Here’s a recipe for a magical midwinter’s afternoon: Take the Tube to Richmond, a village on the fringes of London, then hop a red double-decker bus for a ride along the Thames. Alight in front of the cheery half-timbered pub, walk down the church lane past the Celtic stone crosses, left at the split-rail fence, and bob’s your uncle: You’ve arrived at Petersham Nurseries.
Now, even if an afternoon at a garden centre is not your idea of holiday time well spent, bear with me. Remember that the English excel at creating magical places, at planting beautiful gardens, at the eternal joy that is lunchtime. So it should come as no surprise that a mid-day repast inside a converted greenhouse — complete with dirt floors, mismatched chairs, and waitresses wearing muckboots with skirts — would be just the sort of adventure that would pay off very handsomely indeed.
Take your seat under the heater, and start with the seasonal sparkler — say, vanilla-rhubarb prosecco — then pick an appetizer to share. (If the chorizo starter with with lentils, caprini fresca, and agresto is on the menu, please order it; you won’t be sorry.) Pick your mains from a short list, one of which always seems to be vegetarian and another fish. Chef Skye Gyngell’s team “sources the best-quality seasonal ingredients that we can lay our hands on”, so you might opt for a whole roasted partridge with farro, chard, and salsa verde, or perhaps a fillet of sea bass served with clams, fino, arrocina beans, and aioli. Make sure to save room for dessert: The hazlenut tart comes with a generous drizzle of chocolate sauce and a dollop of airy crême fraiche.
Should you need to freshen up, you’ll find the loos in the hobbit-like wooden structure that houses the cafe kitchen and the teahouse. The latter — if you’ve neglected to book ahead, or just fancy a lighter nosh — offers a daily soup served with good bread and a hodgepodge of sweet cakes. And tea, of course. Always tea.
The nursery yard itself is full of all sorts of treasures, so if you’re a gardening buff — or, really, even if you aren’t — be sure to budget enough time to stroll and browse. The last lunch reservation is taken at 2:45, but the retail side remains open until 5pm, although in the dwindling light of wintertime you might plan to come early rather than stay late.
Bundle up and stroll back down the lane to the bus stop, where the diamond-paned windows of the pub now glow with holiday cheer. Your bus will be along promptly — this is England, after all — ready to whisk you back up the hill to Richmond and the real world… full, happy, and content.
Petersham Nurseries & Cafe
Church Lane, off Petersham Road
Surrey TW10 7AG
020 8940 5230
There’s a strange thing that happens in Seattle. (OK, there are many strange things that happen there, but this one is food related.) Some restaurant — usually a reasonably popular one — puts a relatively obscure but approachable item on the menu, and before you can say “hamburger with a fried egg on top”, said item pops up on menus everywhere, from divey diners to haute-cuisine haunts.
Thus it is with the Reuben, the sandwich some might call Seattle’s signature. And it’s no great mystery why: There’s something irresistibly naughty — not to mention entirely un-Kosher — about a deli sandwich that combines salty corned beef, gooey cheese, zippy Russian dressing, and crunchy sauerkraut between two slices of butter-grilled rye bread. A Reuben is the perfect antidote for drizzly, chilly Northwest weather, an overstuffed slice of golden sunshine on a plate. Served with a garlicky dill pickle and a ramekin of good potato salad, there’s hardly any better cure for grey-day blues.
Child of the sunny Southland that I am, it’s entirely possible that I had never eaten a Reuben before we moved to Jet City. I quickly made up for lost time: Fremont’s Red Door tavern used to make a pretty good example, as did our old ‘local’ pub, the 74th Street Ale House on Phinney Ridge. Once we moved across town to Madison Valley, it was only a matter of days before I discovered the heavenly Reuben — and his turkey-licious sibling, Rachel — served on just-baked sour rye at the Essential Bakery Cafe. I could probably fill an entire post with Seattle Reubens I Have Known and Loved. (Thankfully, I managed to avoid the vegan one!)
Once we moved back home to San Francisco, I don’t think I ever encountered a Reuben on a restaurant menu. I’m sure Reubens exist somewhere within our seven-by-seven grid, but so far we have yet to cross one another’s paths. It’s a sad truth that moving from city to city often means leaving behind foods (and friends) you’ve grown to love.
Luckily, once you have the right ingredients, it’s easy to make your own fabulous Reuben. Sure, you can pick up pretty good deli meats around town, but one of the the best reasons to make your own corned beef is that you’ll have plenty of leftovers. Leave the little trimmings and end bits for tomorrow morning’s hash; the best and highest use of that glistening chunk of pink, lipid-laced meat lies between two slices of good bread. Shave it thin with your sharpest blade, and don’t stop until you’ve got a goodly pile.
