Monday, October 8, 2012

Some Thoughts On San Francisco Mexican Food

I'm going to have to sadly report that La Taqueria is declining in quality. The prices have gone up, and I didn't love my burrito de carnitas con todo the last time I was there. It was a little dry and strangely both salty and flavorless, as if they had over salted to compensate for the lack of seasoning on the meat (or the quality). The tortilla was drier than it should have been, and I felt that the portion was too small for the ten dollars I paid. Since in the past every element of their burrito has been perfect, including the tortilla, this was a major disappointment.  I haven't found a burrito that I like as much as I used to like theirs, but I have SF homies keeping an eye out. As for other things Mexican, I do have some suggestions.
For nachos and pozole, I'd recommend Zapata on 18th and Collingwood. For great mezcal and tequila I'd recommend Tacolicious/Mosto. The bartenders at the one on Valencia know what's up and will pour you something you'll love if you let them. For shrimp, La Corneta still owns it. Their garlic or chili camarones are delicious with tortillas and guacamole. El Huarache makes awesome quesadillas de cecina and huaraches. I think they're usually at the Alemany farmer's market on Saturdays, and probably at other markets around the Bay.

I'd love a Del Maguey right now to burn all the sickness away. If anyone knows where to get good mezcal in Rome do let me know.

Belly Fat

I'm currently quite sick and yet swamped with work. I scraped up the energy to make a pot of caldo de pollo with chayote, yellow corn, zucchini and carrots, otherwise known as the Mexican cure-all (even more so than Vicks, which I am also using).
However, in order to make myself feel truly better and able to do the things that need to get done, I've decided to turn to the ultimate weapon: experimenting with pork belly.

I bought a small piece of uncured pancetta (pork belly) from my friendly neighborhood pork butcher, and I'm going to cure it. I haven't yet decided if it will be air cured, Italian style, or oven cured, bacon style. I don't have a smoker, but the internet authorities are clear that one isn't necessary.

It'll be a week before any results come in, but just beginning the curing process is making me happy. In the mean time, I've got caldo...and roommate's mom's lasagna.

The cure:
Salt (no curing salt, which means it won't be as pretty when I cook it later but is plenty safe in this case. I'll be ordering curing salt ASAP)
Chili flakes
Brown Sugar (and a bit of Honey)
Cumin (just a touch)
Crushed Garlic
Whole Cloves
Fresh Sage

We'll see what happens with this little test run...if it is successful, the pork butcher is going to be seeing a lot more of me.

In other news, the owner of my local Korean restaurant told me where to find the Korean market. My roommates have no idea what lies in wait for them once I have my hands on some doenjang and gochujang (and hopefully homemade tofu).

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tamarind Chicken

I feel like lately my success rate with new dishes is increasing. The experimental tamarind chicken I made last night turned out quite well, if I may say so myself.
The tamarind glaze included chile de arbol, garlic, light brown sugar and soy sauce. Browning and then baking the legs gave the skin a bit of crispness, and basting with the glaze 25 and 40 minutes into baking helped the sweet sour flavor of the tamarind seep into the flesh of the chicken.
It came out moist and piquant. This despite the fact that I have no idea what the degrees Celsius on my oven mean in Fahrenheit.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Coda alla Homie Sapiens

Monday I simmered veal tail, carrots, caramelized onions and porcini mushrooms in red wine and homemade beef stock for about 5 hours. I had caramelized the onions in butter beforehand, then set them aside and browned the tail in the same pot before adding a cup of red wine, a cup of stock and three fresh tomatos. Then I let it sit. After about three hours I added a little brown sugar to balance the acidity of the wine and tomatos.

When we ate dinner around 9, the meat was falling off the bone and the sauce was velvety rich. It clung to the meat and was beautiful as a gravy on the mashed yukon gold potatoes with parmigiano I served as an accompaniment. The sugo was perfect on pasta the next day, too.

