Menu from Langan's Brasserie in London (circa 1975), showing owners Peter Langan,
actor Michael Caine, and chef Richard Shepherd.
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THE MICHELIN MAN WEIGHS IN ON SAN FRAN by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: Asiate by John Mariani
San Francisco Now by John Mariani
As the article below about the new Michelin Guide to San Francisco shows, the City by the Bay has considerable clout as one of America's great restaurant towns. I'd rank only New York and Chicago above it, but who cares when such a beautiful city has such a breadth of options, including a wide swathe of Asian eateries, fine French restaurants, the best vegetarian good in the U.S., and a second generation of young chefs who are the godchildren of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley? (Curiously enough San Francisco has very few good Italian restaurants, despite having a rich Italian immigrant heritage and an Italian neighborhood at North Beach.)
My most recent trip to San Francisco revealed a gastronomy as enticing as ever, and I happily returned to Silks in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to allow chef Joel Huff to amaze me with his refined and exuberant take of East-West fusion cuisine. I had terrific new dishes like a hirame ceviche with kaffir lime granita, guinea fowl cooked Sous-Vide, with apricots, ricotta gnocchi and wild game jus. Since I cannot heap more praise on him than I did when I last wrote about Silks, let me just point you to my last review of the restaurant, back in December (click). So let me heap praise on other places I enjoyed this time out.
689 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA
For more than a decade now, Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani have run the rustic Napa Valley restaurant Terra in St. Helena, known for its unpretentious mix of East-West dishes. Running a posh hotel dining room almost seemed out of character, but when the new St. Regis Hotel in SoMa begged, they took the leap of faith, and Ame has panned out to be a stellar restaurant, very different in style from Terra but still with the same gentleness, the same care for guests, and the same commitment to wine service.
The shadowy L-shaped interior is done in grays and red lacquer, with a mesquite wood floor, sashimi and sushi bar and open kitchen. Sound levels are civilized, the staff gracious.
By all means begin with some lustrous, innovative sashimi, like the carpaccio of sea bream with purslane, bottarga, and truffles, or tempura of poke with ogo seaweed and green onions; then move on to appetizers like sautéed Monterey calamari with spicy chorizo, pimentos and a saffron aïoli, or perhaps crispy sweetbreads on a stew of okra, tomatoes, fava beans and nepitella mint.
Hurrah! Hiro’s signature sake-marinated black cod with shrimp dumplings in shiso broth is here, and his braised veal cheeks on ricotta cavatelli pasta with summer squash and pesto is a marvel. Grilled squab on white corn risotto with a saute of Mexican huitlacoche and liver crostini is a tour de force of contrasting flavors and textures.
While Hiro (below) works the first and second courses, Lissa is in charge of whimsical desserts like an irresistible rum ice cream sundae with peanut brittle, banana, and hot fudge sauce, and Okinawa dumplings with a coffee shake. But she also does “Lissa’s Staff Meal” of cuttlefish noodles tossed with quail eggs, wasabi, and pickled salsify, which you may also sample from the menu. So what’s not to love? There is also a fine selection of artisanal cheeses.
Ame's winelist runs to about 150 selections, with good choices under $50.
For something special, gather up to seven friends and book the five-foot square “Red Table,” then allow Sone to cook for you.
Ame is open daily for lunch and dinner. Sushi and sashimi run $15-$17.50, appetizers $13.50-$17, and main courses $20-$36.
311 Third Street
Bong Su’s beautiful Chef Tammy Huynh (left)—a former Miss Vietnam--and her equally attractive partner Anne Le (right) prove the viability of the American dream among immigrants who work their tails off to give back something of their own culture.
Le, who comes from a restaurant background, offers a communal table to show off the kinds of family meals she remembers so fondly. There is also a very chic 50-seat lounge, a glassed-in wine room, an interior done throughout in delicate chiffon-like fabrics strips, bamboo, and tile, with glowing hanging lamps and tables set with the best linens and stemware. A very comely female waitstaff walks by dressed in backless outfits designed by Calvin Tran.
Huynh, born in Vung Tau to a mother who was a seafood exporter, studied biochemistry and pharmacy, background that gives her a true insight into how ingredients and spices work together. As a result, there is great delicacy and many strata of flavors and textures in dishes like her rice flour cupcakes with baby prawns and scallions, her honey-roasted quail stuffed with sticky rice and gingko nuts finished with a plum wine reduction, and her almost homey Kobe beef blanched with star anise, cinnamon, and fennel in beef stock and noodles. Empress rice with garlic, leeks, ginger, and quail eggs. Allow sommelier/maître d' Peter Greerty to choose wines for your meal, since Vietnam’s food has always been well incorporated with French cuisine.
