Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top 10 Taste Discoveries of 2010

So as everyone puts together his/her top 10 lists, my contribution to this annual belly-gazing focuses on my favorite tastes of the year.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to force myself to get out there and try new things. And this year I've tried a lot of different things, some bad, a lot good. Looking back at my year of digesting, I've narrowed it down to these favorite food discoveries, in no particular order.

1. 'Nduja. Italian wine bars seem to be coming back in vogue this past year, and with them are house-made charcuterie and spreads. One of the more amazing things I've tried is 'nduja, a salame spread that's served soft and warm. This particular version is from Barbacco Trattoria, the next-door wine bar of Perbacco.

2. Caramelized corn nut truffles. I like to try different types of chocolates, and at times I feel like chocolatiers are copying each other, using the same tricks of peanut butter, lavender, or salted caramel. Then I tried this caramelized corn nut truffles from Au Coeur des Chocolate, a fairly new artisan chocolatier creating new tastes that gets me all excited again.

3. Uni, or sea urchin. This technically isn't a taste I just discovered in 2010. I had uni, or sea urchin, once before but never had I had it so often or so splendidly prepared as I've had this year. Mostly because the restaurants I tried the uni at were using locally harvested sea urchin from Monterey. This particular uni dish was from Commonwealth in San Francisco.

4. Italian farro. Another ingredient popping up on restaurants' menus was farro, an Italian whole grain that's tasty and healthy. I'm definitely cooking with this on a regular basis.

5. French winter squash. The brilliant orange color of this squash caught my eye at the farmers' market. It's sweeter than butternut squash, but just as easy to work into recipes, like the soup I made with farro.

6. Brownies with frozen yogurt. This isn't exactly a discovery of a new food ingredient, but a discovery of a food combination that I never tried until this year. And that's using mini brownie bites on frozen yogurt. I typically will sprinkle fruits and maybe Oreo cookies, but at Fraiche, the mini brownies looked too good and were amazing with the creamy yogurt. Now I always look for mini brownies to top my fro-yo.

7. Padron peppers. I think I've written a lot about these peppers, known in Spain as pimientos de Padron. I found them on a lot of local menus, trying them first at Lafitte, and also (pictured above) at Tyler Florence's new restaurant Wayfare Tavern. The mild peppers are simply roasted or blistered in a skillet and served with olive oil. People say it's like playing Russian roulette when eating them because there is always one that's super hot. So far I've been lucky and have not had a really spicy one (unless I'm immune to spicy peppers and don't know I'm eating them).

8. Shishito peppers. Now, I'm not really sure, but I wonder if this shishito peppers are the same as the above padron peppers? Maybe they're the same but just have different names whether you get them from Japan or Spain? Either way, that's how shishito peppers got on my list because just like padrons, I like the mild flavor and crunchiness of these peppers.

9. Beef heart. I tried this part of the cow for the first time, and while it sounded scary to be eating a heart of an animal, the texture of beef heart was actually very meaty, almost like lamb. Maybe it was the perfect grilling at the restaurant where I tried beef heart for the first time, at a local sustainable restaurant called Mado in Chicago.

10. Chairman Bao's buns. This is the only item on my list that is specifically found at one place, and that's at the popular food truck Chairman Bao. Food trucks was THE food movement of the year in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was skeptical about the long lines from Chairman Bao, thinking it was a lot of people standing in line because they feel they should be standing in line. But trying one of its steamed buns with creative ingredient combos made me a convert. These buns are worth standing in line for.

So that's my list. What were your favorite food discoveries? This will be my last post for 2010, so check back soon to see what new foods I discover in 2011. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ippuku in Berkeley

Fire Up the Grill at this Izakaya
2130 Center St. (between Shattuck and Oxford), Berkeley
PH: 510.665.1969
Mon.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted; no reservations

My name is Ben. And I am a food-snapping photoholic.

And I am not alone. My blogger friend Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging is also a photoholic.

How so? Well, a couple of weeks ago we made plans to have dinner at the newly opened and buzz-worthy Ippuku, a Japanese izakaya in Berkeley near the UC-Berkeley campus.

