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The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco: Find the Right Spot for Every Occasion.

This week's tablehopper: the bridge-hopper.

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Braised pork taco at Cosecha Cafe in Oakland. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

It can be embarrassing how much I live up to my business name. My dad calls me the gypsy, leaving me messages on my phone and saying I’m “sempre in giro” (always on the move). I can almost hear his hand wagging at me. Guilty as charged. But who am I to turn down two Champagne tastings, four restaurant visits, and two bar stops since you last heard from me? Exactly.

For the past week, my gallivanting around town has expanded a bit to the 510 (gasp!), and so today’s regular is about one of the restaurants I was really excited to try: Ajanta in Albany! I know, hold the phone. And since I was brought back to Albany by a friend (on a separate night, no less) to visit an amazing bar, I wanted to throw a mention in the lush as well. Dinner at Ajanta followed by a nightcap at the Hotsy Totsy Club would be one of the cooler first date nights I could come up with, let me tell you.

Tonight is keeping me in the city, swinging by the La Cocina Gift Bazaar (guess who is excited for tamales and a cocktail by Rye on the Road?), followed by a preview visit to Parallel 37, the new incarnation of the restaurant and lounge opening in the Ritz-Carlton on Monday. And of course there are a couple holiday parties thrown in for good measure as well.

Two reminders: so, are you coming by the Skrewcap holiday tasting tomorrow (Saturday)? There are going to be 40 fabulous finds under $40, and your brand-new 40-year-old (cough cough, that would be me) will be there signing books and talking shop, so come on by. And on Sunday, I’ll be on Edible Escapes, joining host Anthony Licciardi from 11am-1pm on KSFO 560AM—please do listen in!

Lastly, are you ready for this total lunar eclipse we’re having early Saturday morning? I’ll probably be sleeping. Actually, I totally will. I blame my social life.

Holiday cheers!

Marcia Gagliardi

the sponsor

This Round Is On Me... (hey, thanks!)
Dec 9, 2011

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the regular

Established Restaurant Reviews (it's about time we met...)
Dec 9, 2011

Ajanta

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Ajanta’s dining room. Photo by Athena Azevedo.

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Badal jaam (eggplant). Photo from Ajanta.

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Kerala lamb masala. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Onion kulcha. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Kulfi. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

I love when you walk into a restaurant and the smell is the first thing you notice (well, in a good way), swiftly followed by a pang of hunger. ~AJANTA~, with its lightly spiced aromas coming from the kitchen, is one of those places. The restaurant opened in Albany in 1993, and chef-owner Lachu Moorjani has definitely kept pace with the times. The restaurant is not only green-certified, but it also now uses all-organic vegetables and chicken, sustainable seafood, and hormone- and antibiotic-free meats. Which is all great, but then there’s the big question: how does it all taste? Well, that’s why you’re reading this review: this place knows all about delicious.

First, I love the concept behind the menu: dishes from all over various regions of India get swapped in each month, and then retired for a minimum of two years until they are put back into rotation—or not. Lachu and his wife, Shanti, travel to India every year, visiting a different region each time and exploring the dishes of that place. You’ll definitely want to engage Lachu in conversation about the menu—he’s very exacting, obviously passionate about cuisine, and committed to doing things “the right way,” as he likes to put it. And to think he was formerly an engineer—now he’s all about engineering dishes.

Some popular plates are permanently on the menu, like the tandoori chicken chaat ($6)—served slightly chilled—with shredded chicken tossed with lime, red onion, cilantro, ginger, and spices; it was like an Indian larb. Vegetarians will want to try the meaty portobello mushrooms ($6), thick slices that are marinated and grilled in the tandoor, and then served with a creamy yogurt-cashew-mint sauce. I will admit I was skeptical about portobello mushrooms used in an Indian context, but I’m glad the kitchen sent the dish out—it was inventive and the flavors worked, with a whisper of cinnamon and clove.

I have stopped ordering samosas after my travels in India—stateside, they are often tough and taste like they were fried two days ago. But the two versions here got me back on the samosa train, with their tender and flaky pastry exterior. The chicken version ($5.50) had deeply flavorful seasoning, while the vegetarian version ($5) featured red potato inside, lending a creamier impression. Couldn’t decide which one I liked more. Another standard that’s a must-try: the lamb rib chops ($19), so tender from their time marinating in yogurt, and served on a sizzling platter. Remember, it’s totally cool to pick up the chop with your fingers at the table. You have my blessing.

