Saturday, October 18, 2014

Chad White's House, Comun

Chad White with the Birthday Boy
Over the last several months there has been a lot written up locally about Comun Kitchen and Tavern and its Chef Chad White.  I chose to go there on my birthday to see what all the commotion was about.  The noise that had most intrigued me was that other Chefs in San Diego and South of the Border were saying that Chad's restaurants were the place to go.  Comun is in the East Village of San Diego.  East Village is not a tourist area but one of the faster growing urban areas in downtown. Comun is similar to other new restaurants that you find across the US, communal, open, comfortable, designed for function with street art and craft funk decor.
It is a Wednesday night in San Diego no conventions, no ball games most restaurants are empty but Comun is full of local people.  The kitchen is the center of attention it is a bright light like a food operating room, people in white and stainless steel.  Chad is not a chef that hides back behind the action but he positions himself as the center of the action.  When we walked in I noticed him with a knife, cutting board and an aluminum bowl carefully cutting pieces of bread into croutons.  I asked to be sat at the counter so we could be entertained by the action.
The menu is simple only one page but I took the opportunity to ask him what he would recommend at first he said that is like picking who your favorite child is but then he eased into the answer and one by one went over each item in detail of why he was proud of the dish.  It was easy to imagine at that point that the meal was going to be great.  Chad's story is simple was trained to cook in the Navy, got his first exposure to fine dining at the Hotel Del Coronado Prince of Wales, got on the job training in managing a restaurant at a local hotel country club, hired to take free rein as Executive Chef at a local Top Chef Contestants Fish House. Started his own pop-up food business and started getting involved in the Baja restaurant scene.  When you add all that up and you combine it with being a culinary artist with very distinct values you get a chef like Chad.  In our conversation throughout the evening what struck me was his conviction to sustainability.  Every beast he buys for the restaurant has a pedigree, the Albacore is wild and line caught off the coast of Baja, the Mutton is fed the barely remnants from a local brewery, the entire animal is used to create dishes on the menu and when it is finished the ashes from the remnants are used as a spice to bring flavor to his next dish (note the Chicarrons).

Let's get to the food we shared several snacks, the Chicharron, Elotes and the Radishes. The Chicharron is a deep fried pork rind that is filled with a Albacore Belly Tartar with Sesame, Lemon and Ash.  The Chicharron is used as a mini edible spoon the star is the Albacore bite.  The Elotes can be described as Savory Mexican inspired Cream of Corn.  Aioli.  Your initial reaction is wow it is colorful, that looks pretty basic, hmm did I make the right choice.  But the first bite tells you otherwise it is refreshing, there is not a lot of heat from the radish there is just enough sea salt to give it a pop and when you add the Aioli you think wow this is great and so simple why isn't this done more often?
Elotes and Radish
The bite is sweet, savory, rich with a little bit of heat at the end.  I save the simplest but most creative for last.  If you go to a steak restaurant in the East or Midwest they occasionally have this large dish of Carrots, Celery, Radishes and Cherry Tomatoes your initial reaction is healthy something to keep your mouth busy till your salad comes.  In this case you get a bunch of Radish that looks like it was just plucked out of they yard, with it's stalk all the way down to that thread like trailing root.  the Radish has been lightly sprinkled with sea salt flakes and situated next to a spoonful of Coriander
On to the main dish my family got the little Tostadas, my wife had the Octopus and our daughter had the Chicken.  The story here is not about the protein solely even though the Octopus was prepared perfectly tender.  It is all about the individual ingredients that are present in each Tostada to make it a standout dish.  The Octopus was accompanied by Black Romesco, Queso and an avocado relish, the Chicken was with Hominy puree, Chile Guero and a Salsa Verde.  The point here is how enhance the flavor of the protein.
Based on Chad's overview of each dish I went with the Lamb.  This is a dish he serves in his TJ Baja cuisine.  It comes in two stacked Blue pots with a Kale Salad on the side.  The Lamb is in the pot on the top, the tortillas are steaming in the pot below.  The process is simple grab a fresh steamed corn tortilla and spoon in the Lamb and Black Bean stew and go to town. The bite breaks down like this, you get the taste of the freshly made tortilla then a savory sauce that has a hint of heat with bites of Lamb and Black Beans.  What stood out was the how the taste progression went the sweetness of the corn tortilla, the richness of the salty Lamb bite, the heat from the chilis in the Chorizo and the fresh bite of the cilantro.  This was a great simple dish with very complex flavor combos.
Lamb Stew 
restaurant so it has the authenticity of Mexican Cuisine.  The Kale Salad was unexpected the leaves were tender and from my perspective it is served to cleanse the Palette.  It was the first Kale Salad that I have enjoyed.
To finish it off since it was my Birthday Chef gave us each a Paletas which are Baja Popsicles flavored each to imitate a Mojito, Watermelon with Thai Basil, Dolce De Leche.  A very good way to finish dinner.
I am glad we went, although the food was great my memory will be my opportunity to talk to Chad and listen about his passion for cooking great food.  Chad also hosts monthly pop-up dinners with guest chefs.  I need to go to one and try more good food.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

