Saturday, February 28, 2009

Charcuterie Guy: Taylor Boetticher

This morning I woke up early and headed into San Francisco to the Ferry Building to check out a talk and cooking demo by Taylor Boetticher of Fatted Calf. Boetticher is a former chef (he cooked at Cafe Rouge in Berkeley) who decided to focus his attention on curing meats and creating his own charcuterie company with his wife (also a chef in her own right).

He started off selling at the Berkeley Farmers' Market (where they still have a booth) and have now grown to a store at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, Calif. It's at their new larger space in Napa that Boetticher has moved all the production of his charcuterie, including a domestic prosciutto. (Yum, can't wait to try that out.)

For his cooking demo, he made a simple bean salad and topped it with pork crepinettes, which is a pork patty in sausage casing. You can find out more about Fatted Calf's crepinettes (which Boetticher says is one of their more popular items for sale) and recipes at their site.

Chef Boetticher prepares the greens for his bean salad, which included white beans, fennel, red onion, and parsley all mixed in a simple sherry vinaigrette.

These are the pork crepinettes. From afar I thought they were mini pizzas!

Chef Boetticher browns the crepinettes in a cast iron skillet. He took his time to slowly brown both sides.

Plating up his bean salad.

Ta-da! Wow, he really did a nice job browning those crepinettes. Don't they just make your mouth water? They passed out samples to the crowd and I got to try the crepinettes for the very first time. (I've never even heard of them.) It tasted great, and it seemed like a cross between a hamburger patty and a sausage. The crepinettes sold at Fatted Calf's store and farmers' market booth are much larger than these mini version used at this demo. Boetticher says they're pretty rich, but it didn't feel really rich when eating. They just seemed tasty.

Fatted Calf, Oxbow Public Market, 644 C. First St., Napa, Calif. PH: 707.256.3684

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Top Chef: Season 5, Finale

Dueling Bald Guys and Carla

Spoiler alert: This is a recap, so that means at the end I reveal the Top Chef winner. Well, more like Padma reveals and then I just repeat it because that’s how I roll. So if you haven’t watched the episode yet and don’t want to know who wins and happen to be carrying a big rock over your shoulder to hide you from the rest of the Internet, then hold off reading this until later. If you don’t care, then carry on.

OK, it’s finally here. The season finale of Top Chef: New York, which takes place in New Orleans. I still don’t get why they go to a different city for the finale except that maybe Padma and Tom Colicchio want a free trip. But with a city so amazing for food like New York, why leave?

Anywho, we get a recap of Season 5: images of Fabio and Stefan, the Euro Twins; images of Big Ho Hosea and Lazy Leah on the couch (forever burned into the Top Chef reality archives and my mind) and lots of images of the Statue of Liberty. Now they’re in the Big Easy with Carla Top as the underdog, even though she won last week’s challenge where we also sent off Fabio.

Padma reviews the prizes for TOP CHEF. Hey, we’re going right into the show without the dancing cheftestants? It’s like a show with no beginning. I can hear the music in my head right now, and can imagine Jeff the Hair winking at me at the end. Oh, I just replayed it for you guys so I guess we don’t need to see it. Ha!

Opening scenes of a river boat and Stefan brushing his teeth. Carla Top is doing downward dog (<--yoga reference) and Big Ho is packing up and leaving. They arrive at what Carla Top calls a paddleboat, which we learn is called the Creole Queen. It looks really cool. The three finalists are sitting on the deck eating beignets for breakfast. I would be so jealous if I were into deep-fried doughnuts piled on with powdered sugar.

Big Ho is talking about how he has something to prove, and I’m thinking, DUH, you hardly did anything this season, so yeah you’ve got A LOT to prove. I feel like he’s the weaker finalist only because he won only one challenge that I can remember and he always lets his nerves interfere with his cooking. But he says he has more at stake because he doesn’t own his own business like Carla Top and Stefan. Can you imagine Hootie as your boss? I bet nothing gets done but there’s a whole lot of lovin’!

