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NEW YORK CORNER: Valbella by John Mariani
SAN FRANCISCO REPORT
by John Mariani
Steve McQueen on the Streets of San Francisco in "Bullitt" (1968)
It would be a stretch to say that San Francisco is still a simmering crucible of American gastronomy, at least not in the sense that it was back in the '80s when Alice Waters. Mark Miller, Jeremiah Tower, Judy Rogers, Joyce Goldstein, and others were creating a formidable and influential new California cuisine. In fact, San Francisco has gotten rather complacent, replicating its own successes in restaurants that toe a line of Franco-Mediterranean cuisine pioneered in the city 30 years ago. There are always new restaurants of note, of course, in a city this size, and on a recent visit, I found several I believe are doing some of the best food in America, ew with a sure degree of refinement and a great deal of personality. Here are some that I think are among the best and most interesting in the city right now.
American chefs in Asian-owned hotels are
not uncommon, but Chef Joel Huff (below) is a very uncommon chef in
an Asian-owned hotel, the Mandarin-Oriental.
Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco has, since 1991, been a testament to two countervailing virtues: First, it has maintained its status among the very finest deluxe restaurants in a city far more in love with the darn good and the khaki casual; second, it has always achieved this at amazingly fair prices. Here, at the end of 2005, the six-course tasting menu is only $89--about what you'd pay for an appetizer in Parisian restaurants of this stripe. For $15 more you can enjoy a plate of artisanal cheeses. Three courses are $68, nine $115.
Price wouldn't matter if The Dining Room's food, decor and service were not of consummate quality, but they have always been so. Given the neo-classic majesty of the hotel's facade (left), the design of the Dining Room has had to toe the same line of elegance and posh, though the ambiance seems a bit softer than it originally was, perhaps aging so gracefully that occasional visitors like me have warmed to its genteel polish. The glassware is Spiegelau, the china from Limoges.
Service here , now led by maître d' Mario Nocifera, has always been among the city's finest, with none of that, "How we all doin'?" nonsense that passes for egalitarianism in San Francisco. The wine steward, Stéphane Lacroix, is among the most knowledgeable in the city, about both the rarities of Europe and the new estates of California, with about 1,200 labels on the current list. The list also contains one of the largest Malt Whisky caches in the U.S.
Despite chef changes over the past 15 years--first Gary Danko, then Sylvain Portay--the Ritz has never backed away from the agonizing challenge of sticking to the demanding haute cuisine style, and with the arrival this year of Ron Siegel, formerly of Masa's, and before that Aqua, the French Laundry, and Charles Nob Hill, the torch burns as brightly as ever. That Siegel has given more of an American spin to the menu was to be expected and welcomed after Portay, and here and there you'll find some admirable Cal-Asian accents in his cooking.
When you are seated, a Champagne cart will be wheeled over so that you can't possibly refuse to enter immediately into the gaiety of the evening. My wife and I chose Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, then began a luxurious evening with a tomato consommé with basil foam (what's with the ubiquity of tomato consommé in San Francisco these days?), and satiny kampachi sashimi with radish and a truffle vinaigrette. Spot prawn ravioli with lobster mushrooms, sugar snap peas, spinach, red pearl onions, and a coconut reduction followed, along with a tantalizing warm chanterelle salad with green beans and a curry-balsamic vinaigrette.
Florida frogs' legs--hurrah!--were a delight, served with fava beans and a roasted garlic sauce and candy cap mushroom essence, though I was surprised to find chanterelles and red pearl onions served again with this course.Crispy tofu with bok choy, scallions, baby ginger, and ponzu essence showed Siegel's Asian leanings. If anyone at the table is a vegetarian, Siegel happily works vegan wiles throughout the menu, but vegetarian or not, anyone would love his haute cuisine take on eggplant parmesan with mozzarella, basil, and a lush roasted tomato sauce.
