Archive for January, 2010

Antipasti of Winter ’09 – ’10

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

         HERE’S A meal for you!  I like Christopher Isherwood’s description of Ingrid Bergman — she was, he says, not beautiful like Garbo but radiantly appetizing, “her presence was like breakfast on a sunny morning: a clean tablecloth, freshly made coffee, rich cream, deliciously crisp toast.” Sounding on a different string, Isherwood that deadpan comedian-documentarian writes of “sandy yellow railway cake,” “roast beef and stewed plums and pink soap-cheese” (this in an English pub c. 1939), and a picnic lunch in Hamburg in the 30s included sausages “of the indecently pink kind, the kind full of lumps and gristle, the kind that looks in cross-section like a very old stained glass window.” No, I don’t think Christopher could have landed a job with the Michelin guides.

        Meanwhile, in another book I’ve been reading, Lord Peter Wimsey the Piccadilly sleuth is dining with a friend at a London club. Time for soup. “Clear?” asks the waiter, standing stiff in his braid, “or thick?” Can you imagine walking into San Francisco’s Delfina and asking for a bowl of thick?

        YOUR CORRESPONDENT has fallen in love with the pumpkin ravioli one can buy in boxes of 54 at the Lucca delicatessen out at 22nd and Valencia, this in San Francisco of course. Pricing and welcome at this deli are, by the way, the best I’ve found among the dwindling fraternity of sausage-pasta-olive oil emporiums in the City. But how to sauce them, pray tell. Especially with 324 sitting just offstage in one’s freezer! Well, I googled the question and found quite a discussion proceeding on the web. Most of us seemed to agree: a simple brown butter and sage sauce is the most appropriate for these rich and scrumptious objets d’art gastronomiques.

        There is a viable alternative, however, an innocent little orange sauce I invented. It’s mostly orange juice, a tumbler-full say, with a half jigger of Marsala for bite, a little butter for body, and nutmeg and rosemary if you have it for punctuation. And golden raisins — these top things off very nicely. Recipe for 2: just boil the lot lightly and pour over 36 ravioli. Bonus: this sauce is marvelous, I think, on salmon steaks done briskly in the pan.

        And the sauce for spinach ravioli? I found it inadvertently by feeding myself a dozen of said ravioli with brown butter and sage and accompanying this lovely minestran mess with a chicken leg I’d baked for 40 minutes in olive oil and a LOT of lemon juice. Result: the tingly drippings from the chicken when poured over fowl and the already lightly sauced pasta created a new and greater SAUCE of wonderful rich flavor.

         BULLETIN!  Like a hot rod with special fenders and ultra-chrome hubcaps, our recipe for Grillade des Mariniers du Rhone (see chapter 9) has been tarted up to advantage. Our new suggestion is you add some sliced potatoes and a bit of bacon to the round steak or ribs-over-onions, then bake the full complement to kingdom come and serve with large cannellini beans warmed in a little olive oil and sage and have some mint jelly at the ready.

         IT’S SCARCELY news to speak of the wonders of the internet in planning a journey when the screen is full of websites devoted to this-that-and-the-other country inn in France, Italy, wherever. Room after room parades before you, 360 degrees of ’em — should I reserve the one with the four poster, the one with the view, the one with the cute eiderdown? And the menus — what shall I order when I visit the Auberge de Watcha-ma-callit six months hence? Surely that Confit Surprise will still be on the bill of fare.

         And this isn’t all when it comes to getting-the-picture of exactly what your trip will be like, presuming of course that defective mattresses or obsessive creakings of the plumbing worthy of a haunted house won’t be part of the deal. For instance you can go to You Tube and for eight minutes or so watch, yes watch, in real time, the Clermont Ferrand-Marseille express tooling down the Allier River gorge, diesel engine put-putting across your computer screen. Or see a picture, from maybe May 26, 2007, of the station master giving the silvery five-car Le Cevenol the high sign to ease out of Villefort station.

         The thought struck me: why, I could save big bucks by staying home and just watching Languedoc roll by on my office screen. But I guess I’d have a little less to tell you afterward. No train strike, no missed connection, no distressed mattress, no Garbo in the corridor. And just how did that confit taste?

         SPEAKING OF travel, I see that I neglected in my account of the years 2002-07 to mention that I traveled by train, three trains actually, from eastern Holland to London in ’07 — anything to avoid Heathrow! It was a mission of some delicacy; I was consoling a dear friend who’d had the misfortune to develop a crush on an ambivalent woman, even following this intermittent fondler via The Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh, where a beastly but perhaps just conclusion to l’affaire platonique on a dreary streetcorner forced him to crash land out of his preoccupation, in a handy Chinese restaurant yet — it wasn’t far from the Robert Louis Stevenson house — a process that took several hours but was apparently totally successful. When I met him at Kings Cross he looked mightily relieved.