Knowing there were Reubens in our future, we picked up a loaf New York Rye from Acme and a hunk of Spring Hill’s Portuguese cheese, which makes a better-than-decent stand-in for Swiss. We thought we would be out of luck finding local sauerkraut, until fate intervened. The good news: Not one but two of our favorite local purveyors has just recently started brining their own ‘kraut. Fatted Calf sells a chunky, tangy variety, and Alexander Valley Gourmet sells a crisper, finer-gauge flavor. Happily, both are excellent, and equally well suited to Reuben-making.
The bad news: Neither brand is (yet) available in San Francisco. Fatted Calf sells theirs over the counter at their Oxbow shop but, alas, not at their market stands. Alexander Valley is wrestling with the classic shelf-space squeeze: So far, no San Francisco shop has made room for their newest product. (There’s hope, though: Alexander Valley’s fresh pickles are already available at Whole Foods, Rainbow Grocery, and Andronico’s; if you want the ‘kraut, too, leave a note for the manager asking that they stock it. So far, the new Napa branch of Whole Foods is as close as we’ve been able to locate it.)
With two containers of locally made sauerkraut in the fridge, all that remained was the Russian dressing. We stirred together some homemade mayo, a bit of last summer’s tomato jam, a blob of local horseradish, a few chopped pickles… and got ready to griddle. Sure, Thousand Island dressing would have done in a pinch, but we decided that making a 100%-local sandwich was worth a few minutes of extra prep.
And let me tell you: It was a Reuben to make you forget all the others.
The Perfect Reuben Sandwich
Here’s the part where I would normally explain exactly how to craft the platonic ideal of a Reuben sandwich. But frankly, there’s no way I could possibly improve on the recipe we found on Epicurious, as transcribed from Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food.
If you think the Zuni Cafe mock porchetta recipe is detailed, let me assure you: It ain’t got nothin’ on Schwartz’s step-by-step tutorial on building the proper Reuben sandwich. The devil may be in the details, but the details are in Schwartz’s Reuben.
You remember last week’s mad locavore dinner streak? This week: Not so much. OK, sure, we managed to hit our baseline — two dinners made from 90% local ingredients over the course of a week. But with the holidays and crazy work deadlines looming, there simply wasn’t time to show off.
Still, we ate pretty well. Our first Dark Days Challenge meal of the week revolved around a fabulous batch of carnitas tacos — Range Brothers pork tucked inside Rancho Gordo tortillas — with Happy Quail poblano chile rajas, Primavera salsa, and a side of Rancho Gordo heirloom beans. Our usual Friday night pasta-fest — Eduardo’s linguine and our homemade sauce — featured a shaved fennel and apple salad made from homegrown fennel, Apple Farm apples, Point Reyes Blue cheese, and Bariani olive oil. As quick weeknight meals go, they weren’t too shabby… even if we only managed two dinners from within our foodshed this week.
But, as I keep having to reminding myself, there are 14 other meals every week.
Pretty much every breakfast we eat meets our challenge criteria. Our eggs and butter are Clover Organic, the bread comes from Acme, the preserves are usually gifts from friends (who use local fruit) or bought from June Taylor. On the weekends, our Saturday market ritual involves a stop at Primavera, where the menu proudly displays the names of the farmers who grow their delectable ingredients. And on Sundays, we fancy up our weekday fare with Fatted Calf or Range Bros. bacon, or homemade breakfast sausage.
Lunch, though, is a mixed bag. When leftovers aren’t an option, things can be pretty grim. The area around my office is mercifully light on mega-chain fast food and rich in gourmet-ish choices, but none of them are particularly locavore-friendly. There’s a branch of Out the Door, the quick-service sibling of San Francisco’s famed Slanted Door restaurant, but the best they can do is “organic whenever possible”.
Twice a week, my options improve significantly.
On Tuesdays, I hop the streetcar down to the Ferry Building for the lunchtime farmers market. During the market, Prather Ranch sells hamburgers on Acme buns, and Donna’s sells tamales and “enchamales”, locally made with some local ingredients.
There’s an array of not-quite-there options inside the Ferry Building itself, mostly local but non-organic, or vice-versa. If you’re feeling particularly wealthy, I suppose you could lunch on Tomales Bay oysters and Bay Area microbrews at the Hog Island bar overlooking the bay, but that’s a wee bit rich for my everyday budget.
