The doors into the kitchen at Commander’s Palace. Probably the only “no” you’ll find in New Orleans. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
It’s rather unbelievable that I’m home in one piece. Well, sort of. The jury is still out on my liver. Anyway, my past week in New Orleans for Jazz Fest was one for the books. That bucket list item was way checked. The Crescent City is such a dark seductress, whispering to you to just say yes. All. The. Time. “More is more” was our motto for the weekend—it’s how it has to be if you’re going to be a jazz vampire. Late nights at Tipitina’s (Galactic) and the Blue Nile (Robert Walter’s 20th Congress) could all too easily morph into early mornings at Igor’s and Chuck’s (oops). I feel like my years of going to Burning Man were like boot camp for the action-packed week I just spent roaming the clubs and restaurants and bars of New Orleans. Every time my alarm would be waking me up from my disco nap at 11pm so I could make it to a 1am show, I’d tell myself, “You can sleep when you’re dead. Get up.” We hit that city hard, and she punched right back.
More is more also applied to the feedbag we’d strap on every day at the fairgrounds/racetrack. Best damn festival food of my life: breakfast each day was the positively carnal crawfish bread, followed up with a dance with crawfish Monica, boudin balls with shrimp rémoulade, fried chicken, gumbo, jambalaya, and some café au lait in there to keep us upright.
The weather was the absolute pits: Thursday we were rained out completely, Friday it was a mud pit and cold (although Willie Nelson warmed our hearts), and things finally turned around on Saturday when we bought some mud boots and could deal with the slop and the sun came out. Fleetwood Mac in ankle-deep mud, sunshine on my shoulders with my sister at my side, good times. Black Keys on Sunday, so crunchy and good. A highlight was leaving the fields each day and hitting Liuzza’s by the Track for Bloody Marys in the street (had to get some vegetables somehow) and more live music. Wonderful people everywhere. So friendly and nice, everyone having a good time.
I’ll be doing a recap of where I ate and drank once I get my pictures edited and uploaded. Obviously there are a bunch to sort through. More is more.
Today I have a couple of breaking stories about upcoming projects from some very talented local ladies (whoo!), plus a fresh meat review of Chocolate Lab, a wino, some 707 news, and matchmaker action. Sunday is Mother’s Day, and in case you’re looking for a last-minute idea or two, here’s my post on 7x7. Also on 7x7, three of my favorite pop-ups right now, including two excellent brunch options for you this weekend. Dig in.
Okay, back to my crypt, I’ll see you on Tuesday.
Liza Shaw—the talented powerhouse of a chef who has worked at A16, Acquerello, and most recently consulting in Wine Country on the pizzas at Redd Wood and Pizzando—is finally ready to formally announce her next venture: MERIGAN SUB SHOP. I have been hearing about (and anxiously awaiting) her project for the past couple of years, and she just got the keys this week, so here we go.
The cheeky and fun name comes from what Italian immigrants used to call Americans; the Baltimore-born Shaw is a complete Italophile but not Italian herself (a bit like her sub shop). She is taking over a 1,300-square-foot raw space in SoMa, very close to the Chronicle Books building on Second Street. And yes, only one and a half blocks from the ballpark.
The menu is going to feature 10-15 sandwiches, both hot and cold, meat and veg. While she is using East Coast hoagies and Italian delis as her inspiration (she did two intensive research tours, with a lot of time spent in Philly), everything is going to have a very handcrafted approach. Shaw is no stranger to whole animal butchery, and will be working with whole hogs from Llano Seco. A highlight on the menu will be the roast pork Arista sandwich, with house-roasted pork shoulder and loin, sharp provolone, long hot peppers, and broccoli rabe (or spring onions). Uh huh, that.
There will also be a porchetta sandwich, a terrina with coppa di testa and pork liver terrina, housemade meatballs, spicy Italian sausage, and of course a killer Italian combo (all the subs will be on the same seeded Italian roll that strikes that perfect balance of sturdy but soft). Even classics like roast beef will have touches like horseradish ricotta, and the egg salad will be made with farm eggs. A special vegetarian sandwich will be the panelle: ceci bean fritters, plus fresh ricotta, pecorino, tomato conserva, and arugula. It will all be high quality across the board, from the house-pickled peppers to top-notch seasonal ingredients.
