Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Taste Off: Roasted Duck Won Ton Noodles in San Francisco

When I did my Taste Off comparing roasted duck won ton noodles in Oakland, I asked if you guys wanted to see the same for San Francisco. And not surprisingly, you did. So after months of traipsing around the city looking for this classic Chinese soup noodle dish, these are my results.

First off, like I expected, it took me awhile to pull this together because unlike Oakland where I could check out restaurants within Chinatown, in San Francisco I had to basically seek out the best all over the city since Chinese food is not restricted to the boundaries of Chinatown. And since I live across the bay in Oakland, I only had the weekends to hunt down a bowl of tasty duck and springy noodles for lunch.

Second, I noticed that this noodle dish of my childhood is actually much harder to find these days where Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen are all the craze among Asian soup noodle lovers. In fact, when I was in San Francisco Chinatown, many of the noodle shops that once specialized in won ton noodles are now serving up pho. (Don’t get me wrong, I love pho. But I also sometimes crave the thin noodles and won ton dumplings.)

Several places I went to didn’t even have the combination of roast duck and won ton soup noodles. But in cases where I knew the restaurant had roast duck (them hanging in the window was a big giveaway), I just went in and asked for a roast duck won ton noodle soup even if it wasn’t on the menu. (Oftentimes I’d end up paying more than what the won ton noodles were listed on the menu.)

So basically, I hope you appreciate all the work I went through to compile this list. Not to mention the beating my cholesterol did from eating some of the fatty duck. Yes, I am your food martyr! LOL.

OK, enough about me. So here’s my list. This time I listed them in ascending order of rank (in my Oakland list I did it alphabetically to be fair but that threw some people off thinking the first one listed was the best). I visited seven places, so we start with lucky No. 7.

No. 7: Yee’s Restaurant, 1131 Grant Ave., Chinatown. PH: 415.576.1818, cash only

Cost: $4.75 ($5.10 w/tax)

Noodles (3.5 stars): The thin noodles were very yellow, and indeed had a real “eggy” taste to them. Still, they were cooked nicely where they were springy and not overcooked and soft.

Won ton (3 stars): There seemed to be a lot of them, I think maybe seven dumplings made in the seur gow style where the skin is just crumpled into a ball. They were all uniform in size, which made for a nice presentation.

Duck (3 stars): There was a healthy portion of duck pieces that looked lacquered and shiny, but unfortunately they were fatty and room temperature. Some of the pieces looked unusual, almost like offal, so it is an experiment in tasting when eating the duck here.

Yee’s definitely has the best value for their roast duck won ton noodles, especially since they’re right on touristy Grant Avenue in Chinatown. In fact, it looked like several tourists came in to explore the other dishes in this real divey, working man’s restaurant. The won ton broth had a deep color and the greens underneath wasn’t anything special, and actually was soggy and overcooked.

Overall grade: 3.25 stars

No. 6: China First, 336 Clement St. (at 5th Avenue), Inner Richmond neighborhood. PH: 415.387.8370, major credit cards accepted

Cost: $7.10 (including tax)

Noodles (3.25 stars): Thin yellow noodles that were good, but I felt like there weren’t a lot of it, maybe because it was in such a big bowl (the kind they use to serve pho).

Won ton (3.25 stars): This dish probably started out as just a won ton soup order because it really had a lot of won ton. I counted nine. They were small and manageable, with loose pork and shrimp filling. The skin was cooked super soft, which made the skin melt in your mouth. I like that but some might not, mistaking the texture to mean they’re soggy.

Duck (3 stars): It was a mix of fatty parts that was hard to eat and one leg that was really nice and meaty. Overall, the taste had that rich duck flavor, but nothing spectacular.

I thought I’d find a few places serving up roasted duck won ton noodles on Clement Street, often referred to as “second Chinatown” because of the many Chinese restaurants and shops. But I walked up and down the street one weekend and couldn’t find a place that served won ton noodles AND roasted duck. Finally, I peeked inside China First because their menu outside said they had won ton noodles. It looked like an old-time restaurant that might be tired and old-fashioned, and appearance-wise it is, but when I asked if they could make the roasted duck won ton combo, they gladly did (for a price). The won ton broth was light, almost bland, but it made the overall bowl seem healthy. It came with lots of miniature bok choy and surprisingly there were cilantro sprigs, which gave a nice aroma when it arrived at the table.

Overall grade: 3.25 stars

No. 5: Utopia Café, 139 Waverly Place (between Clay and Washington), Chinatown. PH: 415.956.2902, credit cards accepted

Cost: $6.95 ($7.60 w/tax)

Noodles (4.25 stars): Very thin and the best I’ve tasted, although I wasn’t a fan of the color, which was on the dark wheat-like side.

Won ton (3.5 stars): Nice, quaint dumplings that looked really cute. The filling was a bit dense but they had a real vibrant flavor. You could tell the ingredients were fresh.

Duck (2.5 stars): This was the downfall of what would have been a masterful bowl of won ton noodles. The duck came in chunks but with lots of bone and very little meat. The meat, when visible, was very tender and tasty. But the duck was cold and there were some with a fatty yellow substance.