On every level Bong Su, which refers to the lei flower, demonstrates the stunning beauty and traditional hospitality for which Vietnam is famous while at the same time bringing bright new ideas to the American table.
Lunch is served Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly.
130 Townsend Street
I suppose I have never taken tequila as seriously as I might, but no one entering Tres Agaves who comes within fifty feet of owners Julio Bermejo, Eric Ruben, or Chef Joseph Manzare will be able to resist their zealous mission to convince you that tequila is one of the great spirits of the world, sipped on its own or in a margarita, of which they have plenty of varieties here. (They use agave nectar as the sweetener, not sugar, and only 100 percent agave tequilas, and the distinctions are crucial. What the hell, order a pitcher for $24.) They have a tequila bar, private room for 26, patio for 100, and happily do flights of tequilas you're not likely to find in every Mexican eatery in San Fran.
Start off with shooter coctels (left) of shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and jicama. As their menu states defiantly, their food derives from Jalisco and Guadalajara, tequila's birthplace, and the big feature here is their big rotisserie, which issues forth irresistible aromas from spit-roasted chicken, done with a tequila citrus basting sauce, accompanied by roasted red potatoes and jalapeños. Pork is slow-roasted here, juicy and exuding flavors of Mexican oregano and chile peppers. Beef is braised slowly to succulence and intense flavor and arrives in a bacon-rich broth with cilantro, onions and lime.
You won't find combo platters, gloppy yellow cheese, and gloppier brown beans here. They do make a superlative guacamole, and you can order side platters of grilled corn with arbol chile and sautéed cactus with cilantro, onion, and garlic.
Tres Agaves is clearly built for fun--especially before and after a big game at the stadium--but the owners are not kidding around or merely catering to popular taste in the much-bowdlerized genre of Mexican-American fare. You go here hungry and you come out with an education.
Lunch is served Mon.-Fri., Dinner nightly, and brunch Sat. & Sun. There is a late-night menu after hours.
3011 Steiner Street
It's a young crowd that gathers to bump into one another, and the open kitchen adds to the conviviality. And so you sit down and peruse a menu rich in items you can easily share, starting with hummus and housemade pita, or some cured meats like spicy copa and chorizo with manchega cheese. Mussels steamed in Oloroso sherry and bay leaf are the equal of any in the city, and pancetta-wrapped figs come with wild arugula to cut the sweetness.
Keep going: ravioli with ricotta and zucchini, basil, pignoli, and a cherry tomato sauce is something you might not want to share with anyone, and the same goes for a big panzarotto--one huge stuffed pasta--with pepperoni, mozzarella, and marinara sauce. One of the best dishes is, unexpectedly, an heirloom tomato and farro salad with cucumber, feta cheese, and a gloss of olive oil. With prices ranging from $7 to $13 (this last for grilled halibut with garbanzo beans and charmoula), you can hardly make a big mistake ordering anything, and that's the joy of Terzo.
And you'll probably have room for dessert, maybe the fruit crumble with vanilla ice cream, the cookie plate, or the midnight cake with allspice ice cream and crème Chantilly. They even serve hot chocolate.
Terzo is not trying hard to impress anyone, but it's trying very hard to be very good and very consistent--the epitome of what a neighborhood restaurant should be.
Terzo is open every night.
THE MICHELIN GUIDE WEIGHS IN ON SAN FRANCISCO by John Mariani
Last year the Michelin Guide company published its first red guide rating restaurants in NYC (there are 12 city editions in Europe), and now, having succeeded with that volume, they've turned their sights on San Francisco, just issuing the 2007 guide.
As it does in Europe, Michelin bases its ratings on anonymous visits by trained inspectors who, cell-like, may not even be known to one another. In most cases an inspector dines alone, pays his bill, and makes his report. Another inspector may follows, and if a restaurant seems to merit a star, other inspectors will visit, perhaps up to 12 visits, before a third star is awarded. (How these inspectors are able to book so many reservations at those restaurants notoriously difficult to get into months in advance is never explained.)
As in Europe, one star means “a very good restaurant,” two means “worth a detour,” and three “worth a journey,” the odd wording owing to the Michelin Tire Company’s originally issuing the guides a century ago to chauffeurs, who bought the tires and drove wealthy people in their limousines around France.
I like the new format, which devotes at least half-page to each restaurant—in stark contrast to the European Michelin guides, which give no more than two lines of description to a restaurant, itself an innovation of three years ago, before which no description whatever was provided. The photos, lay-out, and detailed info of the U.S. guides are more admirable than anything else now published, and the write-ups seem well informed as to the character of a neighborhood described. You'll find many of those funny Michelin icons, which now include a table with an umbrella ("meals served in a garden or terrace") and grapes ("interesting wine list").
