CONFESSIONS OF A                                                                  
A San Francisco Girl's Down and Dirty Adventures in the Culinary Playground

Friday, February 25, 2005

I'm Gonna Retire in Boca (Bocadillos -- San Francisco, CA)

I am of the opinion that Basque cuisine is some of the best in the world. In fact, I think the most interesting food you'll ever eat can be found in the border regions of Europe: France/Italy, Germany/France, Italy/Switzerland and, of course, France/Spain where the aforementioned Basque yumminess lives.

Gerald Hirogoyen has rocked our world with his native treats,and we've long been fans of Piperade, his Basque restaurant in the financial district. So when we heard he was opening Bocadillos, a small plates restaurant that still paid homage to his Basque roots, we couldn't wait to go.

But we're lazy. And Bocadillos was also in the financial district. Neither one of us works there, and getting there can be a huge pain in the ass, so despite our desires to try it, we kept putting it off. Boy, were we the most stupid ass fools you've ever seen because we missed just about a year of some of the most fun, interesting and tasty eats this side of the red states.

Bocadillos means little sandwiches. And there are a bunch of them on the menu. We went for dinner, which meant there were fewer than during the day when they serve breakfast/lunch/and-whatever-you-want-to-call-stuffing-your-face-at-any-time-of-the-day. During the week, Bocadillos is open from 7 in the morning until 11 at night. How much does that fucking rock?

We were there for dinner with our partners in crime, K&B. We met them there. As soon as we got there, we knew it was our kind of spot: no reservations (I really love when restaurants do that -- it allows for spontaneity AND good food at the same time), counter seating and a communal table down the center only. No room for attitude here. Silverware is in canisters on the table, along with paper menus so you can use them to drool on once you see your food.

Bob brought some wine, which was great, as always, but we ordered some, too. Jon and I were pleased to see that they had what we call "anniversary wine" since we had it at Aqua on our first anniversary, and have had it just about every anniversary since. It's a Basque wine called Txomin Extaniz, and despite almost four years of practicing, I still can't say that fucking name. No matter -- it's white, it's crisp, it's cheap as your mama on a Tuesday night. I love it. So we had some of that.

There is one problem at Bocadillos and that is that everything on the menu makes me swoon like a schoolgirl. But that problem was quickly solved by the greatest server that ever lived, our fabulous waitress. We said, "hey, it all looks good so just start bringing stuff and we'll stop you when we are full." That's right, bitches, I said bring it! (Sorry, I know this isn't a cheerleading movie).

So she started bringing. Here's what we got:

Chilled prawns with heuvos diabolo. Basically the best deviled egg ever with a chilled prawn and together they were ultra sexy. I don't even like deviled eggs!

18 month old serrano ham. I mean, c'mon, does it get any better?

Prawns with garlic and lemon confit. Yum, yum and more yum.

Tai snapper ceviche. This was possibly the best thing we ate, and definitely in the top three things I've eaten so far this year. It was light but the flavors were so layered and complex; It's like the food version of a rubix cube.

Selection of artisanal cheese. We all love cheese (K used to own a cheese shop) so these cheeses were gone in about .5 seconds. They were all super.

We had some brussels sprouts with pancetta -- great, great and great.

Scallops with sherry and orange were well executed but I wouldn't order them again. Not super exciting compared to the other stuff. Same goes for the calimari (fyi, we requested the calimari -- it's a good barometer-- so the waitress was not responsible for that choice).

We finished up with some rice pudding and some macaroons with pistachio ice cream. Both were scrumptious but the macaroons were so good that I would make a special trip there just to eat them. They're chewy and creamy and could you please drive me there right now???

There is so much to love about Bocadillos. The food is delicious, comforting and in some cases, revelatory; the staff is sexy, friendly and knowledgeable; the restaurant itself is relaxed and inviting. It's so comfortable, in fact, that the people next to us offered us some of their potatoes when we commented that they looked good (we declined as we had already eaten our weight in Basque delights). I want to move in.

Go check 'em out -- they'll become your girl Friday, too.