I'm proud of myself. Also, I'm excited for it to get colder, that way I can cook winter food without my roommates thinking I'm crazy. Tonight I'm making tamarind chicken. We'll see how it comes out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Parmigiano Reggiano

In the aftermath of the May earthquakes in Emilia Romagna, many were left homeless. There were deaths, and of course there was significant damage to homes, businesses and historical sites. Homie Sapiens feels terrible for the people who lost homes or family members.
The quake also broke around 300,000 immense wheels of the region's cheeses, including the famous parmigiano reggiano. Young wheels, aged wheels, teenaged wheels, the producers had everything in basically worthless chunks. So they sold it at a fraction of the market price. My friend, a native of the region, bought up a considerable amount of parmigiano in different stages of aging and enterprisingly offered it around to us. This is how a kilo each of 14 month old, 22 month old and one unknown age parmigiano came to be residing in my welcoming refrigerator.
Initial sampling of the 14 month old parmigiano reggiano reveals a perfect dessert cheese. Paired with honey it is salty, richly savory and a little tangy. I suspect it would be stellar paired with apricot or fig. The cheese on its own is creamy, nutty and a bit peppery. It has the faint floral perfume that only good parmigiano boasts, and a mere hint of the funkiness of aging.
I'll let you know what the others are like when I break them open.
And in case you're wondering, my friend's people were fine.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

More (and Better) Gelato

I stand by Fassi's rice and Fior di Luna's pine nut, but my time here in Rome has taught me that there is always a better cup of gelato waiting around the bend. So that you may experience joy, I have slogged through many different offerings of varying quality and have emerged with these recommendations:

Fatamorgana makes innovative flavors with meticulously sourced ingredients (all natural). The flavors change seasonally, but I last had a gelato di zucca (squash) that was intensely squashy and not too sweet. It had toasted pumpkin seeds in it, which I think we can all agree is an awesome detail. I go to the location in Monti on the Piazza degli Zingari.

I Caruso makes the object of my current obsession: fig gelato. I've never eaten an ice cream that so completely evokes the fruit, split open and glistening in my hands, filling my mouth and nose with its perfume and soft pulp. This is a gelato to beat all others. It captures the texture of a ripe fig, not just the flavor. They only make around ten flavors regularly, in addition to changing monthly and weekly flavors. Last week they had pear gelato that was similarly out of this world perfect, down to the slight graininess of a pear's flesh. The classic flavors are also potent and wonderful, particularly the gianduia (chocolate hazelnut) and pistacchio. Find it at Via Collina, 13-15, close to the Repubblica metro stop, amidst the glamorous palazzi of the financial district.

Gelateria del Teatro is another good choice for a lovely pistacchio, and their more innovative flavors can be great. I had a ricotta, raspberry and sage gelato that was fluffy, sweet and aromatic all at once, delivering on the promised flavors. On the other hand, there was barely any fig flavor in the fig and honey gelato (thank goodness I've found a reliable source). Via di San Simone, 70.

I will continue to seek ever more delicious gelato for you, dear readers. It is a thankless and miserable task, but lucky for you I'm just that selfless.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Trattoria Monti, April 26, 2012

