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In a state of hibernation. My backlog has long become unsustainable. Will probably tweet more and write less full-length stuff.

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Entries in Contemporary (21)

Wednesday
Aug252010

Maverick

I once promised to post some brunch pictures from Maverick, one of my SF brunch mainstays. There are two critical factors about brunch at Maverick. First, the food is delicious. Second, they are on OpenTable and take brunch reservations. It's generally pretty easy to get in, and there is rarely a line like other top brunch spots (such as personal favorite Universal Cafe... and I won't even get into places like Dottie's or Mama's). The intersection of convenience and quality make Maverick a standard brunch stop. I guess it's at a slightly higher price point than the packed brunch places, but I'll pay an extra few dollars to avoid the hassle.

 

ANDOUILLE SAUSAGE BENEDICT - grilled andouille sausage, poached eggs, crawfish and jalapeno hollandaise, English muffin, home fries - $15If you're eating brunch at Maverick for the first time, order the andouille benedict. It's been on the menu for years, and it really is their best dish. I'm a sucker for any good eggs benedict, and these eggs are expertly-poached. Maverick then mixes it up by using andouille sausage instead of ham, and throwing some crawfish into the hollandaise. The result is a nice peppery kick that gives the whole plate some life. The potatoes are also excellent here - hot and crispy on the outside, smooth on the inside.

 

MAC 'N CHEESE - $6Their mac 'n cheese is also a winner. Extremely rich and comforting, and also an excellent pair with the hot sauce...

 

YOUK'S HOT SAUCE - free, but it'll cost you $7 to take a bottle homeAnd a fine hot sauce it is. In fact, it might be my favorite American-style hot sauce of all (though admittedly, I've never been to the south). According to the label, the sauce is based mainly on serranos, jalapenos, and cayenne. It's got a wonderful tangy bite that goes perfectly with the potatoes and the mac 'n cheese (or just about anything, really). Love this stuff. Looks like they're actually selling it online now too.

So that's a typical brunch at Maverick. Apologies again for the long long overdue post. If you're awake in the morning on a weekend and looking for some numnums, definitely check out Maverick. You won't have to deal with the 600-person line in front of Dottie's.

Friday
Sep112009

RyuGin - 龍吟

We had slotted one meal in Tokyo to explore a restaurant that covered a broader Japanese spectrum, in some kind of tasting course fashion. Usually this means kaiseki, the old-school Japanese parallel of a dégustation, which in some ways is as much about tradition, presentation, and performance as it is about food itself. But during research, Michelin 2-star RyuGin caught my eye, supposedly presenting a modern take on Japanese cuisine that was simply intriguing. Superlative reviews fom Chuck (a very dependable source!) and Exile Kiss vaulted RyuGin to the top of my list.

Located down a side alley in Roppongi, RyuGin has a fairly unassuming entrance that leads down to a small dining room of maybe 20 seats. The theme throughout as indicated by the name is dragons - and the decor feels decidedly Chinese, with blue porcelain lining the tables and calligraphy up on the walls. Service and presentation were delicate, with custom plates, glassware, and cutlery throughout the meal. The feeling in the room is quite unlike any place I have been to, and a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Roppongi just a block or two away.

Chuck eloquently described RyuGin as an Eastern response to the Spanish molecular gastronomy movement. Exile Kiss dubbed it modern kaiseki. I'm not sure what I would call the place. It clearly has some Western influences in its contemporary style, but at the same time the cooking still seemed solidly grounded in Japanese technique and ingredients.

Chef Seiji Yamamoto, just 39 years old, opened RyuGin at the end of 2003. He's been quite the jetsetter, having participated in many culinary events throughout Japan and Europe. He's well entrenched in the modern cooking community, and based on the other reviews, has gone through some very experimental phases in his cooking. It seems that right now he's taken a step back and gone to some more traditional techniques. I'd say our meal reflected this - although we saw plenty of modern creativity, there wasn't any truly avant-garde molecular wizardry that I could detect.

