Hearts for Valentine’s Day

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

For Valentine’s Day this year, we happened to be in London.  Hadn’t really consciously planned it that way, but once I had realized the situation, I set a goal to obtain lunch reservations at St. John Restaurant.  I had heard about this place, this Legend years ago.  It never struck me as a particularly spectacular food destination until I read Anthony Bourdain’s opinion that he would eat his last meal on earth here:  Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad.


The place is known for its offal.  I borrowed The Whole Beast: Nose-to-Tail Eating, one of the restaurant’s books written by chef Fergus Henderson, from the library to research in advance the kind of snout-filled, tail-topped, chopped-ear-garnished food we would be presented with the option of eating upon arrival.  Frankly, I’m not really perturbed by offal as I find most of it – barring the wretched tripe – pretty darn tasty.  I’ll never pass up an opportunity to eat sweetbreads or ham hocks and, thanks to Alembic, will always order duck hearts on a menu.  So the prospect of eating at a restaurant infamous for its delicate and respectable treatment of unrespected parts was intriguing.

After several attempts on OpenTable, I snagged us a spot and that became our only appointment in London.   It was also the only appointment to which we arrived late.  We had 3 days to get there, and we got there late.  (Stupid windy streets.)   Out of breath and hungry, we stepped into the simply outfitted dining room and were seated at a table almost precisely in the middle of the room with a fine view of the kitchen shenanigans.

And thus, we began the job of translating the menu into North American.   The signature dish, the one that Anthony Bourdain would die eating, was what we would have to start, no question.  But what is Middlewhite?  What is an Arbroath Smokie?  Uh…  Brawn?  There were actually several more things on the menu about which we had no clue so kept our waiter stuck at our table answering questions for a few minutes.  (Middlewhite is a type of fatty pork.  Arbroath Smokie is a smoked haddock produced only in Arbroath, Scotland.  Brawn is Formula One racing team and, in Britain, a seasoned jellied loaf made from the head and sometimes the feet of a pig or calf.)

Eventually we selected the following:  Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad, Duck Hearts with White Beans (it was á propos for Valentine’s Day), Marc had Braised Hare with Swedes and I had the Arbroath Smokie with Parsnips and side of Mash.   After all that business about nose-to-tail, we forgot to order anything pork.

The coveted bone marrow and salad arrived first accompanied by lobster-eating  implements meant to be used to scoop out the mushy, luscious marrow from inside the bone.   It’s eaten on toast, with a quick lash of grey sea salt and a pinch of parsley salad.  I admit, it was divine- though arguably the bone marrow at Alembic is just as good, if not better.  I couldn’t help the comparison!  It’s all I had known of bone marrow before this!   The duck hearts were lovely, but again, not as good as the jerk-spiced duck hearts with tangy pineapple at Alembic.  So far, a draw.

The main courses arrived and I was presented with a whole fish to eat.  With a rich, creamy sauce and a light smoky flavour, the fish permeated every taste bud and oral receptor, though not unpleasantly.  As I delicately peeled the flesh back from the bone, I informed Marc that I would be smelling of smoked fish for the rest of today, and likely into tomorrow morning.  For his part, Marc heroically finished his large portion of braised hare which tasted rather like lamb.  I suspect that was because the hare in the UK would be different from the tasty bunnies we eat here.  Intriguing, hearty, a proper filling lunch but an enlightenment, it was not.  Alas, I fear I had set the bar too high.


To Wine Country, Jeeves

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

view-cole-valleyThe fog drifts in again and makes itself comfortable on the hill that is Buena Vista Park, opposite our picture window.  It’s this wet blanket of water droplets dampening streets, hiding views and flattening hair that makes me sigh and reminisce about wine country.   Ahh, Napa–  where the sun always shines and the palm trees wave and the wine flows. Unless you rent a convertible, in which case, it is sure to rain.

I’m convinced that the only reason it rained on our trip North recently is because we rented the Mini Cooper Convertible.  It’s cute and all, but kind of simple and definitely not as fun in the dark, cramped, ill-formed back seat with the top up.  Nonetheless, Marc and Marcia and I trooped from winery to winery despite the chill, even stopping for a surreptitiously-timed picnic lunch before the rain began.  As it turns out, a winery is perhaps the most perfect place for civilized picnic outdoors:  tables and chairs are usually positioned with a wide view of vineyard or valley or pond, staff are quick to offer knives or napkins or whatever else has been forgotten at home, and wine is conveniently sold chilled for enjoyment on the spot.  Bread and good cheese, some sun-warmed fresh figs bought at the farm stand along the road, a glass or two of unoaked Chardonnay.  It will be hard to beat that.

