Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dish on Dining: Serpentine

A Home to Chowdown in Dogpatch
2495 Third St. (at 22nd), San Francisco
Dogpatch neighborhood
PH: 415.252.2000
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., Mon.–Fri.; dinner: 6–10 p.m., Tues.–Sat.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

You can spot a new wine bar and café across the street, but really, the restaurant Serpentine is out there on its own in the emerging, industrial neighborhood known as Dogpatch. If it weren’t for the new Muni T-Line, I probably wouldn’t even venture out in this area that also includes a sparkling new UCSF Mission Bay campus.

But the T-Line drops you off a block away from the restaurant, so I made the ride out to check out this sibling of the popular Slow Club. Joining me was my friend Laurie, who typically needs a dining locale with easy parking. She didn’t have any problems finding free street parking right outside Serpentine.

We made last-minute dinner reservations on a weeknight, so we were tucked away in a table in the corner of the bar. But it gave us a grand view of the bar and main dining area with its mix of high ceilings, brick walls, velvet drapes and wood accents. The warm setting sun of Dogpatch filled the room to create a cozy but sleek environment. As the evening went on, the restaurant bustled with the after-work crowd, their drinks twinkling amongst the candles.

Side note: The only odd thing, IMHO, about the layout of the restaurant is that the restrooms are almost right in the middle of the dining room. If you can imagine, across from the bar and next to some dining tables, there’s this tiny room that looks almost like a closet with velvet curtains in front. When you pull back the curtains, you find the entrance to the men’s room. Next to it is a couple of other dining tables and then there’s another closet-like room that’s the women’s restroom. The restrooms were clean and private, but it just seemed a bit odd that they were kind of out in the open. I’m just glad we weren’t seated at a table next to this draped commode.

Serpentine’s dinner menu is a nice mix of comfort dishes and unusual choices—from a Prather Ranch hamburger to Buffalo bone marrow. The starter plates or appetizers seem to outnumber the entrée selection. The entrées (the most expensive was $24.50) included Alaskan cod, roast chicken, flatiron steak and Liberty duck breast. There were too many choices among the small plates, so Laurie and I decided to order a few of them to share.

We started with the Warm White Shrimp Salad ($11.50) made with little gem lettuce, Castroville artichokes, crispy potato cubes and lemon aioli. Who knew a salad could be so comforting? The warm shrimp and potatoes blended nicely with the crunch of the little gems coated with the refreshing lemon aioli. Now and then you’ll find a piece of grilled artichokes to add to your pleasure, but really it was the crispy potato cubes that got me excited about this dish. They were so much better than croutons.

Our server was especially friendly and answered our questions thoroughly and with much honest enthusiasm. It was his sincere appreciation of the bone marrow dish that convinced us both to give it a try even though neither of us had ever eaten bone marrow.

The Buffalo Bone Marrow ($11.50) came with a kumquat and parsley salad and some grey salt for sprinkling and grilled levain bread slices to eat. Our server gave us two utensils to eat this dish: a small fork-like utensil to dig the marrow out of the bone and a tiny knife to spread it on our grilled bread.

The bone marrow was slow cooked until it softened into a gel. I think the idea is to make it almost like butter. The bones itself were still pretty warm, so you have to be careful touching it when digging out the marrow. Laurie said the marrow imparted a real beefy flavor and I felt it was interesting but not as smooth as I imagined. It felt like eating slowly braised tendons. The fresh kumquat slices provided a nice acidity to cut into the heaviness of the marrow, but Laurie and I didn’t really love the marrow. At least we’ve now checked off bone marrow from our culinary list of things to try.

Next came the Hand Cut Egg Noodles ($14.50) served with black trumpet mushrooms, fava beans and grana padano cheese topped with a poached egg. The combination of the creaminess from the egg after we broke into it and the grana padano cheese was heavenly. The dish was a little more salted for my taste, but I’m told traditional Italian pasta is generally heavier on the salt. Still, the freshness of the pasta and the combination of the ingredients made this a wonderful comfort dish.

Our last dish was the Lamb Riblettes ($12.50), which are like baby-sized ribs (not to be confused with baby back ribs). Riblettes are supposedly the end cut of the lamb ribs, so they’re smaller and include some bones that are so thin that I could actually bite into them for a nice crunch. The tender lamb riblettes were served on top of a fava bean puree and served with French feta cheese. It was covered with a pile of parsley (which is why you don’t really get a good view of the riblettes in the photo).

The riblettes were a slow-cooked marvel. The meat was tender, but not necessarily falling-off-the-bone messy. And the sauce was a rich combination of earthiness and barbeque. I couldn’t decide which. But it was enjoyable.

We ended the evening with the Earl Grey Pot de Crème with Bergamot Granita, which was a new item on Serpentine’s dessert menu. Some of you know I’m a big tea lover, and Earl Grey is the king of teas in my eyes, so this was a home run either way. I mean, how can you go wrong with a creamy pudding infused with the citrus-floral essence of Earl Grey? The bergamot granita was an unusual touch. They looked like sugar cubes on top of the pot de crème but were little bursts of icy bergamot flavors to add to the whole Earl Grey experience.

Chef Chris Kronner, who still oversees the kitchen at Slow Club, has created a seasonal menu that draws on his strengths of using strong flavors and interesting ingredients to provide comforting dishes that will satisfy you without stuffing you. Serpentine may be out there on its own in the city’s Dogpatch, but it’s definitely a place you should venture out and try.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (Delicious chow)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Serpentine on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 28, 2008

Seen at The Market: Purple Asparagus

I love finding really interesting looking produce, especially when they come in an unusual color such as these purple asparagus I found at Market Hall Produce in my Rockridge neighborhood.

I don’t really know the story behind purple asparagus—is it a hybrid, do asparagus start off purple and then turn green, or is it a dye job? My search of the Internet found that most point to Italy as the creators of the purple stalks.

