Monday, February 28, 2011

Pork Belly Tacos

This past weekend I set out to recreate a great dish: the pork belly tacos at Big Star in Wicker Park. I went to the great butcher shop The Butcher & Larder to pick up about 3.25 pounds of pork belly:

I then cut the belly up into 12 squares and put a Mexican spice rub on them before letting them sit for about a half an hour to get to room temperature and absorb the spices a little bit: 

I chopped up some celery, carrots, and onions for my mirepoix: 

I then seared the pork belly in my clay pot: 

In the meantime, I started soaking some black beans that morning to be served as a side dish with the tacos: 

I then put the pork belly in the oven at 350* for about 3 hours, flipping and stirring the contents every half hour or so. After three hours it came out looking like the following: 

I removed the belly, then strained the braising liquid multiple times before reducing it for about 30-40 minutes: 

After the mixture reduced, I cut away some of the very fatty parts of the pork, and pulled out the flavorful meat and placed it back in the pot. I cooked/fried the pork in the reduced liquid which really crisped up the meat: 

Meanwhile, I put the black beans in the oven for about 2 hours to cook: 

I put the pulled pork on a fresh Whole Foods bakery tortilla and served it with queso fresco and cilantro, with the black beans on the side: 

The Verdict:

These where some great tacos. They didn't turn out the same as Big Star, whose belly comes out essentially in cubes and more fried. That doesn't mean these weren't fact the pork belly meat was incredible and very tender and you don't really need to put too much in toppings on it as the meat is really the "star" of the show. A possible idea for next time though would be to put some grilled pineapple on it like another one of Big Star's tacos. I also want to experiment more with Pork Belly and make a few other recipes with it. 

Kendall College welcomes Grant Achatz (March 11th)

Here's a very neat event coming up next week at Kendall College on March 11th:

Founders of Alinea, in Conversation with School of Culinary Arts Dean Christopher Koetke
 They will discuss their new book Life, On the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat.
 Friday, March 11, 2:00 – 4:00 p
Wood-Mode Auditorium at Kendall College
2:00 pm Reception
2:30 pm Presentation/Q&A
3:30 pm Booksigning/Reception
Cost: $45 includes reception (beer, wine and hors d’oeuvres) and a signed book

View the event's website here.

I think I'm going to try to make this as it looks to be very entertaining.  I can't wait to read this book!

The Ultimate in Sustainable Eating? Scrapple.

This past weekend while visiting The Butcher & Larder to pick up a few night's worth of meat, I spotted something you don't see very often in Chicago:

Beautiful, isn't it? It's called scrapple, and it's a fantastic breakfast snack. Very popular in Pennsylvania, scrapple is traditionally a mush of pork scraps (hence the name) and trimmings combined with cornmeal, flour, and spices. The mush is formed into a loaf and served pan fried with eggs. 

So what are the "scraps" in the scrapple? Traditionally it's made of hog offal, like the head, heart, liver, and other parts. The meat and bones are boiled to make a stock/broth. Once the meat is cooked, it's removed from the bones and cornmeal is added to broth to make a mush. The meat is minced and returned to the mush before making a loaf. At The Butcher &'s only $4 a pound! 

While it doesn't look particularly yummy sitting on the butchers paper, once fried and served with eggs and's really good. It has the consistency of a hash, but there is a great sausage/meat flavor that goes perfectly with the yolk of the egg. 

Here it is cooked up: 

If this isn't a perfect example of sustainable eating I don't know what is. The butcher takes the meat that is many times thrown away, and finds a vehicle for them. In the end almost all of the animal is used. Considering the quality of the meat sold at Butcher & Larder, if you're going to eat the "questionable" meat from a pig, I would much rather it be from a high quality local sustainable farm.

Next time you're at your local butcher, ask if they have any scrapple. You might be surprised how much you enjoy it. If you don't? You're only out a couple dollars.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thanks T.K.!

When reading Ad Hoc at Home, Thomas Keller tells you not to use tongs recently made popular by the Food Network TV chef corps hawking them at Target. TK claims that they squeeze and damage the food and in one article even tells the author to flip scallops with your hand. Anyway, I've been trying to hold back on using tongs as much as I can. What do I get for my loyalty to Keller's school of thought?:

A gigantic burn welt on my hand! I was frying the beef for last week's beef stroganoff when the hot oil popped and nailed my hand. At first it didn't hurt really at all. But over two days the skin burnt off and formed a literal hole in my hand. It was so bad someone at the office blurted out "Oh my God! What happened?" I walked over to the office first aid kit and threw a large bandage on it.

Thanks T.K.! 