His poularde breast was based on excellent chicken, served with artichokes, pancetta, carrots, Manchurian beans, and tarragon-infused nectarines, this last addition an overload with the chicken. Lacroix's choice of a well-fruited '02 Berridge Vineyards Drystone Pinot Noir from New Zealand went splendidly with the main courses.
Then the captain wheels over the cheese cart, and between sighs of pleasure and regret over what to order, we had four or five wonderful artisanal examples. Dessert was yet to come: Pastry chef Alexander Espiritu's apricot sorbet with a blueberry compote and strawberry sorbet with fresh figs prepared us for lovingly simple macerated summer berries with cinnamon cake, ginger cream, and olive ice cream (a ridiculous idea chefs seem strangely infatuated with), and a lime panna cotta with melon granité and tomato sorbet, which I liked very much, especially in concert with a '04 Forteto della Luja Moscato d'Asti.
Even in a great dining out city like San Francisco, an evening like ours at The Dining Room of the Ritz-Carlton is a rare thing, and to sustain its appeal after 15 years and three different chefs shows an enormous commitment that means you can always count on a fine evening of true sophistication here. Bring someone you love.
Like Gotham Bar & Grill in NYC and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco has been a graduate school for a second generation of brilliant American chefs, none better than Sean O’Brien, 35, who at Myth coalesces all those strains of California’s food culture that have influenced the way we eat today.
Restaurateur Tom Duffy has provided O’Brien with a sexy backdrop in a landmarked 19th-century brick building, with a glass atrium whose light is diffused through veils of bronze-colored veils. The long bar and lounge attract a handsome crowd, and the whole enterprise is the epitome of what casual Northern-Cal chic means.
It's been said often enough that San Francisco's chefs are in the grip of a legacy from Chez Panisse circa 1977 that has defined the city's style of cooking--a delectable mix of Mediterranean and Provençal flavors based on the best local ingredients. Indeed, it's a winning formula, but too many San Fran chefs just go through the motions, offering very similar menus with clichés like beet and goat's cheese salads and fried calamari galore. It's a northern California style that, were the city in Provence or Umbria, would be applauded for its indigenous goodness.
O'Brien works well within this milieu, but he gives it a freshness I haven't seen with such panache as I found in his treatment of warm sweetbreads salad with salty bacon, tart sherry vinegar, shiitakes, and a pungent grain mustard, or in his New York strip steak lavished with blue cheese butter and a syrupy red wine sauce, with terrific French fries on the side. This is not food to marvel at but to enjoy thoroughly for the way it has been thought through to perfection. His presentation of candy-sweet heirloom tomatoes naked under a gloss of olive oil and a single anchovy says more about the simple ideal of California cuisine than all the gourmet pizzas and nasturtium salads ever did.
The ridges in garganelli pasta soak up rich foie gras cream and the flavors of maitake mushrooms and Marsala wine. Grilled walu butterfish comes with a bright salsa verde, pea shoots, and onion sauce, while seared striped bass is done with mussels, chorizo, saffron, in a bouillabaisse shot with garlicky rouille. Braised beef cheeks with spaetzle, spinach, horseradish and gremolata is as tasty as a dish can be, but his service of a small amount of risotto to soak up the accompanying chanterelles, peas, pattypan squash, parmesan, and white truffle oil is too far off the scale.
As at so many San Francisco restaurants these days, a cheese course has become the norm, here a trio of artisanal cheeses like Pecorino Monte, Purple Haze goat's cheese, and French Le Welsche. The wine list at Myth is excellent in every category without pushing prices too high.
For dessert, pray Myth is offering the Belgian waffle with crème fraîche parfait, raspberry sauce, and fresh raspberries (in season). Sip with it a glass of Château Rieussec 1997 (only $9) or a Domaines et Terroirs Banyuls Grand Cru 1949 ($14) for a treat. You won't pay an arm and a leg for anything at Myth, and that's part of its calculated charm, too.