Additional items include antipasti like bean salad or potato salad, squash agrodolce, plus a daily soup made with beans, greens, and more. Oh yeah, and fried pork skins. For dessert, there will be freshly baked chocolate chip cookies with sea salt, lemon or almond Italian ice off the Japanese ice shaver, and zeppole (!). You’ll be able to order beer and wine on tap, and brewed coffee. There will be around 35 seats, although the space will be geared for takeout. Hours will be Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, with hours running a bit later on game days. She is also discussing hosting monthly Sunday family-style suppers. Look for an opening in mid-September. Congrats Liza (Ms. Merigan!), on your new venture! 634 2nd St. at Brannan.
Brenda Buenviaje writes in with some great news: she and wife/business partner Libby Truesdell are opening a new café on Polk Street, just two doors down from the current BRENDA’S FRENCH SOUL FOOD. Her blog mentions that it will be called LIBBY JANE CAFÉ after Libby (awwww).
Anyone who comes to Brenda’s for brunch on the weekend knows there’s always a wait. Well, now you’ll be able to pick up some coffee (including chicory coffee, of course) and espresso drinks from Ritual while you’re standing around, and you can also snag one of her famous biscuits if you’re really hangry. There will also be takeaway sandwiches, soups (hello, gumbo), and some canned items as well, like their jams and watermelon pickles. There’s going to be a short counter inside with room for six to eight, but otherwise it’s a grab-and-go kind of place.
They are shooting for a midsummer opening. Since their po’boy shop in lower Fillmore has hit some delays, this project will likely open before that one. Hours will be Mon-Fri 7am-3pm, Sat-Sun 8am-3pm. 644 Polk St. at Eddy.
Brenda's French Soul Food - 652 Polk St. San Francisco - 415-345-8100
The first time I mentioned to a friend I had lunch at CHOCOLATE LAB, he chuckled. It’s a clever name, and Michael and Jacky Recchiuti have no shortage of humor, smarts, and playfulness in what they do. They are the latest tenants to take over the former Piccino Cafe corner space in Dogpatch, offering an all-day-and-evening, savory-and-sweet menu, whether you have hunger pangs for a quick bite, brunch, lunch, a nagging sweet tooth, an afternoon snack, or have absolutely nothing but tumbleweeds in your fridge for dinner.
The 23-seat spot is built for lunch, with its array of open-faced tartines (collect all six!). The pastrami tartine ($12) is a fave, featuring Peter Temkin’s locally made pastrami draped with housemade Thousand Island aioli, melted cheese, caramelized onions, napa cabbage, and a touch (once a wee bit too much) of grain mustard. It’s a creamy, gooey island of delicious, and a total fork-and-knifer (the Firebrand bread is thinly sliced, so you can’t pick it up, but it’s not a bready monster either—just right), but eating your sandwich with a fork and knife is not your first clue that the whole experience is a little bougie.
There’s also a bay shrimp tartine ($11) that is positively overflowing with those plump little buggers. My only comment was that the Himalayan salt wasn’t evenly distributed over the top, it just went down the middle. #champagneproblems
You like cheese? Don’t pass up the savory goat cheese soufflé ($12), a custardy and fluffy wedge with the most delicious crust (it’s called a tourteau fromage)—it was like cheese pie. Speaking of cheese, the cheese plate ($15) here is a thing of beauty: three swell cheeses (one day we had Beehive Cheese’s Barely Buzzed coffee-dusted cheddar, Holland’s Family Cheese’s stunning Foenegreek Gouda, and a tarragon-thyme-infused goat cheese in a ramekin of grassy green olive oil). The plate is gorg, covered in condiments like radishes, fresh almonds, pickled vegetables, and candied sunflower seeds. A spoonful of neighborhood honey. It looks like something out of a Saveur photo shoot. Yeah, you know you love it.
Brunch one weekend had some specials like an exquisite bacon quiche (seriously perfect), and a seasonally inspired polenta, egg, and asparagus number with a side of Marin Sun Farms bacon—damn that bacon is good. The mimosas we ordered as our first round were too cute (read: small) so we just anted up for a bottle of the fruity Terres Dorees sparkling Beaujolais ($44).
