PARK TAVERN 1652 Stockton Street (between Union & Filbert), San Francisco

Several months since its high-profile debut, Park Tavern remains the destination restaurant for savvy diners who range from barely past the must-be-carded Zynga demographic to the suits, the social movers and shakers and the usual San Francisco hipster types.  Throw in a few tourists for good measure.

The team of Anna Weinberg (owner) and Jennifer Puccio (chef) have leveraged their success at the modest little Marlowe’s on Townsend with a far more ambitious new venture, an American style brasserie, in the location that had been home to the storied Moose’s.

Park TavernThe space is divided into three areas. Near the entrance is a marble-topped bar flanked by a long communal table. On the nights I visited, the energy here was palpable. The front of the restaurant, with low ceilings and large windows, faces out to the park, while the main dining room, done in understated shades of black and grey, with distressed wood beams, tile floors and cushy leather banquettes, completes the casual but sophisticated ambience. An open kitchen is located at the rear.

 

The menu is divided into several categories starting with small tapas-like plates that work as bar nibbles but do easily as well as appetizers. There is a choice of three different preparations:  smoked, raw and fried.  The deviled eggs, bacon, pickled jalapeno & chives are at once creamy, but with a bacon crunch, salty and spicy. The Brussels sprout chips, thin as phyllo, crisp and salty, melt in your mouth and are totally addictive.

The dinner appetizer list offers several salads and soups.  Wild arugula salad, with mushroom conserva, porcini and charred vinaigrette is a tasty combo, but my order was slightly overdressed.  The Waldorf salad strays successfully from the classic by using vibrant lemon vinaigrette instead of the usual mayo and includes pickled concord grapes.

Of the seven or so entrees, I’ve sampled four.   Grilled pork chop with baby turnips, carmelized apple, Nueske’s bacon and mustard jus, dazzles. Although bacon with pork might sound a bit over the top, in this case, it isn’t. The pork is juicy and delicious .

Steamed mussels, with fennel sausage, leeks, crème fraiche, white wine was satisfying, but not a showstopper.

The same can be said for the Hawaiian tombo tuna served with crispy sunchokes, white anchovies, baby artichokes and salsa rustica.  On its own, the tuna was quite bland, however it became somewhat more exciting when complemented by the accompanying flavors. 

The coup of the evening was the “Poulet Rouge” with Bloomsdale spinach and Peewee potatoes.  The chicken is prepared in a wood-fired oven on a vertical roaster.   It arrived wearing crisp skin, standing upright, surrounded by the spinach and potatoes. Of course the potatoes had absorbed the cooking juices, which made them irresistible. 

There’s a short dessert list, featuring a unique birthday cake for each month.  We tasted the chocolate offering which was decadent. That’s not a complaint.  Other desserts include chocolate crème brulee and lemon cheesecake parfait.

Service is attentive and knowledgeable. 

The bar, featuring both classics and creative combinations, is certain to appeal to cocktail mavens.  There’s also an extensive wine list by the glass and by the bottle.  Corkage is $15.

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Wining and Dining in Cape Town, South Africa (Part 3)

Jordan Restaurant

By Mika Chall

After a morning spent exploring some of the best that South Africa’s wine country had to offer, it was time for lunch. We were off to George Jardine’s Jordan Restaurant―fine dining located at the Jordan Wine Estate. Jardine hails from Scotland and comes from a long line of chefs. He built a stellar reputation in Cape Town (Chef of the Year in 2006 and 2007), opened Jordan’s in the wine country in 2009, and in the same year, was awarded the number three position in Eat Out Magazine’s top 10.

There’s a large, open kitchen, dominated by a wood-fired grill where the hands-on Jardine whips up stylish, contemporary food with an eye to local, seasonal products. The market-driven menu changes daily. We were seated at a table on the patio with jaw-dropping views of the surrounding hills and valleys.

From the small, but appealing, menu, I chose an appetizer of Saldanha Bay mussels, wood-fired Roma tomato and fennel veloute, with an olive crostini. It was a terrific blend of textures, colors, and flavors. The fennel volute lent a tangy note to the plump, smoky mussels; the tomatoes provided a touch of acidity.

