The fact that one of our friends in SF is a meticulous planner and enthusiastic promoter of her city didn't hurt the development of a tight itinerary of eating. Despite landing in California well past what normal human beings would call dinner hour, we still ventured out from their Golden Gate Park-area house to the Mission. Chinese food was calling.
Mission Chinese Food is one of those places that plain has figured it out. Literally--the guys running the show out of a dingy storefront had never cooked Sichuan before opening MCF, working it out as they went. The result? One of Bon Appetit's ten best new restaurants of 2011.
Spicy buckwheat noodles with Asian pear. Hainam chicken rice. Broccoli beef cheek. General Tso's veal rib. Kung pao pastrami. This place is right up my alley, and it looks like is should be in an alley. Deep flavors, meats cooked and caramelized to delicious perfection, and a soundtrack split between gangster rap and the best easy listening of the 1980's--I didn't want to leave. That beef cheek dish was maybe the best thing I've eaten all year.
Hard to come down from that cloud, but how about a pub that brews its own beer, has an intricate and gorgeous design aesthetic, and looks out on the hot corner of Haight and Masonic? Magnolia is that place, and the cod and chorizo sandwich I had for Friday lunch speaks well of it. My wife had a watermelon salad that was nice, but come on. Chorizo, people. You know where my allegiances lie.
Friday night, though, was the centerpiece of the whole trip. The one place I insisted upon. The place we made reservations for weeks in advance. Chef Chris Cosentino's Incanto.
You've seen Tony Bourdain eat here on No Reservations. You've seen the chef on Food Network's Chefs vs. City. If Cosentino and his kitchen at Incanto have a claim to fame, it's odd bits. Offal. The kind of stuff my Fringe Foods brain gets all worked up over.
And brain it was for course number one--a brown butter-sauteed calf's brain (yes, a whole brain, creamy and hot), over buttery toast, topped with a smoked caper salsa verde that every single person at the table went a little slack-jawed over. For the main course, my second serving of pork belly in two days (after MCF) came crispy alongside polenta, squash, and smoked apples; I was going for a smoked theme, and it paid off. Dessert was a fig leaf panna cotta with quince that capped the meal off perfectly.
(Other plates at the table included my wife's cured tuna heart spaghettini--a kind of offal riff on carbonara; a special of sweetbread bacon terrine, breaded and fried; lardo with persimmon and pomegranate; and a ridiculous plate of goat two ways with potatoes, olives, and goat horn peppers. It was all terrific, and very reasonably priced--about $300 for four.)
Saturday, we were all over town. It started off well, with a luscious maple Bavarian log from Donut World on 9th (leave it to Kevin to sneak off and procure an illicit doughnut for me; he's a true friend) and a Blue Bottle double americano from Dash Cafe.
Due east to the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, the Farmers' Market was a totally non-circular operation--strange for this Madisonian. But it was all good once I got some 4505 Meats in me. Their maple sausage breakfast sandwich is a glistening, rocket-hot bundle of sin, and I loved it. Even better are their chicharrones, which resemble nothing so much as meat cotton candy.
Meats-as-sweets continued with the Boccalone cured meat stand inside the Ferry Building. Co-founded by Chris Cosentino, Boccalone fulfills all your "salted pig part" needs. I could have filled my meat cone (not a euphemism) with nothing but their prosciutto crudo and been perfectly happy. That's not to say that the subsequent trip to In-n-Out (yes, Donny, my first time) was out of dissatisfaction. No, it just had to happen.
With all that, I'm still not sure how I managed to fit an Époisses-studded cheeseburger in there, but it happened. Heirloom Cafe, one of Bon Appetit's nine restaurants to visit in San Francisco, has an interesting atmosphere--sort of like a Victorian parlor in a modern art museum--and a tight, rustic menu. Brussels with bacon and a bacon-onion tart might make Heirloom sound like a trend-hopping artifice, but it's not. The comped bottle of bubbly--more of Lauren's networking in action--was just the bow on top of a really enjoyable experience. (And I swear I didn't realize I was following BA's advice on the burger.)
We did have to swear off a round of late beers at Monk's Kettle in deference to our full bellies, but I did at least get to drink a pint of Pliny the Elder on Friday night. Sunday--our last day--would be a "walk off the calories" kind of day. Before heading out for Muir Woods and a little winery-hopping, we stocked up with Beanery coffee and pastries and whatnot from Arizmendi Baking Co-op--holy corn-cherry scone.
