This week's tablehopper: one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.
Carlo Middione’s Calabrian-style lamb chops with anchovy and artichokes, at Luce. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Konnichiwa! So I have to tell you, I had another review lined up for today, but I was so fired up and excited by my dinner at Jiro SF (the guest chef sushi experience at Saison’s private chef counter) on Wednesday night that I put it aside and cranked this review out instead. When I got home late after my dinner, my mind was positively whirring, I was so inspired by it all that it was hard to fall asleep (a true sushi high). Since Jiro’s omakase sushi experience is only going to be with us until the end of May (for now), I wanted to tell you about it as soon as possible. I hope you enjoy it.
Last night was special for another reason: I was invited to attend a dinner in honor of Carlo Middione and his wife Lisa (of Vivande Porta Via fame) at Luce. It was a packed house, full of regulars and friends, some who traveled from quite far to be there. I attended with a fellow SF old-timer friend who has lived in the city as long as I have—but we met in Venice more than 24 years ago (our mutual friend used to work at Vivande).
There was a display of memorabilia from Carlo’s many years of cooking, and we were gifted one of his vintage cookbooks, which was waiting for us on our table (such a thoughtful gesture). Just when I was reminiscing about his eggplant sandwiches (one of my favorite snacks evah), a tray of them appeared, and his former right-hand man, Mark Fantino, promised to teach me how to make them (you can read a thoughtful homage to Carlo he wrote here).
The team at Luce did a stellar job preparing and serving Carlo’s recipes to that many people, from the stuffed squid to a trio of housemade tagliatelle to the Calabrian-style lamb chop with anchovies and baby artichoke hearts. The wine pairings were quite special, and I’m always happy to see some Southern Italian wines represented.
I had a chance to chat with Carlo, who said he is still working hard to get his sense of taste back, which sometimes turns on for a moment so what he’s tasting matches up in his mind of what the flavor should be. He said he has never appreciated the texture of food like he does now. He was looking great, beaming like a happy man with a roomful of friends and past regulars should.
I loved riding my bike home in the warm and still air, one of those idyllic San Francisco nights that living here for 20 years makes you appreciate all the more.
Have a fantastic weekend.
This Round Is On Me... (hey, thanks!)
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New Restaurant Reviews (I'm looking for somewhere new to eat)
San Francisco is a leading force in our nation’s culinary scene—and some would argue the best—but our Achilles’ heel has been our city’s painful lack of a strong sushi game. Honestly, it’s downright mystifying, considering our love of Japanese cuisine, seafood, and pristine ingredients, let alone our strong ties to Japan. We shouldn’t be able to count on one hand the number of local places we think are really good, with greatness up for debate.
Well, right now, it’s time to grow a sixth finger, or start counting on the other hand, because we have a really special place that has arrived on the scene: JIRO SF. But alas, its existence is only temporary—which is why I am writing this piece right now, 24 hours after just one visit, so you can get on it.
Next door to the three-Michelin-starred Saison is their room with a private chef’s counter, a place that I don’t think that many of us have visited. Well, some of you may have, but just the same, I don’t want to diminish the surprise and excitement you’ll feel by sharing too many details about this stylish space. I will say it’s like being led into a secret culinary clubhouse, and you’re going to be pretty thrilled to sit at that gorgeous black walnut counter for the next three or so hours.
Some of you may recognize chef Jiro Lin from his 11 years at Hamano, which is where Saison chef-partner Joshua Skenes befriended him. They talked about doing a project together, and even looked at a couple of spaces, but the size of the places weren’t quite right. For now, Jiro is a guest at the Saison chef’s counter until the end of May 2015, but it’s the kind of experience I wish would be with us for a long time.
Jiro was born in Burma, and his culinary path led him to Japan, where for 11 years he trained extensively at Honatsugi in Kawasaki and in Tokyo at Bikkuri Zuzhi and Maguro Hanamigawa (where he met his master). He came to the U.S. in 2002, working at Blowfish and then Hamano.
