Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fall in Oakland, Our Blackberry Bush

I'm gonna let the my 3 month hiatus go largely unaddressed this time around. Rest assured, we're all eating well... and are plotting to eat even better (or more locally) for at least the next year.

So, while the bony remains of several Soul Food Farms chickens simmer down to stock, while a batch of Wild Boar Farms tomatoes roast in the oven, and while a bunch of duck legs and thighs sit under 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt each in the fridge, thought I'd post a couple of photos of the blackberry bush in our backyard.

A couple of weekends ago I noticed that the bush was, all of the sudden, more than a foot shorter. As summer really gets going, the bush towers over the iron stake running through the middle of this photo:

A very slight rain perked it up some a day later, but we're not getting much fruit off of it these days. Still, the fruit that is there is flavorful and heavy with sugar.

MoNo Jack London Square Oakland :(|)

We ate at MoNo last night, down by Jack London Square. This space used to be a lunch-crowd stalwart called Cuckoo's Nest, a place I'd never eaten at but that I knew of indirectly - having worked at a place that did some concrete table tops for them. That place was Concreteworks Studio, which moved a few years back - incidentally, the old Concreteworks space is now Linden Street Brewery.

My nostalgia for the neighborhood, the proximity to home, and the availability of crudo all factored into our looking past a menu that seemed to promise what the East Bay Express described as,"standard global-fusion, small-plate, local-purveyor razzmatazz."

And the food was pretty good. We stuck to small plates and had the salumi, a watermelon salad, asparagus with eggs and prosciutto, and two of their three crudo. They were out of the arctic char, which I'd been wanting to try largely so I could compare it with the arctic char at Bar Crudo in the city.

The day boat scallops were tasty, but the micro bulls blood green contributed a taste which A. immediately identified as muddy. The ahi tuna crudo didn't work so well for me (a lot going on, way too much soy sauce, etc.) but it was topped with a show-stopping jalapeno granita.

We were so enthusiastic about this granita that our waiter confessed to sneaking it by the spoon-full, and then brought us a small bowl of it to go with dessert.

Truth be told, the bowl of granita was probably exchange in kind for our sitting for nearly 10 minutes while each of the waiters thought the other had our table. If you're familiar with either Cuckoo's Nest or Mono you will appreciate how odd this is. It's a very small space for folks to lose track of a table in. In addition to the granita, we were treated to marcona almonds and olives and two rounds of drinks.

Photo credit, Yelp user Pooh T.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Restaurants, Oakland: Camino

A few weeks before Camino opened, I happened to be looking through the window, when Russ walked up and asked if we wanted to go in.

Another way you can tell that I'm not a blogger with food journalist ambitions, is that I didn't say,"Sure! Let me get my camera!" and then blog about it weeks before the restaurant opened. I was also mildly surprised that Russ was inviting us in even though I had my son with me - Axel was 20 months old at the time, and the restaurant was very much under construction. The 30' long communal tables were there already, so was the cladding for the bar and open kitchen - salvaged from a friend's house. And of course the fireplace.

Years ago, Russ told me that if he ever did his own thing it would need to be very specific. He didn't want to fall into the routine of cooking Chez Panisse food. He said,"Something like cooking everything in a fireplace."

I mentioned that I'd dropped by to a friend, and he offered up that the painted sign out front was kind of bad ass. I agreed, the happy confluence of American roadhouse, and as John Sarriugarte would put it Basque boarding house. Luck would conspire against my wife and I - we missed the opening party. Still, the invite was very fetching.

Yelpers seem to be splitting the verdict on Camino. Some folks think the bar that only serves the drinks on the menu is weird. I admit I didn't know how this worked at first. After having a rum drink, I asked if they did a Caiphirinia. I was told that what I'd had wasn't a caiphirinia but that they'd be happy to bring me another one. There's seems to be a prevailing opinion that the drinks should come in bigger glasses. I come and go on this. The drinks can be potent enough that the small glasses don't bother me. Some folks think the restaurant feels like a cafeteria, with a very limited menu. Whatever.

We've been a few times now, and the fact that I don't have to drive outside of Oakland to eat food like this trumps any foibles yelper's might care to point out. It's odd to find parking in front of a restaurant that serves food this good, and then walking in to find a packed bar of people waiting for a table.