 It saddens me to have to write my first negative review here on Homie Sapiens. Normally I gloss over the less than perfect eating experiences because I would rather write delicious reviews than disappointed ones. However, Trattoria Monti was well recommended to me, so I am suffering from frustrated disillusionment. Expecting a reasonably priced, casually elegant meal, instead I received a moderately bad meal in a casually pretentious setting. At forty euro a head for two pastas, two secondi (one vegetarian) and a bottle of wine, I expect better. Let me clarify: I know I can get stellar cuisine for that price, so why settle for less?
On a Wednesday at 10 pm, the restaurant was filled with a well heeled, relatively mature crowd. Since we hadn’t made reservations, we took a ten minute walk around the neighborhood. The service was friendly enough, although the amount of discussion between the waiters before putting our name down seemed more suited to an exclusive club than a neighborhood restaurant. For our first course, we ordered ravioli stuffed with a white fish in a fresh tomato sauce and tagliolini with anchovies, pecorino and golden raisins. My dining companion felt that the filling of his ravioli was a little dry, too compressed and crumbly compared to other versions (including his mother’s, but that is to be expected). I felt my pasta was mediocre in quality and that the flavor of the raisins was completely lost unless you actually had one in your mouth.
We were both hoping the secondi would be better. We were both disappointed. The radicchio torte my friend ordered was one of the most unappetizing sights I have ever seen served in a restaurant. It was a perfectly rounded, uniformly matte brown scoop in the middle of a pale yellow puree, with a crowning sprig of parsley that did nothing to redeem it. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked, but I have to admit to a moment of embarrassment that anyone would serve something so ugly. The texture was bizarrely mushy, and it didn’t really taste like radicchio so much as like hazelnuts, mushrooms and earth. Not terrible, but definitely not great.
My baccala (salt cured cod) with tomatoes and onions should have been easy to execute. I didn’t expect it to be as good as my mother’s, but I am still struggling to understand how the chef could have gone so wrong with a relatively simple combination of flavors. The fish was overcooked to a slightly rubbery texture and the sauce was too sweet and strangely gelatinous. It was also devoid of any chunks of tomato or visible onions, which underscored the unfortunate departure from the rustic, saucy and vibrant baccala I know and love.
Then, though we still had a quarter bottle left of the delicious Sylvaner we were drinking, the waiter pressured us into ordering dessert or coffee. He was obviously trying to rush us out so they could close, which I always find rude but which was especially so considering the three other tables still finishing their meals. To make matters worse, he brought the coffees long before we were done with our wine! This may seem like a petty detail, but drinking the coffee would have completely ruined our palates for the lovely (white) wine we had left. As a consequence, our coffee was stone cold by the time we could drink it. At a restaurant that considers itself as highly as this one does, I expect service to be polite and alert enough to gauge these details.
The only thing I truly enjoyed was the Kuen Hof 2010 Sylvaner from the Sudtirol. It was crisp, with a faint aroma of lemongrass and a lively balance of Asian pear and Alpine minerals. Imagine drinking mountain spring water out of cupped hands after a grueling trek, savoring the traces of stone and lingering winter on your palate. In general the wine list was quite good and reasonable, with a wide selection of bottles for 25 euro or less as well as more expensive options.
Trattoria Monti reminded me that it might be better to avoid things your parents make wonderfully at home. Unfortunately for my friend and me, that would rule out dishes ranging across cuisines from Mexico to Japan. Instead, I will say I am eternally grateful for my mother’s wonderful culinary skills and for the discerning palate she fostered in me. The art of cooking (and eating) is a legacy to be passed on as thoroughly and carefully as any more material inheritance. As one of the next generation of cooks and epicureans in my family, I can only be thankful.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rome, April 26, 2012