Unlike white asparagus, which takes longer to cook than the more common green asparagus, the purple variety is just like the green. In fact, when I cut into them, there was a thin layer of green under the purple surrounding the white flesh. It’s almost like someone spray-painted my green asparagus purple.

I thought they looked really dramatic, but after I bought it I wasn’t sure what to do with them. So I just made a stir-fry below. Problem is, the asparagus turned from purple to green under the high heat. So I basically lost any benefit of the purple-ness.

I think if I see purple asparagus at the market again, I might just lightly steam or grill them and then serve it with a traditional hollandaise sauce or a garlic aioli in order to retain the integrity of the royal purple. Or maybe I might just dye the white ones! :P

Spicy Asparagus and Tofu Stir-Fry

Copyright 2008 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 lb. asparagus, diagonally cut into 2-inch pieces
7 oz. fried tofu (Hawaiian style optional)*, cut into strips
1 T black bean sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 T fish sauce
1 T sugar
2 t chili sauce
½ T of oyster sauce
1 garlic clove, minced
1 T cornstarch
¼ cup water
2 T Canola oil

In a bowl, mix sesame oil, fish sauce, sugar and chili sauce. Add in slices of tofu and let sit for about 10 minutes.

In a wok or large skillet, warm Canola oil over high heat. Then add garlic and asparagus. Stir-fry for about a minute, then add black bean sauce. Stir to blend well. Add tofu with some of the marinade, enough to create sizzle and make a sauce.

In a small bowl, mix cornstarch with water to create a slurry. Then add to wok to thicken sauce. Finish with the oyster sauce and garnish with some cilantro.

Makes 2 to 3 servings. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

* Can substitute with firm tofu.

Pair with a glass of Riesling.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Yin & Yang of Dining: A Conversation with Chef Tim Luym of Poleng Lounge

In just two weeks I’ll be traveling to Honolulu, which I’m totally excited about. But unfortunately that also means I’ll be gone when the special food event, East West Eats, takes place on May 8 (Thursday night) at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

This is the second year for this fund-raiser by the San Francisco chapter of the
Asian American Journalists Association, featuring some of the city’s top Asian chefs. Since I can’t be at the event in person, I decided to meet with one of the featured chefs. Of the list of participating chefs and restaurants, Poleng Lounge and its young chef, Tim Luym, were on the top of my list of people to meet.

I’ve heard a lot about Poleng Lounge since it opened in the summer 2006, and my friends and I keep making plans to check it out but never seem to get out to that area of San Francisco, now popularly known as NOPA (north of the Panhandle).

Poleng Lounge is a hip music destination that also serves as a neighborhood restaurant bar. Chef Luym (pronounced loo-em) and his partners have created a space that’s zen-like upfront but cool and energetic in the back. Accenting everything is the authentic Asian cuisine from Luym, reflecting his Chinese-Spanish heritage along with his exposure to other Asian countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Chef Luym’s food created so much buzz that he was named in 2007 as one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s
Rising Star Chefs.

This past week I visited Chef Luym, 29, at his restaurant-lounge to learn more about his approach to cooking and the rise of Filipino cuisine.

The following are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Ben: So tell me how you got into food, because I know you didn’t start off planning to be a chef. Weren’t you actually in marketing?

Chef Luym: MIS (management information systems). I had a business degree. Honestly, coming out of college I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do. But the hot thing at the time was working in the high-tech industry. I liked business, but with a concentration on computers. I ended up doing some programming and some database work and online marketing work for about three years. That was soon after that whole dot-com bubble kind of burst. … I’m just naturally a hard worker. I usually give 110 percent in everything I do. But I couldn’t see myself moving up in that corporate kind of “Office Space” environment. (He was referring to the 1999 movie.)

So one day I cooked steamed tilapia with ginger and scallions similar to what you find in the Chinese restaurants, with the recipe from my mom. And as a joke, my roommates I was living with said “this is really good, you should go into cooking or something,” because they knew I was unhappy with my job.

B: So what happened next?

CL: I was at the point that I couldn’t do this Office Space thing anymore. I just couldn’t do it anymore, so it was either cooking school or film school. But if I went to film school I had to go to New York or LA, and I was really comfortable around the Bay. There was a good culinary school in San Francisco (the California Culinary Academy) so I decided to make the choice then.

B: Did you cook often for your roommates?

CL: Yeah. It was really budget-type stuff. (laughs) College cooking and I cooked what my grandma and mom used to teach me. … A lot of braised pork dishes, Chinese fish. My mom always experimented. She had a really good palate.

B: Did your mom do a lot of cooking when you were growing up?

CL: She did a lot of cooking. For some reason my dad was always at work so after school I would help my mom. I was the rice boy. That was my chore. I always cooked the rice.

B: Did you have one of those rice cookers or did you cook it from scratch in a pot on the stove?

CL: Eventually we did get a rice cooker. But in the beginning I had to do the pot thing with the fingers. (Note: Using the index finger is an old trick to measure how much water to add to make the perfect rice. I like to stick with the rice cooker.)

B: So did you grow up in the Bay Area?

CL: I was born in Manila (the Philippines). When I was 3, my family in 1981, we all migrated here and lived everywhere. We started in San Francisco and then got raised in San Mateo, Palo Alto, went to college in San Jose and found my way back to the city.

B: I heard your parents moved back to the Philippines?

CL: About 10 years ago they moved back and me and my sister ended up staying here.

B: So did you and your sister have to cook for yourself?

CL: Actually, I went to the Philippines to study for one year when they first moved back and then decided to finish up high school here so I could get a better chance getting into a good college. And then stayed with family and friends but then moved into the dorms.

… My sister did cook a lot. Even my brother. Everyone but my dad cooks. So my dad loves to eat. (laughs)

B: There always has to be someone to do the eating. Who would you say influenced you the most for your food?

CL: Probably my mom and my grandma.

B: How did your grandmother influenced you?