After having filled the wee trunk with as much wine as it could carry/we could purchase, we headed for The Fig Café in Glen Ellen.  As they accept no reservations, we took our place second in the queue forming outside the door for the first sitting at 5:30pm.  It smelled delicious as soon as we walked in– did someone toss garlic into pan as the doors were unlocked?



Fried calamari with lemon aioli, no corkage (!), fig and arugula salad with chèvre, pecans and pancetta, duck confit, saffron and white corn pasta, and a humble order of “fries” with tarragon aioli.  Now allow me, please, a moment to elaborate on the fries:  these were The Best Fries I Have Ever Eaten.  They were twice fried, to be sure, but that oil must have contained duck fat or pure lard or something that penetrated the fluffy potato interior and melted in one’s mouth.  Burning hot and very liberally salted, they crunched so preciously between the teeth that I found them more enjoyable eaten one by one by hand, rather than by the civilized forkful.


The three of us, after having eaten and wined all day, could barely muster the strength to get through three quarters of the honey-lavender crème brulée before crying uncle and staggering back out into the drizzle to our cramped little Mini.  The dinner and the wine and the fries more than made up for the rain.

Beat the August Chill

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

It’s been chilly here for the past few days.  If we’re lucky, we get a few hours of sun in the morning, spilling over the hill to the East and into our dawn-facing windows and warming the whole flat.  Then the fog crests the hill to the West and seeps over the side, through the green belt forest, to smother us in a chilly blanket.  I swear the fog leaks through the gaps in the window frames.  It was like this on Saturday, when I started the day in a T-shirt but by noon had wrapped myself into a light sweater.  Despite it’s being August, the cool air encourages a snug and tasty lunch inside, which is how we ended up at The Alembic in the Haight in the early afternoon.

Between lunch and cocktail hour, the bar was quiet; dim with fog-filtered light from the skylight reflecting off the giant mirror at the back and onto the bar.  We chose a table and kept our jackets on while examining the cocktail menu.   It’s written as prose so it takes some time to weigh the options.  At length, I opted for the “Vieux Carré”.



I realize it was designed for hot weather, but cognac sounded warming and solid.  Besides, we were about to order some savoury  snacks that would warm the blood.  The menu here is, I think, perfectly matched to cocktails that are not shy on alcohol: salty, with lots of innards.   Organ meats are tastier, in my opinion, when chased with liquor, bringing out their dark flavours.   We started with a nibble of “Jerk spiced duck hearts with pickled pineapple and thyme salt”.  Marc’s theory is they take delivery of all the parts the other restaurants don’t want and make something creative with the discounted bits.  Perhaps-  though with at least ten little hearts skewered on our plate, how many whole ducks is the Bay Area using?


Scrumptious little bites, with a sweet tang from the pineapple.   This lit the fire and we ordered two more dishes from the daily specials board:  Sweetbreads with potato spuma topped with a quail egg, and Razor clams cooked á la plancha with parsley.



I had never before had razor clams – to what was the clam adapting that it had to become long and narrow? – and spuma was also new to me.  I ate it, so I know that it was a light, creamy, almost-bisque of potato; but now, having looked it up, I find that it is Italian for ‘foam’. I’m not sure if this is how it was done with potatoes, but the Food Dictionary on epicuirious.com described a technique where uncooked meringue is folded into the mixture to give it a light and airy texture.   Topped with hot sweetbreads that were a little crunchy on the outside and bathed in egg yolk, this was my afternoon favourite.   Until we ordered dessert.


The caramelized brioche, with custard and peach-lavender chutney by its side, then became the favourite.  Well, maybe a tie with the sweetbreads.  It might become necessary for this foray into the Haight to become a weekly ritual, if only to keep up with the specials on the chalkboard.

Xmas Eve

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Let’s see— so, November 26th was the last time I posted to this blog. That seems sterotypical of blogdom: start off strong, interest gradually wans, topics fade and the next thing you know, it’s 2008. Well, if December went by in a blur, it’s because we had so much food to prepare and eat that I was too busy to write about it. Or, I was too lazy. Either or. Therefore, I’m re-starting the posting with a bang, the climax of our December, indeed, the climax of our epicurean year: Christmas Eve dinner.

Long has it been tradition in my family to have a heavily “sauced” happy hour, followed by an elaborate dinner on Christmas eve before attending atheist mass (a.k.a. a James Bond movie). This is when the good dishes make their annual appearance, when no cut of meat is too expensive, when four-course meals are warranted. I relish this dinner and look forward to it with more anticipation than any other Christmas treat. Presents? meh. Eggnog lattes, sure, I’ll have a few. Three days worth of menu planning, grocery shopping and food preparation? Be still my beating heart.