The cost for the full dinner tasting at RyuGin was ¥23,100. The meal was impressive, eye-opening, and delicious, so here we go.

 

UNI - mashed fava beans, bamboo shoots, noriI get excited when I see a dish full of ingredients that I love and yet have never tried eating together. This one absolutely delivered, using the creaminess of the uni to bind the textures of mashed fava beans and soothing bamboo shoots. The uni and nori flavored the entire combination with the sea.

 

ABALONE AND KOBASHIRA - potato stems, gingko nuts, ginger sauceAbalone was perfectly tender, contrasting to the very slight chew of the kobashira. The mild, thick ginger sauce provided a delicate accompaniment. The waiter described the long flat green vegetables as potato stems - they had a texture somewhere between cooked onions and pickled bamboo shoots.

 

"CHAWANMUSHI" - sweet corn custard with shrimp geleeYamamoto's reputation for visual flair is not undeserved. At this point we started to wonder if our entire meal would use the same color palette. It was not to be, but we were impressed enough after 3 dishes with completely different ingredients, flavors, and textures. This play on chawanmushi actually contained no eggs, and was served slightly chilled. It had a beautifully delicate, pudding-like texture, and intense corn flavor. Somehow, this reminded me of the cauliflower panna cotta at the French Laundry, with its combination of veggie-flavored custard and briny topping. This was absolutely delicious, and I could have eaten an entire bowl of it.

 

FISH BONE SOUP - hamo, matsutake mushroomAn earthy, umami-laced broth with some meaty conger eel and a gorgeous matsutake. Fish soup for the soul!

 

RYUGIN SASHIMI - hamo with plum sauce, kinmedai, maguro, ise ebiA sashimi course is standard in every RyuGin meal. Fish quality was pristine. Hamo had a fluffier texture than the eel in the soup. Kinmedai (sea bream) was supremely clean in flavor. Maguro had a pure, smooth texture. Ise ebi (spiny lobster) was my favorite - a bouncier, more muscular lobster that still had some of the "gooeyness" of raw shrimp.

 

CRAB - okra, apple vinegar jelly, gingerCrab and apple vinegar provided an interesting, tangy flavor combination. I didn't like the addition of okra, which gave the dish a slimy texture. That's a bit of a personal taste issue though, I think. The Japanese have a place in their hearts for the slimy texture present in the inside of okra, or grated mountain yam (tororo). After years and years of trying, I've been unable to develop an appreciation for it. This was the only dish in the meal I wasn't too crazy about.

 

AKAMUTSU - sea perch crusted with fried rice and black vinegar, baby pea shoots, pickled vegetables with shisoThe meal bounced back in roaring fashion with this cooked fish preparation. The waiter called it sea perch - on Google, it also seems to go by "yellow stripe ruby snapper." In any case, this was by far one of the best fish dishes I've had in a very long time... it was like a twist on the ubiquitous miso-glazed black cod, stepped up 23 notches and pumped full of banned performance-enhancing BALCO steroids. The meat was moist, tender, and pretty much perfect, while the crunchy fried rice crust provided a textural contrast for each bite. Simply delicious.

 

NIKUJAGA - lightly cooked Wagyu beef with fried shoestring potatoes, spring onions, sweet soy, and sesame pasteThis was a spin on nikujaga, which according to Wikipedia is a humble winter stew of sliced beef and potatoes. I've never tried it, but this version seems to be a daring departure, eschewing boiled potatoes for shoestrings, and using beautifully marbled Wagyu. Mixing this whole thing together, the potatoes added crunch to the melt-in-your mouth beef. The beef seemed to be lightly stewed (or maybe, lightly sous-vided), but never grilled. Very tasty.

I should mention that the dish looks small in the photo, but actually contained 3 generous slices of beef.