This place could be written off as touristy, which probably explained why I was surprised when their won ton noodles were light and refreshing. It was presented with beautiful fresh bok choy that were nicely cooked. The broth was also light and tasty and I could have just drank it by itself.

Overall grade: 3.25 stars

No. 4: Toon Kee, 2191 Irving St., Inner Sunset, PH: 415.731.9948, credit cards accepted

Cost: $7.39 (tax included)

Noodles (3.5 stars): Yellow egg noodles that were thin, but seemed a bit salty. But there were a lot of noodles.

Won ton (3 stars): Six small-sized won ton tasted fresh but also a bit salty (I see a theme developing).

Duck (3.5 stars): A big plate of roast duck sold separately and brought from the roasting/deli station. When my won ton soup noodles arrived, I just poured in my duck to create the combo. The duck skin was a dark amber color and there were a lot of choice pieces with lean meat mixed with the typically fatty ones. While probably the most deep in flavor in town, the duck was, you guessed it, a bit salty!

This corner restaurant is interesting because from the outside it looks like a pho place but they had duck hanging in the window. So I went in and saw on the menu that they had a mix of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. They didn’t have roasted duck won ton noodles on the menu, but they did have won ton noodles. So the waitress ordered me that and the roast duck from the deli section, and that’s how I came up with this higher priced dish. The broth was nice (served with cilantro) and the bowl was big like they used for pho. But the high price and the salty elements kind of brought everything down.

Overall grade: 3.25 stars

No. 3: Cheung Hing, 2339 Noriega St. (between 30 and 31 Avenues), Outer Sunset. PH: 415.665.3271, cash only.

Cost: $5.95 ($6.52 with tax)

Noodles (3.75 stars): Yellow noodles that had a nice bite to it but slightly thicker of all the thin noodles I’ve seen. Still, a nice taste to them.

Won ton (3.25 stars): Six dense balls of won ton that had texture almost like pork paste or fish paste.

Duck (4.25 stars): Probably the best duck I’ve had around town. The flavor was really nice, deep and smoky. The only downside was the fatty skin, even though it had brilliant color.

This is a place I used to go to a long time ago when I lived close to San Francisco State University. On the tiny Chinese shopping area on Noriega, this popular deli shop is right across the Safeway. People line up at the deli to buy food after work to take home for dinner. They have a few tables to eat in, and I sat myself down for the won ton noodle soup. The broth had lots of flavor, which isn’t surprising given all the duck fat skin. But the bowl didn’t have anything else, no greens. But maybe you don’t need it with all that flavor.

Overall grade: 3.75 stars

No. 2: Hing Lung, 674 Broadway (at Stockton St.), Chinatown. PH: 415.398.8838, credit cards accepted

Cost: $8.21 (with tax)

Noodles (4.5 stars): Thin and strong noodles, almost like they’re crunchy, but they’re not. They’re just so springy they were almost al dente. Nice yellow, fresh color.

Won ton (3.5 stars): Nice color and shape, rounded seur gow-style. The skin or wraps were really thin and the ingredients were fresh. But the pork seemed a bit dense and rubbery. Still, they had lots of flavor.

Duck (4 stars): Lots of pieces, but many on the fatty side. The taste is strong and rich but the skin isn’t as crispy as I remembered.

This is the most popular place in Chinatown for won ton noodles and any kind of noodles and jook. That probably explains the high prices, for Chinese restaurant standards. I use to come here all the time for their roasted duck won ton noodles, and they still deliver with broth that has a lot of flavor. It’s one of the few places where I drink the broth and not just use it as a way to keep my noodles moist.

Overall grade: 4 stars

No. 1: King Won Ton & Noodle, 1936 Irving St. (at 20th), Inner Sunset. PH: 415.682.9813, cash only

Cost: $6.50 ($7.12 w/tax)

Noodles (4.75 stars): House-made, thin and crinkly, cooked to a nice springy texture. Some might think they’re slightly salty. You get a lot of the noodles in the bowl.

Won ton (4.25 stars): There were only three dumplings, but they are soooo huge! The dumplings were the size of golf balls or maybe tennis balls. Each one had three tiny shrimp pieces inside, and overall they had a nice fresh flavor.

Duck (3 stars): Poor selection of pieces, not a lot of meat, skin not that crispy looking, and flavor a bit salty.

This fairly new restaurant is extremely popular with a variety of noodle dishes, some of them from Northern China. So it felt weird for me to order such a pedestrian dish as roasted duck won ton noodles. Still, what came out was amazing and different enough to make it stand out on its own. The bowl had a nice broth and lots of fresh green iceberg lettuce underneath, although it was cut really big. But really what sold it was the huge dumplings and the perfectly cooked noodles.

Overall: 4.25 stars

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sausage Grill Fest at Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

On Saturday I spent the day at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, and the nonprofit CUESA had a special event going on. It was the second year of its Grill Fest, which works like an Iron Chef competition featuring some of the city's best chefs.

Last year the featured ingredient was hamburger, and it was a burger cook off with Chef Mark Sullivan of the restaurant Spruce taking the honors of best burger. This year the featured ingredient was sausage. All the participating chefs had to make their own sausages, which they made prior to the event. And on Saturday they grilled their sausages and served them to the judges with specially made side dishes.