On Wednesday, I head to the decidedly un-chic Heart of the City farmers market at Civic Center. I pick up a few midweek provisions, but my real goal is a quarter of a spit-roasted Fulton Valley chicken and a side of basted potatoes from Roli Roti. All things considered, it’s probably my favorite locavore lunch option, and relatively cheap by comparison.
All in all, my best bet for Dark Days lunches is planned leftovers. But, given how unsuccessful we’ve been this last week at actually putting food on our table, it’s a good thing that other options exist.
After a long afternoon of shopping, we picked up Dad from his appointment. As usual, he wanted a smoothie for his afternoon snack.
“Perfect,” said Mom. “Jamba Juice is right next door to Rubio’s.”
Dad and I sat outside in the afternoon sunshine, while Mom went into Jamba for Dad’s smoothie.
“Are you going to join us for fish tacos, Pops?” I asked.
“I’m not much of a fish guy,” he said, telling me nothing I don’t remember.
“Yeah, but these are good,” I countered. “They’re like fish-and-chips in a taco.”
He nodded, and said nothing. I figured he was just waiting patiently for his smoothie.
Rubio’s now styles itself a “Fresh Mexican Grill”, but everyone in Southern California — where the 150-plus chain started — still calls it by the original name: “Rubio’s Fish Tacos”. Their speciality, of course, is Baja-style fried fish wrapped in corn tortillas, shredded cabbage, and creamy salsa. Yummo.
When Mom finally came out, we made our way next door. We ordered two fish-taco combos, and joined Dad out on the patio. When the food came, he set down his smoothie… and promptly tucked into Mom’s tacos.
And he liked them.
Rubio’s #1 combo meal comes with two fish tacos, a small side of soupy pinto beans, and a few chips — the perfect size for a light lunch. Much like Burgerville, Rubio’s is unapologetically fast food, not health food. But it’s the kind of splurge-y meal that leaves you feeling comforted and happy, not bloated and gross.
Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill
1500 N. Green Valley Parkway
Henderson, NV 89014
As luck would have it, I’m working right around the corner from the new addition to the Westfield San Francisco Centre — home of the first NorCal outpost of posh grocery Bristol Farms, as well as the foodiest food court this side of The Loft at Bangkok’s Central Chitlom department store.
I decided to pass on the food court for now and take a gander at Bristol Farms. Unlike the L.A.-area locations that I’ve seen, this shop is definitely geared toward the lunch crowd, with passing nods to real groceries. Well, maybe that’s not entirely fair: The butcher counter is fully stocked, albeit with shockingly pricey all-natural cuts of meat. (I’m the bozo who paid $21.89 for 2-1/2 pounds of short ribs, yep.) Cheeses, fresh pastas, a full dairy and dry-goods selection… they’re all here, and I’m sure the folks moving in to those condo-hotels are celebrating having a real grocery nearby. The produce section seemed a little slim for a store with “Farms” in its name, but I suppose you can’t have it all.
I’m not sure if it’s because Bristol Farms has such strong ties to the Southland, but I was shocked to find both Bob’s Big Boy salad dressing and Clearman’s cheese-toast spread on the shelves. Who knows what other SoCal treats are lurking in the aisles?
The pastry and bakery cases are definitely drool-worthy, and the housewares department — across the mall from the main store — looked remarkably comprehensive, if a bit precious. Salad bar, deli, and hot food stations seemed pretty decent, and not terribly overpriced considering the neighborhood. I picked up a pint container of “roadhouse chili” and garnished it with cheese, onions and crackers for just $3.99.
The crowds were still pretty thick, just four days after the grand opening, but a dozen cheerful cashiers kept the queue moving briskly and helpful staff answered questions in the aisles. All in all, a good first visit. And, I have to say: It’s just so damned European to have a grocery store in the basement! Maybe we can get our public transit working, now…
San Francisco Centre (Concourse Level)
845 Market Street, Suite 10
San Francisco, CA 94103
If you’ve read Bill Buford’s Heat, you know about Dario, the Tuscan butcher who taught Mario Batali the arcane mysteries of traditional Italian meat-curing. What you may not know is that Dario also taught Mario’s pop, Armandino, much of what he knows about the art of salumi. There’s even a Dario namesake salami on the menu at Salumi, Batali Senior’s pint-size salumeria near Pioneer Square.
A zillion other bloggers have written about the heady pleasures of Salumi — it seems like dozens of Bay Area folks have trekked to Seattle in the past few weeks, and they all made their dutiful pilgrimage to the altar of pig. And given the breadth of our own ramblngs on the subject over the years, I don’t have a whole lot new to report.
