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.