The chefs participating in the Grill Fest this year were Chef Sullivan, coming back to defend his title; Thomas Odermatt (top right), chef of the street cart Roli Roti that has a permanent spot at the Saturday market; David Bazirgan (bottom left), chef of the swank Chez Papa Resto in Mint Plaza; and Peter McNee (bottom right), chef of Poggio restaurant.

Here's Chef Odermatt with his sous chef, who's busy grilling some corn that will later go into a corn salad served with his sausages. I thought it was funny how Chef Odermatt is going over his list of things to do. Or maybe he was just reviewing the day's count of people standing in line for his porchetta sandwiches.

The chefs brought a few of their own ingredients for the challenge, but CUESA also supplied a lot of colorful ingredients from the farmers market. My mouth was watering as I saw Sullivan's sous chef cooking up some padron peppers, and then he later worked on a flat bread.

I wasn't the only one who thought the grilled lemons at Chef McNee's counter looked beautiful.

Some sausages on the grill. All the chefs made sausages called "merquez," which is supposedly a spicy sausage. The only guy who didn't make a merquez sausage was Chef Odermatt, who made a rabbit sausage.

Here's Sullivan plating up his sausage dish, which had a real Mediterranean feel with his couscous salad and yogurt and cheese base.

Chef Sullivan's plated dish is ready for the judges.

Sullivan was going all out and even brought his bartender from the restaurant to make a special muddled berry drink for the judges that looked really refreshing.

Here's Chef McNee's finished sausage dish that was served with a cucumber-arugula salad and grilled lemon and the sausage on a bun topped off with some grilled vegetables.

The winner of this year's Grill Fest: Sausage turned out to be Chef Sullivan, a repeat. That's actually an amazing feat considering the competition from what I could see the other chefs plating up. All the food looked amazing. Afterward, CUESA was selling smaller portions of the chefs' sausage dish for $2 each. I decided to just try Chef Sullivan's winning dish, and I thought the sausage was great.

I would have tried the other three chefs' dishes but the competition was almost two hours so I actually ran over during the cooking to Il Cane Rosso for its milk-raised pork sandwich, so there was only so much meat I could eat this day. Next year I'll make sure to eat lighter so I can taste all the chefs' creations. Can't wait to see what the featured ingredient will be in 2011.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cupcake Bites at Mission Minis

Concerned about my waistline recently, I thought it would be safe to check out Mission Minis in — where else? — the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. Problem is, I can’t seem to leave without trying two or three of the mini cupcakes.

Mission Minis was started last year by Brandon Arnovick, a longtime Mission resident and music producer who started baking mini cupcakes for friends just a few years ago. He got so into baking the mini delights — and spurred on by feedback from friends — that he started selling his mini cupcakes at the many coffee shops in the hood. He opened his tiny storefront right in the Mission earlier this year.

I actually got a taste of Arnovick’s mini cupcakes awhile back at some food event. I remembered that his icing was like little bursts of flavor on top of a decent cupcake base. At his retail store, with window displays that are nostalgic of a childhood gone, he sells his mini cupcakes for $1 each.

One time I visited after work, so a lot of popular flavors were gone. So I ended up trying the Cinnamon Horchata, Banana Maple Glaze and Swiss Almond Coconut. The Cinnamon Horchata is influenced by the Mexican cinnamon rice milk drink, and the rice milk cupcake (which didn’t have a strong flavor) was topped with a cream cheese frosting with a dusting of cinnamon. The banana cupcake had a nice buttercream frosting, but my favorite was the Swiss Almond Coconut with the fluffy meringue buttercream icing mixed with bits of almond and coconut flakes.

Next time I went early in the morning to make sure I could see all the choices, and I ended up going with the Pink Lemonade and Peanut Butter Kiss. The Peanut Butter Kiss was what you would expect — thick-like peanut butter frosting on a chocolate cake. It’s a good thing it was a mini because it’d be hard to talk if you ate a whole cupcake with this peanut butter frosting. The Pink Lemonade was a lemon flavored cake with a frosting that the guy at the counter said was made with blueberry cream. Not sure how it made it pink colored, but I guess that’s just the mystery of baking.

I think what makes the mini cupcakes is the frosting, especially the light fluffy ones compared to the cream cheese, although that’s also good. But really, it’s just the idea of having so many different choices without the guilt of eating too much cake.

Mission Minis, 3168 22nd St., San Francisco. PH: 415.817.1540. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. www.missionminis.com

More cupcakes here:
In Line at Sprinkles
Cako Cupcakes in Union Square
Frosting Bake Shop in Mill Valley

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Top Chef: Season 7, Episode 2

Flunking in Nutrition

Previously: The cheftestants arrived in D.C., or as we’re reminded, Obamanation. Kenny is all “check, check, check” but he doesn’t really check his ego at the door because he thinks he’s already Top Chef, but it’s Angelo who wins both the quickfire and elimination challenges. Then John and his birdnest of a hairdo is the first to go.

