A straight-up extravaganza of salumi and charcuterie at Trou Normand. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Alas, our warm nights this week have wound down, just when I was enjoying holding meetings in the Panhandle, and digging all my sundresses and sandals out of the back of my closet. Riding a bike in the warm, windless evening air is enough to convert anyone into a cyclist forever. But hey, it’s the weekend, which means the city will be exploding with Derby Day parties, Cinco de Mayo fiestas (and don’t forget, La Rondalla is back open), and even Bluxome Street Winery is throwing a block party on Saturday afternoon.
Also on Saturday: I will be on KRON4 at 9:15am, talking about some Mother’s Day options around the bay in case you haven’t made your reservation anywhere yet.
Further weekend activities: here’s a piece I wrote for the Bay Guardian on some of my favorite wine bars to open recently in the city, because wine o’clock can strike a lot earlier on a sunny Saturday. Right? Right.
Lastly, I did a roundup of five fantastic carby dishes in the city, including some dishes that would be perfect to hunt down for brunch this weekend, like the Adjarian Khachapuri at Anda Piroshki and maple-bacon waffle with an egg at Suite Foods in Bernal.
Today’s issue has a wino from Matt Straus of Heirloom Cafe: he wrote this missive in his restaurant newsletter and I asked to reprint it; we also have a 707 scout report from Heather Irwin, and I’m filing my review of Kin Khao, a restaurant I want to eat at all the time.
Our expert wine team offers one of the best food-friendly wine selections in town. During Spring Wine Blitz, now through May 4th at both Bi-Rite Market locations, our entire selection is available at 20 percent off when you buy 12 or more bottles.
Save on such popular and hard-to-find wines as 2012 La Commanderie de Peyrassol “La Croix Rouge” and 2010 Rejadorada Toro—available in the Bay Area exclusively at Bi-Rite. Create mix-and-match cases of your favorites.
It’s a perfect time to stock up for summer parties, Mother’s Day, graduations, and more! Wine Blitz includes every wine in the store, and delivery is free in San Francisco!
In the latest chapter of “build it and they will come” is KIN KHAO, the very personal Thai restaurant from Pim Techamuanvivit, known in international culinary circles for her blog, Chez Pim, her award-winning jams, and as the globe-trotting girlfriend of Manresa’s David Kinch. It was a trip to Pim’s native Thailand with Kinch, along with Michael Gaines—then Kinch’s sous chef—which planted to seed for Pim and Gaines’s unique partnership.
When Pim was putting together her plan for her first restaurant, she knew she didn’t have the requisite experience of running a professional restaurant kitchen; Gaines was fortuitously available (he had left Manresa as chef de cuisine for Central Kitchen here in SF). He was game to immerse himself in this non-native cuisine, working closely with Pim’s exacting demands on how she needed the food to taste, while bringing his tremendous skill set with ingredient sourcing and preparation. What the two of them are co-creating makes for a menu that’s uniquely Thai by way of San Francisco.
It’s not an easy location, nestled in the back of the Parc 55 Hotel, just a block from one of the grittier blocks of the Tenderloin (take advantage of the deal they have for hotel parking: $12 for two hours). But the location was an offer she couldn’t refuse: a downtown restaurant address with a full liquor license. Kin Khao occasionally has hotel guests and tourists who don’t understand why there isn’t any pad thai on the menu or are looking for a dinner for two that’s under $30 (the Thai place across the street is really benefitting, because that’s where Pim’s team sends them). The rest of us are venturing from across town to eat our way through this fascinating menu (I sure am), one that at first glance reminded me of what Charles Phan did for Vietnamese food by making it with quality, local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients—remember the first time you tasted his shaking beef?
I had the same experience tasting Pim’s green curry ($24), which is the most time-consuming dish on the menu (everything is made by hand, and the curries are the most demanding). It comes with juicy Devil’s Gulch rabbit (a savory switch from the usual chicken you’ll find), and while you may have to negotiate who gets the leg or the saddle at your table, you each get some meatballs (win!). Just sit and savor the complexity of this curry, with its perfectly modulated heat coming from the fresh chile.
