As our book club sips its merry way around the City, we’re discovering quite a few cocktails that we really like. Try as we might to work up enthusiasm for the drinks we’ve intended to sample, more often than not we actually become quite captivated by another option on the menu.
Such was life the other night at the bar at Range, where we’d gone to sample the Green Lantern, their contribution to Food & Wine Cocktails 2008. It’s an interesting enough drink, and if you hadn’t told me the lurid green came from muddled kiwifruit, I probably would have been stumped.
But the highlight of the evening was two pleasant surprises behind the bar: A newly-shorn Carlos Yturria — who, much to everyone’s pleasure has taken the Wednesday shift alongside the ever-fabulous Brooke — and the reappearance of a summertime favorite on the drinks list. The stalwart known as the Sungold Zinger has graced Range’s warm-weather cocktail menu since the restaurant’s earliest days, and its fan club is legion.
Jen ordered one, served by the man who invented it. Then Fatemeh followed, and then me, and then Cameron, and pretty soon there was a line down the bar of these sharp-looking, vibrant-orange cocktails. Well-balanced, tangy but not too tart, it’s a simple but beguiling combination… the kind of drink you wonder why nobody invented before. Everyone who tasted it had to have one of their own; we were totally smitten. And, apparently, we’re not alone: the Sungold Zinger was chosen one of the 20 best cocktails in America by GQ magazine.
It’s a simple enough recipe to make at home, especially when Sungold tomatoes are at their peak, as they are right now. But if you’re anywhere near Range — especially on a Wednesday night when Carlos is around — drop in for a little sip of summer sunshine.
3-4 Sungold tomatoes
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 oz agave syrup
1/2 oz lemon juice
1-1/2 oz 209 gin
Muddle the tomatoes, salt, and syrup together in a mixing glass. Add lemon juice and gin, and shake well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with another tomato on the rim.
Variation: Replace the agave syrup with an equal amount of St-Germain elderflower liqueur, a nice alternative if you want a little floral hit.
(leftmost filmstrip photo courtesy of book-club member *fatemeh* via CreativeCommons)
One of the hardest things about traveling is coming home to an empty fridge. Even back when we mostly shopped at the supermarket, this was one of the worst parts of any vacation. But now that we buy nearly all of our food at the farmers’ market, we’ve added a level of complexity to the mix.
Luckily, we have a really nice Tuesday lunchtime farmers market at the Ferry Plaza; it’s much smaller than the Saturday showplace, but there’s just enough diversity to re-stock for a few midweek meals, especially if you hit up the indoor shops for meat and bread. So, our 100% local meal this week for One Local Summer included a Range Brothers pork chop dusted in Eatwell rosemary salt, Eduardo’s fusilli with Spring Hill butter, and some Iacopi Farms romano beans… a simple slice of summer.
But honestly, the foods we really wanted to be eating were back in New Orleans, where we spent the last week. Perhaps the feast of the week was our Spirited Dinner at Restaurant August, where chef John Besh created a mostly local, entirely seasonal menu with cocktail pairings by Charlotte Voisey, brand ambassador for Hendricks Gin.
Here’s the menu (and links to photos):
- Chilled melon “soup and salad” local charentais, watermelon, and Vietnamese herbs
- Belle River crawfish agnolotti with Allen Benton’s bacon, Honey Island chanterelles, and sweet fava beans
- Seafood-stuffed breast of local veal Silver Queen corn and crab risotto
- Heirloom tomato tarte tatin with creme fraiche ice cream
It was all quite lovely (well, perhaps excepting the dessert, which was much more interesting in concept than in execution) and it was fun to experience locavore life in another part of the country, where asparagus and favas are still in season, and crayfish — not crab — are fresh and plentiful. But honestly, as delicious as the high-falutin’ food was, it wasn’t very novel. Other than those crayfish, there wasn’t much that couldn’t have made an appearance at a Bay Area restaurant of August’s caliber. No, the true treasures of New Orleans’ local food scene were neither organic or sustainable.
The Crescent City’s culinary delights are the stuff of legend. Even if you’ve never been to New Orleans, you’ve probably read of the glories of beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde. I’m sure you’ve heard of Central Grocery‘s legendary muffulettas, and the po-boys at places like Mother’s or Johnny’s. You might even have seen photos of Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, the world’s most perfect frozen delights, the kind of snow cones they might serve in heaven.
But as lovely as these made-to-order treats are, even the local stuff that comes in bottles and boxes tastes better in N’awlins than whatever it is you have at home. And nobody ever tells you about them! So let me be the first to suggest — nay, insist — that when you visit New Orleans, don’t miss out on some local treasures that can actually make the trip home with you.
