Suckling pig (or as I call it, Chinese pork and beans) at Koi Palace. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
So you ready to set off the weekend? I am pumped, and so are my bike tires, ready to pedal off to Outside Lands with sis for day one of shenanigans. Today’s lineup is definitely my favorite, with Wild Belle, Jessie Ware, Daughter, Rhye, the Chromatics, Yeasayer, Chic (whatever D’Angelo, but hello, Nile Rodgers!), and let’s not forget Sir Paul! There is also some lamb poutine with the Gagliardi girls’ names on it. It’s on.
If you’re joining me out in the misty fields this weekend, here’s a little recap I did for 7x7.com on seven ways to keep warm and well fed out there.
Today’s issue is pretty packed, with a review of Hakkasan, a bookworm, 707 news, and a wino. I was inspired to (finally) weigh in on Hakkasan after an incredibly delicious dinner I had at Koi Palace this week—it got me thinking about Chinese food in the city, and the spectrum of what is (and isn’t) available here.
One more tidbit: in my Tablehopping column for this week’s Bay Guardian, take a look at my new favorite dish I find myself hankering for a lot these days, rather conveniently named the egg hopper at 1601 Bar & Kitchen. Check it out.
See you next week. Have fun, go find some sun. Marcia Gagliardi
Oh, San Francisco, our beloved city that is ever-troubled with how to handle luxury. On one hand, we scoff at it, call it a chew toy for the moneyed techies, dismiss it as vapid as we twirl ribbons around our intellectual bohemianism and quirky authenticity like a Maypole. But on the other hand, we notice luxury’s shimmer and run our hands over its butter-soft leather; we succumb easily to top-shelf indulgence (especially when someone else is paying) and maybe even Instagram it. Sometimes we say, “F*ck it!” and get silly on a bottle of expensive vintage Champagne, while for others, it’s a lifestyle.
My attitude is this: smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. HAKKASAN in San Francisco’s downtown is definitely a place that will make you crack open your wallet and see how much smoke you can pony up for (or not). The restaurant group certainly smoked it up: $7 million (plus) was spent on the buildout, with lavish décor by Gilles & Bossier that includes a glowing cobalt blue U-shaped bar, embroidered leather banquettes, numerous dining areas (it’s 170 seats large) with flattering lighting, marble bathrooms, wine storage stacked with prestigious bottles, and sultry music playing on the Hakkasound system (and the kitchen, as you can imagine, is incredibly tricked out). Every single detail has been considered, down to the stitching on the menus.
Hakkasan isn’t an original, a place that sprang from here—one more reason for locals to be suspect and raise an eyebrow at this London import. But as a city with such an integral Chinese culture and presence, we have deserved a higher-end and elegant Chinese restaurant for some time. Benu is in a class by itself—and not a place where you go to get your Peking duck fix. Tommy Toy’s had the history and opulent rooms tricked out in chinoiserie, but its cuisine was mothballed. R&G Lounge has some stellar seafood, but if you want a glass of good wine and nice linens, best of luck with that. Ditto the scene at Koi Palace: some exquisite cuisine, but not where you’d go on a date—just a fabulous banquet. Style and substance, why can’t we have both? This generation has been cheated of a restaurant on the level of Cecilia Chiang’s Mandarin.
Which brings us to Hakkasan. I think the place is gorgeous. Not cheesy, not Vegas-y, but definitely swanky and splashy. The same can’t be said for the crowd, a loading zone heavy on monster heels and men with $100 haircuts. It’s a place where you have to strategize like Attila—do you want to be a part of the scene on Friday night? Know what you’re in for.
One way to slice it is to come midweek for one of their creative cocktails at the bar (hello Smoky Negroni and Bird’s Eye Margarita with mezcal) and a few appetizers, which absolutely must include the crispy quail in Guilin chile sauce ($19). The texture is just beyond (the quail is air-dried for a week, then wok-fried, marinated in vinegar, and has a potato-starch fry). It will totally turn your shark brain on: chomp chomp.
But be aware the bar is popular: I have heard that some local business types have their assistants come in early and camp at the bar for them so they have a seat when they leave the office. Ballers.
Another option is to come for lunch (it’s quite mellow) or weekend dim sum brunch. Perched on the second floor, above the street noise and distraction, it has a calm vibe as natural light pours in through the windows and the music is turned down. There’s a three-course Taste of Hakkasan menu for $29 (available at lunch Monday through Friday) worth considering, although I wish I could choose something besides the macarons for dessert.