The dishes I can’t stop thinking about are the full flavor-forward ones in the bites and meats sections: if you’re someone who like to suck the heads of crayfish or other shellfish, you’ll love the funky undertones of the Khao Tung Na Tung pork and shrimp dip ($8) that you spread on crisp rice cakes, a homey recipe from Pim’s grandma. Vegetarians can go for the Hor Mok Terrine ($10), a creamy curry mousse topped with coconut milk and studded with Connie Green mushrooms. The Yum Kai Dao ($7) fried duck egg “salad” is for my fellow egg sluts—a dish I’d love for brunch—zipped up with chile jam, peanuts, fried shallots, mint, and cilantro.
Some of the dishes are traditional, and some are entirely their own creation, like the meaty Pretty Hot Wings ($8), which have a bright-red sriracha-infused color (I call them Buffalo Thai wings). They hit the full taste spectrum: they’re a touch sweet, and tangy, and salty, and definitely spicy (their marinade also gives them a garlicky note). Bonus: the wings are fried in tapioca and rice powder, so they’re gluten-free.
The Kua Kling pork ribs ($15) are bonkers. This classic dish from the south throbs with intensity: they’re initially steamed in fish sauce, flash-fried, and tossed around (which is what their name means) in a wok with a fresh curry paste with notes of turmeric, chile, white pepper, and galangal, and the final pop comes from kaffir lime. Mega flava in yo face! The texture on these ribs is so satisfying (time to turn on the monkey brain), and it’s another dish that’s so good to eat with your hands.
A few dishes struck me as too expensive for what they deliver: I found the Khao Mun Gai ($16) too complicated to share (it comes a scoop of chicken fat rice, slices of subtle ginger-poached chicken, and a cup of chicken consommé that you sip), and I didn’t care for the texture of the Northern Thai pork sausage ($15)—ditto the tough charred young octopus ($13). I found a similar texture issue with the Massaman Nong Lai ($26), a gorgeous curry, obviously such a labor of love, but the meat left me longing for a soft and tender braise. These are all things I can see getting fine-tuned each week the restaurant is open and dials things in even further.
The texture of the chile jam clams ($15) was perfect, plump Littlenecks in a savory saucy broth that only needs a wider bowl so you can scoop it up with the shells more easily (and they needed to be a touch warmer). The winner of the texture contest is the Saeng-wah Salad ($15), a pretty bowl of wild Gulf prawns that are almost raw (they just get a quick dunk in boiling water), served with crisp bits of fried catfish, brightened with raw shallot, lemongrass, ginger, and kaffir. As my server instructed, you want to eat this with a spoon so you get the full experience. Um, yes you do.
You can also see Gaines’s Manresa pedigree in the beautifully plated Yum Yai Salad ($12), which features more of Pim’s prized chile jam, a condiment she grew up with that is rarely made at home (it’s her grandma’s recipe, and her aunt taught her how to make it); the day she mastered nam prik pao, she said it was a milestone for her in Thai cooking. It’s the star on the catwalk in the Yum Yai salad, a texture extravaganza that’s a mix of raw, cooked, and fried seasonal vegetables, and again, that gorgeous batter on the asparagus is gluten-free.
I’m already looking forward to Dungeness crab season returning so I can have the Crab Sen Chan ($17) back in my life, a lightly smoky noodle dish that is the closest to pad thai you’ll find on the menu (ha-ha). I’m a big fan of Khao Soi Gai ($15)—am such a sucker for its pickled mustard greens and I love spicy soups—so my fellow khao soi freaks will want to experience this new benchmark.
Dessert is all about the black rice pudding ($8); anyone who has had the fortune to dine at Chez L’Ami Jean in Paris will recognize the setup, a choose-your-own-adventure of toppings like salty coconut cream and pralines—just be sure to go overboard with all the toppings so the flavors pop (and check it, it’s dairy- and gluten-free!). There’s also the Kafe Mao (drunken coffee, $12), a fantastic Thai coffee-like dessert cocktail, and one I recommend if you’re on your way to nearby ACT and need a little pre-show boozy boost of caffeine.
