Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lazy Bear

San Francisco, January 28, 2015—
YOU WILL HAVE NOTED, Constant Reader, that posts here have becoming less frequent: a combination of other demands on time at the desk, and dining perhaps too routine to be of interest. Perhaps this post will make up for it.

In the last few months we have dined in a few restaurants pioneering in what is to me, certainly in this country, something of a new format:
•Table d'hôte (like downstairs at Chez Panisse), which is to say a fixed menu with alternatives only in case of serious allergy
•A series of small plates offering tastings rather than substantial nourishment
•Wine pairings (a small glass with each course)
•Cuisine drawing on several ("global") traditions
•Great attention to presentation
A year ago or so we very much enjoyed a long dinner at Aubergine in Carmel. In Seattle a few weeks ago we enjoyed dinner at Staple and Fancy; in Los Angeles last week we were less enchanted with Providence. On the other hand, we were bored, a few years ago, at a "chef's tasting menu" in the Napa Valley's vaunted French Laundry.

A month ago or so we read a review of a San Francisco installation of this concept, with an added twist or two:
•Admission by pre-paid advance ticket purchase
•Two fixed seatings
•An almost individualized attention to each diner
As you see, diners are seated at two communal tables, ten diners to each side; all forty are served simultaneously throughout the meal, and the chef introduces each course, describing the sources of ingredients and the techniques of preparation.

This is a serious place: a twelve-page menu stapled into an attractive stiff cover is given, with a pencil, to each diner. To my eye not every diner took notes; but the women to my left and right were quite attentive and analytical in their address to the experience.

lounge.jpgWe dined at the second seating. We were greeted at the front door on our arrival, our names noted and checked against the reservation book; then we were led to an upstairs lounge area, where we stood at a railing overlooking the dining room. Here we were offered an apéritif — cold hibiscus tea with slices of cara cara; later I asked for a Cappeletti as well, one of the few Italian aperitivi on offer at the bar (which also offers mixed drinks and, of course, wine by the glass).

Discreet waiters brought water, then a series of canapés:
Whipped scrambled egg with smoked bacon, maple, and hot sauce
Shigoku oyster on the half shell, with citrus kosho froth
Royal Sterling caviar and romanesco panna cotta on an endive leaf
Duck liver mousse with marmalade
Duck confit hushpuppy with chopped black lime
Duck "Slim Jim" sith sour cream and herbs
Bone marrow and cheddar fondue with crudités
"Slim Jim," on my index finger
Brown butter brioche
Onion broth
Risotto with truffles
Squab breast with foie gras
Wagyu ribeye
"Toffee" pudding
All these were really quite tiny and easily eaten, passing the while nicely until table time, when one of the young people who had been waiting on us — there had been several — ushered us downstairs and seated us across from one another toward the end of one of the tables. (Alas, not the kitchen end: had I known of the chef's introductions, I'd have asked to sit closer to the kitchen, pleading advanced age. We were, incidentally, by perhaps twenty years, quite the oldest diners in the room.)

And then came the succession of courses:
Brown butter brioche
Charred onion broth
"Saffron" (though I had an alternative, Risotto with black truffles)
Wagyu ribeye
Sticky toffee pudding

Many of these courses were really quite good. I very much liked the brioche, for example, and especially the butter served with it: housemade from slightly cultured cream and well salted, it brought me back to the butter Mom made when I was a child. The brioche itself was more bread than brioche, we thought; and I questioned the idea of so big a concentration on bread-and-butter at the beginning of what promised to be a long and rich dinner. But I liked the bread a lot, and mean no disrespect when I suggest that it accompany a can of baked beans.

Muscadet: Melon de Bourgogne, Domaine du Grand Mouton, "Cuvée 1," 2012

The "sorrels" was a salad, as you see, of tiny sorrel leaves, Miner's lettuce, garden snails out of their shells, little chunks of Geoduck clam, toasted puffed barley, and tiny spot prawns for those who can eat crustacea (I cannot, and they were simply omitted from my serving, not a word said: very discreet). A nice salad in a green oil-and-puréed-something dressing; complex, refreshing.

Rolle: Le Clos Saint-Vincent, "Vino di Gio," Bellet, 2010, in magnum

I thought the onion broth superb. The color, not terribly well captured in the photo, was a deep golden amber; very clear; with a French-fried egg yolk at the bottom. The broth itself was from Tennessee country ham scraps and bones, and tiny bits of apple and scallion accompanied the egg yolk — again, discreetly.

Ribolla gialla, Stanislau Radikon (Friuli), 2006

My table-mates were envious of the course next presented me: a risotto, beautifully cooked and supple, with a generous scatter of sliced black truffle on top, barely warmed by the dish. I must admit I am mystified as to the ingredients and technique of this risotto. I tasted Arborio rice, of course, and butter, and a hint of cheese, and another hint of nutmeg; but I know other things were also involved. I could happily eat this dish, with only an accompanying salad, one day a week every week of my life.

Squab next: another stand-out preparation. The deeply flavorful cut, from the breast, had been lightly poached, I think, then rubbed with a mixture of spices and flavoring agents whose names I couldn't catch; then roasted. It was accompanied with seared foie gras, always a good idea; and tasty little Seckel pear halves, and a scatter of streusel involving both chicory and chopped toasted almonds. All these flavors went together very well indeed.

