Wednesday, May 25, 2011

OMG, OMG, OMG, San Francisco just keeps getting better

On the advice of a San Francisco university student, Jon and I met at dinner last night, we got up early and made our way to the Mission District of San Francisco. The concierge of the Grand Hyatt Hotel told us the easiest way was to get to the BART which was right next to the giant Apple store on Stockton Street.

I had visions of Bart Simpson or some guy who would give us our next clue once we found him – what the heck is the BART! Ok, so you may know it as the subway, underground, metro or tube, but in San Francisco it’s the Bay Area Rapid Transit – BART.

When we arrived, Guerrero Street was beautiful with a giant boulevard that ran down the middle of the wide road and thriving businesses. Tartine Bakery was suppose to be right here but it wasn’t. Instead there was what looked like a bakery with people lined out the door and others sitting at tables sipping on coffee and pastries. No sign anywhere on the outside but somehow we just knew this was the place. We walked in and the aromas were warm and yeasty. The little bakery had seating for maybe 20 inside, another 6 at a small window bar and 12 outside - they were all full. Still no name anywhere, not even a napkin. Then Jon spotted a white cloth bag hanging from the wall and on it was the word TARTINE.

Everyone was lining up to buy pastries so we joined in and noticed the bakeshop was in full view from an open doorway. Inside must have been 6 bakers all crafting pastries and kneading machines humming away. The pastry counter took my breath away; lemon tarts and croissant, seasonal bread pudding and morning buns, chocolate croissant and Gruyere, black pepper and fresh thyme gougier; asparagus crocque monsieur and half a dozen sweet breads. We began to order, 1 chocolate croissant, 1 bread pudding, 1 croissant and 1 morning bun and to wash it all down, café au lait.

We were lucky to spot an empty table and took our overloaded plates with us. I pulled apart the croissant and it exploded with flaky, wet, buttery, crispy, crustiness with fluffy dough underneath. It billowed on the palate with air light sweet, eggy, butteryness – omg, this is definitely the best croissant I’ve had. The morning bun was a rolled cinnamon bun covered with coarse sugar. As I pulled it apart it began to unravel into millions of layers of paper-thin pastry that had been smothered in more butter. This was described to us as “one of those things you must eat before your die”, and it was.

The chocolate in the chocolate croissant was creamy, soft, black, bitter and an amazing contrast to the sweet butter – yum. The bread pudding was moist brioche soaked in cream and egg and smothered with fresh picked strawberries that exploded spring flavours on the palate and luxuriated with the moist, juicy bread pudding – omg!

Owners Elizabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson have produced their own cookbook to encourage others to make their amazing pastries but no one was really interested in the cookbook, they just wanted the ready-made pastries.

A woman sat down at the next table obviously holding their spot while her husband stood in line to order. She motioned to him every so often pointing to she wanted. They were visiting from Vancouver and come to San Francisco often. Her husband dropped off some poppy seed sweet bread and a bowl of muesli, a few minutes later he turned with a croissant and more muesli, a few minutes later he came back with a lemon square and 2 coffees. As their table was obviously full of pastries we laughed at the reputations we were creating as Canadians at Tartine. Obviously we were pastry deprived in Canada and needed to overload on a good thing.

We left and walked past Delfina Restaurant and Delfina Pizzeria. This is the best restaurant in the neighbourhood with Napolenese pizza that inspires foodies to cross neighbourhoods for. We were full so all we did was feast on the casual menu. The restaurant decor definitely speaks to those who are looking for good food in an organic atmosphere.

On the same block is Bi-Rite grocers. What attracted our attention was their commitment to neighbourhood farms. They call it a community of farmers and Bi-Rite is one of them. They own and operate a few farms in and around the San Francisco area and their store signage offers up origins of produce. We found yellow signs above the lettuce that meant the food was within 50-mile radius of the store. The green signs meant the produce was organic and the white signs meant the produce came from a Bi-Rite farm. Many of them had pictures of the farmer complete with the farm location.