And then, en route to Napa, something magical happened. Lauren, struck by the spirit, remembered a roadside sign she'd seen for a diner serving fried pies. "Lunch?", she asked. "Why are we still talking about it?", replied the menfolk. And thus did the Fremont Diner become our Sunday lunch stop.
It's slow, it's idiosyncratic, and there are about three different bottlenecks built into the experience, but man is Fremont Diner something amazing. It's a serious Southern food diner. Our friends, recent transplants to SF from Charleston, South Carolina, were over the moon. Pimento cheese on really nice crusty bread; biscuits crammed full of griddle-hot ham and peach jam; complimentary fried apple slices and onion rings--yes, yes, gods yes.
So, the pie at the end kind of got lost. We had to ask for it twice, and eventually took it to go. At least we were comped a slice of caramel cake for our trouble. Fremont Diner is country-style classics tweaked just a pinch here and there. See: horchata or salted caramel milkshakes, a Reuben topped with chow-chow, or a muffaletta with orange skin-infused fontina. Basically, there are little sheds and outbuildings all over and I want to move into one.
[[Deleted scene involving the four of us punching way over our cultural weight at three vineyards in Napa, and driving past--but dear lord, not stopping along--the murderer's row that is The French Laundry, Bouchon, and ad hoc.]]
The one negative dining experience of the trip came when we stopped at the very cute Oxbow Public Market in Napa-proper. I wasn't sure how much more I could cram into my face, so I decided to play it light with a rotisserie duck taco from C Casa. Upon receiving my (small, EIGHT DOLLAR) taco, I noticed the avocado crema was missing. The server/cashier noted that something appeared to be amiss, and took my taco back for remedy. I could see her telling the cook, who then went to the menu board to see if he'd really left it off. No, dude, I made it up. Heck, I don't even know what avocado crema is.
I have never been closer to playing the "I'm a food writer, and I know both how to read, and what avocado crema looks like" card. I didn't, but I thought about it for a second.
This would have been a bummer of a finale, but inspiration (always timely, it seems, in SF) struck. We're heading to the airport along the eastern edge of the peninsula, yes? What say you all to a quick detour for ice cream at Humphry Slocombe?
The dishes of Secret Breakfast (bourbon ice cream with corn flake nuggets), Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee, Caramel Apple, and/or Butterbeer (stout beer ice cream and brown butter ice cream blend) that we all kind of leisurely shared while a huge Halloween crowd filed in right on our heels speak the answer to that question.
Really. If the question is San Francisco, the answer is always going to be yes. For a food guy? It calls to me.
There are few things better than for-no-good-reason days off. Kristine and I are fortunate enough to have leave time to spare, and decided to take a day trip to the northern reaches of Chicagoland. A little retail therapy at IKEA and Mitsuwa seemed in order.
And on the way down, my lovely and brilliant wife asked if we needed to look for a Chick-fil-A while we were in the Chicago area. (Chick-fil-A doesn't get any closer to Wisconsin, and neither of us had ever experienced the phenomenon.) With Swedish meatballs and Japanese candy already on the menu, this was looking like a pretty solid outing.
We hit IKEA at about 10:30, and wouldn't you know it? The restaurant is on the third floor, exactly where we started our shopping. Meatballs for me, mac and cheese for her, and I'm kind of blissing out. I don't think IKEA meatballs are a guilty pleasure, exactly, but they are definitely buffet-style junk food. Still, a great combination of sweet and savory.
A bag full of goodies later, we disembarked from the blue mothership and consulted the internet for the closest Chick-fil-A. Turns out, it's right down the road from IKEA. "I don't care if I just ate, I'm eating again," said the discerning food critic.
The reason this location of Chick-fil-A, while appearing on the company website, didn't show up on Google Maps is that it just opened on September 15. As a result, those red-and-blue flashing lights and cops directing traffic weren't so much there for accident recovery as they were for crowd control. Yes, there were two lanes of drive-thru and both were packed. The pedestrian line poured out the door. (Shades of SONIC's debut in the Madison area.)
Nevertheless, we managed to get into the line, and in short order, two chicken sandwiches were ours. Finally, I have perspective on what Wendy's and McDonald's are taking on with their less-processed chicken breast sandwiches. These things actually tasted, looked, and felt like chicken. Good chicken, not dry, stringy chicken. I'm ready for a Wisconsin location, thank you.