He is a man obsessed—about rice, about fish, about ingredients, about seasonality—which is what you need to see in your sushi chef. You want to taste the 24 years of obsession. And here, you do. The omakase experience (which will run around $220) is about sourcing the best fish available at that moment and is a highly personal experience, with a modern kaiseki-like attention to seasonal ingredients. Every cut, seasoning, temperature, flavor, texture, and presentation of each dish feels so very considered, individually and as a whole story.
The counter seats eight people, but the reservations are staggered so Jiro will be able to focus his attention on you (especially when it’s nigiri time), before moving to the next couple or grouping of diners. It’s like you’re at a ball, and you get your turn with the best dancer for the fox-trot, and then the music changes and he waltzes off, leaving you a bit breathless when your time is up.
Our menu started with a jasmine tisane, and while I requested some bubbles (oh, hai, open bottle of Krug with your gold foil top, come to mama) for the start of my beverage pairings, you may be greeted with a Japanese IPA or sake. The pairing is $100, and you know when wine director Mark Bright and his fleet of Saison somms are involved that some special pours will be featured.
The menu’s story unfolded with an array of tsukemono (Japanese pickles); an ichiban dashi with morsels of Japanese red snapper and king crab and fresh bamboo shoot; and a whole ayu (sweet fish) lightly kissed with smoke from its time being lovingly grilled on binchotan.
The course of raw sea cucumber (namako) from Hokkaido—which is cured in light vinegar and served with sanbaizu jelly (which is like ponzu, but is vinegar-based), presented with a crunchy brunoise of kabu (turnip) and a shiso leaf—may give some diners some pause due to its slimy texture, but I enjoyed its mysterious nature, scooping up slippery and cool bites onto a charming little wooden spoon. The dish’s acidity resets your palate after the ayu, preparing it for the quick-fire round of nigiri that will soon be unleashed.
A round ceramic piece the color of graphite with a subtle convex shape is placed in front of you, the landing pad for the upcoming jewels Jiro is about to offer. The opening salvo was a piece of ike-jime tai (snapper killed via a Japanese technique that is both humane and a way to preserve its freshness), accented with notes of dashi shio, key lime, and a nibble from fresh wasabi.
A rapid sequence of nigiri followed: the dense and springy kurosoi (black rockfish from Kyushu) dressed with yuzu and soy, the textured tachiuo (beltfish) with its scored exterior, and creamy sawara (king mackerel dressed with a special soy). We all paused over the slightly sticky and quite sexily translucent hirame kobujime (wild halibut cured with sea kelp), savored the play between the oilier kamasu (barracuda) with the junmai daiginjo that was poured, and then got nudged back to the sensuous zone with supple bluefin tuna from Spain that Jiro aged for two days, followed by decadent chutoro (medium fatty tuna) that was so tender it almost dissolves on your tongue.
The dance of the seven veils (actually, there are more veils than you can even count) continues with infinitely delicate live scallop with a hit of ume salt; fresh katsuo (bonito) topped with grated young ginger bud, with a faint prickle of spice and almost garlicky notes; and mirugai with the tiniest cuts into it.
Fresh iwashi (sardine) from Chiba was positively primal—I felt like a bear swooping my paw into the water and chomping on a raw fish, and then grazing on some ginger and shiso to balance the intensity. The iridescent sheen on the kohada (shad) was mesmerizing, and then a small mound of Jiro’s beautiful rice is layered with pieces of fluffy Hokkaido uni, filling your senses with its delicate salinity.
The piping hot chawan mushi arrives, accented with a light dashi, and just when you think it’s all over, Jiro handed us an ikura temaki (hand roll), the ice cream cone of your dreams made with crisp nori from Japan, and probably the finest ikura I have ever tasted, so firm and magically not overloaded with alcoholic notes from sake (they evaporate it). You feel like a spoiled adult-child on your fur-covered chair, happily and greedily eating your savory cone.