The philosophy at Bi-Rite is to showcase small quality farms that are fighting to produce good food. Owner Sam Mogannam grew up in this store that was once owned by his dad. Then it was sold and Sam opened a restaurant. After years of frustration in sourcing good local produce, he bought back the store and changed it from a typical corner store into a source for great produce and foods from artisan craftsmen. Sam has this wild idea that if you present food in a transparent way, consumers will be able to make informed decisions about what they are buying.

Inside the store you’ll find plenty of ready-made foods such as salads, meats, one-dish meals and roasted foods. This is the chef in Sam coming out. We chatted with Mike who tells us that behind this small 2,300 square foot grocery store are 93 employees who are all trying to make a difference in their food supply. They are happy to buy from local producers whether that is honey or jam and from any producer who is producing safe, healthy food and sustainability is huge for this company, so big that it even extends to their staff who are all paid a fair wage and health benefits. It’s a policy that goes in as well as out.

San Francisco is an intense city with people all living on top of each other so costumers are plentiful. This has made their expansion on the street possible. Bi-Rite has a creamery across the street where they buck the traditional ice cream trend of copying common, pedestrian flavours in favour of true ice cream pleasure such as strawberry balsamic (btw is omg fantastic!) and caramel and sea salt. Traditional flavours are exciting because the ice creams are all natural and incredibly luscious.

Besides the creamery, their farms and the grocery shop, Bi-Rite owns a not-for-profit art gallery called 18 Reasons and it’s here they hold special farm themed dinners to promote the community of food in the Mission District. It’s a fantastic food place and as we left, I overheard staff discussing the Fast Food Nation with one of the customers. I was shaking with excitement at the progress Bi-Rite has made on the local front and it’s inspiration for the rest of us as we spread the word back in our own communities.

Inside Tips of San Francsico

We’re staying at the Grand Hyatt on Stockton Street. Jon and I are here for a US travel conference called Pow Wow. It’s the largest travel conference in North America and when travel people set out to have an annual conference, you can bet they pull out all the stops to put on a great show – they do an amazing job of it.

Tonight we decided we wanted to experience San Francisco like the locals so we went to the concierge. She pointed us to a side alley of restaurants just a few blocks away. The alley is called Belden Place and it’s just off Bush. In between the Hyatt and restaurant row was Chinatown and so we walked through it. The street was colourful with stores overflowing with bling, brilliantly coloured lanterns hanging across the streets and beautiful buildings painted in bright colours.

Our recommended restaurant was Plouf, a French inspired bistro with a reputation for fresh, amazing seafood. We walked into the alley and passed a number of restaurants, Brindisi, Café Tiramisu, Café de la Presse, B44 and Plouf. The alley was full of small tables and chairs with diners sipping from large wine glasses and waiters busily scurrying around with large and small plate of food. It was more casual and organic than trendy; it was more European than San Francisco.

Like Europe, all of the menus were displayed at the front so we could read them and we did. Instead of Plouf, we were drawn to the Spanish influence of B44. A menus of tapas and unlike the cool, light flavours of seafood, we were seduced by the warm, savoury Catalan-style dishes. It was a cool night and we dined outside under the heaters on Ceviche and Sauteed Aqua Gem Clams with chorizo Rioja, Anchor steam beer over baby white beans. We sipped on Spanish wine and ordered more tapas; Warm Octopus with fingerling potatoes and pimenton oil and Gambas al a jillo, White Gulf of Mexico Shrimp with sauteed garlic and adobo.

The seating in B44 is quite tight which lead to great conversations with people on either side. There was the couple from the Silicon Valley who come into the city for great food. Charlene Yiju Han and her husband love to dine out and her husband tell us she’s also a great cook – there’s nothing Charlene has ever made that he didn’t like. They recommended a great little restaurant in Chinatown called R & G Lounge and there we must try the deep fried crab. Then there was the little restaurant on the pier with the best oysters in the entire city; Swan Oyster Depot, it’s where all the local go and be prepared to wait because there’s usually a long wait time, but the oysters are the freshest and the cheapest. For the best Vietnamese cuisine we should go to the Slanted Door.

