and it delivered on almost every level. The oyster practically melted in my mouth after my teeth cracked the crispy cornmeal crust, and the braised greens had a sweetness from the root beer that balanced out the Cajun spices. Unfortunately, the sea bass was overcooked, and I didn't get a whole lot of cheese in the grits.
Chèvre Cheesecake, Cayenne Gingersnap Crust, Bacon Jam, 4505 Chicharrones
I think Chef Trace may have been trying to bribe me here. Knowing my undying love for her bacon jam, its addition was certainly not going to hurt. The dessert was lovely - the chèvre was sweetened yet had a distinctly savory aspect, all the while holding a smooth cheesecake consistency. The sweet/salty bacon jam mirrored the sweet/savory cheesecake, and the chicharrones added crunch for texture. The crust could have been a bit thicker and with more of the spicy cayenne, which was muted among the creamy cheese.
When all was said and done, we were left stunned by both the quality and the quantity of food before us. After a deep breath, I took a quick look around our table, only to observe this:
While it is completely against my nature to "give everyone a trophy," I do want to hand out some special honorable mentions:
Best Plating: Chef Alli Sosna
Best Single Bite: Chef Jeremy Enfinger's Oyster
Most Innovative: Chef Scott Pampouch's Morel and Chanterelle Mushroom Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
Best Pig Part: Crispy Skin from 4505's porchetta
Ultimately, the judges had to choose a single dish. So, after much deliberation, arguing, push-back, and a much needed walk around the venue to ease ourselves out of our respective food comas, we chose...
Call us chicken. Say we ducked out. Cry foul!
We just couldn't do it.
See, there were no rules in place, so we had to establish our criteria on the fly. Was the winner supposed to have the best complete dish? The best bite? Sweet or savory? Lunch, dinner, snack, appetizer? The possibilities were endless. In the end, we agreed on our two dishes: the first was our favorite in that we would seek it out specifically to have it again. It was so unique and irresistible, and we all found ourselves coming back time and time again for another bite.
Congratulations to winner number one: Chef Chris Grant and his Crawfish Crème Brûlée!
However, we could not justify that as a complete meal. It was so rich that the ramekin sized cup was the perfect amount. So, our favorite "entree" went to:
Chef Alex Tamburro's Wagyu Beef Agnolotti!
Some people think that a tie is 50/50: an even split. But that just isn't the case. A tie is two wholes. It is two dishes that are each, in their entirety, the best of the best.
Without sounding cheesy, the real winners were those who experienced the food. These chefs told their stories through food: their cultures, their backgrounds, and their passions all came through in the dishes they prepared. And we all had the honor to take part in that journey.
This event was about so much more than competition. It was about teamwork...
Chef Sosna Pouring Liquid Nitrogen for Chef Pampuch
Champions: Chef Tamburro and Chef Grant
Chefs Pampuch, Grant, Enfinger and Sosna
...and working toward the goal of making the world of food a better place - not only for ourselves, but for future generations. As a society, we have lost our sense of culture when it comes to the foods we consume. We take for granted the fresh fruits and vegetables that we can grow sustainably and organically in our own backyards in the name of processed convenience and mass quantity.
When I look around at the chefs who comprised the inaugural Throw Down on the Farm, I see more than just cooks. I see more than just aprons and knives in the kitchen behind the scenes. I see more than just phenomenally crafted dishes.
You know what I see?
I see a group of men and women who are willing to stand up and fight for what they believe. A group that is willing to showcase ingredients as they were meant to be. A group that is unwilling to take shortcuts for the sake of making a buck. A group that loves what they do so much so that they are willing to invest their every being into it, and wishes to share their gifts with the world for the benefit of the greater good.
In a food competition such as this, someone will take home the crown. But when talented people join forces for the betterment of society, everyone wins.
Your 2012 Farm Throw Down Family
This past Saturday, I had the honor and privilege to be a judge at my first legitimate culinary event. And I owe it all to Twitter...and bacon.
I always knew that bacon had magical, mysterious powers. I could feel it every time I sunk my teeth into that salty, fatty strip of heaven that a force beyond our knowledge was altering the universe.
Plus, it's a scientific fact. Look it up.
I guess it comes as no surprise, then, that the first food event I attended in San Francisco was the "Bacon Takedown," held at the Thirsty Bear merely three weeks after my arrival. Fifteen chefs and one not-so-secret ingredient combined to be what I'd imagine heaven to be like.