"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Doo Dah, Doo Dah (Campton Place -- San Francisco, CA)

***1/1/06: Chef Daniel Humm has now left the restaurant so this review is moot. Would it be weird if I started crying at his feet while begging him to come back?***

"I made reservations for us at Campton Place for my birthday," I told Jon. "Which one is that?" he asked. "You know, the one with the good bathrooms."

Whenever I have any downtown bizniz, and I find myself needing to go pee, I pop into the Campton Place hotel to relieve myself. Sooooo much better than a store or parking garage bathroom. They have floor to ceiling stall doors and hand lotion and pretty towels. Until recently, I had only experienced their bathrooms. Now, I have experienced their food. If you can believe this, it's better than the bathrooms.

Campton Place has changed chefs relatively frequently over the past few years. The current chef, Daniel Humm, has been getting lots o' buzz. So I wanted to check out his cookin'.

Campton Place serves every meal of the day since they are in a hotel. I really wish I didn't know that, because now I want to go there all the time.

The dining room is beautiful. It's cozy and intimate and simple. When we were there, they had beautiful flower arrangements all around the place. But they didn't overshadow the loveliest feature of all which was...


I couldn't believe it. They have a champagne cart. A cart just for champagne. And it's marble to keep the buckets cold. And they have four kinds, including Dom Perignon by the glass (That is some rare shit, folks. No one ever serves Dom by the glass). We passed on the Dom, though. Jon had some Billecart-Salmon Rose and I had Veuve Cliquot. And it tasted better than ever, probably because I was so excited about the cart. But honestly, something about the way they keep it chilled made it bubblicious. So the night was off to a good start.

We decided on the tasting menu -- it went a little sumpin' like this:

2 half bottles of wine: a Gewurztraminer and a Pinot Noir. And Jon had some Sauternes with his foie gras.

Amuse bouche: lots of little bits (about 8) including boudin noir, an oyster and a salmon mille feuille.

Olive oil sorbet with marinated crispy anchovy. This was so, so, so good. The anchovy's salt counterbalanced the sorbet like they were always meant to be together.

Cappuchino of sea urchin with dungeness crab and cauliflower mousse. This was foamy and salty and comforting. I wanted to climb into it.

Iranian Osetra Caviar two ways: in a vichyssoise and a ragout of seafood. If I had to choose between them, I couldn't do it if my life depended on it.

Feuillete of Nantucket Bay Scallops with Champagne Buerre Blanc. For me, this was like being home (except much fancier). I could almost taste my childhood (the good parts, I mean) in these scallops.

Next Jon had Foie Gras with Port Wine reduction, raisins and hazlenuts. Now if you've been following, Jon and I despise raisins down to the tips of our toes. He ate every bite. I guess Chef Humm knows raisin voo doo. I had a piece of salmon that was so purty and delicate. I ate it all, despite my better judgment as I knew there was a lot more food to come.

Then, I got squash chowder with Maine lobster and Gewurztarminer. It's like they knew it was for me! I used all my strength to prevent myself from picking up the bowl to lick it when I was finished. Jon got a parsnip soup with sweetbreads and white truffle oil. Again, it was like he got his soup soulmate. If the meal had ended there, we would have paid full price because those soups rocked our worlds.

But nooooooo...there was more in store for us. Our first time ever with (scary music here) FROG'S LEGS. Mine were sauteed with leeks and truffles, Jon's were deep fried and looked like lollipops. As soon as I took a bite, I started laughing. Jon wanted to know why. You ready? Here it comes....It tastes like chicken. But it was good, and we liked them a lot. You've got to throw props to a chef who uses an entire course on frogs legs.

A word about the Chef here. This man rules. His food is not only tasty, it's INTERESTING. There are all kinds of unique and playful elements to the menu. And on top of that, he's just a lovely guy. He came out about 3 times during our meal and was so gracious. Had a conversation with each and every table. And he was really interested in how the diners' experience was. And he smiled. And I love him.

OK, back to the food:

I got "Suzuki" sea bass while Jon had the most gorgeous pork chop. They cut the chop tableside and grated some truffles over it. Jon was so happy, I thought he was going to cry. Both dishes were great (yeah, I know isn't this getting boring?).