On the other side of our table was the University of California student who just graduated and her friend was from Seattle, Washington who was in to help her move back home. She only had 3 more days in San Francisco and while she was excited to embark on the beginning of the rest of her life, it was a bitter sweet dinner celebration as she was leaving San Francisco, a city she’d fallen in love with. These young ladies recommended the Mission District. They describe it as having a restaurant or food shop every 10-feet. There was a bakery called Tartine that was famous for they’re morning buns. They said they were one of those things you have to eat before you die, then there was Delfina food shop, Pizzeria Delfina for the most amazing thin crust, wood fire oven in the city and Monks Kettle on 16th and Valencia who have 200 different craft beers available and 30 of them on draft, but it was their pretzels they raved about most. Then they talked of Bi-Rite and their sustainability philosophies - ok we were going to the Mission District tomorrow.

After we’d all finished our dinner, our server, Geronimo came by and wished me a happy birthday – it just so happened to be my birthday! He had no idea, it was just something he said! He brought a Spanish version of crème caramel with a candle in it and 2 glasses of cava – yum!

Chocolate - the San Francisco Way

Jon and I jumped on one of those iconic San Francisco trolley cars to do a bit of sightseeing. Jon sat on the outside and I on the inside. By the third stop the trolley car was overflowing with people and Jon ended up hanging off the side and having the ride of his life. Inside, it was so crowded when the trolley car climbed up the steep roads and down, we all crushed against each other. It was a great ride and a fantastic way to see some of the city amazing and unique architecture.

We got off the trolley car and we found ourselves at Ghirardelli Square. Ghirardelli is the oldest chocolate company, proudly crafting chocolate in California for over 150 years.

Born in Italy in 1817, Domingo Ghirardelli was the son and apprentice of a celebrated chocolatier. In 1837 he left his homeland of Italy with dreams of selling chocolate abroad. After spending 10 years in South America, he immigrated to the USA during the California Gold Rush to see if he could strike it rich. He was immediately successful and in just 3 years, Domingo had created the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. In the early 1900’s, Ghirardelli Chocolate found a home in San Francisco’s historic piers. The giant, 15-foot illuminated Ghirardelli sign welcomed ships passing through the Golden Gate and they still do today.

Today, the chocolate factory has moved into larger facilities and what remain is the retail store, ice cream shop and the conversion of the factory into dozens of artisan shops and condos. We walked into the Ghirardelli chocolate shop and were greeted with a sample of chocolate – it was a caramel filled milk chocolate –yum!

The room was filled with the sweet, creamy aromas of milk chocolate. The shelves were loaded with chocolate bars, hot chocolate, truffles, small bars and a whopping 5-pound solid bar, there was mint chocolate, strawberry filled chocolate, chocolate studded with hazelnuts or almonds, baking chocolate and souvenir chocolate trolley cars. There were giant litre bottles of chocolate sauce – wow, now you don’t even have to chew your Ghirardelli! What I like about Ghirardelli is that they haven’t lost their way by dipping all sorts of candy into chocolate – they have a very simple line of fine, high quality chocolates with a few classic options and their main focus remains as it has been for generations, to craft fine chocolate using time-honoured, hands-on manufacturing processes.

There was so much chocolate in the Ghirardelli store, I began to shake. The sample of chocolate just served to tease us and the aromas wouldn’t let us go without a shopping bag full of chocolate. Back home, I’ve purchased their baking products in high-end grocers, but can’t say I remember their chocolate bars available anywhere – so I bought enough to keep me in chocolate for a very long time.

We left the store and the wind blew my hair across my face and I realized it smelled of chocolate. If you’ve ever dreamed of living in chocolate, the main factory building has been converted into personal residences. What more can a chocoholic ask for?