Culinary Road Trip: 2011 South Beach Food & Wine Festival's Burger Bash

After a LONG winter this was a sight for sore eyes:

85*, Sunny, with a nice ocean breeze was exactly what the doctor ordered after the long Chicago winter.  I haven't been to the city of Miami for years, and I have never been to South Beach so I was excited to make it there later that night to attend the 2011 South Beach Food & Wine Festival's Amstel Light Burger Bash hosted by Rachael Ray presented by Allen Brothers Steaks...yes, that was the official title of the event. I'll just call it the "Burger Bash" for short. 

The event was held on the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach's beach in a massive 250-300 yard long tent. When checking in for the event, they gave us a pair of flip flops (and told me I could check my loafers at the "shoe check" and gave us a map/menu of the different vendors. The unique portion of the event is that every attendee gets a small cork chip that represents his or her vote for their favorite burger of the night. Every competitor/vendor was really putting the sell on to attendees to get those chips! 

Here is the front of the tent as you're walking in:

The 26 vendors offered some sort of burger, and if they were feeling ambitious, a side. The burgers were really slider size, of which I limited myself to two bites of each to prevent getting too stuffed too soon. I felt like a Top Chef judge! 

We had "VIP" access which got us in about an hour earlier than the rest of the attendees. It was a lot like going to Six Flags Great America and not having to wait in line for any of the rides! I tried quite a few of the burgers (8-10 of the 26, I believe) in that hour. All the vendors were on the outside of the tent, and there were many table tops, tables, couches (burgers Miami lounge-style!) in the middle where you could take your burger and hang out. Here is a photo of the tent during the calm VIP hour:

And here is was once it got more crowded:

There were some great burgers here to taste. My plan of attack was to visit the vendors who had previously won awards first, and then visit some of the "celebrity" chefs and their creations, followed by any other vendors that had interesting offerings. Here are some of the notable burgers: 

Shake Shack (Miami Beach, FL)
*2007 People's Choice Award Winner
Shack Burger - American Cheese, Lettuce, Tomato, and Shack Sauce w/ a side of frozen custard and fries.

These guys were the first ones I saw when I walked through the door. It was a fine, traditional burger, but compared to most other's tasted bland and was a bit boring.

Landmarc (New York, NY)
The Big Marc- All beef hamburger on a homemade black pepper and cheddar bun with spiked ketchup and house made pickles w/ a side of jalapeno tater tots.

This was a nice burger that on the outside looked traditional, but had some really complex flavors and was really good with the spicy tots on the side.

Morimoto (Boca Raton, FL)
Nikomi Burger - Wagyu beef patty stewed in Morimoto sauce and topped with a fried egg and a side of pickles. 

Straight out of Iron Chef, this vendor had a huge line, even during the VIP hour so I had high expectations. However, I actually thought this was my least favorite burger of the night. It was dry, didn't taste like much, and overall blah.

B Spot (Cleveland, OH)
*2010 People's Choice Winner
Yo! Burger - Burger with fried salami, provolone, shasha sauce and pickled onion served with a nutella and hazelnut liqueur milkshake.

Wow...this was a great burger. The fried salami and picked onion did it for me. The shake on the side was pretty good, but very rich. Michael Symon was really cool and was introducing himself to everyone in line, really working the crowd for votes. 

Love Shack (Fort Worth, TX)
Wild Love - Elk, foie gras, arugula & huckleberry jam w/ a manchego-serrano tater tot. 

This was very unique and very tasty. The elk meat was incredible and the jam made the burger really tasty. Tim Love was up front talking about his burger and was happy to talk up Elk meat as a really unique burger meat and I told him there was a place in Chicago that pairs Elk Meat in a hot dog and serves it with similar jam.

Good Stuff Eatery (Washington D.C.)
*2009 People's Choice Winner
Colletti Smokehouse Burger - Beef burger topped with applewood smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, beer battered onion rings, chipotle BBQ sauce on a potato bun served with a toasted marshmallow milkshake. 

This was my favorite burger of the night. TONS of flavor while unique, it was still a somewhat traditional burger. The shake it came with was a perfect compliment as well. Spike Mendelsohn from Top Chef All-Stars (dressed as the "hamburgler") was nice enough to talk about his burger and introduce himself to people in line.

Bobby's Burger Palace (Paramus, NJ)
Napa Valley Burger Crunchified - Fresh goat cheese, watercress, meyer lemon honey mustard, potato chips. 

Bobby Flay has entered into the competition for the past 5+ years and hasn't yet sniffed the people's choice award. I'm not sure why, as this year's burger was very good, even if it was a little simple. The goat cheese was great on the burger, and the chips were actually pretty tasty. No idea why is was called the "Napa Valley" burger.

Village Whiskey (Philadelphia, PA)
Village Burger - Sesame roll, house made thousand island dressing, tomato, Boston bibb served with a side of Yellow Finn Poutineconfit and farmer's cheese.

Side dish of the night! Whoa mama those fries were amazing! 