While Jiro is Marine-serious about his craft, sushi nazi he is not. Well, there is one thing (and I know you are not going to ask for soy sauce or wasabi, mmmhmmm): he’d be happy if you’re not talking a lot once your nigiri has been placed in front of you. Eat it while the temperature is what it’s intended to be, oh-so-recently removed from its special case that rests on a block of crystal clear ice encased in Lucite (which prevents the fish from drying out like most refrigerated sushi cases). Taste it while the texture of the rice is as it is supposed to be, freshly pressed from his hands, and then resume your conversation until the next piece stealthily lands in front of you.
Nigiri time runs at a brisk pace, one that will have you savoring a mouthful, and just when you’re sad the flavor is dissipating, there’s another piece of something else intriguing and glistening in front of you. It’s a fantastically gluttonous experience that is simultaneously so elegant, and like many good things, it’s ephemeral. We don’t know how long Jiro’s guest appearance will last, perhaps the end of May, so if you consider yourself a lover of sushi, treat yourself and book a reservation while you can.
The atmosphere isn’t too serious: like Saison, you’ll suddenly hear “Kung Fu Fighting” or “Careless Whisper” on the sound system and find yourself singing along with your neighbor. You’ll also learn a lot from dining at Jiro’s counter, so consider this an investment in your sushi education, which sadly never comes cheap. Do it.
For more images, hop over here.
This review was based on one visit.
Jiro SF - 178 Townsend St. San Francisco - 415-716-6008
Wine Country Buzz (it’s what happens there)
The French Laundry Update, Cinnaholic 707, Olive Oil 'Snow,' Barndiva Light
By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin. Sign up for the BiteClub Newsletter.
With the Louvre as inspiration, chef Thomas Keller’s THE FRENCH LAUNDRY kitchen redesign is in full swing.
The press release notes: “The renderings are in—and the design team chosen—for a historic renovation of The French Laundry, the first major overhaul of the landmark restaurant in 20 years. International design firm, Snøhetta, is the lead design and landscape architect, working in collaboration with California-based firms Envelope A+D as executive architect and Tim Harrison of Harrison, Koellner, LLC as kitchen designer. The renovation will result in a new and expanded kitchen and courtyard, an auxiliary building to house a wine cellar and support offices, and a new arrival experience to enhance the approach to the iconic blue door.”
The press release also quotes Thomas Keller as saying: “The French Laundry is being redesigned to be a backdrop worthy of the restaurant’s history….With the Louvre Pyramid as my inspiration, we wanted to find a way to juxtapose the historic and the modern while maintaining the high-quality cuisine and service our guests have come to expect from The French Laundry. The new design will be an innovative and functioning space that will allow us to continue to evolve as a restaurant and develop new standards.”
The press release further details the changes: “In addition to expanding the kitchen’s size by 25 percent, the renovation will make for more efficient use of space, creating one contiguous room for the entire culinary team with a visual connection from station to station. With walls, flooring and work stations all fashioned out of Dekton…the new kitchen will feature a white-on-white palette—a nod to the sense of promise and potential of a fresh start. The kitchen equipment will feature two unique Molteni suites by Electrolux and commercial ranges by Hestan Commercial. The ground-up construction of a new Kitchen Annex will house The French Laundry’s support functions including the prep kitchen, butchery, produce breakdown, and management offices. It is also home to The French Laundry’s regarded wine collection, with the storage capacity to hold up to 14,000 bottles.” Commence jealous sighs.
Chef Thomas Keller’s culinary team, meanwhile, has moved into a temporary kitchen space at the restaurant and have been serving diners since April 7th. The press release explains: “During construction, Envelope A+D conceived of using shipping containers as modular units for a temporary kitchen in the restaurant’s former courtyard, allowing for service to resume….Tim Harrison, chef Keller’s kitchen designer-of-record for the past 20 years, designed and adapted the temporary space as a re-creation of the former French Laundry kitchen, complete with its five stars mounted hood.” The restaurant is offering dinner seven nights a week and lunch on Saturday and Sunday. The grand reopening is slated for the end of the year.