Ghirardelli Square is at the end of Pier 47 next to the Maritime Museum and The Cannery with their own dozen shops, indoor square and art galleries. Walk down Beach Street filled with beach stores, art galleries, souvenir shops, restaurants and more. Back at our room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel our chocolate sits on the dresser and every time I pass by, the aromas of chocolate remind me of the day Jon and I stumbled across a world of chocolate.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A San Francisco Breakfast

Breakfast this morning was in the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace, an historic Beaux Arts landmark along the Embarcadero waterfront. It’s a food lover’s haven with lots of little food shops from bakeries to a charcuterie shop, a mushroom stall complete with local and imported truffles, a chocolatier, an Italian gelato bar and small grocer.

Just above all this delicious activity on a terrace was an amazing brunch. Fifth Floor Restaurant was serving Foie Gras French Toast and MarketBar & Far West Fungi served a soft scrambled egg bruschetta with Slow Cooked Mushrooms & Chimichurri. There were 31 food stations in total and we walked around eating and sipping on either locally brewed craft beers, wine, sake, taquila or vodka – what a great way to start the day!

One of my favourites was Gotto Roadside’s Crispy Ahi Poke Tostades with Spicy Sambal Mayo, Avocado Crema and Cilantro. The tuna was tossed in a Ponzu sauce (citrus soy sauce). It was OMG delicious!

Joel and Duncan Gotto have been serving up mouthwatering classics inspired by childhood memories and made from quality ingredients that draw people from miles around. Some of the produce used in the restaurant comes from their St. Helena farm where they harvest tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce and more, all organically grown. They use recyclable, renewable or compostable packaging whenever possible including their menus that are 100% recycled with 100% post-consumer waste.

Their popularity was born from their Ahi Tuna Burger, a 5-ounce patty of fresh Ahi tuna seared rare with ginger wasabi mayo and Asian slaw on a toasted egg bun. Everyone should experience these light yet bold flavours dancing around their palate at least once in their lifetime.

Their Niman Ranch beef patties contain no antibiotics or added growth hormones and are made from vegetarian-fed beef raised on family-owned farm and are ground fresh daily. What a great place and all of this comes with down to earth prices that range from $15 for their famous Ahi Burger (most expensive dish on the menu) to $14 for their Ahi Poke Crispy Tacos.

I walked around and tasted crab cakes and freshly shucked oysters from Scoma’s Restaurant then stopped dead in my tracks when I came face to face with the 8-foot, 70 pound Red Tailed Boa named Bethesar. He was very well behaved, thank goodness.

Distracted only momentarily from the fantastic food offerings I fell in love with E & O Trading Company’s (restaurant) Sake Braised Pork, Pickled Rhubarb, Micro Greens on Scallion Coriander Biscuits – wow! For a slider, it was luscious and melt in your mouth with earth succulent flavours. I noticed how many of the flavours were added with a flavoured biscuit. What a simple technique instead of using plain white bread that adds no benefit to a traditional slider. It was fantastic. Chef Sharon Nahn has a talent for Asian fusion cuisine and her specialty is Indonesian Corn Fritters, so famous that they’ve been featured on the Food Network. With a full belly we walked back to our hotel. This was just one meal, stay tuned for more.

San Francisco is tasting pretty good

It’s my first day in San Francisco and it’s a delicious one. Jon and I checked into the Grand Hyatt on Stockton Street, unpacked, washed up and set out to explore. We wandered around and found we are next to Union Square, right smack in the heart of the city’s upscale shopping and dining scene and home to virtually every designer label; Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s. There’s an Apple store, Ferrari (the car) store and what caught my eye was a food shop called Ferrari Fine Foods.

Not at all related to the car, Ferrari Fine Foods has been around since 1911. Started by Annibale Ferrari, it’s on Mission street and run by the grandsom Paul Ferrari. Inside is a to-die-for deli counter with roasted and grilled meats and luscious salads. There are a few bistro tables in front of the large windows but my guess is that it’s mostly for take out gourmet food.

The shelves are stocked with high end extra virgin olive oils, aged balsamic vinegars, imported artisan pasta and hard to find Italian culinary ingredients. Store manager, Vince or ‘Firefox’ as he called himself was behind the deli counter and eager to help. He was wearing animal ears and a bushy tail; he was in costume but it’s not clear what character. Firefox, as he explains, is a fire dancer in the process of developing his stage persona and was working at Ferrari while he was being discovered.