The dim sum menu shines with the fried selections, like the flaky roast duck pumpkin puff ($8). I adore steamed dumplings—and they make some good har gow ($8) and scallop shumai ($10)—but the delicate pastry of the fried dumplings here is like none other (take your pick from 10 kinds). Oh, and pssst, pass on the king crab roll ($12), it’s not worth it. The crispy duck salad with pomelo, pine nuts, and shallots ($28), however, is a must-order for anyone who even remotely likes duck. It’s one of the city’s best salads.
The Cantonese dishes by chef Ho Chee Boon are sophisticated, and the portions are not skimpy or precious. The staff will guide you well, making recommendations on how much to order, and what to choose from on the extensive menu. If you’re ready for your hot date, or birthday dinner, or want to celebrate your second round of VC funding, it’s easy for this place to take your money—but here’s how to spend it well.
You can fall back on some well-executed classics, like hot and sour soup, but I say go for more refined picks. The black truffle duck ($48) is something special (it features a fantastic jus), and the roasted silver cod in the Champagne and Chinese honey sauce ($39) is exquisite—even though it’s a sweeter flavor profile than I normally like, the sauce’s buttery texture with a subtle zip of lemon and the acidity from the Champagne made me say, “Say goodnight, miso black cod.”
The seafood was expertly handled in the Assam seafood claypot ($29), with prawns, squid, and halibut. I didn’t think the golden Chinese buns it was served with were needed—until the very end, when I dunked those buns in the tamarind-flavored sauce with a hint of curry and yellow bean. Ahhh, yes. You’ll notice the sophisticated knifework on the vegetables, like the perfect diamonds of bell pepper in the claypot. The kitchen does a nice job with rice, like the fried rice ($8) with a delicate chiffonade of gai lan and preserved radish. Vegetarians will also find plenty to choose from.
The creative desserts by Courtney Lewis are quite stunning, from the caramelized pineapple with coconut tapioca pudding ($10) and the hit of piment d’Espelette, to the chocolate orange ($10; the new Toblerone orange!) with gianduia ice cream—your server will pour hot chocolate sauce over the globe and reveal a little terrarium inside, complete with gold leaf, blood orange marshmallow, cookie crumble, red leaf sorrel, and chocolate “pop rocks.” The exotic fruit platter ($18) is a total showstopper. I wish they’d fix those macarons ($12)—they look so tempting, but time and again, they are crumbly and dry. And be sure to consider a pot of tea, there are some pretty ones.
One of the hallmarks here is the attentive and refined service (complete with hand towel service), although I have definitely had some odd timing of dishes here—like most Chinese restaurants, they tend to hit the table all at once. Tell your server you want things coursed so your food doesn’t sit and get cold. I have experienced some on-point wine pairings (they have quite the wine team here) but the by-the-glass selections can add up. The list has wines for every budget—from boutique to big producers—so don’t rule out a bottle instead. The list of Champagnes will make you covetous, I’m just warning you.
A few things are a bit maddening: I find it really important for a menu to reveal the provenance of ingredients. (What is the story on that beef? Where are the prawns from?) We’re a city of ecologically aware diners, and I think the restaurant needs to step up to that. Ask questions, and the well-trained staff has answers, but what if I don’t want to engage in the ingredient Inquisition? Please, give me some cues.
I also can’t tolerate how the website doesn’t list the prices of the menu items. That kind of playing around doesn’t make sense, especially when people are wondering if they can afford to dine there or not. Show us the money.
And lastly, there are enough bathroom stalls to designate them as expressly male or female—why have unisex stalls when you don’t need them, especially in such a high-end place?
I have dined over a number of occasions here: two lunches, drinks at the bar, an intimate dinner, and a splashy private dining room function. The vibe varies all over the restaurant. If you’re on a date, you don’t want to be next to a large group. Be sure to let the reservationist know in advance why you’re there and who you’re with: with 170 seats, they will find the right table for you. What your bill looks like, however, is up to you to figure out.
Hakkasan - One Kearny Place San Francisco - 415-829-8148
A cross between a donut and a croissant, the Cronut has taken New York by storm. Invented by chef Dominique Ansel, the curious dessert filled with pastry cream has enthusiasts waiting in line for three hours just for a taste. Throughout the country, bakers have strived to achieve the crispy, fried deliciousness, and it seems a new Sonoma County baking team has come up with their own version. Though the Cronut name is trademarked, Jeremiah Seims and Robin Carey of OUR LADY GRACE CONFECTIONS are selling “doh sants” at local farmers’ markets. Their versions include cinnamon, caramel-topped, and chocolate, and it only takes a bite to get seriously hooked. Think you can handle this caloric creation? Find Our Lady Grace Confections on Wednesday and Saturday at the Redwood Empire Farmers’ Market in Santa Rosa.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the lazy days of summer, because your food calendar is about to be booked up for the next three months solid. With harvest on the horizon, Wine Country gears up for its busiest time of year, full of festivals, parties, and general merriment.