Appetizers here run $7-$14, entrees $14-$29.
DE LA PRESSE
I have been solidly in Chef Laurent Manrique’s culinary corner ever since I tasted his food at New York’s Peacock Alley, then at Campton Place in San Francisco, a city he has pretty much adopted as his home. His training at top restaurants like Taillevent in Paris gave him grounding in the classics, providing him with a sure sense of equilibrium. Now, along with several partners and chef de cuisine Patrick Albert, he has turned his attention to classic French bistro fare.
Not that San Francisco really needs another bistro: the city has plenty right now, and the menus don’t radically differ from one another. Manrique has not so much raised the bar higher as he has set a reasonable standard by which the rest might be judged for authenticity, even if he offers at lunchtime an all-American hamburger. At daytime Café de la Presse is a sunny, two-tiered corner spot across from the entrance to Chinatown. It has 120 seats, a private dining room for 25, tile floors, lots of alderwood and 1930s-style mirrors, wood floors, and a welcome wall of magazines from all over the world for purchase. The wine list is solid, not too expensive, and the service staff as amiable as any in a town known for amiability.
There are good pâtés and terrines here, and a charming tarte flambé made with abundant caramelized onions, bacon, and crème fraîche. That beloved snack croque monsieur—which is not a highfalutin grilled cheese sandwich but simply an honest French grilled cheese sandwich with the addition of ham—is here in very fine form, and I could not have been happier than to find what has become a rarity on Franco-American bistro menus, blanquette de veau, rich with pieces of tender veal, mushrooms, and onions, and a hearty cream sauce. French cream will probably always be richer than American, even Californian, cream, so a bit of that crème fraîche from the tarte flambé wouldn’t hurt this blanquette de veau.
For dessert there are the welcome, well-rendered old favorites like mousse au chocolat, île flotante, a croissant “pain perdue” with roasted fruits and yogurt, and big fat profiteroles filled with ice cream.
The Cafe is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Lunch is a remarkable bargain, with starters from $6-$12—many of which might be enjoyed as a lunch on its own—and generous entrees $17-$20. At dinner those categories barely nudge up, $8-$14 for starters and $19-$23 for main courses. Desserts are $7.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
421 West 13th Street
A very dramatic, two-story restaurant has opened in the born-again Meatpacking District on Manhattan's West Side. I say born-again because five years ago this was a hot neighborhood for new restaurants, most of which were pushed out by boutiques eager to pay higher rents or because they simply faded after a period of faddish popularity. Now the neighborhood is getting a new slew of restaurants better balanced and anchored to the street, and Valbella is one that looks to have strong legs.
Valbella is an offshoot of a highly successful restaurant of the same name in Riverside, Connecticut, as famous for its parking lot full of Gold Coast Mercedes, Jaguars, and Aston-Martins as it is for its wine list of 14,000 bottles and more than 1,600 selections. In NYC the list is currently 10,000 bottles strong, with 800 selections, including an astounding group of Italian wines, especially Super Tuscans, and California cult wines like Colgin Cellars, Screaming Eagle, and Bryant. Glassware is by Spiegelau.
The new Valbella has a lot of style--not the faux-bistro look of the insipid Pastis around the corner or the cement-and-wood rumpus room decor of 5 Ninth. Valbella is a shadowy world of its own, the first floor (above) almost seeming underwater because of the shimmering light, the second floor at the top of a spectacular winding metal staircase (below). There is also a superb wine room for up to 10 people and a chef's table for up to 20 in the kitchen. The bar is kept small, but, at least on the night I arrived, whoever mans the bar--and it could be anybody--hasn't a clue as to how to make any but the most popular drinks of the moment.
Mr. Ghatanfard has put a great deal of himself into the restaurant, and he will be seen darting here and there, greeting celebs like Joe Torre, getting a special bottle for a regular from Riverside, and making people feel as comfortable as possible in what is a very big, gregarious space. The service staff, though well meaning, is not yet in third gear, but Mr. Ghatanfard assures me he is well aware of the problems and has already attacked them.
