But does it have any soul?
More salmon cones please.”
· San Francisco Bay Area ·
The French Laundry
Our secret hidden camera expose of the food at Google’s main cafeteria at their Mountain View headquarters. The video’s a little shaky but that’s because we had to be stealthy and I couldn’t keep my top hat steady. The audio however is much improved over our last two videos. Progress, people. Progress!
It took Russell a while to grow accustomed to the way I shop for clothes. I go, I look, try on, talk about how much I love the clothes, and then I leave empty handed. “If you like it, why don’t you just get it and be done with it?” he would comment.
With good reason, I assure you. Using my system, I leave empty handed, and if I am still thinking about the article of clothing a week later, then I go back and get it. It’s too easy to get caught up in the shopping, the newness of shiny new clothes, too easy to make purchases in the heat of the moment that fall flat once in your closet. So if a week goes by, and the article still calls to me, then I know it’s meant to be.
This system also works well for evaluating my dining experiences. I find it easy to like what is on my plate in front of me at any given time. I’m hungry, we are out enjoying ourselves with friends, in a nice setting enjoying the ambiance, and I am being satisfied on various levels. But after a week or so goes by, if I am still thinking about my meal, then I know it was excellent.
Three weeks after my trip to San Francisco, there are 3 stand out experiences still lingering in my memory.
The first is a trip to Farallon for dessert. My first real stop in the city, I went to pay a visit to Emily Luchetti, the pastry chef I hosted last summer at Eva. She was releasing her 4th book, A Passion For Ice Cream, and to celebrate we hosted an ice cream social. I created a 5 course menu using recipes in her book, she came, ate, mingled, and signed books for her Seattle fans.
Russell and I, joined by an old friend of mine Mike, took our seats in what appeared to be the belly of a whale that was the bar. Mike was thrilled to see his favorite beverage, the Dark ‘n Stormy on the menu, while I made dessert choices for the three of us.
First came the warm chocolate pudding cake, made with El Rey chocolate. It’s hard to argue with warm, melty chocolate desserts, especially when they are paired with an icy cold orb of ice cream. Another great contrast was delivered by the ice cream in it’s salty peanut flavor. Cracked peanut brittle was scattered across the top along with a few grains of sea salt, making this dessert the first to be cleaned out of it’s dish.
A meyer lemon cream tart was served in an ultra crispy puff pastry shell, the edges scalloped to resemble a flower. The tart was set in a bed of sweet candied coconut shavings, and crowned by a nest of oven roasted strawberries. Early season strawberries can be made exceptional by slicing them thin, tossing them with sugar, and roasting them in a hot oven for about half an hour.
Not letting the servers “favorite” suggestion go unnoticed, we ordered the Ricotta fritters. Three unassuming little fried dumplings arrived next to a dish of anglaise with a compote of fresh citrus. But not to be fooled by their humble appearance, one bite assured me that these fritters were nothing short of heaven. Served warm, the fritters were sturdy enough to be eaten with a fork, but a thin crispy shell on the outside that gave way to a delicate filling that melted in your mouth. The flavor was light and dairy sweet, made with Bellwether Farms Ricotta (and paneer for structure the working pastry chef Terri told me). This was hands down the most memorable bite I had the entire trip, one that has haunted me with both the desire to eat it again and to someday create something like it.
Being the pastry chef that I am, I often see components of dishes I very much want to try, even if I am not going to order the entire plate. This was the case with a Rhubarb-Gewurtztraminer jam. I requested a small taste of this curious condiment, and was spoiled with the entire dessert. The jam came as requested, accompanied by two warm, flaky pastry wrapped apple and rhubarb turnovers. They were paired with a scoop of creme fraiche ice cream studded with bits of candied ginger. A delicious combination playing with many light and lean flavors just right for spring.
The next morning Russell and I took our breakfast at Citizen Cake, dubbed “the pastry chef’s restaurant.” With a slogan like that, how could I resist? Because of our morning arrival, the regular menu wasn’t available, but two pastry cases filled with a variety of offerings kept us satisfied. They held a collection representing the various outlets of this establishment, miniature versions of their signature cakes, small tarts representing their plated desserts, cookies, candies, and breakfast pastries.
Russell’s first choice was an individual sized portion of their Mocha Mi Su cake. Layered with cocoa cake, mocha mousse and creme fraiche, and dark chocolate, we failed to see the connection to the original tirimisu, but found it tasty none the less.
Next we tried a small sandwich cookie made of lemon shortbread and lemon filling, packed with plenty of tart lemon flavor. A lychee and sesame pate de fruit caught my attention because of the addition of a textural layer of black and white sesame layered in the jelly candy. This was the only disappointment of the visit, the lychee falling short, the sesame being only mildly chewy, offering no detectable flavor.
My favorite dessert of the day was the small tart I ordered, partially due to it’s fantastic title, “Misconception of a Banana Cream Pie.” The entire tart was fantastic offering all the lovable qualities of the original, a delicious chocolate crumb crust square, banana custard, vanilla cream, and candied coconut strips.
After milling about the ferry building one last time, feeding my new found addiction to Michael Rechutti’s remarkable chocolates, Russell and I headed over the Bay Bridge for one last stop in Berkeley. Working with a tip from one of my favorite blogs, Eggbeater, we went in search of Ice Cream.
Berkley was a welcome change from the bustle of urban San Francisco, and we parked our car (easily!) and began wandering around the cute little downtown strip. Taking our time, we finally came to our destination, the little shop ICI.
The shop, tiled with white ceramic felt cool and sterile, like a laboratory built for perfecting the frozen desserts. A scattering of blossoming branches and ribbon bound placards announcing the daily offerings, and a few well placed vintage ice cream molds gave ICI irresistible charm. I tasted a variety of ice creams, remembering distinctly the fantastic lightly spiced pink peppercorn, the fragrant soothing lavender, and finally settling on a sorbet offering the best presentation of the classic combination of Rhubarb Rose I have ever tasted. Russell, full from our breakfast ordered one little chocolate covered ice cream bon-bon from their selection.