They meet Padma and Chef Tom at the Historic New Orleans Collection, whatever that is. Tom says they’re going to cook the best three-course meal of their lives. There are no restrictions and they can use any ingredients. What’s interesting is that in seasons’ past finalists have brought in secret ingredients, but so far the cheftestants haven’t talked about that. Which makes me think either they’re really poor planners, the producers decided to nix the secret ingredient angle, or these cheftestants really don’t have a favorite secret ingredient. In that case I’m so done with them already. (My secret ingredient would be my jar of garlic black bean sauce. I put that in everything!)

Padma says they’ll be cooking at Commander’s Palace, which I’ve never heard of but is supposedly one of the best fine dining restaurants in the world. Chef Tom says they’ll have assistants and out comes Richard, Casey and Marcel. (We just can’t get rid of Marcel can we?)

In past finales, they’ve brought in sous chefs who were renowned chefs like Eric Ripert or former Top Chef winners like Harold. Who does Season 5 get? The runnerups. The people noted for crashing and burning during the finales of their seasons (well, more Richard than Marcel). Yeah, good luck with that bunch.

They draw knives to see what order they’ll be selecting their sous chefs, and Carla Top gets to draw first because she won last week’s challenge. She draws 3, which totally sucks for her. Then Stefan goes next but he—for some dumb play of his hand—lets Big Ho draw next. And of course, Hosea draws 1, which means he gets to pick first.

Big Ho goes for Richard because Marcel reminds him too much of Stefan, which means Stefan picks Marcel because Marcel was the bad guy of the season like Stefan even though he calls Marcel a “twat,” and Carla gets Casey and Carla pretends that she would have picked Casey anyway as her first choice. (Right, like she wouldn’t have charged for Richard.)

They head to the Audubon Tea Room to prep for two hours, and there’s a mad dash (well, really just Stefan and Big Ho) for the proteins. Stefan looks for the foie gras and apparently Big Ho grabbed them all, and at the same time I think that’s really greedy of the Big Ho but he’s right when he says it’s a competition. But really, is it fair to just run to the shelves and grab everything off and say it’s yours? Stefan and Big Ho get into a minor tiff about the foie gras and Big Ho tries to compromise by going halve-sys but Stefan is so done with him already. This scene is repeated again a few minutes later when Stefan discovers that Big Ho has all the jars of caviar. (Again, Big Ho is really greedy and selfish, but this is a competition so maybe he’s screwing with Stefan. I’m thinking, gosh, Stefan must be really slow when grabbing ingredients and what exactly did he grab first?)

It does seem like Stefan is a bit more frantic in this episode than the whole season when he could care less. So I think Stefan is off his game a bit.

Carla Top, on the other hand, seems her calm self, and she’s talking to Casey about doing a bouillabaisse and comfort meat and potatoes dish, but all Frenched up. Casey suggests cooking the beef sous vide-style, which is the slow cooking in the plastic bag that I’ve said before I’m not a big fan of. (Mostly because the coloring of the meat makes it look raw.)

Time runs out and they pack their things in the obligatory Glad plastic containers (OK, I admit I use them too!) and they head home.

Commercials. Are they still advertising that stupid epic “Australia”? It should have gone straight to DVD in the first place. Those Campbell V8 soups look so thick that it looks more like polenta. Now that’s something you can eat with a fork.

For a final stupid mini Top Chef clip of the season, they show this voodoo lady coming to the three finalists’ suite as they unwind from the evening. It’s their special treat to have their fortunes told, and Stefan asks her to see if there’s a future between him and Jamie, who he’s lusted for all season. The woman says there’s a possibility Jamie could be his girlfriend, and then we see her credibility fly out the window.

On the day of the challenge they arrive at the Commander’s Palace’s kitchen and Chef Tom is already there standing in front of a bunch of weird ingredients. Big Ho guesses correctly that a twist is about to grab them by their boxers and give them a mean wedgie.