Bordeaux, Sociando Mallet, "Cuvée Jean Gauteau (Haut Médoc), 1997

The Wagyu beef was less appealing to me. The meat came from a Texas-raised grass-fed animal, not particularly deep with flavor especially after that delicious squab; and I thought it was severely compromised by an overly complicated garnish involving fried mushrooms and sweetbreads in a fish-flavored cream sauce with peanuts, parsley, and green peppercorns. Peanuts and cream, said the young lady next to me; that makes no sense at all: and I had to agree.

Even less sense was made by the following course, called simply "Carrot." This was an entremet whose function it was, I think, to cleanse the palate and introduce dessert: an idea I like very much. But it involved carrot, fennel, and cream cheese, the carrot turned into "gnocchi" and, disturbingly I thought, pea-sized chewy tapioca-like things, on the bed of creamy cream cheese the texture of crème fraîche, on a bed of chopped carrot-flavored gelée. Much art; much technique; too much imagination.

Riesliing, Willi Haag, "Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr," Auslese (Mosel), 2003

I liked the following course, the first dessert, but I would never call it (as did the menu) "sticky toffee pudding." It tasted like a fairly conventional steamed pudding, almost an old-fashioned molasses-based Indian pudding. It came with a little sour cream, which set it off nicely, and beautifully chosen dates, and a gelée of boiled-down hot sauce, and chopped black walnut, a very good idea I thought…

Finally, the "Treats": a platter — black slate again — bearing pairs of macaroons, gelées,
chocolate wafers, and meringues. Some of these involved chile, never too piquant, nicely setting off the deep bitter dark chocolate.

Grenache Blancc, Domaine Fontanel, Rivesaltes Ambre (Roussillon), 2001

Now about those wines. Like the courses, they varied in attractiveness: some were truly delicious; others quite nice. One was, I thought, simply too weird to drink. Fortunately the two framing wines — the Muscadet and the sweet Grenache blanc — were quite attractive. Especially the Muscadet, which had a complexity and even a hint of fruitiness that moved it closer to the upstream wines of Vouvray than the flinty, severe wines from nearer the mouth of the Loire.

The white Provençal "Vino di Gio" was a known quantity; we've had it in Europe — a simple, fruity alternative to a good Pinot bianco. The Bordeaux was, I thought, over the hill, faded, tasting more now of the barrel than the fruit.

That leaves the two ends of the scale. The Ribolla gialla was cloudy, funky, yeasty, clearly still fermenting in the bottle — though nine years old! I know there's a trend to drink such wines, but to my taste it's a marketing ploy to salvage a bad lot short of turning it into faux-Balsamic.

But the Riesling — that was a real treat, a fine, balanced, well-made Mosel, like we used to drink occasionally fifty years ago, luscious, sweet but not at all cloying, with a beautiful finish.

Still wanting something to tie the evening together before the long drive home, I looked in vain for a grappa, a brandy, or an Armagnac. The little bar offered cocktails, whiskeys and whiskeys, gin, agave (1), and rum, but no distilled grape at all. The waiter suggested something made of apples, assuring me that it was a Calvados, not cider. He then brought a couple of ounces of an "Apéritif normand" in a tiny glass filled to the brim, from which it was impossible to capture any fragrance at all. Whatever it was, it was certainly not Calvados, but it did finish the evening.

SO THEN, WHAT to say about the experience? As you may have gathered, this is not my kind of eating. I don't enjoy grazing, particularly — I can't help it; I'm an old man, and old-fashioned into the bargain: when I dine I want to sit down to a meal. It can be a big meal, and I confess I like the classic tradition of soup, fish, poultry, meat, side dishes, salad, dessert.

I can remember a few such meals in Italy: at the lamented Vipore outside of Lucca a few years ago; many more years ago — 1974! at Il Gran Sasso, in Milan: I wonder if it's still in business. Those meals took hours to consume, running from shortly past noon until five or six o'clock. While they ran through a number of courses, all the preparations shared a single terroir.

This is one of the big reasons I am not attracted to these new-fangled restaurants. In general they seem to concentrate on exploring a range of flavors, textures, techniques, even heritages. Vaguely (or clearly) Japanese ideas stick their elbows into classic French techniques. Duck mousse and confit, snails, clams, squab and foie gras, beef; probably a dozen different kinds of greens; those unlikely carrots; citrus throughout — it's like grazing through the shelves of a very fine supermarket-delicatessen, with someone at your elbow always wanting you to take note, reflect, analyze, learn.

The clientele, as I've mentioned, was mostly young; between thirty and fifty, I'd say. They seemed very happy for the most part. The dining room was noisy but not unbearably so — though I was annoyed at the odd selection of vaguely hip-hop sound that too often intruded on the table talk.

It was an interesting experience and I'm glad we went. The service, and the choreography of the forty diners, from lounge apéritifs to the table, was impressively smooth. The open kitchen was a pleasure to see — fifteen cooks! Shiny stainless steel; military parades of plates and glasses!

But I don't know that I'll be back.

Lazy Bear, 3416 19th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110; (415) 874-9921
Restaurants visited in 2015 are listed at Eatingday's Restaurants

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