It turns out that Schaumburg has become a little slice of low-brow foodie heaven, because IKEA, Chick-fil-A, and the all-in-one Japanese market Mitsuwa are in a line, more or less--like an Orion's Belt of "I really shouldn't eat like this".
Our radar at Mitsuwa is still tuned primarily to the candy and sweets section. This used to be true because we were in over our heads with the rest of the grocery offerings (unless our Japanese friend Emily was there to guide us). It's still true now, but not because of culture shock. It's because we know we can get most of Mitsuwa's core offerings at markets in Madison. So we're magnetically drawn to the candy that we can't find anywhere but the internet.
With three packages of HI-CHEW in our pockets (actually two HI-CHEW and one Kanro), we made a quick exit from the bustling Mitsuwa. This, along with a stop at the slightly absurd but irresistible Belvidere Oasis, would have been a pretty good day. A great day, even.
But then we got back to Madison. And, after a few errands, we discovered the best part.
[EDIT: Holy crap. I was in such a hurry to finish this post before the delivery guy got here, I completely forgot about the bag of meat! For a mere $35, I made two pounds of locally-produced charcuterie my very own, thanks to the Underground Food Collective. Stay tuned for another 2-pound meat CSA offering next month. Can't tell you how jazzed I am about the nduja. Now, on to the thrilling climax!]
The skimpy, crowded bit of Sprecher Road that runs under the Interstate, that's been under construction forever and will be forever--that's a nightmare to navigate in the winter--has finally been remedied. In an email a few months ago, I told our alder (council president Lauren Cnare) that what I really wanted was a temporary blacktop lane to spread traffic out. Just a little loop off to the other side of the support columns, to give people some breathing room.
And now it's there.
LOOK, MADISON, AT WHAT I HAVE DONE FOR YOU.
I'm serious, this is the best day ever. I'm gonna go eat some more candy.
This July's dining calendar was dominated in one respect by Jimmy's American Tavern, my most recent review for Isthmus--it's linked in the sidebar to the right. But while some new experiences in Madison and beyond certainly made July noteworthy, there was one dining experience that quite simply destroys the curve.
Five years ago, there's no way I'd have guessed that Kristine and I would be one of the couples who returns to L'Etoile for an anniversary dinner each year. But after last year's amazing experience at the end of 25 North Pinckney, we couldn't resist. Four courses later, we're hooked for sure.
An amuse bouche of slightly deconstructed gazpacho was playful and vibrant--it's always nice to start a meal with a laugh. Salade Lyonnaise for her (the smoked mushrooms a pleasant surprise), beef carpaccio with pea vine and equally outspoken pickled mushrooms for me. The midcourse was an easy choice for Kristine; a delicious reprise of her favorite dish from our honeymoon, tempura-battered squash blossoms. I loved the drunken Gulf shrimp in a Tyranena Three Beaches Blonde Ale and XO butter sauce; the hunk of soft pretzel was an absurdly glorious addition.
The fruits of the seas/oceans/lakes were the order of the day on this particular menu. Corvina done in a Mediterranean style and a bucatini di mare both sounded tremendous, but Kristine chose the rockfish with two treatments of cauliflower (truffled purée and caramelized); it was lovely, atop garlic-braised collards. I continued my roughly Asian through-line with a Chinese takeout-style feast: rare seared duck breast, radish pods, broccoli, snow peas, sweet onion fried rice topped with a hen egg, braised bok choy, and a tart cherry sweet-and-sour sauce. It was unparalleled in the world of Column A/Column B Chinese food, and yet entirely reminiscent. Every bite was another little celebration of Chef Miller's imagination.
Three courses of professionally unimpeachable wine pairings were the icing on the cake, and the desserts, coffee, and complimentary petit fours wound the meal down in all the right ways. Whenever we think of this meal, we wonder if it would cheapen the anniversary experience to find other reasons to treat ourselves. We're beginning to think it'd be a shame not to.
The rest of July
Barbecue at Papa Bear's on Independence Day (glad to discover they were open on maybe the perfect holiday for BBQ), and first visits to Bea's Bonnet (holy sandwich cookie!), Harold's Chicken Shack (an over-cooked letdown), Restaurant El Pastor (acceptable), Habanero's (will likely replace 60-80% of my Chipotle trips), and China Inn (forgettable but for the fried sweet biscuits) made for a very educational July. The pulled pork at Brickhouse was an imposing mountain of meat; it generated three meals. The Old Fashioned has a couple new burgers since our last visit; the spicy burger is indeed hot, and any burger from the Old Fashioned kitchen will satisfy, ultimately.