Of course we were only seeing the customer service side to this odd but friendly guy and if his fire dancing skills were anywhere near his customer service skills, he’ll do well - although something tells me he shouldn’t give up his day job just yet.

On the shelf I spotted a magnum bottle of prosecco that was selling for the bargain price of $35 dollars. It was a custom bottle named after the original owner Annibale, cellered in Venuto, Italy just for them and it was sitting there screaming ‘party’! Firefox tells me it’s a beautiful bubbly with citrus and green apple notes and streams of lovely bubbles. It was late in the afternoon, but if we came by earlier tomorrow they’d open a bottle for tasting.

Jon and I left Ferrari empty handed, planning to return to taste the procecco. We were getting hungry. The streets were thick with people, mostly shoppers and we needed help to find a really great restaurant. We ducked into the Westin Hotel and had a brief chat with Frank the concierge. I’ve always found that hotel concierge are your best friend in a new city and you don’t need to stick to the one in your own hotel, any hotel has friendly concierge who’s job it is to help. The trick I’ve found is in the asking.

Jon and I asked for a good seafood restaurant. Now ‘good’ is a relative term but Frank had a sense about us and stayed away from lower end chain restaurants, instead he sent us about 8 blocks away at a place called Anchor & Hope. Knowing it would be difficult to get in on a Saturday evening, Frank called the restaurant. Sure enough they were booked solid but Frank used his influence to score a spot at the bar – we were in!

We found Anchor & Hope in a side alley, a place we would never have ventured. The building was previously used by an auto mechanic shop; it was one large building with most of the rustic elements still intact. The opened ceiling was dotted with skylights, rustic beams and metal duct work. It was bustling, noisy and crowded.

The menu wasn’t at all pretentious or elaborate but reasonable and more than reasonably exciting. We started off with oysters. Wanting a true San Francisco experience we ended up with Canadian oysters. Seated at the bar gave us a front row seat to the work of garmange di partie David Reynolds. David shucked 2 oysters from British Columbia and 2 from New Brunswick, the NB oysters beat the BC hands down with fresh flavours of sea water and brilliantly clean, slithery light oyster while the BC oyster had less juice, a denseness to the oyster with an earthy flavour.

Our server Sarah Wright brought our bread, still in it’s brown paper bag. We opened the bag and found a beautiful artisan baguette. We watched as David prepared our next appetizer, salmon tartar. It was served on a bed of guacamole and topped with subtle salmon roe. We piled it on crisply fried won tons and smeared wasabi over top. It was uber delicious and David was fast becoming my new hero chef.

Dinner was large pieces of cod, lightly battered, fried and served with rosemary and thyme fries. The thick chunks of cod fish, flaky, crisp and cooked to perfection. The rosemary was predominant on the fries which constantly reminded me of chicken (funny how we associate certain flavours). The flavour play was fun and it was the absolute best fish and chips I’ve ever had!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Asparagus Tour

It was a tour to beat all tours; an asparagus farm tour. Yes, it’s asparagus season. Our cool spring slowed things down a bit but then we had a few warm days and wow! Asparagus is one of those plants that grows so fast, you can almost see it growing right before your eyes; tall, slender, green and irresistible.

The Fruit Shack on Niagara Stone Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake has a small asparagus patch behind the retail store. The store is only open on the weekends until the season picks up and then they’ll be open 7 days a week, but for now, they had a few minutes to tour a small group of eager foodies around the farm.

We walked into the cherry orchard in full bloom. The trees were in full bloom and filled the air with the floral aromas of sweet, delicate blossoms; then we past the plot of garlic before arriving at the asparagus patch.

Asparagus patches are pretty drab and unexciting to look at. The brown earth is interrupted only with a straight line of drab green spears; no leaves, no bright colour. But as soon as we focused on the row of spears standing straight like a line of soldiers, we could hardly wait.