         A bonus of this novelistic paragraph in the life of a gastronomical tourist is that I chanced to stay in London at Durrants (accent on the first syllable), that low-ceilinged, much-mirrored hotel of unimpeachable eighteenth century provenance just behind the Wallace Collection. A bit pricey, and more bowing-and-scrapin’ than I require, but good old St. Margaret’s, my Bloomsbury stand, had just closed down — no more “duay boiled eggy” as the Italian waiter would shout, kicking his way through the kitchen door at breakfast — and Durrants proved an enchanting nest.

         The lunch in its restaurant was excellent, even if the only sound one could hear was the click-clack-clink of cutlery politely maneuvered by the three or four other people dining in this elegant tomb, a pinstriped gent over there and in the corner wasn’t that the Duchess of Denver and some satellite spinster chattering with her sotto voce. But best of all were the afternoon scones served in one or another of the many little panelled sitting rooms lined up like enlarged train compartments down the hall from the reception desk where the bowers-and-scrapers hang out. Such scones! Buttery good and just moist enough not to lose their patrician culinary manners, and with nothing more than currants inside. Yes, these weren’t those Gibraltarian rock cakes masquerading as scones in American chain coffee houses.

Hot Zippity Dog 2010

Monday, January 11th, 2010

         Now if it happened that my San Francisco zip code, good old 94115, were sealed off so we latte-sipping, Chardonnay-drinking, bistro-hopping upper bohemians couldn’t get out — and this is not to mention the entire Muni Railway being grounded, passports invalidated by Mrs. Clinton, and oh yes, the Bay Bridge falling down like some third rate Humpty Dumpty designed by a flunking student in Engineering 101 — well then, we’d have to suffer through with at least three of the greatest restaurants on the globe. These would be Delfina Pizza, SPQR and Out the Door, all of which have opened in the last year or so in the Upper Fillmore, within easy walking distance of this hungry fellow’s Victorian digs.

        DELFINA PIZZA where, I hasten to add, the fare is much more than just pizza, is a hip spot all right, as nerve-jangling as Heathrow on Boxing Day (or any day, come to think of it), but one can hide in the eye of the din several seats down the handsome blond-wooded counter, right in front of the prep station where pert kitchenists plate non-pizza items from the slightly changing menu of medium-sized offerings. Meanwhile bouquets of breadsticks beckon.

        The food here is what I call Berkeley Nouvelle Italian, one big Panissian shade more refined and inventive than the majority of dishes, however sensible and delightful, one finds in the trattorias and country inns of Italy itself. And naturally it’s sixteen shades more elegant than Eye-talian food such as one spills on one’s jeans in American red sauce emporiums of the six-pack sort. Vinaigrette might be the alternate name of Delfina thanks to pestos and salsa verdes so felicitously deforested they come off as first cousins to salad dressings.

        Like Leporello rattling off the list of Don Giovanni’s conquests let me offer a catalog of what I’ve consumed in ten or so consciousness-raising lunches at that counter, surrounded of course by mysterious beauties consulting their blackberries and ladies of the district reporting on their travels to Irkutsk and Timbuktu. The donwbeat, please, Herr Furtwaengler. Thank you . . .

        Fish first! Nothing at D.P. has enchanted me more than an order of grilled sardines split open for a spreading of mellifluously pureed white beans, all swimming lightly in a non-dense salsa verde constructed with let’s say four parts extra virgin olive oil to one of champagne vinegar with punctuations of parsley and capers for greenery and tang. A grilled swordfish with the aforementioned vinaigrette-like pesto is another laureate in the piscatorial department, flavor intense.

        Now to pork. A bracioline with ditalini proved to be a rouladen of cylindered meat accompanied by a “mac and cheese” with a PhD degree, and maiale al latte, a dish I’ve seen in many a cookbook (and have even made it myself) but almost never in a restaurant on U.S. soil, was “no-knife-needed” snizzles of pork soaked in milk for an hour and braised to their moment of titillating truth, served in this case with a sage buttered polenta of unrivalled delicacy. If oatmeal were like this I wouldn’t have turned it down at childhood summer camp.

        Veal anyone? How about thin slices of breast of veal served over wispy dandelion greens in an anchovy vinaigrette: this is titled Vitello Tonino. And vegetables — grilled chicories are presented with breadcrumbs and a bagna cauda comfortably light on the anchovy element while cauliflower with capers-garlic-crumbs-chilies was hot but not too hot to this delighted tongue.