Also, some of those cocktails are just delicious. Rum, orgeat, bitters, and absinthe. Really. I may muster a review at some point, or I could just say that they some times have duck cracklins on the menu.

Lagier Ranches Sour Cherries at Grand Lake Farmers Market

For the first time in my blogging life, I wish I'd set up some blogging widget on my phone or had one of those Twitter accounts. Lagier Ranches had sour cherries this week. They tend to not be around for long, and I know they have a following.

I'd scooped up a pound or so before the guy working the stand had his signs out. He asked if I knew what they were. I said yes, and then handed one to my toddler who managed an enthusiastic mmm sound even as he scrunched his face.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hog Island Oyster Company

Given my fondness for oysters, and the amount of time we spend around Tomales Bay, it may seem odd that I'd never made it to Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall (Population 50, Elevation 15). This past weekend I made the trek with our not quite two-year old, while my wife took BART to the city and then biked up to Point Reyes Station. We grabbed a dozen Kumamoto oysters and a dozen extra-small Clearwater oysters for a picnic in Inverness. They were delicious, averaged about a dollar a piece, and the biodegradable bag they came in was branded with that slammin' logo of theirs.


Back when I started Happy Consumptive, I would browse past more established food blogs trying to locate my tribe. It hadn't occurred to me yet that blogging could be a more or less solo act. I had this idea of spending a few years building a modest encyclopedia of ingredients before expanding into preparations of my own. Dabbling occasionally in big food ideas. There were a handful of food bloggers that everyone seemed to mention, and one of these was Becks & Posh. Some recent self-googling turned up that they'd linked here - almost a year ago. Somewhere along the way Happy Consumptive also found it's way into the "delicious food blogs - local" sidebar on Food Hoe. This sort of thing probably isn't newsworthy for most bloggers. Given the relatively low number of visitors who stop by here each day though, I have to assume that these folks like a good watermelon mojito with their sabelfish crudo.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Greens: Purslane (aka Miner's Lettuce or The Gardener's Curse)

Last October, purslane showed up in episodes of Top Chef and Next Iron Chef. Highlighting what I tend to view as the obvious differences between the audiences of the two shows, Dale featured purslane in a scallop dish for the Top Chef finale while Michael Symon bestowed it on Chris Cosentino as a kind of culinary curse.

It turned at the Farmer's Market two weekends ago, piled high in the Ledesma Family Farms stand, a page of recipes helpfully displayed next to it. I was surprised to see purslane recipes from Gourmet dating back to 2000 on epicurious.

When it came time to prepare ours, I was short on ingredients for those recipes. I marinated some shaved fennel in lemon juice and a little white wine vinegar, tossed the purslane with olive oil, salt, and black pepper. What wikipedia describes as the 'mucilaginous' quality of purslane was evident, but the bright flavors stood out. No photos of the salad though. I'd opened a bottle of syrah by then.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cherry Pit Vodka Tonic

Cherries showed up at the farmer's market over a month ago. Back in April, I'd overheard a vendor tell someone that they expected to have their cherries in the third week of May. When I bounced this date off of Brad Gates at Wild Boar Farms, he responded that the third week of May was,"the sort of date someone pulls from an almanac." Hidden Star Orchards and Hamada Farms cherries showed up sooner than that. Brad brought his first batch on May 31 and said that in a week they'd be off the charts.

In what has to be considered a pretty odd coincidence, the following weekend someone showed up at his stand with a brix meter and more or less verified this claim. An average cherry apparently measures in at 16 brix, Brad's cherries measured in at 25 brix. He offered up that this wasn't a fair comparison. That an average cherry is grown for yield, whereas the fruit on his eighty year old trees which have never been sprayed with pesticides is not. Still, 25% sugar.

Anyway, as I ate my way through the last 6 weeks of cherries, I deposited the pits into a glass of vodka. I'd had some vague idea of attempting to recreate Tord Boontje's cherry pit necklace and figured the vodka soaking would help somehow when it came time to cleaning them up. Two weeks ago I noticed that the vodka had taken on some of the cherry taste though, and well - tonight it was hot.