Then we got some cheese. Lots o' cheese. That night there was a focus on sheep's milk cheeses. Fine by me. Baaaa. Their cheeses are supplied by Andante Dairy which imports cheeses and makes some great ones of their own. And these were all tasty, as were the accompaniments.

At this point, I was ready to go out and buy some maternity pants so I could get through the rest of the meal. But I powered through.

We had curry infused pineapple sorbet with coconut foam. Hurrah! If you like pina coladas...

Then came a quark souffle with huckleberries and basil sorbet for me. Yum. What is quark? I had no idea. But it's defined as "fresh cheese". OK. Who cares? It's good. Jon ended up with a bartlett pear mousse between thin sheets of Valrohna chocolate. We were so happy. And so glad we were done.

Except we weren't. Then came "Symphony of Chocolate and Caramel" with Maldon Sea Salt. And plates that said Happy Birthday in chocolate. At this point, I couldn't see straight because of my food coma, but I ate it anyway. And it was GREAT.

We also got petit fours with our check. These were good, but I don't remember what they were because I was preoccupied with figuring out how I was going to make it home without busting the button off my pants. I do remember they didn't suck.

Service was professional but not stuffy, and some of the most well-paced that I've experienced anywhere. The sommelier, John Ragan, was particularly fantastic. Yay for him!

Campton Place is one of the few fine dining experiences within city limits that has exceeded my expectations. The weird thing is that it's not as well known as a lot of other fine dining establishments here in SF, but it is, in my opinion, the best. So if any of you are looking for a restaurant in which to propose/apologize/admit your affair/tell your part-time lover you are pregnant/eat your last meal, this is it. You won't regret it.

Oh yeah, and the bread was great, too.


"To eat is a necessity, to eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Hot Tamale (Tamal -- San Francisco, CA)

***7/10/05 UPDATE on Tamal HERE***

My biggest fear about Tamal was that it was going to suck. Thank God my fear was unfounded, because a) it's right near where I live, and b) the chef/owner (Moaya Scheiman)'s daughter is in one of my classes. And guess what? This place rocks. Phew.

Jon and I popped in and sat at the bar. The menu is fabulous. And everything costs between $5 and $12.50. Most of the ingredients are organic, free range, artisanal and bombastic. The wine list is equally well priced, with a great selection. This is one of the best bargains in town.

Tamal is at 12th and Howard, an up-and-coming neighborhood, which means the location is still a little tough for a restaurant. They're doing everything right, though, so let's all keep going there. The dining room is cozy and warm and it's the kind of place you could hang out in all night. It almost feels European (Why do Americans suck so much? Why don't we hang out in cafe's all night long?).

We had the tamal de camaron ($6), which has shrimp, wrapped with a butternut squash/thai curry/corn masa. I began referring to it as "my tamale" because I loved it so. Jon wasn't too happy about that as he wanted some too. Tough titty.

We also had the tacos de atun ($10.50). Ahi seared with cumin and pepper with a yummy veggie slaw in crispy tacos with jicama sticks. This dish is so fresh that I wanted to slap it.

We also had the tamal de puerco ($5): pork with a coconut/black bean masa. This was also mega yummy and were I not so enamored with the tamal de camaron, I would have stolen this from Jon, too. We also had a taste of the plantain soup which had habenero peppers. That made me do a happy dance.

The service was bammin' and I can't wait to go back. That $6 tamal de camaron is a damn cheap thrill. And you all know how I love cheap thrills.


"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld

Shanghai Surprise (Jai Yun -- San Francisco, CA)

Chef Chia-Ji Nei isn't from Shanghai, he's from Nanjing, but it's pretty damn close, hence the title.

His restaurant, Jai Yun is in Chinatown, in a little non-descript hole in the wall. Getting there is half the battle, but once you do, you'll be glad you did.

First, you need to call for a reservation. They are open for lunch and dinner Fri. - Wed. The restaurant is run by Chef Nei, his wife and his son. And that's the entire staff. They all speak very little English, so count on your reservation taking about twenty minutes to make and resembling the drive through scene in "Dude, Where's My Car?". Then when you arrive at the restaurant, count on them not really being sure if you are on the books. But it's all good, I promise.