Closest to my heart are Zapp’s — a brand of locally made potato chips that taste like a cross between Kettle Chips and manna from heaven. (And I bet you can’t find flavors like Spicy Cajun Craw-Tater, Dill Gator-Tater, or Spicy Creole Tomato back home.) Wash your chips down with a bottle of Abita amber beer, or a Barq’s root beer in the painted-label bottle… both of which taste much better in Louisiana than they do when you happen to run across them elsewhere.
Later, when your appetite comes back, make sure to find a Hubig’s pie or two. The closest analog is those Hostess ‘fruit pies’ you might have eaten as a kid, but they’re so much better that the comparison is entirely inadequate. No high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated soybean oil here, just beef fat and pure southern sugar. Their fruit fillings are made from actual fruit and sugar, not chemicals and essences. Tuck one in your carry-on bag for the flight home, and you’ll be the envy of your seat mates for sure.
More New Orleans photos and notes on Flickr…
Spirited Dinner: At restaurant August, with cocktail pairings
Central Grocery: Muffulettas, Abita amber, and Zapp’s chps
Cafe du Monde: Beignets and chicory coffee
Mother’s: Ferdi po-boy (ham and ‘debris’)
Johnny’s Po-Boys: Crawfish po’boys, Cajun sausage po’boys, Barq’s root beer
Hansen’s Sno-Bliz: The best snow-cone treats in the cutest little shack
More New Orleans photos: Emeril’s, Tales sessions, Quarter scenery, and more
If you follow San Francisco’s cocktail scene even half-heartedly, it’d have been hard to miss the news about Beretta, heir to the old Last Supper Club space on Valencia. Even before its much-anticipated opening, this spot was generating plenty of buzz — much of it due to a bartender roster that reads like a Who’s Who of San Francisco mixologists.
Beretta’s culinary pedigree isn’t too shabby either, and our first dinner there was quite promising. A short list of risotto options — the one we tried, with porcini and Barbera, was homely but delicious — follows a litany of pizzas that could give Gialina or Pizzeria Delfina a run for their money with a few simple tweaks.
A dozen-plus antipasto options included delicious grilled asparagus served with olivata and soft-boiled egg quarters, and a spot-on plate of Monterey sardines in soar. Although portions are modest, this is definitely not dainty “small plates” food. They’re just the thing if you like being able to order a starter without ruining your appetite, and at $5 a pop you can always order two if you’re ravenous. Better still, they’re the perfect size for snacking at the bar while sipping one of Beretta’s well-crafted cocktails.
And yes, it’s all locavore-friendly: The menu boasts of food that’s “always fresh, seasonal, and sourced from local farmers”. Word ’round my office water-cooler is Beretta’s weekend brunch is a crowd-free glory all unto itself — and what better place to nurse a hangover?
Because, really, you might just be tempted overindulge when you see Beretta’s lengthy cocktail menu. Unlike the truncated drink offerings at many restaurants, this list offers a little something for every palate, and all drinks are priced at a reasonable $9. Over the course of the evening, we sampled a fantastic Gin & It made with Vya sweet vermouth and Tanqueray 10, plus an eye-opening Air Mail and pleasantly brisk an Agricole Mule.
One other drink we tried — the Monte Carlo — bears more than a passing resemblance to an old favorite, the Oh Henry, minus the ginger ale. Lest a fruity liqueur trick you into thinking this is a tame tipple, remember that Benedictine is 86 proof… stiffer than some bourbons! So, I suggest you do as the Beretta barkeeps do and serve it in a dainty Nick-and-Nora glass.
It’s not often we discover a worthy bourbon drink that’s escaped our notice — we’re great fans of America’s brown liquor, and we’ve even been known to put it in our food. So it seems only fitting to share our discovery as part of the June edition of Mixology Monday: Bourbon, hosted by SeanMike at Scofflaw’s Den.
1-1/2 oz bourbon or rye
1/2 oz Benedictine
2 dashes aromatic bitters
Stir with ice, strain into a small cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange.
A small sample of previous Drink of the Week entries featuring bourbon:
1/25/08: Horse’s Neck with a Kick
10/12/07: Whiskey Sour
9/14/07: Fashionably Lillet
7/27/07: Mint Julep
If you ask Cameron what his favorite cold-weather meal is, you might be in for a surprise. It’s not Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings. It’s not even a big prime rib, with plenty of leftovers for his beloved beef-and-bleu sandwiches. No, the thing my Scots-Irish husband loves best when the nights are long is New England Boiled Dinner — better known as “corned beef and cabbage” — with a hearty dollop of horseradish cream and an imperial pint of stout to wash it down.
Like most folks, we’ve reserved this marvelously meaty meal for St. Patrick’s Day feasts. But given how cheap it is, and how much we enjoy it, I’m not entirely sure why we don’t trot it out regularly. Perhaps we got in the habit back when it was difficult to find corned beef during the rest of the year. But the last few winters, we’ve taken to curing our own brisket, so getting our hands on nice corned beef isn’t so much of a problem.