This year, since Marc and I decided to have a California Christmas on our own, we opted to continue those traditions, minus the mass, which we substituted with Christmas music by a crackling wood fire. The menu planning actually started about a month and a half earlier when we finally made the big-ticket purchase of The French Laundry cookbook, signed by Thomas Keller. Oh, The Book. How I am enamoured of The Book. It calls to me in the mornings, when the sun in shining through the window onto the love seat by the fireplace, where I can sit with my cappucinno perched on the armrest and reverently read it, relishing every page. I take such pleasure in perusing the fastidious recipes, all the labour-intensive details that go into making one dish, trying to imagine how a person can be so singularly focused on food as to come up with such fantastic ideas for preparation. With much anxiety and trepidation did I construct my first French Laundry dish (which I shall describe in a subsequent post), but the first try gave me the confidence to attempt and FL recipe for this hallowed feast. I could only imagine having the stamina for one such dish, though— for the rest, we turned to simpler fare. Thus, our menu:

Dungeness Crab Salad with Cucumber Jelly, Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette, and Micro Arugula

Duck Confit with Fried Arkansas Black Apples

Lentils with herbs and garlic

Brava Ginger Cakes

Guess which one is Thomas Keller’s. I mean, who makes cucumber jelly? Who even thinks up such a thing? We had to make cucumber juice and cut wee cucumber diamonds to delicately float in the gêlée. We drove across the Bay in order to go to our favourite butcher for the duck legs and found the whole, cooked Dungeness in the fish market next door. It took several hours to de-meat the crab and put together the whole layered affair. It was ridiculously laborious and wonderfully decadent which, I suppose, is really à propos of Christmas.


The confit is something I’ve never tried. Years ago, when Mom & Dad were first living in France, Mom received a gift from someone that, no doubt, seemed normal to a Norman but confused the hell out of a Canadian: a large jar of duck fat. Mom offered to give it to me when we visited as she had no real use for it and I turned it down as couldn’t think of what I would ever do with several pounds of duck fat. Now, I get it. Confit is duck cooked in its own fat for, like, ever. For such a simple dish, this is one of the classics by which I have been somewhat intimidated in the past. It’s so French and, therefore, carries an air of complication about it. I had never even attempted to find a recipe for duck confit as I figured it was something beyond reach of the home cook- don’t you need special tools or applicances or something? Some secret underground technique for masterfully crafting this ancient dish? A Julia Child? And then I saw the recipe in a Bon Appétit magazine, where they proclaimed it the “Technique of the Year” and promised “rich results” for a “surprisingly simple” preparation. That was enough for me— first, because I simply coudn’t finish 2007 without having partaken in the technique of the year, and second, if ever there was an occasion to make such a meal, it was here and now: San Francsico at Christmas.

We weren’t too worried about finding duck fat hereabouts and indeed had no trouble in getting some from our butcher, purchased by the pound from an enormous bucket of fat at the base of the refrigerated case. duck-confit.JPGAfter marinating the duck pieces in salt and garlic overnight, Marc melted down the fat (I suppose I should refer to it as “rendered”), threw the duck legs in and chucked the whole thing in the oven: that is basically all that it needed, which makes me wonder how it is that I could have been so intimidated and misinformed about it in the past. Many deliciously aromatic hours later, we had the most unctuous, flavourful, outrageously extravagent duck that I’ve ever had. With the lentils and the sweet-tart apples, it absolutely melted in the mouth. Clearly, duck fat is the way to go. And as an added bonus, we got to keep the leftover duck sealed in its own congealed fat in the back of the fridge, ready for a quick meal any time this month. Amazing!


ginger-cake.JPGThe ginger cakes, modeled off of our old favourites at Brava bistro in Calgary, have never disappointed. Slowly steamed on the stove top, they emerge from their ramekins as moist puddings to hover in our homemade caramel sauce. This is my desert island dessert, certainly befitting of a Christmas Eve repast. They are so good, in fact, that they may make an appearance on New Year’s Eve. Ginger totally goes with champagne.

And over glasses of port, all snug by the fire, we languished in our gluttony as we contemplated our Christmas Day feast.

Beijing Duck in Beijing

Sunday, June 18th, 2006

Of particular importance during our visit to Beijing was the opportunity to try Beijing duck. Being the milquetoasts that we are, this turned out to be more of an adventure than we anticipated.

First, there was the question of how we were going to make a reservation. Our guide book (without which we would have been hard pressed to function well) suggested a restaurant but made it clear that the staff insisted upon a reservation. Had they not used the word ‘insisted’, we might not have bothered but, in the end, we decided to just call and see if we could bludgeon our way through the language in order to book a spot. Marc lost the rock-paper-scissors and so he made the call. “We may or may not have a table for two at seven.”