Bistro One LR at The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach (Miami Beach, FL)
Bistro Burger - Beef patty, leeks, Hobb's bacon, and foie gras torchon on a potato bun w/ a side of a truffle tater tot.

The Ritz tried to out-class the rest by combining foie gras and a truffled tater tot. While the burger was fine, I have to admit the tater tot was incredible. 

Here is RR and some other of the Food Network-types on stage talking about the event and their respecting charities. When they weren't there talking they had a great band playing some very fun but loud music:

A funny story from the night. During the VIP hour I was having a burger and talking to two nice Starcom employees when this guy who looks like a football player walks up and says hello to the table and introducing himself. I shake his hand and say "Hi, I'm P. Channon", and he goes, "Todd, nice to meet you." After some small talk one of the girls asked to have his picture taken with him. I was a little confused, and later asked the two ladies who he was "Todd English"..."ok...who is that?" I say to which a get in a DUH voice "a huge celebrity chef." This was later confirmed after I texted my foodie friend Nick asking who Todd English is and getting a response: "The Man!" After I turned around I noticed he was a judge (he's on the right), Art Smith (of Table 52 in Chicago) is on the left:

I snapped a picture of Bobby Flay, this was ironically one of the few times he wasn't standing in the corner fingering his blackberry. He didn't work the crowd at all:

Here is our host, walking around trying burgers with a legit 8-man security detail (that's the back of her head). I will admit she's pretty attractive in person: 

The Verdict

A very fun event. Only in Miami can they turn a burger tasting into an "event!" The only downside to the event was that the only beer to drink was Amstel Light. I will say I don't plan on eating a burger for a couple weeks...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Off to Miami...

I'm heading down to Miami for a couple days for business, but while I'm down there I'm planning on attending a really neat food event called the Burger Bash which is a part of the South Beach Food & Wine Festival and hosted by Rachael Ray. Essentially, it's a big tent on the beach filled with different stations with Chefs cooking what they think is the best burger. At the end of the night, there is a vote as to which is the best. There are some pretty neat Chefs lined up for the event (Spike from Top Chef! & Bobby Flay!). I bolded the ones I'm planning on scouting out to see what they have prepared
  • Ai Fiori (Michael White)
  • Allen Brothers (Samir Dhurandhar)
  • Amstel Light (Jonathon Sawyer) Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef Winner
  • B Spot (Michael Symon)
  • Bistro one LR at The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach
  • BLT Steak Miami (Laurent Tourondel) Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef Winner
  • Bobby's Burger Palace (Bobby Flay)
  • Bulldog Burger (Howie Kleinberg)
  • Burger & Beer Joint
  • Charm City Burger
  • Ciao Bella Gelato
  • El Mago de las Fritas
  • Every Day with Rachael Ray  (Paul Malvone, Boston Burger Company)
  • Good Stuff Eatery (Spike Mendelsohn)
  • Fireman Derek's Pies
  • Ingrid Hoffman
  • Jacques Torres
  • Landmarc (Marc Murphy)
  • Lonesome Dove Cafe (Tim Love)
  • Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (Michael Schwartz)
  • Morimoto (Masaharu Morimoto)
  • Qsine by JVS from Celebrity Cruises (Jacques Van Staden)
  • Radius (Michael Schlow)
  • Shake Shack
  • Town Kitchen & Bar
  • The National (Geoffrey Zakarian)
  • Umami Burger
  • Village Whiskey (Jose Garces)
Needless to say, I'm pretty excited! Like any red blooded half American man I love a good beer and burger. The only downside to this event is that I'm stuck drinking Amstel Light the whole night...

You can read more about the event here:

Ad Hoc at Home: Caramel Ice Cream

To go along with the beef stroganoff we made this past weekend, we also thought it would be fun to make one of the ice cream recipes from Ad Hoc at Home for dessert. We decided on the Caramel Ice Cream recipe because it sounded interesting and actually pretty simple.

Here are the ingredients, a pretty basic ice cream collection of egg yolks, milk and cream, sugar, and salt:

First off, you make the caramel by putting the sugar in a pot with some water and bringing to a simmer. It doesn't look like much now:

But after a while it starts to look familiar!:

After adding and mixing in the cream and milk, you strain and place the mixture in an ice bath:

After cooling in the fridge for some time. We ran our ice cream through our Kitchen Aid mixer attachment, then we put it in the freezer to firm up before serving. When we tasted it we were shocked how rich it was, and decided to balance it with something this case a brownie. Here's the finished product:


Very tasty but also very rich. Anymore than a scoop and the flavor becomes a bit too much in my opinion. It did taste great with the brownie (just a mix, not the Ad Hoc recipe) though. We also thought this would go great with apple pie instead of the traditional vanilla.