I have been struggling with what to tell you about Rome in the past few weeks. It doesn’t feel necessary to talk about how beautiful this city is, even though it continues to astonish me every time I leave the house. I imagine you would get tired of reading about gelato, though I found a place with better pistachio than Fassi. Though I am constantly inspired to create, the fruits of my labor don’t yet illustrate the contours of my experience here.
So what can I tell you, a month and a half into this adventure? I don’t really have the words to describe how content I feel here in my room with high ceilings, or to truly describe the glorious minutiae of my days doing nothing. To say I awaken gratefully each day doesn’t come close to expressing the pleasure I derive from simply existing in this place. But I owe you an honest attempt, because the only thing that could make this better would be to share it with you.
 My roommate makes espresso, and I sip at leisure while reading the news. Some days I walk to the market and sift through vegetables with a stern face, rejecting cabbages until I find an optimal combination of price and quality. It pleases me to play the discerning buyer, and it has made me some friends among the vendors who consistently prevail. They have the brightest, most fragrant fennel and their chayote has the right waxy sheen. They give me good deals on beets and carrots, of which I buy a lot to experiment with fresh juices, and they always answer my questions when I ask about things I’ve never seen. One woman, whose greens are always beautiful, gives me tips on how to prepare quintessential Italian contorni like the grassy agretti currently in season.
I make lunch every day, sometimes just a salad but more often a pot of soup. Last week it was meaty, sweet borscht with the beet greens wilted on top under a drizzle of olive oil. Then a classic Mexican caldo de res, with its iridescent swirls of fat from the marrow bones and lots of oregano, lime and chili. My roommates eye my creations with dubious faces that become smiles as the first taste settles into their stomachs.
Dinner tends toward the Italian, especially at the frequent dinner parties we are hosting. This past weekend brought two seafood pastas, one with calamari, langoustines and cherry tomatoes and another with clams in white wine and parsley. I like to push the boundaries of tradition with second courses, and so we served a roast chicken with paprika, oranges and fennel one night and mussels in beer and fennel broth the other (we had a lot of fennel). The chicken, a particularly meaty specimen, furnished a leisurely Sunday lunch alongside my roommate’s fragrant Iranian currant rice. The crunchy part from the bottom of the pot was resplendent soaked in the chicken’s citrusy pan juices. The beginning of this week continued to benefit from the same bounteous chicken, whose carcass became a clean broth full of vegetables best eaten with a squirt of sriracha and cilantro.
If it sounds as if I spend my days cooking and eating, I can’t deny that I do. But I also read, in Italian to boost my vocabulary and in English to stimulate my intellect. At museums I let the grace of marble sculptures awe me, so that I am filled with the beauty of their frozen movements. There is always a different church to rest in when I am overwhelmed by the echoes in this ancient place. Laundry affords the singular pleasure of inhaling the scent of sun dried towels, pressing my face to each one as I take it off the line.  
Lest you accuse me of omitting the awkward edges, most days I argue with clerks over absurd details in broken Italian. The lady that lives downstairs is convinced we’re trying to destroy her house with our bad plumbing, so she calls and calls as if yelling will make the pipes reseal. I listen to the list of our transgressions in vague comprehension, though I suspect no amount of Italian will help me understand. Time flies by while I wait in line, only to realize no one is being served in any particular order. My grad student roommate and I commiserate over the egotistical habits of professors and bureaucrats alike. I wait for someone else to clean the bathroom, or take out the trash. On Wednesdays I journey to tango class via a bus that only comes when I’ve given up hope of getting there on time.
Living in Rome is like being in love. You struggle over the smallest, most banal details, but when you go to bed at the end of your day you are suffused with the rightness of being together.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gelato, April 1, 2012

Let’s talk about gelato. A term often bandied about by neophytes and dessert junkies alike, gelato is actually just the Italian word for ice cream. What has given it legendary connotations worldwide is that in Italy, ice cream is quite simply better than anywhere else. The texture is simultaneously denser and softer than other ice creams, resulting in a velvety mouthfeel. Gelato is never so cold that it is hard. You don’t need to bite it, either. It clings to the spoon or cone, but gives sensuously to the slightest pressure of your tongue.
To be completely fair, San Francisco ice cream makers tend to have more creative flavors (like so much else, ice cream is an SF food fetish). In Italy, you are unlikely to find balsamic and strawberry, or avocado, or bourbon and cornflake, except at a few select shops. However, there isn’t an ice creamery in the US that can match Italian nut flavors like pistachio, pine nut, hazelnut or walnut. In the past week, I admit I’ve eaten more gelato than in the past year. The two gelaterias that stand out so far are G. Fassi, near Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, and Fior di Luna in Trastevere.
Fassi is emphatically of the old school, situated in a cavernous space with promisingly grumpy service. The flavors are mostly traditional, comprising a good twenty five different fruit, chocolate, nut and dessert combos. You pay and get a ticket, then at the counter you order the flavors (multiple) that you want in your cup or cone. My first taste of Fassi was actually an ice cream cake at home. It blew my mind, firstly because of the clarity of the flavors and the phenomenal silky texture, but secondly because this ice cream cake was all ice cream, no cake in sight. It was as if someone had gone to the fount of all good desserts and tailored one to me. Coffee, dark chocolate and vanilla melted beautifully on my tongue, I found it disturbingly difficult to stop eating. My second taste was at peak hours. I got elbowed by several mothers ordering for whole soccer teams, but I walked out victorious with a cup of pistachio and coffee. Both flavors were lusciously tasty, though I've since discovered much better pistachio. Fassi's is ultimately too sweet for me. 
On my third trip to Fassi, I encountered another love at first taste: rice gelato. I expected it to taste like arroz con leche, and at its core it does taste like rice pudding. However, the flavor is so delicate and mildly sweet that you find yourself tasting it over and over to attempt to capture its essence. Also, incredibly, there are actual grains of rice in the gelato, giving your mouth a contrast between the luscious cream and slightly al dente rice. It is, quite frankly, crazy good. Thankfully Fassi is around the corner…life is beautiful.
Fior di Luna is a completely distinct experience, being both very tiny and relatively nontraditional. Texturally, the gelato is a little fluffier than Fassi, though not in a bad way. They take a lot of care in choosing ingredients and the emphasis is on fresh, seasonal fruit flavors. Here, you can only get a cup because they disdain the artificial ingredients in cones (though they do have these fabulous hazelnut wafers that you can eat with your gelato). My favorite flavor so far has been the subtle perfume of pine nut. Their pistachio was slightly too sweet for me, but the winter melon was wonderfully light. They also have chocolate with chili and chocolate with rum, both of which I plan on trying. I look forward to their summer fruit flavors, since the selection expands considerably. If you are in the neighborhood, do try to stop by.
In summation, it is perfectly reasonable to eat gelato every day here. Or so I keep telling myself.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pizzarium, March 19, 2012