The Bon Vivants are behind the playful cocktails here, from the Sao Thai (Thai girl)—a table favorite—to the boozy Samunprai Julep. I especially adore the Rasa Umami with oloroso sherry, Black Grouse, and turmeric-lime cordial, but I can’t agree with the flat $12 charge for all the cocktails when I look at the size of its tiny cordial glass compared to the others. But there’s obviously a lot of thought that went into each cocktail—you can tell the team had fun pulling from this new pantry of Thai ingredients.
The European-heavy wine list by GM Sam Zelver is a wine lover’s pay dirt, with some selections that are so good you wonder why most wine bars don’t have a list this rocking. The bottle list has many food-friendly winners that clock in around $40, and the team is quick to make good recos.
The 75-seat dining room has an array of different-sized tables (these handmade tables feel so good), including a communal table that’s perfect for a large group to take over, and a bar where solo diners can perch, both made of beautiful woods. There are some fun design touches (like a postcard rack of Thai travel images), and I always made note of the eclectic and rockin’ music, ranging from Bill Withers to Iggy Pop to jazz to the Stones.
Just like the restaurant name means, “let’s eat!”
This review was based on three dinner visits.
Kin Khao - 55 Cyril Magnin St. - 415-362-7456
Board Shorts, First Look at the Library at Chalkboard’s Tasting Menu: Can a perfectly seared day boat scallop capped with gently melting Iberico lardo make you weep? Would a gently poached 63-degree quail egg make you swoon with that slack-jawed, flushed-cheek feeling that’s, well, usually experienced behind closed doors? We’re a strange breed, we gastronomes, seeking out that one perfect meal, that one perfect ingredient that alights every sense simultaneously. Ephemerally. Seductively. Suffice to say, you’ve either been bitten…or you’re just as happy scarfing down a PB&J as a plate of baby favas still warm from the summer sun.
Though not for every eater, Chalkboard chef Shane McAnelly’s Library menu ($95) at the Les Mars Hotel is most definitely for the “I post every meal I eat on Instagram #noms” crowd. Six painstakingly curated courses spanning several hours are now being served each weekend in the cozy library room, with seating for just 16. For each course, there are both vegetarian and non-vegetarian selections, equally intriguing in every way. Beet “bubbles” smother paper-thin slices of kampachi with a surf-meets-earth quality; bacon consommé is drizzled over a tiny stack of pork belly, quail egg, and nasturtium, each flavor parading over the palate; smoked maitake mushroom is shaped into a faux bone marrow; a puffed soufflé of spring strawberries is gently deflated with a quenelle of mascarpone ice cream (by pastry chef BIll Woodward); and a ribbon of dark chocolate ganache is punctuated by banana ice cream, bacon crumbles, and peanut butter dust. Beverage pairings (an additional $70) are curious and clever, with sake and sour beer pairings as carefully chosen as the wines.
Luxury dining isn’t always worth the hefty price tag, but with Michelin-worthy courses and exacting service, it isn’t just the recycled dishware (yes, we remember those signature bowls) that hark back to the hotel’s earlier multicourse, multistarred Cyrus. It’s the wink and nod to the gastronome, ever pursuing that perfect meal, that makes the LIBRARY AT CHALKBOARD one of our favorite new Wine Country dining experiences. Open Fri-Sun 5:30pm-9:30pm. 29 North St., Healdsburg. Reservations required; call 707-473-8030. (See pictures online at BiteClubEats.com.)
Love at first bite: With just three farm tables, the newly opened NAKED PIG can’t help but be an intimate experience, which makes it all the tastier. Here’s what to get: tip-top billing goes to the cheddar, chive, and ham bread pudding ($12), a supercollider mash-up of flavors. We’re also huge fans of the green onion biscuit with honey, poached eggs, perfectly cooked bacon, and a tartly dressed salad ($13). Artisanal whiskey caramel waffles ($11) are fluffy and moist with a boozy punch. Midday sandwiches are takes on lunch box favorites like meatloaf ($13) and egg salad ($11), but with gourmet twists like ciabatta, pastured eggs, and homemade pickles and ketchup. We won’t deny a bit of sticker shock on a few items, but foodists will appreciate the owners’ curated list of purveyors, which include small, sustainable farmers and bakers. We’re always willing to pay a little more to support our friends. Open 8am-3pm Wed-Sun. 435 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa.
