Archive for the ‘Places and Tables’ Category

Another Ode to the Great Ol’ U.S. Restaurant

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

        Here in San Francisco I live in a neighborhood dangerously crammed with gorgeous yuppies, expensive boutiques, enough nail salons and cupcake shopettes to service a dozen arrondissements, and restaurants with good food one cannot enjoy because the hip quarters they inhabit have been designed by demented entrepreneurs to mimic New Years Eve party spaces where the decibel levels put Edgar Varese and the opening of Thus Spake Zarathustra (aka 2001) to shame.

        And then, come to think of it, while much of the food is excellent some of it is too cute for words, the gastronomic equivalent of mindless, over-the-top forays into Euro Trash in current opera staging. Sample: long-locked Samson in a currentday hair salon . . .

        So, quite frequently, I escape a couple of miles east to North Beach where the weather is better anyway, and the streets are filled with Chinese babushkas, Italian fishermen just in from the Golden Gate, French tourists with noses in maps, and cute people sunning themselves in Washington Square where the Cloud Nine tai chi’ers swing their arms like orchestra conductors in slow motion.

        And in North Beach — no beach here, but it is North, and it t’aint the Upper East Side! — I find the Original U.S. Restaurant with its counter filled with habitues and a long menu that proposes comfort food categorizable as corner brasserie fare, retro perhaps but eternal in its culinary verity. Then too if one dines here often enough one becomes aware of all manner of personal “specials” added to an invisible side menu, sotto la carta you might say, created to satisfy the tastes of regulars suggesting this and that variation on the restaurant’s stated themes.

        11 a.m. at 515 Columbus Avenue and the pots steam and boil in the open kitchen, the bread arrives — just in time! — and Gus the pantryman is slicing mortadella, chef Benny stirring salsa pomodoro in a giant vat, owner Gaspare turning on the overhead Faniculi Fanicula, Joelle the more impish chef in the crew fantasizing about how he’ll dot Arthur’s mashed potatoes with specks of olive to give them a pretty face.

        And Renee the incomparable server is adjusting her apron, preparing to make us feel all cozy in her Spaghetti Row Shangri La.

        Now the regulars arrive: Franco the jolly retired plumber, erstwhile maestro of copper pipe installations sans faute, who used to drive one of those Mercedes 300SL’s with the doors that open like flapping wings; good and silent Filippo who tinkles supper club ivories by night; heart-of-gold Johnnie, retired from investigating the vexing innards of Xerox machines, who, when he isn’t golfing in the park, cooks splendidly for his Richmond District harem including lovely wife, guitar-playing daughter, diminutive mom and equally diminutive mother-in-law.

        And there’s Paul who strides purposefully around town with thoughts of Veal Milanese constantly on his mind. And charming Steven, another golfer, who carries with him an appetite hugely responsive to the efforts of Benny, Joelle and Gus.

        Now there are some who would cast the U.S. — by the way, that doesn’t mean United States, it’s U Sicilianu, because Gaspare is from Trapani — as an Eye-talian restaurant, a spaghetti and meatballs emporium and nothing more. But careful, here one finds a menu of great depth and considerable elegance. Example A: one day I ordered the Lamb Chops I’d been salivating over on other diners’ plates and asked for them with “that gravy.” That substance turned out to be an inspired Gallic brown sauce, a Perigourdine if there ever was one: Julia might have swooned.

        And when I ordered the equally sumptuous-looking Pork Chops with mushrooms they arrived in what struck me as nothing other than a textbook Marchand de Vin.

        Study that endless page of pasta dishes and you’ll find not only Bolognese, Pesto, Marinara, Alfredo, all the usual suspects, but Palermo (shrimp, scallops, olives, basil), Tarantina (mussels, parsley, white wine), Buongustaia (prosciutto, peas, cream), Boscaiola (bacon, onions, mushrooms, etc.) And there are Arancine, Sicilian deep fried risotto balls, and Panelle, garbanzo fritters also of Sicilian provenance. Pappardelle, fettuccine and gnocchi are all home made.

        And the meat balls, good ones, are available at the Giants’ ballpark!

        As for those sotto la carta items, well, Johnnie is responsible for Thursday Potatoes which translates as the boiled potatoes normally partnering corned beef wrenched from their usual role and deep fried in wondrous chunks, then served with chopped tomato and garlic. 5 Wows! I myself am the initiator of the Mort and Jack Salad which is the standard U.S. Salad of lettuce, tomato, onions and cannellini beans with the usual olives jettisoned in favor of thin slices of mortadella and jack cheese. Also credit me with advising you to ask for Salsa Verde with your Wednesday brisket.

        And for Constantino the busser I like to leave a dollar embedded in the French bread remaining in the basket, a “lettuce sandwich,” I suppose, in oldtime gangster parlance.

Poblanos in Templeton (January ’11)

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

        Here in northern California I like to travel to places that are, more or less, a secret. Carmel, for instance, is not a secret. The beach is still beautiful but the town is stuffed with overcute McMansionettes, the cinemas are gone, the bookstores are gone, the mom-and-pop stores are gone, the visitors are, how shall I put it, WASP and then some.

