Archive for April, 2006

Caesar Salad, Keller-style

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

I’ve been trying to eat slightly lighter this week after all those restaurant meals I had last weekend. My standard dinner salad is just baby greens, artichoke hearts, feta, and sun-dried tomatoes (with the oil adhered to them as the dressing), but I decided to mix it up with this more indulgent Thomas Keller recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook; the recipe can be found at the end of this linked article (ignore its title).

It’s “Parmigiano-Reggiano Custard with Romaine Lettuce, Anchovy Dressing, and Parmesan Crisps.” More concisely: “fancy Caesar Salad. And of course, I started at about 3pm.

It’s actually not a very hard recipe. It just has a lot of components: the custard, the dressing, the croutons, the cheese crisps, and the lettuce. The custard needs 45 minutes to steep initially, 30 minutes to bake, and then 2 hrs to chill. The instructions for the dressing offhandedly mention that the anchovies should be soaked in milk for 30 mins, and then you blend it all, and chill for 2 hrs. Oh, and there’s a balsamic glaze that takes 2 to 3 hrs to reduce, but I didn’t make it because I don’t like that too much and there’s already balsamic in the dressing. The croutons, cheese crisps, and lettuce are ready in a snap, though.

I’ve found that with a lot of seemingly difficult recipes, there’s rather little work; it’s mostly just waiting for something to heat, soak, mix, set, or chill. I worked on other things between making the custard and the dressing and actually eating. It just helped that I happened to be home at 3pm. But, all of the components can be held for more than one day, so when I make this the next night from leftover components, it’ll take all of 5 minutes.

I made this as a big dinner salad with torn leaves instead of chiffonade leaves, but it’s meant to be more like a cheese course. The picture in The French Laundry Cookbook shows the whole thing as being as wide as a slice of baguette and a couple inches tall with chiffonade of romaine and a dot of reduced balsamic on the side.

So, I guess mine is more like a Semi-Fancy Caesar Salad:

Caesar Keller

I was a bit torn on how to plate it. I wanted the custard flat, but not as a well in the middle, so it’s just on the side; cuz really, it’s just a dinner at home. I also toasted the croutons right before eating so that they’d be warm.

After I made it, I understood why the title emphasized the parmigiano-reggiano — it is the star of the dish. The custard was the essence of the cheese’s flavor, and mine turned out more towards a goat cheese texture than flan, which I prefer for this. Combined with the parmesan crisp, which of course is the same cheese in different form, it was even more pungent and intricate. The dressing, however, is very, er, subtle; maybe I need to add more salt and pepper to it; or should have subbed red wine vinegar for balsamic, or added worcestershire sauce, or subbed lemon juice for all the vinegar. I might even like it more with the Bouchon House Vinaigrette, described in this post, and so forget about conforming to the Caesar formula.

But I would never mess with the custard.

the girl & the fig – Sonoma

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Edit: I have since revisited the girl & the fig.
In my recounting of our weekend eating adventures, I’ve saved the best for last: the girl & the fig in the town of Sonoma. Fantastic food. A comfortable and elegant setting. Creative and well-made drinks. Relatively reasonable prices. Great bread and butter. A friendly waitress. A cheese bar. An emphasis on the elusive fig.

This is how dining in wine country should be. Tasty, comfortable, and fun. We had a sunny window table that I wish I could rent as my second home.

Fig Crab

We shared the Dungeness Crab and Salt Cod Brandade with Crostini, Chevre and Grilled Lemon to start, and admired its sweet fishiness mingled with the creamy chevre and grilled lemon juice. Chad got the third crostini topped with it, and I was happy to spoon it out of the ramekin.

Fig Tuna

I had a special: Hawaiian Tombo Tuna Sandwich with Caper Mayonnaise, Rocket, and Applewood Smoked Bacon. Ever since I had Tombo Tuna at the Ferry Buiding in San Francisco, I’ve been smitten by its juiciness and sweetness. Ahi Tuna usually has an unpleasant, almost metallic flavor for me, so I’m happy that Tombo is available for my tuna fix. Tombo is also known as albacore and even “white meat tuna,” so says here; so… basically, tuna comes in white meat and dark meat (if not others that I’ve yet to encounter). It was fantastic seared in this sandwich, and the flavor combination of sweet tuna, bacon, capers, rocket, and mayonnaise makes for an exciting lunch sandwich.

Fig Burger

As much as I loved my tuna, Chad’s Top Sirloin Burger with Cambozola, Bacon, Grilled Onions, and Matchstick Fries made me jealous. So jealous. It was perfectly cooked to medium-rare, and so juicy and flavorful. And again, the combination of flavors of the whole sandwich made one swoon. I don’t know where they get their bacon from, but it’s phenomenal (I’d guess Niman Ranch, but it’s never tasted like this when I buy it). They get their Dutch roll from a bakery nearby, and they’re brilliant; not only naturally pre-cracked on top, they are somehow toasted so that they are just a little buttery all around. The onions were suitably soft and slightly sweet, and I liked that they are served on the side so that you can use them as you see fit, rather than having them arrive all piled up, dripping and slippery on the burger. And the crispy matchstick fries with herbs were the icing on a great dish.

