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 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.

G & T

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Can taste be hereditary?   Can one inherit one’s parents’ like or dislike of food or drink?   Rather than inheriting the taste itself, perhaps one adopts a preference as a learned behaviour, like copied mannerisms or expressions.   That would explain Marc’s enjoyment of “toutins” (pronounced: tao-tins, with a Newfoundland accent) which are risen, but unbaked, buns that are fried and eaten with jam.   Or my preference for Gran’s pancakes, made sweet and eaten cold with jam and cheddar.   And, likely, my taste for gin.

I am not particularly loyal to a brand of gin, I’m not one of these people that orders a “Tanqueray and tonic”;   I order a g&t.  And I know where that expression comes from:  Dad.  Time spent with mom and dad on the boat almost unswervingly includes happy hour which starts when Dad announces that he’s going to have a ‘wee smash’.   Mom will decline to partake but one whiff of freshly cut lime usually (but not always!) weakens her resolve: Gordon’s mixed with Schweppes.   If I’m the bartender, I try to do it right:  2 oz. gin from the freezer, no ice, lime juice from a quarter of the lime – but no rind – a hint of cold tonic.   Just show it the tonic.   That’s the hard part, the part I still can’t get quite right.

Making my own g&t, the risk of failure decreases exponentially as I’m much more flexible and/or careless with the mixing.   Some gin, 2 seconds of tonic, is this lime still good?  Though lately, I have to admit that I’ve been taking more care with the ‘wee smash’ since we started buying good tonic.   The gin, quite honestly, doesn’t make a huge difference to me, unless it is exceedingly poor quality, but the tonic, I’ve learned, makes a heap of difference.

We used to drink Schweppes; at one point, I had even tried a 6-pack of diet-tonic but boy was that a tragic waste of good gin.  Lately, we’ve started buying Fever Tree Tonic Water and now nothing else can compare.   With cane sugar and natural quinine, the difference is unexpectedly noticeable.   The last place I remember tasting a g&t so good was in Udaipur, India, taken on a balcony overlooking the lake.  So very reminiscent of the British.   Is it the quinine or the sugar that makes it taste so good?


It Rained

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

On Sunday, it rained.   Ergo:  ginger-lemongrass martinis with candied kumquats.


Syrup Ingredients
Makes 1.5 cups

  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 lemongrass stalk
  • 1 inch piece of ginger peeled, sliced and smashed
  • 4 kumquats sliced and seeded (optional)

Martini Ingredients
Makes 2

  • 6 ice cubes
  • 4 ounces vodka
  • 2 ounces lemongrass-ginger syrup (or to taste)

Cut and reserve a few lemongrass slivers to use as toothpicks later. Slice the remaining lemongrass.

Place the sliced lemongrass, ginger, sugar, water and kumquat slices in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes. Strain into a bowl and reserve the kumquat slices if used. Discard the lemongrass and ginger. Cool the syrup.

To make the martinis, place ice, syrup and vodka in a martini shaker and shake for 15 seconds. Pour into two glasses, discarding the ice. To make the garnish, pierce the kumquats with a toothpick or skewer to form a hole for the lemongrass. Place two kumquat slices on lemongrass toothpick and add to the glass.

Alternate: If kumquats aren’t available, try boiling sliced oranges or mandarins with the syrup, then float them in the martini glass.