This week's tablehopper: a tale of phoenixes.
Panisse frites at Frances.
Oh yeah, let’s hear it for another foggy and cold-ass weekend. AM I CRANKY? What on earth gave you that idea? Fortunately, there were many things to keep me from becoming toooo fussy this week, from panisse frites and bacon beignets at Frances, to deviled eggs and fried chicken at Wayfare Tavern, and some late-night turkey-and-mole banana-leaf tamales and Mexican hot chocolate at La Oaxaqueña. And I had a total blast guest bartending at Jardinière Wednesday night—thanks to everyone who came by for an Enchantress! (It’s a good drink to now have in my arsenal.) Yup, these are exactly the things to keep baby from fussing in her crib.
Perhaps my most poignant meal, however, was last night’s repast at the ECS center, where the current class of students in the CHEFS (Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Service) program created a mock restaurant for the evening. The kitchen did an excellent job with timing, and I had a delicious apricot-glazed guinea hen stuffed with couscous. I know, impressive. (Here’s a pic of the class taking care of business.)
And so, I am very keen to sell out the upcoming Happy Ending event I am putting on in conjunction with E&O Trading Co. and the SF Chefs event on August 13th—because any money made after covering expenses is going toward the incredible CHEFS program. And hello, it’s going to be a rocking late-night party, so I do hope you’ll come join me, feast on authentic Asian street food from talented cooks (the list keeps growing), and let’s cheers with delish cocktails. (This will all be to a most-excellent soundtrack, of course.) Tickets and more info are right here.
And so, here’s a little reading material to get you through your Friday afternoon: a review of newcomer Heirloom Café, and a hardhat sneak peek of the upcoming Benu—I know, exciting!
Oh oh oh, and today is the last day to fill out the tablehopper questionnaire. Would ya? Could ya? Meow. (Many thanks to the hundreds of you who have filled it out, grazie!!!)
Have a fab weekend, in spite of the stupid weather.
New Restaurant Reviews (I'm looking for somewhere new to eat)
I like old things. Textured wood floors with a 100-year-plus patina. Wallpaper. Charlie Parker. And aged wines. (Quite.) These are just a few details that hail from another decade on the list of charms HEIRLOOM CAFÉ has to offer. This 49-seat restaurant has somewhat quietly opened in a discreet corner location on Folsom Street in the Mission, not exactly restaurant row. It has a warm, vintage feeling that works well with its classic Victorian bone structure that dates back to 1900.
Only half the seats are allocated for reservations, so if you try to waltz in, you’ll likely be seated at one of the two large communal tables, or at the marble counter overlooking the open kitchen. The vibe is relaxed and comfortable—with jazz playing and soft candlelight—making this an on-point date two restaurant in my book (it strikes the right balance of atmosphere and activity). But it was also a perfect spot to bring a friend who was visiting from out of town to, and give her a spoonful of our San Francisco dining style. Like Delfina, Bar Jules, Universal Cafe, Zuni, and Bar Tartine, Heirloom falls into step with our city’s emblematic modern-classic, studied-casual vibe.
Owner Matt Straus has opened an entirely personal restaurant. He oversees the menu in an executive chef role, but he’s also the wine director, assembling the kind of list that makes industry folks happy, and wine geeks quiet for a while as they read it over and plot which old Vouvray they’d like opened (be sure to request the list of older vintages). Straus has been assembling this cellar for over eight years—yup, before there was even a restaurant business plan written up—so come thirsty. It clocks in around 150 labels.
The menu is one of the sparest ones I’ve encountered in the City. I’m talking pared down: a few starters, a pasta dish, a fish dish, an off-the-menu burger that should just be on the menu, and some cheeses. And there’s a three-course prix-fixe menu for $50, which is a good deal considering it includes two glasses of wine. (You can order dishes off the prix-fixe menu à la carte, so there, your options just increased by three.) If you have food issues or need a lot of choices, maybe you should just consider a liquid diet here.