Fig Cheesecake

Chad got the fabulously refreshing, creamy, and just heavy enough Meyer Lemon Cheesecake with Blood Orange Sauce and Sweetened Creme Fraiche. We both fell in love with it (even though that sugar garnish is not good eating). Then he tried my dessert… and proposed a trade.

Fig Crisp

I wasn’t quite prepared to part with my Warm Fig & Thyme Crisp with Fig & Port Ice Cream, so we ended up putting both dishes in the center of the table and sharing. The crisp was so soft and buttery, and especially with the ice cream, had a mixture of deep and sweet flavors. The only problem was that we couldn’t taste the thyme, but we were okay without it. I admit I had a quixotic dream of having (terribly out of season yet amazing) fresh figs in this crisp (which I will try to make someday), but they are indeed dried and make for a dessert that all fig newtons only wish they could be.

They had each dessert paired with a liqueur on the menu, which I would have gotten if I hadn’t had two wonderful cocktails earlier in the meal. “The girl & the fig” had Kleiner Fig Vodka & Framboise for a sweet fruitiness, while my “the fig & the girl” had Kleiner Fig Vodka & Campari for a bitter fruitiness. Both came with brandied cherries on skewers. After a Kir Royale, Chad had this beautiful and delicious “the girl & the gaucho” mojito with a float of Myer’s Dark Rum on top.

Fig Mojito

I’d like to try the brunch and dinner at the girl & the fig, but it will long remain where I’d like to be on a sunny Saturday afternoon with only food and drink and pleasure on my mind.

A note on prices: while main courses for lunch, from sandwiches to Provencal seafood stew, are reasonably priced between about $10 to $22, the median of appetizers is about $13… I prefer it when starters are less expensive than mains, but I guess most, especially the cheese plates, are meant for sharing.

Add’l Edited Note: the girl & the fig reminded me of both Bouchon and Chez Panisse Cafe — I suppose because of their prominent French roots, but it was more casual than Bouchon (and with more California touches for a French Bistro) and more consistent than Chez Panisse Cafe (both seem to especially believe in letting great ingredients stand out for what they are).

Chez Panisse Cafe – Berkeley

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

I went to Chez Panisse Cafe with expectations that were both high and muted. Chez Panisse and Chez Panisse Cafe are, of course, Alice Waters’s bastions of local, organic, sustainably harvested food, and they are known for seemingly simple dishes that let the flavors of the food speak for themselves (though even simple dishes can require involved preparation). This is a very difficult standard, and from what I’d read online, quite a few diners have left unimpressed recently.

For the most part, though, I found that it delivered. I didn’t fall in love with it, but it’s a restaurant worth visiting if you can manage it… because you never know when you’ll stumble upon a plate of genius.

Panisse Pizzetta

Case in point: my Pizzetta with Wild Nettles and Pecorino was fantastic. The leafy nettles were the kind of crispy that slightly breaks and dissolves on your tongue, and reveals its hearty, slightly bitter taste. The wood burning oven did wonderful things to the crust, too — light, crispy, chewy. And the cheese, studded with some sauteed red onion, brought it all together for a great flavor. I can only wonder if the Pizzetta with Tomato Sauce, Anchovy, Olives, Capers, and Egg was just as amazing.

Panisse Goat

Chad’s Baked Sonoma Goat Cheese with Garden Lettuces was a perfect rendition of this classic salad, with every bite of the goat cheese filling your mouth with a luscious creaminess.

Panisse Chicken

I had mixed feelings about my Hoffman Farm Chicken Al Mattone with Wild Rocket and Morel Mushrooms. I’d ordered it with visions of whole morels dancing in my head, but the morels turned out to be badly chopped up and with so many stem bits that I had to ask whether they were all morels (they were). “Al mattone” is an Italian term for a method of cooking the chicken with a brick on top of it (or in this case, a skillet). It fosters a crispy skin and a juicy meat. The skin was mostly crispy — and nice where it was — and the meat was juicy to the point of the juices being a bit too viscuous for me.

Panisse Lamb

Chad’s Grilled Dal Porto Ranch Lamb Shoulder with Fava Beans, Rosemary, and Sage was disappointing because the lamb was stringy and dry, with a blah flavor. The sauce, however, was amazing, and a slice of toasted bread that sat in it was the treasure of the plate.

Panisse Rhubarb

After my devotion to recipes in Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Remolif Shere and David Lebovitz‘s cookbooks, I was a little apprehensive about dessert going wrong after our shaky main courses, but I figured that even at the worst, I could say that I’ve had their desserts better at home. I needn’t have worried — they were wonderful. My Rhubarb and Pecan Crisp with Meyer Lemon Ice Cream was perky and refreshing, and an especially nice flavor combination. Chopped walnuts in it worked well, too.