I know there are at least two of you who know our little secret: Home-cured corned beef only sounds impressively arcane; it’s actually about the easiest thing you can cure at home. The only thing you need is a 4-to-6 pound piece of brisket — point cut, preferrably — plus a few easy-to-find spices and a week’s forethought. And if you use a dry cure like the Cooks’ Illustrated recipe [link removed*] we often follow, rather than the typical immersion brine, you don’t even need a lot of fridge space. Honestly, we’ve got to do this more often… if only for the crave-inducing leftovers.
This year’s brisket came to us from Marin Sun Farms, and a glorious specimen it was. For the accompaniments, we wandered the Ferry Plaza market and rounded up a Catalan Farms cabbage, two pounds of Little’s potatoes, a bunch of Star Route Farms carrots, a pile of Dirty Girl boiling onions, and a couple of rutabagas from Heirloom Organic. Imagine our surprise as we walked by the Happy Girl Kitchen pickle stand on our way back to the car and noticed they were selling prepared horseradish! (Yes, it was local — grown at Tairwa Knoll Farms and processed in Santa Cruz County — and delicious.) On the way home, we popped by our local microbrewery, 21st Amendment, and picked up a growler of their oyster stout. Ah, it was the easiest 100% local meal of the month, to be sure, and definitely one of the tastiest.
The rest of the fortnight was full of other tasty tidbits, including six meals at restaurants that wear their locavore menus on their sleeves. You’ll recognize lots of old standbys in the list below, and a pair of newcomers. Let’s just say that Conduit seems to be still working the kinks out of their kitchen; they’ve only just opened, so we’ll keep mum. On the other hand, Ubuntu is old enough to know better. I wish we had loved every bite at this nationally fawned-upon Napa newcomer, but — as our friend and dining companion Cookiecrumb detailed elsewhere — the inventive flavors and gorgeous ingredients were so oversalted as to be nearly inedible. Ah, well… they can’t all be Range, I suppose.
Mercifully, we did not return home hungry. There were plenty of other delicious things we discovered on our Napa field trip, including a to-die-for packet of pastrami (from Fatted Calf’s gorgeous new shop at the Oxbow Market) that had us happily gorging on sandwiches… even for breakfast. And we also discovered another secret ingredient that we’ll share more about in our next Dark Days installment.
Dark Days Ticker — March 1-15
- Dark Days dinners at home: 8 out of 15
- Locavore dining-out: Range, Primavera, ubuntu, O Izakaya, Two, Conduit
- New recipes: Jamie’s stuffed potatoes, Hugh’s milk-braised pork, cauliflower steaks
- Old faves: corned beef & cabbage, egg drop soup, bean salad, Waltuck‘s chicken paprikás, grilled rib-eye
- Freezer fodder: golden veggie bisque, potstickers, chili verde enchiladas, oxtail ragu, bolognese sauce
New local items in the pantry:
- Straus Creamery cream-top milk (2% and whole)
- Marin Sun Farms point-cut brisket
- Fatted Calf pastrami (available at their Napa store only, alas!) and bierwurst
- Little‘s “all blue” potatoes
- Zuckerman’s asparagus
- Happy Girl Kitchen Co. prepared horseradish
- Andante butter
- 21st Amendment Oyster Stout (brewed with Hog Island oysters!)
- Carmel S&S Syrah (thanks, Lauren!)
- Bartholomew Park Cabernet
* Edited to add: We removed the link to the Cook’s Illustrated recipe in July 2008 in protest of their bullying tactics.
My Dark Days Challenge cohorts, please avert your eyes: With the exception of two or three breakfasts, there was absolutely nothing sustainable, local, or even organic about the way we spent our long Presidents Day weekend. Que lastima — we traded local for loco, spending a crazy four days eating nothing but Mexican food.
Since time was limited on Friday morning before work, we headed to an old standby. Los Jarritos has been the scene of more Sunday breakfasts than we can count, and one or two dinners over the years. The coffee is terrible, so stick with the Mexican chocolate, and the chilaquiles are limp and over-egged. But it’s hard to complain too much about a place that serves homemade tortillas, and the service is always so adorably welcoming that we’re more than a little forgiving of Jarritos’ shortcomings.
Maybe it’s was a case of diminished expectations, but I have to say that my lunch at Frontera Fresco on the lower level of Macy’s Union Square was not nearly the dreck-fest I was expecting after reading some early critiques. Yes, it’s corporate chain food — think Wolfgang Puck Express goes to Mexico — but it’s certainly no travesty.
It might be too strong to say that I enjoyed my meal, but I was served a thoroughly decent, well-garnished bowl of tortilla soup, and an unorthodox (but not unpleasant) chicken torta. I laughed out loud at the sandwich’s sundried tomato garnish, and its lettuce seemed to be dressed in Good Seasons Zesty Italian. But everything else was in the ballpark: rich frijoles, tinga-style chicken, and a chunky slab of queso añejo. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not fabulous, and it’s definitely not worth a special trip, but there are certainly worse ways to spend your $10 downtown. And I’d be downright ecstatic to find a Frontera Fresco branch in an airport.