CL: I used to visit the Philippines every year, or every couple years. …Every time we’d go there she being the grandma would always cook all kinds of traditional Chinese dishes that she was really proud of but sometimes as a kid you just want your fried lumpia (similar to spring rolls) or stuff like that. Every time we had dinner at her house when we’d stay there for the summer, she’ll always cook fresh Chinese lumpia with wrappers and braised pork and pig trotters—different things like sticky rice. And then it kind of grew on me.

And every time I’d leave to come back here, she’ll always ask if I wanted to learn some recipes or to take some recipes with me. Because she’ll say if you ever get hungry, you’ll have something easy to make. You can take care of yourself. I guess the big thing with food is she doesn’t want us to go hungry.

Recently over the past five years or so, I realized with her cuisine and what she’s doing it’s really traditional stuff that you can’t really find because she grew up with it and she lived in the Philippines. So I gained a new appreciation for the Chinese dishes that she was feeding us, because as a kid I didn’t really understand. I just thought food is food.

B: Tell me how Poleng Lounge came to be?

CL: It came about when I was working with a bunch of friend-acquaintances and this idea came about. This guy Desi Danganan, one of the managing partners, he pulled together a group there was six of us in the beginning to pitch this bar-restaurant-tea-lounge-night-life idea. He was pretty deep in the promoting scene with the night life, so that was his strength. And there was another investor his strength was kind of like general managing, financial stuff like that. So they were looking for a chef. I decided to take the risk. I used to also deejay and promote so I thought that’d be a really fun kind of venture.

B: Did you guys already have this location in mind?

CL: No, they were searching for spaces. And this came on the market. And the real estate was for sale with the business. That was when we knew that it was the spot to invest in because with our banking strategy, owning the real estate is one of the smartest things to do especially in the restaurant business where there’s a high rate of failure.

B: What were you hoping to do when creating the menu?

CL: The original plan was for this to be a successful night club that served food. We thought liquor would make the most money, so just building around that. I was cooking French food (for Charles Nob Hill and then Fifth Floor) but obviously that wouldn’t work here. And so I love street food. Like every time I would go home and travel through Asia, just the simple things you find on the streets or beer food. So I thought that was a great idea to kind of utilize here.

… I don’t really enjoy too much fusion. I mean, I think fusion is great. But I just wanted to portray some of the things I’ve tasted or seen with the culture behind it. So I wanted to also use the identity of the country.

B: What is it about fusion food that made you decide you didn’t want to replicate it at Poleng Lounge?

CL: I’ve tried a lot of Asian fusion food and it’s something that I find exciting and I learn from it. But it’s not something I can eat every day. So being this kind of neighborhood here, being a neighborhood restaurant … I didn’t feel it was right to do that.

B: You wanted to keep it very simple?

CL: Right, very simple. But also give the homage almost to these random cooks and street stall hawkers.

B: When you try to recreate the street food, do you find it a challenge to make sure it’s authentic because you might not find the right ingredients?

CL: I try really hard to source that ingredient. Like sometimes for calamansi citrus I’ll drive down to Sunnyvale because the lady totally grows it on her tree and she barters with the grocery store and then I’ll go to the grocery store to get it. … Pandan leaves we’ll get from Hawaii. But also we try to keep as much local sustainable stuff too but it’s really hard with Asian ingredients because of the competition with all the Chinese restaurants. The growers I talk to, the producers, the vendors, it’s not worth it for them to produce all those organic Asian greens because there’s no market for it. The (Chinese) restaurants around won’t pay those prices.

B: Your menu reflects food from all types of Asian countries, but is there one country’s cuisine that’s more dominant?

CL: I think just recently it’s been leaning a lot more toward Filipino food, partly because I have some roots in the Philippines but also because recently there’s been a trend with a lot of interest in Filipino food.

B: I noticed that too. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s because there’s a large Filipino community in the Bay Area?

CL: I think that’s a good start, the fact that there’s a good-sized Filipino community. But it’s also a little unexplored. Because with Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, you can find that anywhere in the U.S. But Filipino food, the only ones they’ve had here was like the canteen-style almost. … It’s very cafeteria-like. You get these huge portions. … A chef in New York opened a place that’s pure Filipino, an upscale Filipino restaurant and it’s doing really well. Down in San Mateo, Bistro Luneta opened up, it’s kind of Filipino fusion also. It’s opened peoples’ eyes to what Filipino food is and also the different ways it can be portrayed.

B: I’m actually not very familiar with Filipino foods. How would you describe it? Is there a particular characteristic like how Thai food uses peanuts and limes and Vietnamese food uses fresh herbs?

CL: There’s three types. There’s native Filipino food, Chinese-Filipino food and Spanish-Filipino food. Native Filipino food is a lot of pork, local vegetables, beans grow well. There’s not a lot of vegetables like tomatoes. The citrus would be calamansi. Fruits: mango, jackfruit, durian. And I guess a lot of stews. All the vegetables dishes, native Filipino dishes, are very stewy, like Chicken adobo.

B: Is braising really popular?

CL: Yeah, yeah, they have oxtails, braised chicken, braised pork. I think the reason for that is it’s a Third World country. If you eat a stew like in Ethiopian cuisine or wherever, if you have a nice, rich sauce it’s not very expensive. So the sauce on the rice is actually more of the meal than the actual chicken or pork because of the financial situation of the country.

At the same time by using a lot of vinegars and salted fish, like dried fish, it helps preserve the food because it’s a warm country. And so the acidity and saltiness of these dishes acts as a preservative so it doesn’t spoil quickly. Any culture or any region, the reason why they cook this way or the reason why they do these things is not because they read it in a cookbook. It says something about their culture and lifestyle.

B: So what have you tried to bring to the menu at Poleng Lounge that’s reflective of the Philippines?

CL: Right now we have a secret menu.

B: Oh, what’s that?

