Archive for February, 2007

Goodbye, Napa… Hello, Los Angeles

Monday, February 12th, 2007

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks packing, moving, unpacking, and waiting to get my internet service installed in my new apartment. Now, that’s all settled, and it’s back to blogging, as usual.

I’ve also been taking an occasional picture, so here’s my little transitional scrap book… I had so many “last meals” to commemorate and enjoy the Bay Area that I’m going to have to do the highlights here. And no notes to work from… just memories and stream of consciousness.

So, of course, to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, which has become my favorite restaurant in the area. Consistently creative and flavorful food with a wonderful wait staff.

First was the legendary Rabbit Tostada, which I’ve rhapsodized about in previous posts. No pic this time, we just ate it straightaway.

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Next was a Macaroni and Cheese with Ham, which made me fall in love all over again. In addition to cheese that walked the line between creamy and elastic and a crunchy blanket of bread crumbs, the ham was so tender — like a pulled ham — that it made me wish that all those unfortunate rubbery cubes of ham found elsewhere could be banned. It was also just a little spicy, just to make that much more perfect.

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I think that any fellow Mac & Cheese enthusiast would appreciate this.

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Ricotta Bread Pudding with Huckleberries. Chad liked this more than I did. It was a little too messy on the plate and in the mouth, but it was redeemed partially by a nice ricotta finish.

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Campfire Pie. Amazing as always.

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And that burger at the girl & the fig. With cambozola and grilled onions. Meaty and juicy, of course, but also tangy, sweet, salty, sour. And that dutch crunch roll is the stuff of genius.

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I also liked their “the works” cheese plate.

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I also liked the donut from Bouchon Bakery, with the panned sort of chocolate bits on top. An excellent firm, yet yielding texture to add to a donut — without going all crunchy on us.

I wish I’d had time to go to Bouchon one more time, and Ad Hoc, for that matter. Ad Hoc is the restaurant that Thomas Keller opened with the intent of closing it after so many months, but it’s become permanent, which is good news for everybody. In addition to salads and cheese courses that are able to surprise and delight because of their freshness and well-judged creativity (such as pickled apples with cheese), the main courses are usually slow-cooked succulent meats with lots of vegetables. Unfortunately, I’ve found their desserts to range from the average (panna cotta) to inedible (large tablets of dry and hard puff pastry served with a dollop of whipped cream and too few berries, like a do it yourself Napoleon). Similar things could be said about Bouchon (and I believe that the same chef oversees both kitchens) — the special meat course of the day is usually wonderful — and the desserts have always disappointed me there, too. Ad Hoc is $45 for four courses (only one menu avail each night; no choices, except wine), which is high for a casual restaurant, but low for a Thomas Keller restaurant. The skill is evident in most courses, though, and frankly, I crave the place. I did have one last opportunity to go for their Fried Chicken night — Thomas Keller Fried Chicken = TKFC! — but knowing that it would involve a glass of wine, I found it too hard to justify a $60 fried chicken dinner under the circumstances. Instead, I vowed to visit the fine establishment known as Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles in Los Angeles asap to get my fried chicken fix, and I’ve decided not to look back… too much.

So, anyway, back to the legendary food that I did eat…

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Contrary to my melancholy musings before, I did manage to go back to Tartine (though, truth be told, walking there from the Ferry Building is no more of a picnic than driving and finding parking there). This glorious morning bun had a perfectly chewy caramelized outside, enhanced by the crunchiness of the sugar crystals and seductive hints of orange and cinnamon.

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The gooeyness inside was also brilliant, amidst the tender ribbon of dough.

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The meringue with cocoa nibs was an unexpected pleasure. Simple, but with deep flavor, and a balance of sweet and bitter, crunchy and soft, wet and dry.

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The quiche as a little disappointing — I think it had been over-cooked — but I can appreciate a flaky crust when I encounter it.

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I kept eating this Banana Cream Pie out of stupefied curiosity. As far as I can tell, chocolate is painted on the crust, caramel and pastry cream spooned on top, slices of banana are put on top of that, and then the whipped cream and chocolate shavings are on top of that. I spent too long looking around in the tart to see what else was in there, and it was also kind of watery inside; some banana slices were bare, some were, say, half swimming in liquid and half in pastry cream. The ingredients seemed good on their own — delicious, in fact — but confusing when put together; and maybe it was old and something had separated.

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This Cake aux Olives was another source of wonder. It had gruyere, ham, eggs, wine, olives, and a bit of flour — enough for a salt-rific, slightly crisp crust. A slightly gummy texture, but in a thought-provoking way. I guess it’s like a cross between a quiche and an olive bread.

And then to Zuni Cafe, where I really wanted to try their burger.

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I liked the pickled onions and the soft but supple bread, but the meat was a little bouncier in the mouth than I like. I also got a lovely gigantic plate of fries, which I can proudly say, I made a dent in. And their bread was gorgeous and tasty.

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BUT the best thing about the lunch was the service — it was extraordinary, and made me feel all warm and peaceful inside. I just walked in alone and without a reservation for lunch, in hiking sneakers, jeans, and a backpack, and on my way to the hostess stand, I spied a few spartan, small tables in a tiny nook and thought that I’d glimpsed into my future. But NO, they gave me a completely wonderful table near the window in the main dining room that was already set for one person (no awkward removal of utensils or chairs in my presence necessary), and the wait staff was thoroughly congenial and helpful. I read my history of candy book, ate my food, and walked out sprightlier than I’d walked in — which is no mean feat, considering my burger ‘n fries ‘n wine feast (and bfst at Tartine). I really appreciate their thoughtfulness, which was gauged to fit my situation. I’m now an ardent fan.

I won’t go into all the issues of dining alone, except that the best restaurants realize that a lone diner one day is a leader of, say, a party of six another day (and/or, say, a writer of a blog post), and that it’s a compliment for a person to want to eat at a restaurant alone, b/c they just really want to eat the food (and in my case, read; I concede that sitting there with a book at a table and wearing hiking sneakers doesn’t add to the mood of the restaurant, but at some point, we all want to eat good food while reading and wearing casual shoes, so why not go for it?). And of course, good service is good service no matter how many people.

And then… I guess this was it… my final meal…

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A turkey and herbed goat cheese sandwich and chocolate bouchon from Bouchon Bakery. Half the sandwich consumed for dinner in Napa, the rest as lunch at a rest area, somewhere off the 5 hwy, in my car. Yum.

I’ll visit Napa, SF, and Berkeley as often as I can, but for now, here I am in LA again… with lots of eating and baking to do. When I left LA in mid-2005, I’d gone for years without using an oven — I barely knew what to do with it — or doing any real cooking. I would run down the hill from my apartment to the corner convenience store for an occasional pint of icy Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. I spent most of last week unpacking, but I also found time to make: two sorbets, candied blood orange peel, a banana bread, a ganache, five spice marshmallows, pounds of roasted carrots, brined pork tenderloin with apple/quince/potato medley (from Lucques cookbook), and a banana chocolate malt ice cream base is waiting in my freezer, to be spun tomorrow. Not a bad start…