Friday afternoon, I hopped a southbound CalTrain after work. Cameron picked me up at Mountain View station and in just a few moments we were pulling into the parking lot of our favorite Mexican restaurant, Fiesta del Mar. Our friends Jason and Margaret introduced us to this fabulous place way back in the day — more than a decade ago, now — and we’ve been coming here religiously ever since. Sure it’s crazy to drive an hour to go to dinner, but such is our devotion.
And we’re not the only fans: Plaques on the wall attest to the restaurant’s enduring popularity: They’ve been voted “Best Mexican Restaurant” by the local paper every year but one since the early 1990s. They’re justly famous for their shrimp dishes — Cameron loves their Camarones Alex and the Camarones a la Diabla — but I love them for their great margaritas (El Jimador, rocks, salt… thanks!) and their unbattered chiles rellenos. There’s almost always a line out the door, but the tables turn quickly and you won’t regret the wait.
Saturday morning found us at our usual spot: The Ferry Plaza farmers market, and specifically the Primavera stand. Although this market favorite offers chilaquiles nearly every Saturday, they mix things up a little by varying the sauce; one week it’s a green tomatillo-serrano blend, the next it’s a tomato-chipotle salsa, and the next it might be a puree of guajillo chiles (as it was that weekend).
A plate of salsa-sauteed chips served with Cameron’s all-time favorite soft-scrambled eggs and some pretty delicious black beans… ahh, brunchly perfection. Of course, we couldn’t resist ordering a plate of tacos al pastor — and its perfect pairing, piña agua fresca. Weighted down by our mega-breakfast, we wandered our way around the market, vainly trying to work off our stuffedness while finishing our weekly shopping.
Not surprisingly, we weren’t hungry again until dinnertime. After the sun set, we made our way to the Daly City border to check out a little hole-in-the-wall we’d heard good things about. Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant looks like a biker bar from the outside, with its microscopic windows, spotlit sign, and ugly burglary bars facing Mission Street.
But when you step inside, you’re entering another world. Every surface but the floor is covered with goofy stuff — photos of old Mexican movie stars, life-size parrots, oversized sombreros, and creepy paintings of big-eyed children. The overall effect is like dining inside some crazy abuela’s closet, but somehow it feels cozy, not chaotic. The welcome is friendly, both from the staff and the other patrons. And the food…
Well, honestly, I don’t want to get your hopes up. Lisa’s is decidedly not gourmet, and it definitely isn’t in the same league as Fiesta del Mar. But if you’re a homesick Southern Californian pining for the cheesy combo-plates of your youth, Lisa’s will fill your heart and belly in a way that you’ve never experienced north of the Grapevine. Their chile relleno sauce is just right (it’s the kind with chunks of celery like you see absolutely everywhere in L.A.) and their crispy tacos are dynamite. The best thing we’ve had at Lisa’s — and I am embarrassed to admit, we’ve been back almost every week since we discovered it – is their chile verde. Cameron likes to ask for it in their Lisa’s Especial, a football-sized ‘wet’ burrito stuffed with everything a homesick Angeleño needs to feel right again.
Sunday we crossed the bridge for brunch at our East Bay fave, Tacubaya. The spinoff of Temescal’s oft-lauded Doña Tomás, this taqueria — tucked behind Sur La Table and Café Rouge on Berkeley’s Fourth Street restaurant row — lures breakfasters into gorgeous skylit space decked out in tropical-fruit colors and natural wood surfaces. It’s a neighborly place, albeit one with a very calculated and upscale vibe, and though the crowds come out in force, the line moves fast and there’s never much of a wait for a table.
No matter what time of day we visit, we can never resist an order of churros y chocolate; other breakfast fare mostly starts and stops with so-so chilaquiles and decent variations on huevos, plus menudo on weekends. Like its O-Town sibling, Tacubaya bases its menu on local produce and sustainable meat.
Later in the day, we took a long-overdue tour of Oakland’s taco-truck scene. We used to love planning day-long taco crawls with our Seattle crew, and when we first moved back to San Francisco, we tried to get our new friends to follow suit. Various circumstances conspired against us — ranging from a surreal bout of foul weather to half the group catching one of those pandemic colds — and eventually we gave up trying to get everyone across the bay at the same time. But I’d kept my notes, adding a truck here or a cart there from time to time, and waited for the right day. And now that day had come.