Owing to some over-indulgence in caipirinhas last night all I could muster the courage for was a cherry pit vodka tonic. Refreshing though. If you're of a mind to try it, I'd recommend at least two weeks of soaking.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Culinary Coincidences: Paths Cross with Notable Chefs

Timing for my trip to Tokyo was pretty good. Caught the first snow storm of the year, an event which would later figure in Edward Tufte's' video criticism of the iPhone's Weather application. The Emperor's Cup was up for grabs in the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament. And Garrey Reynolds of Presentation Zen just happened to be giving a talk while I was was there. About those chefs though...

While I was sneaking in as much food as I could during my business trip, one of Anthony Bourdain's production guys was spending as much time as he could on his high-tech toilet seat. My hotel was equipped with these. Each time I looked at the buttons and helpful diagrams, I was daunted.

Shortly after I visited Tsukiji Fish Market, Bay Area chef and Next Iron Chef participant Chris Cosentino visited the Honolulu Fish Auction. 82 pounds is a whole lot of opah.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Coming and Going: Volume 03

Despite the run of international posts, there are a lot of places opening in Oakland right now.

Biking to work the other day, I pedaled past what looks like a bar opening at (don't quote me on this) 338 14th street. There's a slick-looking black rock wall, and some oblong windows a la Pearl. Still taped up as a of a couple of weekends ago, I'll try to drop by tomorrow.

Franklin Square Wine Bar
Franklin Square opened up at 2212 Broadway avenue. The SF Gate points out that the location is "near 22nd Street" in their first look - this annoyed me for some reason. Is that really more helpful than saying the best way to get there is actually from Franklin street? Plenty of interesting wine to drink but the food was only good. House-cured bresaola with artichoke hearts and greens stood out, a liberty duck breast was mostly gray, cauliflower risotto was creamy but seemed like it hadn't been stirred while cooking. All of which, given the prices, adds up to you could do worse.

I ate at Flora for the first time. It's been almost two years since I wrote that this place was coming. At the time it was supposed to be a tequila bar. Instead it's a deco'd out place, complete with an absinthe fountain on the bar. I ordered a $13.00 Vietnamese-style chicken salad that my lunch guest said looked, "like a side salad." He ordered pasta with meat balls for $19.00. I might have expected to see these prices at dinner. I haven't headed back for dinner because I'm worried that it will cost a lot, be only alright, and now that we have to pay a baby sitter to do this sort of thing.

Closer to home, I'm hearing that Camino will open at 3917 Grand Avenue in the next month or so. I'm friendly enough with the folks involved that I haven't engaged in much rumor mongering about this one. The Chronicle wrote it up nearly a year ago, and the Grand Lake Guardian wrote it up at about the same time.

Vine Wine Bar
Vine Wine Bar opened on lakeshore recently, but I'm going to reserve comment for a bit. I considered the huge bottle of 1996 merlot in the front window to be a bad omen. I've also heard grumblings about the food, but the night we tried to go the place was packed.

Dinner in Tokyo, Day 2: Gonpachi (Nishi Azabu)

On our second day in Tokyo I woke up at 5am. Looking out the window of my hotel room, I saw what looked like snow. I grabbed my coat and headed down to the 4th floor terrace, where a 7-11 with an ATM machine was supposed to be. The snow was light but steady. I ducked into the 7-11, past a big styrofoam sushi roll, as the guys behind the counter bowed slightly and said,"ohayo gozaimasu." I would spend the rest of the day in an office building looking forward to dinner at Gonpachi.

I'd read in my guide book that it was the inspiration for the restaurant scene in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, also that Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi had taken our President Bush to Gonpachi for dinner. I was sold on Kill Bill from the opening credits, and couldn't wait to check it out. By the time we left the office for our cab, the snow was mostly gone and a steady rain was falling.

While reviewers tend to describe Gonpachi as a Disney-style riff on rural or old Japan, it looked pretty cool in the rain. Designed to resemble a kura (which I've seen translated as warehouse and treasure house), the exterior featured rock walls and massive wooden doors. Entering through a deep doorway on the second floor, we had a view of the bamboo-covered and lantern-lit dining area on the first. A hostess made a stern face as I approached the railing with my camera, you can see some photos here. Our table was in a more formal dining area on the third floor, beyond a large garden. Open to the sky, the garden had been closed off with sheets of plastic. I wish I'd taken pictures of this now, at the time I worked to keep tarps out of my shots. Anyway, the food.