 

UNAGI DON - rolled Japanese pickles, tamago, matsutake miso soupA fancier version of the traditional white rice + pickles end to the Japanese meal. The unagi don was more like unagi fried rice - the chunks of eel were fried crispy on the outside, and still very tender on the inside. The rice had the char of a hot wok.

 

ZARU SOBA - topped with minced sudachiWhen the waiter offered an extra noodle dish, I of course could not decline. This buckwheat soba was freshly made that day by Yamamoto's sous-chef. Sudachi is a small green Japanese citrus, which provided a zesty kick. The texture of the noodles was full of bounce and body, a stark contrast to the lifeless soba found in the US.

At this point, I had a brain fart and forgot to take a picture of the palate cleanser. It was a refreshing sudachi sorbet served with a few pieces of snow pear.

 

BAKED CHESTNUT CAKEThe baked chestnut cake seems to be another RyuGin standby. It was served on a glass plaque-style plate, backed with a decorative picture beneath it. Apparently the plate they use varies with the seasons, but always uses the chestnut cake as a visually-striking representation of the moon. The cake itself was pretty good, with a subtle but not overwhelming chestnut flavor.

 

MIZUYOKAN - red bean cakeThis gelatinous version of the traditional red bean cake was incredibly smooth and light. Red bean is not my favorite dessert ingredient, but this had none of the "sandyness" I often find with red beans.

In the end, I was very happy with our meal at RyuGin. It was truly an experience unlike any I've had before. Yamamoto-san created new, groundbreaking combinations of ingredients and flavors in some dishes while reaching back to and modernizing tradition in others. Most importantly, the food was all really, really good. The place is getting a ton of buzz, and deservedly so. As Chuck said in his review, I think we'll be hearing a lot more about RyuGin in the coming years as it pushes for a third Michelin star.

And while the style is decidedly contemporary, Yamamoto-san certainly paid attention to Japanese traditions. As we left the building, the chef and 2 staff members appeared to lead us out and say a final goodbye. They stayed in front of the doorway, all bowing and waving good bye as we walked down the alley. We kept turning back to look and they kept waving, until we got to the main street and could no longer see the restaurant. You've gotta love that kind of hospitality.

Tuesday
Aug182009

Bar Tartine

Last week, I was shocked to discover that Jason Fox was on his way out at Bar Tartine. The restaurant outpost of the always popular Tartine Bakery, Bar Tartine has been one of my favorite restaurants in the city since I got back from Boston. The food was a great representation of what I find to be sophisticated, California cuisine - Chef Fox's creative uses of ingredients really symbolized the type of food that can only be born in San Francisco. I distinctly remember an appetizer of pork belly, calamari, egg salad, and potatoes that was far greater than the sum of its parts (and yes, I realize how delicious each part already is) and easily one of best dishes I ate in 2007. And they served a mean brunch... I'm talking foie gras paninis and smoked salmon benedicts.

So, imagine my surprise when I found out Jason Fox wasn't leaving to pursue some other opportunity. From what I can tell, he's basically been fired (though supposedly in amicable fashion) to make way for Chris Kronner, formerly of Serpentine and Slow Club, who is going to simplify the food. Apparently the owners want to "draw a more direct line" between the restaurant and the bakery... which, if you ask me, sounds like they are trying to lean more in the Maverick/Range direction. Now don't get me wrong - those are two of my favorite restaurants as well - but I really loved what Fox did at Bar Tartine and I thought he brought a unique style to the dining scene. It will be missed, and I hope he quickly lands somewhere else in the city. I haven't been to Serpentine yet, but Chris Kronner is supposedly a great talent. He has big shoes to fill.

Anyway, immediately upon hearing this news, I booked a table to eat Fox's cooking one last time with my mom.

 

COUNTRY BREAD - from Tartine BakeryFirst things first - Tartine Bakery is indeed quite delicious. At Bar Tartine, they serve fresh country bread from their sibling - a wonderful, chewy, slightly sour loaf. It's my favorite table bread anywhere, period. You can buy it by the round at the bakery.