Ad Hoc at Home: Beef Stroganoff (includes Braised Short Ribs)

This past weekend our trip to the Twin Cities was cut short after we decided to skip town early before blizzard hit the area on Sunday. We got home on Saturday night and with no plans at all for Sunday I popped open Ad Hoc at Home to look for ideas for the next night's dinner when I came across a recipe for Beef Stroganoff, which my wife and I have made many times prior in the "classic" Cambell's Cream of Mushroom soup style. I started reading the full recipe and taking notes on things I would need at the store. As I was reading I said a couple of times "this seems too easy" and sure enough....sub-recipe!!

Keller's recipe calls for the braised short rib recipe from the previous two pages. I have never braised anything, but Keller notes that "it's a very rewarding process for the chef." I've learned quickly that when TK says rewarding he means "this is going to take a long time...I hope you have comfortable shoes."

After getting back from an early dawn trip to Whole Foods in Lincoln Park where I've never bought more produce in one trip to the store in my entire life, I started on the recipe. The first part of creating the braise is making a red wine reduction, which when done resembles a glaze. This required a whole lot of chopping of carrots, leeks, shallots, thyme, button mushrooms, and onions. You then let it simmer and shake for about 45-50 min before adding the beef and starting the braise.

After the reduction becomes a glaze, Keller tells you to add even more carrots, leeks, onions, and shallots, and to start on the meat. The recipe calls for short ribs, with the bone cut out. The "butcher" at Whole Foods who clearly didn't feel like deboning short ribs at 8am on a Sunday sold me on buying short rib chuck cut in the shape of short ribs. I was tired as well and agreed and took a shortcut which in the end was probably stupid. He claimed for that cut he would charge $3 more a pound, but when I thought about it later that probably isn't too mad of a deal considering otherwise you're paying for the bone weight that you don't eat. If the Butcher & Larder opened before 10:00am or I had more than a day's notice I would of gone there.

Anyway...I digress.

You then dredge the salt and pepper seasoned meat through flour before browing it in a frying pan:

Browning the meat in some very hot canola oil:

After you brown the meat, you wrap it in cheesecloth, add in the newly chopped veggies, and cover with beef broth and let it cook in the oven low and slow for about 2 hours. After it's done, you remove the meat, strain the contents of the pot to separate the braising liquid, and place the meat back in the liquid to cool and soak up the liquid for flavor and tenderness. Before serving the dish, you cut the meat into small bite sized pieces and reheat it by carmalizing it in a pan and placing it in the oven for a short period of time.

TK makes an interesting comment in the beginning of the recipe and states that this beef stroganoff is just as much about the mushrooms as it is the beef, and he's right there are a ton (actually 2 pounds) of Crimini mushrooms in this! In order to make the sauce, you place 1 pound of the mushrooms in a food processor and something that looks like this:

After adding about 3 cups of heavy cream and mixing in the above mixture you get this:

As for the remaining pound of mushrooms, the recipe calls for them to be sauteed and placed on top of the dish. Pre-saute:

Post Saute:

Like much of the other recipes in Ad Hoc, this beef stroganoff is really a sum of parts. When plating, you assemble the beef, pappardelle egg noodles (Keller tell you to make from scratch in a sub recipe, but I had no time for that), mushrooms, and parsley for some color.


This is one good Stroganoff and Keller was right, it's all about the mushrooms here. While the beef had a good amount of flavor, the egg noodles covered in the cream and mushrooms were my favorite part. Our friends, Joanie and Ryan, who (unknown to me) hate mushrooms came over for dinner and both of them cleaned their plates and loved it. While very time consuming to make, this was a winner in my book.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Culinary Christmas in February!

I came home from work just now to find a box from Santa Amazon filled with a couple presents:

After cooking a few items from Ad Hoc at Home and even visiting the namesake restaurant...I had to have more TK! So I went online last week and ordered his first two books; The French Laundry and Bouchon

Needless to say I'm pumped to read through these. But I've promised myself that I'm going to cook my way through most of Ad Hoc at Home before moving onto Bouchon and then eventually to The French Laundry

Grahamwich to revamp by April 1st

Grahamwich posted the following interesting tidbit on their Facebook yesterday:

grahamwich Working on new Grahamwich menu which will drop April 1st. only Reuben and grilled cheese will carry over...consider yourself warned!

I've had both the Grilled Cheese (featuring cheese curds) and the Reuben, and they are both really good. But I'm bummed to see the Short Rib go as it is an incredibly tasty sandwich. I really like GW for what it, quick, unique, and fresh sandwiches that taste good and isn't pretending to be anything it isn't.

Grahamwich has taken alot of heat from the Yelp and Food Critic crowd recently, so perhaps Graham Elliot is listening and this is their attempt at a menu mulligan? When it opened, there was immediate talk of other Chicago locations and even a national franchise a la Craftwich. I'll be interested to see how the menu shapes up...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Culinary Road Trip: The Twin Cities

This past weekend I made a short trip up to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The Twin Cities may not be considered a culinary destination, at least compared to Chicago, New York, and San Francisco...but it sure beats Indianapolis and Cleveland!

