This week's tablehopper: spring fling.
A selection of treats from Sweetmue. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Oh yeah, spring is officially here, and today’s column is definitely feeling it: I have a review of Verbena for you (n.b., their brunch is coming very soon!), and our bookworm from Green Apple Books’ Pete Mulvihill is also very vegetable-focused. Asparagus and green garlic are in full effect.
On the carb side of things, I just posted a piece on 7x7.com this week on the best bagels you can find in San Francisco. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. After everyone complaining that you can’t find good bagels in this town, it was time to take a closer look at how good we actually have it.
This Saturday, I’ll be on KRON4, sharing my tablehopper hot list on some of the city’s best (and most evil) doughnuts; tune in at 9:15am!
A couple more notes: I’m happy to announce I am going to be the emcee of Taste of the Nation next Thursday March 27th. Have you bought your tickets yet? The event will feature bites from AQ, Frances, Alta CA, Rich Table, Fog City, and more, plus pours from local winemakers and brewers, and cocktails from St. George Spirits. Yeah, all great stuff. The event is a benefit for the very important Share Our Strength organization, whose noble goal is to not have any of our nation’s children go hungry. Please come and support this great event. We even have a discount code for you—hope to see you there!
One more area where I hope you can help out: Bay Leaf Kitchen is in the last days of its fundraiser to send SF kids to summer camp, and help teach children and families how to grow, cook, and eat real food. Maybe you can throw them a few bucks? They’re down to their last few days and need your help. Thank you!
Ciao ciao! Kiss kiss.
New Restaurant Reviews (I'm looking for somewhere new to eat)
When word spread that the team from Berkeley’s Gather was opening a restaurant in Russian Hill, I wondered what exactly they had in mind for us city folk. They did a bang-up job transforming the former Rex Café/Marbella into an attractive and warm space (thanks to Abueg Morris Architects), with high ceilings, a raw-edge walnut bar (with a brick wall and plenty of bottles of choice spirits behind it), a glowing shelving unit lined with pickled and preserved vegetables, and there’s even a room on the mezzanine that’s perfect for your next group function.
Since you end up sharing plates here, it wouldn’t be my first pick for a business dinner, but it’s ideal for friends catching up or a date (although the lights are dialed a little high). Then again, I’m glad the lights are a bit bright, because you don’t want to hide chef Sean Baker’s beautiful plating (served on some gorg pottery from Jered’s Pottery). And while the dishes look very “NorCal now”—little landscapes artfully composed with dollops and petals and powders and oils—the cuisine here is so very flavorful. It’s not tweezer food art for Instagram—it’s food art that’s meant to be visually appreciated as it hits the table, and then eaten and heartily enjoyed.
Each dish is complex, with many components and preparations, and it’s hard to ascertain from the menu exactly what you’re going to get (though the servers are very well versed on the details). It’s adventurous and fun. Flavors are more loud talkers than careless whisperers here.
The sprouted seed bread ($7) is a must. While it sounds like a biodiesel Volvo-driving, kombucha-swilling hippie dish, the warm bread (which is incidentally Baker’s wife’s recipe) is supremely delicious (it has a ping of heat). You’ll end up scooping up the housemade chèvre and dehydrated beet and sauerkraut powder with it (much more fun than trying to politely slather it all on with a knife). My dining wingman said the flavors were so satisfying, like he was eating a vegetarian version of an In-N-Out burger (side note: he may or may not have smoked a little herb before dinner).
There’s a dedicated section of vegetable dishes, and on my two visits I ordered some of the same plates, which keep evolving and are getting even more dialed in (portion size is also being tweaked, favorably). The artichokes ($14) have a sublimely tender texture and smoky kiss, a zip of acidity from the pickled green tomato, and the pine nuts have a freshness that will make you take note. Yeah, pine nuts.
Carrots ($12) take on mega flavor, thanks to their sous vide bath in carrot juice, lemon verbena, and Aleppo chile (grown on Lindencroft Farm, which Verbena has an extremely tight relationship with—they grow many things exclusively for Baker). It’s a sophisticated dish, with a creamy nettle, parsley, and smoked cashew cloud, and dollops of date purée that can almost veer the dish into savory dessert territory. (I was just looking for some crunchy texture in that dish.) I would easily go back for the homey brassicas ($23) with cheddar sauce and lentils and just make that my own meal for the night.
Anyone who digs pickled herring should try the Nordic-esque sardine ($15), pickled in an intense and short brine, packed in oil, and essentially served raw, with fried cauliflower, dressed crème fraîche, horseradish, dill salsa verde, steelhead roe, and fried potato.
On the meaty part of the menu, the tender meatballs ($16)—made with chicken, pork, and ricotta—take a run through the Mexican part of the pantry, served in an ink-black mole with hominy. A new dish, the lamb sausage ($18), gives us Morocco, Italy (with the Castelvetrano olives), and cilantro all in one fell flavor-packed swoop. Wanna mash up the South and Japan? A favorite (again, I ordered it both times) is the koji quail ($29), two plump birds marinated in koji and buttermilk, grilled on the robata, and served on risotto-like dirty “rice” (actually, wheat berries), and yes, there are chicken livers in there. You are gonna pick up those little legs and chomp every last piece of succulent meat on them (unless you’re a table of vegetarians).
Dining at Verbena, I am reminded of the international pantries that State Bird Provisions and Bar Tartine pull from (the pottery and the pickling here are also simpatico to those two). And like those other two much-adored places, Verbena has the kind of menu that will always be changing, depending on the seasons, and what the kitchen is having fun experimenting with. As a diner, it keeps me coming back.
The desserts by Amy Pearce are equally creative (and complex), like the peppery molasses gingerbread ($8) with a carrot sorbet and IPA caramel. Savory elements appear in other desserts as well: turmeric shows up in marshmallows, parsnip or nettles become ice cream—all with delicious results.
