Restaurant Review: Locanda, 557 Valencia, San Francisco

by Mika Chall

I confess.  My curiosity got the better of me and I joined the scrum jockeying for a table at Delfina’s recently hatched sister, Locanda, an impressively designed osteria whose menu reflects Rome’s rich culinary traditions.  At the front of the restaurant that was once home to Ramblas, are a long bar, a communal table and a sleek open kitchen.  A quick scan of the scene reveals a demographic that is well under 50, animated and apparently smitten with Locanda’s ambitious cocktail program. Toward the rear of the room is a more restrained, snug dining area where the crowd looks a bit more mature, and the noise level is several decibels lower. A beautifully executed white tile wall wraps around one side of the room while oversized, mid-century chandeliers illuminate the entire space.  Locanda’s carefully curated menu includes an extensive repertoire of Pastas in addition to Antipasti, Charcoal Griil and Specials, Contorni, and Quinto Quarto  (literally fifth quarter, aka offal).

On my first visit, the Jewish style artichoke (poached, fried and seasoned with oregano and mint), which we were all anxious to taste, was presented artfully, and looked inviting. But our hearts sank when we took our first bite and found that the preparation was overwhelmed by salt.   However, we were quickly comforted by the arrival of the mildly flavored warm lamb’s tongue, served with celery and a perfectly seasoned lemon dressing. Our two pasta selections, fettuccini with rabbit sugo and fiorellini with ricotta and squash, were beautifully nuanced and did not disappoint. For mains, we opted for lamb scottadito (a duo of thin lamb grilled with coriander and anchovy), a compatible marriage of flavors; and a tender leg of guinea hen, stuffed with prosciutto, served on a bed of lentils.  Spot-on!  Our dessert of ricotta fritters with citrus caramel, flavored with thyme was a memorable explosion of flavors.

The second time around we started with pizza bianca (a puffy focaccia-style bread) topped with fava bean puree and pecorino.  A satisfying kick start to dinner.  I wanted a second chance at the Jewish artichoke, but alas, it was not on the menu.  Instead, we ordered the salad of shaved artichoke, wild arugula, grilled ricotta and avocado; what a terrific interplay of peppery and buttery.  Making a pasta selection from the wide- ranging list was challenging, but veal casoncelli alla saltimbocca (thin, tubular pasta filled with veal and prosciutto in a light butter sauce) finally got our vote. The combination of flavors worked beautifully, but the pasta was just a tad too chewy and undercooked.  Looking at mains, we were unsure of the provenance of fried Amish rabbit with okra, but decided to not quibble and were more than content with the crunchy, juicy results.  For a finishing touch, we ordered and loved the peach crostada, served with cream and milk gelato.  A perfect ending to a first-rate dinner. Service both evenings was friendly, efficient and knowledgeable.  Locanda’s wine list is eclectic, offering selections from Italy, Spain, France, Austria and Germany.  We particularly enjoyed a Rhone syrah blend, Les Vins de Vienne Remeage (2008).

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A Summer Delight: Della Fattoria-Weber Ranch Dinners

by Chad Graff and Cathy Curtis

We’ve been smitten more than once with the notion of attending an Outstanding in the Field dinner. What could be better than to sit at a long farm table set up in a gorgeous outdoor setting to indulge in a delicious meal and support a local farm?  Alas, the seats aren’t inexpensive, and they go quickly once the dinners are announced. We haven’t yet been able to organize ourselves to make it happen (–someday!) But what a delight to find that we have a great option for on-the-ranch summer dining in our own area!

Ten of us organized ourselves to make an hour’s drive to Petaluma (from Oakland and San Francisco) for a Della Fattoria-Weber family ranch dinner. These dinners are held regularly during the summer on their property just on the outskirts of Petaluma. You may know Della Fattoria from their restaurant in Petaluma or their highly-regarded wood-oven-baked bread sold at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market on Saturdays.

The ranch dinner was a perfect way to spend a summer evening with friends.  If you sense us glowing in this post, it’s because (we and our friends) kept defaulting to the word “perfect” to describe our experience. It was one of those rare occasions where everything was so well organized and in tune from start-to-finish that we all reveled in every detail and couldn’t think of a way we would have done anything differently!

The country setting is charming and low key.  Two long tables were set up underneath a majestic oak tree, in an expansive garden area between two farm houses. It felt open yet intimate — great for welcoming guests to a special event on a working property. Ice bins are set up near your designated places at the table to chill the wines you bring yourself. Group size seemed to range from parties of two to groups of eight or ten. For the ten of us, we brought a good selection of rose, white, and sparkling wines to start, with reds to follow.