Before I went to meet Sandy, I made a quick check on Yelp to see what food is worth checking out, and that’s where I read one reviewer who said, “you gotta love a place that discourages photo-taking.” Gulp. Not the words a food blogger wants to read right before dinner.

I quickly texted Sandy, who had already arrived at Ippuku. She knew, she replied. There was a big honking sign attesting to the fact right at the entrance.

Despite the ban on photos, we still went on with dinner at Ippuku, and throughout our meal, we quickly snuck in snaps of photos as if our cameras serendipitously appeared in our hands. The danger of being caught by the servers and thus being kicked out of the restaurant made the photo-taking stressful. I had night sweats. But we still snapped on. We couldn’t help ourselves.

But we survived. Truth be told, near the end a couple of servers caught glimpses of us snapping away, but they just turned a blind’s eye. Ippuku, which opened during the summer, isn’t about publicity. It doesn’t need it. From the non-descript entrance that looks like any other sushi joint, Ippuku is actually an izakaya, which in Japan is a drinking establishment with small bites coming mostly from the grill. And since opening, Ippuku has been generating rave reviews so really it doesn’t need any more bloggers telling people that this is a place to check out.

Side note: The décor is a sophisticated but cozy environment, encouraging intimate dinners in the private booths along the wall (where we sat) or friendly gatherings at the larger tables in the tatami mat section across the way.

Sandy and I enjoyed some drinks and a variety of dishes. Here are the shots I was able to “sneak” in:

While Sandy got a Japanese beer, she convinced me to try Ippuku’s happy hour shochu flight ($6). Shochu is a clear drink made by distilling ingredients like rice or barley. It’s more popular than sake in Japan, and in recent years has begun to appear in the United States.

The shochu flight I got included drinks made from potato, barley, and a type of rice called awimori. Of the three, the barley shochu was my favorite.

Ippuku is also known for being the only restaurant in the Bay Area willing to serve the raw chicken dish that’s a delicacy in Japan. I suggested Sandy order that while she waited for me because I knew I couldn’t get myself to eat it. But the dish arrived just as I sat down.

The tori yukke ($9), or spicy chicken tartar with yolk (from a quail egg), was actually a beautiful bowl of raw chicken spiced with a very nice flavor. I tried one bite just to see what it was like, and it didn’t taste like slimy chicken but it had clean and fresh flavors and almost tasted like spicy tuna roll but without the rice.

This is the surume ika yaki, or large Eastern Pacific squid ($10). It was amazingly cooked to perfection, slightly raw but not chewy. There was a light smoky flavor from the grill, and this squid was huge, giving us plenty to eat. It was served with a yuzu mayo sauce, but I was happy just eating it plain, tasting the fresh flavors of the sea.

Some of the more original dishes is this bekonmochi, or bacon-wrapped mochi ($5). FYI: most things are on skewers since most of these small bites go on the grill, and the same went for this mochi, which is the sticky rice balls that were lightly cooked on the grill. This would then cook the bacon and melt the mochi inside to give it a soft, almost goey texture. What was odd, though, was I didn’t get a strong bacon flavor, and instead it tasted almost like nori, or dried seaweed.

Sandy suggested we get the omakase gushi ($14), which is the chef’s choice for the skewer section of the menu. The chef picks five skewers, and they’re all different parts of the chicken, which is the star of the grill at Ippuku. On our plate, there were chicken wing (bit salty), breast (what you’d expect), gizzards (looked like testicles and kind of had that chewy texture, not that I’m an expert on testicles), neck (crunchy) and thighs with leeks (good). It was an interesting exploration of chicken and I felt I got my fill of chicken but Sandy kept trying to suggest ordering an additional plate of chicken knee, but I couldn’t eat any more chicken parts.