We started out at the corner of 22nd and International, at a former A&W Drive-In that’s now home to not one but two taco trucks. Tacos Sinaloa features the usual assortment of meats — carnitas, chorizo, carne asada, and such — ensconsed in the eater’s choice of tacos, burritos, tortas and more. Across the parking lot, Mariscos Sinaloa offers all these plus fish tacos, tostadas de ceviche, and other seafood-based items. I opted for a taco full of deliciously meaty carnitas; Cameron had a muy sabroso shrimp taco from the other truck. Off to a good start, we ate our way up and down the boulevard, stopping at any truck where we saw more than two people in line. Our favorites: El Grullo’s tacos al pastor, Tacos Guadalajara’s shredded carnitas, and the cabeza at El Novillo in the shadow of Fruitvale BART.
Monday is a hard day to find Mexican breakfast in the City; many family-run businesses take the day off after their weekend rush. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so we headed to Green Chile Kitchen over in NoPa. It’s the kind of storefront cafe you find in nearly every San Francisco neighborhood: Wood tables, tall windows, a chalkboard menu, and a tall counter where you place your order.
Sadly, the food’s no better than average, and it’s definitely Southwestern rather than Mexican. But they use quality ingredients (mostly organic produce, Niman Ranch meats, and Fulton Valley chicken) and there’s good coffee, easy street parking, and a pleasant little vibe.
As we were leaving NoPa, the once-cloudy day turned sunny, so we grabbed the dogs and headed back to the Mission. There’s nothing better on a bright winter afternoon than a lazy meander down the eastern stretch of 24th Street, where you can walk and shop for hours without hearing a single word of English. When we’d finally gotten our appetites back, Cameron entertained the pups while I popped into Tortas Los Picudos, a cheerful slice of chaos where they sell grilled Mexican sandwiches and licuados (which many shops translate as “milkshakes” although they’re really more like smoothies).
Fillings at Los Picudos run the gamut from basic ham-and-American or turkey-and-Swiss to belly busters like the Cubana. A very distant relation to the medianoche you may be used to, Los Picudos’ porcine homage to La Isla includes roast pork, ham, queso fresco, lettuce, jalapeños, mayonnaise, butter… and a foot-long hotdog! We wisely chose to split a spicy pulled-pork torta, and picked up a Mexican Coke at Casa Lucas on our way back up the block.
By the time we were hungry again, our options on a Monday night had diminished to a handful of late-night taquerias. Wanting to make sure we ended our weekend of gluttony on a high note, we popped down the hill to our nearby favorite, El Gran Taco Loco. Sandwiched in between a hard-liver bar and our local branch of Cole Hardware, Taco Loco has won our hearts despite its interrogation-room lighting, uncomfortable booths, and goofball murals.
We long ago discovered that the burritos and other semi-Americanized offerings at Taco Loco aren’t much to write home about, but their tacos — and most specifically, their carnitas tacos — are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. (Or at least the next 4 to 6 hours.) Cameron’s a huge fan of their birria, — a goaty, dark-chile-flavored soup that’s good for whatever ails you on a Sunday morning. But for our last meal of the long weekend, we kept it simple: A carnitas super-taco for me, and a buche taco for the bald guy. It certainly wasn’t the best meal of the bunch, but a late-night snack at our neighborhood favorite was definitely a fitting end to a gastronomical journey that spanned three area codes.
901 South Van Ness
San Francisco, CA 94110
170 O’Farrell Street, Macy’s basement level
San Francisco, CA 94103
Fiesta del Mar
1005 N. Shoreline Blvd
Mountain View CA 94043
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (Embarcadero at Market)
San Francisco, CA
Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant
6582 Mission Street (near John Daly Blvd)
Daly City, CA 94014
1788 4th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Tacos Sinaloa / Mariscos Sinaloa
International Blvd & 22nd Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
International Blvd & 26th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
International Blvd & 44th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
Tacos El Novillo
1001 Fruitvale Avenue
Oakland, CA 94610
Green Chile Kitchen
601 Baker Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
Tortas Los Picudos
2969 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
El Gran Taco Loco
3306 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Once upon a time, there was a Chef who toiled away in other people’s kitchens. After gaining acclaim for a rare skill with classic preparations, the Chef moved to Napa Valley and opened a signature restaurant on the fringe of the sleepy village of Yountville.
Soon, visitors flocked to the Valley not just to drink, but also to dine. An award-winning cookbook soon followed, then another cozier restaurant just down the road. The ensuing years brought more praise from the press, another cookbook, still more awards. Never content to rest on culinary laurels, the Chef recently opened a third restaurant aimed at a broader audience.
Think that you know this story? Not so fast. The hero of this particular tale is a woman, and the plot begins not in 1997 at The French Laundry with Thomas Keller, but in the dark ages of 1983 at a “truck stop deluxe” along Highway 29 known as Mustards Grill.
Before making history at Mustards, Cindy Pawlcyn made her name at the once-enthralling (but now sadly coasting) Fog City Diner. One of the first to popularize the conceit of comfort food as true cuisine, FCD was among the vanguard of New American restaurants. Pawlcyn was praised for her efforts there, and the cookbook she wrote remains a classic of the comfort-luxe genre.