As for the star ratings, the SF 2007 Guide, which also encompasses the Bay Area and Wine Country, gives only one ***, four **, and 23 * ratings. (The NYC Guide 2006 gives four restaurants ***, four **, and 31 * ratings (the 2007 edition is due out in November.) As in NYC, and as in every Michelin guide in Europe, French or French-style restaurants get the lion's share of the stars; in the case of SF 2007, the aptly named French Laundry, which is in Napa Valley, is the sole recipient of ***. (Not unexpectedly, Keller's NYC operation, Per Se, also has ***.) I agree with that assessment, and I don't believe the region has another restaurant "worth a detour," though I expect Cyrus in Healdsburg, to one day earn that designation.
I have no real quibbles about the ratings in the ** category--Aqua, Cyrus, Manresa, and Michael Mina--though I'd raise Auberge du Soleil, Chez Panisse, Gary Danko (all * in the Guide), as well as Silks (no stars), to **. The * category presents the most puzzles, not because I disagree with many of the ratings but because the description-- "A very good restaurant in its category: A place offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard"--is ambiguous, especially when first-rate restaurants like Campton Place, Jardiniére, Martini House, Myth, and Zuni Café receive no stars.
My only real caveat, as with the NYC Guide, is that in reading through the reviews of the restaurants there is not a negative word in any of them. Indeed, every restaurant sounds absolutely wonderful, without so much as a note that you might skip dessert here or receive lackadaisical service there. Every listing sounds like a * restaurant. Tired dinosaurs like Tadich Grill, Fior d'Italia, and Sam's Grill & Seafood are afforded more than respectful praise, while no mention at all is made of the interminable waits for a table or counter space at Slanted Door.
What the Guide does do is to put San Francisco into better perspective from a more global view than the parochial one you get from local boosters. Of course, being a French restaurant sure doesn't hurt to warm Bibendum's heart and belly, which, as the illustration to the right indicates, has slimmed down considerably from a few years ago when a tire around the middle really meant something.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
80 Columbus Circle
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the glorious view one has from Terrace in the Sky on
You enter through a shimmering Lobby Lounge, where you may eat lightly; for exotic Asian cocktails, the MObar is a very sexy spot, starting around . To the left is Asiate, where you will be very cordially greeted and shown past a stunning wall of 1,300 bottles of wine (below) to a two-tiered, 90-seat dining room that very probably has been laid out feng shui style, because it is of supreme comfort, good decibel level, and breathtaking beauty. Tables are well set, glassware thin, serving dishes varied in shape and color.
When Asiate first opened I was always delighted by the prospect of dining there, though I couldn't wholly wrap myself around a menu, by Chef Noriyuki Sugie (below), that seemed to try too hard to attract attention. Many dishes were very good but others tasted more like a concept than a well-realized plate of food. Having returned two weeks ago to Asiate, I was again awed by the beauty of the place and the superb hospitality. With two friends, I put myself in the hand of Mr. Sugie and sommelier Annie Turso, and so a true feast began. This time the ideas behind most dishes seemed far more focused, better suited to flavor than sensation, and while the myriad first courses outclassed the entrees, it was a memorable evening.
Mr. Sugie started out to be a rock band musician, but he says, “I decided that I could earn a better living as a chef and found many similarities between the two. Like music, cooking is all about harmony. Orchestrating a meal is like creating an unforgettable score: classic dominant ingredients are the bass chords and accents of unexpected spices, with flavors providing the high notes. Presentation is like a mesmerizing solo. Like any performance, you have to put on a good show.” Okay.
He studied at the
L’Aubergade, Le Moulin de Martorey, and Hostellerie de Vieux, before moving to Chicago to work at Charlie Trotter’s, where he was chef de partie, followed by a stint at Tetsuya in Sydney and a turn as partner at Restaurant VII there. You can tell he frets over every dish for balance, color, and pictorial beauty.
With a glass of Gosset Brut Grand Rosé, we began with warm slow-poached egg in a dashi broth with ginko nuts, whose blend of bracing broth and the soft and sensuous texture of the egg was a wonderful way to spark the appetite. We then went on to seasonal dishes that included a witty Caesar salad soup, that was made with Romaine lettuce in a chicken stock with gratings of Parmesan cheese, and a subtle touch of anchovy butter, enjoyed with the crisp Jermann Vintage Tunina '04. This was followed by a "Surf and Turf" concept of several bites of various items on one plate, including snails, a garlic-chive omelet, and braised pork with scallops, with
aSchönborn Riesling “Hattenheim Pfaffenberg” '01. It is not easy to match wines with such flavors, but Ms. Turso's choices were excellent across the broad.