        Pastas are also on the bill of fare, highlighted by the house cannelloni which are characteristically light and different, with a bracing tomato-kale-olive oil sauce that tastes like white wine. My only complaint, and a minor one at that, would be that the escarole-ricotta-tomato-anchovy sauce entwined with pasta shells would have been tastier with fettuccine instead of those rather bland cornucopiettes.

         On the way out one day I asked the server, do the people who come in here realize how terrific the food is, how pure and focused are the flavors disarmingly rising from one’s trattoria plate like benign mushroom clouds, or do they just think of it as a hip joint to eat pizza in (the pizza by the way are thin-crusted and good). Some of each, he replied.

         Delfina Pizza — with scant signage because, well, you’re just supposed to be magnetized there by ineffable gastronomic vibrations — is on California Street across from the Molly Stone supermarket. SPQR, which doesn’t toot its sidewalk horn very loud either, is a couple blocks further down Fillmore, almost to Bush. This is a more intimate place, more bistro than brasserie, not tomb-like in its decibel level but consistently easier on the ear.

        AND THERE’S NOTHING haphazard about the welcome from the rather chic but totally friendly staff. I’ve always felt cozy at SPQR — although truth to tell, prime time here threatens to be challenging. Mondays at 5:30 p.m. give you a five minute advantage over the hordes of techies-yuppies-psychiatrists-architects-venturists-gastronomes-etc. who know a good thing too.

        I like to sit at the counter overlooking the pocket kitchen out of which deep tastes are harvested seven evenings a week. Nearby, between tables and kitchen, stands a stove traffic controller, calling out the orders as if from a pulpit — “Fritter”, “Fire a lamb” — in gentlemanly tones. Within his magnetic field young women in little chef’s head-coverings go about their tossings, squeezings, eye-droppings and so forth, these upscale babushkas putting the finishing touches on your stinging nettle torchio and so forth.

        Pastas here can be amazing. Chestnut nicchi, for instance (pronounced neeky), with spigarello and burnt orange sauce!

        This is a dish that might have turned up in one of the nouvellier albergos I’ve stayed in in Italy the past few years, The Posta in Moltrasio on Lake Como for instance, but I did not encounter it. I suspect the appearances of burnt orange sauces in the whole of Italy are as rare as performances of Leoncavallo’s Zaza. Or heavens, was that written by Mascagni? At any rate, this is a sort of ravioli stuffed with chestnut puree — a cousin, I suppose to the yellow squash-macaroon mush you often find served with brown butter and sage — and the ravioli are in fact made with chestnut flour. Snippets of fried guanciale, leafs of spigarello (from the broccoli family, I’m told) and of course that syrup of the gods, the burnt orange sauce, just one little penetrating bit of it, complete the orchestration.

        Saffron pappardelle with braised chicken and a sugo of sweet red pepper and baby black olives is another must at SPQR. And no dish on old Fillmore is more interesting than those stand-up dumplings, five of them lined up like pygmy pyramids and stuffed with a mince of beef cheek with a hint of horseradish. “Burro and parmesan” says the menu and they’re not totally absent but I think this number would be even better with a very delicate horseradish cream sauce or — at the risk of my sounding like a gastronomical hick — an extremely light marinara.

        Weekend brunch at SPQR brings the most buoyant and original baked egg concoctions imaginable (no Benedictine behemoths here) and the best American breakfast pancake in my experience, cornmeal cakes that is which are served with softened ricotta — no, that isn’t “whipped” butter — syrup and kumquats. Substantial but absolutely LIGHT, and just a bit crispy at the edges, these are true works of culinary art and fully comforting as well. They’re cozy. One washes them down with an exquisite citrus punch of meyer lemon, blood orange and tangerine.

        AROUND THE CORNER on Bush, even more incognito than its brethren — these places are like websites without a title page — you’ll find the nouvelle Vietnamese (East Vietnamese?) Out the Door, the latest eating place from Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame. This branch should really be called In the Door because it’s not primarily a Take Out emporium.

        Banquettes, a couple of counters and a literally “high table” for communal dining near the front and often sunbaked window are the choices of seating. The bill of fare is long, exotic, and, to judge by a couple of visits, elegant to the palate. The Chicken Pho (pronounced Phuh, of course, as in Phuh La La) is an intense bowlful of Vietnamese penicillin, with a clump of capellini-like noodles buried in the broth like a ball of wool. Sides of hoisin and chili sauce are provided for hotting up those noodles after you’ve dispatched the top half of that singing broth. A richer dish would be the noodle soup islanded with a comme il faut confit of duck. The French Connection, of course.