Here are just of a few of the events coming up on the gastro-calendar:
- Gravenstein Apple Fair (Saturday August 10th-Sunday August 11th): Billed as the “sweetest little fair in Sonoma County,” this year’s fair once again celebrates West County’s heritage apple with plenty of apple-filled pies and sweets from food vendors, including The Farmer’s Wife, Green Grocer, Lata’s Indian Cuisine, Sebastopol BBQ Smokehouse Bistro, and Forestville’s Backyard Restaurant. The festival also includes a wine and cider tent pouring from Tilted Shed, DeVoto, and the about-to-open Woodfour Brewery. Advance tickets at Oliver’s Markets, $12 adults, $5 kids. At Ragle Ranch Park; details online.
- Barlow openings: August and September often see a flurry of openings, and this year is no exception. The food-centric complex THE BARLOW is finally swinging into high gear with the opening of WOODFOUR BREWING COMPANY this week, featuring both brews and food (chef Jamil Peden is in the kitchen along with local toques Matthew Williams and Moishe Hahn-Schuman). Zazu Restaurant officially opened its doors on the 7th. Microdistillery Spirit Works opens for tours Friday through Sunday as well. 200 Morris St., Sebastopol.
- Jewish Food Fest (Sunday August 18th): Ask any East Coaster, and they’ll tell you that here in Wine Country, we don’t know bagels, much less serious rugelach or babka. Whether you concur (or not), the annual Jewish Food Fest at Shomrei Torah features the universally loved comfort foods for serious noshing: bagels and cream cheese, potato latkes, corned beef sandwiches, egg creams, matzo toffee, and, of course, rugelach and challah. Babka (a sweet yeast cake) will be flown in from New York, and organizers say they’re tripling the amount of food they’ll be serving this year. Kids’ activities, live music, and a Jewish mother advice booth (guilt-free) are among the afternoon activities. 10am-3pm, $5. Tickets online. 1350 Bennett Valley Rd., Santa Rosa.
- Fermentation Festival (Sunday August 18th): The hottest trend in in food (and drinks) right now? Fermentation. From beer brewing and kombucha-culturing to homemade yogurt, cheese-, and bread-making, pickling, cider-pressing, and, of course, winemaking, bacteria-buffeted preservation as an old-is-new skill on the rise. The FARM TO FERMENTATION FESTIVAL brings together the best of the bunch, with local bacteria celebrities, including the Press Democrat’s Jeff Cox, who recently wrote The Essential Book of Fermentation, Veggie Queen Jill Nussinow of The New Fast Food and “bacteria advocate” Jennifer Harris. 11am-5pm, $30 general admission, $50 VIP “Libation Lounge” tickets. At Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa; details online.
- Potlikker Napa (Sunday August 18th): The Southern Foodways Alliance celebrates Southern barbecue culture next weekend with pit-cooked pigs, slaw, beans, potato salad, and other goodies. Three Southern chefs man the swine while heavy hitters Christopher Kostow (Meadowood), Daniel Patterson (COI), and Stephen Barber handle the sides. 5pm-8pm; $125 per person. Tickets online. Whetstone Wine Cellars, 1075 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa.
- Chocolate Run (Sunday September 22nd): Jack London State Park near Glen Ellen hosts a 5K run and fun festival fueled by chocolate. Traversing various trails and popular sites such as the Winery Ruins and Wolf House, “aid” stations along the way will give away chocolate treats along the 5K route, in addition to chocolate-covered strawberries, bananas, chocolate chip pancakes, and more treats after the race. The run is free for kids under 7, $20 for children 8-15, and $50 for adults. Registration online.
Don’t forget: the book mentioned below is available at 20 percent 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.
A History of Food in 100 Recipes William Sitwell
If you have not yet discovered A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell, I’ll just say it now to get it out of the way: “you’re welcome” for turning you on to it.
This is a real gem of a book, from its heft and pleasing cover texture to the knowledge and tales within, and it belongs in the core of any cookbook or food writing collection.
Let me back up. William Sitwell is a British food writer and editor (most prominently at Waitrose Food Illustrated). In 2010, he bought at auction a collection of 19th-century culinary books and ephemera. Starting there, he delved deeply into the history of food and cooking, much to our benefit today.
The book is arranged chronologically, and each chapter begins with a recipe as an entrée into the story to come. Each of the 100 chapters is relatively brief—two to five pages on average—and illustrated with an historical image or two. But within this structure is what really makes a food book great—stories, like:
- How the fateful meeting of Spain’s Cortés and Aztec ruler Montezuma II helped develop and spread hot chocolate.