CL: On our menu there’s only so much space to list like 20 dishes. And some dishes a lot of people, especially other ethnicities, might be a little offended by. Like a pig’s head or trotters or gizzards or eating just like chicken skin, where in Asia it’s like a delicacy. Like salted eggs and century-old eggs. We’ve had instances where people almost freaked out or like, “what is this?”

So we decided to develop a secret menu for diners who are more experimental or regulars who know the things that we do and are willing to try new things, and it doesn’t take up any space on the menu and we don’t take the risk of offending someone.

B: Do you need like a password for this secret menu? How do people order off of it?

CL: (laughs) Basically you just ask your server. Sometimes they’ll see if you order certain things, like we have bone marrow on the menu—it’s pretty common but some people might not think it’s too common. So if it seems like you’re ordering more the adventurous things rather than more of the basic things, sometimes the server will say you might be interested in the secret menu.

B: When you were first describing Poleng Lounge, it really seemed to have a lot of identities—a tea room, a lounge, a restaurant, a bar. Was that on purpose?

CL: It was on purpose. It’s kind of dangerous if you have too many identities. But we were all first-time business owners and it was out of a little bit of naivety.

B: You wanted to see which stuck?

CL: We ended up tying everything together. When you dine here you’ll see tea is pretty big here. We’ll cook with tea, in some of our dishes, some of our curries. We have a big tea menu with 35 loose leaf teas. It’s not the main part but it’s still there. The night life and the bar is also just as big a part as the restaurant so we try really hard to tie it together and make it seamless for a diner who might want to stay for dancing. Every now and then people won’t understand it but for the most part I think we’re able to transition from a restaurant to a bar.

B: You want them to get that all-in-one experience?

CL: I guess so. Yeah.

B: So then they won’t ever leave.

CL: (laughs) Yes. And that’s why Desi chose the name Poleng, because Poleng (in Balinese) is the dualities, the yin and yang. So you have the tea aspect which is very healthy and relaxing and you have the liquor aspect. So it’s plays off the opposite. … We have the dinner aspect where people are dining and enjoying themselves and we have the dancing aspect where it’s more energetic.

We did the interview outside in the lounge and dining area, which has a warm fireplace in the center and trickling waterfall along one wall. In the corner is the DJ booth for music. Afterwards we walked to the back room known as the Temple Room, where there’s room for dancing and a lot of ambient lanterns and a statue of a female goddess.

B: So I heard you used to be a deejay. Do you still do that?

CL: I wish I did. My nights and weekends are completely gone because I work. After work I just enjoy other people’s entertainment.

B: Did you start doing it in college?

CL: When I was in high school, I lived in Palo Alto. There’s a college radio station, the Stanford Radio station, and my brother got me into hip hop music. And so I called to do an internship there and I was able to do an internship from 3 to 6 in the morning, the graveyard shift on Saturday nights, and found out that was my first real love, music, deejaying. So I did that all throughout high school and college and realized the music industry is pretty cutthroat, and I’m a pretty nice guy. (laughs) … And it was something I couldn’t do forever. No one wants to see a 50-year-old DJ.

B: How did you get involved with the East West Eats event coming up?

CL: Just networking and meeting. We do a lot of benefit events, donating food—it’s a good way to give back to the community. It’s also good PR and marketing. … One of first group I joined was the Asian Chefs Association. Through them I networked with other Asian nonprofits like the Asian Art Museum and some of the groups fighting human trafficking in Asia. We have a lot of roots in Asia so we thought it’ll be very beneficial to support the nonprofits especially in the Asian communities because they’re also the ones who support us.

B: There’s a really interesting lineup of Asian chefs. Is it easy moving up in the kitchen as an Asian chef? I think the assumption is it is pretty easy in San Francisco.

CL: Now the industry has changed a lot from before when it was based on the French structure. Plus there’s a lot of Filipino Americans and Asian Americans finding themselves in the kitchens. … And with the help of the media like “Top Chef” or the Food Network having Ming Tsai, (Martin) Yan, (Masaharu) Morimoto. Last season on “Top Chef” it was a Vietnamese American who won and this season they have a Filipino chef there too. I think it’s really helping to break that stigma for women chefs and minority chefs, too. But I remember starting out, most of the chefs in the limelight were Caucasian and a few Latinos and a few Asians. But with what’s going on now with the media and the work ethic of Asians, it’s really changing.

B: But I think it’s still true when you think of San Francisco and whenever they talk about the best chefs, you probably might see Charlie Phan of Slanted Door mentioned, but he’s like just one of all these Caucasians that reach that celebrity status. Why do you feel that is?

CL: The Asian culture, in general, it’s just old school the way I was brought up. We’re not very outspoken or braggadocios. We get our work done. We believe in what we do and keep that integrity rather than searching for attention here and there.

B: So what are your plans for Poleng Lounge? Do you plan to expand it?

CL: The group eventually does want to expand. But for me it’s more the integrity of having a story behind the food. Because Asian food can easily get lost with your American-Chinese foods and your fusion foods. Especially deep-rooted Chinese foods, it can easily get lost in misinterpretations. It’s almost like you need to know where it came from to move it forward.

Special thanks to Chef Luym for taking time out of preparing for the dinner rush to sit down and talk with me. He had just started cooking for the evening—that evening he was making jook, a Chinese porridge—so I didn’t get a chance to see any of the finished products. So I suggest you check it out on their Web site. For me, I hope to visit in the near future (and will definitely ask for the secret menu).

If you’d like to get a taste of Chef Luym’s cooking style and those of other chefs, including those from restaurants like Betelnut, Straits, Butterfly, Red Lantern and Three Seasons, then check out this year’s East West Eats on May 8, starting at 7 p.m. at the Ferry Building.

Hosts for the evenings will be ABC7 reporter/anchor
Alan Wang and "View From the Bay" co-host Janelle Wang. Tickets are still available at a cost of $115. You can order them online here. Remember, this is a fund-raiser to help Asian American students pursuing careers in journalism. I used to be one of those kids. :)

Friday, April 25, 2008

What's In My Frig?