I should note that we also ordered the uzura or roasted quail ($10), which I didn’t photograph because it looked like any roasted bird and I had to pick and choose my shots so I wouldn’t overexpose myself to the servers. The quail, though, was cooked perfectly in the medium level where it was tender but not dry or undercooked. We orderd a lot of protein, of course, so I convinced Sandy that we get a side of grilled Brussels sprouts ($5), which were split in half and skewered and then topped with dollops of creamy mayonnaise dusted with chili powder.

Another dish Sandy had to try was this abura-age ($5), which is a deep-fried tofu skin pocket filled with natto – the Japanese sticky (and stinky) beans. I’d never had natto, and just like the raw chicken, was a bit nervous trying it. But I did and I have to say, it wasn’t that bad. Sandy said maybe Ippuku’s version of natto was the mild type because she’s had stronger tasting ones. The tofu skin was nicely crispy, but the natto really just made me think of a burrito.

I really wanted to try the buta bara, or pork belly ($8). Even though everyone serves pork belly, I wanted to see what Ippuku did with its version. The skewered pork belly served with a spicy miso spread actually was a bit tougher than other pork bellies I’ve had elsewhere. Maybe it was from all the grilling.

At this point, we had tried a lot of food. And also around this time, the small kitchen and grill in the back began to smoke up the entire restaurant. I had read that the place has poor ventilation, but since we dined early on, we didn’t experience the smoke. But when you’re there anytime after 7 p.m., the smoke can be stifling. So I was glad we were done and ready to leave.

But we didn’t escape right away because something on the dessert menu caught our eyes. Ippuku offers up a matcha affogato ($6). Affogato is the Italian treat of vanilla ice cream served with espresso poured over it. Ippuku does a Japanese version by pouring matcha green tea over what tasted like Strauss soft serve vanilla ice cream.

The bowl of ice cream and matcha looked beautiful with a light green tint, but I felt the green tea flavor didn’t come over as boldly as I wanted. I did enjoy the soft-serve ice cream, though.

Ippuku is on the high end for an izakaya. Remember you’re getting small plates of these orders. But the quality matches the prices, and I found Ippuku’s grill chefs to be experts in delivering wonderfully cooked meats at a level that can be eye-opening.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (grill masters)

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

Ippuku on Urbanspoon

Get a look at Foodhoe's smuggled photos on her post here.

Other izakaya spots:
Ozumo: "Sushi, Sake, and Robata Grill on a Grand Scale"
Nombe: "Japanese Pub Blends Traditional with Modern"
O Izakaya: "Drinks and Small Bites at this Japantown Lounge"

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Classic in San Francisco’s Universal Cafe

The Definition of California Brunch
2814 19th St. (between Bryant and Florida Streets), San Francisco
Potrero Hill
PH: 415.821.4608
Dinner, daily except Monday; lunch, Wed.-–Fri.; weekend brunch
Major credit cards accepted; reservations only for dinner

One thing about the holidays is that I get to catch up with a lot of friends whom I hardly see during the rest of the year, and one of my favorite things to do that I also don’t get to do much during the year is weekend brunch.

And when it comes to weekend brunch, there’s no better place than the Universal Café. Opened in 1993, this industrial homage to classic American dishes with a seasonal twist has been drawing crowds on the weekend to this area of the city between Potrero Hill and the Mission.

During the dot-com boom, Universal Café was surrounded by newly minted restaurants competing for the newly minted Internet millionaires. And after the dot-com bust, Universal Café is still a beacon for refined comfort food while others have come and gone.

I visited for Sunday brunch recently with my friend Hector. We got there early and the restaurant was nearly full, so we got a seat at the marble counter. Soon after we ordered, the crowd started forming at the entrance and the sign up list.

The limited menu still resembled what I remembered when I visited years ago. Of course, management changed a few years ago when the original owners sold the restaurant to three longtime employees. The kitchen is now headed by Chef Leslie Carr Avalos, who has sprinkled a lot of seasonal ingredients like persimmons and chicory onto the menu.

I ordered what sounded like the house special: a fried egg with house fruitwood-smoked local ham, served with two cauliflower-potato fritter and wild arugula ($17.75). Even though I have a big rule of not eating deep-fried foods, I admit the cauliflower-potato fritter is what caught my eye. I love cauliflower, so I broke my deep-fried rule just this once.