For the main, I opted for the wood-fired braised lamb shoulder, roasted young garlic, artichoke, broad beans, and olive fricassee. The tender lamb was literally falling off the bone, while the olive fricassee provided a salty note and the soft roasted garlic melted into the sauce, adding zestiness to the artichoke and beans.

Rather than ordering a sweet, I opted for a trip to the cheese room where guests can select from an array of cheeses, mostly from small, local artisanal producers. It was a lovely idea and a great ending to a first-rate meal.

I was now off to Franshhoeck, a nearby wine country town that was settled by the Huguenots in 1685. Although many of the wineries still reflect their French heritage, the local architecture is definitely Cape Dutch. The main street is home to several world-class restaurants and a number of fine art and antique galleries. Unfortunately, there was no time to trundle off for more wine tasting, but a walk through town and some gallery hopping was a pleasant interlude after several hours of sipping and dining.

The Test Kitchen

Back in Cape Town, for my final meal before the long trip home, I booked into The Test Kitchen (TTK) in Woodstock; a gentrifying area of the city. Located in the Old Biscuit Factory, TTK is the brainchild of the talented and creative Luke Dale Roberts who made his bones at La Colombe, where his culinary skills earned the restaurant twelfth place on the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world in 2010.

The ambiance is industrial, but with a cozy feel. (Is that an oxymoron?) The design is exposed brick with high ceilings and open shelves displaying provisions and wine. There are no more than 12 tables and a large open kitchen dominates. All the prep is done in full view of the diners: baking, slicing, dicing, plating. A seat at the counter, which accommodates about eight, offers the best spot from which to watch the kitchen team in action. Reading the lunch menu, I knew I was in cutting-edge territory with strong Asian influences.

My cheerful, efficient, and knowledgeable server began the seduction with a serving of warm homemade bread, thyme-scented butter, and sea salt. I chased it with a glass of Bosman Rose and was ready to toss my training wheels. The trout tartare, green apple, lime crème fraiche, carmelized cured eggplant, Italian parsley, creamy miso dressing, and parsnip crisps sounds like too many layers of flavors, but it wasn’t. Actually, there was no conflict among these tastes and textures. I loved the contrast between the tart green apple and the sweet eggplant. Spot on!

Tuna Tataki

Tuna tataki is served with cucumber and water chestnut salad, caramelized miso cured eggplant, and edamame, with smoked eggplant dressing, A mix of textures: crunchy, but also tender. It was excellent.

The warm duck crepe, Jerusalem artichoke, and hoisin dressing with bok choy, orange salad, and radicchio is a winning combination of sweet /bitter. The duck was abundant, tender, and extremely lean. The Adam Mason Yardstick Pinot Noir lent itself beautifully to this preparation.

Kitchen

The menu offers several desserts, including sorbets and South African cheeses, which I skipped. The tab came to approximately $48, excluding the tip.

There is a more extensive and complex dinner menu which offers the option of wine pairings for each course; five courses, with wine, costs approximately $85. Finally, for the gourmands among us, there is an 11-course tasting menu, with wine pairings, for approximately $120.  Sounds like a good deal to me.

Posted in Dining experiences, Female winemakers, Food Literature, French wine, Restaurant Reviews, South African Wines | Tagged , , , , ,

Wining and Dining in Cape Town, South Africa (Part 2)

By Mika Chall

Reyneke

During my recent visit to South Africa, I was curious to learn more about the country’s organic wine production. My guide arranged a visit to Reyneke, a beautiful vineyard that produces both reds and whites of outstanding quality, and also offers vineyard walks and cellar visits. The Reyneke label was created in 1998, when Johan Reyneke took over farming activities and converted from conventional farming to organic and finally to biodynamic. It is one of a very few biodynamic producers in the region.

We started with a 2011 Sauvignon Blanc (blend), which is lean, fresh and smooth. This elegant white is very well-balanced with just the right degree of minerality. It would pair equally well with either a Cobb salad or some smoked mozzarella.