Sometimes we all need a little bubble in our lives. Bubble baths. Bubble gum. Bubbly juice drinks.

One of my regular sparkling juice drinks that I buy is the Izze brand of natural fruit drinks. I just love the whole approach of Izze. But I typically buy them in those cool bottles, then I noticed these tiny cans at my local Safeway. I thought, how cool? They look more easy to handle than the bottles. But when I bought them home, I realized they were less juice than the bottles. It's officially just 8.4 oz. So while I thought the cans were probably more compact than the bottles, I thought that's too bad they gave up on the bottles.

Then I went on their Web site and realized they still sell the bottles. It's just that these mini cans are the new Izze Fortified line of drinks. The can include extra Vitamin C, and was designed to pack a lunch for a hike or maybe a baseball game. So now I know I can get my bottled Izze when I want, but I can get these mini Izze Fortified for convenience and that extra kick. Cool.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Top Chef: Season 4, Episode 7

Who’s Laughing Now?

Previously: Jennifer’s kicking some ass, winning the quickfire for her beloved Zoi. Spike cheers for lesbians. Australian Mark is a mess, but Ryan is inappropriate. So it’s back to Cali for the pretty boy (and apparently a lot of guest appearances at food events).

Has the prizes changed this week? I think not. Because it’s all for the title of …TOP CHEF.

Oooh, that’s a neat reflection of the clouds on that metallic bubble sculpture in downtown Chicago. Cool. At the homestand, Andrew jokes that the room is a bit uglier because Ryan Pretty Boy left. (See, I wasn’t the only one calling him Pretty Boy.) Jennifer says yet again that she’s going to go all the way for her Zoi, in case we forgot. Who’s that again? ZO-i.

The cheftestants arrive at the Top Chef kitchen for the Quickfire Challenge, and look at all those pastries and dessert! Oh. My. Gawd. I’m not usually a sweet person but they all look so beautiful. Speaking of beautiful and tasty, who’s that yummy treat standing next to Padma? Why, it’s this week’s guest judge, James Beard award-winning pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, declared by the New York Daily News as New York’s sexiest chef. I concur, especially after I saw that photo of him with his tattooed arm on his site. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you check it out. You know you want to. (Click on the “Who’s Johnny?” link) OK, are you back?

Iuzzini is executive pastry chef at Restaurant Jean Georges in Manhattan so you know this challenge has something to do with desserts, if the buffet table of cakes and pastries didn’t already give it away.

After Chef Iuzzini says something about advanced planning and preparations (and really, who’s paying attention when they’re distracted by his pretty face?), Padma peddles the Top Chef Cookbook, which includes recipes from cheftestants from the last three seasons. But she says one Season 4 cheftestant can contribute a recipe, and that will be a winning dessert recipe that they have to make … NOW.

Not everyone’s happy about making desserts. Big surprise. But this is Season 4, so anyone with a clue coming into this show knows they’ll have to make a dessert at least once during the season. So a few smart cheftestants are busting out recipes they’ve memorized prior to coming to the show. (I wonder what they’ll do if they make it to the finale?)

For Dale, he’s going to make a coconut dessert with shaved iced. I’m not really sure what the name was; it sounded like a Filipino dessert. But I have to say, when he just laughed right now, he looked so genuinely fun that I would totally hang out with him as opposed to the bad-ass Dale that we’ve seen so far.

Australian Mark is wearing some odd red flower behind his ear. I’m kind of worried about him. He seems like he’s bordering on a breakdown. He hasn’t really looked happy the last few episodes and haven’t been really doing well. Richard, on the other hand, looks like he’s been gaining weight. Or maybe it’s that pastel-lime apron he’s wearing.

So it’s no surprise that a lot of people are cooking with chocolate, and for some reason bananas. Spike came into the game with a recipe for molten chocolate cake, but he decides to take it up a notch by turning it into a soufflé. That seems kind of ambitious for a 30-minute challenge.

Chef Johnny and Padma do the tasting, and this is pretty much the highlights: Spike’s soufflé is sitting in a pineapple and looks weird but Chef Johnny likes that Spike took a risk by making soufflé, Richard is serving chocolate, guacamole and bananas (twisted IMHO but Padma likes it), Nikki does a buttermilk cake that looks really cute and well presented, Stephanie does a chocolate cake with a salt-basil ganache that looks really gooooood, and Australian Mark brings the down under up to the windy city with a pavlova tasting.

Chef Johnny doesn’t like the desserts from Antonia, Spike and Mark. But his favorites are Richard, Dale and Lisa’s strawberry dessert. He declares Richard’s pseudo scallops made of bananas the most original. So now you can check out that recipe in the Top Chef cookbook (but please don’t serve it to me because I still will not mix chocolate with avocado). Oh yeah, Richard has immunity.

(BTW, they didn’t do anything with the huge table of desserts that greeted the cheftestants when they walked in. That must have been a big sugar-rush day for the crew.)

Padma says they’ll learn about their elimination challenge later, but for now they get to go see an improvisational comedy sketch show by the famous Second City troupe. Everyone’s excited about getting the night off (yeah, right) and they’re all at home preparing to hit the town. For some reason Australian Mark is ragging on Richard wearing a pink shirt. I’m thinking, should one be judging Richard’s shirt choice when one wears blue briefs (with probably the Superman logo on the front?). That was such an odd sight.

At the club, the Second City comedians are working the crowd and doing a lot of improv about animals. Then they call out for suggestions from the audience about colors and feelings. The cheftestants are laughing at some of the suggestions. Then the comedians call out for cooking ingredients. Then the cheftestants aren’t laughing any more. They know what’s happening; the crowd is coming up with their menu. Heads and eyes are rolling all over the place.