I’m going to try and watch the intro more carefully this time because I still don’t know all their names. Hey, what’s up with all the girls playing with their chef’s coats like some striptease?

More cherry blossom scenes, so pretty, and a couple of guys doing push ups like they’re in the Army. Jacqueline is impressing everyone by cooking with a lot of butter for her breakfast (two major slabs). I just realized that the butter is foreshadowing the school challenge coming up, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Quickfire challenge. Padma is in the kitchen, and she’s wearing that bright fuschia blouse that we just saw in the intro. For some reason I think it makes her look thick, whatever it means to look thick. Standing next to her is Sam Kass, who is definitely not thick. He’s the one-time personal chef for the Obamas and now cooks for them as assistant chef at the White House (he’s not the executive chef, because I remember watching Iron Chef America and the White House executive chef is a woman). Kass is like the face of the Obama administration’s nutritional policy, and why not when you have a camera-ready face like his? Padma talks about bipartisanship and says their challenge is to make a bipartisandwich. Geez, they’re really milking this politics thing, maybe that’s why their ratings are down because they’re just too cheesy now.

The cheftestants have to pair up and wear these Blue State-Red State aprons like Tweedledee and Tweedledum or, say, Joseph Biden and John McCain.

So they have to make a sandwich in 30 minutes tied together, and they draw knives to see who they’re paired with. Angelo is with Tracey, and she admits that she has a secret crush on him (who wouldn’t?) and that she’d probably switch teams for him. And just for emphasis, she throws in a creepy laugh. Heh heh heh.

Amanda is together with Tamesha and Amanda looks kind of dorky as she runs around along with Tamesha carrying ingredients. Tim is tied with the bald guy (still learning their names) and the bald guy is all nervous that Tim will slice his fingers off while they slice a loaf of bread.

Time’s up and Kass and Padma do the tasting. Here’s how it went down:

Angelo and Tracey are first with their flounder sandwich with siracha hot sauce. Sam calls it “tasty.”

Andrew and Kevin makes a “Philly” Cuban sandwich that actually looks really good. (I love Cuban sandwiches.) Sam likes the pickle in it.

Amanda and Tamesha made a grilled sandwich with prosciutto. No reaction.

Alex and Tim went French and made a “croque madame,” (for some reason I eat a lot of this when I travel, love it!) using ground lamb and eggs.

Stephen and Jaquelines made a chicken breast sandwich and they stick two rosemary twigs into it like some lonely skinny sandwich. Looks weird.

Kenny and Ed made a Korean chili-rubbed ahi sandwich that looks really complex, and Kass says it’s spicy (but I think he likes the spice).

Kelly and Arnold made a curry-rubbed grilled chicken. Silence.

Tiffany and Lynne made some kind of sandwich that all I know is Kass found it hard to eat.

Kass gives the polling results, which was that Stephen and Jacqueline’s chicken breast sandwich lacked creativity and Lynne and Tiffany’s didn’t have enough texture. But rising to the top was Tracey and Angelo who had a “bright and lively” sandwich, and Kenny and Ed’s Asian slaw sandwich with perfectly seared tuna. And the winner of this challenge is … coming up. Wuh? Sam Kass, who do you think you are? Ryan Seacrest?

Commercials. OK, I’m supposed to believe Marisa Tomei is the mother of Jonah Hill aka “Cyrus”? Also, kudos to Southwest to still letting you check in two bags free. Thing is, nobody checks in bags on Southwest. They just carry them on.

Sam/Ryan chooses Tracey and Angelo as the winners and they both get immunity. Of course, Angelo, having won the challenge last time, gets all the dagger shots from the rest of the cheftestants.

Elimination challenge. Kass gets to promote his cause that’s the cause of First Lady Michelle Obama, which is her “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity. Padma says their challenge is to make a school lunch with the government budget, which is horribly $2.68 per child. And Sam Kass takes away 4 cents from the total because he says that goes for overhead.

The cheftestants have to work in groups of four, each making a course in a four-course lunch (for $2.64 people!) and Angelo and Tracey can pick their pairs since they won and they pick Kenny and Ed, and Kenny immediately jumps on the conspiracy theory, saying Angelo has immunity so if their team loses the challenge then Kenny or Ed will likely be eliminated. Not just an ego but paranoid to boot.

The other cheftestants pair up into teams and then start planning their meals. They’re talking about chicken nuggets, burgers, etc. But in one group Tamesha suggests gnocchi. For kids? Amanda’s in the same team and she shoots that idea down right away and bring up her brilliant suggestion of chicken thighs braised in sherry. For kids? This isn’t Gourmet High School.

One team is talking about mac and cheese (safe) and another is talking tacos (smart for kids). They all go shopping at some restaurant depot because you know they don’t have a Whole Paycheck.

They all go to check out at the register and realize many of them are way over their $130 budget and start getting rid of ingredients. They should have thought about this before going shopping.

Commercials. Venus Williams is a machine. Or am I thinking of Serena? Hey, what’s up with all these car insurance companies advertising on a food show? I guess they’re thinking you need to drive your car to the grocery store?