To begin my short foodie trip through the area, I'll have to thank my brother-in-law Joe for taking me to an incredible donut shop in west St. Paul. He "found" it after his pregnant wife had a 4:00am craving for donuts and a Google search for "best donuts in St. Paul" turned up Granny's Donut's on Robert Street.

Granny's Donuts  
1555 Robert Street South
St. Paul, MN 55118
(651) 451-6132

This small, traditional, and nondescript donut shop was started in 1987 by two refugees of the Vietnam War Xuan To, 64 and Que Banh, 58. It's since become a West St. Paul institution. A large window into the kitchen reveals that all the donuts are made by hand from scratch. With little help, this husband and wife team make every donut that is sold in the shop. Donuts are reasonable as well, as my brother-in-law bought 17 donuts for $15. This was very fresh and very tasty!

If you would like to read more about Granny's, see this article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune from two days ago: Star Tribune Granny's Article.

Travail Kitchen & Amusements
4154 West Broadway
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

For dinner, my sister-in-law (a culinary graduate of Kendall College and now director of instruction at a Minneapolis cooking store) took the rest of us to the very unique Travail in Robbinsdale, MN. Travail is casual, takes no reservations, no website, no menus, has no servers, and is very inexpensive. But what you'll find there is two parts molecular gastronomy and one side bar basics, all improvised.

The space is very neat, with an open kitchen and a long bar running the length of the room with room for seating, much like a sushi bar. All staffers both cook and serve, and all employees contributes to developing the constantly changing chalkboard menu. Co-owned by Mike Brown (previously of Binkley's in Arizona) and James Winberg (formerly of Bouchon in Yountville) enthusiasm is the name of the game for the chefs that they recruited from across the country, all of whom work 70-80 hour weeks trying to one-up each other.

You can order small plates of Charcuterie, soup, scallops, and "blue cheese tater tots," or do what we did and order the 10-course "chef's choice" tasting menu, which is designed for two people (but we had three for the six of us) for $60. Highlights included beef tartar, foie gras, ravioli stuffed with an apple puree, scallops, beet salad, among others.

In addition to the great food, the bar is fantastic, featuring a great draft list of local beers like Summit and Surly, as well as some national brews like Anchor Steam. On one side of the room there is a waiting area that has shuffle board. Great atmosphere for waiting! 

Blue Door Pub
1811 Selby Avenue
Saint Paul, MN 55104
(651) 493-1865

Once featured on Diners, Drive-In's, and Dives this St. Paul neighborhood pub is home of the "Juicy Blucy." What is a Juicy Blucy??? Well, instead of placing the cheese and toppings on top of the burger, the Blue Door Pub (and others in the Twin Cities) fuse two burger patties around the cheese and toppings creating a juicy pocket of goodness to bite into. Not only do they have great burgers, they offer such upper midwest standbys as cheese curds, fried green beans, spam bites (balls of cream cheese and spam breaded and fried), and all-world tater tots.

Every month, the Blue Door has a Burger of the Month posted on a chalkboard next to the bar, effectively daring diners to try it. After being there a couple times before, I was in the mood for trying something unique and I went for it. Here's the description from their website:

For the Paul Bunyon in all of us! Come on in and enjoy a burger filled with smoked Gouda and bacon sprinkled with cayenne pepper then sealed together and grilled to perfection. But wait! We aren't finished... What kind of lumberjack passes up a good helping of syrup?! That's right. Topped with sweet maple syrup and not something you want to miss!

It was amazing...sweet, spicy and juicy.

Minneapolis may not be on the national culinary radar, but it's very underrated with many hidden gems to discover!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Culinary Road Trip: Napa Valley

 This past Saturday, my wife and I made a day trip up from San Francisco to the Napa Valley.

Bouchon Bakery
6528 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2253

First off in our tour of the area was a stop at Bouchon Bakery, which is the town bakery owned by Thomas Keller. It's literally a small structure sitting next to Bouchon, his French Bistro inspired restaurant. Inside there is a small display and ordering spot with a large bakery in the back. Even at an odd hour in the morning, there was a sizable line snaking out the door with people stopping in for breakfast or even a snack while in town for vacation or a wine tasting. Once inside, we were like kids in a candy store and ordered way too much! We tried the bacon and cheese scones, a croissant, two macaroons, a cookie, and a cinnamon caramel sweetbread. All were good, but the standouts to me was the bacon and cheese scone which was out of this world (and carried a sizable amount of bacon grease in the mixture), and the macaroons which were chilled to perfection and had a soft cream filling...more like a macaroon sandwich. We tried a little bit of everything and saved the rest to snack on for the rest of the day and weekend. I also tried the Hot Chocolate, which tasted like a warm liquid version of the chocolate ice cream I made the previous weekend from the Ad Hoc cookbook! We sat outside in the warm sun and enjoyed our treats. Here's a picture of the storefront while waiting in line: 