One of the comedians announces that the cheftestants are in the audience and they have to cook dinner for the cast tomorrow night using the audience’s suggestions for inspiration. Things like Yellow Love Vanilla and Magenta Drunk Polish Sausage. Yummy. The cheftestants are laughing it up but in their minds they’re thinking, “we’re screwed.”

Back at the apartment, they put numbers of each course into a hat and they’re going to take turns picking which course they’ll make. They all choose their own pairs and most people go with people they say they respect for their cooking but it’s all a matter of who not wanting to cook with whom.

Commercials. SoyJoy is fortified with optimism. Yeah, take it next door sister because I’m not falling for that crap.

The cheftestants arrive at Whole Foods to go shopping, and they all seem really relaxed today. There’s no panic running for ingredients. Australian Mark and Nikki has Purple Depressed Bacon as their theme so they’re going to make pancetta and pork tenderloin. Stephanie and Jennifer have Orange Turned On Asparagus, so their cart is filled with asparagus. Jennifer asks the cheese guy for a particular goat cheese called bucheron and he brings out a whole log so she decides to add that to their menu.

Dale and Richard are teamed up for Green Perplexed Tofu, so they decide that curry is perplexing. Richard also asks the butcher for beef fat, and good thing to know: Beef fat is free from your butcher. They’re just giving fat away! Richard says he’s going to grill the tofu in beef fat to give it a meaty flavor and then he does this Jerry Seinfeld bit about how “this tofu tastes like beef.” You know, he’s kind of funny that Richard guy.

Lisa and Antonia aren’t happy with their Magenta Drunk Polish Sausage assignment. So they say they’re going to quote, improv, unquote, by making a dish with chorizo paired with sea bass. To me, that’s more like changing the rules of the game than improv-ing.

Andrew and Spike, of course, is the crazy team with Yellow Love Vanilla. I say crazy because they’re really just like a couple of goofballs at the market, and they’re just making up their dish on the fly.

The cheftestants arrive at the Top Chef kitchen, which already has a table set up with white table cloth and place settings, so a few of them foolishly believes they’ll be serving dinner there. This episode really should have been called Red Herring.

Spike starts cooking and guess what he’s making? Yep, butternut squash soup. That’s right, the boy finally gets to make his damn soup. It’s really not just butternut but also some acorn squash. Antonia, who a couple of episodes ago pissed over Spike’s suggestion to make squash soup, says she’ll vomit if Spike wins this challenge. Get your barf bag ready, girrrrl.

Dale runs to the back to get a big pot and he notices the pantry shelf typically filled with electrical equipment is totally empty. They’ve been robbed! What neighborhood is this Top Chef kitchen in? OK, so maybe the producers hid the equipment because they thought it’d be soooo hilarious. Oh, I get it. They want the cheftestants to improv on their cooking. LOL. What a riot. (<–sarcasm)

Dale lets everyone else know there’s no equipment, and Andrew runs in and starts jumping around with Spike and they’re all like “ooooh shiiiit.” They’re going to have a hard time making pureed soup without a blender (I would hate to give up my nifty hand-blender as well). But Spike and Andrew’s all “vanilla loooove” and says they’re making soup like the old days, with love. They’re actually using a ricer.

Australian Mark is pounding away since he has no spice grinder, and in comes Chef Tom Collichio. He lets them know that the comics will go to their house for dinner, so they’ll have to pack up their food and finish cooking at the apartment. Now the cheftestants scramble for the first time this episode as they grab their Gladware and coolers.

Commercials. Sorry, I didn’t watch the commercials because I’m flipping back and forth between Top Chef and the San Francisco Giants game against the San Diego Padres. The game is tied 1 to 1 in extra innings.

The cheftestants crowd into their apartment kitchen and Andrew says he’s glad they have the first course so they can cook their food and be done with the crowds. Spike is getting his soup just right so he tastes it and adds a pinch of salt or more vegetable broth here and there. Dude, it’s just soup!

The guests arrive and Andrew wonders if there’s any soup left because Spike spent the last half hour tasting it. They plate up their soup in pretty big bowls and serve their Yellow Squash Soup with Vanilla Crème Fraiche. Padma says she would lick the bowl if there weren't anyone else in the room. (You can't take that girl anywhere! The guy next to her jokes that he would lick everyone's bowl but really, he just want to lick hers I bet.) Everyone is digging the simplicity of the soup with the complex flavors. OK, I admit it. Nice call Spike.

Next course is Stephanie and Jennifer’s Ménage a Trios of Oranges, Asparagus and Goat Cheese. They’re like a comedy duo and this is the first time I’ve seen Stephanie laughing and smiling. Jennifer says they cut “sex-tions” of oranges and then they try to do this sexy dipping of the asparagus spears in the sauce and throws it down their throat in a very suggestive way that a couple of men can’t eat asparagus in the same way ever again. Everyone has a good laugh, but once they start eating the dish, the laughing ends. No one likes the bread served on the plate, and they don’t get the cheese. Ted Allen says it’s not really a ménage a trios but an orgy because there are so many things going on on the plate. (Woah Ted, can you take me to one of those orgies next time?)

It’s funny how only Spike the Faker has something bad to say about everyone’s dishes in this episode. Like he just said the tofu looks weird grilled like meat.

Dale and Richard present their grilled tofu in green curry for their Green Perplexed Tofu theme. Everyone is enjoying the tofu that tastes like swordfish or some other meaty ingredient, and Chef Tom is loving the spices in the curry. He says he would have been bummed out if he got tofu as a secret ingredient. (Tofu gets such a bad rap. I love cooking with it.)

Now come Antonia and Lisa’s Magenta Drunk Polish Sausage, except they come out and serve chorizo and Chilean sea bass. The “magenta” comes in the purple-ish puree underneath. Oh, and for the “drunk” theme, the two down a shot of tequila. A few guests stare at each other like, “What, you not going to share?” And the editors cue the scary music. I’ve come to learn that the scary music is really a sign of bad news to come and not just a red herring. I have to say the girls did a poor presentation because they justified changing their menu because it’s improv night, but they didn’t explain that to the judges and guests so they didn’t get it. They now just think the girls are lazy.