 

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES AND CUCUMBERS - purslane, basil, avocado, pecorino, black olive vinaigrette - $13My mom started with this heirloom tomato salad, a beautiful example of my favorite summer ingredient. The creamy avocado did a great job to smooth out this dish. Bar Tartine has always made some of the city's most top-notch salads.

 

SANTA BARBARA SEA URCHIN - corn custard, chorizo, beech mushrooms, jalapeno, crayfish broth - $15Now here's a prototypical Jason Fox mix of ingredients. One of the most creative Western uni-users I have seen, Fox is an expert at combining unexpected ingredients that just make you say "huh?" while turning them into something amazing. A few beautiful pieces of uni sit on top of a light, slightly sweet custard, which eventually turns into a bit of a stew when stirred together with the other ingredients. The chawanmushi influence is clear, but the Western ingredients make it wholly different. Chorizo gives just the right amount of salt, and the jalapeno kick paired with sea urchin is surprisingly delicious. An absolute winner, and symbolic of what Fox does that separates him from everyone else.

 

POTATO GNOCCHI - hen of the woods mushrooms, corn, sage, parmesan, black truffle oil - $19My mom got this veggie main dish which has been a mainstay on the menu (with just some seasonal variation on which vegetables go in) for the past couple of years. Fox's gnocchi has a nice fluffy texture with some crisping on the edges. The huge chunks of fresh-cut corn were delicious - I guess I'm too young to know what corn used to taste like.

 

FOUR STORY HILL FARM HANGER STEAK - cherry tomato bread salad, french beans, rosemary oil - $27I went with the steak, which appears often on the menu in varying preparations and with changing accompaniments. This piece was cooked nicely and had a nice char to it. I'm not sure if they used that country loaf for the bread salad, but it was yum.

 

CORNMEAL CREPES - blueberries, fresh corn ice cream, lime caramel - $8Bar Tartine has always had strong desserts. I remember it was the first place I tried olive oil ice cream with sea salt, which is now one of my favorite combinations (especially if they give you a piece of that Tartine shortbread). These crepes had a nice mix of flavors going on, particularly the unexpected tang of the caramel. A very nice finish.

And so goes my ode to the Fox era at Bar Tartine. I'm quite sad to write this, as Fox is officially no longer cooking there. I've probably been to Bar Tartine 10-15 times in the past 2 years or so - it was really entrenched into my rotation. I tried to capture some of the essence of the restaurant with my ordering, and I thought the uni dish encompassed Bar Tartine best. Hopefully it gives you an idea of what this place was like. (Admittedly, brandade-stuffed squash blossoms and Pt. Reyes lamb tongue were also tempting.)

I look forward to trying Chris Kronner's food here once he settles in, and hope he brings his own slant to the table. But based on the direction of the restaurant, it's hard not to feel like something is now gone forever with Jason Fox's departure. Best of luck to this place, and I can't wait to find out where Fox ends up. Jason, if you are listening, please don't leave SF!

Thursday
Aug062009

Maverick

Maverick is a pretty interesting story. Chef/owner Scott Youkilis is a lifelong chef who spent two years at Sociale before opening Maverick. It's not the most exciting pedigree, I have to admit; however, he is also the brother of Kevin Youkilis, the Boston Red Sox All-Star, noted for his extremely efficient on-base percentage and nicknamed the "Greek God of Walks" in the revolutionary book Moneyball. To my knowledge, Baseball Youkilis has no official involvement, and based on the fact that Maverick bears none of the trademark athlete-turn-restaurateur pitfalls, I can only conclude that Chef Youkilis has built this neighborhood spot just like any other successful joint, and the athlete connection is nothing more than a fun fact. The only thing they collaborate on is the signature "Youk's Hot Sauce" - a wonderful, peppery concotion served during brunch and sold by the bottle.