When in Rome try Eating in the Monti District

Hotel View
We arrived to our Boscolo Exedra Roma Hotel at 8pm on a Sunday and wanted to find a place to eat. We went down to the concierge and asked for help.  I know better than to do this but we were tired and hungry.  We are looking for something close that has good quality food.  We ended up with a reliable but mediocre restaurant.  After a day of exploring we found a great area called the Monti District we asked our concierge what would you recommend in the Monti District that is contemporary and has great food they recommended Urbana 47.
Egg Plan Urbana 47

Urbana 47 is on Via Urbana, a street that is devoted to feeding and providing services to young Romans living in the district  There are little boutiques, antique stores several nice restaurants, grocery and hardware stores and very few cars.  Urbana 47 could be located in many of the new urban renewal areas that are popping up in the US, it has that hipster country look with a general store feeling.  We were the only Americans in there and we felt like we had hit on a winner.I had the Eggplant Parmigiana, Joann had the Caprese Salad.  The highlight of the meal was the Eggplant Parmigiana I am not sure what was topping it but it was almost like deep fried corn silk and it added a great texture to the very savory taste.  A Caprese salad is very simple and really is hard to differentiate but in this case the use of the different color tomatoes really made this dish pop.  We finished off our meals with Pasta, I had the Porcini stuffed Ravioli's and JoAnn had Spaghetti in brown butter, basil and garlic. Both dishes were tasty and the Pasta was perfectly done.  We needed a restaurant for the next day so we asked our server for a recommendation.  She went to one of the locals who recommended Trattoria Monti.
Trattoria Monti

Suckling Pig
Trattoria Monti was a 20 minute walk from the hotel and on the way it started to sprinkle and of course no umbrella.  Out of nowhere a street vendor popped up and made a sale after a bit of negotiation with JoAnn it came to $5. Trattoria Monti is a small warm contemporary Italian Trattoria.  The Kitchen pass is viewable from every table so you can get a show of the action.  I started with a Tortello stuffed with Ricotta and an Egg Yolk, first time I had this Michael Tusk cooked it for me in Santa Fe and then at his Restaurant Cotogna in San Francisco.  After cutting into the Ravioli the dark golden yolk poured out like a syrup, the color of the yolk is created by the Chicken only eating either Corn or Carrots, In this case it was corn so it was less orange.  This dish was very tasty and started the evening out perfectly.  JoAnn had a Pumpkin Soup which looked great but really lacked the additional seasoning that you would normally get it was a non cream pumpkin soup plain and simple.
Egg Yolk Tortello
For the Secondi I had the Roasted Suckling Pig Leg, it was tender with a crispy skin and the pork taste was perfect you could tell this was not from one of those large processing farms.  The dish came with potatoes that had been roasted with the Pig and a sprig or Rosemary.  JoAnn had the Rigate Carbonerra that was simple and perfectly cooked.  This is a restaurant that I would highly recommend.  After the meal I went to meet the chef and told her about my experiences with the egg yolk and the ravioli and how much I enjoyed it.
Great Vegetarian Pizza
For our last night I went to a place that I have been to many times in NYC, Eataly.  Eataly is an Italian high end grocery store founded by Oscar Farinetti a high tech entrepreneur in 2007.  The store in NYC are Owned by Mario Batali, Joe and his mother Lidia Bastianich.  this store was on the out skirts of Rome and required a 10 minute Metro ride and a 15 minute walk.  The store is very modern, multilevel and has great restaurants as you can imagine.