Venturing out of state for the first time in a long while, Kristine and I visited friends and took in a couple meals in the Windy City. Sunday brunch at Kitsch'n was crowded (though not as much as previous visits to Toast were); the bloody Mary was far blander than a chipotle bloody Mary has any right to be, and my chicken and waffles (appropriate for a diner on Roscoe) were okay, but that's about it. Dinner at the recently-reviewed Owen & Engine (three stars from the Tribune's Phil Vettel) was much more successful. Reminiscent of the charms of Underground Kitchen, O&E's British-tinged pub fare was dark and hearty, the ginger beered house Pimm's Cup bright and enlivening. There was a funeral home next door with a truly gorgeous front door; I wanted to open a lounge in there just to sop off Owen & Engine's happy excesses.
The best thing I ate
This is a little unfair. Pitting China Inn's sweet fried biscuits--simple, but the Platonic ideal of fairgrounds-style fried bread, served at 10 for $4--against anything from one of the country's 50 best restaurants would be a challenge to even the judges at Westminster. And what of the No. 6 lazy Susan at The Old Fashioned? Braunschweiger, pickles, two Widmer's cheese spreads, smoked trout, creamed herring, and sausage? Ye gods, yes. Even the sausages from Brickhouse hold some electors in their sway. The compromise inherent in marriage tells me that I should choose L'Etoile's zucchini blossoms; Kristine loved them, and truthfully so did I. But dangit, I'm still my own man! I choose beer and pretzels! The drunken shrimp were rich, hot and even though there were no heads to suck, they were still a little naughty. Sopping one's plate with a piece of bread feels more than a little gauche at such a fine restaurant, but damned if I didn't do it anyway.
So anyway, for our honeymoon, we didn't want to do something with a big production value. Rome, Tahiti, Hawaii, New York...these were all out of the picture because a lot of the wedding had been DIY (well, more like DIH: Do-It-Herself) and we didn't want to have to plan a big trip. Nor did we want to feel compelled to do stuff once there. Thus, Montreal.
Montreal offered a good combination of a vibrant food scene (me, duh), and the ability to just laze around town, stop at cafés, and windowshop (Kristine, not that the two couldn't be switched to a certain degree). Plus, it's another station of the Anthony Bourdain cross.
I don't really apologize for being a bit of a Bourdain-chaser--any chance I can get to go to a place he's featured on No Reservations, I take. I don't see anything wrong or dorky or fanboyish about taking the lead of someone who's been everywhere and eaten everything. (Okay, maybe a little fanboyish, but it's not like I'm shopping at the place he buys his slightly-inadvisable horizontal striped thermals.)
The centerpiece of the Montreal episode of No Reservations was Tony's trip to Au Pied de Cochon, and his time spent with chef Martin Picard. Please to enjoy the video clip below.
Now, a smart food guy would see that he'd be in a city with a great restaurant like this, and maybe take the initiative to make a reservation a few weeks in advance. I would not be that guy.
We arrived in Montreal on Monday afternoon. On Tuesday night, I figured it would probably be a good idea to actually call and see if we could get a table. (To be fair, Kristine didn't think to make an advance reservation either.) APDC is somewhat notorious as a hard table to get, and a tough call to make; they don't spend a lot of energy on customer coddling or pretense. Or answering the phone during business hours.
So there I am, Tuesday around dinner hour, listening to an outgoing voicemail messag for perhaps the best restaurant in Montreal...and it's entirely in French. I don't speak French. Kristine couldn't forget her high school French fast enough. We're kinda boned.
I know, however, that they have an email address for reservations, and that their website offers a bilingual toggle. Fingers crossed, I send off an email that starts "Je suis désolé," and then tell them that I wasn't sure if leaving reservation requests on the voicemail was de rigeur, and we don't get cell phone service in Canada, and this is our room number at our hotel, and we're on our honeymoon, and could we possibly get a table any time between Wednesday and Friday night? I hit send, and I waited.
It was to our great relief, then, that about 24 hours later, we received a call from a lovely lady at APDC. Turned out, it was extremely fortunate that she called back as soon as she did; there was a misunderstanding that resulted in her thinking that we wanted a reservation after that coming Saturday, rather than before. But wouldn't you know, there was an available seating at 9:30 on Thursday. We're Eurotrash, we regularly eat dinner late--this was perfect! Yes please, merci, hang up, done.