I know this all sounds like a chapter in Stuff White People Like. The little Pyrex beakers for your water, the artsy-industrial chic interior, the staff outfitted in stylish lab coats, the soft light, the Louis Dressner wines and Steven Smith teas, the sherries and Marsalas, the “just right” portions (but not enough to make you pop out of your Dries Van Noten pants)…actually, my pants were from Macy’s, but whatever. So much care has gone into every detail. It’s Paris by way of Dogpatch. I love it when people geek out on style and presentation; thank you for caring.
Things definitely show a bit more abandon in the sweets section, which is the turf that people really associate the Recchiuti name with. The Chocolate Lab cake ($10) is always going to be changing, so for me to go into too much detail of the devil’s food cake I would have sold my soul for is fruitless. Coffee crème anglaise, need I say more? The dark milk chocolate tartlette ($9) has a boo-tiful pastry crust (they have crusts DOWN here). The ice cream sundae ($9)—complete with burnt caramel hazelnuts, almonds, peanut butter pearls, housemade marshmallows, and a side of extra bitter chocolate sauce—will make you wonder if you need a permit to wield your spoon. (Is anyone watching? Is this even legal? Can they see me take a hit?) The carrot cake ($10), with its tangy layer of milk chocolate mousse made with crème fraîche? Meow. There are eight desserts in all (including a brownie, ice cream float, tarte tatin…), sure to cover whichever way your dessert persuasions lean.
The space has a chic laboratory look, complete with Heath Ceramics tile and some cool handblown glass details by local artist Nate Watson; I also liked the natural elements, such as the elm tabletops, and plants from Flora Grubb. Coming soon: some outdoor seating, complete with heat lamps. (Oh, and if you’re looking for a cool spot for a private event, you can book the space on Sunday and Monday evenings, and Monday lunch.) I’ll see you there, with my most expensive sunglasses on, as I commune with my affogato with housemade caramel ice cream. Oh, bonjooouuurrrr, darling.
Chocolate Lab - 801 22nd St. San Francisco - 415-489-2881
There’s good news and there’s, well, pretty good news about the opening of DIERK’S MIDTOWN CAFE (the offshoot of the brunch-tacular Dierk’s Parkside): The veggie stack is back. If you time it right you can get still-warm pie, and if you time it wrong there’s still really good cold pie—or maybe cake. For fans of Mark Dierkhising’s original Santa Rosa eatery, the recently opened Midtown Cafe is familiar territory, with additions like a spicy Asian soba salad with harissa dressing, an exotic red rice salad with ginger-soy dressing that’s healthy and refreshing, the produce-friendly Talbot sandwich with vegetarian sausage, and the much-loved grilled vegetable stack (which I have been dreaming of for days) with a tower of eggplant, tomatoes, spinach, and onions bathed in saffron tomato sauce. With a blob of goat cheese ever so slowly melting on top. There are, of course, plenty of bacony, chicken-fried-steaky bits as well. With both naughty and nice dishes served all day (from 7am to 3pm) you can have your cake and five servings of veggies too.1422 Fourth St. at St. Helena, Santa Rosa, 707-545-2233.
The open sign is on: CHALKBOARD started serving dinner this week at the former Cyrus space in Healdsburg. BiteClub is headed up this weekend for a full report, but early diners have given a thumbs-up on the food. 29 North St. at Healdsburg, Healdsburg, 707-473-8030.
In Napa, EMPIRE RESTAURANT is slated to open on May 18. The Andaz Hotel restaurant will focus on small plates, bourbon cocktails, and late-night eats. 1400 First St. at Franklin, Napa.
Also slated to open soon is NAPA VALLEY BISTRO, which replaces Neela’s Indian restaurant. The venture is a collaboration of former Silverado Brewing Company and Market St. Helena chefs. 975 Clinton Ave. at Main, Napa.
Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for AppellationAmerica.com. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.
He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.
In Sommeliers Do We Trust?
Trust your sommelier. Even if you don’t exactly know what the word sommelier means, or how one becomes a sommelier, the sommelier has become an integral part of big-city restaurants.