Rigate Carbonera
Since we were in Italy I went with the Pasta and Pizza restaurant followed by a Gelato.  I ordered a Rigatoni which had a great savory Ragu and perfectly cooked pasta.  The Ragu gave you that warm sitting by the fire feeling.  JoAnn had the Vegetable Pizza with Peppers, Aubergine and Mushrooms on a base of olive oil and Ricotta.  The Pizza in Italy is lighter with a perfectly cooked crust.  There are none of the multiple meat lover versions here.  Overall this was fun to come to and we had a great dinner.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Milan Dolce & Gabbana Bar Martini

Dolce & Gabbana Patio
Rarely do I find a restaurant that I could hang out in all day.  I am the type of person that has to be constantly on the go seeing and doing things.  One mid-day we were walking through the fashion district in Milan and saw a through an open doorway a small patio with some folks sitting and sipping coffee and other types of adult beverages.  There were no signs and it seemed like a private event.  A young man came rushing toward me and I felt I was going to get grief for snapping a few shots,  but he was smiling and said don't walk away come on in and see Dolce & Gabbana Bar Martini.  He said that it was a wonderful place and he took us on a tour that would through an outdoor restaurant into a very fine restaurant and then into a Disco and then into another casual drinking area and out on a different street.  This place was amazing so we decided to come back later for an aperitif and a snack.  We sat out on the patio which was a great people watching experience, there were business folks, families with bags from every top designer in Italy, there were teenagers with bags of shoes and clothes from the same stores.  People from every country imaginable.
Great Drinks
We ordered a couple of their exotic drinks, mine was a blackberry and lime concoction and JoAnn's was and Italian Bloody Mary, both drinks were over the top.  Before the drinks came we received a basket of the freshest bread and several trays filled with olives, chips and olive oil soaked smoked sun dried tomato.  With the Bread they brought the most magnificent Balsamic and Olive Oil.  With all this service and great ingredients at a reasonable price this restaurant is not here to make money but allow you to experience the Dolce & Gabbana lifestyle.  We started talking to our server Emmanuel and he suggested that if we like this we should come to dinner so we agreed and set a time.
The restaurant decor is royally flamboyant, dark, magenta colors, dark wood, comfortable chairs small but several private dining room areas, warm.  It was not busy the night we went there and Emmanuel insisted on working with us throughout the evening.

Let's get to the food we were fortunate enough to get that fantastic bread that was paired with their Balsamic and Olive Oil again and that got the meal rolling in the right direction.  Like all nicer Italian restaurants we were presented with some fantastic Amuse-bouche throughout the evening the first was a Monk Fish Crudo it was accompanied with sun dried tomato, capers, and a sun dried tomato.  It was very light with different tastes of sweetness from the Monk Fish and the Tarragon and a tart bite from the Tomato.
Zucchini Soup
For our Primi's JoAnn had the Creme di Zucchini which was a vividly green soup with Lobster and pieces of caper and olive finely chopped, savory and very rich.  I had Eggplant Parmigiana which was rich and one great bite after another.  The Chefs in Italy know how to make a Tomato Ragu that is not acidic but savory, as I learned from Chef Antonio in cooking school it takes many hours to create a good ragu.  The dish was topped with a sprig of flash fried Basil.
For the main Joann Ravioli di Burrata and I had the Roasted Duck Breast with Fig Jam and Balsamic. The Ravioli was stuffed with Burrata cheese with a chopped tomato, basil, olive oil and  diced squid and was a light and creamy taste with a touch of the mare.  Mine was a perfectly roasted Duck Breast combined perfectly with a Fig Jam, the skin was crispy and the meat was very tender.  This is possibly the best duck dish I have had.