The cheftestants head back to the Top Chef kitchen and start prepping. Kelly talks about her taco and Arnold’s looking at her like, “Whatcha talking about Willis?” (RIP Gary Coleman.)

Amanda gets really hoppy when she’s panicked and cooking in the kitchen. On her team, Jacqueline is making a banana pudding but the banana is too starchy when cooked so she adds more sugar, which doesn’t sound very healthy to me.

Back to Arnold, he’s all upset that Kelly likes to use the word “I” even though there’s no “I” in “team.” (Although we all know there is an A in A-Team.)

They head home and Kelly is talking with Tracey outside because Kelly’s a smoker (and the way she’s dragging on that cigarette she looks like a heavy smoker). We learn that Tracey has a kid from her girlfriend and she gets all misty thinking about her and promises momma's not going to feed her fast food anymore when she gets back, although I bet she's eating a McDonald's happy meal right now watching her mom. But enough about the sweet kids story, let’s get down to the bitchiness.

When Kelly walks into the home, she’s ambushed by Arnold and the rest of the team who confront her about taking all the credit for the food on their plate. I don’t think they resolved it and actually it does seem like Kelly wants the credit, especially if it’s the winning plate. I'm pretty sure they all went to bed angry.

The cheftestants arrive at Alice Deal Middle School, and Kelly talks about how special this challenge is for her because she works for a similar program back in Colorado. Angelo is making a peanut butter foam on celery but his foam gun is broken. He tries to borrow one from another team, and you can figure out how that went down. (No help.)

Tom arrives looking like a principal and he says this challenge is special to him because his mom used to run the school lunch program for 20 years. (You know what? This episode is special to me because I use to volunteer in the lunch room at my elementary school and I miss those lunchroom ladies! LOL)

As Tom goes around, Arnold is quick to talk about how he finished all his work so he could help the rest of his team. And Tom actually doesn’t like that because he wants accountability because there is an I in accountability. (Actually two I’s.)

The kids come in and they go to the different stations to choose their lunch. Then the judges arrive with Sam Kass and they head to Andrea, Alex, Tim and Kevin’s table, which serves up a BBQ chicken with cole slaw, mac and cheese, and melon skewer with yogurt foam.

The judges seem to like everything and Kass likes the yogurt idea served up as whipped cream. Tom’s not a fan of the mac and cheese.

Then they head to Angelo’s team (with Tracey, Kenny and Ed) and serve up a tray of chicken burger, peanut butter foam on celery, sweet potato puree, and apple bread pudding.

Kass says the sweet potato has too much pepper, which will turn kids away. All the rest of the judges seem underwhelmed. And Kass wants to know where are the vegetables. (Apparently, there wasn’t enough of the celery to make it seem like a vegetable dish.)

Then we get to the table with this cheftestant named Lynne who I know nothing about and don’t even remember from the first episode. Anyway, she made a black bean cake with sweet potato strings on top. Kelly made the braised pork carnitas taco (well established, especially by Kelly), Arnold made a roasted corn salad, and Tiffany made a carmelized sweet potato and sherbet.

Gail loves the color all over the plate, and Tom is very happy with most of the food. They show a clip of a kid who likes the vegetable with the sherbet.

They go to the final table of Amanda, Tamesha, Stephen and Jacqueline, eating their braised chicken thighs (with sherry jus), sweet onion rice, bean and tomato salad, and banana pudding with strawberries. There’s a funny moment when Stephen introduces his rice dish and says it has 165 grams of fat, and you could see Kass’s heart stop until Stephen corrects himself and says it only has 165 calories. These cheftestants must always have fat on their minds.

Well, turns out his rice probably needed the fat because the judges weren’t that excited about his dish, nor did they like the pudding. But of course, the editors show Jacqueline feeling all happy that the kids kept coming back for her dessert and she sold out. Um, maybe its because you poured in a whole bag of sugar?

Commercials. Another car insurance commercial? I have to say, though, that this Esurance commercial is pretty funny. And are people still buying Toyotas?

They show a Top Chef snippet and Padma’s asking the kids about the food, but pretty much they all just want to give her one big mosh pit hug. I mean, she is Padma.

The Capitol dome has to be one of the prettiest buildings at night. The cheftestants arrive at the stew room and Angelo is busy trying to get Kenny to rate their dishes from 1 to 10 in various categories. (Angelo, I rate you a 9 right now in the OCD category.) Then they briefly laugh at Kevin sleeping and snoring. Yeah, like no one else has done that with these long filming days.

Padma comes in and asks for Angelo’s team and Amanda’s team. The other guys left behind think they lost, and Kelly especially seems indignant that her taco didn’t win.

Judges’ Table. Hey, I just realized Eric Ripert wasn’t in this episode. How confusing! They say he’s a permanent judge but he’s already gone by the second episode. I guess they can only have one hunky judge at a time (sorry Tom, I’m talking about Kass). Anywho, Padma tells the two teams that they produced the worst trays of food. Amanda literally has her mouth dropped open.

Stephen talks about his rice dish and how he had to sacrifice ingredients at the register, but wasn’t that the challenge? Kass asks about the sherry jus, and wonders how they didn’t have money for various ingredients but found the moolah for the alcohol.