Valbella is a restaurant absolutely driven by its ingredients. I know some of Mr. Ghatanfard's purveyors , and they tell me that he purchases nothing but the finest and what's best in the market that day. Thus, if there are perfect Nantucket bay scallops, Valbella will have them; Dover sole of the unstinting quality? Valbella offers them as a special; white truffles just in? The most fragrant will be at Valbella. This may make for a high tab at night's end, but you will get the very best, and the price will probably not be quite as high as elsewhere in Manhattan for inferior ingredients.
Best way to begin, then, is with a lavish platter of shellfish--lobster, clams, mussels, oysters, and shrimp--for the table, beautifully presented and served with three dipping sauces. Ask for the wonderful, simply grilled langoustines, even better than the menu rendition that crusts them with herbs with a vegetable stiry-fry and orange-soy reduction. Valbella does a fine job with its nine pastas, including, at the moment, risotto or fresh fettuccine with generous shavings of white truffles. Always dependable are the fettuccine with baby clams and crabmeat in a rich sauce with melted leeks and chardonnay.
As noted, follow the ingredients: the double veal chop is a triumph, with or without the sautéed mushrooms. Also very good is the braised veal chop with morels, sweet-sour onions, roasted potatoes and broccoli di rabe, and the Black Angus steaks are always superb. For fish, you'd have to have a good reason to go beyond the fabulous Dover sole or, when they get them, the Nantucket bay scallops sautéed in white wine and butter.
Desserts are by Raphael Dequeker, who worked ten years with Alain Ducasse, and who makes much of the nightly specials to order, including a napoleon for two, a chocolate or Grand Marnier soufflé, and and apple tart with fresh cinnamon ice cream.
Appetizers run $13-$25, pastas (full portions) $28-$30, main courses $29-$39.
ME LOVE YOU, BIG FISH!
"The fish arrived. It was on the bone, lightly drizzled with olive oil. I was skeptical. It looked like fish on a plate. Until the first bite: succulent, beautiful, melting even as it touched the tongue, It was shimmering and vanishing down the gullet as if somehow still alive. It needed no adornment but a little lemon. I was humbled before this fish and started scooping fantastically with my special fish knife, like a caveman. Primal eating. For about ten minutes there, Tom and I didn't actually converse, just grunted and gestured happily when the waiter came to refill our wineglasses. Yes, yes, more!"--Michael Paterniti, "Madrid," GQ (August 2005).
FINALLY, AN HONEST MAN
Rafael Antonio Lozano of Houston, who goes by the name "Winter," has visited 4,800 of the 5,715 Starbucks coffee houses in the world, with the intent of visiting every one. He told Associated Press, "Every time I reach a Starbucks I feel like I've accomplished something, when I've really accomplished nothing."
To all media publicity agents: Owing to the large volume of announcements received regarding holiday events, I will only have room in this newsletter for those that have a unique distinction to them. It would be impossible to list all Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners unless they are part of a larger, more extensive format.--John Mariani
* In celebration of the 100th anniversary of The Ritz London, the hotel will launch its Centennial Celebration rooms package on~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
* On Jan. 12,
Feb. 9, and March 9, a “Let’s Go
‘Shroomin’” package will be offered at Ventana
Inn & Spa in Big Sur, CA, incl. 2 nights’ accommodations, morning mushroom hunt with Ranger Chuck
Bancroft; mushroom menu lunch at Cielo;
dinner for two; 50-minute spa treatment;
“Ventana Discovery” guided morning walk; Daily yoga session. $1,240+,
depending upon room category.
or visit www.ventanainn.com.
* From Feb. 24-26 the Fifth South Beach Wine & Food Festival, hosted by Southern Wine & Spirits of
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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