The evening was not over Emmanuel as a present gave us a Gelato challenging us that this was the best in Milan.  I had the Strawberry which was as close to eating a Strawberry as could be, JoAnn's Pistachio was creamy and nutty. Great way to end the meal.
Strawberry and  Pistachio
My conclusion is that if you go to Milan and want a great meal, service and ambiance you need to try Dolce & Gabbana Bar Martini.  If you are there ask for Emmanuel he will take great care of you.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Florence Cooking School

Master Chef Antonio
Who is Cracco?
To break up the time of constantly walking and viewing old buildings, masterpieces and people watching, JoAnn made me make a reservation at a cooking school.  Little did she know that after we had trekked 85 miles in the last 10 days that the cooking school required quite a bit of walking and for this day in the rain.  We met of all places in the front of the Hard Rock Cafe so initially I was a little worried.  There were eight of us a couple from Boston, a mother and daughter from Canada, guy from Brazil and our Master Chef Antonio.
Antonio took us to the Central Market and walked us around to introduce us to the different vendors.  We got a demonstration on different Truffle products and aged Balsamic and Antonio introduced us to his favorite vendors.  After our excursion to the Market we trekked through the drizzle to the school which was located on the 3rd floor of a building east of Ponte Vecchio with a terrific view.
Truffle Demo
Now the fun begins, Antonio is a graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu got us started by peeling carrots, dicing tomatoes, chopping onions and Chile and celery to make the Ragu.  We put those in a Cuisinart and then added the mix to hot olive oil in a pot.  We then added 1/3 ground pork and 2/3's ground Beef with a little red wine and started the Ragu.  I learned that you have to add the meat to a scalding pan so it sears rather than boils.  I also learned that you should add water to elongate the cooking time, the water evaporates and leaves you with a fine Ragu.
Antonio Teaching
We then prepared the Bruschetta by chopping Tomato, Basil and Garlic for one of the toppings of the toasted bread.  The other topping was Chicken Liver and Heart Pate.  We started with fresh Chicken Livers and Hearts and cleaned and prepared them.  After they are prepared you combine them with diced onion and throw them in a scolding pan to cook them thoroughly before they are Cuisinart-ed into the Pate.
We then prepared the Tiramisu by taking lady fingers soaking them in a emulsified Coffee and Brandy broth and started to layer.  Meanwhile we made a batter of Egg Yolks and Sugar and vigorously beat them till they were silky.  We took the egg whites and made a meringue.  All these ingredients were layered into our final product.
Almost time to eat

Liver Prep
Last on the recipe is the Pasta, this is a first time effort for all of us making pasta.  We started with a soft wheat flour and egg yolks from chickens that were fed only corn so their yolks were very golden. We mixed with water till the dough became this soft solid ball that was quickly covered in saran wrap to be kneaded later and then hand made into the final Fettuccine.  Now I know why you buy Pasta rather than making it, the amount of work to get to you final product is a lot of work.

Hopefully not the Last Supper
After 4 hours of learning and cooking we finally got to the eating part.  The food was delicious, we learned a lot and Antonio was a great teacher and was very patient.  this is a tour I highly recommend if you are in Florence.  I hope you get Antonio as your teacher because it would not have been the same.
Florentine Steak
By the way Antonio introduced us to Chianina Florentine Steak and got a great suggestion to try it for dinner.