The house kindly sends over a small dish of Marcona almonds and meaty Castelvetrano olives for you to snack on, but olive juice dampens the almonds, so I recommend eating the nuts first. Starters and salads are seasonal, like slices of soft bread topped with thick slices of heirloom (natch) tomatoes ($11), Sweet 100s, a small dice of pickled fennel, cucumbers, feta, and arugula. Now, is this something I could totally do at home? Yes. But would I have a bottle of Franck Peillot Vin du Bugey Montagnieu Brut chilled and ready to go with it? Not likely. Well, unless I was Mrs. Straus. Or truly letting the restaurant be the “living room away from home” it aims to be.
A petite arugula salad ($12) was contained and wrapped with a few slices of prosciutto—like a hatband—with tender-crisp pole beans, flakes of Parmesan, and a base of roasted fig that had the capacity to overpower everything on the plate if you got too much on your fork—but once we figured out the ingredient balance, it worked. (The figs are currently swapped out for pickled dates.)
The kitchen makes delicious, tender gnocchi ($16), which came in a hearty dish with housemade fennel sausage, shucked sweet corn, and fresh porcini, which had run out, so let’s just imagine them—this is what can happen when you dine toward the end of service. Sadly, this is where I encountered a growing personal dislike of mine: pan-seared gnocchi. If you can have the magic touch to make such silky potato gnocchi, why are you gilding these lilies in an oily pan? (Piccolo rant over.)
The fish soup ($20) was firing on all cylinders, with pieces of tender California seabass and salmon hot tubbing in a bowl of saffron, tomato, and pastis broth, topped with a healthy dollop of aioli. The soup also had the most delicious fingerlings, and my favorite touch, some caramelized roasted fennel. I just wanted a shellfish fork to maneuver the clams and mussels out of their shells with any semblance of finesse. Then again, wines are decanted into empty Straus milk bottles here, so shellfish forks might be too dainty a consideration.
One evening, the prix-fixe menu ($50) yielded a huge, flowering Bibb lettuce salad, the leaves artfully stacked like a Georgia O’Keefe bloom. It was light, cool, crisp, and bedecked with a flurry of herbs, like mint, chervil, chives, parsley, and tarragon. I j’adored this bright salad with its just-right vinaigrette; a fresh pairing with the 2008 Qupe Marsanne.
Next, the New York steak came sliced, dolloped with a clever currant pesto (complete with pine nuts and garlic), resting atop a bed of Rancho Gordo yellow-eye beans with wisps of charred escarole. The steak was satisfying, but a bit overdone for my (true) medium-rare loving heart—and I think if you’re going to have steak on the menu, you gotta have steak knives. (I also wanted some purse hooks underneath the counter—my little white leather bag never had “I want to sit on the floor of a restaurant” in her list of wants. But being slung on Marcia’s arm while grooving to some late night disco on the dancefloor? Yes, you betcha.)
An extra-mile touch, however, was when we requested some bread—my friend said the beans were so good she wanted to sit in them, but we decided that soaking them up with some bread was the wiser option—and we received slices that were lightly grilled with a quick brushing of olive oil. Thanks, you shouldn’t have!
Dessert was a ginormous plum and white nectarine crumble that came out screaming hot, cuidado. I had a fonder and gentler encounter with the olive oil cake ($10), served with little pieces of strawberry, mint, and a fascinating black pepper syrup—but I think I’d like it even more if it was a dollar or two less, compared to other $10 desserts around town. But there’s always the option of the fresh-baked chocolate chip and walnut cookie ($2), with the homey touch of oatmeal in the batter (very mom-style, that).
With all the communal seating here, it makes it quite easy to come by for a couple cheeses and a glass of wine. Or the bacon onion tart ($11) and a bottle. Or, bonsoir, the rich and decadent off-the-menu burger ($12), which has Epoisses fiendishly mixed in with the meat, plus a slathering of sweet onion jam and a layer of arugula. You have to love Epoisses to enjoy the funk of this burger—and since Epoisses is on my last meal list, you know I was way into this juicy mutha seeping into its squishy English muffin bun from Sconehenge Bakery (it’s a very tall patty, so you really get to chomp it).
The food is straightforward with a few touches of flair, unpretentious, and yes, can be a bit imperfect. But the restaurant has the kind of atmosphere that makes me not want to be nitpicky, and I can see things getting tightened up in time. I still enjoyed myself, quite, and would happily (and plan to) return—the wines from Straus’s cellar are calllllllliiiiing meeeeee. It’s also a pretty room during the day, so I’d like to check it out for their Friday lunch or Saturday brunch.