Now the second challenge: find the restaurant. Our obstacles were the following: different spellings of the name of the restaurant depending on which map we consulted, an inability to pronounce the name of the restaurant properly, an address within a maze of hutong (small alleyways) which didn’t appear on any map we had, and a city in a frenzy of destruction and reconstruction of great areas of itself in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. We had tried to find a bar the day before and were completely unsuccessful owing to the fact that not only had the bar changed its name and moved, the building it was in, and almost the whole street it was on, was in the process of being torn down. We gave ourselves a 30-minute window to this restaurant that looked to be approximately 5 blocks away. 28 minutes after setting out, Marc returned breathless to the spot I had been waiting while he scouted out the area for the restaurant. It had been an unsuccessful mission. Also, after 20 minutes of waiting , I started worrying that he had fallen into an open excavation and that, while standing there alone on the street corner in my only nice outfit, people were probably beginning to think I was a lady of the night.

As a last ditch effort, we approached a rickshaw driver and pointed to the name of the restaurant written in Chinese characters. He was happy to offer to take us there for what amounted to quite an inflated price. We in no position to bargain very much and so settled on a price quickly and jumped into the back of his converted motorcycle-rickshaw. A few weaving alleyways later, he stopped to ask for directions and we exchanged a glance that asked “should we turn back now or let ourselves become even more lost than we ever have before?” Just then, Marc spotted a sign for the place “Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant” and we hopped out in front of a place that truly lives up to the description of being a hole in the wall. Though these often prove to be where the best food is, so I was actually a little encouraged, if extremely over-dressed.

We walked inside, past the open, wood-burning stove, into a very crowded restaurant. We managed to charade that we had called for a reservation. A woman nodded and led us past a couple of other waiting fellows to our table in the back. Seconds later, the two fellows that were waiting at the front joined us at our table for four which, we guessed, meant that we were sharing. Not to worry, we ordered two of the ‘house specialty’ which looked to be roast duck with an assortment of appetizers (?) and beer. As the plated began to arrive, we learned that our neighbours had ordered the same thing and we found out that they were Japanese. A table of tourists!

And now the next challenge: figure out what we’re about to eat and how to eat it. We got six plates immediately: a plate of small, thin crepes, some broccoli, spears of cucumber, a dish with brown sauce and slivered scallions, a plate of ??, and something that looked like duck foie gras. We tasted each and, indeed, all were as we thought, including dish xyz, which was made up of a vegetable – more scallion? – and a meat – unidentifiable, slightly chewy, but not unpleasant. Normally, an unidentifiable meat would seem a bit disconcerting but I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve been served something which we are completely unable to identify beyond being a part of either the plant or animal kingdom and we just have to dive right in. Most often, we eat the whole plate of miscellany without ever having been able to identify what it was, so we didn’t have much concern about tucking into this meal. However, at this point, I broke the number one rule of eating miscellany in China: don’t examine it. After a few bites, I had a closer look and it came to me that this was probably a plate of duck tongues. And then I was only able to to manage a few more bites before imaging the quacks that these tongues had once made and I pushed the dish aside. I didn’t feel too badly about it as our Japanese table mates hadn’t even touched their foie gras.

After some time, our neighbours’ roast duck arrived. It came whole, with the head attached, and we all took pictures before it was carved (which came as a relief as I was a little worried that we’d be presented with the whole thing and left to fend for ourselves armed only with wooden chopsticks and a sharpened bottle cap).


It was served on an enormous plate and there was enough lovely carved meat and crispy, fatty skin to have fed all four of us. They started in while our duck arrived for its photo session. It turns our that we were pretty lucky to have been sitting with these two as one fellow was living in Beijing and showed us the proper way to eat it: fill a thin crepe with duck and a little of each of the plates of what we had thought were appetizers, roll it up and dip into the brown sauce. With encouragement, further instruction and many napkins, we were able to eat our traditional Beijing Roast Duck and it was delicious, further strengthening the theory that some of the best food is served in the seediest joints.


Now that we had become friends, our table mates asked for a couple of extra glasses and offered us a shot of the beiju they were drinking. I had read about this drink, a traditional rice wine with over 50% alcohol content. Of course, we accepted. And again, and again- pause to order a second bottle – and again. It made the duck taste even better.


After all that adventure, and all that rice wine and beer, we figured we could find our way back through the maze to the hostel. Fortunately, our dumb luck led us straight there, where we could recommend this wonderful restaurant to other travelers.