Portland Country Cat

Recently I had the good fortune to go to Portland and try a new restaurant The Country Cat.  This is a James Beard semi-finalist and is known for it's Fried Chicken.  I have had a lot of Fried Chicken so I decided to get past the mundane and order something that was more of a challenge to cook.  The Country Kitchen is a farm to table restaurant in a small community east of the river.  The restaurant is compact and tonight I had a chance to sit at the counter where all the cooking is done.  The menu is simple and I went for two dishes and a side.
Corn Gazpacho
Main Kitchen
I started with the Sweet Corn Gazpacho.  What a great way to start a meal the sweetness of the corn, the tartness of the pepper and smoked tomato and the crunch of the pecan.  I had never had a soup like this before it definitely ranks in my top 10.
Rather than going for their famous Fried Chicken I went with their Duck two ways.  The two ways are a Grilled Breast and a Smoked Leg served with Spaetzle, Blackberries and Pecans, this is a real Pacific Northwest Dish.  The ample portion of Duck was perfectly cooked the sauce with the Blackberries and Pecans provided texture and flavor profiles making the dish special.  I also ordered some Collard Greens with big chunks of pork belly.
The Country Cat is a great place to get exceptionally crafted homey food and a very reasonable price.  the staff is awesome and my server Bree did a great job in guiding me through the menu.

Milan Great Eating Experience

We were in Milan for 3 nights and had a reservation at Ristorante Cracco.  We met Carlo Cracco at Eataly NYC 2 years ago.  He was a fill in at the Scoula and paired with Michael White. We did not know who he was at the time but his Restaurant in Milan was highly rated and has  2 Michelin Stars.  Two years later while watching TV in Rome we discover he is Rome's Gordon Ramsey and the lead guy in MasterChef Italy with Joe Bastianich.  Cracco's is a Modern restaurant and as with any restaurant of their rating, formal.  As you walk in you realize that this night will not be easy on the wallet but you also realize that this is a night that you will not forget soon.  We were seated in the lower level with 5 other tables nothing closer than 12 feet away, there were several people dedicated to our area including the floor captain.  As with any pricey restaurant there are two menus, one with prices and one without.  Guess which one I got.  You can go two ways at Cracco's you can go with the Fixed Price menu with 10 courses and wine pairings for $300 pp or a la carte.  I always go a la carte because I do not get served something I will not want to eat.
Little Finger Food to Start

At Cracco there is no shortage of Amuse Bouche servings.  As a warning if you do not buy a bottle of wine the per glass charge is $50, WOW.  Our first Amuse Bouche was some delicately baked rice chips with saffron, herbs, shrimp flavors.  Much more delicate than the shrimp chips you would get in a Japanese market.  Served with the chips there were several finger foods one with Salmon, one with Pate, one that was a Black Squid Ink sponge with herb and an Olive Souffle.  Everything we started with was light, delicious and tested the palette.  
Pumpkin Gazpacho
Next came a chilled pumpkin Gazpacho with flavored salt and a tiny bit of stone ground mustard and depending on how you ate it the taste could be vastly different, JoAnn got too much Mustard the first time, I think I got mine right. 

Seafood Flan
We were served a Seafood Flan with 3 different flavor components each one slightly different in texture and if you did not like the flavors of the Mare it was a tough bite. What was very unique though was that on top it had these very tiny Langoustino Roe that popped with every bite.
Risotto Broscando
Finally we get to something that we ordered I had the Bone Risotto with Saffron.  The Risotto was cooked perfect but the Bone Marrow had been roasted and did not break up and melt like I wanted it to, it remained a little chunky and I believe it missed the mark a bit.  JoAnn ordered a Risotto Broscando (Wild Asparagus) with Scallop that was dusted with a very light paprika. Now hers was a home run with all these different flavor components.  There was the great taste of the wild asparagus, a little heat from the paprika and a perfectly cooked Scallop on the top.
Cocoa Pasta Cooking Shell