Panisse Pave

Chad got the Bittersweet Chocolate Pave with Earl Grey Ice Cream… or rather, Earl Grey Whipped Cream (either the menu writer or a pastry cook slipped up). The pave was a great little cake that, as far as I can tell, was flourless. It went more towards a slightly dense dry souffle (in a good way) than a very dense flourless choc cake. It was a satisfying chocolate dessert that didn’t feel too overpoweringly rich.

Panisse Grape

I also liked their bar menu, which included an eclectic “Juice & Milk” section. It was not only fun to order “A Biodynamic Grape Juice, please,” it tasted good, too. It was a Mosta d’Uva Biodynamic Grape Juice, Guerzoni, Modena, Italy, which had a robust, almost musty taste that made me forget all about wine. I would also have been curious to try the 2005 Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer Grape Juice. I think it’s great to have an interesting selection of drinks that lets relatively little drivers like me enjoy a complex beverage without getting tipsy.

Overall Note about Plating: I’ve become less and less interested in painstakingly arranged plates, so Chez Panisse Cafe was a welcome change in a way, but some dishes looked a little bit too thrown on the plate (the crisp) and the one that was more arranged looked kind of weird (the pave); plus, our main courses looked almost identical at a glance. Somewhere, I’ll find a happy plating medium.

By the way, Chez Panisse Cafe is upstairs from Chez Panisse, and has an a la carte menu that is pretty reasonably priced. I called about a 1.5 weeks in advance for a Friday night reservation for Chez Panisse, but it was full so to the Cafe we went.

A Cup of Cake

Monday, April 24th, 2006
Cup of Cake

I had some extra batter from a buttermilk cake I was making, so I put it into this ramekin, baked it, and frosted it. It was like a plated cupcake… or, um, an American cake souffle with chocolate icing…

In any case, it was great.

Terra – St. Helena

Monday, April 24th, 2006

I expected Terra to be the crown jewel of our weekend dining, but it was just okay… with ups and downs and plateaus. This restaurant seems to be a favorite of many people in the Valley, but the food didn’t get to that level for us. The decor is beautiful and romantic, though; it’s in a stately stone building, and its stone walls are lined with wines. It has the distinction of having two dining rooms separated by a foyer in the middle where the front door is (take a right for the maitre d’, or you’ll find yourself wandering amongst tables on the left).

Terra Oysters

I started off with the Panko Crusted Miyagi Oysters with Pork Belly “Kakuni” in Black Vinegar Sauce, and loved the way that it made me perk up to its textures, flavors, and colors. The oysters were perfectly cooked, crispy on the outside and meltingly soft on the inside, and the whole dish was well put together; I even appreciated the leafy contrast of the microgreens on top. After the amazing pork belly at Grace, though, this one wasn’t as luscious and light. It was a welcoming start, though.

Terra halibut

Chad had the special Halibut Sashimi appetizer. The halibut was fresh and nice enough, but the we weren’t told that every piece of halibut was matched with slices of mushroom. Chad doesn’t like mushrooms, so half the dish went to me. I like the presentation, though; it’s simple and fun.

Terra Cod

My first bite of the Broiled Sake Marinated Alaskan Black Cod and Shrimp Dumplings in Shiso Broth was heavenly. I was happy with the play of flavors in the broth and the cod and its caramelization. By the middle of the dish, though, the caramelized fish flavor began to be very oppressive. I felt a little nauseous, and I couldn’t eat it anymore. Even with the shrimp dumpling and vegetables, there wasn’t enough contrast or development of the flavor. Granted, I didn’t have wine with the course, but the dish should be able to stand up on its own.

Terra Quail

Chad had a special of Quail with Cheese Polenta, Beet Greens, and Turnips. The cheese polenta had the most flavor, and had a lovely smooth texture. The quail was a little overcooked, while the turnips were undercooked. The greens were just kind of there. The dish had an pervasive unpleasant offal sort of flavor for me, but Chad thought it was okay.

Terra Pudding

Woohoo, the desserts were both excellent, in an unexpectedly homey sort of way. My Chocolate Pudding Parfait with Cacao Nib Crisp was all that I could ask for — full of such smooth pudding that was just heavy enough while remaining light enough (not overloaded with yolks like some housemade puddings), great chocolate flavor, and moist, dense cake — I even loved the simple whipped cream and how well it went with the chocolate. And the crisp was a great bonus — almost like a chocolate caramel cookie.

Terra Cake

Chad’s Orange Mille Cake with Citrus Salad was fantastic. The last (and only other) time that I had Mille Cake was at Lady M in Manhattan. Terra’s orange cream between the crepes was a bit heavier than the light cream at Lady M, but I think that it matched the consistency of the crepe better so it was a more cohesive cake. Both approaches are good, though. The orange was a wonderful bright flavor, and the citrus was juicy and bright, too. I also liked the tuile bowties with the citrus salad for some whimsical, if very random, garnish.