The main courses were slightly less exciting than what preceded them, though tasty, including Japanese
A soothing fig yogurt set with a fig granité paved the way for mango salad, coconut tapioca, sticky rice and ginger ice cream, but none delivered a wallop of deep, rich flavor you hope for at dessert. The accompanying Bassermann-Jordan Riesling Eiswein Deidesheimer Kalkofen '01 did, however.
Asiate has all the obvious earmarks for a highly romantic restaurant, as well as being a place business people love to show off New York, but it is clearly a restaurant that also appeals to the connoisseur of modern Japanese-global cuisine, so for them, the view is pure lagniappe.
Asiate is open for
breakfast and dinner daily, lunch
Mon.-Fri. The Pre-Theater Menu is $55. The Tasting Menu is $95 -- $155
with wine pairings. The regular 3-course dinner is $75.
I'M ALSO HAVING A HARD TIME FIGURING OUT IF I BILLED MY NEWSPAPER FOR TWO OR THREE VISITS
"Over three visits (which included a nine-course tasting menu), fish, fowl, foie gras and meat were perfectly cooked every time. . . .After two visits with extreme ups and downs, I'm having a hard time figuring out the Dining Room at Jack's."-- Leslie Brenner, "Down the coast, Uptown Dining," Los Angeles Times (9/27/06)
THE LOCAL COMMUNITY RECOMMENDED
HE CHANGE THE NAME TO "SCHMUCK."
In Navi Mumbai, India, restaurateur Punit Shablok put up promotional posters for his restaurant named "Hitler's Cross" and a large portrait of Der Fuhrer at the door, which was protested by Mumbai's Jewish community.
* The Hilton Arc de Triomphe Paris is paying tribute to Marie Antoinette with an extravagant dessert at its Le Safran restaurant. "Let Them Eat Cake" is a chocolate confection served with a $100,000 bauble from one of
* On Oct. 26, at the Bell Event Centre in
* On Nov. 1 Mexico’s Day of the Dead Festival will be celebrated at NYC’s Maya and Pampano, decorated in traditional ‘Day of the Dead’ decor, complete with an altar adorned with flowers, candles and skeletons and serving authentic foods of the celebration to commemorate the departed as well as the season. Call 212-585-1818.
* On Nov. 3 The Pavilion Antigua will hold its 5-course Truffle & Wine pairing dinner by Chef Andrew Knoll, complemented with a vertical Pio Cesare Barolo tasting from 1996-2001. Mr. Boffa, great grandson of the founder of the estate, will comment on each vintage. $300 pp. Call 268-480-6800.
* From Nov. 8-12 the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival will feature a line-up of chefs, winemakers, master sommeliers and local culinary talent, who will teach cooking and wine tasting classes, incl. Gavin Kaysen of El Bizcocho; Mike Grgich of Grgich Hill Winery; Jac Cole of Spring Mountain; Marketta Fourmeaux of Chateau Potelle; Diana Snowden of Snowden Winery; Gianni Paoletti of Paoletti Winery; Florencia Palmaz of Palmaz Winery; Beth Thompson of Trefethan Winery; Chef David Lawrence, author of Boy Eats World; Master Sommelier Joseph Spellman of Joseph Phelps Vineyards; Chef Sam Zien, “Sam The Cooking Guy,” et al. Visit www.worldofwineevents.com or call 619-342-7337.
* From Nov. 7-12 the San Antonio New World Wine & Food Festival celebrates the 275th anniversary of the arrival of
* On Nov. 11 Borgata in Atlantic City and Wine Spectator Magazine present the 2nd Annual Women in Wine Event, hosted by renowned female winemakers from around the world and incl. a tribute to actress Lorraine Bracco, Olympian Peggy Fleming, and other noted Women in Wine; a celebrity chef cook-off between American Iron Chefs Bobby Flay and Masaharu Morimoto and hosted by ABC’s Lauren Glassberg; live and silent auctions, to benefit Living Beyond Breast Cancer and the Atlantic City County Women’s Center. Visit www.theborgata.com or call 866-900-4TIX (4849).
* On Nov. 15, Chefs Tim Elliott of Mie N Yu and Santi Zabaleta of Taberna del Alabardero will be among 10 others in the “Battling Chefs in Capital Food Fight 2006” in support of DC Central Kitchen. The event features chefs in teams, with Anthony Bourdain, and Kojo Nnamdi among the judges. The Food Network's Dave Lieberman and Marc Silverstein co-host with José Andrés of Zaytinya, Jaleo, Café Atlántico / minibar and Oyamel. Also, 40 of the area's restaurants will provide tastes of some of their dishes. Location:
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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