Tom tells them they have to make one more course—an appetizer (more specifically what he calls a “pass through appetizer” which means something people can eat while standing up as servers passes by them with the trays). And they have to use ingredients from New Orleans: blue crab, red fish and black alligator. Yum.

To decide, they each have to find the gold baby in the traditional king cake. That’s the popular local specialty that looks like a bundt cake where they bake a tiny baby inside. Whoever bites into the slice with the baby gets good luck (and technically has to buy the next king cake). And I’ve always wondered what sick mind thought it would be cool to bake a baby in a cake? Even a plastic one. And I still don’t understand if they can invent a plastic baby that doesn’t melt when baking, then why does my plastic spatula always melt when I accidentally leave it on top of my stove top? I need answers people!

So each of the three finalists grab a large piece of cake and start eating away and Big Ho gets the tiny golden plastic baby. Then he does this little weird baby dance in his voiceover interview. Not only does he get to choose which ingredient to make his appetizer with, he assigns the remaining ingredients to the others. So he picks the easy red fish for himself and gives Carla the crab and Stefan the alligator. And this is the part that makes Hosea such an unworthy competitor because while talking about giving Stefan the alligator, he also flips him the bird (pixilated of course) in his voiceover interview. Geesh. Way to take the high road, dude.

Their sous chefs arrive and they start cooking. Stefan chops into the alligator’s tail and decides to make soup. Carla Top cries out and it turns out that a crab pinched her with her claw and Stefan had to help pry it off her. (I feel ya, sister. The same thing happened to me but it was with an ornery Dungeness crab and they’re bigger than the blue crabs she was dealing with. I had a mean cut on my finger that took weeks to heal.)

As they’re cooking, we get a preview of their menus. Here’s what I could type up really fast (I really should tape these episodes):

Big Ho
Appetizer: Blackened red fish on corn cake
First: Trio of sashimi dressed with citrus
Second: Seared scallops and foie gras and pain perdue
Third: Venison (he says venison is his favorite meat but I’m not a big fan of the gamey, lean texture and flavor)

Carla Top
Appetizer: Shiso soup with cold blue crab
First: Seared red snapper with aioli
Second: Sous vide-style New York sirloin steak with potato rod
Third: Cheese course

Carla initially was going to do a fancy cheese plate with an apple tart but Casey suggests a cheese soufflé, which sounds wonderful but I can’t believe Carla would come up with a soufflé recipe just like that. In past finals, chefs came in already knowing what they want to do for their final dishes, and I’m surprised that Carla is so easily influenced by Casey’s suggested changes. And what’s even more weird is that later on Casey doesn’t even look that concerned, she’s just eating away snacking on different food. So really, not the person I would necessarily listen to. (BTW, later on I read a piece where Casey blamed the “editing” and said Carla had no idea what to cook and ended up actually grilling her sous vide meat to give it color thus toughening it. Meow!)

Appetizer: alligator soup
First: Halibut and salmon carpaccio
Second: Squab with braised red cabbage and schufnuden (sounds like a snuff film)
Third: Dessert with chocolate and crème and banana lollipops

Marcel is chopping up some purple cabbage and they look really purple on the screen right now. Stefan also freezes his fish so he can slice them really thin for his carpaccio, which sounds weird because I thought the idea of carpaccio is to pound the ingredient really thin, so why would you need to slice it thin? Marcel wonders the same thing, but mostly says it seems odd to freeze fresh fish and then serve it.

The judges arrive and it’s a whole bunch of people. There’s Monkey Ass Fabio, which is really odd because how can Fabio be a fair judge when he’s in love with Stefan? Then there’s Rocco DiSpirito, Gail, and some woman from the Commander’s Palace.