It is raining and so I am hiding out in the empty hostel this afternoon. I did go to San Pietro this morning, mostly because it was on the way to Pizzarium, a pizza al taglio (by the slice) spot that, full disclosure, I saw on Anthony Bourdain. I did not go inside the basilica because the line was coiling throughout the piazza already at 11 am (and plus, last time I was here I spent an hour inside with only three other people. You really can't beat that).
In the piazza I also made the unfortunate discovery that my map does not extend to the area where I wanted to go. After a demoralized moment my determination was increased, as going off the map makes me feel more like the intrepid explorer I imagine myself to be. I started walking in the right general direction, ignoring my growing annoyance at the goggling touristi and even feeling severely tempted by a Big Mac. Such are the evils of low blood sugar.
When I got to Cipro metro, even my second wind was flagging. I walked around halfheartedly, telling myself I would leave if Pizzarium did not appear like a mirage in front of me. Just as I had finally admitted defeat, I looked up to see Pizzarium shimmering before me.
Some insane pizza followed. Also insanely expensive pizza, but as my mouth savored crisp, light crust topped with burrata, mixed greens, salty cured anchovies and tomato pesto, I didn’t care. The crust had those scorch marks that only a wood burning oven can create, and the texture was firm enough to support very juicy toppings without being tough or hard. Arugula, fennel and parsley brought out the flowers and grass flavor of the burrata, which in its creamy turn mellowed the saltiness of the anchovies. Tomato pesto rounded out the flavors with a hint of acid and nuttiness. I smiled the entire time I was eating.
As I was leaving, a pizza topped with perfectly rare tenderloin came out, looking very enticing. I will be going back to try more of the rather haute combinations, including one with copious translucent slices of lardo and another with chicken livers that smelled amazing. The frittura also looked tasty, including three or four equally atypical types of suppli (Roman style rice croquettes similar to arancini).
Pizzarium also has wine and beer and, amazingly, takes credit cards. There is nowhere to sit down, but you can take an artsy palette shaped tray outside to the minimal counter space and two benches, stand, or take your pizza to go to a park. Pizza al taglio is sold by weight, and due to the high end ingredients and attention to detail (and likely the Bourdain endorsement), the pizzas with many toppings range from 20-25 euro a kilo. But you won't be getting that much unless you are feeding a soccer team of gourmand types. Two 3x7 slices will cost around 12 euro. I know…outrageous. But worth it.
Pizzarium is located at Via Della Meloria 41, just off the Via Cipro and just across the street from the Cipro metro (Line A).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Flour+Water, January 19, 2012

Thursday we found ourselves in the Mission, looking for dinner a little on the late side. We stumbled, soaked and shivering, into Flour+Water, where we were treated to one of the best meals I’ve had recently. Of course I had heard the hype, the great things from people who would know, but as a result I almost expected to be disappointed. Happily, my preconceptions did not get in the way of enjoying a stunningly good dinner.