Yet of all the porky goodness I experienced, there were two that stood out snout and ears above the rest. The first was an ice cream sundae with bacon salted caramel and a piece of signature "Bacon Crack" from Kai Kronfeld of NoshThis
. This was a no-fail dessert - the sweet/salty combo charged ahead and the contrasting flavors toyed in my mouth back and forth as the cold ice cream played with the warm sauce.
The second took me by surprise. It was so unassuming, so...normal. Normal looking, that is. Chef Trace Williams' Bourbon Bacon Jam stole my heart. Holy wow - even a year removed I can still taste how sweet and jammy it was thanks to the caramelized onions, but with a huge bite of bourbon (I believe she said that she used one bottle per batch) and crispy little bits of bacon nudged into the otherwise smooth spread. I was so taken with it that, after the competition was over, Chef Trace packed me up a to-go container of what I still contend to be the best jam I've ever experienced.
Fast forward a few months after we had kept in touch intermittently via Twitter, and I receive a random message from @FarmThrowDown asking me if I'd like to be a judge at this upcoming food competition. On the one hand, I was on cloud nine. Trying to make it "big" in the food world, I was ecstatic that someone thought enough of my incessant tweets and limited knowledge to invite me to participate in such an activity!
On the other hand, I've seen enough Nigerian-prince-held-hostage scams to last me a lifetime.
Against my better judgment, perhaps, I wrote back for some clarification only to find out that it was Chef Trace herself, who was the lead behind organizing this event. She explained that it was a fundraiser called, "Throw Down on the Farm," a food competition to benefit Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution in the East Bay. A phenomenal foundation with a mission that, according to Oliver, "...aims to inspire people to reconnect with food. It's all about raising awareness and individual responsibility, resuscitating dying food culture around the world and, ultimately, keeping cooking skills alive."
So, after finding out the legitimacy of the event, I dove right in. Chef Trace welcomed me with open arms and invited me into her circle. Through the force of Twitter, I was introduced to chefs and co-judges alike. DMs, RTs, MTs...we have managed to form our own little community over the past few months just through social media. Between food jokes and puns, pictures, and excitement over the event itself, we have managed to "talk" at least a few times a week - sometimes multiple times a day. As the Throw Down neared, butterflies fluttered around inside of my stomach and Tweets flew into my feed showing the chefs had landed safely in San Francisco (after a few delays) and began to materialize.
Remember, we had still never met in person.
Finally, the day I had been waiting for arrived, and I timidly approached the site with first-day-of-school jitters. It was akin to finally meeting that girl you've been talking to on OK Cupid for a month: you know a ton about her, you're really into her, but you psych yourself out so much that questions keep rolling through your head.
Would they like me in person? Will they recognize me? Do we even have any more to talk about? Just how awkward is this going to be?
Truth be told, it was everything for which I could have hoped - though this was the second time I was told that I looked taller in my Twitter picture. Firm handshakes, big hugs, and lots of smiles and laughter started us off, and it only got better from there. When I offered my prep-services, most declined. However, they did have one request - beer. And so, with a beer in hand, I got to put faces (real, actual, human faces), to these pixelated icons and Twitter handles:
Chef Alli Sosna - Contem"plating"
Chef Alli Sosona
is a self-proclaimed chef-preneur from the east coast with a kick-ass attitude about life. She was the executive chef at Fresh Start Catering as well as its non-profit arm, D.C. Central Kitchen, which aims to fight poverty, hunger and homelessness through job training, meal distribution, and supporting local food systems. She is currently running a summer cooking school through Fitbound, an organization with the mission of keeping kids fit, healthy and active by teaching them ways in which to cook and eat healthily, supplemented with her own radio program. She is also looking to open her own restaurant in D.C., where she currently resides with her fiancé.
Chef Scott Pampuch - With Goat
Chef Scott Pampuch
- Scott refuses to surround himself with people that suck. After moving on from his previous job in hotel sales, he consulted his family and friends to find out about what he was truly passionate: food. He worked in supermarkets and restaurants while attending culinary school until he opened his own place (which he recently sold) to work as a food consultant. He hopes to close the gap between farmers and consumers, and does so through Tour de Farm. He has a nine year-old son who is a gifted athlete with a passion for the SF Giants. Smart kid.