It's a pretty small dining room, seats about 30 peeps, total. Decor consists of some Christmas lights, a calendar and a drink cooler. You get handed a menu. This is not a menu with food on it, however. That wouldn't make any sense. It is a menu that explains the chef's heritage and philosophy. You then tell the server (his son) how much you want to pay ranging from $35-$150 (cash only). We've never done more than $45 and with what you get, I can't imagine what the $150 meal looks like. They must need a stretcher to get you out. After you tell them how much you want to pay, the food starts coming. And coming. And coming.

You start with some cold bits. These include but are not limited to: a delicate little cucumber salad, vegetarian chicken (cold layered tofu that really *does* taste like chicken), lotus root salad, cold duck tasties, braised beef slices with spicy peanuts, cold fish, spicy cabbage and many, many more. Then the entrees start coming.

One of his signature dishes is foo yung abalone. This is egg whites and abalone and it's fucking delicious. You just can't believe it. Then comes shrimpies with veggies and gingko nuts and then some tofu noodles with edamame and more veggies and it's crazy good. Crispy spicy beef and crispy spicy mushrooms. Winter melon with finely minced pork in another spicy sauce. Pig's leg. Chinese sausage with sticky, chewy delicious noodles (I have no idea what they are made of, but who cares? They are amazing). Whole fish with citrus and herbs. And more and more and more and more and more and more. And the fucked up thing? It's all so friggin' good that as each dish comes, you can't possibly believe it's better than the last, but it is.

They send out the perfect amount of each dish for the number of people in your party. And by the end of the night, all the tables are somewhat in sync, receiving many of the same dishes and leaning over to each other to say "oh-my-God-can-you-believe-how-fucking-good-this-is?"

The crazy thing is that we've never been there when it's been full. This place should be filled to capacity all the time. It's extraordinary. The food is so unique and so tasty that there should be blood in the streets from people fighting each other to get in. But hey, I don't mind -- more room for me.

Get your ass there, because like Cafe Jaqueline, this an experience that is so specific and rare that you need to take advantage of it while you can. Chef Nei is the restaurant, plain and simple. When he decides to call it quits, you will not be able to find another thing like it. And that's what makes it so great. He is kind, he is gracious, he is humble. He is special (and by that I mean rare and wonderful, not mentally challenged).

We've been there twice. Each time, Jon and I went to thank Chef Nei for the incredible meal. Each time, he, smiling from ear to ear, came out from the kitchen into the dining room. Each time, the entire dining room erupted into applause. Now that's fucking good food.



"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
--La Rochefoucauld

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Seasick (Michael Mina -- San Francisco, CA)

So here's the thing. You spend a bazillion dollars remodeling a beloved and famous tea room in an even more famous hotel. You promise it will be bigger, better, sexier and that it will promote world peace. And then it sucks.

Michael Mina, the chef, the restaurant, the name, the brand -- it all sucks.

We ate at MM shortly after they opened. They had mad buzz for months before so we got all hot and excited. We had eaten his food when he was at Aqua, although he wasn't technically in the kitchen (our neighbor, Jay Wetzel was his chef de cuisine and was usually at the helm). Regardless of who was cooking, it was tasty and it was the menu Michael designed thus we had hope for his namesake.

Before I launch into the bashing, I want to mention one cool thing that MM did. Since they are in the Westin St. Francis, they lost their staff during the hotel workers' strike. Rather than ask people to cross picket lines, MM closed for the duration of the strike, retained all of the workers' jobs and gave free future meals to the customers who had scheduled reservations in advance that ultimately fell during the strike. This cost them around $75,000. So that's a pretty fucking cool thing. But it doesn't make up for the crappy food, which I'll tell you about now.