Our table was laden with an embarrassing number of dishes to try (I blame Lachu). A favorite was the tender vegetable kofta ($14.50)—this dish from Uttar Pradesh was such a star. The little patties were almost like mini falafel made with potato, peas, breadcrumbs, cauliflower, and carrot, served in a creamy curry sauce with cashews. The badal jaam ($14.50), thick slices of pan-fried eggplant brushed with tomato sauce, spiked with spices, and drizzled with thickened yogurt on top, gave me the impression it was a dish from Greece that took an exciting trip to India. A third standout was the daal bahar ($14.50), a hearty and creamy lentil dish with complex seasoning, and chock full of vegetables that were cooked just right. Yeah, if you’re a vegetarian, this place is going to thrill you. Ditto if you’re a meat eater. And the kitchen is happy to make adjustments for vegans, so everyone wins.

The Kerala lamb masala ($17) was full of tender bites of lamb simmered in a richly spiced sauce, creamy with coconut milk, perfumed with clove and coriander, and topped with pumpkin seeds. It was perfect for a chilly night, even if it didn’t taste particularly unique. The only clunker was the methi machi ($17), ling cod in a tomato-based sauce perked up with fenugreek and dill—we loved the sauce, but the fish was weighing a bit on the fishy side of things (would that be the fish scale? Har.). And you’re talking to a girl who loves mackerel, anchovies, and sardines.

I know, you may be thinking, “Damn, those prices look a little high.” Well, you also get basmati rice, a side dish, half of a naan, chutney, and pickle (achar) with that price. Yup, a full meal deal, all made with quality ingredients, and you don’t even have to order it by a number. There’s also a special dinner option, which would include a samosa and dessert, ranging from $17.50-$20, depending upon which of the six main dishes you choose from. Trust, you won’t walk out of here hungry, I don’t think Lachu would allow it.

You’ll want to do an add-on and mop everything up with their superb onion kulcha ($3). I found the whole wheat paratha ($2, $3.50 with potato), perked with ajwain seeds (a cumin-like seed) to be a bit too wheaty for my taste, but maybe some of the Berkeley types are into it. (Hey, I’m allowed to make Berkeley jokes, I live in San Francisco.) If you like it spicy, you can request what level you want your food at (go ahead and err on the spicy side), but heat lovers should ask for their fiery hot sauce on the side as well. You can always cool your maw down with a salted lassi.

Something of note: I felt like the dishes were made with a lighter hand; even the next day, when warming up what remained of my leftovers, I noticed very little oil in the takeout box and pan.

Dessert featured a revelation: the kulfi ($6) with pistachio. It’s another dish I have stopped ordering out, often finding it to be too cloying with the sweetness from condensed milk, or too crystallized. This version—made with milk and cream and cooked slowly for over three hours—was neither of those things. It was very creamy, dense, and lightly hints at the flavors of cardamom and keora, the Indian version of pandan.

The wine list has some food-friendly wines (and wallet-friendly as well), but I’m always a little sad when I see Freixenet as the only sparkling wine available by the glass, which is something I love to drink with Indian cuisine (especially a sparkling rosé). I’d love for a wine consultant to really come in and pimp their list.

The dining room has a contemporary look, with paper and tablecloth topped-tables and cloth napkins. It’s very comfortable, and even though some tables can be a bit close (our nosy neighbors had plenty of comments about our table o’ dishes), the room has a modulated volume due to the carpeted floor. There’s also low sitar music, and a glow from the overhead lightboxes with a pretty collage of artwork adhered to them. The staff (in spiffy vests) was kind, quick to clear plates and check in. The room had a very 510 crowd of Cal professor types with their spouses, mixed in with diners that looked to be grad students (or at least that age). It would be a charming place for a first date, but also a nice place to bring the ‘rents.

Be sure to sign up for their newsletter, which features updates and the backstory on the new monthly dishes. And if you’re inspired to try some of these dishes yourself, the restaurant sells a namesake cookbook (Ajanta, Regional Feasts of India) with complete menus from various regions, and an accompanying Shanti’s Spice Box to make the ingredient acquisition a bit easier ($25 for the book, $28 for the spice box, and $48 for the set). Although a big thing missing would be Lachu, checking in on your table and smiling at you as you clear your plate.

Ajanta - 1888 Solano Ave. Berkeley - 510-526-4373

the lush

Bar News & Reviews (put it on my tab)
Dec 9, 2011

Get Your Heat on at the Hotsy Totsy Club

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Step right up. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Owner Jessica Maria making a Hot Totsy. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Joyce DeWitt loves this place. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

I know many of my East Bay pals adore the ~HOTSY TOTSY CLUB~, Albany’s oldest bar (“Keeping Albany tipsy since 1939”). If this bar was in the city, it would assuredly be overrun with hipsters, girls yelling “woooohooo!” as they progressively get more wasted, and generally impossible to find a seat at, ever. But because this gem of a bar is tucked away on a distant stretch of San Pablo Avenue in Albany, it has maintained a stellar neighborhood bar vibe that I love to see. A total hodgepodge of clientele, keepin’ it real.