Big Ho is trying to plate up his appetizer and he’s got the shakes again. This guy always gets the shaky hands right before serving. What’s that all about? Richard has to step in and take over, and then the appetizer is served along with Stefan’s alligator soup and Carla Top’s shiso soup.

More judges: I spot Chef John Besh (I love him) who I think put New Orleans cooking on the map after Emeril, some woman, Hubert Keller of San Francisco’s Fleur de Lys (which I can’t afford to dine at) and musician Branford Marsalis.

Everyone seems really pleased by the appetizers. Then they sit down to dinner and the table looks lovely. Padma helps us out by identifying more of the judges, including Susan Spicer, a local chef, Tory McPhail, executive chef of Commander’s Palace, and Toby Young returns for a final judging. (I guess they didn’t send him back to London.)

For the first course, everyone is underwhelmed by Big Ho’s sashimi. And I have to say, while I love raw fish, it’s really hard to make it seem special because you’re really just eating raw fish and there’s not much you can do to make it special other than to ensure its freshness. John Besh loves Carla’s red snapper dish, and Chef Spicer says she would order it again at a restaurant. Chef Tom notes the watery texture of Stefan’s fish carpaccio.

For the second course, Stefan made a smart move with the squab because that’s one ingredient that I think can never go wrong. And I’m right because Gail is going on and on about it. She also notes that Carla’s sous vide sirloin is tough, and Tom remarks that the cooking style didn’t remind him of Carla. Chef Besh says Carla lost her soul in this course compared to the first.

Gail says she can’t stop eating Big Ho’s scallops and foie gras dish, and Rocco comments that he’s so tired of eating foie gras, which generates this weird head shake from Gail. (I have to side with Rocco just because I don’t believe in the overindulgence of foie gras and the unhealthy aspect, for yourself and the poor goose.)

In the kitchen, Big Ho is still worried about Stefan. But Carla has more problems on her hands because her little soufflés all look like they’re bubbling in the oven instead of rising. She says she forgot to turn down the oven so now the cheese are all curdling. That sounds awful. And she decides to leave the cheese soufflé off the dish, which sounds like she just killed her chances because that’s like making a chocolate cake dessert with raspberry coulis but only sending out the raspberry coulis. This is not looking good. And there’s Casey chewing on something in the background.

For the final course, they briefly talk about Carla’s sad looking plate. Then they talk about Stefan’s ice cream platter, which is a nice way to end a meal but Chef Tom was all “meh.” Gail adds that the plate looks a bit dated, 1982 to be specific (but unlike a dessert from 1981).

Fabio, to his credit, says Stefan’s last dish didn’t leave a good lasting impression on the dinner, compared to Big Ho who had a more valiant venison dish to end his meal. Then we get the whole debate about whether a tasting menu should end with dessert even though the cheftestants were told they did not need to make a dessert course.

You can tell Chef Tom believes you don’t need to end with dessert while Chef Hubert Keller says it’s a cop out when a chef doesn’t even bother to make dessert. Ouch.

In the kitchen, Richard is so cute because he just asked Stefan if he had any leftover braised red cabbage because “that’s my thing.” Oh Richard, how we miss your dopey faux hawk molecular gastro goofiness.

Commercials. Oh, I didn’t pay attention. Sorry. I was trying to decide what to wear to work tomorrow. I wish I wore a uniform so I didn’t have to decide every day. I should be a real chef, yeah? That way I can just wear the same chef’s jacket and weird checkered pants everyday.

They arrive at judges table, facing Toby, Padma, Tom and Gail. Congratulations all around and then they start dissecting the meals, starting with Carla.

They say they liked the first two dishes but Toby says the meat and potato dish was too refined when he wanted something bold. In her explanation, Carla mentions Casey’s name quite often so it’s almost like Casey came up with the menu. She also goes over again the sad, sad news about the bubbling soufflés that were ruined. Tom says she let her sous chef talk her out of “cooking the food that got you to the finale.”