The ranch dinners are scheduled to go from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m, but happily our hosts encouraged us to stay even longer. To start, we settled in to enjoy a glass of wine (or two) with appetizers. On small tables within easy reach, hors d’oeuvres were displayed for the taking including baked Brie with roasted garlic and rosemary, Aaron’s pork and duck rillettes with mustard and cornichons, and of course Della crostini and breads. In addition, the waiters passed platters of freshly grilled Full Belly Farm figs, padrons and sausages. It was splendid that this part of the evening was so laid-back, everything served at a leisurely pace. This was perfect for allowing guests to trickle in, to catch up with their dining partners, and to enjoy the bucolic setting.

Some guests took a short stroll to visit the wood-fired ovens and see bread baking in action, though there was also plenty of time to do this after the meal too.  It was fascinating to watch the bakers line up the formed dough and sling it into the wood fire oven on the ends of the long-armed peels.  We all knew what tasty goodness came from those ovens!

When we took our seats at the table, anticipation took over, as we all watched day boat scallops being seared on the grill and then tossed with tomatoes, corn and pesto. This dish was accompanied by a mixed green salad – all served family-style. The second course was succulent braised short ribs served with platters of ratatouille, and the ultimate in comfort food – potatoes served gratin-style. Again, this course was served with the earthy, chewy deliciousness that is Della breads and with bowls of McClelland’s Dairy Farm’s creamy, organic butter.

Feeling sated, we all got up to roam around or lounge at the various seating arrangements on the property – all meant for guests to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Our group was partial to the nook next to the outdoor fireplace. While we relaxed, the Della-Weber staff passed platters of peach and blackberry gallettes and poured coffee or tea for those who had moved on from wine-drinking.

We were all sad to see the evening come to a close as we sipped our last sips, ate our last bites of dessert, and then sought out our hosts to give heartfelt thanks for creating such as convivial experience. The one consolation – we all knew we’d be back.

All photos by Joann Falkenburg.

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On The Road, New York City – Restaurant Review by Mika Chall

Prune, 54 East 1st Street, New York City

Having savored every word of Gabrielle Hamilton’s candidly written memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, which details her unconventional and often challenging odyssey beginning at adolescence, when she was forced to fend for herself, to the consummation of her love affair with food — the opening in 1999 of her much talked about New York restaurant, Prune, I was totally psyched for my dinner there.

Prune, New York City

Prune is a neighborhood American bistro, influenced by the chef’s many multicultural culinary experiences. The physical setting is bright, animated and modest.  The room is actually postage stamp size, seating 30 tiny tables that are cheek by jowl. Maneuvering into your seat without upending everything on the adjacent table takes some finesse, lots of sucking in, and no sudden giggles.   There’s a tiny open kitchen and room for 4 at the bar.  The original concept was to establish a neighborhood spot, but word about Prune’s eclectic menu and its confidently executed food and charm got out quickly, resulting in a Saturday night demographic that looked more like a blend of uptown, trendy boho, and tourists than east Village.

The place was packed when we arrived for our 8 p.m. reservation; we waited outside but were seated within 15 minutes with sincere apologies offered for the delay. The wait staff is knowledgeable, genial, and surprisingly patient, providing several samples of wine until we selected one that paired best with our food. The house treat served with cocktails was a bowl of salted roasted chickpeas.

In addition to a fairly ambitious seasonal menu, three specials were available:  cold (baked) salmon, on a bed of soupy green rice; suckling pig with black-eyed pea salad, chipotle aioli, crispy skin, and pickled tomatoes; and baked whole branzino stuffed with fennel and lemon.

The two most decadent (read: lipid-centric) appetizers were butter-fried sweetbreads served with bacon and capers and roasted marrow bones served with grilled bread, sea salt, and parsley salad. The interplay of flavors in both preparations was faultless.  The sweetbreads were tender, mild, and juicy with the bacon and capers adding a salty nuance that highlighted the sweetbreads.  It was a finger-licking choice.

Our generous portion of rich, creamy marrow harmonized beautifully with the slight bitterness of the of the parsley salad.

For mains, we opted for two of the evening’s specials: salmon and branzino. The preparations were straightforward and not overly embellished. The flavor and firmness of the salmon worked well with the soupy style of the green risotto, while the moist branzino was subtly enhanced by the infusion of fennel and lemon.