You can’t really see the fried egg in the photo because it was perfectly cooked to a thin sliver of whites that only turned golden after the first cut of the fork that spilled out the oozing yellow yolk. The ham was ham (can ham really taste any different?) but of course the cauliflower fritter (two of them) was the highlight. It actually seemed to have a lot of breading, but it had a comfortable side to it.

Speaking of comfort, Hector ordered what looked like Southern comfort breakfast food – the poached eggs and buttermilk biscuits with sage sausage gravy with sweet and sour onions ($14.75).

Our server brought out a plate of house potatoes that she placed between us and we shared. It was very crispy on the outside, but mushy on the inside like they’d been overcooked. Hector says they were probably deep-fried. I should have guessed.

While the food had a few ups and down, it still has that finesse that makes anything look good, and it still has the draw that makes this spot popular after all these years.

I’ve been to Universal Café a few times in the past, but since I’ve only visited for brunch this time around and didn’t check out dinner, I’m just doing a mini review and not giving my usual rating. But since Universal Café is a classic, maybe it doesn’t need a score.

Universal Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas or Happy Festivus!

Some of you might have noticed that this blog didn't really post a lot about the holidays. No cookie recipes. No ideas for holiday entertaining (although publicists bombarding my email with cocktail ideas didn't seem to realize I don't care). Hate to get all Grinch on you all but this year I just wasn't into the holidays, and am actually spending a very quiet Christmas.

But this isn't a post to bring you all down. I thought I'd give in and do one holiday post, and share photos I recently took as an assignment of an Oakland home that was decorated for the family's annual holiday party. It was such a beautiful home, and if I lived in such a home, I'd probably be throwing a holiday shin-dig every year too.

And I guess it's a reminder that the holidays isn't about how much you decorate your home or how much gifts you give or receive. It's not about the roast in the oven or the pies you spend all day baking. It's about how you feel inside, for yourself and for those around you. And how you learn to keep that feeling all year long.

Wishing you all the best in the coming year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Black Jet Bakery Pop-Up at Workshop SF

As everyone was bustling around Union Square in San Francisco looking for last-minute gifts, I started my holiday break by, what else?, hunting down food goods. And that's how I ended up north of the Panhandle at Workshop SF to check out the Black Jet Bakery Pie Sale.

Black Jet Bakery has a commercial kitchen but doesn't have a retail space yet, so the owners have been holding these pop-ups to sell their pies. It was great timing for those looking for a ready-made dessert for Christmas eve dinner, with flavors like chocolate pecan, apple cranberry, and my favorite name for a flavor ... "boozy apricot."

There also were several holiday-flavored cookies like gingerbread. I ended up getting a couple of the apricot sammies, which looked really luxurious with the apricot filling.

Black Jet is also known for its home-made pop tarts. I had read that one of the most popular flavors is jalapeno cream cheese. Oh man, doesn't that sound good? Well, even though I had gotten to the pie sale early on, the jalapeno cream cheese pop tarts were already sold out. Whaaaat?? That's when I learned a very important word: pre-order.

Oh well, I ended up getting a pluot pop tart, which gave me the memories of the summer fruit on this winter day. The pop tart is actually like eating a folded over pie crust.

The Workshop SF space is also interesting. I'd never heard of them, but it's a spot with a lot of do-it-yourself classes and crafts for sale by the DIYers.

I didn't end up getting any of Black Jet pies, which sold for $20 each, just because that's a lot for one person. When I left, I realized they were selling "pies in the jar," and I should have asked about them (none were on display) because I bet that would have been perfect for me.

Black Jet Bakery hopes to have a retail space by fall 2011. For now, just keep your ears out for another one of their pop-ups, and remember to pre-order the jalapeno cream cheese pop tart. That's my tip to you for this holiday season. You're welcome.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fabulous Fiberlicious Farro

An ingredient that I started noticing in restaurants lately is farro, a grain used often in Mediterranean dishes, especially hearty Italian soups. But in restaurants I’ve seen it also in salads and as a risotto, and I think it’s mostly because of its healthy features that make this whole grain popular.