There is a major difference between the 2011 blend and the 2010 Reserve White, which is 100% Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is much more intense and steely, but showed the same fine minerality as its younger sibling. It was a local prizewinner, and when it connected with my palate, I understood why.

Reyneke

Moving on to the reds, we started with a 2010 Cornerstone, known in the U.S. as Capstone (70% Cab, 18% Merlot, 12% Cab Franc). This is a big, Bordeaux-style red that will mature nicely after three to five years of cellaring.

A 2010 Syrah has strong earth tones, and is not jammy, but is perfumey and elegant. It would drink well with Chinese style spare ribs, spicy sausage, and perhaps a spicy pasta sauce.

My personal favorite is the 2008 Reserve Red (90% Syrah, 10% Cab), a big, round, well-balanced distinctive wine that can certainly be cellared for a few years, but drinks beautifully right now. I served this recently with Moroccan-style lamb shanks, and it created the perfect harmony.

Reyneke

All of the wines I’ve mentioned are priced between $10 and $25 per bottle, at the source. Many are available locally, but I’m not familiar with local pricing once import fees are added. The South African wine industry is vibrant and diverse, and many of the wines I tasted, including those I’ve mentioned here, were truly a revelation.

Posted in Dining experiences, Female winemakers, Food Literature, French wine, Restaurant Reviews, South African Wines | Tagged , , ,

Wining and Dining in Cape Town, South Africa (Part 1)

South Africa

By Mika Chall

With only four days to spare at the end of an extended safari in Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, I opted for my cultural re-entry by way of Cape Town. Spring had just about run its course and with summer on the cusp, the sun was luminous; perfect for exploring the wine country and meandering around this multicultural city that sits under majestic Table Mountain.

Wine Country

Stellenbosch, the second oldest town in South Africa, lies at the heart of its wine industry. The 35-mile trip from Cape Town offers breathtaking scenery at every turn and the area’s Mediterranean climate and amenable soil makes it a perfect location for viticulture.

Our first stop was the Meerlust Estate, with a history that dates back to 1756. Today’s winemaking continues under the guiding hand of Hannes Myburgh, an eighth-generation Myburgh. Their production includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Rubicon. The latter is a creation that was inspired by Nico Myburgh’s (Hannes’s father) desire to create a red equal in style and quality to a Bordeaux. With his 1984 release, he finally achieved his goal. Rubicon debuted to international acclaim.

Tasting Notes
The 2007 Rubicon (74% Cab, 15% Merlot, 11% Cab Franc) is impressive. Intense and full-bodied, the wine has an almost purple hue, the taste of fresh dark fruit, and nicely rounded tannins. It has an ageing potential of 15–20 years, under ideal conditions, and is an excellent accompaniment to fine cheese and game.

A 2003 Pinot Noir is medium bodied, with red fruit, “baking spice,” a hint of earthiness, and well-structured tannins. Another 10 years of cellaring will add greater depth. This Pinot is an attractive complement to red and white meats and grilled fish.

The 2008 Chardonnay, sourced from two vineyards on the estate, was planted in 1991. The result is a full-bodied wine with good acidity. On the palate, there is tropical fruit and balanced minerality. It works with both white and red meat and can be cellared for up to six years.

Grangehurst

Our second stop was Grangehurst where I tasted two reds: the 2003 Nikela (37% Pinotage, 34% Cab, 20% Shiraz and 9% Merlot). Pinotage is South Africa’s signature grape. Bred since 1925, it’s a cross between Pinot Noir and a Rhone grape, Cinsault (aka Hermitage). The grape adds smoky, earthy flavors along with hints of tropical fruit. The Nikela is dark ruby, with red berries, mint, cedar, and mocha flavors. Recommended drinking is 6 to 12 years from vintage. The brilliant ’03 reflects its full-bodied maturity which pairs well with lamb shanks, tuna ravioli, and chicken livers. Sign me up!

The second red was the 2003 Pinotage (88% Pinotage, 12% Cab). Deep ruby, the ‘03 has robust tannins, and plummy fruitiness. Recommended drinking is 6 to 12 years from vintage. This Pinotage has great synergy with the bold flavors of gorgonzola, pasta carbonara, and even a big warthog or springbok stew. (Talk to your butcher.)