- How Frenchman Denis Papin created the first pressure cooker in 1681 only to be dismissed and die impoverished.
- How Escoffier reinvented teamwork in the kitchen; how he and his partner Ritz embezzled and were fired from the Savoy Hotel in London before teaming up for the first Ritz-Carlton Hotel; and how peach Melba was created and named for an Australian actress.
- How Ken Hom grew from poverty and knowing no English in Chicago’s Chinatown to a TV star in England who sold more than 1 million copies of Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery in 1984, before rice wine vinegar and soy sauce were in grocery stores.
While the earlier chapters are more interesting (to me) than the more contemporary stuff, A History of Food in 100 Recipes is riveting food fun. Spend the next 100 days reading one of these pieces at bedtime, and you can replace me as the know-it-all at the next dinner or cocktail party.
Thanks for reading.
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.
Left Unsated at the Kitchen Door
I think I ordered badly at Kitchen Door. A couple of things didn’t go right: the wine didn’t go well with the food I ordered, which made me like the dishes less. I tried to have a really good experience at Todd Humphries’ casual place, which is appended to the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, but I came away feeling disjointed.
I’ve enjoyed Humphries’ food forever, both at Campton Place in the city and at Martini House in St. Helena. Kitchen Door, his newest project, is more egalitarian. To do that, you try to be all things to all people, which rarely works. Kitchen Door is fun, and prices seem reasonable, although $50 is not the most sensible bill for a salad, a sandwich, and two tumblers of wine that tumbled out of a tap.
I started with a 2012 albariño ($8.50), a Spanish white grown in Edna Valley from a brand called Remix. I have no problem with whites served too cold, which they almost always are. By cupping the glass in both hands for a few minutes, it’s easy to bring a white to a temperature where one can actually taste it. My hands, however, were just this side of frostbitten because this wine, which came from a tap, took forever to warm up.
This American albariño was indeed bright and fresh, but it isn’t very varietal. Albariño from Rías Baixas, from where the best Iberian “Albars” come, are steely and minerally, even with some peat aromas. But most have become like most pinot grigios, nondescript and uninteresting. So what we had here was a Cali Albar, from the tap. So what did I expect?
The Remix has some redeeming qualities, such as the aforementioned brightness with some citrus flavor. But pairing it with a shaved celery salad, as I did, which was drowned in a creamy white balsamic and sweetened by dates, rendered the wine sour.
I next ordered an ‘11 Copain pinot from the Anderson Valley to pair with the banh mi sandwich ($13.75), which featured a choice of duck or chicken. Pinot noir and duck? They have good affinity for each other. But to add to my disjointedness, the pinot spigot, I was told by my attentive server, was busted. I opted for a red blend (“Lot #213”) consisting of petite sirah, grenache, and syrah from The Messenger ($8.50). From the tap, too, the menu listing was marked with the letters “MV,” which I took to be a typo for NV, or nonvintage. My thoughtful server didn’t know the abbreviation but another waiter unraveled the mystery: MV stands for “multivintage.”
The blend displayed some nice fruit aromas; it was round and tasty and also bright, even with some bridge-coating fine-grained tannins, which is a rare and good thing in such an inexpensive wine. With the banh mi? The hotness of the jalapeños made the alcohol seem searing (a common occurrence) and teased out the oak, which wasn’t apparent before and which, when commingled with the sweet pickled vegetables in the sandwich, made for a too sweet-hot mash-up.
Further exacerbating my verklempt state, when I attempted to swirl the glass, wine came tumbling out—both times. I was cautious too. I swirled the safe way—on the table—as opposed to picking the tumbler up. Though the small vessel was only half full, it still could not contain the vortex. So I leave you asking myself this: who the hell swirls wine from a tap in a tumbler, for God’s sake? I do.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: MV Lot #213 The Messenger, California ($8.50 glass/$19 carafe) From the tap, the multivintage (MV) red blend, comprised of petite sirah, grenache, and syrah, is closed at first but opens to reveal fresh, sweet fruit aromas, while in the mouth it’s round, tasty, bright and not too sweet (until you pair it with hot spices). There are some fine-grained tannins here at midpalate, not often seen in a wine at this price. Those tannins come from the skins. I don’t know what the alcohol percentage is, but before I had it with chiles, it seemed in check. When I was able to isolate the duck in a banh mi sandwich, the wine became a perfect foil for the fowl.
Please feel free to email Alan with your comments and your experiences with restaurant wine. He’d love to hear from you.