The Fruit Shack is a family run farm and Frank and Steve Pohorly, father and son, were on hand to teach us a bit about asparagus. Steve took a knife and began cutting the spears and placing them in a basket as he talked about the high demand he has for his crop that was originally just suppose to be enough to feed him and his family. But an asparagus patch is not something you can keep secret for long and now everyone is hungry for their just picked asparagus.

Steve was neat and tidy in his picking, you could tell these were his prize possessions, but I bent down and snapped a spear off at the base and popped it into my mouth. I knew what to expect, I’d done this before. The juicy spear exploded in my mouth with the ultra sweet flavours of fresh sugar peas and the freshness of cold, pure spring water. It was full of life and crunch; who could not become addicted to the ultra fresh and uber delicious flavour of asparagus just seconds from harvest!

Others in the group followed and moans of delight began to ring through the crowd like a symphony of joy. No I’m not exaggerating, picking and eating asparagus in the patch is one of life’s greatest joys. Those who never liked asparagus were astonished at how good it was and others delighted in the discovery of the freshest flavours they’d ever eaten. It was like a feeding frienzy in the field.

We left The Fruit Shack and took our just picked asparagus to Escabeche Restaurant at Queens Landing Inn. The chef prepared them simply with lots of sweet, creamy butter. In the centre of the table was more fresh asparagus (raw) standing straight up in a flower vase. We feasted on the buttery asparagus and the fresh. It was an amazing lunch.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My Sage Tumbleweed

It uprooted my sage bush. The fierce windstorm we had last week didn’t spare my yard. In the sandy, damp soil, my beautiful sage bush that I have been nurturing for years simply uprooted and rolled down the street like a tumbleweed. Sage is one of my favourite herbs not only because it livens up an otherwise boring chicken, but I like to deep fry them. Sage chips are yummy and I use them for garnish on fancy dishes. Oh, who am I kidding, I love to munch on sage chips just as they are, a big bowl of them – they’re delicious! My beautiful big bush gave me enough sage leaves that I could indulge in sage chips whenever I wanted, but that’s not all.

We had a beautiful old tree at the back of the house. It was taller than the house and spread out to shade our deck, especially the area around the patio table and chairs. On any hot summers day we could sit and enjoy lunch or dinner under the cool, comfort of that big tree. It was so big it also provided shade on our upper deck; a favourite place for morning coffee that usually ended up in long, Sunday afternoon conversations – a great tradition.

But with a shaking of the ground it simply fell over and with it, it took another 2 smaller trees. One was a wild dogwood that my neighbours friend brought over one day in a cut down orange juice carton. That was over 20 years ago and that dogwood, while it took a few years to establish itself, was a blaze of beautiful big white saucer-like flowers every spring. It’s a pity it won’t get a chance to bloom this year. It’s just buried under the massive trunk and mound of branches that is sprawled across the yard, over the hedge and into the neighbours.

While my sage bush took the brunt of the force, my entire herb garden looks like it barely survived a stamped of elephants; so the clean up begins. The best way to revive an injured herb garden is to begin snipping and trimming away so it begins to grow back.

Herbs are the first garden harvest each year. Almost all food and herb pairings such as dill with pickles or oregano on pizza are international transplants from one European country or another. While I may eat bowls of crispy herbs, I’ve noticed that even with the culinary revolution focusing on fresh-from-the-earth ingredients, there still seems to be a certain hesitation regarding the liberal use of herbs. In my opinion, using herbs sparingly is like not using any herbs at all.

As a general rule, basil, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage and tarragon are the more dominant herbs that require frequent tasting before increasing amounts. Often times they don’t mix well together but don’t shy away from blending strong and subtle herbs because work very well together. A bit of basil, marjoram, oregano and parsley livens up a traditional tomato sauce for pasta.

For myself and others whose yard was ravaged by the force of Mother Nature, the clean up begins. Friends and neighbours gather to help each other as the unmistakable symphony of chain saws buzz in the neighbourhood and the aromas of good meals seasoned with plenty of herbs float through the air.