The place made me think I was at a reallllly good Silverlake bar in Los Angeles, with vintage swivel barstools, an amazing Pabst light-up sign that looks like it’s from the late 1960s/early 1970s, artwork of crying children (love those—although the ones here look like they are eating their dogs), a brilliant neon sign that serves as a beacon for boozers (you can’t miss it), a shuffleboard table, a pool table, a pressed tin ceiling, wood wainscoting, a choice soundtrack, and a signed picture of Joyce DeWitt. Really, there is nothing more that you need. There are all kinds of special events (hello, Stewsday!). Daily happy hour until 7pm. And then you see the El Autlense taco truck parked in the neighboring lot, and you think your head might explode, it’s all just so f*cking great. And you haven’t even had a drink yet.

Bar owner Jessica Maria has been running the show here for three years (she owns the business with her boyfriend), and I have heard her bar staff just rocks. The selection of spirits is all that and then some, ditto on all the vintage glassware. The place definitely shows a stylish woman’s influence, with all the smart little touches. I really enjoyed watching Jessica make drinks, with her quiet flair, total confidence, and grace. I also learned the one thing missing from my Manhattan-making at home: a thermometer to measure the perfect chilled temp.

But it’s cold as eff out, so we’re here to discuss the swell cold weather cocktails on offer right now. When we walked in, we were lucky to witness Jessica making the Hot Totsy ($9, overproof rum, Fundador brandy, honey syrup, lemon juice), and then create a sparky fire show with a flurry of nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices. Uh, hell yes! Lemme see it again! The hot buttered rum ($8) comes in a spiffy vintage glass, and wait until you taste it—I decided my own version was tragic after tasting this one. Back to the drawing board. There’s also a Brandy Alexander, Jessica’s Wicked Hot Cider…. Go to town.

My only lament is that this bar is so far from my apartment that I have to seriously pace myself if I’m going to make it home safe. No flashing lights in the rearview mirror for me, thanks. Time to start saving for the Hopper Chopper, or as my friend just christened it, the TableChopper. But in the meantime, I’m ready to keep working my way through that list of holiday cocktails.

601 San Pablo Ave. at Garfield, Albany, 510-526-5986.

707 scout

Wine Country Buzz (it’s what happens there)
Dec 9, 2011

Big Time Truffle Time

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Don’t forget to inhale; photo by Deirdre Bourdet.

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Scene from the inaugural NV Truffle Festival; photo by Deirdre Bourdet.

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La Toque’s chickpea ravioli with white truffles; photo by Deirdre Bourdet.

By 707 correspondent, Deirdre Bourdet.

~BOUCHON~ in Yountville has just announced a Périgord-themed dinner menu available December 14th-30th, featuring what is arguably the region’s best-known product: tuber melanosporum, the Périgord black truffle. This $80 four-course prix-fixe menu will include regional specialties like truffled consommé, poached capon with truffled mousse and chestnut purée, and a pithiviers of Cabécou cheese with truffle-prune jam. If you like your truffes piled high, this is the place for it—extra shavings can be yours for an extra $20-$25 per course. There are also specially chosen wine pairings available for $40 per person. 6534 Washington St. between Humboldt and Yount Sts., Yountville, 707-944-8037.

Save some cash to feed the addiction though, because the second annual ~NAPA VALLEY TRUFFLE FESTIVAL~ happens January 13th-16th at the Westin Verasa. Judging by the program schedule, the sequel looks to be just as exciting as the original. Barbara Fairchild, former editor in chief of Bon Appétit, will deliver the keynote address; international truffle scientists and growers will discuss the intricacies and unsolved mysteries of cultivation; Michelin-starred chefs will demonstrate proper care and handling in the kitchen, and of course cook up fabulously decadent feasts every couple of hours; attendees will tour a truffle orchard and learn how to train their own dog to sniff out the goods. After two heady days of demonstrations, discussions, and tours, the Festival culminates in a free truffle Marketplace at the Oxbow Public Market on Monday January 16th, showcasing local wines and specialty truffle products.

Several different ticket packages are available, ranging from $225 for the science-based grower-specific conferences (and no meals), all the way up to $1,250 for the all-inclusive truffle whore experience of my dreams. There are also two more modestly priced à la carte ticket options for the tasting portions of Sunday’s truffle Marketplace event: $40 for the food and wine, $25 for food only. The event website has the full program of events, and all the details on the various passes available. You can purchase online or by calling 888-753-9378.

Coinciding with the conclusion of the Truffle Festival, ~LA TOQUE~ will also kick off the 30th season of the All Truffle Menu on Monday January 16th. This five-course truffle extravaganza will be available nightly in La Toque’s dining room until the season ends, usually sometime in early March. The price and menu for this year haven’t been announced yet, but you can get a sense of what chef Ken Frank is all about with past years’ menus, available on the restaurant website. 1314 McKinstry Ave. at Soscol Ave., Napa, 707-257-5157.

the bookworm

Book Reviews (another place for your nose)
Dec 9, 2011

The Holiday Bookworm: by Pete Mulvihill

Don’t forget: the books mentioned below are available at 20% off for tablehopper readers for two weeks following this mention at Green Apple Books—simply use the code “tablehopper” at checkout (either at the store or online) for your discount.