Chef Jeremy Enfinger, Coating in Cornmeal
Chef Jeremy Enfinger
has his roots deeply implanted in the south. Born in Mobile, Alabama, he currently lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi with his two munchkins. He attributes much of his cooking to his grandfather and is a family man at heart. Chef Jeremy is clearly passionate about people, and is willing to share his experiences and give advice. He's also hilarious.
Chef Chris Grant and his Blowtorch
Chef Chris Grant
was born to a long line of talented cooks and still vividly recalls his grandmother stirring a roux when he was barely tall enough to peer over the stove top. He enjoys kickin' back with a nice 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch and loves his I.O. Shen knives so much that he got one tattooed on his arm. He is also expecting a daughter at the end of August.
(There were a few other chefs at the competition, but this was the core that encompassed the Twitterverse we had created)
There is one piece of information of which I was unaware until that day: none of these chefs had ever met either. What's more, this whole event was created around social media. Chef Trace reached out to everyone via Twitter, and created this event that had finally come to fruition.
I feel so lucky to know these people, and as strange as it may sound, I truly believe we will stay in touch from across the country. Making friends on the internet apparently doesn't always have to be creepy and dangerous.
You'll have to wait until tomorrow to read about the dishes and the event itself. But rest assured, you won't be disappointed.
Chef Trace - I owe you all the gratitude in the world, and I am forever in your debt. Please know that I will gladly lend you my hands and the little culinary experience I have any time you're ever in need. I can not tell you how much I am looking forward to tomorrow's fantastic event.
Please visit Chef Trace's website
if you are ever in need of some of the most quality catering you can find in the Bay Area.
An SF "must," Flour+Water has been on my radar since I moved here just about a year ago. However, it was always like my Disney World growing up in Ft. Lauderdale - it was close but not close enough to warrant the wait I would need to endure. By the time I realized that I wanted to go, reservations were already booked solid, so I just threw it to the back burner.
That was, until tonight. My close friends had been in a similar predicament, yet decided that for the birthday boy (Happy Birthday Jeff!), we would make the trek down upon opening, take our chances, and hope for the best.
Little did we know the endeavor for which we were in store....
The Birthday Boy!
Awaiting a fourth, we began with the smoked sturgeon antipasti. Thick, meaty slices of smoked fish were polka-dotted on the plate with bright red beets and cubed cucumbers. The sturgeon was almost steak-like in the best possible way, with an earthy taste that complimented the soil-grown beets. The tang of the créme frâiche and dill were refreshing and took the dish "out of the ground," so to speak.
Smoked Sturgeon w/ Beets, Cucumbers, Whipped Créme Frâiche & Dill
The beets spilled a nice pink liquid that, when mixed with the créme frâiche made a really nice dipping sauce that complimented the house-made bread quite nicely (like I was going to let that go to waste...). The interior was soft but a tad too chewy, while the crust was as flaky and crunchy as I could have hoped.
Flour, of Flour+Water
Then came the real fun. Chalk it up to hunger; chalk it up to being ecstatic that we finally made it and didn't want to leave without trying as many things as we could stomach; chalk it up to every menu item sounding better than the one preceding it; chalk it up to a birthday celebration.
Or, just call us fat. We don't really care.
Three pasta dishes and two pizzas for four people. Was it a lot of food? Sure. Did it all get consumed happily? Save for two slices, you bet your ass.
Before we go any further, I'm going to qualify all of the pasta dishes with one vital detail - the noodles were cooked to perfection. And I'm not talking pretty good, and I'm not talking great - I mean dead-on-balls accurate. A dreamy al-dente with enough texture to make your mouth realize it had solid food and yet a smoothness that brought you back to the days of eating comforting childhood staples.
Taleggio Scarpinocc with Aceto Balsamico
Definitely the crowd favorite, the taleggio was outstanding. At the table, I said aloud that the shape didn't quite do it for me, until I came to the realization that, well, it did. See, the thing about pasta is that it needs to match the sauce in which it is served. Some styles mesh well with others (i.e. macaroni and cheese works because the cheese can ooze its way through cylindrical tubes...), and others just don't. In trying to think of a better pasta for this particular dish, I drew a complete blank, which is when I realized why this worked so well.