Named after an 1800s Texas cattle rancher, Maverick bills itself as a contemporary American eatery, with some visible influences from the South (as well as New Orleans in particular). The restaurant is tiny - it has maybe 10 tables in total. And for some reason, despite the fact that they serve an absolutely awesome andouille sausage benedict with crawfish hollandaise, the place is never so full that it becomes a hassle to eat there. It's become a go-to brunch spot for me that takes reservations and consistently delivers. But it's not a one-trick pony either; Maverick serves up some delicious grub at dinnertime as well.

 

BROKEN ARROW RANCH ANTELOPE TARTARE - ancho chili sauce, purslane, olive oil soaked toast - $13The tartare is a mainstay on the dinner menu, and for good reason. Antelope is lean, with a milder flavor than you might expect (not much gameyness, and not too far off from beef). It's quite well-suited for tartare, and Youkilis chops it to a nice size. The ancho chili differentiates it from the typical tartare by leaving a very delicate but noticeable heat in the back of your mouth.

 

FRIED GREEN TOMATOES - cornmeal crusted tomatoes, mizuna, heirloom tomatoes, buttermilk dressing - $10These tomatoes have a very nice, crunchy, and greaseless crust. The creamy buttermilk is a good complement to the acidity of the tomatoes. I must admit though that while I've found that I tend to order fried green tomatoes whenever I see them, they never seem to be as delicious as they looked in the 1991 movie named after them. That's not a knock on Maverick as much as it is a statement on the power of imagination when it comes to taste, I guess.

 

PAN ROASTED LIBERTY DUCK BREAST - Crookneck squash custard, squash blossom and russian kale salad, roasted figs, duck jus - $27I thought about ordering the fried chicken - Maverick serves one of the best in town. But I figured I'd be back to take photos of it another time, and this duck was really calling my name. I'm glad I strayed. The breast was perfectly cooked, and had a crackly but not fatty layer of skin. The figs, a pairing I usually find overly sweet, were mild and added just the right balance of flavor to the jus. The cheesy squash custard was a perfect substitute for mozzarella as a partner to the squash blossoms. This dish was a winner.

 

BLUEBERRY BREAD PUDDING - creme fraiche ice cream, blueberry coulis - $8Dessert was a totally pleasant surprise. I can't describe this any better than "blueberry muffin on steroids." Just imagine the best warm blueberry muffin ever, and put some well-made ice cream on top of it.

I really owe it to you guys to come back for brunch some time and take some photos. For now, these dinner pics will have to do. I really feel Maverick is one of the more overlooked restaurants in the city. To me, it's also one of the most convenient - it's always pretty close to full, with a lively atmosphere, and a reliable number of patrons to maintain steady business. But it's also never hard to get in; a few days of planning and it's easy to get a table, and often you can make a reservation the same day at decent times. The menu changes frequently enough to make it a regular member of the restaurant rotation. It's what a good restaurant should be: simple, consistent, and reasonable.

Thursday
Jul302009

Bushi-Tei Bistro

My cousin Kim and his wife Adrienne (proud Kiwis and new residents of the South Bay) were up in the city tonight to catch a show at the Fillmore. Gomez, an English band, apparently has a hit single called The Theme Song from Grey's Anatomy or something close to that. (Note: Kim was a fan way before they sold out.) Anyway, it wasn't my cup of espresso, but I was still happy to join for a pre-show dinner nearby. We decided on Bushi-Tei Bistro, one of my dad's new Japantown staples.

Bushi-Tei Bistro is a casual offshoot of the fancier Bushi-Tei 2 blocks away. Opened earlier this year, the bistro offers a taste of chef Seiji Wakabayashi's French-Japanese-Californian fusion style in a cheaper, more accessible package. The main Bushi-Tei has received some acclaim, including 3 stars and a Rising Star Chef award for Chef Waka from the Chronicle. The bistro has gotten a less enthusiastic welcome (at least based on some mediocre Yelp reviews, and the relatively empty dining room). Still, I find it to be a reliable Japantown option that offers legitimate cooking at a pretty low price.