Kass talks about Angelo’s team and says their plate lacked vegetables. Kenny says he worried about the lack of vegetables so that’s why he suggested a roasted tomato for the chicken burger, and Kass has to remind him that tomato is a fruit. (That is a tricky one to remember. Why is it a fruit when it’s not even sweet?)

Then Tom feeds the conspiracy theory and hints that Angelo is on the team, and he has immunity, so did he maybe sabotage the team by losing, hoping to get rid of someone like Kenny? I think that’s kind of rude of Tom to backhandedly accuse Angelo of that, but you know Tom’s an executive producer of the show now so he knows he needs to stir up the drama.

Speaking of drama, the two teams start to fight over each other’s food with Stephen jumping in first to say Kenny should have spoken out if he felt he needed more vegetables, and Kenny attacks Jacqueline for using so much sugar, while Amanda fights back that peanut butter has way more hidden sugar. This is getting really ugly, and really, none of them seem really on point or know much about nutrition.

Gail asks why they chose to cook with sherry, and Amanda says she really likes chicken braised with sherry. Gail’s like, “I like vodka.” I always knew Gail was a lush. Tom doesn’t want to say anymore, and Padma sends them all away.

They return to the stew room and everyone asks who won, but then they tell them that they’re the real winners. No really, you are. And they’re all kind of shocked.

The judges talk about who was worst and Kass names Angelo’s team with their overly starchy selections, and then Gail adds to Tom’s conspiracy theory by questioning Angelo’s motives again. Back in the stew room, Angelo whispers to Tracey that he doesn’t like Kenny. Big doh.

Then the judges talk about the food that they did like, mainly the BBQ chicken and for some reason the melon skewer with yogurt. That must be some really tasty yogurt foam because how hard is it to cut up melons and put them on a stick? Anyone?

The stew room is still stewing when Padma comes in and asks for Lynn, Tiffany, Arnold and Kelly. She tells them they’re the favorites, and Gail asks Arnold what he made, and he talks about his corn salad (which does sound good albeit simple) and you can tell he’s about to defend it until Padma says it’s delicious and he stops while he’s ahead.

As the guest judge, Kass names the winner and gives it to Kelly and her carnitas tacos. You just know Arnold is dying inside.

Commercials. Did you see that Buitoni commercial where they poured what looked like a cheese sauce over the lobster and shrimp ravioli? I could feel my arteries hardening watching that sauce being poured like concrete on the food.

Kenny, Ed, Amanda and Jacqueline have come to face the judges. Tom gives his little speech about nutrition and how Kenny could have been more assertive about more vegetables, Ed too, Amanda’s chicken doesn’t appeal to kids, and Jacqueline’s pudding was a sugary mess. He looks to Padma, and Padma really signals it this time because her head turns to Jacqueline’s end and sure enough, she’s the one to go. (I thought she should have gone home last week.) Oh. My. Gawd. Letterman is still showing that smoking baby from Indonesia. That’s just so wrong.

Oh, where was I? Oh yea, Jacqueline packs her knives and banana peels and goes home. She says the kids reminded her why she came on the show, but then she doesn’t say what that was and I guess we’re supposed to just know. But as I listen to her, I think: “She sounds a lot like Joan Cusack.” Bye Joan, I loved you in “Working Girl.”

Next week: The cheftestants make a picnic, and Arnold is not into grilling because it’ll clog his pores. Alex is annoying, according to someone I don’t remember, and Amanda is smoking like she lived in Europe all her life. (But not as much as that smoking Indonesian boy. I’m so glad I live in America.)

And for a sneak peek at the elimination challenge for next week's episode, here's a video from the Bravo people...

Top Chef airs every Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Bravo. Check your local listings. Photo courtesy of the Bravo TV website.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Test Kitchen: Ginger-Marinated Bulgogi-Style Chicken

This month’s Test Kitchen, where I test the recipes from Food and Wine magazine, gets me grilling with bulgogi.

Bulgogi is a traditional Korean dish of thinly sliced beef marinated in ginger and soy. It’s extremely popular at Korean BBQ restaurants, where you cook the meat at your table, but in Food and Wine’s version they use chicken, which sounds a lot healthier.

The recipe is from Nick Fauchald, editor at TastingTable.com (the same people who flood my email everyday with tasting finds). Fauchald laments about eating out five nights a week (again, how can I get his job?) so he offered up some healthy recipes he makes at home to support his tri-athlete body.

More than 39 percent of you voted for this recipe, which I admit is pretty simple but I wanted to see if Food and Wine could get Asian right. (Others voted for the Thai turkey burger, 32 percent, and salt and pepper squid, 27 percent.)

As always, you can get the full recipe on the Food and Wine website. But here’s what happened in my kitchen.

I started by making the marinade. The tricky thing about the recipe is it specifically says you need to marinate the chicken for at least two hours but not more than four. For me, I always marinate chicken in the morning, then go to work, and then make dinner when I come home 10 hours later. But apparently that’s too much marinating time, so this recipe makes it difficult for this to be an easy weeknight dinner. You have to do it on the weekend when you won’t be gone all day.