When Pawlcyn took her jumped-up homespun specialties to Yountville, the national press knew she was onto something special. “[Mustards] changed Napa Valley and took the stuffiness out of dining,” said Gourmet magazine. Pawlcyn was soon in high demand, serving as chef and/or consultant to a string of well-known ventures, including San Francisco’s Bix, Marin’s Buckeye Roadhouse and Napa’s Tra Vigne. The Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook won a James Beard Award, and it remains a perennial favorite in our kitchen (and many others, to judge from our friends’ bookshelves).
Pawlcyn eventually sold her share in the Real Restaurants empire to focus solely on Mustards, but with the 2001 takeover of St. Helena’s Miramonte, she again became a multi-location chef. Morphing into the less-threatening Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in 2003, this outpost continues to draw crowds — a happy success in a region where fickle diners often disappear as quickly as they came.
We’ve eaten at most of Cindy Pawlcyn’s restaurants, including a good dozen visits to Mustards over the years, although a recent lunch there with family left me wondering if the 25-year-old landmark was feeling its age. The four of us ordered an assortment of options; none of our choices really wowed, and a few truly bombed. Months later, I grimace to recall a plate of greasy onion rings, and a pulled-pork sandwich with bland meat under a nearly inedibly sweet, heavily spiced sauce.
Happily, Pawlcyn’s two other ventures are as good as Mustards ever was in its prime.
We’ve returned to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen three times in as many trips north — twice last summer, and then once again last month. The food is old-school American with judicious flashes of Asian and Latin spark. If, like me, you’re a fan of Pawlcyn’s latest cookbook, Big Small Plates, you’ll find yourself equally taken with the dining room where many of its recipes first appeared. The decor evokes a gorgeous farmhouse, with a California crispness and vibrant splashes of Wine Country color. A long bar forms the centerpiece of the front dining room, a metaphor brought home by a clever cocktail list that weaves farm-fresh produce into a collection of delectable drinks.
In early 2007, Pawlcyn launched what is now her largest outpost: Go Fish. A “West Coast seafood house” along Highway 29, Go Fish is paradoxically cavernous but cozy, a coup that owes much to successful decor and lighting. The menu includes both traditional and modern seafood plates, but — as you might expect from a kitchen under the auspices of sushi master Ken Tominaga — the raw fish options are its stunning centerpiece. We visited over the holiday and out of a dozen nigiri and a few specialty rolls we sampled, only one (the kitchen’s very last portion of ikura, which we should have known better than to pounce upon) was less than sublime.
As lovely as Go Fish is, though, it’s too dear for everyday. It’s all too easy to spend hundreds of dollars on dinner for two, especially if you make a meal of the amazing sushi… which I highly suggest you do. Happily, there are many different ways to experience the inspired cuisine of the other — one might even say the original — Napa dining dynasty.
Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen
1327 Railroad Avenue
St. Helena, CA 94574
641 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
7399 St. Helena Highway
Yountville, CA 94558
The Bay Area is blessed not only with an abundance of seasonal, local, sustainable food, but also with a cadre of chefs who have jumped on the locavore bandwagon with both feet. In fact, many of the places we eat on a regular basis have been actively supporting some of our favorite local farmers for even longer than we have.
A few weeks ago, we were chatting with our server at Range, marveling at how they always have such spectacular beef. (And pork, and fish… but I digress.) “Oh, yeah,” he countered, “They get it from a local outfit called Prather Ranch.”
Our Prather Boys? Well, that sure explains a lot. I mean, we knew Chef West bought much of his raw materials from local sources; our friend Steve sells him sacks of heirloom beans and hominy, after all. But, man, when we found out their little bovine secret, we felt like the chef and his entire staff had been holding out on us.
I kid. Mostly. But we did try to impress upon the waiter that this was information we could have used. Not that we could eat at Range any more than we already do and still manage to pay the mortgage, but now we can count our dinners there as locavore meals, too? Heck yeah, sign us up.
Our server explained that the chef wants to avoid the plague of a supplier-studded menu, preferring to let his food speak for itself without a litany of ‘So-and-So Farms’ and ‘Those Guys Ranch’ cluttering up the joint. Grudgingly, I concede the point — all that namedropping can be distracting.
But elsewhere, we’re starting to see evidence of a happy medium.
Many newer entrants to the San Francisco restaurant scene fly their locavore flag high. Last week, we had the coincidental pleasure of dining at two of them: Nopa — a widely hailed anchor of its eponymous neighborhood’s revival — and Fish & Farm, a newly minted upscale experiment on the dodgy fringes of the Tenderloin. Both dinners were delicious, interesting, and varied; both menus made clear statements of their chef’s intention to support local farms, and listed their suppliers by name… not in the description of each dish, but in a separate section. The two restaurants couldn’t have been less similar in most other ways: Decor, plating, service, vibe, pacing, wine program, and clientele; no cookie-cutter knockoffs here. Praise the Lord and pass the (locally pastured) pork chops.