The scarpinocc look like shallow bowls, or deeper plates, with handles on either end. This creates a tiny well in which the sauce or topping can rest, yet not overpower the pasta itself. Because this dish was simply topped with tallegio and a drizzle of balsamic (30-year aged, I believe she said), it was the perfect vessel to be filled. Tallegio is a milder cheese, yet still lent the essential saltiness, while the aceto balsamico was the ideal counterbalance for sweetness - almost syrupy. The combination, and more importantly, the proportion of salt to sweet that filled those tiny plates, made this dish a winner.
Fava & Ricotta Mezzaluna w/ Whey, Preserved Meyer Lemon & Tarragon
Pasta dish number two - the half-moon dumplings filled with a house-made ricotta and a fava bean mixture. Our waitress (Sam) didn't need to tell me that the ricotta was home-made - that was obvious. Creamy and slightly gritty and a rustic sort of way, the seasonal favas and the cheese made a tasty center. I know it is a fine line when it comes to filling and overfilling pasta, especially when the dough itself is so wonderful, but I feel this could have been a touch fuller. I could have just been greedy and wanted to have more of the innards, or it could have just brought a hefty component to the plate.
The unsung hero of this dish, however, was the preserved meyer lemon. In gathering all the components, it contained a good amount of grounded flavors: the favas, the cheese and whey, even the dough. But the lemon elevated the dish with a spark of brightness. Without it, the plate would have been all earth tones, yet when I bit into that tiny lemon nugget, I could taste the dish being lifted (quite literally) up to where the lemon was hanging from the tree, higher and higher, until a harmonious balance existed between the minerality of the legumes and freshness of the citrus.
Black Pepper Pappardelle w/ Quail, Cherries, Pine Nuts & Torpedo Onions
Finally (for pastas, at least...), was our heaviest dish of the three. The quail was the consistency of a pulled pork, with chopped up cherries and onions for sweetness and a sprinkling of pine nuts for good measure. Beyond amazing, this could be the best representation of quail I've ever encountered. Plus, no tiny bones about which to worry. Score another one for team Flour+Water.
As I gazed upon the beautiful, black pepper-specked sheets of parppardelle, I knew I was in for something special. Again, texture was on point, but I really wish the black pepper kicked me in the throat. It was subtle, which is normally a huge plus for me. Though with SO much else going on, I think they could have punched it up a notch. Had this been a more simply topped dish, I think it would have been right on the "dough."
Our pizzas arrived swiftly after our pastas disappeared. First up was the traditional margherita:
Tomato, Basil, Fior di Latte & Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Normally, traditional pizza just doesn't tickle my fancy. I mean, push comes to shove, I'd much rather have a pizza with pork belly (which we did...hold your horses) then a regular ol' tomato/basil combo you can get anywhere.
Well, way to prove me wrong, F+W (can I call you that now?)
How they did it, I just can't fathom. They managed to have the basil permeate the entire slice, not just the bite with the leaf itself. Every single bite had fruity olive oil, creamy fior di latte, and a leafy basil slap in the face that had me do a double-take to make sure there was no pesto on it.
Second, we went for the maiele:
Cured Pork Belly, Broccolini, Fontal, Spring Onions & Calabrian Chili
Bacon, in all its forms, is the highest honor you can bestow upon any food item. This is no exception. I am quite glad they included some form of green so I could justify at least a portion (however small) of this meal as a serving of vegetable. It also gave it a crunchy mouthfeel which I rather enjoyed playing off of the chewy dough. The warming sensation from the chili was not the least bit overbearing, even for a spice wuss such as I, and added another dimension. The only thing I would have wanted was perhaps to have caramelized onions instead so that the biting saltiness of the pork belly and cheese was evened out.
Additionally - for 99% of the crust on each pie, it was spot on. A great cracking thin crust with a little chew before you hit the sauce and cheese. Yet there was just one spot in the dead center that was just thin enough that the sauce/olive oil/cheese made it soft before I could get that same crunch as I did everywhere else. But again, pretty damn near perfect.
And what birthday dinner would be complete without dessert?
A bad one.
So, we got the ever-popular chocolate budino:
Chocolate Budino, Espresso Caramel Cream and Sea Salt
Imagine, if you will, the creamiest truffle filling you've ever had. Go on, I'll give you a minute...