The marinade has all the classic Korean ingredients of lots of garlic (three cloves!) and lots of ginger, along with shoyu (Fauchald specifies light soy), rice vinegar (unseasoned), toasted sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds and thinly sliced scallions. Everything is sweetened with a bit of honey. (I sometimes use sugar for more sweetness.)

After I blended all my ingredients together, I poured it into a plastic zip-lock bag and added my chicken. Here’s where I cheated: The recipe says to buy chicken breast and pound them until they’re 1/4-inch thick. That always makes such a raucous in the kitchen (not to mention the extra labor), so I just bought the thinly sliced chicken breast they now sell sometimes at the grocery store. (If you can’t find thinly sliced chicken breast, you can do the pounding or butterfly the chicken so they’re thin.)

I placed the chicken in the refrigerator and waited two hours.

When I was ready to cook, I sprayed my grill pan with some vegetable oil. I don’t have a grill even though this recipe was designed for outdoor grilling. But if you’re like me, a grill pan will work just as well (you just may need to cook your chicken in batches if your pan is small like mine).

Because the breast slices are thin, it doesn’t take that long to cook. For me, it was about 2 to 3 minutes on each side. When you cook the first side, you want to resist flipping it until it’s ready so you can have the nice grill mark.

The recipe suggests serving the sliced bulgogi chicken with lettuce, rice, cucumber and kim chi. I found everything except the kim chi at my store, so I had to go without it even though that’s a classic Korean condiment. I did this on the weekend and didn’t feel like catching the bus to my Korean grocer just for kim chi. So my dish, pictured below, doesn’t look exactly like the one from the magazine, pictured above, but close enough, right?

My tips and warnings about this recipe:

  1. I already went over the whole issue about the timing of the marinade in the refrigerator. It’s a two to four hour window. In reality, that’s a good rule because the salt from the shoyu tends to tighten the chicken meat if left too long sitting in sodium. So avoiding a long marinating period probably keeps your chicken from getting that “cured” texture.
  2. The toasted sesame seeds added at the end is actually a nice touch and I wouldn’t skip this step.
  3. The sliced cucumbers add a nice, cooling taste to the dish. But for fun, you can also pickle them Korean-style like this to add another dimension to this Korean meal.
Ease of cooking: I mean, come on. This is so simple. It’s probably preparing the side dishes that make it complicated. The chicken itself is super easy. Marinade. Grill. Eat.

Taste: The marinade had all the classic flavors of Asian marinades so this turned out quite well in my eyes. Everything was well balanced, and definitely big on the garlic flavor, but it’s not Korean without the garlic! (In the past, I’ve experimented with this dish by adding Korean hot paste, which just gives it an extra kick.)

Overall grade: A- because the taste is pretty authentic and it’s simple to make but I don’t like the idea of pounding the chicken so I took points off for that and for all the other side requirements. It’s not anything surprising, but simply a classic.

Don’t forget to vote in my next Test Kitchen poll on the upper right hand corner. The July edition of Food and Wine is the annual “Best New Chefs” issue, so I picked three recipes from three of the best new chefs. I don’t say who the recipes are from, so you’ll have to wait to find out once you choose the winning recipe.

Previous test kitchens:
Espresso-Shortbread Brownie Bars
Basil-Crusted Leg of Lamb
Pork Tonkatsu
Winter Vegetable Chili

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nombe in San Francisco’s Mission

Japanese Pub Blends Traditional with Modern
2491 Mission St. (at 21st), San Francisco
Mission neighborhood
PH: 415.681.7150
Open Sun.–Thu., 6 p.m.–midnight (closed Tuesdays); Fri.–Sat., 6 p.m.–2 a.m., weekend brunch, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

The logo for the Japanese izakaya (or gastropub) Nombe in the Mission is a caricature of a Japanese guy who looks like the guy in those Japanese films where he’d be totally drunk at the village bar until a gang arrives in town and then he’d whip out some sick karate moves.

There weren’t any flying kicks happening when I recently visited Nombe (pronounced “nom-bay” and translated to mean drunkard), but there were definitely a lot of liquor and savory bites to keep you wanting more.

This lounge-like izakaya has been generating much buzz since it opened last November, proving that Mission hipsters like a good bowl of ramen along with their burritos. (In fact, the success of Nombe may be feeding the rumor that the people behind Namu across town are looking at opening an izakaya in the Mission as well.)

Walking into Nombe, it looks like any mom-and-pop Japanese restaurant with the sake bottles, paper lamps and folded decorative panels. But the pink glow of the Christmas lights along one wall and the pulsing rock music says otherwise. The contrasting tone is reflected in the partners — husband-and-wife Gil Payne and Mari Takahashi (formerly of Sozai) and their Caucasian executive chef Nick Balla (formerly of O Izakaya in Japantown).

My friend Ken joined me for an early dinner last week. Typically in a small-plate situation, we’d share a few dishes. But because Ken doesn’t eat meat and I was dying to try a few meat options, we went our separately ways. The menu is broken into house plates (these are typically more expensive), agemono (fried stuff that I avoided but Ken ordered from), and yakimono (grilled skewers).