I think because of its healthy aspect, I might have shied away from it thinking it might be boring. Then I saw a recipe in a magazine by Mario Batali for a vegetable farro soup. (First I had to find farro, and it’s not easy to find. Finally bought it in my own backyard at the Pasta Shop in Market Hall in Rockridge.) Although the soup turned out to be a bit bland, I fell in love with farro.

It had a wheat berry flavor that was nutty and filling. But really, it was more how farro made me feel. For the next few days, I felt like my whole digestive system was running smoothly. Not to be crude, but I just felt like I had my daily serving of fiber and then some.

So I decided to come up with my own soup recipe featuring farro along with some other ingredients I found at the farmers market. One of them was this brilliant orange fall squash. It’s huge and beautiful, and luckily the farmer sold it pre-cut in huge slices, so I bought one to add to the soup. And to make it even more healthy, I added curly kale, perfect for the season.

This soup is easy to make and quite filling, and just perfect for the rainy days we’ve been having lately. Enjoy!

Farro, Winter Squash and Kale Soup Recipe

Copyright 2010 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 cup farro
1 lb. French winter squash or butternut squash (about half a squash), peeled and chopped into 3/4-inch cubes
1 (15 oz.) can of white beans
2 cups kales, sliced
15 oz. cooked Canadian bacon or ham, sliced into strips
1 medium sweet onion or red onion, sliced thinly
2 celery stalks, sliced thinly
4 cups of chicken broth
4 cups of water
2 to 3 T extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

In an enameled cast-iron pot or dutch oven, warm olive oil over medium high heat and add onions and celery. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add farro and Canadian bacon and stir for a minute until farro is coated and shiny. Then add broth, water, and squash. Bring pot to a boil and reduce to simmer for 20-25 minutes until squash is tender.

Then add kale and beans and cook for another 10 to 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then remove from heat and ladle into bowls. Serve with breadsticks.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Pair with a glass of Zinfandel.

TIP: I suggest you thinly slice a lot of the ingredients to counter the shape of the farro and cubed squash. But if you want, you can dice some of the ingredients like the onions and ham to make it easier to eat. For me, the slices make the soup more hearty.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cups and Cakes Bakery in San Francisco

During my recent exploration of the South of Market neighborhood, where I hunted down a window of treats and zipped into the latest pizza joint, I also discovered another cup cake shop that I'd never heard of.

Called Cups and Cakes Bakery (really, people must be running out of ideas for cupcake names), this little shop definitely has the industrial feel of the SOMA neighborhood with its black and pink theme and workers with piercings and tattoos.

One thing I realized about this bakery is that they had some really creative flavors, or at least creative names for their cupcakes. There were raspberry truffles, root beer, and a very circus-like rainbow brights. There are also seasonal flavors, like the ubiquitous pumpkin during this time of year.

Along with the regular size cupcakes, they also sell mini cupcakes, which I always enjoy because it means more flavors to try. I ended up getting the Raspberry Truffle and the Lemonade (because I love lemon). My friend Ken who was with me got a somewhat normal vanilla bean cupcake.

The Raspberry Truffle was really decadent with the chocolate ganache, but the Lemonade with yellow cake seemed a bit regular. The unusual thing about the cupcakes at Cups and Cakes is that they're served up in paper cups (oh, maybe that's how they get the name) instead of regular paper lining. So it just makes it harder to get the cake out of the paper cups. (With the mini cupcakes, you can just squeeze out the cupcakes into your mouth.)

While Cups and Cakes Bakery is all the way out there in SOMA, a bit far for me, it's a fun spot to get some funky cupcakes.

Cups and Cakes Bakery, 451 9th St., San Francisco. Open Tuesday through Saturday.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Return to Canteen in San Francisco

This is an occasional report on return visits to restaurants that I’ve already reviewed.