Stellekaya

While I was researching the South African wine scene, I read a New York Times piece about Ntsiki Biyela, a young African winemaker who grew up in a small village in Zululand. Raised by her grandmother in relatively primitive surroundings, her daily chores included fetching water from the river and gathering firewood. Wine was virtually unknown. The story of how, by a quirk of political fate, she received a scholarship to study viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University (without knowing a word of Afrikaans) and her rapid rise to the top of her field are nothing short of extraordinary. In 2004, she was hired as winemaker by a boutique winery in Stellenbosch, Stellekaya (home of the stars). Her first red blend won a Gold Medal at South Africa’s Michelangelo Awards. In 2009, she was named South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the Year. In an industry that has been dominated by white men for more than three centuries, her blends of Merlot, Cab and Pinotage have garnered four-star ratings.

When we arrived at the winery, I thought the tasting would be guided by one of the tasting room staff. Instead, we were treated to charming conversation and a tasting conducted by the winemaker herself. The 2007 Merlot, awarded four stars by John Platter (the Hugh Johnson of South African wine, whose 600-page annual directory of news, reviews, and ratings is considered by most to be South Africa’s most comprehensive wine directory) , is elegant, with tastes of plum and black currant, and soft, full tannins. It would marry well with grilled pork, duck breast, and rack of lamb.

The wine for which Ms. Biyela received the winemaker of the year award is a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. This vintage also won the 2008 Silver Veritas and was given a four star rating by John Platter. The wine has a complex structure, is full-bodied with dark fruit, black currants, and tobacco. Pair with a perfectly grilled steak, and the flavors of both the meat and the wine will pop.

Stellekaya’s 2005 Cape Cross is a 2009 Michelangelo Gold Medal winner. This full-bodied Cape blend is 30% Pinotage. It’s succulent on the palate, with sweet plum and chewy tannins. It would make a good match with lamb.

After an hour of tasting and conversation, it was clear that Ms. Biyela, who is now 33 years old, has not let all the adulation affect her personal style. She’s unpretentious and even modest, proud of her wines, and passionate about her profession.

Posted in Dining experiences, Female winemakers, South African Wines | Tagged

Taking the Mystery Out of Wines from Burgundy, France.

This blog post is the first in a series written after the author, Cathy Curtis, enjoyed a Commonwealth Club Travel food and wine tour of the Burgundy region of France. The tour company, Martin Keegan Tours invited Colette Barbier, a native of Dijon, professional tour guide and wine expert, to accompany the group and share her prodigious knowledge of the food, wine and history of northern Burgundy.

I’ve imbibed my share of French wine from Burgundy but I’d never learned how to choose one properly. Instead, I relied on wine shop salespeople or sommeliers to choose for me. This seemed like cheating, but it was a whole lot easier than figuring out the French system for labeling wines.

When learning a foreign language, it’s smart to immerse one’s self completely, and the same goes for learning about wine. For five fun-filled days, a small group of Commonwealth Club travelers sniffed, swirled, sipped and spit as the irrepressible Colette taught us the finer points of wine tasting and schooled us in the appellation system of Burgundy.

Colette Barbier (right) and her daughter Emma.

Colette says, “There is nothing in Burgundy without the terroir.” She enunciates the word terroir with relish and with much rolling of “r’s” as only the French can. As we drove down the narrow roads through the vineyards of Burgundy, we learned that every parcel of land has unique qualities depending on the type of soil, the climate and the topography. These qualities are perfect for growing the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes which make up the majority of the production in the region. The best vignerons (wine-growers or winemakers) in Burgundy know how to care for the grapes and make the wine to capture their land’s specific terroir in the bottle.

This concept of terroir is the basis for the French wine AOC, or appellation d’origine controlée (controlled designation of origin), system. Wine labels emphasize the region, vineyard or appellation more prominently than the grape varietal or the producer. Currently, there are 100 AOCs in Burgundy, which are classified as Grand Cru (1.4% of total production in Burgundy), Premier Cru (10.1%), Village Appellations (36.8%) or Regional Appellations (51.7%). This practice of delineating vineyards by terroir goes back to medieval times when Cistercian and Benedictine monks developed the wine industry in Burgundy, but it wasn’t until modern times (in the 1920s and ’30s) that it was made into law.