Some folks from the office ordered for us. Two large plates of sashimi, some yakitori, sushi nigiri, and then sushi rolls. Looking around the web, it seems that not every type of food is available on the first and second floors of the restaurant. The sashimi selections included a crisp, dense, chunk of golden fish eggs. I believe this is typically served at the new year. I don't always fare well with the more dense textural varieties of sushi, but I did okay with these. I was much more enthusiastic about what was described to me as a wedding dish of, "fish from very deep in the ocean with a big eye." My favorite of the nigiri were the young sardine fillets - bright silver and very tender.

A couple of nights later, we caught up with a friend of mine who had worked in our Tokyo office for a few years. He'd left to open up an English language preschool in Yokohama. He was not surprised that we'd been to Gonpachi, but described the food as "very international." It wasn't hard to see what he meant. Aside from the freshness of the ingredients, and some of the presentation aspects, the food was a lot like the sushi we eat in the bay area. Our Japanese colleagues were consistently surprised by how familiar we were with the language of their food, and in particular that we would make sushi at home. The most international of the foods we ate however, would have to be the foie gras nigiri.

Given the quality of the food and formality of the dining, I was surprised to learn that prices here are --by Tokyo standards-- reasonable. This is an important distinction to make in a town where a hotel buffet breakfast for three can set you back $80.00.

Dinner in Tokyo, Day 1: Oli

Background: Two weeks ago work took me, my boss, and a recently hired colleague to Tokyo for a week. We had three and a half days of meetings, punctuated by lots of great meals. Most of these were japanese, a couple were Italian, and I managed to miss the only clunker - a chinese lunch. I'll post as much as I can about these given that I rarely ordered the food, don't know the names of several places we were, and wasn't always able to work out the English words for things with my Japanese colleagues.

On the way to SFO, thumbing through Time Out Shortlist Tokyo, I realized that Narita airport was seventy miles from our hotel. Our flight would arrive at 2:30pm. The very detailed itinerary prepared by the marketing manager in our Tokyo office (30 minutes blocks allocated for checking email, etc.) began with dinner at 6pm. By the time our bus pulled up to the hotel, dinner had been pushed back to 7:00 and we had 20 minutes to pull ourselves together.

We ate at one of the hotel's six restaurants, an Italian place called Oli. I ordered an amarone, described the process used to dry the grapes, and earned wine-ordering privileges for the rest of the trip. No easy task when traveling with a guy who was raised Italian and describes himself as,"the one who usually grabs the book." I had a spot-hitting carpaccio and then pasta with braised guinea fowl.

The next day our host would say that he was trying to take it easy on us by starting with Italian food, but I think he also wanted to demonstrate the degree to which he and Tokyo were international. The wine list featured a lot of well-known wines, dinner started off with an amuse bouche, and the flavors were definitely mediterranean. We all passed on dessert and coffee and headed back to our rooms for sleep.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tsukiji Fish Market Photos

Work took me to Tokyo last week. Have more to say about the trip, but for now some photos from Tsukiji Fish Market. Didn't make it into Sushi Dai, but knew just looking at the line that they were playing for keeps.

Table full of a scallop-like shell fish. My hosts used the term "shells" to describe all kinds of shell fish.

Never did find out what these were. They were intensely red, I think I saw them being pried out of a bivalve shell.

I was not intimidated by the community chopsticks, but didn't try any of these sea weed salads. Yet another experience any food blogger worth their salt wouldn't have passed up.

I saw two stands selling tofu. This one had great packaging for the soft varieties.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Food Business: A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories

This week's Saturday NYT article on food A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories made it to the front page of the paper. In it Keith Bradsher details a handful of factors that are pressuring the global market for cooking oils, especially Palm Oil. Not surprisingly 1st worlders are part of the problem; local solutions across Asia --including subsidies, price caps, and rationing-- have created a gray market for palm oil and, in one case, contributed to a riot that left three people dead. Over cooking oil.

In a nutshell, the demonizing of trans fats here in America (which I'm not opposed to at all, but is no real replacement for a diet with health benefits) and the rising consumption of oil-derived biofuels here and in Europe have contributed to a 70% jump in the price of palm oil over the last year. I take the rising cost of food for granted. It's most visible to me when Arizmendi raises the price of their cheese rolls by twenty five cents, their pizzas by three dollars. A bourgeois data point that, in its banality, smoothes over some pretty rough edges:
The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.