We were seated immediately by a fairly pleasant hostess, but had to wait a bit before seeing our otherwise friendly waiter. They've done a great job using candlelight and warm woods to create an intimate but casual atmosphere, although I suspect at peak times it might feel crowded. At ten pm on a Thursday, it was relaxed and welcoming.

We were offered still and sparkling water, both on tap and complimentary (as it should be). Perusing the wine list revealed a good selection of hard to find Italian wines at very accessible prices ($30-$90). By the glass the choices are fewer, but well curated so that every dish and palate can be satisfyingly matched. Their beer selection is small but includes some standouts, like the Linden St. Brewery Black Lager I drank with my meal.

We decided to start with pastas, skipping the admittedly tempting pork trotter appetizer. I had to have the squid ink spaghetti with clams, squid, watermelon radish and chili oil. I had not had a squid ink pasta since a sublime experience at Rafael, in Lima, so ordering it was my challenge to Flour+Water. The spaghetti was beautiful, dark as night and fragrant with brine and the musky depth of the ink. The texture of the pasta was a perfect al dente, just firm enough to slightly resist my teeth, and the each noodle was silky. It tasted like wet earth and the sea, as poetic as that may sound. Despite being a seafood pasta, it was quite rich. The minimal sauce of ink and seafood juices was just enough to coat the pasta without obscuring the extraordinary flavor and texture of the pasta itself. Perfectly cooked clams and squid provided a nice textural counterpoint to the noodles. The one element that seemed to get lost was the chili oil, since I did not detect any spice whatsoever. It would have been nice to have a bright chili taste to cut the richness just a little, but to be honest I only thought this after the meal. While enjoying the decadence of this phenomenal dish, I thought of little else but my pleasure.

My friends had rosemary pappardelle with braised veal and a prosciutto, braised cabbage, fontina, potato and red onion pizza. The pappardelle was again texturally perfect, further evidence of Flour+Water’s clear mastery of pastas. Paired with the veal, the dish was light but incredibly savory. My first impression was that the rosemary was overpowering, but as I chewed and swallowed the mild, almost sweet veal created a perfect balance with the astringency of the rosemary. My mouth felt completely alert after tasting this dish, and I would order it again in a minute. Unfortunately for this review, I did not taste the pizza, but it looked delicious and my friend quite enjoyed it.

We all split a root vegetable gratin, which was everything gratin should be: creamy and loaded with butter. The root vegetables added a twist to the usual butter and potatoes gratin, making it more complex and even richer in flavor, if that can be believed. I felt like I could hear Thomas Keller extolling the virtues of butter in the background with every bite I took. Trust me that this is a good thing.

We ended with a good macchiato and a chocolate budino; a dense, almost fudgy pudding. This was explosively good, with just enough sea salt to make your mouth salivate and just enough bitterness from the chocolate. It was topped with a coffee caramel whipped cream that would have made me happy on its own. The flavors were perfect, though I would have preferred a slightly less dense consistency for the budino itself. Ultimately it made my mouth so happy that this small concern was just that.

In conclusion, I would like to dispel the idea that this restaurant is somehow overpriced or does not provide value for money. Neither of these assertions is true. The portions were plenty, neither precious nor grotesque. I was honestly surprised that the bill for three people’s meals, a side, dessert, coffee and five beers came out to a modest $30 per person. Considering the stellar quality of the food, good service and elegant surroundings, Flour+Water is one of the more affordable choices at its level. I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates perfect pasta, a good glass of wine and that uniquely Californian aesthetic of well-executed casual elegance.

I loved Flour+Water, and I will be returning as often as possible.

Buon Appetito!