We took the metro (this trip was both of our first subway rides, incidentally), walked a bit, and hovered outside the restaurant until closer to our reservation. Restaurants in Montreal all generally have wide-open facades, so that in good weather the dining space is totally open to the sidewalk. It's pretty cool, and creates a palpable atmosphere that washes out into the street.
Our table turned out to be directly behind the chair at which Tony Bourdain sat during his visit; Fanboy would have made a point of touching it or sitting in it for a picture, and I did no such thing.
Service was a little slow after our first beverage order, but we received multiple apologies from someone who carried himself with an air of authority, and actually got a couple beers on the house. The beers, by the way, were okay. St. Ambroise Pale Ale and a cream ale. Craft beer in Montreal appears to be a weak point.
Kristine and I were torn between going balls-out and ordering everything that looked good--and in turn feeling like sweet hell by the end of the night--or sparing our wallets and waistlines by picking winners and staying reasonably sensible. In the end, improbably, sensibility won.
Our order: tomato tartlet, fried zucchini blossoms, and the cochonnailles platter to start. The tartlet, about the circumference of your average melon, was buttery, hot and wonderful. The zucchini blossoms were lightly fried, like tempura, and crunchy. The star, however, was the cochonnailles platter, basically a cold-cut charcuterie plate of patês, boudin sausage, boudin noir, terrines, a zingy tomato chutney, and pigs' blood gelée. Kristine, taking a big step for her Fringe Foods-writing hubby, took an affirmative position on trying it given the esteemed surroundings.
Neither of us liked it.
Shocker, I know. Surprisingly, though, it wasn't because of any metallic taste, but rather the extreme saltiness. Moisture started seeping out of my brain to compensate.
Picking from all the main dishes is like Sophie's Choice, but only if Sophie had about twelve conjoined siblings. The namesake dish--a huge, stuffed pork hock--looks great, the sausage looks great, the pork chop looks great, even the house signature salad looks great (and from what I've heard, it is).
It's a good thing Kristine and I scoped out the menu in advance, because otherwise we'd have been those obnoxious tourist newlyweds who just volley "what are you having?" off of each other for an hour. Kristine chose the plogue à Champlain, a shameless example of vertical excess comprised of a buckwheat pancake, potatoes, cheese, bacon, foie gras, and a maple syrup and duck jus reduction. It's not a huge dish in terms of proportion, but try finishing it without being consciously gluttonous. I shudder to consider the calorie count.
There are many must-haves on the APDC menu, but the one that stuck out to me was the Duck in a Can. A duck breast, a thick slice of foie gras, veggies, herbs, and balsamic all get canned in the usual manner. It's about the size of a Chunky soup can. Your plate arrives dressed with a simple disc of buttered crouton topped with the house mashed potatoes impregnated with cheese curds--basically mashed poutine. The can arrives intact. The waiter opens your can, which has been pressure-cooked, and plops the contents onto your awaiting mashed potatoes. Fat and jus and veggies spill out across the plate, like a pyroclastic flow of decadence. Almost embarrassingly erect stand the duck breast and foie gras, perched jauntily in the potatoes. You're forced to gasp, but that's all right because the very air is thick with flavor.
Yeah, the duck is maybe a little tough. The foie gras, I'm kind of happy to say, isn't really my thing. But the overall flavor is immense, and the experience is a surreal combination of tacky and regal. Worth doing once, and any number of times over. At least, it would be if there weren't so many other dishes that merit ordering.
To say nothing of dessert, which sadly we just couldn't fit into our torsoes. But the real kicker is the bill. After tip, we ended up paying about $160 Canadian. Considering the source, the reputation, the portion, and the quality, you could expect to pay twice that amount for a similar meal in the States. An unbelievable bargain, even with two free beers.
I've since said that eating at a place like Au Pied de Cochon seems not unlike climing a mountain. It's not an easy place to experience, but from the top it's simple to see why it was so rewarding. We both loved it.
All my pictures are on Facebook, but I'll see about getting them onto Flickr to share with all y'all. You can always send me a friend request on FB, though--just attach a note to tell me you're a blog reader. In the meantime, you can take a look at our broader adventures in Montreal on my annotated travel map.