Because an izakaya is typically a place where people gather to eat, drink and talk, there’s no real defined courses. So the food comes when they’re ready. Here are our dishes in the order that they came out.

First up was Ken’s order of White Shrimp Tempura “el Diablo” ($13), which was presented covered with what looked like parsley and kombu. Ken also ordered a glass of Sapporo beer and a bowl of miso soup with mushrooms ($4).

He thought the tempura batter was nicely prepared and fried, but he was thrown by the large shrimp still with the head on. I told him he should snap the head off and suck on it, but he passed on that suggestion. He enjoyed the miso soup, which even I could smell the flavor of from my side of the table.

Next came my Tsukune with egg ($6), which our helpful waitress (she patiently explained a lot of stuff on the menu) says is a traditional Japanese dish of ground chicken served with a small bowl of soft-cooked egg used as a dip. The tsukune looked almost like a sausage on the skewer. When eating it, it was savory and delightful, with the filling not very dense and mixed with what seemed like ground chicken and vegetables. It also looked pretty with the light dusting of what looked like red pepper flakes.

I can see how the tsukune is perfect for an izakaya because the savory elements made me want to drink a beer or sake. The egg was beautiful cooked, almost like custard, and sticking my tsukune into it provided a nice glaze but I didn’t feel it necessarily added more flavor. Still, this was a fun experience and I could have eaten another order.

But next came my Porkbelly ($13) with sake stewed onions and shoyu tamago. Nombe has two types of pork belly on the menu: 1) the plate I ordered that was slow-cooked or 2) on a skewer that’s deep-fried until crispy (you can see why I ordered the plate).

The pork belly was tender and even the fat held together like a slab of butter as opposed to a gel. The tender onions provided a nice contrast, but what was really fun was smearing a bit of the sweet hot mustard that was dabbed by the chef on the side of my plate as a condiment. It gave the dish a nice kick.

The two eggs (the tamago), unfortunately was not my favorite part of the dish. The egg white was so rubbery that I didn’t finish it.

Ken got the house plate of Black Cod ($13), a tiny piece of fish served on a bowl of spinach, fennel and leek braised with miso. I tried a bit of his fish and it was very tender, and Ken said the combination of vegetables with miso was like an orchestra of flavors in his mouth (me thinks he’s trying to show me up as the food critic).

Next came my order of Ciogga Beets ($6), which was a special for the night. The beets came in a cute square container topped with ginger, pickled cucumber and greens. On the bottom was a base of sour cream, which provided a silky texture to the already silky beets.

At this point, I couldn’t decide if I wanted more or if I was done. (There were lots of interesting things like chicken gizzards and beef heart still to try.) I finally ended up just getting the umeboshi onigiri (rice ball made with plum paste), $6. The warm rice was wrapped with a piece of shiso leaf and then nori (dried seaweed). As a kid, I’d always like to eat this type of musubi with the ume (the plum), but I’d never had it with the herbal taste of the shiso, which was an elegant touch. The plate came with an extra dollop of umeboshi if you like it extra sour.

Ken went for a traditional Japanese dessert, which was the mochi cake (or sticky rice cake, for $6). Nombe’s version was made with almond and yogurt and covered with a warm “meadowfoam” honey. I tried a bit and it reminded me of the Thai sticky rice desserts, although the mochi was more dense since the rice is pounded into a slab.

Overall, I found Chef Balla’s dishes to be authentic in flavor but exciting in execution. I would say, however, that because of the price point and small portions, you could end up paying a lot if you’re trying to piece together a dinner. This is definitely a high-end izakaya.

The special menu does sometimes include more sizeable offerings. For example, the night we were there Nombe was offering an “okazu feast,” which was a whole meal in one for $35. It included pork shoulder roast with chicarrones, pickled pig’s ear, wild nori rice and a variety of side dishes.

I knew if I ordered this feast I wouldn’t be able to try anything else. But I was curious about their ramen, which is why I returned over the weekend to try their weekend brunch.

The brunch menu features a Japanese breakfast (kind of an assortment of dishes like a bento box) and some popular items from the dinner menu. I went with the Red Curry Ramen with Grilled Chicken, a deal at $10 and a bit more with a pint of Sapporo beer ($13).

Side note: For brunch there are also some interesting cocktails like mimosa and sake, but I actually went with the lavender oolong iced tea ($4), which was refreshing and had just the slightest wiff of lavender.

For the ramen, I felt the noodles were really thin and a bit clumpy. But the broth was an interesting mixture of tastes. You get the slight spicy kick of the red curry that was then offset by the sourness of lime. The lime actually helped to cut the richness of the curry, and the overall flavors made me think of Thailand. The bowl also included baby shiitake mushrooms, corn, bean sprouts and mizuno.

Nombe is a place where I want to hangout all the time, whether it’s for drinks and bites with friends or a late-night gathering. (The restaurant opens a window to the street on the weekends late at night to serve ramen and other small bites.) It’s the kind of place that if you don’t watch yourself, you’d be a drunk in no time. But in a good way.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Savory Bar Bites)

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

Nombe on Urbanspoon

Related reviews:
O Izakaya Lounge
Nihon Whisky Lounge