The article goes on to say that the great thing about oil palms is that they are incredibly efficient producers of oil. In some kind of couldn't make this up crisis of conscience for Whole Foods shoppers, plantation owners in Malaysia are slashing and burning tropical forests to make room for more oil palms, destroying habitats for endangered orangoutangs, and dispossessing the indigenous peoples of Borneo as they go - spurred on by the protein-oriented food demands of emerging middle-classers from China to Africa.

Few things suggest more fully the degree to which the availability of relatively high quality cooking oil is taken for granted here than Rachel Ray's reductive reduction of Extra Virgin Olive Oil to, EVOO.

Least surprisingly, the article paint a very different picture from the fetishized production of local organic olive oils we see here in the bay area. Still, in its locality, this does suggest one course of action.

Photo Credits: 'Oil Palm Nursery' by Flickr user wajakamek, 'Oil Nut Press' by Flickr user raysto, both are licensed under Creative Commons.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Food Business: On 'Curing What Ails Starbucks'

I'd been thinking about regular features I could write for the blog this year, when it occurred to me that the New York Times runs an article about food in their business section most Saturdays. Lest you think I'm some mutual fund obsessed food dilettante, I know this because the business section happens to also be the sports section.

This week's food article is Jose Nocera's Curing What Ails Starbucks. Should be interesting - I'm approaching this as a dyed-in-the wool Peet's fan. I pretty much only go to Starbucks when my wife competes in a triathlon someplace that doesn't speak Peet's. I was given a $20.00 Starbucks card in a white elephant gift exchange and, despite my daily coffee habit, I've used it just once. I purchased a large iced coffee for $2.50.

I had to wait five full minutes to receive my beverage while that automatic espresso machine spit out lattes. The coffee didn't taste as good as it does Peet's, it cost .70 more than it does at Peet's, and it took me at least five times as long to get. I made the switch to iced coffee a few years ago and have not looked back. It's easier on my stomach, less prone to lid issues, and at Starbucks I drink it black. I don't want it sweetened or blended. They have drinks that are sweetened and blended icy things, and they call them something else.

I'll recap Nocera's article this way, the founder of Starbucks hates the fact that they feel like a huge chain operation, so he's named himself CEO to restore the "romance and theatre" of a Starbucks experience that has become "watered down". Nocera's view is that this a bad idea, and that the competitive landscape has changed too much for Schultz to turn the ship around without doing things that he is unlikely to want to do - i.e. compete on price.

Along the way Nocera mentions some old news - apparently Schultz let the Stabucks executive staff hear about his unhappiness last year, in a memo that found its way to Schultz writes,"we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand."

The culprits include stay-fresh packaging that prevents Starbucks stores from smelling like coffee, and automatic espresso machines. In addition to eliminating the need for a barista to perform the act of creating an espresso drink, these new machines are tall enough to block,"the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista."

These decisions, combined with the ubiquity of the product, have resulted in Starbucks becoming what non-customers always thought it was - an over priced strip-mall version of an actual cafe where everything costs a lot more. Of course this makes sense to people like me, who think of drinking there as settling. What seems to be keeping Howard Schultz up at night is that is starting to make sense to people like my co-worker who treats himself to coffee there each Friday.

Premium brands and ubiquity don't get on well. This was on Seth Godin's mind last month.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace

This is the second in a handful of posts that will fill in some gaps from last year. Posts that didn't quite happen, thoughts that didn't get expressed. If I was sure there would be 10 of them, I could call them the Top 10 Missing Posts of 2007.

We do most of our shopping for each week at the Grand Lake Farmers Market. Domestic rituals being what they are, this make's it difficult for me to get to the Berkeley Farmers Market let alone the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

When we met friends at the Ferry Building for a September trip to Angel Island, it was the first time I'd been in the building. We got to the Prather Ranch shop, hoping to score some bacon, just in time to see them counting money and avoiding eye contact.

We went back last weekend, a string quartet was playing Eleanor Rigby. We browsed and had lunch at Lulu Petite. My bowl of butternut squash soup was rich and smooth, our green bean salad was heavy on the herbs and vinegar, and a homeless guy sat on the stool next to us muttering angry.