Nikki and Mark present their Purple Depressed Bacon, which is actually a pretty hard theme to deliver. Why is Australian Mark wearing sunglasses? I guess he doesn’t want the sun to interfere with his depressed state? Everyone seems to be enjoying the taste and one lady says this is comfort food that she would eat when depressed. A success!

The cheftestants pack up and get ready for judgment and Jennifer quips that it’s a bad omen that she’s packing her knives. It does seem like a bad omen, but then Andrew is also seen packing his knives, so maybe he counteracted Jennifer’s packing. Or did he?

Commercials. Giants are leading 3-to-1 in the bottom of 13th. When will this game end? Huh, there’s this weird commercial for a chip called Flat Earth but its logo is a pig with wings. WTF?

Judgment. Padma calls in Dale, Spike, Andrew and Richard. She tells them they’re the favorites (we get the pattern already) and the boys are happy. Spike says he took the improv challenge literally and just went into the kitchen doing what he does best. Chef Johnny says the soup was balanced, with just enough sugary goodness and savory taste. It should since Spike tasted it like 100 times. Chef Tom says it was “the best seasoned dish all season.” Now that’s some good seasons.

They talk to Dale and Richard about how they thought green curry is complex and tofu was dressed up like meat. Chef Johnny says he liked how they came out as a team, which I’m not sure how they appeared more like a team than the other pairs but does it matter? He’s so cute I agree with everything he says. Anywho, Chef Johnny names Dale and Richard the winners and they both get $2,500 worth of cookware from Calphalon.

The bottom chefs are called in, and it’s the girls: Antonia, Lisa, Stephanie and Jennifer.

Chef Tom asks Antonia and Lisa why they went with chorizo instead of Polish sausage. Lisa says the only Polish sausage she ever had was from a package and cooked over sauerkraut. To me, that doesn’t mean she had to make it that way. She could have done something totally different. I actually love kielbasa. That’s Polish isn’t it? Chef Johnny says they could have done sausages cooked in beer.

Antonia says “from now on,” and then we get that scary music as Chef Tom quickly adds “if there is a from now on.” Antonia was trying to say “from now on we’ll follow the rules instead of spitting into your face.”

Stephanie is back to her serious face and the judges question why they needed to add the goat cheese when it wasn’t one of the named ingredients. Chef Johnny also felt like the composition of the plate was a train wreck. (Train wreck is a pretty popular term in reality TV. Just like how Jason’s song on American Idol was a train wreck. I think I’m going to start using it more in my day. Boss: “Ben, did you finish that copy?” Me: “No, I had a train wreck of a day.”)

Jennifer tries to explain that they wanted to plate the asparagus in a phallic position because she’s literal like that. Chef Johnny makes this odd expression and I nearly fall over when he uses the word “erect” in a sentence. I should have rated this recap NC-17.

When they excuse the cheftestants to deliberate, Lisa is back with the group and getting upset that they had to cook meals based on what some drunk suggested. She’s not very happy. Antonia thinks the judges don’t get that they were improv-ing. Well, maybe you should have explained that? Antonia's a bit of a whiner.

In the judges’ room, everyone’s upset that the two teams didn’t use their secret ingredient as the star on the plate. Chef Johnny says Jennifer and Stephanie’s cheese dish was the least tasty in his opinion.

Commercials. Hidden Valley Ranch is trying to have us believe that a quart of their cheesy dressing is like eating your vegetables for the day. Ugh, and they’re showing kids eating salad dressing like ice cream. There should be a law against this.

Decision time. Chef Tom says both dishes went off track (but he doesn’t say “train wreck” but you know he wanted to). The sausage dish became a fish dish. The goat cheese became the focal point instead of asparagus. Jennifer looks confused. Tom says they’re all accomplished chefs and the dishes on their own were comparable, so all the judges had to go on was the technicality of who followed the rules. Since both teams didn’t follow the rule of enhancing their secret ingredient, Chef Tom says it fell on taste and he says Jennifer and Stephanie’s dish was the least favorite. Then Padma sends Jennifer and her already packed knives packing. Then there’s this collective groan from San Francisco and I just hope it’s not because the Giants blew it in the bottom of the 13th inning. (Whew, luckily no. Giants squeaked out a 3-to-2 win over the Padres.)

Jennifer gets hugs from everyone, and Richard seems especially shocked. (My guess is that the judges felt Stephanie is a more accomplished cook since she’s won several challenges already, so she was spared. I actually would have sent either Antonia or Lisa home because they really didn’t even try.)

Jennifer is upset that she couldn’t go further for her Zoi, but at least they get to be together again. Jennifer says Top Chef expects you to give 1,000 percent. Funny, I would have said a gazillion, but that’s because I try harder.

Next week: The cheftestants get munchkins as helpers! A kid is hitting a skillet on the table, and Australian Mark thinks Chef Tom isn’t giving him any love.

Top Chef aires Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central) on Bravo TV. Check out videos and multiple blogs at the Top Chef Web site. Photos courtesy of Bravo TV.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dish on Dining: Nihon Whisky Lounge

Not Really Tokyo But a Whole Lotta Fun
1779 Folsom St. (at 14th Street), San Francisco
Mission District
PH: 415.552.4400
Open Mon.–Sat., 5:30 p.m. to midnight (bar open till 2 a.m.)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Despite the fact that I keep thinking whiskey is misspelled in its name (apparently whisky is the Scottish way of doing it), Nihon Whisky Lounge is an amalgamation of several cultures. A little bit Japanese, a little bit European, a little bit Californian. Whatever. It blends well on the edge of San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

Part of the Dajani Group, Nihon Whisky specializes in the izakaya-style of dining, which could be loosely compared to Spanish tapas. These are small bites served with beer or sake in Japan, frequented by businessmen who never go home at a decent hour. You won’t find sushi at an izakaya establishment, which favors more the grilled foods like yakitori.