But, following our homesick hearts, we found ourselves casting about for lunch options of Wednesday, and for once we were (a) in town during the week and (b) not otherwise occupied during the slender slice of time that Salumi is open for business.
We shuffled in at the end of the lunch rush, amazed to find one lone Muffo sandwich — Salumi’s take on the muffaletta — waiting for Cameron. Lucky me, I managed to get the very last trio of meatballs (along with some glorious house-made mozzarella) in my own sandwich. Mindful of our upcoming dinner at Union, we grabbed a table, ate exactly half of our sandwiches, and dutifully wrapped up the leftovers. Resisting the siren song of cured meats is never easy, but we both pratcially whimpered as we shuttled the sandwiches back to the hotel mini-fridge.
309 3rd Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98104
We found our friend Carla sitting on a park bench outside Madison Valley’s third — and newest — French eatery, Saint Germain. She told us the manager said he should have a table for us in about 30 minutes — a perfect chance to see what was new in our old ‘hood.
We strolled up Madison, checking out the mommy brigade at Essential, browsing window displays in all the same old shops, strolling around the back past the pocket park, and stopping to admire the vintage-modern design of one of the bungalows on Arthur Place.
As our half-hour ended, we ambled back to le St. G and inquired about the table, noticing that none of the occupants of the bistro’s (admittedly few) tables looked like they had any intention of leaving. The manager sniffed at Carla with a brusque “I have no idea when I can seat you” before blazing past us to fawn on someone else. Oh…kay.
“Cheesesteaks?” said Cameron, as we walked back out to the sidewalk. “Oh, yeah!” we replied, and piled into our rented PT Cruiser.
As we pulled up into a Doris Day parking spot out front of The Fev, Carla confessed from the back seat that she’d never had a cheesesteak. What!? Oh, well… now we know why we had such merde luck — this is obviously fate.
We ordered cheesesteaks, beers and crinkle fries, and sat at the counter watching the cooks dish up food to other customers. We caught up on local gossip as the TV blared images of Terrell Owens issuing a series of bizarre suicide denials… and all was right with the world. Who needs francais when you’ve got the Fevre?
2332 E. Madison Street
Seattle, WA 98112
As I’ve mentioned before, the lunch options near my office are pretty grim. But even though I’ve known about Cafe Madeleine since late last year, for some reason I never seem to remember it when hunger strikes.
I’m officially resolving to remember.
Today’s lunch was a gorgeous slice of ham-and-asparagus quiche. Serviceable asparagus meets chunks of good ham, all bound up in a creamy custard and surrounded by a better-than-decent crust. The side salad’s good too… mixed greens tossed in a nice mustardy vinaigrette. All this for $4.50.
Add another couple bucks and you get a Pellegrino soda, or a French lemonade. If you can manage to resist the gravitational pull of the dessert case — and really, I promise not to mock if you can’t… those pastries are almost pornographic in their glossy perfection — you’ll be scrumptiously lunched for about $7.
300 California Street (x Battery)
San Francisco, CA 94104
I hate my lunchtime choices. I have the option of pricey chow at the Ferry Building, a long hike to decent places like The Toaster Oven or Cafe Madeleine, or an endless variey of cheerless crap right at my doorstep.
Across the street at 50 Fremont, for example, you’ll find these ‘appetizing’ choices: San Francisco Soup Company, Subway, Baja Fresh, and the new girl on the block, Julie’s Kitchen… located in a space that used to be a Mickey D’s.
As I stood on the corner at Market Street, I remembered a couple of co-workers telling me that Julie’s was a decent place to go when you couldn’t decide what to eat. It’s a pay-by-the-pound ($7.50 per, that is) “gourmet” buffet joint, with a focus on salady stuff and Asian-American food.
The options look pretty good as you walk in, but on closer inspection the various tables feature multiples of the same dish. I passed no fewer than three bowls filled with shrimp-avocado salad along my winding path, and that was far from the only duplication I noticed. Not many takers for that squicky-looking marinated tofu, I guess…
Limited options aren’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as what’s on offer is good. Unfortunately, by trying to be all things to all appetites, Julie’s manages to satisfy none. Make-your-own-salad options are weak, premade salads are overdressed and marred by odd flavor combos, and the Chinese items I tried — including an especially disgusting eggroll — were outright bad. High points included a subtle Japanese-style seaweed/noodle salad, hard-boiled egg halves, and freshly carved roast turkey. And I guess that the pre-tossed Caesar salad wasn’t terrible. But when I pay $8+ for a small box of food, it needs to be much, much better than passable.
50 Fremont Street
San Francisco, CA 94105