The menu is split into some appetizers, soups, salads, pastas, and entrees (with pictures!). You enter from just inside the mall, near Juban and Suzu. I guess the location is best described as "under" Over the Bridge (the restaurant). As this was a family affair, we naturally decided to share everything.

 

CRAB SALAD - crab meat tossed with shungiku "chrysanthemum leaf" -$9.80First up was this crab salad. The chrysanthemum leaf is popular in HK cuisine, but is basically always served cooked. Here, it lends a refreshing, slightly herbal tone. The amount of crab meat was generous.

 

CUCUMBER & GRAVLAX - home cured herb marinated salmon, cucumber spaghetti, crème fraiche - $9.80Here, crisp strings of cucumber are wrapped in cured salmon. The fish has a light flavor with a very pleasant, smooth texture.

 

GYOZA - pan-fried vegetable potstickers, tomatillo sauce - $9.80I swear, some things you will only find in San Francisco. I've never seen tomatillos paired with anything Asian at all, and it's used quite effectively here in place of a typical gyoza sauce. The flavor isn't too far off from the green tomatillo salsa you'd find in your local tacqueria, and the combination with gyoza is an interesting twist.

 

COCONUT OYSTER - fried coconut oysters, corn relish, curried tartar - $9.80Probably the best photo of the bunch, but the least succesful dish. While the oysters were nicely crisp, they were slightly dry on the inside. I don't recall any significant flavor contribution from the corn relish or the curry, and I would have had no idea that coconut was even involved.

 

SHRIMP CAKE - choppped shrimp & crispy vegetables, citrus beurre-blanc sauce - $9.80This one is a little tough to peg. I'd say it's best described as a cross between a Thai fish cake (tod mun) and a typical Western crab cake. The result is pretty tasty - it has the texture of tod mun with a shrimpy, buttery flavor.

 

CAPELLI D'ANGELO - angel hair pasta with tomato, garlic, basil, and extra virgin olive oil - $10.80No fusion involved here, but Bushi-Tei Bistro turns out some pretty good pastas. This capellini pomodoro has perfectly al dente noodles, a nice tomato flavor, and zero sogginess.

 

FETTUCCINE - flat thick pasta with mushroom, bolognaise chicken, and arugula - $10.80A tomato-less twist on your typical bolognese, this has Jap-Ital written all over it. Moist, flavorful ground chicken complements the fettuccine nicely. Kim says he liked this 15 times more than the other pasta. (To be fair, the rest of us thought both were good and pretty incomparable.)

 

SCALLOP - sauteed hotate scallops with kiwi vinaigrette - $16.80This one was a bit of a letdown. These "scallop scallops" were well-cooked and tender, but nothing spectacular. The kiwi vinaigrette gave it a bit of tang which I did not enjoy much. I've realized I'm not much of a kiwi fan in general (the fruit, not the people).

 

TONKATSU - breaded kurobuta pork cutlet - $16.80Bushi-Tei is very strong with pork items, and this tonkatsu is a perfect example. The meat is moist and very tender, and has just the right amount of fat. At the same time, the breading is fairly light and grease-free. They also have a sauteed pork loin dish that is very good.

Not pictured are a pair of desserts that were better than expected - a substantial, not-too-sweet cheesecake creatively paired with some sorbet and chantilly cream, and a nice crisp apple tart.

Bushi-Tei is also a great lunch option, as they offer a bunch of good rice and noodle dishes, including a great katsu-don and supposedly pretty good ramen. It is definitely on my short list of places to grab a bite if I need something in Japantown. Hopefully, business will pick up - the place has a decent number of seats, and I've never seen it more than 30% full. The food is solid, and let's be honest... the options in Japantown are pretty limited if you're not throwing down for Ino, Kappa, or Kiss.