 Oakville Grocery
7856 St. Helena Highway
Napa, CA 94558
(707) 944-8802
Still full from our breakfast snack mission to Bouchon Bakery, we visited the Oakville Grocery for a light lunch and to look around as it came highly recommended to me by someone who has spent alot of time in the area. The Grocery sits on the main road running through the Valley and is obviously a popular place for tourists and the limo and vans filled to the brim with groups of people going wine tasting tours. By lunchtime the tiny store is packed with buzzed 40-something yuppies looking for picnic baskets and munchies. Once we managed to squeeze ourselves to the back of the store to order lunch, we got a BLT with avocado, a crab cake, and some coleslaw to split with an old fashioned glass bottle coke. The food here is very good, but when paying $10 a sandwich and ~$30 for lunch it would be nice to not feel like I was in the middle of a bachelorette party or college reunion! We ate our lunch in the back on some picnic benches before hitting the road to see a few wineries. Here's a shot of the outside of the Grocery: 

 We mostly toured around the Valley all afternoon enjoying the scenery and warmth but we did visit a few different places for tastings. Among my favorites were Silver Oak and Cade Winery. Silver Oak is a pretty popular wine with most men that I know as they produce big bold cedar Cabs that pair well with steaks and other red meat. Silver Oak is pretty prototypical of the many tasting warehouses in the Napa Valley where the limo pulls up, 8 frat buddies pile out in shorts and flip flops, they pound their two tastings, buy a bottle of wine, and get back hopefully into the limo that dropped them off there bounding towards the next stop. The winery is very pretty though, and since it was such a nice day the nice servers were happy to let you roam the grounds with your tasting. The tasting here costs about $25 for two tastings, but in a nice touch they give you a souvenir Silver Oak logo wine glass to take home with you. Here is a shot of the Silver Oak grounds:

In a nice juxtaposition, we also made our way up to Cade Winery based on the recommendation of a co-worker who's significant other is a wine distributor here in Chicago. In order to get to Cade, you leave the valley to climb a surrounding mountain via a small two lane road (thanks GPS!) and you find a small entrance to the winery and tasting room. This is much different that the other wineries that I saw in the Valley, reservation only, the tasting was much more quiet, relaxed, and informative. I really liked their SB (even not being a big white wine guy) and their Estate Cabernet which is very good and closer to a Bordeaux style.

Here's the sign and logo: 

And a shot of the very neat view off the back of the mountain and the surrounding tasting area:

After getting our fill of the tasting and winery circuit, we made our way back to Yountville and decided to go on a long walk in the setting warm sun before tackling dinner later. Yountville is really a pretty nice little town once removed from the touristy areas along the main drag through town. There are small quaint parks, trails through local wineries, and nice vacation homes. We also decided to walk down to the other side of town to check out The French Laundry, and in particular their 3 acre garden that sits next to the restaurant. Their garden is really fantastic, not huge, but large enough to reportedly supply The French Laundry, Bouchon, and Ad Hoc with 30% of their produce. In line with my complete man-crush on Thomas Keller, when walking by The French Laundry I spotted him from across the street standing in the garden talking with some guests, and had to snap a picture in full tourist mode! Here it is (he's the guy in the white chef's jacket, obviously):

Ad Hoc
6476 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

After successfully creeping out even myself in stalking Thomas Keller, we made our way to dinner at his other restaurant in town, Ad Hoc: 

Ad Hoc was built as a "temporary" pop-up restaurant by Thomas Keller and his restaurant group after he needed to fill some recently purchased space in town. Ad Hoc focused on serving "family style" meals but with the extreme attention to detail that diners have come to expect from Keller. His executive chef here is Dave Cruz who, much like down the street at The French Laundry, creates the menu each day from scratch. Each menu consists of a salad, entree, cheese course, and a dessert. Our menu from last week is as follows: 
Spinach Salad
tfl garden sunchokes,
soft boiled hen egg,
roasted chioggia beets,
pickled asparagus,
shallot vinaigrette
Liberty Farm's Seared Duck Breast
wilted frisee, spring onions,
celery treks , braised radish
red rice, rapini leaves
maldon flatbread, rocket arugula
cranberry dressing
Orange Poundcake
buttermilk sorbet


Once we had made reservations at Ad Hoc about 5 weeks prior to our visit, I signed up for their e-mail list that sends out the daily menu the 5 days a week they are open (Thursday through Monday) as well as bought the Ad Hoc at Home cookbook which I've already read through completely and even cooked from in advance of a dinner party we threw (see Chicken Pot Pie and Banana Bread Pudding posts above). Needless to say, I was pumped for dinner and it didn't disappoint.