Start with that as a base, and top it with a fluffy coffee and caramel flavored whipped cream. If that weren't enough, sprinkle some flaky sea salt on top to really bring out that sweetness. Now I know that the "add-salt-to-sweet" thing has been around for a while. But my biggest pet peeve is that people are still generally afraid to take full advantage of the extreme benefits to be had. F+W doesn't F around with the salt. It was generous and there was no doubt about the fact that they added it liberally to the top to ensure you got a few flakes in every bite. For me, that threw this dessert over the top and made it a home run.
As for the "worth the wait" issue that is constantly raised. Trick question. I would absolutely wait 30-45 minutes for a table here for a bunch of reasons: I love the cozy, homey atmosphere, you can easily grab a glass of white and chat while gearing up for the experience head, and, well the food is worth that type of wait. But here's a little secret:
You don't have to! If your plans allow it, just show up early. While the space is on the small side, they reserve roughly half the tables for walk ins. Plan this strategically, and you'll be well on your way to a delicious, flavorful Italian food experience.
A special thanks goes out to our server, Sam, for an incredible wine recommendation, a delightfully jovial demeanor, wonderful smile, good conversation, quick service, and a candle in Jeff's dessert.
Birthday dinners are supposed to be special, and this is surely one we won't forget.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY JEFF!
It all started with a pastry whose name I couldn't pronounce.
I first came across the now ubiquitous Kouign Amann at Farm:Table
, and not knowing entirely what it was, was persuaded (quite easily, to be sure) to pick one up on my inaugural visit. I will save the details of my love affair with this crispy sugary croissant at a later date, but this divine experience had an even greater impact on my palate of pastries, as it introduced me to Belinda Leong.
Belinda, owner of B. Patisserie (Facebook
), is no newbie to the world of sweets. She spent one year in Paris under the tutelage of Pierre Hermé (macaron KING of the world), supplied pastries to Bar Agricole, and was Head Pastry Chef at Manresa as well a little restaurant called Gary Danko - just to name a few.
This ain't her first rodeo.
It is no exaggeration that every time I was able to get my hands on one of her pastries, I took full advantage. Working down in the South Bay, my pickings are generally slim. Places that carry her creations are either not open at 6am, close by the time I return home, or have been long sold out. My weekend jaunts about town, however, are often times accompanied by a little piece of indulgence when I can snag one.
When I found out that Belinda was popping up at the Four Barrel Alley
this Sunday, I knew I had to be there. I purposely ignored the menu she posted just days before, because to be honest, it didn't much matter to me what she was serving - I knew it would be stellar and I would happily devour it.
Now if there's one thing I'm good at, it's being on time. And by "on time" I mean ten minutes early. So, as I hopped on my bike and made my way down Caledonia, I was taken aback by the line that had already formed!
People really want Belinda's goods.
As I stood in line, I eyed the menu and saw that most of the items strayed from her normal offerings!
The Glorious Spread
She had her classic KA, as well as one with an apricot and cherry center. However, there were so many items I had yet to try, I actually skipped over both of those in favor of diversification. After an internal battle regarding my decisions, I finally decided on the two I was getting. First, the "White Chocolate Coffee Macaron with Chocolate Toffee Ganache," and second, the "Sugar Brioche Tart with Summer Berries and Vanilla Cream."
White Chocolate Coffee Macaron with Chocolate Toffee Ganache
Sugar Brioche with Summer Berries and Vanilla Cream
Knowing that Belinda spent time with Pierre himself, I was fired up to try this macaron. Ever since visiting Paris two summers ago and experiencing the wonder that is a Pierre Herme macaron, I have been on a seemingly fruitless search for anything comparable. As I bit into it, I knew I was getting much, MUCH closer to my answer. The part of the macaron that is hardest to replicate is that initial crispy, flaky exterior, and Belinda nailed it . My teeth just cracked the outside, and fell softly into the bed of the cookie. Here, I though, it was just a bit too chewy. It is entirely possible that it could have been due to the size of the macaron (which was probably two inches in diameter) - just a little too big. Or, it may have needed to come to room temperature, as my second one (yes, second one, thanks to the lovely staff that let me have a slightly cracked one! THANKS!) was better. However, I completely forgot about that once I let the flavors meld together in my mouth. None of the flavors were too pronounced as to dominate the cookie, yet each one played well off of the next. The ganache was smooth as silk, and coffee/chocolate/white chocolate complimented each other perfectly.