Former Keller Restaurant Group Chef Doing Pizza at The Barlow: Holy pepperoni, Sebastopol’s Barlow marketplace will soon be home to yet another noteworthy restaurant. Chef Mark Hopper, former executive chef for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, will open VIGNETTE PIZZERIA in Sebastopol’s The Barlow this summer. Hopper’s Twitter feed is punctuated with pizzeria pix from coast to coast, marking his R & D progress from New York City (Motorino), Denver (Pizzeria Locale), and SF’s Del Popolo and Una Pizza Napoletana (among others). The menu will include Neopolitan-style pies along with seasonal antipasti and craft beers and wines. There will be both indoor and outdoor seating. Look for a summer opening at 6750 McKinley St., Sebastopol.
But wait, we’re not done. Also coming soon to The Barlow: ULTRA CREPES and THE NECTARY. Ultra Crepes has had a mobile kitchen for several years, offering both sweet and savory concoctions (what BiteClub wouldn’t do for a Palachinka with Nutella, crushed cookies, and whipped cream). The Nectary will focus on pressed juices, smoothies, probiotic beverages, acai bowls, and other simple foods.
The long-shuttered LAST DAY SALOON may come back to life, albeit in a new guise, in 2015. BiteClub has gotten word that a local family of restaurateurs is hoping to rehab the historic building on Fifth Street in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square. With a working name of MONSOON, the concept is an “upscale Indian-fusion restaurant and performance venue.” Just don’t call it a nightclub. The plan goes to the city on May 7th and BiteClub will have more details in the coming weeks.
Cinco de Redd Wood: The Napa restaurant REDD WOOD will be throwing a Cinco de Mayo party Monday May 5th from 5pm-10pm. The restaurant will set up an outdoor bar on the patio and will be offering $5 margaritas, $3 Dos Equis, and $3 Wood Draft. Food offerings will include ceviche, tacos, and Mexican pizza. Reservations aren’t necessary; guests are encouraged to just come down, hang out, and enjoy the celebration.
Also launching: Redd Wood is offering premiere poolside service for guests staying at North Block Hotel. The hotel has recently redesigned the pool area, which now boasts semiprivate cabanas featuring rich fabrics and seductive colors for the perfect lounge area. Most important, they’ve installed a midcentury-era phone with a direct line to Redd Wood, which allows guests to place an order for their favorite Redd Wood pizza and a bottle of bubbles to enjoy poolside (full menu available). 6755 Washington St., Yountville, 707-299-5030.
Matt Straus is a chef, sommelier, writer, and the owner of Heirloom Cafe, which opened in 2010.
On Being a Sommelier
I did not enjoy watching the film Somm, which was released last year and is about four young men and their breathless pursuit of something called a “master sommelier” accreditation. The film follows them through months of preparations, of studying flash cards about some of the more arcane details of wine production and geography, of a countless number of late nights spent tasting unknown wines in order to refine their abilities to identify what was made when or where or by whom, without having anything to go on but the smell and the taste.
The film seems to invite some quick and ready objections with a shrug, as if to say, for instance, who cares that the story is so unrelentingly male? We should perhaps suspend our disbelief as the quaintly peripheral girlfriends and wives watch the guys cultivate their alpha-dog competitiveness and swing their dicks around; true passion for wine is not something for women. It was hard for me not to squirm through all of the “we can do this!” and the goal-orientation, as though wine is something that with a good push can be climbed like a Himalayan peak.
But there are two rough spots in the film that seem more problematic and that are even more central to widely held, ever-creeping misconceptions about wine. The first was broached by a savvy young New York sommelier named Carson Demmond, who cautioned in an article she wrote for the online journal called Punch that we should hope to remember that to be a sommelier of any level or accreditation is first and foremost to have a particular job.