An Intimate Dinner by Chef Dennis Leary
817 Sutter St. (at Jones), San Francisco
Nob Hill neighborhood
PH: 415.928.8870
Dinner with three seatings, Tues.–Sat.; lunch, Fri.; brunch on the weekends
Major credit cards accepted; reservations recommended for dinner, no reservations for brunch

Original visit: November 2007

Chef Dennis Leary is a busy man. In the last couple of years he’s opened a gourmet sandwich shop for the Financial District lunch crowd in San Francisco called the Sentinel, then a bakery named Golden West, and just this week the refurbishing of the classic bar The House of Shields.

Recently my friend Janet was in town and we were meeting in Union Square. I couldn’t think of any new restaurants that I haven’t already tried in the area, so I decided to go to a tried-and-true, and so I suggested Leary’s original restaurant Canteen. (I guess I wasn’t the only person thinking fondly of returning back to Canteen lately.)

We arrived for the early seating, and got our choice of seats in the tiny diner-style restaurant. We chose one of the comfy booths along the library-like wall. In the back kitchen counter, Chef Leary was buzzing back and forth prepping his kitchen for the night’s meals. (He moved around so fast I couldn't snap a clear photo of him.) It was nice to see that despite Leary’s probably busy days making sandwiches, he still spends time behind the stove for dinner at Canteen.

Chef Leary’s menu is still limited, changing every week and featuring an Americana approach with local ingredients and classic French preparations. Chef Leary sent out an amuse of a tiny bay scallop crudo to whet our palates.

Janet started off with an unusual dish called a Sole and Crab Quenelles ($12.95), which our server described as a dumpling. It was served with a deep pink sauerkraut in the center and a curry sauce. Janet liked it although she felt the quenelles had a real eggy taste. To me, it reminded me of chicken and dumplings in the South.

I started with the Spicy Mussels Soup ($9) because I knew in my past experience that Chef Leary makes amazing soups that are flavorful and savory (warning: some may find it slightly on the salty side). The mussels soup didn’t disappoint, with its beautiful orange color and specks of herbs. The soup was actually more based on mussels stock so it had the mussels flavor, but I couldn’t find any mussel meat. Still, it was very enjoyable.

For her entrée, Janet got the Ling Cod encrusted with hazelnuts ($24.50). She said the fish was cooked perfectly, but she wasn’t a fan of the artichoke puree. The overall dish was very pretty, with a leek vinaigrette sauce.

I went for something heftier and ordered the Guinea Hen ($25.50), with green wheat, braised kale and orange sauce. The guinea hen had a beautiful brown color, just perfectly golden throughout, with a crispy edge. I have to admit, I don’t really remember much about the green wheat, other than it was like any other grain. But everything blended well together, and the orange sauce was a nice compliment to the tender hen meat.

The dessert courses were next, and this is where my love for lemon conspired against me. I say this because I immediately zeroed in on the Lemon Crepe ($8) with ricotta sauce, which was perfectly delightful. The crepe was nice and thin, and the lemon ricotta sauce was foamy and delicious.

But I was so envious of all the other tables who ordered, rightly so, Chef Leary’s classic vanilla soufflé, which looked so beautiful and huge arriving to all the tables around us. I should have order this soufflé so now I must return just to taste it.

Janet didn’t know of Chef Leary’s famous soufflé, so she went with another favorite, the Warm Chocolate Pot de Crème ($8) with ginger and chicory. It looked beautiful and she enjoyed it. (Although I bet she would have liked the soufflé better.)

Every dish came out plated with a lot of sophistication, which contrasts with the eclectic décor of the restaurant. But it’s this casual setting with elegant dishes that’s been the trademark of Canteen, and it’s nice to know that despite all his many ventures vying for his attention, Chef Leary is staying true to his dream of making creative and delicious dishes on his terms.

Update experience (previously 4 stars): Staying strong with a satisfying menu

Canteen on Urbanspoon

Other chef-driven restaurants:
Commonwealth: "Upscale Dining But Still With a Purpose"
Contigo: "A Neighborhood Gem with Catalan Flavors"
Lafitte: "Not Quite a Revolution but a Revelation"