The sugar brioche was up next. Killer good. What I think Belinda does best of all in each of her confections is that she achieves balance. Here, the brioche was buttery and sweet, but in a subtle way. The cream was light, and the berries added a brightness that contrasted with the vanilla components. It was almost like a handheld brioche pancake with berries and cream.
I started asking around how people found out about her pop-up. Mostly the answers were along the lines of a Spaceballs relationship: "My brother's cousin knows a guy who had one of her pastries at a friend's bachelorette party..."
Word of mouth travels a long, LONG way.
Other attendees included personal friends of hers, former Gary Danko colleagues, and just regular Four Barrel customers in for a happy surprise. But as I re-entered the line for my second round on the tip that her caramelized onion and bacon tart tasted like French Onion soup (yes, my dedication to this blog knows no caloric bounds. You're welcome.), I received the best answer of the day:
"She's actually catering our wedding, and we've only had her Kouign Amann."
Leeann and Jacob
Yes, Leeann and Jacob decided to enlist Belinda's expertise for their wedding, having only known her from her KAs and glowing recommendations. Neither of them consider themselves "cake people," so they wanted to take a more untraditional route for desserts. (P.S. - the main course at their wedding will be served by Jon Darsky, formerly of Flour+Water and now owner of Del Popolo pizza truck)
You two are my heroes.
Freshly stocked with a French Tart Flan and the savory "French Onion Soup"tart, the three of us took our seats on the sidewalk and exchanged stories. The two met in D.C., where they were both involved in environmental work in one form or another. They uprooted to the west coast to be closer to some family, and are actually only here until Jacob starts law school (for environmental law) at Lewis and Clark Law School. Leeann works for an environmental non-profit and is from Ann Arbor (GO BLUE!), and her brother is actually in the Hockey Pep Band: the best band in the country. Fact.
After the wedding, they'll take a "mini-moon" before heading up to Portland. Such incredibly nice people who deserve nothing but the best that life has to offer. They just seemed to genuinely happy together, and not in that really annoying clingy-kissy-pet names way. Just plain happy.
Maybe it was the sugar high, but I doubt it.
Their wedding will be in a small little park in San Mateo at the end of July, and though I just met them, am so excited for their lives ahead together (and, you know, the amazing food they'll have at the reception.)
I promise my priorities are in order.
We shared our desserts, and they even let me try some of the potential wedding items that Belinda had made for them! (For what it's worth, the lemon curd/granola/fruit has my vote. I think with the park setting and the weather, it would be much more app
Yogurt, Lemon Curd, Fruit and Granola
From what I understand, most couples taste a dozen or so cakes before they find the perfect flavors and textures for which they're looking. How incredible is that that merely a reputation and one pastry was enough for a couple entrust their entire wedding catering?
No need when that person is Belinda Leong.
I guess I should get back to the food.
Alsatian Caramelized Onion/Bacon Tart
The caramelized onion and bacon tart was just as touted - a handheld french onion soup with the crust as the crouton! The onions were soft and sweet, with a layer of tangy crème fraîche spiked with salty bacon bits and topped with swiss cheese. Seriously, if you want french onion soup in a portable form, you won't get anything better than this! It would be an awesome summertime lunch when you don't want hot soup and still want to feel fancy.
The real surprise for me, however, was the French Tart Flan. I'm not usually a flan fan, but I figured since I had tried virtually everything else on the menu, why not go all-out?
French Tart Flan
Let's start from the bottom up. The pâte brisée crust managed to stay crisp despite holding the weight of the custardy flan. It was flaky and had a wonderful snap to it after you sunk through the creamy, smooth insides. The "flan" did not have your traditional wiggly jello-esque consistency. Instead, it had a smooth, thick, creamy mouthfeel with the only differing texture coming from the actual vanilla bean specs studded throughout. The vanilla was the star here, and it shone through and through.
Belinda - I wish you nothing but all of the success you deserve. You have proven yourself in restaurants around the world, but now you have the chance to show your stuff for what it really is: your own. I feel lucky to have such easy access to your work, and rest assured that I will continue to consume it as often as I am physically able.
Leeann and Jacob - May your life together be as rich in happiness as Belinda's Kouign Amanns are in butter and sugar :)