You walk into the dining room and there is no host, so where do you go. A skinny ass bitch runs across to direct you to your table. Once there, you are greeted by a waiter in some Sprockets-esque black outfit that looks so 80's (and not good, cool, retro 80's) that I pretty much lost my appetite right there. The dining room is pretty and relatively comfortable, but it definitely doesn't look like it's worth the millions Barbara Barry spent designing it (side note: Barbara Barry seems to live in a fantasy world where people will dress to match her dining rooms. I'm not kidding. She actually said this to the Chronicle. My guess is that she's got her meds to that comfy level that rich bitches thrive on and truly believes that if she thinks it, it will be so).

We ate there with Kathy & Bob (see the Fungal Infection post for more on them). Bob being a wine distributor decided to bring some wine. He knows Rajat Parr, the wine director, as they run in the same circles and all. We also ordered wine off of their list, as wine etiquette would dictate (you must order some of the restaurant's wine if you're going to bring some of your own. And your own better be some damn fine wine itself). Quite frankly, Rajat is a dick. He was so cold, so off putting despite the fact that our party included people he knew. As they say, if this is how you treat your friends...I mean, really, he's just a total dick.

And now for the food. I'll start on a positive note. We requested the truffled popcorn, which is usually only on the bar menu. It was great and I loved it. It was $8, which is no biggie, but the waiter failed to tell us the price. Usually, if you make a special request, the server will say "We'd be happy to accommodate you for an additional charge of X dollars." Even the finest of the fine do this. So if this is the positive note, you can guess where the review is going.

The amuse bouche were cute and playful. The shrimp corndog was beyond adorable (Michael Bauer, reviewer for the Chronicle somehow had a lobster one, but of course they couldn't have known it was him, right?). After that it all went downhill.

I went for the classics: tuna tartare and lobster potpie. The tuna is good, but not so special that I can't get something equally good for half the price. And holy fuck, the lobster potpie was so bad that I had to say something. The lobster was tough. So I'm paying a $15 supplement on top of the already steep price for this bullshit? You don't even know how to cook your fucking lobster? But what I said, when asked how things were (and after much prodding from Jon, Kathy and Bob), was: "Well, actually, the lobster pot pie was not very good. The lobster meat was tough." "Oh. We're sorry." That's it. Not "Oh dear, let us waive the supplement" or "Can we comp you a dessert?" or "Is there something else we can get for you?". I don't expect special treatment, but at a restaurant like this, you need to make sure your guests are happy.

Jon, Kathy and Bob all did some version of his little trio menu. It's all so precious that I could puke. First off, when you get six "different" tastes of a dish, they better all taste different (see how that works?). We all agreed that by bite three of each thing, we were bored. Bored, more bored, bored-est. Jon and Bob thought the Kobe beef was good, but not great, and definitely not worth the supplement. The crab "salads" that accompanied the sea bass were all the same. The same. No difference. More suckage.

And the desserts were just stupid and ridiculous. Who wants three chocolate cakes with chocolate milkshakes? Each one had a special flavor, for example, peanut butter. Pause while we all vomit at the thought of a chocolate-peanut butter cake washed down with a chocolate-peanut butter milkshake. Then imagine that two more times over with other crap mixed in. I love chocolate, I love good ol' pb, but that shit just makes me gag. I had a rootbeer float for my dessert (again, sticking with the classics) it was OK, but not amazing. I do have to give mad props to the chocolate chip cookies that came with it. And I have to take those same props away as I asked to have the cookies wrapped (I was pretty full) and they failed me. Fucking bitches.

Our server was OK, but mostly just stuffy. And when the bill came, we all felt really crabby and disappointed, because, really, when you spend that much on a meal, it should be good, if not GREAT. And this was mediocre at best.

The worst part? I thought I was crazy. Every fucking review out there of this place is fantastic. Maybe they got different food. Or maybe MM knew they were coming. What I do know is that several other peeps I've talked to felt the same way I did. In fact every CHEF I know who's been there has been horrified.

And who knows? Maybe some nights they do churn out an amazing experience for certain people. But if you aren't consistent, what do you really have? You have a shitty restaurant, that's what you have. And it's a restaurant that I won't be going back to. It was a waste of money for everyone, including the restaurant itself. Blech.


"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
--La Rochefoucauld