But Nihon Whisky is far from a traditional izakaya. They have a wide variety of Scotch and Irish whiskey at the bar and the izakaya menu has a mix of appetizers, salads and large plates. It’s also a very popular place, even though it’s kind of out there on its own on the border of the Mission and SOMA right next to Rainbow Grocery.

I visited Nihon Whisky on a Friday night and asked fellow food blogger Foodhoe to join me. Making a rare appearance was Foodhoe’s husband, Mr. K, who I’ve never met and only read about in Foodhoe’s foraging. We planned on meeting during happy hour because that’s really the best time to enjoy Nihon Whisky—all drinks, appetizers and salads are half price. (Happy hour is from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Monday to Saturday.)

I arrived first and saddled up to the bar, which has an amazing wall of multiple brands of Scotch and Irish whiskey. The décor looks like any hip SOMA lounge, but the locked cabinets with whiskey behind the glass added to a private club feel. The casual lounge is a mix of white tiles and dark woods, almost like a lodge. There are also tables in the mezzanine level where you can watch the scene from above.

My drink for the night was a whiskey sour made with Jack Daniels and lemon and lime juice. The bartender was really friendly and she mixed up a really balanced whiskey sour IMHO. (Side note: Later in the evening, I ordered a second whiskey sour from our server and she brought back a glass that had a blush color instead of the yellow-gold tint of my earlier drink. Tasted fine but I thought it was odd how their whiskey sours come in multiple colors.)

When Foodhoe and Mr. K arrived, we grabbed an open table in the lounge right in the middle of all the action. Then we started to focus on the menu. (For this recap I’m listing the full prices for the items, but keep in mind that we got the appetizers and salads at half price because of happy hour.)

First up was a cup of the Tako Wasabi ($3), which was raw baby octopus with wasabi vinaigrette. Raw octopus (like raw squid) is not the most appetizing of ingredients, but I knew this going in. The bits of baby octopus really looked and felt like slime. Still, there was an oddly interesting crunch to each bite and I thought the balanced wasabi vinaigrette added a clean freshness that made this a light starter.

There are a lot of fried foods at an izakaya, so despite my aversion to all things fried I relented to the Oimo no Tempura ($8) or fried Japanese mountain potato and taro and the traditional Agedashi Tofu ($8), which is fried tofu in a mushroom sauce.

The fried Japanese mountain potato came in an odd stick shape and had a light flavor. The taro was grounded up into a paste and deep-fried as mini balls. Both were perfectly fried and fitting for bar food. The Agedashi Tofu was also nicely fried, but I didn’t like the cornstarch-thickened sauce that came with it. I rather prefer the light dashi broth instead of this gooey mess.

Then we got this big plate of the Nihon Salad ($7), which is a noodle salad made of somen in a light citrus sauce. It was surrounded by what the menu described as “tempura fried rice” but was basically plain white rice rolled with maki (dried seaweed) like sushi and deep-fried and sliced. It was an inventive presentation to go with the somen salad and I enjoyed the contrasting textures of the warm sushi rice and the slight crunchy tempura bits.

We ordered a couple of dishes off the entrée section, including the 8-piece Omakase Sashimi ($17) and the tuna carpaccio with white truffle oil. The sashimi (or raw fish) was a nice selection of the day’s fresh fish. There was one particular white fish that was new to me that Foodhoe and Mr. K explained to me, but now I’ve forgotten the name! But it had a nice subtle flavor, especially after Mr. K taught me to wrap a piece of shiso leaf with my bite, giving it an herbal citrus twang to the fish.

The tuna carpaccio was a deep burgundy color. Foodhoe and Mr. K didn’t seem to enjoy this dish as much, but I really liked the smoky flavor of the raw tuna, which I’m guessing came from the truffle oil. And really, how can you go wrong with fresh tuna?

As we were enjoying our food, the big group next to us got this dish delivered to them that was on fire. It was literally on fire. We asked what it was, and was told it was simply called Dynamite ($7). Always eager for a dinner and a show, we ordered one for our table.

When it arrived, the serving platter was on fire, warming a claypot that contained a baked seafood dish. The contents looked pretty dark (which is probably why in the picture all you see are flames) but it was this savory comfort dish made mostly of oysters. I don’t think Mr. K liked this either, but I enjoyed it. It was kind of comforting with a custard-like texture, and I’m a fan of any kind of oysters (raw or baked).

We ended our parade of small plates (which we had to eat right away because we had a small table with little room for the next plate) with a green tea cheesecake for dessert. The cheesecake was creamy and thick, with a very slight green tea flavor. It was OK, but the accompanying strawberries were unusually frozen. I couldn’t tell if it was some molecular gastronomy or an accident.

Being a Friday night, you can imagine how crowded the place got into the night. As the lights dimmed, the bar seemed to glow with embers just like our Dynamite dish.

Service at the lounge was your typical bar service, which means one woman who has to deal with a lot of people getting drunk on whiskey. While at times she may have seemed curt, she always acknowledged us and met our requests whenever we flagged her down.

I don’t know if it was the whiskey, the food, the company, or maybe a combination of everything, but I had a lot of fun at the Nihon Whisky Lounge. (Hmmm, maybe it’s also because I’m typically at the gym on a Friday night so it was nice to have fun for a change to start my weekend.) It’s a lively, hip spot with some creative small bites. It might not be a traditional Japanese izakaya, but Nihon Whisky fosters a classic casual, festive mood. And if you’re hit by the current economic hard times, you can’t beat the good eats of happy hour at this Mission hotspot!

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (izakaya fun)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

You can read Foodhoe's recap of our happy hour here. She remembered more than me, like the white sashimi, which was waloo from Hawaii. I like it. More waloo for me! And that frozen strawberry actually was stuffed with cream cheese. I totally didn't get that.

Nihon in San Francisco