Our Secondi was Turbot for two, it is prepared in a pasta casement that is flavored with Cocoa and Sea Salt from the Mediterranean which creates a steamed fish that is infused with the salt and the Cocoa absolutely delicious.  The fish was served with some french beans and tomato it was light and delicate with hints of Cocoa.
Passion Fruit Souffle

Tiny Dessert Presents

Dried Fruit chips
To cleanse our palette a Grape Sorbet with very cold grapes and topped with a tiny purple flower.  this was again and extraordinary taste and texture contrast and prepared our tongues for the awesome desert Souffle coming up.  Our Passion Fruit Souffle was presented prior to the addition to some steaming cream poured in the middle which actually made the Souffle grow.  The souffle was light and had the tart and sweet taste of the Passion Fruit. A great way to finish but.. The meal continued as the last little present was brought to the table.  An assortment of sweets including cocoa dusted hazelnuts, and white chocolate covered almonds, small Pralines and Macaroon and the biggest surprise very thin dried fruit chips.  The chips were very light and contained immense flavor.
Overall the meal, service and presentation were quite memorable. Cracco is a top 50 restaurant globally and deserves to be in that great company.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Bar Sajor Seattle

Open and Inviting
Eating in the Kitchen
I have been to Seattle 2 dozen times and each time I go there the weather is perfect.  The views are spectacular to one side you have Mount Ranier the other side you have the sound and all the islands and in the middle you have Lake Washington.  Seattle tends to lure people that love the outdoors and the fresh fish and produce it brings to us.  Near SoDo there is a great little mall with lots of open urban space,  an area that has been revived by the ball parks .  One of the restaurants is Bar Sajor, built in an old Bank Building.  It even has an eating area in the safe.  This restaurant has 20 foot high ceilings, lots of windows to bring in the long day light, painted almost entirely white with accents of Wedgewood blue.  As you walk in, there is a bar island and towards the back right there is a wood burning oven and stove in a very open cooking and prep area.  It is a well lit spacious chef's kitchen that is integrated with the eating area.  Another feature of the high ceilings is that it results in a very quiet restaurant that you do not have to yell over others to talk.
When you sit you are presented a glass of green mint tea to cleanse your palate.  One thing I found in Seattle is that they cater to folks like me that do not drink alcohol with their own creative not necessarily sugar laden drinks.  I chose a refreshing Cucumber Jalapeno Soda but there were others like Strawberry or Rhubarb Vinegar. 
Halibut look at the detail

Savory Scallops
The menu is very simple and it represents fresh in season ingredients and tonight the two of us went with vegetable starters and seafood for the main.  I started for the Fire Roasted Radishes and English peas a combination that I had never had.  They were accompanied with a anchovy dressing sprinkled with Goat Cheese and Marjoram.  The resulting taste was different combinations of crunch and consistency.  the fire roasting took a little of the heat out of the radishes and the peas just popped in your mouth with that fresh cut grass aroma.  Mr. T had a spring salad with ash roasted Shallots and his favorite Rhubarb.
For the main I kept it simple with the Pan Roasted Alaskan Halibut with watercress flavoring and Sugar Snap Peas.  The Peas were made into a mash as the stage for the Halibut which was light and perfectly cooked and on top of the halibut were purple and pink edible flowers. The Scallops were more of a savory dish served with grilled Zucchini Squash and roasted Marbled New Potatoes set on a Verde Chimichurri.  Both dishes were perfectly presented and were cooked to perfection. 
What is interesting about this restaurant they are cooking the bulk of this meal on wood burning fires and stoves that are no more than 15 feet from you.  The Executive Chef Matt Dillon is the creator of Bar Sajor and is an alumni of Herb Farm in Woodinville.  In 2013 Bar Sajor and Matt won the James Beard Northwest Chef of the year.  I would recommend that loves cuisine to visit Bar Sajor.