Wines of the Hospice de Beaune

Classification and labeling:
Grand Cru: Grand Cru is wine produced from the best vineyards in Burgundy. These wines are usually meant for cellaring and are expensive. The labels only list the name of the vineyard as the appellation such as Corton or Chambertin or Clos de Vougeot, but not the village name.

Premier Cru: Premier Cru is wine produced from high quality vineyards, but not as well-regarded as Grand Cru. These wines are labeled with the name of the village of origin and usually the vineyard name. Examples include: Savigny-Les-Beaune or Volnay. Some Premier Cru’s are produced from several Premier Cru vineyards in the same village and don’t carry the name of an individual vineyard.

A Premier Cru of Burgundy

Village Appellation: These are wines produced from a blend of wines from lesser vineyard sites within the boundaries of one of the 44 villages, or from one non-classified vineyard.  Village wines will show the village name on the wine label, such as Pommard, Beaune or Meursault.

Regional Appellation: These are wines that are produced over the entire region or over an area significantly larger than an individual village. These appellations can be divided into three groups. First is AOC Bourgogne, the standard appellation for red or white wines made anywhere throughout the region, followed by subregional, or appellations that cover a part of Burgundy larger than a village, such as Bourgogne Hautes-Cotes de Beaune or Macon-Villages. Lastly, these are the wines made from other grape varieties such as Bourgogne Aligoté or sparkling wines.

At the Romanée Conti Vineyard

Colette made sure we stopped to pay homage to two of the most famous vineyards in Burgundy: Romanée Conti is an AOC (created in 1936) and Grand Cru vineyard for red wine in the Cote de Nuits subregion of Burgundy, with pinot noir as the only grape variety. Single bottles of pinot noir from this vineyard have sold for over $10,000! We also visited the Montrachet AOC, a Grand Cru vineyard for white wine from chardonnay grapes in the Cote de Beaune subregion. Many wine connoisseurs consider the wines from this region to be the greatest dry white wines in the world.

Most of us won’t be stocking our cellars with the Grand Crus of Burgundy. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t drink wines from Burgundy that are delicious and affordable. The village or regional status does not mean that they are bad wines; a talented vigneron can make good wines in every category. In a region where, as winemaker David Clark said, “behind every second door there is winery” and where there are thousands of producers but only about 100 of them are well-known, hidden gems can be found.

Posted in Dining experiences, Food Literature, French wine | Tagged , , , , ,

When Bad Things Happen to Good Tomatoes (and the People Who Love Them)

by Mika Chall

On the Friday of Labor Day weekend, the symbolic end to the fastest summer season in recent memory, we queued at the Coffee Bar Pop Up for what we anticipated would be a delicious, five-course dinner celebrating the quintessential taste of summer: heirloom tomatoes.  We opted for the 6:30 dinner and were seated promptly. It was downhill from there.

Heirloom Tomatoes
Courtesy Laurel’s Heirloom Tomato Plants, heirloomtomatoplants.com

At 7:45 we received our amuse, caprese molecular―small spheres of tomato and mozzarella dressed in a balsamic sauce. The molecular gastronomy involved cheese oozing from the center as it was cut. My ooze was sadly lacking.

Looking around the restaurant, it was clear from all the frenetic activity that the room was critically understaffed. The servers were navigating the space like characters from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or at the very least, whirling dervishes. But their energy and sincere desire to be efficient and cheerful couldn’t compensate for the fact that there were just too few of them. Another 15 minutes had passed before we finally surrendered to reality and opted out of ordering the wines that were offered as the dinner pairing. Instead, we walked to the downstairs bar, ordered from the café’s wine list and served ourselves.  Unfortunately, the very appealing rosé we ordered was warm because of a refrigeration problem that had not been dealt with, but that’s another story.

Our appetizer was Dungeness crab salad with ahi carpaccio, tomato gelée and avocado mousse. The dish was quite ordinary; the tomato gelee played a small, supporting role.