The spinach salad features sunchokes from the very French Laundry garden we had just walked past and was obviously very fresh and light. The hen egg added a nice layer as did the very good pickled asparagus.

For the main course, they had a seared duck breast (which is actually featured in Ad Hoc at Home). I thought it was very good, but I am a huge fan of duck. It was pretty simple dish, served in an all-clad pan, that really let the super high quality fresh duck breast speak for itself. Since my wife hates all things duck, she asked if they could make her a vegetarian dish instead and they brought out a fillet of sauteed Alaskan halibut which she said was fine. Both dishes were served with a side of red rice. As a special addition to the meal, there was also an option to add a rabbit side dish (it was presented essentially as three sushi-like rolls filled with rabbit meat) which I thought was very tasty.

Perhaps the highlight of the entire meal was the cheese course called "seahive." The waiter said that the cheese was brought in from Washington state and is a favorite of the chef. It was served on a piece of maldon flatbread and with a cranberry dressing on top. It was fantastic!

Dessert was a small individual poundcake served with a side of buttermilk orange sorbet. Each on their own was good, but eaten together it was heavenly and a perfect way to round out the meal.

Overall I thought Ad Hoc was great and even more so after reading their cookbook and having an appreciation for the concept and food before eating there. In my opinion the weakest part of the meal might of been the main course, but even that was way above average! The service was fantastic, from the bar staff (inexpensive wines and bottled beer) to our waitress who very nicely gave me a copy of the menu (including the Ad Hoc folder!) to take home with me.

After dinner we hoped back into the rental car and made our late night hour-long drive back to the city. While we were crazy about the food and wine in the Napa area, we were both not so sure we'd rush back on a weekend or a day trip. The area really is a culinary destination and deserves a long weekend on it's own. I did decided however, I won't be back in Napa without a reservation and visit to The French Laundry!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Culinary Road Trip: San Francisco

This past week my wife and I took a long weekend vacation to San Francisco and the Napa Valley. I came away from the trip thinking that this area might be the best place to eat and drink in the entire country!

Fresh from getting off the plane, we jumped on the BART system and made our way to the 16th and Mission stop around noon in anticipation of a 1pm tour of Anchor Steam Brewing Company, located about a mile away according to Google Maps. Since when we got of the train we found ourselves in a very Hispanic neighborhood, we thought Mexican food would make the most sense and we took off in search of an authentic taqueria.

Dos Pinas
251 Rhode Island St. #102
San Francisco, CA 04103
(415) 252-8220

We found a local place, Dos Pinas that was busting at the seems with customers at noon, across the street from a culinary academy. We gave it a shot and we're glad we did. Dos Pinas is a small, maybe 30 seat place with order and pickup windows. My wife had the California Tacos, with chicken breast, lettuce, pico de gallo, fresh guac, sour cream, red rice, and beans which were very good and according to her "better than Big Star!" I had the carnitas "Street Tacos" which were little corn tortillas, cebollas y cilantro, and salsa verde these were also very tasty. I'd recommend giving them a try if you're in the area or are killing time before a brewery tour.

Anchor Steam Brewery
1705 Mariposa Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415) 863-8350

We then made the short walk over to the Anchor Steam brewery:

I had to call 6 weeks in advance in order to get a reservation to a brewery tour. Tours are limited to about 20 people, once or sometimes twice a day, only on the weekdays. You meet in their own private pub, lined with cool beer memorabilia, Anchor Steam or otherwise (they had a large Old Style and Schlitz collection, seriously). Our tour guide did a great job, telling the story of a 100+ year old brewery that was ready to close in the 1960s when a local wealthy Stanford graduate who loved the beer and didn't want it to go away named Fritz Maytag bought the company and ran it until last year when he sold it to an investment group. He ran it as a labor of love and it shows to this day. After a half hour tour through the facility, which produces 90,000 barrels of beer a year, our guide let everyone taste the Company's 6 draft beers for the next hour plus. The tour is free, but reservations are tough!

You can read more about the Company here:

Here is a picture of their very neat copper brewing kettles: 

And a picture of their neat tap room filled with leather chairs, a wood bar, big windows, and a bunch of cool beer memorabilia:

Flour + Water
2401 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 826-7000

Our first night in San Francisco we went to dinner at Flour + Water. I first saw Flour + Water in GQ, who named it the 2nd best new restaurant in the country in a recent issue. The menu here is Italian and focuses on seasonal ingredients, including featuring an in-house butcher. Small and with a neighborhood feel, F+W is a fun and relaxing place to eat.

According to the restaurant, they have a pizza oven capable of getting up to 800* and are known for their pies. So we ordered one as an appetizer which was recommended. The pizza was light, almost pesto-style, and very tasty. For my main course I had a wonderful veal liver ravioli that was incredibly fresh and cooked perfectly. My wife had a beef tongue bolenesi that was good as well. A national top-10 restaurant experience? Not sure about that, but it was very solid none the less!