Most locavores would be thrilled to have even two hot, newish restaurants to add to their repertoire. But it’s better that that, by a mile. Nopa and Fish & Farm are just two members of a sizable and ever-growing subgenre of Northern California dining. Witness this extensive list of Bay Area chefs and restaurants committed to sourcing at least some of their ingredients locally (Tana from I [heart] Farms kicked it off two years ago, when “locavore” and “foodshed” were about as widely understood as quantum physics). Clamoring for more options? Pick up or download a copy of the newly published ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local‘ guide, highlighting area restaurants alongside farms, purveyors, and other member businesses.
And the list is growing all the time. Over at In Praise of Sardines, our friend Brett is documenting the process of designing, building, and otherwise launching his as-yet-unnamed Noe Valley restaurant. He describes his project as “seasonal, sustainable California fare with a Spanish flair”. A cool concept, to be sure, but he could use your help with choosing a name. Some of the ideas he’s tossing around have legs, but perhaps you’ve got a better one. Did I mention there’s a list of prizes? And some great writing? Why are you still here? GO, make your mark on our locavore restaurant scene!
What, you’re still here? Ok, ok… here’s our Dark Days Challenge wrapup. Despite last week’s unintended focus on dining out, we did still manage to make a number of locavore meals at home:
Pan chicken with mushroom sauce
- Marin Sun Farms chicken, homemade stock, Far West Fungi mushrooms
- orecchiete (non-local; exempt)
- Ella Bella Farm broccoli di ciccio
Steak and potatoes
- grilled Prather Ranch spencer steak
- mashed potatoes (Little’s)
- red-leaf lettuce (Little’s) with Point Reyes Bleu, Bariani olive oil, O cabernet vinegar
Friday night pasta
- a repeat of the salad above
- meat sauce made with Prather beef and pork, Mariquita tomatoes, Eatwell onions
- garlic bread: Clover Organic butter, Acme pain de mie heels, local garlic, local parsley
- linguine (non-local; exempt)
Passing time waiting for a table at Range, I noticed some of my favorite bottles clustered together along the bar: Chartreuse, St-Germain, and No. 209 gin.
“Are those all for the same drink?” I asked Brooke, the bartender.
“Yes they are — our nightly special.”
“Sold,” I said, closing the menu unread.
She set to muddling black peppercorns in a mixing glass along with some cantaloupe chunks. Ugh, I thought to myself, that looks nasty. No fan of the muskmelon, the mere idea of a cantaloupe cocktail made me gag.
And then she added the St-Germain and the Chartreuse to the muddled mixture, and I realized that was my drink in her hands. Oh god…
But really, I should have known better than to fret. The crew at Range, while adventurous, rarely steer me wrong. This drink was no exception. Somehow it all worked — the Chartreuse brings out the melon’s herbal overtones, and the St-Germain accentuates its floral notes. A splash of lemon juice keeps things in balance, and a good long shake opens it all up. The black pepper’s heat isn’t immediately apparent; it works like an internal garnish that becomes more obvious as the drink warms, a great counterpoint to the increasing sweetness as the chill fades.
Range christens its creation the Can-Can, a clever nod to the cantaloupe base, the two French liqueurs, and the pepper’s kick. We’ll just overlook the fact that there are at least two other cocktails with the same name — a surprising oversight from the upstanding mixological minds behind Range’s bar.
Can-Can a la Range
3/4 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 cup cubes of ripe cantaloupe (4-5 chunks)
2 oz dry gin (Range alternates between Plymouth and No. 209)
1 tsp Chartreuse
1/2 oz St-Germain elderflower liqueur
juice of 1/2 lemon
In a heavy-bottomed pint glass, muddle the peppercorns with half the melon until cracked. Add the rest of the cantaloupe cubes and continue to muddle until juicy and soft. Add the remaining ingredients, then shake well and strain into a well-chilled cocktail glass.
We’ll be away from the blog for a few days. We have an occasion to celebrate, and dinner reservations at a special place tonight. (Please forgive the photo — it was the best of the roll from our last visit in 2005!)
I’m stunned to realize that it’s been more than two years since we visited Wine Country. Is it possible we haven’t been back since we left Seattle? That’s almost as hard as it is to believe that it’s been five whole years ago since we were married, just on the other side of the hills in Sonoma County.
Have a great weekend. I know we will!
The descriptions of the food, physical locations, and presidential travel are either factual or based on our own experiences. The rest is best described like this…
Once upon a time, there was a restaurant named Hawthorne Lane. It was a very fine restaurant, with white tablecloths and brightly polished silverware. The restaurant was quiet and serious, with well-mannered waiters who would ask if you cared for another glass of iced tea—served with a miniature pitcher of sugar syrup—or perhaps some more wine.