Before resuming our leisurely walk I gazed at the cold case a little more, admiring the beautiful molded ice cream and sorbet bombes, a Victorian era creation that was the predecessor to our ice cream cakes.
Russell and I strolled the lush Berkley, eating our treats and agreeing that if we moved to the Bay area Berkeley would be our choice, preparing for the final drive to San Jose to catch our flight home.
After a wonderful family filled weekend in Santa Cruz, attending my first Bat Mitzvah, discovering further joys in my uncle’s lemon tree, and riding the wooden roller coaster on the Boardwalk until my voice was horse from screaming, Russell and I headed north. A short and scenic drive up the coast took us into San Fransisco to spend the remaining 36 hours of our short vacation.
We didn’t have any touristy plans per se, but I had big plans for us, and our stomach’s.
Our first stop was, well, 5 minutes into town. I made Russell go to first In-n-out we could find. For years now, I have heard the buzz about the one fast food chain who was doing it right, and I was ready to experience this. I had a cheeseburger, and some fries, and it was good. It wasn’t mind blowing, but it was good. However, what really did blow my mind, was how far fast food has sunk away from this simple, good burger, to make In-n-Out such an anomaly. It’s true, In-N-Out is leagues above it’s competition, McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack in the box, etc. But nothing I tasted blew me away. It tasted like what your average, standard burger/fries should, nothing more, nothing less. A little shocking to realize that this simple standard is so hard to find. My burger award still goes to the local chain out of Oregon, Burgerville for their Tillimook Burger.
The first morning we were there, I took tips from every foodie website written in the bay area and headed strait for the Ferry Building. I don’t know what I expected to find. A food court, maybe a farmers market, but with every step I took further into the cavernous mall, my delight grew.
“OOH, this bakery is the cutest thing I have ever seen!” I gushed as I passed Miette
But I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the sign for Micheal Rechutti.
“No way. I didn’t even know he had a retail outlet.”
I approached the tiny store front with caution, slipping in the back side, looking at the jars of sauce and books, shuffling slowly up to the counter. I took my place, looking at each small chocolate under the glass as if it were a jewelery counter. The names alone took my breath away.
Star Anise and Pink Peppercorn
Spring Jasmine Tea
And then there were sparkling Pates de fruits, glistening like diamonds.
I purchased 6 different bites, and with Russell began to stroll the corridor, nibbling as we went. It was a mere 5 minutes before the uncontrollable desire for more had me standing at the counter again, ready to try everything else. The flavors were perfect. Rarely do I use absolute statements, but these chocolates here have made me do unexpected things. Like call them perfect, and revisit the shop 3 more times, once on the way out of town to purchase the complete collection “for the road”.
What makes these chocolate perfect to me? Balance. Each flavor was infused in perfect harmony with the chocolate. Not just any chocolate, but a carefully selected percentage of cocoa mass to best present the flavor.
Those fleeting tastes have left indelible flavor memories in me, and are something I will strive to replicate my entire journey through pastry. To recreate a singular taste that is nothing short of perfect.
As often as I can I try to take my own advice. My old employer called it eating your own dogood. Yucky imagery aside, there’s something to be said for testing your theories on yourself. I figure if I’m going to blah blah on this site about what each of you should do I should try it myself as often as possible to make sure I know what I’m talking about. Novel, huh?
One of my favorite pieces of advice is to find a small restaurant that caters to the local ethnic population. The theory is that immigrants to this country with a strong culture and sense of home will want the most authentic experience possible. Typically these restaurants are also inexpensive. Cool.
I recently attended the TED conference in Monterey, California. Last year it became clear quickly that the little patch of Monterey we occupied was filled with horrible restaurants. I admit I haven’t tried every one, but every one I tried was more mediocre than the next. (Can something be more mediocre?) Any Monterey experts who know of great food there feel free to comment angrily now.
This year I dutifully tried more restaurants only to find more disappointment. What killed me the most was that this part of Northern California is not only filled with high quality ingredients, but with a strong Mexican immigrant population. Agriculture is a major foundation for the whole region. And yet, I was eating at crappy restaurants in Monterey. I knew of great Mexican food in Watsonville but it was slightly too far away to make it for lunch. Leaving Monterey I had to hurry to San Francisco and was feeling down about another year without some good local food.
And then it occured to me that there must be more than one good Mexican restaurant serving the local population. (I know, I’m a little slow on the uptake.) Sure enough, the next exit was for Castroville (Artichoke capital of California). I turned off and started looking for the smallest, most untouristy looking Mexican restaurant I could find. And then I found it and it wasn’t a restaurant at all. It was the Michoacan Meat Market. A butcher/grocer/video shop with a taqueria in the back. I’d struck gold.
Much as you’d expect the Michoacan market was packed to the brim with all manner of products. There even seemed to be a clothing store jammed in the back in its own separate room. It was like a tiny Tokyo department store with a Mexican bent. I sat down at the bar and ordered one pork and one steak taco. Juicy, savory, spicy, and delicious were all present in copious amounts. I heaped on crema fresca, lime juice, and green hot sauce to round out the flavors. No disappointment there. There was also a bowl full of what was described to me as Mexican oregano. I tried a bit and it was great too.
Testing out my own advice of seeking the small authentic restaurants that serve the local population has proven again to be a relatively reliable mechanism for getting a delicious meal and a memorable experience. And next time you’re in Castroville, California (or driving by) now you don’t even have to make that search yourself as the Michoacan Meat Market will be there to make you something delicious.