 Humphry Slocombe
2790 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 550-6971

After dinner we made the very short walk down to Humphry Slocombe for a scoop or two of artisan ice cream. They feature some wild and very unique flavors here, including Foie Gras and Government Cheese. I ended up with the Secret Breakfast which was a vanilla ice cream with bourbon and corn flakes which sounds odd but was really fun and tasty! We later found there ice cream featured at a local restaurant as a dessert side.
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 673-2757

After a tour of Alcatraz Island, we walked over to the very popular 99 year-old Swan Oyster Depot for lunch. Very popular, we waited for about an hour for the tiny establishment to turn over. Inside, the restaurant is filled with seafood and is more like a fish market that decided to plug in a few stools and serve easy seafood dishes on a long marble bar. The menu is limited to New England Clam Chowder, fresh crab, shrimp, prawns, oyster, clams, and a few smoked fish. My wife and both had a cup of the clam chowder and expected heaven...but it was an oversalted and over clam sauced broth. That wasn't too great, but we did get a "combination" salad with huge chunks of crab, prawns, and shrimp over a simple bed of lettuce and a little dressing that was just awesome and worth standing in line for!

Here's the exterior:

Great Eastern Restaurant
649 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 986-2500

For dinner that night was at Great Eastern in Chinatown. My wife had been with family before and recommended it. This was kind of our token Chinese stop of the tour and to be honest was the weakest meal we had. We ordered pot stickers (great), chow mien (eh), egg rolls (eh), Mongolian beef (great), and a chicken rice (fine). The restaurant has some fish aquariums in the back which I think is supposed to show the freshness of the fish...but I thought it looked gross and like the seafood was barely alive if at all.

Mama's on Washington Square
1701 Stockton St.
San Francisco, CA

For brunch on Sunday, we headed to the San Francisco breakfast institution known as Mama's on Washington Square. We walked up to the restaurant right after it opened at 8am, to find it full and a line of 30 people outside. After a little more of an hour waiting, we were inside and waiting in line next to the cooks and the awesome selection of baked goods and ingredients:

My wife had the pancakes, which sounds boring, but the waitress said that they are the best with a house jam that they keep on the tables. The jam, a mix of fresh berries, was fantastic and made the cakes taste great. I ordered one of their house specials: dungeness crab Benedict with fresh spinach. This was pure seafood at breakfast heaven. To top it off I ordered a side of sausage links, which were clearly not bought at the store and were hand made and fantastic quality. The line here is a pain (we did get to watch a Chinatown new year's10k run by though), but in the end it was clearly worth it. Here was the line as we were leaving:

3870 17th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114

After working up an apatite riding bikes across the Golden Gate bridge and over to Sausolito, we walked down from the hotel to visit  Melissa Perello's Frances in the Castro neighborhood. Frances was awarded a Michelin star in its first year of operation and came highly recommended. The space is very small, with room for maybe 16 tables and a small bar and an even smaller kitchen. Because of the lack of space, reservations are impossible and go months in advance. While I tried to call 6 weeks in advance, they were all booked but mentioned that the bar is always open for walk-ins. We decided for an early dinner on our last night in town and made our way over before 5pm. By the time the doors opened there was a significant line and people were figuring out the proper order of who came first!

The menu changes daily based on local ingredients and is pretty limited. It's broken out into bouchees, appetizers, entrees, and sides. With 4 options within each category. Here was the menu the night we went:

First, we had the Applewood Smoked Bacon Beinets, served with a little creme fraiche. These are much talked about from previous reviewers on Yelp and Food Blogs, and they were not wrong...they were incredible. Light, fluffy, and fried...these were really good. Then we had the Panisse Frites, which consisted of 4 sticks of fried chickpeas and served with a spicy aioli. These were also a great starter, and reminded us both of a dish we had at Girl and the Goat here in Chicago this past summer.

 While my wife had the lettuce salad, which she loved, for an appetizer, while I had the white bean soup. The soup was fantastic, subtle, but a ton of flavor. For the main course I had the wonderful risotto and my wife had the steak. Both were very strong main dishes that, coupled with the previous dishes, made for a fantastically well rounded meal. And for dessert, we had their signature lumberjack cake with a scoop of Humphrey Slocum maple walnut ice cream.

Another neat thing about Frances is that they offer two house wines, for $1 an ounce. They came in a quasi-beaker with markings every 2 ounces down, filled to the top, and you only way for what you don't drink. Fantastic. In addition to wine, they also served beer in bottles and had one local breweries beer (Magnolia) on draft.


I think San Francisco might be the best city in the country to eat and drink. The combination of a long growing season, proximity to farms (quality beef, poultry, and pork), west coast breweries, and nearby Napa Valley's wine. I don't think it's a coincidence that there are so many world class chefs practicing in the area!

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