Whisk and Spat: Here’s a chance to eat dessert first. On Monday April 20th, four all-star pastry chefs converge for a four-course dessert and wine tasting at PARTAKE BY K-J. The lineup includes Manny Fimbrez of Madrona Manor, Corey Wright of Kendall-Jackson, Robert “Buttercup” Nieto, also of K-J, and Ramon Perez of Puur Chocolat in Sacramento.
This is no chocolate lava cake or crème brûlée phone-in, be assured. Expect some serious dessert porn, with sweet, savory, crunchy, and exotic plates that are good enough for competition. Each course is then perfectly paired with late-harvest chardonnay and port. To whet your appetite, the chefs are cooking up some savory canapés during the reception, so you don’t totally go into sugar shock. Tickets are $45 per person, $36 for wine club members. RSVP by April 17th to 707-433-6000. 241 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg.
Cinnaholic coming to Santa Rosa: As if the gooey, sugary cinnamon roll couldn’t get any more decadent, Berkeley’s CINNAHOLIC takes it one step further, by mixing and matching frosting and toppings on their vegan buns. Think fro-yo meets the bakery case. Santa Rosa is slated to be one of the next outposts, serving up Irish cream frosting with pie crumbles and chocolate sauce slathered all over their buns. Not into that combo? There are 39 other frosting flavors and 21 toppings ranging from marshmallows to Oreos. All of it is 100 percent vegan. (And yes, Oreos are vegan.) No word yet on the exact location or opening date, but we’ll be looking forward to the sweet smell of fresh baked buns somewhere in Santa Rosa.
Here’s a peek at the menu of one of the hottest new restaurants in Wine Country, VALETTE, which opened five weeks ago in Healdsburg. The former chef of Dry Creek Kitchen, chef-owner Dustin Valette isn’t a guy who likes to take shortcuts or worry about gilding the lily. Kobe beef with foie gras butter; ahi tuna with olive oil “snow” and a 64-degree egg; fresh semolina pasta with walnut pesto and fresh peas; and a dessert of brown butter ice cream, rhubarb, and brioche.
Each dish is carefully constructed—and often deconstructed—with more unexpected twists and turns than an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Consider the charcoal-roasted potatoes—so blackened that they look like mussel shells (is that a hint of squid ink?) with a smoky quality that’s reminiscent of a campfire or an ashtray, depending on your outlook. 344 Center St., Healdsburg, 707-473-0946.
One of the curses of success in a small town like Healdsburg? Being too full to accommodate the locals. Which is exactly what’s happened to BARNDIVA over the years, as out-of-towners have flocked to this Wine Country destination. Not surprising considering chef Ryan Fancher’s spot-on dishes—lobster risotto, goat cheese croquette with wildflower honey, pork belly salad with poached quail egg—and the rustic, Cali-chic, indoor-outdoor dining.
Now, however, they’ll be offering a no-reservations option in their nearby gallery, Studio Barndiva, offering simple dishes and curated cocktails. Fancher’s sous chef, Andrew Wycoff, will handle the gallery’s kitchen, featuring plates of bone marrow tater tots, pork meatballs with fennel, Cuban sandwiches, and fish and chips. Hours are Wed-Sun from 3pm until close. 237 Center St., Healdsburg.
From grain to glass, Rohnert Park’s Sonoma County Distilling Co. is making some of the best small-batch whiskey in the country. Using in-house mashing, direct-fired alembic pot distillation (a fancy way of describing an ancient distillation process), small-barrel aging, and lots of of know-how, it’s a fascinating process. Tours are now being offered at the Rohnert Park location (which, trust us, is well hidden from prying eyes) that explain the process and, of course, offer a tasting of several of the company’s spirits. It’s a great way to get up close and personal with your booze. Tours are Thu-Sun, by reservation only. $20. Reserve online or by calling 707-583-7753.