The vast majority of sommeliers are young; and I’m always amazed and oftentimes pleasantly surprised by the knowledge and acumen they bring to their jobs. What’s taken these folks a few years to absorb, it took me at least 15—one is never finished learning in the wine world.
Sommeliers go through tough training to earn their credentials and to acquire the gravitas it takes to be in charge of a restaurant’s wine program. For instance, to be able to apply for the first level of Master Sommelier training, one must undergo two days of intense review of the world’s wine-producing regions, elements of wine service, and several tasting exercises. I may know a lot about wine, but there’s no way I could muster that test; even after studying wine for 30 years and writing about it for 25.
That was made clear to me in a conversation with Amy Currens, the wine and beverage director at Larkspur’s Farmtable, which opened this week. She related an anecdote about just how important sommeliers have become. While working at Prospect in SoMa, a group of diners went through the wine list and called Currens over. One of the women said, “We were told that we really should ask for the sommelier, and I’ve been told to trust you.” Naturally pleased with the woman’s proclamation, Currens told her she’d like to take the group on a journey. To which the woman replied, “We want to go anywhere.” And indeed they did, taken there by their trustworthy sommelier over the course of four bottles. Currens says the group came back a week later.
“I like taking people on an adventure, that’s what we live for,” she says. “It’s enlightening for both the guests and the somm… I’m very humbled by this job.”
Having confidence in a somm—as sommeliers like to call each other—is sort of like how we used to put ourselves in a doctor’s hands. Somms are becoming more prevalent in restaurants, no longer being relegated to four-star establishments. But not all sommeliers (SOMM-el-yays) are created equal. For instance, not all sommeliers are certified by one of the several worldwide accrediting agencies, which put candidates through arduous tests.
There are only 129 professionals who hold the title Master Sommelier in North America. Of those, 111 are men and 18 are women. There are 197 professionals worldwide who have earned the title Master Sommelier. Five of the 20 sommeliers who earned the Advanced Sommelier title last month are from the Bay Area, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers, which oversees the testing and credentialing of that title worldwide.
But Kelli White, at St. Helena’s Press restaurant, isn’t a big believer in any kind of official imprimatur, despite carrying the title of co-sommelier.
“I have mixed feelings on certification,” she says. “I’ve worked for some of the best somms in the world, but I don’t know if they were necessarily certified, because so much of this job is based on apprenticing. It’s the new hot thing [somms in so many restaurants], but I don’t think [official sanction] is necessary.”
To look at White’s copious list, certification might only be a formality. Press’ wine program features a notable cellar of older Napa Valley vintages. (Most people bringing their own wine do have the sense to bring in older wines because most wine lists stick to newer releases.) “Offering older vintages is a largely none reproducible experience,” says White.
But offering aged wines—which are an acquired taste—is not what all diners might cotton to. That’s why the somm must read the table, as Currens thought she did one time: “They [her customers] wanted an aged Napa Cab. They told me they liked Bordeaux; and I had one from Napa that emulated Bordeaux. I took them through exactly what the wine was going to be.”
She presented them with a 1998 Dunn. That producer makes wines from hillside grapes on Howell Mountain that are intense when they’re young, but even out as they age, when they show balanced acidity. The ‘98 was not one of Napa’s best vintages, but the Dunn was one of the better bottlings from that vintage.
“They hated it, hated it,” Currens says with a subdued laugh. They told her, “It smells like elephant toes!” And “the gentleman with them said, ‘I thought you said you liked Bordeaux?’ I should have read it better by probing better. I was too trusting.” Ah, trust—it’s a double-edged sword.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Here are a couple of cabernet sauvignons on Press’ list. They were tasted September 9th, 2000. I gave them my highest ratings and noted that they would age well from 25 to 40 years: 1985 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Oakville: No browning (meaning it’s aging well); evident tannins for long-aging potential ($205). 1995 Robert Mondavi Reserve, Oakville: Cedar, tarry, opulent, young; big tannins for long-term aging. Right now it’s brooding (9/9/00) but when it comes around, and it will, everything’s in place to be a blockbuster. Start drinking in ‘05 and over the next 25 years ($195).
Please feel free to email Alan with your comments and your experiences with restaurant wine. He’d love to hear from you.