During dinner, Gabrielle Hamilton arrived to help schlep a couple of large ice chests from the lower floor to the street.  There were no pretensions from a chef with a fabulous book on the New York Times best seller list and one who continues to receive kudos from her peers.  Smiling appreciatively, she stopped to acknowledge all the Gabrielle groupies who called out cheerful greetings and compliments.

For a perfect ending, we shared an order of ricotta fritters cloaked in dark chocolate sauce. Need I say more?

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Book Review: Random Thoughts on Blood, Bones & Butter:The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Chad Graff

I’ve eaten at Prune five, maybe six times.  That’s enough for it to be one of my favorite NYC restaurants.  Once was enough for that really.  It’s a small, cool place, with an eclectic group of people inside, and the staff’s passion for good, honest food is clear from start to finish.  It’s a great place to be.

This is not a review of Prune.  I’m writing briefly about Blood, Bones & Butter, a recent, brilliant memoir by Prune’s founder and original chef, Gabrielle Hamilton.  I’m tempted to say Blood, Bones & Butter is not about Prune, but I’m not sure that’s true.  Although the book spends little time focused on the restaurant, the disarming honesty and unadorned passion with which Gabrielle tells her story clearly animate the restaurant too.  If you want a whole fish, you get a whole fish.  Someone who has the courage to delight you with triscuits and sardines isn’t going to shy away from telling you about uneasy relationships with Mom and husband.  

It’s not surprising to learn that Gabrielle spent time studying writing in graduate school.  It also makes sense that overly precious graduate school discussions of literature and writing alienated her, as does the preciousness that sometimes haunts contemporary farmers’ markets.  There can be too many syllables and not enough truth.  Gabrielle really wants to jump into it and not be pretentious in any way.  She writes like she cooks.  I find great symbolism in the fact that a frequent site at Prune is a table full of people digging for tasty bone marrow.

And so it’s easy to say you should read Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef  if you love books, just like you should check out Prune if you love food.  It’s that good.  Blood, Bones & Butter is a work of literature.  And I don’t mean that to sound pretentious!  Rather, Gabrielle has a deft touch with epic themes like the unraveling of family; urban and rural life; how we feed ourselves and others; and the launch of a creative venture.  Her unrelenting honesty and heartfelt images are incredibly moving.  Dead lobsters and a dead rat!

As a reader, I should admit that some parts of the story felt less successful.  I was hungry for more of what happened to create her strong, conflicted feelings toward her mom, and also to some extent her husband.  I felt a little stuck in Gabrielle’s head in those parts and wanted to see the events.  But maybe that was just her not holding back in conveying her feelings, even though she couldn’t fully put us there.   She’s honest about her most difficult relationships, like everything else.  I admire her approach.

Blood, Bones & Butter is a work of passion.  Like Prune, the restaurant.  It is no ordinary chef’s tale, as in as told by so-and-so to so-and-so.  No recipes.  No Tasting Menu.  Just a beautiful and telling memoir by a writer being a writer and, oh yeah, she also happens to be a stellar cook.  It tells you how she got there.  If you asked her who wrote her book, she might just punch you in the face.

postscript

The pictures displayed here (taken by Joann Falkenburg and Cathy Curtis) are from a great event at Camino Restaurant in Oakland  a few months back celebrating the book’s release.  Great food and a good crowd!  We are very fortunate to have a hometown place like Camino…where creative and passionate risk-taking is on display… and it was a perfect place to welcome Gabrielle and her story.

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Murder, La Marseillaise, Macarons and More! Bastille Day 2011 Celebration at the Commonwealth Club

Pim Techamuanvivit, Cara Black, Cathy Curtis

Murder, Macarons, the Marseillaise and more… at the Commonwealth Club Bastille Day 2011.

The “gold room” at the Commonwealth  in San Francisco was briefly transported to Paris as Cara Black, author of the Aimee Leduc detective series discussed her most current book, Murder in Passy with Cathy Curtis, Chair of the Bay Gourmet Forum of the Commonwealth Club of California.

The audience was an enthusiastic group of foodies and Francophiles who didn’t hesitate to be led in a rousing if off-key rendition of “ La Marseillaise” and who  devoured  Pim Techamuanvivit’s (of the popular blog chezpim.com) magnificent marcarons offered in five delectable flavors:  Figues a la verveine (figs with verbena), abricot-pistache (apricot pistachio), fraise a l’estragon (strawberry tarragon) and the’ vert au cerise (green  tea with cherry)
By popular vote, it was decided that the abricot-pistache flavor would be named Aimee Leduc for it’s feisty flavors.