The restaurant lived on a little stub of an alley that was also called Hawthorne Lane. Hawthorne Lane (the alley, not the restaurant) wasn’t a very large alley, but it was also very fine, with tall brick walls covered with ivy, and arches to walk through.
Hawthorne Lane (the restaurant, not the alley) was successful. It served delicious food to people who dressed well and enjoyed being asked if they cared for another glass of iced tea, or perhaps some more wine. Everyone thought very highly of the restaurant and told it so. One day, the president of the entire country came for lunch, and his big Southern laugh could be heard echoing through the ivy-covered arches.
But one evening—as it watched the light glow through its windows and listened to the thousand tiny clinks of polished silverware—the restaurant noticed something that it had never seen before. While everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, they also seemed to be working very hard, not just the waiters and the cooks, but even the guests. When they talked, they were careful to keep their voices evenly pitched. Even when they laughed—which happened often, because the restaurant was truly pleasant—they seemed to catch themselves, as if everything that they did needed to be as brightly polished as the wine glasses, as crisply starched as the linens.
When the restaurant realized how hard its guests were working, it became sad. It wondered if being fine and well-mannered made everyone just a tiny bit uncomfortable. And—after much thought—it decided that it would rather be a restaurant where people felt relaxed when they visited.
Away went the white tablecloths and the elegant dining room. In came dark wood paneling and light fixtures that looked like grass skirts made out of tan suede. There was also a chandelier that looked like it was made out of real antlers, because the restaurant thought that it ought to have one thing that was very silly, and the chandelier was very silly indeed.
The waiters were outfitted in T-shirts and sleek trousers. The service was a bit less polished, but it was undeniable that everyone was having more fun, which helped the guests to feel comfortable. The host dressed smartly in a suit and tie, but he also wore canvas sneakers, knowing that it was important to be just a little bit silly. Instead of quiet music, the restaurant played rock-and-roll, including Emotional Rescue by the Rolling Stones, because it liked the part at the end of the song where Mick Jagger talks about riding a horse across the desert.
The restaurant created an interesting cocktail list with lots of inventive drinks. One of the best was a hold-over from the restaurant’s past, a Greyhound-like drink called the Royal Hound with very tiny, very delicious pieces of dried grapefruit stuck to the rim of the glass. The restaurant found a clever wine expert, who created a new wine list with a section of 50 wines priced less than $50 per bottle, because it wanted its guests to feel like they could try different things without worrying about the price.
The restaurant thought that the food on its new menu should be less proper than before, but still interesting and exciting. It greeted each guest with a plate of crunchy, cheesy crackers and small, rich chive biscuits that disappeared so quickly that the restaurant wondered how anyone could possibly eat them so fast.
Wanting to serve food that made people feel comfortable, the restaurant offered an absolutely delicious chopped salad, and a tasty wedge of iceberg lettuce with St. Agur blue cheese dressing. There were richer starters, such as potato skins with very good housemade bacon, and deep-fried clam strips with tangy aioli. The appetizer list also included unusual foods like headcheese and marrow bones, both of which were well prepared indeed. One of the visitors didn’t like the tomato sauce that came with his bones, but he happily ate all the marrow anyway.
The restaurant struggled a little bit with its pasta courses; the pappardelle with peas and ricotta was heavy and bland, and the rock-shrimp linguine was rather ordinary. However, the guests liked the spaghetti dressed with uni and breadcrumbs, remarking on how comforting and homey the dish tasted, in contrast to how unusual it sounded.
The restaurant recovered its balance for the main courses. The pork schnitzel was perfectly fried, juicy, and not the least bit greasy; braised lamb cheeks on polenta had at least one person licking the plate. If the hamburger was somewhat dry, at least it was cooked medium-rare all the way through, just the way the guest had asked.
That only left the dessert menu, and the restaurant had to admit that it was puzzled, as one couple absolutely did not like any of their desserts. On one night, they complained that the jelly doughnuts were overfilled. On another night, they said that neither the ice cream nor the cookies in the baby ice-cream sandwiches tasted at all good. The restaurant understood that not every person would like every dish, but it couldn’t understand why these two were so upset when so many other people said nice things about the desserts. But the restaurant was a very wise restaurant and understood that these were small problems. And that there’s no pleasing some folks.
The restaurant has been busy for several months now, content with its new look, new mission, and new name. It is quickly winning new friends, as people visit and tell others that they should go. Some diners are drawn by the buzz, as restaurant-goers often are. Others hold memories of what the restaurant once was, like the young lady who popped in one day looking for the old, elegant, white tablecloth restaurant. Maybe she wanted some of the iced tea served with the little pitcher of sugar syrup. The host in his suit and basketball shoes smiled at her.
“We used to be Hawthorne Lane, but not anymore,” he said. “Now we are Two.”
22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, CA 94105