‘Tis the season for giving, right? With a ho-ho-hungry, here’s a round-up of five fresh books for the foodies on your list. And given the economy, none of them are over $35, and all are a good buy. (Don’t forget two recently reviewed options by notable locals, too—Mission Street Food and the Bi-Rite grocer’s guide). Speaking of which, Sam Mogannam is doing a book event here at Green Apple Books on Thursday December 15th at 6pm. Deviled eggs and wine will be in the house, and on the house!

Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi

Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi

Yotam Ottolenghi and Jonathan Lovekin (Chronicle)

Let’s start with the vegetarian option, shall we? From a mini-chain of “haute-cuisine to-go food shops” comes Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi. It’s a hefty, colorful recipe book with a Middle Eastern accent. The 120+ recipes include straightforward dishes like Mushroom Ragout with Poached Duck Egg, and Green Gazpacho. And more unique recipes like Hot Yogurt and Fava Bean Soup, and Avocado, Quinoa, and Fava Bean Salad. The one that made me want to race home and get cooking was the Chickpea, Tomato, and Bread Soup, but ‘tis the season for hearty fare. $35 from (local publisher) Chronicle Books.

Lucky Peach Issue 2: The Sweet Spot

Lucky Peach Issue 2: The Sweet Spot

Edited by David Chang (McSweeney’s)

Another option with a local angle (and a low $12 price that puts it in stocking-stuffer range) is Lucky Peach Issue 2: The Sweet Spot. This is the second issue of a fresh quarterly food journal produced by McSweeney’s and edited by David Chang. In this issue are both the lowbrow and the highbrow. There’s a recipe that involves foams, for example, and one for bologna roll-ups. There’s also a handy guide to miso (“Miso Horny” they call it, which I mention just so you have an idea of the editorial attitude therein). And a sheet of funny stickers you can put on fruit. Puzzled? Just come in and flip through it. Or trust me, it’s great.

The Family Meal: Home cooking with Ferran Adrià

The Family Meal: Home cooking with Ferran Adrià

Ferran Adrià (Phaidon)

Next up, The Family Meal: Home cooking with Ferran Adrià. It’s the first and only book on home cooking from the legendary El Bulli restaurant. It’s also the most pictorial cookbook we’ve ever seen, aside from those made for children. Each meal is three recipes (starter, main, and dessert), and each meal starts with a two-page photo of the mise en place and a timeline, then continues with a photo for each step of the recipe. Take a peek here. Foodwise, the recipes are very do-able for and mostly familiar to the home cook; think pulled pork, burgers, roast chicken, etc. I think this would make a fine primer for a young cook, or a solid basic cookbook of everyday recipes as another arrow in your quiver. And for $29.95, the value is pretty solid.

The Food52 Cookbook: 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks

The Food52 Cookbook: 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks

Edited by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (Morrow)

Moving from pro to amateur, here’s the first cookbook of value to emerge from the blogosphere: The Food52 Cookbook: 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks, edited by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (Morrow, $35). This book is the result of 52 weeks of online recipe contests, like “your best Brussels sprouts,” “best porridge,” etc. Oh, and there’s booze, too, like “your best holiday punch” (hot spiced drunken apple cider). With a wildcard each week, it adds up to a solid assortment of clearly written and tastefully photographed dishes, all carefully curated by two very respected food writers (we interviewed Hesser last year when her New York Times Cookbook came out). Again, these are well-tested, clear recipes for home cooks, thus a perfect gift for those, like me, who are better at eating out than cooking in.

All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking

All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking

Molly Stevens (Norton)

And finally, a sequel of sorts. My most-used cookbook for several years was Molly Stevens’ All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking. In fact, my wife and I had sort of a braise-centric supper club going for a while there with friends. That method of cooking results in food that goes well with our climate and is so up my alley gastronomically. Anyway, her new one is just out from Norton, and it’s now all about roasting at my house: with a recipe I heard on NPR and found on Saveur, my turkey came out better than ever (and it was our first time not brining in a decade). All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art is wonderful: a wide variety of roasting recipes (including seafood and vegetables), each with a thoughtful introduction, variations, wine pairing tips, and clear step-by-step instructions. There are also fascinating sidebars on sourcing ingredients, types of roasting pans, the science of roasting, and much more.

Hopefully something here floats your boat. If not, we have a few thousand others at the store, plus a huge selection of used cookbooks, so if you’re after something else, drop by and ask for Pete or Josie—we can help get the right food or booze book into your hands.

Happy cooking, and thanks for reading.

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