Pim's Macarons

You can listen to the audio version of the program by following this link: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/archive/podcast/cara-black-bastille-day-celebration-71411

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CUESA’s Summer Celebration: An Evening of Extraordinary Culinary Creations and Expert Mixology

By Cathy Curtis

The crowd surged in through the doors of the Ferry Building before 6 p.m., anticipating the culinary experience awaiting them just behind the ropes and the friendly CUESA volunteers.

CUESA’s (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) Summer Celebration is one of three major fundraising events for the nonprofit. Funds raised at the event go to support the organization’s ongoing education programs, including sustainability scholarships that help farmers become leaders in their field, a schoolyard to market program, free cooking demonstrations, and  low-cost kitchen building skill workshops.

Happily, the fundraising effort was a great success, as the event was a sellout. For those who were lucky enough to get a ticket, the eats and drinks were extraordinarily delicious. It’s amazing how many flavors and textures a good chef can fit into a small bite. Some of my personal favorites were the duck prosciutto with smoked plum, mushrooms and pickled onions created by Rob Lewis of the Bon Appetit Management Co., green eggs and lamb created by Nate Keller of Gastronaut, and the salmon rillettes with dill blossoms and smoked seal salt on rye crackers created by Deepak Kaul of Serpentine. These were just a few of the more than 38 bites to be had from the finest restaurants and caterers in San Francisco.

The cocktails were as creative as the nibbles, with names like “Blackberry Swizzle” from Square One Vodka, and “The Monkey Steals the Berry” from St. George Spirits. With the sublime desserts such as the strawberry sliders with honeyed mascarpone and caramelized blackberries from One Market Restaurant or the buttermilk panna cotta with fresh peaches from Scala’s Bistro, you could sip your choice of Peet’s or Blue Bottle Coffee or continue enjoying the various wines and cocktails available all evening!

CUESA’s next fundraising event, the Sunday Supper, will be held on October 2, 2011, on the second floor of the Ferry Building. Sixteen chefs will participate. For more details click here:
http://www.cuesa.org/events/2011/cuesas-9th-annual-sunday-supper

A picture says a thousand words and Joanne Falkenburg captured the evening perfectly with her photo album that she shared with us. To see more pictures from Joanne’s photo album, check out our Facebook Page here. Enjoy!

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Still on the Road

By Mika Chall

My visit to the Flatiron district is never complete without a stop at Fishs Eddy (19th and Broadway), where I summon every ounce of self-restraint to not succumb to the siren call of floor-to-ceiling trays, glassware, dishes (including the disarmingly kitschy Alice in Wonderland pattern), tea towels, utensils―you get the picture. I was actually on my way to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen, on the ground floor of ABC Carpet (18th and Broadway). I had dined there just after its 2010 opening and was excited about a repeat visit.

  ABC Kitchen’s ethos of green and locavore is reflected in the salvaged wood tables and other recycled materials used throughout. Provisions are sourced locally (many are organic) and the concept of free trade is prominent. The stylishly designed space is big, bright and welcoming.

 It was noon and a mixed bag of coolly bedecked locals and a smattering of tourists had already stormed the entrance, pressed like a phalanx of linebackers against the host’s podium. There I was, queen of no reservations, making an end run for a seat at the bar. 

 The menu is extensive, with a generous number of appetizers, pastas, whole wheat pizzas, entrees and sides. Toward the end of the list, I noticed a three-course prix fixe lunch offered at $28, a major bargain (and probably great solace for the diner who had just purchased a $16,000 hand-knotted rug).

 My starter was a bowl of roasted mixed beets served with tangy house-made yogurt. Although the dish did not break any new culinary ground, the interplay of sweet and tart was refreshingly welcome on a sweltering day.

 An entrée of steamed hake, roasted maitake, asparagus and spring onion-chili vinaigrette, was nicely balanced and well executed.  The fish, which was mild and flaky, paired well with the robust flavor of the maitake, the fresh asparagus were crisp to the bite and the vinaigrette added a wonderful acidic punch.

 The dessert choices are not elaborate or terribly creative; I opted for salted caramel ice cream, candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I thought the whipped cream might be gilding the lily, so I ordered it without. What a great dessert! The combination of the salted ice cream with the sweet flavor of the peanuts and the crunch of popcorn was perfect on its own, and the velvety richness of the chocolate sauce definitely added a touch of luxurious decadence.

 The bar offers cocktails, organic sake, beer and wine. Several non-alcoholic juices, organic smoothies, organic elixirs and house-made sodas are also available. The ginger lime soda is especially refreshing. Service is friendly and efficient.

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