        But Templeton, that funky village just south of Paso Robles in the Central Coast wine and BBQ country, well, this place is just well enough NOT known to suit me fine.

        As you may recall from the little piece in Chapter 9 of this volume titled Dinner at Alex’s, Templeton is home to the delightful Country House Inn, free of television, free of wi-fi, free of guests sometimes, run by the same charming proprietess for a quarter of a century. There in a 1886 Victorian one sleeps peacefully to the rumble of a distant SP freight and wakes to a breakfast of unctuous poached pears in cream, velvety blueberry muffins and individual cheese souffles overflowing their ramekins. And the plumbing still sighs like a contented lover.

        One dines just up the main drag, across from the town’s tilting grain elevator (Leaning Tower of Templeton, this poor man’s Albi Cathedral?), but not at the Alex’s of yore — Alex’s you can find some miles south at Shell Beach. Now the lure is McPhee’s where a ranchland version of Berkeley Nouvelle-slash-Nuevo Latino is your happy portion. With all due respect to Alex’s and his estimable calamari steaks, McPhee’s is a more upmarket gastronomical kettle of fish, the food exceptionaly refined while lusty enough and bursting with flavor. The proprietor, a self-taught fellow from Pico Rivera in Los Angeles, is obsessed by the notion of fresh ingredients and this state of affairs is no secret on the tables of his establishment.

        Said tables welcome us with flowery who-would-know-they’re-plastic coverings and oldtime milk bottles await with water for thirsty diners who will, of course, be attacking the excellent wine list any moment now. And here are olives, olive bread and pickled onion to nibble on, also flatbread supreme.

        We focused on starters. The idea of an Oak Grilled Rib Eye with three salsas, jalapeno mashed potatoes and three- cheese stuffed grilled poblano — this among the “mains” — seemed rather daunting. So I sampled the house’s oak via a California artichoke steamed, bisected and grilled over exceptionally aromatic coals and served with a first class chipotle chile mayonnaise. Son John rated high an ancho duck and cheese quesadilla, the tortilla element biscuity as can be, and I had my poblano minus a steak: a zesty dish it was, the chile resting in a puddle of chunklet-dotted tomatillo salsa invaded by a friendly ooze of chevre.

        Dessert seemed a bit risky in the wake of all these plates plus a side of the jalapeno potatoes smoooth as a Mozart legato but we figured we might sneak through with what turned out, no surprise, to be a triumph of eatability, lemon sorbet with raspberry sauce and a large menhir of chocolate planted in the sorbet like a badge of McPheeian office. Then out into the chilly night, the enormous grain elevator still a little tipsy.

SNIPPETS OF SEPTEMBER: The Art of the Leftover

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

         A leftover of reasonable gastronomic merit, it seems to me, can be rather like a variation in a symphonic piece — in other words, you can recognize the original easily, or maybe you can’t. I’ve had some fun lately ringing as much change as I could on what the refrigerator was offering free of charge Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday: Exhibit A would be a risotto transformed as if by some Franz Liszt of the kitchen into croquettes!

         I’d made a risotto with nectarines, salami, peas and fresh tarragon, it made a tasty dinner all right, and when it chanced that a lot was left in the skillet, and I didn’t feel like eating another dinner of risotto in its familiar nuggety form I thought, well, let’s go for croquettes, if, that is, I can hold ’em together.

         So, just scoop up a large spoonful of your lingering risotto and form it into a ball, and keeping a firm grip on said sphere — with spatula, your left hand and a bit of praying — roll it in a mixture of beaten egg, olive oil and breadcrumbs, then gingerly place it in a frying pan, then repeat the process until you’ve used up the leftover rice, and fry the lot until the croquettes are a bit crisp on the outside and cooked through.

         My next variation galore was inspired by a surfeit of dense pasta sauce that had outlasted the quickly consumed tagliarini nestled underneath. A sauce, this, of ground pork sausage, Portobello mushroom, cream, lemon, marsala, garlic, nutmeg. Well, why not stuff the begging sauce into a red bell pepper and bake it for 20 minutes in a medium oven with a little olive oil and grated cheese on top. Aha: un succes fou.

         And when I chanced to have enough rib steak left over from a hefty comfort food dinner I sliced it into strips — gougonettes, I think the French call them — and worked them into the recipe from this volume titled Second Day Bollito. Just follow the script using this leftover steak instead of the boiled beef from the Second Day recipe, a homey prescription I stole more or less from good ol’ Tante Marie, who was a sort of Fannie Farmer of France.

         Doggie-bags-full of grilled halibut as left over from my exhilarating Friday lunches at that vastly underrated hangout the U.S. Restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach can also be creatively recycled. Cut up the fish and combine it with boiled pasta, olive oil, pressed garlic, grated cheese and bread crumbs — and don’t forget the fresh tarragon! — and bake the lot for 20 minutes. That takes care of Saturday dinner.

         Or if the weekend is warm snizzle leftover halibut and use it as a courtly replacement for tinned tuna in a Nicoise salad.