The soup that followed, Brandywine tomato gazpacho, with cucumber, roasted chili peppers and shaved almonds, was excellent.  The roasted chili added a potent kick to the sweetness of the Brandywines. Surprisingly, at a celebration of heirlooms, this was the only course in which the type tomato was actually identified.

Our main course, Australian lamb two ways: loin and shoulder, fingerling potato puree, tomato confit and jus, arrived at room temperature.  It took another 10 minutes to request and receive the necessary cutlery and by then, the food had gotten even colder.  The shoulder was tender, but the loin was tough and resisted all efforts to be cut.  The accompaniments were not memorable.

At nine-ish we were served a dessert described as caramel apple, which consisted of a green tomato that served as a receptacle for ice cream and walnut crumble. It was dreadful. The tomato was hard as a stone and the walnut crumble was sticky and cloyingly sweet.

When we left at 9:30, the 9 p.m. reservations were cooling their heels on the first floor.  Most of the 6:30 people were still upstairs dining and schmoozing.

Not much of a celebration.

Posted in Dining experiences, Restaurant Reviews | Tagged ,

Celebrating Charlie Barra

by Mika Chall

From Left: Mika Chall, Cathy Curtis and Lisa Hasen

On August 28th, the culinary fates smiled on a group of 66 wine aficionados and discerning diners who had gathered at Masa’s Restaurant for a Slow Food dinner honoring long-time Mendocino winemaker Charlie Barra. The proceeds from the event were earmarked for Slow Food’s Youth Food Education Program in support of school gardens, childhood nutrition and healthy eating in schools―a program near and dear to the heart of many Slow Food members, including Naomi Freidman, who coordinated the event and is actively involved with school gardens.

Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, and Lorenzo Scarpone, leader of Slow Food, San Francisco, were in attendance. Each paid homage to Charlie Barra’s embrace of traditional farming methods and adherence to organic principles. The Barra family donated all the wines paired with dinner and each one reflected the integrity of their growing practices.

Masa's

Masa’s jewel box setting―intimate, sophisticated and elegantly appointed, with subdued lighting―made us all look not a minute over 35. During cocktail hour, a crackerjack wait staff passed many rounds of canapés, including tuna tartare and the most ethereal gougѐres. The accompanying wine was a 2009 Mendocino pinot grigio. This light, well-balanced wine, with flavors of citrus and apple, was a friendly way to start the evening.

Our first course, pan-roasted Massachusetts day boat scallops, was served on a bed of cannellini beans, summer truffle, summer squash and truffle emulsion. The truffle, although less pungent than those harvested in winter, created a winning contrast to the sweetness of the scallops and beans.  The wine pairing was a full-bodied 2008 chardonnay with prominent flavors of ripe apple and Meyer lemon.

For the next course, Chef Gregory Short sautéed Tolenas Farms white quail and served these juicy birds with toasted farro, mission and kadota figs, green leeks, and quail jus. It was another notable combination of flavors and textures enhanced by Barra’s 2007 pinot noir―a fruit-forward pinot that garnered a Silver Medal in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2011 wine competition.

Pan-Seared Rib Eye of Stone Valley Farms Pork

Our entrée, pan-seared rib eye of Stone Valley Farms pork and braised shoulder, was plated with a ragout of white corn, cepe mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and pork-infused sauce. One taste of this flawless combination and I understood why, in 2001, while Chef Short was working at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller nominated him for the Bertoli Sous Chef Awards Competition. He took first place. Our 2006 Mendocino sangiovese, a medium-bodied wine with flavors of jammy fruit and aromas of sandalwood, clove and raspberry, was a first-rate pairing.

Green Pluot Frangipane Tart

Of course there’s always room to scarf up a homey dessert―green pluot frangipane tart with honey buttermilk ice cream and honeycomb.  Heavenly.  We drank Barra’s 2007 muscat canelli, with aromas of honeysuckle and pear, and a good balance of sugar and acid.

It was an exhilarating evening of vibrant food, perfect wines and delightful table mates.

Posted in Dining experiences