For Big Ho, Toby loved the appetizer but wasn’t a fan of the sashimi because it didn’t have enough citrus flavor. Gail thought the foie gras dish was his best and they talk a bit about the venison. But then Toby talks about not doing a dessert and saying his meal seemed like it had a beginning and two middles but no end.

For Stefan, they praised him for his alligator but didn’t like the carpaccio. Chef Tom calls it bland, but they tell him his strongest dish was the squab (told you), which was the best dish of the night. Stefan talks about how he wanted dessert plate to have a proper ending but Gail asks if that’s really the right last note he wanted and Stefan says yes but you know that was more a rhetorically question from Gail.

Then Padma asks the typical “Why should you be Top Chef” question that she asks every year. And basically Stefan says he’s very consistent and deserves to win, Big Ho says he put himself out there and was bold, and then there’s Caral. Poor Carla, she says she’s proven that she can make delicious and flavorful food when she cooks “her food.” She holds back tears and I’m trying to send her the love through my computer. Stefan is so moved that he runs over to try to give her a hug but that doesn’t keep her from crying.

They leave so the judges can deliberate, and the judges off the bat take Carla out of the running because of her sad dessert debacle. So it comes down to Big Ho and Stefan, two very different people although they both have bald heads. Tom says Stefan is classical in his approach and Padma says Hosea was more thoughtful in planning out his meal. Chef Tom says Hosea has a stronger ending, but that prompts Toby to bring up the whole issue again about whether a chef should end with dessert. Tom closes the discussion by basically saying it’s a moot point because the cheftestants were told they didn’t have to make a dessert. And Toby basically looks at them with this look that says: “well, bloody hell, why am I sitting here offering my opinions if it is all for naught?”

Chef Tom says Hosea’s dinner had a nice arc that began with the blackened fish appetizer and got progressively stronger until the final venison. And I have to say, I would definitely have liked to try Hosea’s tasting menu compared to the others. Tom says there’s no soul in Stefan’s food, and Toby, not knowing when to shut it, says that if it’s based on soul then the prize should go to Carla.

In the stew room, Carla is crying and Stefan tries for a minute to comfort her. I’ve now changed my opinion of Stefan because he at least his chivalrous with women. Big Ho is just sitting back running through his menu and counting his money.

Commercials. Who predicted that “Slumdog Millionaire” would win the Oscar for best picture a few weeks back? That’s right, little ole me. You’re welcome.

And now for the crowning of America’s Next Top Model. Oh wait, wrong show. Do they still do that? Don’t real have enough models in the world already? As for the next Top Chef, Tom talks about how this has been the most dramatic rose ceremony ever. Oh wait, that’s the wrong show too. Oh bloody hell, Hosea is named Top Chef!

There are hugs all around, and in comes the other cheftestants who got to stay in New Orleans: Jamie, Jeff, Fabio and, of course, Leah who gives Hosea a big ole hug. Stefan says he’s happy for Hosea but I don’t believe it. Carla in her interview is still sad and she says that she’s glad that she at least played the game differently than others. She competed with love.

Hosea says more generic things like how things will change for him. I’m predicting that in a few months after Season 6, nobody’s going to remember him but we’ll all be treated to his kissing scene with Leah for years.

[[I will note here that I got a feeling that Hosea was going to take it all even though I was rooting for Carla at the beginning. I knew Hosea won when he got the golden baby and during his interview he sounded sooooo happy and I knew it wasn’t just because he got the baby, but because he won the whole thing and he was just reliving the moment for the camera. You’re not such a good poker player, Big Ho.]]

Next week is the Reunion show, one hour earlier at 9 p.m. I’m not planning to recap it but I’ll be watching. I’m so glad this season is over. Now I want Top Chef: Hawaii! Someone get that in the works!