The word sommelier itself actually has quite a lot less to do with expertise than it does with service and stewardship. Nobody with a wine list in her hands at a restaurant or a wine bar wants to be approached by someone who doesn’t know whites from reds, of course. And of course no meal was ever made worse by someone who simply had good information about one Burgundy vintage or another. But good earnest service and simple good taste are foolproof. If you’re nothing but the smartest guy in the room I think I’ll probably come up with a choice on my own thanks.
The restaurant work and guest service that are given little more than the pass of a toreador’s flag in the film are not exactly the same as a summer walk in a vineyard. The hours are long and frequently last late into the night, and serving the public and trying to make everyone in a dining room happy is a grueling challenge that any seasoned professional will describe colorfully without too much of a prod. And while it should be said that some of the 135 earnest souls who have won their master’s lapel pin in North America continue to arrive four or five nights a week for pre-service meetings and be on hand for late-night conversations about whether to drink Vouvray or Saint-Aubin, a vast number of freshly minted masters seem to view passing the exam exactly as a quick ticket OUT of the restaurant business. Wineries and sales companies that rely heavily on branding and status—eager to have their luxury brand associated with an aura of expertise so rare—are more than happy to expedite their move to the private sector.
Then there is the question that seems to me to dwarf all the others, which regards the amount of time that it takes to reach this vinous summit, to become the wine expert who finally remains to set our olfactory pathways aglow and flutter our taste buds. One need not have an abundance of experience with wine to surmise that there are a few things to know about it, or that many of the impressions worth having are incremental sorts of thoughts and capacities, the subtle kinds of things that someone who is interested in craft understands tend to arrive on their own schedule. Mastery of this sort is a matter of years and years, and comes not by way of a 6- or 12- or even 24-month course of study. Not since the Karate Kid waxed on and off for two hours to find his Zen has anyone entertained the possibility of a connection between youth and so much wisdom.
A young sommelier who is paying attention will commit herself to learning the basics, about regions and appellations and winemakers and varietals and vintages. And one lucky day she will for the first time hold a short glass of Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, and she will know from smelling it that she’s holding something with explosive flavor. She may have some sense that there is something singular about it. The first taste feels like a tidal wave of ripe complexity—she can hardly catch her breath as she wonders whether those were fine tannins she just swallowed.
What she cannot know, through no fault of her own, is how the 2009 Chave she just tasted compares with the 2008 wine from the same address. Nor can she know how the 2009 compares with the 2012, which is still in barrel in France. Nor does she know anything about how a Chave Hermitage from a comparable vintage made 10 years ago seems today, but wow, she would love to taste the 1999. Nor does she know very much about how Jean-Louis’ wines are stylistically different from the wines his father made for 30 years before Jean-Louis assumed the family mantle, or what broader implications for the wine world could be discerned in a generational handover of the winemaking reins.
And here’s the rub, the great and most wonderfully singular thing about wine: there will be no rushing any of it. Mother Nature allows no shortcuts here, no new technology to help in the quest to ascend faster than everyone else. If you know someone very generous and with a deep cellar, of course you could sit and consider five vintages of Chave at once, but it won’t mean much without more context.
It’s terrific that you’re fixated by 2010 white wines from the Jura; save your money and go to France and talk with winemakers in Arbois about sous voile winemaking and vintage variation in the foothills of the Alps. Eat Raclette until your skin smells like it. You’ll still have to wait five years to taste the next five vintages of the wines. There’s just no getting around it. The dial comes around every 12 months, my friend, not too much faster or slower. This is something about which to feel inspired and humbled.
Tasting wine and talking with people who have been tasting and talking about wine for 10 or 20 or 40 more years than I have, whether they have ever heard of carbonic maceration or not, reminds me of everything about wine and tastes and culture that I don’t know. And that is very likely exactly what it is that puts a kick in my step when I’m really enjoying dinner service. You never know what’s under the cork of that old bottle you just pulled from the cellar, or how it’s going to taste with the pizza. I’ve only tasted nebbiolo from the 1970s twice before. Let’s open it.
So I think I won’t ever be interested in the master’s lapel pin, because I’d rather act the part of the guy who doesn’t know everything, because the old adage about realizing that you know less about wine as you start to know more is true. Because when it comes to wine, it pleases me to say, I have so much to learn.
And it’s not because I haven’t studied my flash cards.