Service is engaging and helpful, and if you request the older vintages list, you just may get Matt tableside for any special wine queries (he has to look after his babies, you know). There can be a few missteps, like the staff getting a little frayed with a very busy house, or a wine that needs more chilling before it can be poured (there are 21 by the glass, so something is bound to fall through the cracks, sometimes). Kind of like an heirloom tomato—it can have a few flaws, but still be oh so sweet.
Heirloom Café - 2500 Folsom St. San Francisco - 415-821-2500
Project Sneak Peeks (watch your step)
This section is written by Erin Archuleta, half of the talent behind local outfit ICHI Catering and ICHI Lucky Cat Deli (at 331 Cortland in Bernal Heights). For updates, follow @ICHISUSHI on Twitter. Outside of the foodie world, Erin works full-time championing kid literacy at 826 National. Keep up with her @erinarchuleta.
Many of my chef-friends were geeking out that I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Corey Lee. After all, every chef and line cook out there fantasizes about what s/he would do with his/her own space given the opportunity, and here in San Francisco, Corey has just upped the ante. A James Beard Award winner who has worked at seven three-Michelin-star restaurants, Corey has worked under some of the biggest talent and in some of the most sophisticated kitchens in Europe and the U.S., including, most recently, leaving his post as the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry. And now, Benu, his first restaurant is slated to start with a hard opening date of August 10th, 2010. The website features a countdown showcasing the build-out process, and his team is now accepting reservations.
So, without much surprise, San Franciscans have been waiting and trying to get a peek at Benu (at 22 Hawthorne Lane in the former Two space), to see what he’s doing in there. Benu’s name references the Egyptian word for the phoenix, symbolizing a rebirth, or new beginning. It makes sense that Corey would reach to another corner of the globe when sourcing his inspiration, as his menu is not limited to any particular region of the world.
There’s no doubt that he has investors who trust him, and teams to execute his perfect vision, so folks all over the Bay Area have been dying to take a gander at exactly what Corey Lee’s dream first space looks like. And friends, just a couple weeks out from opening, I report—it’s cozy, calm, and elegant (much of what you might guess after reading interviews or watching YouTube videos of Corey in action). His presence is tranquil, measured, knowledgeable, and hospitable—it’s no surprise that this restaurant is an extension of his natural disposition.
When talking about the realities of the renovation of the space, Corey notes, “When you open a restaurant and talk about a build-out, it’s all about finding the right balance between all the different areas—what you spend on the mechanical, what you spend on the kitchen, the dining room. And, it’s really about being able to prioritize and organize your finances.” We talked about how 80% of the resources and cost used to renovate a major restaurant space the diners will never see: the ductwork, seismic reinforcements, the electrical, and framing. All of the necessity, in this case, is housed in some real beauty.
The major players in the design of the space include James Beard award-winning architecture firm Richard Bloch Architect (Corey collaborated with them in the past on other Keller remodels), designer Andrea Lenardin Madden working on the graphics, and the creative products design firm Blueoculus. Their sunken dining room has strong structural details, some of which are seismically necessary for this historic building from 1912. Others add visual interest, like columns that break up the sightlines of an entryway, keeping it from becoming too boxy, too clean.
For any former Two diners, there are a few big contrasts from your previous experiences: first, the space has been halved; and second, the dining room is bright and white with calming grey influences, a huge change from the dark, deep draw to the bar area of the former restaurant. The third biggie: there is no bar. That’s right, this fine dining restaurant is putting itself out there as just that. There are two options: an à la carte menu, and for the diner seeking an evening of it, an 8-12 course tasting menu. Wine plays a focus here, with two sommeliers employed for this 64-seat restaurant, including Master Sommelier and 2009 StarChefs’ Rising Star, Yoon Ha. But, even with two wine masters on the floor, Corey plans to keep things minimal, offering a tight list of wines at a range of prices, with a few high-end selections from which to choose.