Seats at the bar are coveted—and with tasty cocktails like the Emerald Remedy #2 ($11; gin, Pimm’s, Chartreuse, celery, and lemon), it’s clear why. The wine list (overseen by Michael Ireland, previously at French Laundry, Quince, and The Restaurant at Meadowood) is very producer-driven and, unlike the hyperlocal ingredients on the menu, international. You’ll find quality bottles on the list, and some of the more affordable selections will provide a better deal than doing a night of by-the-glass selections, which average around $13 per glass (just something to note if you’re watching your ducats). The staff is well-equipped to make great recos and pairings, no matter which route you go.
As you make your way to the heavy Spanish wooden doors to leave, servers and floor managers will warmly say good night. If you’re at all like me, you’ll reply with a “see you soon.”
Verbena - 2323 Polk St., San Francisco - 415-441-2323
Wine Country Buzz (it’s what happens there)
Around-the-World Food Events in Wine Country
By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin. Sign up for the BiteClub Newsletter.
Ebleskiver and Sailing Ships: Join the Sons of Norway’s Freya Lodge in Santa Rosa for a morning of ebleskiver, otherwise known as ball-shaped Scandinavian pancakes served with powdered sugar and jam. The pancakes will be served with an omelet, fresh fruit, and breads while Norwegian author and historian Olaf Engvig discusses the historic sailing ships of Scandinavia. Saturday April 12th, 11am, Sons of Norway Hall, 617 W. 9th Street, Santa Rosa. The cost is $20 for nonmembers; for more info and tickets, call 707-996-9889 or go online. The money raised will be used to help pay for kids to go to camp.
April in Paris: Spend three wonderful Wednesdays eating, drinking, and discussing all things Parisian (no translator necessary) from restaurants and market etiquette to the finer points of petanque and the many cultural gems throughout the City of Lights. Francophiles Steve Rabinowitsh and Christine Piccin lead the sessions at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Burdo Culinary Arts Center. Must be 21 and over to participate, $110, April 2nd, 9th, and 16th from 7-9pm. For more info, call 707-527-4372, ext. 9036. 1670 Mendocino Ave. (at Carr), Santa Rosa
LONG MEADOW RANCH WINERY & FARMSTEAD kicks off barbecue season with Ribology at Long Meadow Ranch, a smokin’ afternoon of discussion, demonstration, and dining led by executive chef Stephen Barber, a Kentucky-born-and-bred barbecue master. The Saturday April 12th class gives the skinny on barbecue, including classic regional styles, tasty techniques, and the science behind the succulence. From 3pm-6pm, Barber will demonstrate some of his time-tested techniques as well as some live butchery, showing off his favorite cuts of pork, including St. Louis-style ribs, baby back ribs, picnic shoulder, and Boston butt. Participants also get a behind-the-scenes tour of the farmstead’s organically farmed vegetable garden and a family-style barbecue feast. Tickets are $145 per person plus tax (gratuity included) and are available online or by phone at 707-963-4555, ext. 7105. 738 Main St. (at Charter Oak), St. Helena.
Book Reviews (another place for your nose)
Pete Mulvihill on Vegetable-Driven Cookbooks for Spring
Don’t forget: the books mentioned below are 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.
Any tablehopper readers still eating more healthy as the result of a New Year’s resolution? Anyone looking forward to the early spring veggies sprouting up at farmers’ markets? Anyone trying to eat less meat and still have a rich, warm meal each evening? Read on.
Here are two recent arrivals on our cookbook shelves that place vegetables front and center. Both come from local publisher Chronicle Books, who has a great track record of making beautiful books, so even if you don’t cook out of these as often as you hope, they’ll grace yours shelves artfully.
The Glorious Vegetables of Italy Domenica Marchetti, Sang An
But both are more than a pretty package. Let’s start with The Glorious Vegetables of Italy by Domenica Marchetti (Chronicle Books, $30). The book opens with a helpful 25-page guide to Italian vegetables (and notes a few other key ingredients, like pasta and cheeses). It’s then organized by course: apps, soups and salads, etc. While some recipes may pose sourcing challenges (do we have bird egg beans around here?), most ingredients are common enough and all recipes are very doable for home cooks. This is not a book for the industry; it’s inspiration for anyone with basic knife skills and a bit of patience.
As for the recipes, think Autumn Risotto with Chanterelle Mushrooms; Clam Stew with Greens and Tomatoes; Grilled Asparagus with Speck; and Roasted Romanesco with Anchovy Sauce. Most creative may be the Eggplant “Meatballs” in Tomato Sauce. Nothing here is too complex or time-consuming; think solid weekday dinners with a few more involved feasts sprinkled throughout.
Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite Sarah Copeland, Yunhee Kim
Speaking of feasts, the title of Sarah Copeland’s new tome is Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite (Chronicle Books, $35). Ms. Copeland is the food director of Real Simple magazine, and she married a vegetarian a few years ago. After a few months of salads and cheese plates each evening, she decided she had to step it up and get something warm on the table (she doesn’t explain why her husband isn’t in charge of this; but to each her own, right?). This book is the fruit of her labor (vegetable pun averted!).
Feast features breakfast and lunch, little meals, salads and sides, and so on. There are a number of simple dishes: the Romesco Vegetable Platter is a quick and easy meal. Others take a few steps, like the Pea Guacamole and Seared Halloumi Soft Tacos. And there are a few more complicated recipes, like the Roasted Tomato-Squash Tagine Fall Feast. On the whole, though, think of these recipes as quick inspiration when that veggie box arrives or you went a little nuts at the farmers’ market.
Buon appetito, and thanks for reading.