Photos courtesy of Bravo TV’s Web site.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dish on Dining: Brenda’s French Soul Food

Down Home Comfort in a Shoebox
652 Polk St. (at Eddy), San Francisco
Tenderloin neighborhood
PH: 415.345.8100
Breakfast and lunch, weekdays (except Tuesday), 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; weekend brunch, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

In honor of Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday, I decided it’ll be fun to feature a New Orleans-inspired restaurant. So when I thought of which one, Brenda’s French Soul Food came to mind.

This tiny (thus cozy) restaurant serves breakfast and lunch but it has been extremely popular for its brunch since it opened in late 2007. First it was just on Saturdays but now you can get in line for brunch on both weekend days.

On Polk Street next door to a corner KFC, Brenda’s opened in a spot that was a former Japanese take-out restaurant. Take-out was probably the best route to go because of the small space, but with soul food you have to enjoy it right away on site.

I arrived this past Saturday to try the brunch and because of poor planning got there at exactly noon, right at the peak of brunch. Crowds of people were lingering around the entrance and the sign-up list on the clipboard right outside the door was already full. I had to add my name in a made up line underneath. (The wait staff who checked the list didn’t even bother adding another sheet as more people later scribbled their names all over the bottom after me. I guess they didn’t want to encourage more people to wait?)

Most people place their names on the sheet and then walk around the neighborhood. But if your name gets called and you’re not there, then they move on. So I waited patiently and actually my wait only lasted 40 minutes before I got a seat at the counter against a mirrored wall.

I found it humorous to see a sign that says the maximum occupancy is 40 because, really, the only way they could fit 40 people in the space is if everyone stood up in the middle of the room. In reality, little space can be found between tables so people had to be very careful—and polite—when maneuvering around to their seats. (I pity the poor person who’s back of the head faced someone’s butt at a counter seat.)

Brenda’s is named after Chef Brenda Buenviaje, who is originally from New Orleans and have cooked in such places as the former Sumi in the Castro and the nearby DeLessio Market and Bakery in Hayes Valley. At her tiny brunch spot, it’s all about Creole cuisine.

I love the exotic allure of Louisiana cooking, with ingredients like crawfish and andouille sausage. But the challenge for me about Southern cooking, especially New Orleans, is that many of the specialties are deep fried, which I’m not a fan of. Things like beignets (the deep-fried doughnuts), po boys and hang fries (deep fried oysters).

For example, Brenda’s specialty is her beignets, which are filled with such flavors as diverse as apples to chocolate to crawfish. I passed on the beignets, but people near me ordered them and they looked like little square pillows (instead of the round doughnut holes I’ve seen at other restaurants).

Instead, I settled for a cup of Chicken, Sausage and Okra Gumbo ($3.50 for the cup, $6.50 for a bowl). The gumbo is served with a sprinkling of rice on top. After watching last week’s episode of Top Chef in New Orleans, I felt like an expert in discerning the proper color of gumbo, which means it has to have a dark roux to be considered authentic.

Brenda’s gumbo was definitely dark, and the gumbo was filled with chunks of chicken and sausage. Overall, I enjoyed it but it lacked a kick, IMHO. It was good but it seemed like it was coasting on one note of flavor and not as complex as it could have been.

For my entrée I ordered one of the day’s specials, which were the Eggs Benedict with Fried Catfish ($10). Other specials included Hangtown Fries and Po Boys. On the regular menu you get an assortment of Creole-flavored omelettes and grillades and grits.

The portions are quite huge when they arrive, and my two eggs benedict looked like orange globes as they sat bathed in a special Creole sauce. I ordered my eggs with a side of grits, which were made of yellow cornmeal and was creamy and nice.

Side note: I found it odd that the server brought my grits without a spoon. Are you supposed to eat grits with a fork? On the table, there are silverware, but only a knife and fork. I thought maybe it was an oversight by the busy servers, but then the person next to me ordered grits and her bowl was also served without a spoon. She had to ask for one, too. Is it a faux pas to ask for a spoon for grits?