In talking about the process for selecting the roughly 50 menu items (including New American eats like abalone porridge with wood ear mushrooms and green onion, and rigatoni with braised sea cucumber, oxtail, star anise, red wine, and butter) readying for launch, we discussed some of the differences between cooking in Yountville and cooking here in SF. It made sense to address the fact that while there are some regular diners in Yountville, the majority of the clientele would be tourists. He noted that people headed to Napa Valley are looking for a vacation destination specifically for food and wine, whereas people coming to San Francisco are not necessarily just seeking food and wine options.
The seasons here in Northern California play a major role in defining Benu’s menu. When I asked Corey about his approach to seasonality, he had this to say: “When you think of the seasons, you think of four seasons, but I think there’s more like 16 seasons. For example, favas—fava [beans] are available five months a year, but there are only a few weeks when favas are really, really good. So there’s all these subseasons within the seasons.”
To execute these 16 seasons, Corey has created one of the most chef-friendly kitchens I’ve ever seen. From recessing the ceiling of the bookstore below to create an ergonomic workstation above in the dishwasher galley, to having custom reach-ins built into the kitchen hallway’s design to replace what Corey described to me as walk-ins with dead space in the middle, his space plan is meticulous. As he describes his kitchen, you get the sense that not only does this guy think in terms of precision and efficiency, but also of the people at their workstations. Corey has chosen a lifestyle, and he’s asking for more from his kitchen. This is, he notes, his fourth time experiencing a remodel, two at The French Laundry, and one at Per Se. He’s piloting a stove made by Viking, with a mid-room island French Top range in which the heat is gradually diffused through the polished plate on top. This will be the first of its kind in America.
His kitchen is bathed in natural light, with passersby able to peer in from the Hawthorne Street side to watch the team in action. Corey’s team features two sous chefs named Brandon (Brandon Rodgers, a former Bocuse d’Or competitor with Gavin Kaysen, and Brandon Rosen, who worked at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House)—both Brandons were colleagues of Corey’s at The Laundry. Masaki Watanabe joins the Brandons, bringing French-Japanese cooking chops to the collaborative process as the third sous. The foursome have been innovating and perfecting the menu.
Of this menu’s regional influences, Corey elaborates, “I don’t think it’s defined by geography…When I first started cooking you were limited to these very distinct genres: classical French, haute cuisine, Italian…I don’t think these same boundaries exist. We’re kind of limited by our own vocabulary to describe what kind of cuisine we’re doing. And also, it comes down to something that is very personal. Something that reflects your own experience. And also the people you’re working with and their experience and so forth. To be able to tap into that, if you do that, then naturally you’re going to do something that is unique and original and inspired.”
One of my favorite moments touring through the new kitchen equipment is when Corey pauses to show me what might be the largest blender pitcher I’ve ever seen—used for all the daily vegetable trim to be puréed into staff smoothies. There’s a real care that goes into this kitchen, and you get a sense that there’s a lot of built-in rooting for the team.
In an era when so much of food and dining is fetishized, it feels like Corey is quite the opposite, returning to the classic notion of diners going out for an excellent meal in a special setting. Everything from creating custom Korean-crafted KwangJuYo porcelain dishes to sourcing hand-blown and etched Kimura glassware showcases the menu. In thinking of the dining experience, Corey even considers the foot positioning of the diner, by requesting that the designers create flat steel table bases (think: never having cramped feet that accidentally kick an adjacent diner again, or better yet—easy footsie access!). So with the Blueoculus design team, they collaboratively created the mac daddies of all two-top and four-top tables, weighing in at 100 and 200 lbs., respectively. I’m just picturing the classic table flip move of the Real Housewives of New Jersey going nowhere—Corey Lee may have created the answer to classing up America again, folks.
There’s a private dining room with seating for up to 18 of your nearest and dearest, hidden between the kitchen and the larger dining room space with a galley of windows peeking in from the little garden outside that was the former parking lot. The grasses and fragrant flowers are on one side of the diners, and rotating art from neighboring Crown Point Press on the other. The garden area offers up a spot for an after-dinner drink where you can sit amongst the coastal grasses, referencing an intersection of urban life and how we coexist with nature so close at hand, another nod to the idea of his own Benu—a reflection of the name, with Corey’s own rebirth in his new space.