The poached egg sat on top of the fried catfish sitting on top of a biscuit half. So let’s break it down starting from the bottom: The biscuit was great, just amazingly buttery and flakey, holding up well despite the sauce. The fried fish lost its crunch because of the sauce, which is a given, but the flesh was still flakey and tender, which I really enjoyed. The egg on top, however, was too set, so that meant the yolk didn’t ooze out with creamy goodness. Instead, it just sat there unwilling to be spread around the rest of the meal.

After my meal, I was completely stuffed, barely eating much of my grits. This seems to be one of the reasons for the popularity of Brenda’s—you never leave hungry.

Brenda’s is a charming spot that easily brings you the feeling of New Orleans without a plane ticket. But the food, while plentiful, is solid but a one note. It doesn’t add anything special nor does it take risks in style. It’s just plain, Creole comfort food. And at its price point, it’s no wonder there’s always a line outside for brunch.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Creole in tight places)

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

Brenda's French Soul Food on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Brighten Your Day with a Paulette Macaron

It's been raining in the Bay Area, but everyone's trying to put on a good face about it because we've had a really dry winter so like they say, we need the rain. But with the overcast skies, it can feel kind of gloomy. One way to brighten your day is shopping for macarons.

Paulette's Macarons has been open for a month at the tony Hayes Valley, and it's the latest in Los Angeles companies making their way up north (hel-LO, Sprinkles and Pinkberry). The original Paulette is in Beverly Hills, and everything about it is very, well, Beverly Hills. From the cute shop, fancy packaging, women with French accents and chi chi prices, Paulette's is what you expect from a French macaron shop. And people have been checking out the store, curious to see whether Paulette's macarons are worth the price.

The store is pretty tiny and like I mentioned earlier is staffed by two French-speaking women from Southern California. The store sells only macarons, the French baked treat that looks like mini burgers but are basically really sweet confections.

Paulette makes all their macarons by hand in their Beverly Hills store and then ships them daily to their new San Francisco store. But depending on the reliability of shipping and the day's demands, the stock can be plentiful or kind of like you see in the picture, which is sparse. They have more than a dozen flavors, but the day I visited they only had six flavors available. Each macaron sells for $1.60.

I ended up buying four macarons. The first three you see above: Jasmine Tea, New Orleans Praline and Madagascar Vanilla.

The Jasmine Tea had a super green interior, and the filling had a nice almond flavor but not a very strong tea essence. But there was an aftertaste that reminded me of green tea, but not necessarily Jasmine.

The New Orleans Praline was interesting because of the nutty flavor, so I enjoyed it. The vanilla was clean and again, almond like, but nice and simple. All the macaron has a slight chewy texture, instead of a nice crunch.

I was a bit unimpressed by the macarons. That was until I ate the last one I bought, which was the chocolate macaron. Oh. My. Gawd. It was so good like a mini brownie treat. I love brownies, so I enjoyed this combination of macaron with a thick brownie center. As you can tell in the pictures, the chocolate macarons are a bit bigger than the other ones. The rest of the macarons weren't really big, like the size of a medallion.

Visiting Paulette's Macarons transports you to a little shop in Paris with its eye to details and colorful creations. But this is the kind of treat that isn't something you can get often, and may not really be worth the price. It's definitely found the right neighborhood to debut in, but I'm not sure if it's the right economy.

Paulette, 437 Hayes St. (near Gough), San Francisco. PH: 415.864.2400. Hours: Tue. to Sat., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sun., noon to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Toast to Winter

This week was "Cocktail Week" in San Francisco, and I really don't know what prompted this special attention to cocktails because in this city it seems like cocktail week is every week. But I guess since we just had Beer Week and there's a wine event almost every month, someone thought the cocktail needed its own week. Who am I to argue?

So one of the event that I checked out was the Winter Farmers Market Cocktail Night put on by CUESA (the Center for Urban and Education about Sustainable Agriculture) and the San Francisco Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild. It took place this past Wednesday night at the San Francisco Ferry Building. What I liked about this event was the price. It was only $25 for admission and that entitled you to two regular-sized drinks and the chance to try little taste-size drinks created by 12 local bartenders, plus a few munchies from some of the city's best restaurants. (A lot of food events usually cost around $80-$100, so this was definitely more easy on my pocketbook.) Here's a look at how it went:

The first table I saw was from Michael Mina, who was serving up these Smoked Sturgeon Mousse with pickled red onion on a fingerling potato coin all topped off with California caviar. How decadent was this? It was incredible, with the smokey mousse that wasn't fishy at all, and a nice twang from the pickled onion. The only thing was it was hard to pick it up because the potato was a bit slimy for some reason. I guess I wasn't the only one having a problem picking it up because later on I saw they put out little tongs to help people pick up these little gems.

Next bite came from Beretta, which I reviewed recently. They served up a bruschetta with Caponata and Burrata cheese. The toast had a nice crunch, but it lacked any amazing flavor. Kind of my whole feeling about Beretta.

The theme of the event was cocktails using seasonal ingredients, so in wintertime that means a lot of citrus-based drinks. There were a lot of bartenders using blood oranges and tangerines.

Case in point: This drink was called "Blood in the Streets" created by Brian MacGregor, bartender at Jardiniere.

Here's a station using kumquats to make a drink. It was very refreshing. A lot of bartenders mixed their drinks with some fizz like champagne or sparkling wine.

Back to the food, this is another bruschetta served up by Globe Restaurant. It's topped with tuna tartare with olive tapenade. It was really odd to see the tuna in that green shade, but the taste was overshadowed by the prominent olive tapenade (a spread) underneath.

This is Kobe Beef Brisket from Zuppa.

Here's a server putting the brisket into a bun to serve up to people. I wasn't a fan of the bun, and the brisket didn't have much flavor. But you know what? When people drink, they devour basically any kind of meat dish so this was a popular station.

Actually, the food went out within an hour and the event had one more hour to go. So I was glad I got there early. Still, there were a lot of drinking to do so I think people were still happy about that.

The two full-sized drinks offered up tonight included this one called Old Sydneytown Winter Punch. The other full-sized drink was the Original John Collins, which I preferred because it was more subtle the way it was mixed instead of the punch, which was a bit too tart.

OK, who was in charge of checking I.D.s!? LOL.

Some of the bartenders mixing drinks were like rock stars, drawing the crowds and putting on a show. This is Greg Lindgren of Rye, Rosewood and 15 Romolo. He created a drink called "Grey Lady."

This is Evan Roth who bartends at various places around town. He created a drink called "Kiwi Kruze." It's made with Campari, Luxardo and kiwi liquere topped off with ginger beer. Refreshing.

OK, one of the few food stations still serving food was also the one with the biggest crowds. It's the Conduit table and they were serving up Truffled Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Ribeye Carpaccio. The chef was making it up as it went, and everytime he placed out a platter, people would grab them all within seconds.

Here's a close up of the grilled cheese sandwiches. It was amazing! The carpaccio on top was so tender and had a sweet-sour dressing on it that really made the bite unique. No wonder it was so popular.

I liked the dish from Conduit so much I have to give kudos to the team. Pictured above is General Manager Brian Gavin, left, and Chef Justin Deering. Thanks for the great taste guys!

This was a refreshing sangria using a variety of fresh seasonal fruits. Yum.

I had so much to drink, despite the small cup size every cocktail held a lot of punch. I think my favorite of the night was a drink by independent bartender David Nepore who made a drink called "Lady Madonna." What was unusual about it was a liquere ingredient he used called Chartreuse made by French monks. The Chartreuse had an unsual anise like flavor that was really distinctive and made the drink perfect.

I had a lot of fun at this events, and CUESA says they may do it once a quarter for every season. I hope so because what better way to celebrate the season than a nice cocktail from some of the best bartenders in town!