Monday, April 26, 2010

Cheese Board Pizza - 04/09/2010

1512 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 549-3055

Located in the Gourmet Ghetto right next to Berkeley's most famous restaurant, is another culinary institution: the Cheese Board Pizza Collective. The restaurant features a completely flat structure with no employees and no bosses, fitting given its Berkeley origins.

Cheese Board's menu consists of a single type of pizza that changes each day. From what I could tell the menu is also completely vegeterian. The simple menu doesn't keep the restaurant from doing incredible amounts of business. We arrived around 2:30 and the restaurant still had a line out the door and dozens of students sitting on the island in the middle of the road wolfing down pizza.

Roma Tomatoes, Onions, Feta & Mozzarella Cheeses, Garlic Olive Oil, Lemon Zest & Juice, and Cilantro
I wasn't sure what to expect but this turned out to be an exceptional pizza. The restaurant included an extra slice with our pie. After taking a test bite I ended up wolfing down the slice in a single gulp. The pizza bursts with freshness and vibrancy from soft vegetal flavors of the tomato and cilantro to the subtle tang of the feta and lemon.

In a trip filled with exceptional culinary experiences, this simple pizza turned out to be the best single thing I ate during the entire time. I still have a hard time believing the neither of best two meals I had on this trip involved meat. While I am not ready to go completely give up meat, this experience has given me a new respect for vegetarian food. After just one bite of Cheese Board pizza I knew this was something special. Having 4 years to enjoy this pizza might be the single most compelling reason to attend Berkeley.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Chez Panisse - 04/09/2010

Chez Panisse, is undoubtedly the most famous restaurant in Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto" and widely considered the birthplace of California cuisine. Founded in 1971, Chez Panisse has become a culinary institution boasting an impressive list of alumni including Suzanne Goin (AOC, Lucques, The Hungry Cat) and Mark Peel (Campanile).

Chez Panisse founder, Alice Waters was supposedly inspired by cooking techniques of Southern France and adopted their emphasis on fresh locally sourced ingredients. Adherents of the Californian cuisine style typically procure ingredients from farmers markets then tailor their menu to reflect whatever is in season. Both the Chez Panisse and the upstairs cafe feature constantly changing menu daily and weekly respectively.

I had dinner at the upstairs cafe once during my undergraduate years in college and for several years it was the best meal of my life. The cafe serves more casual fare and follows an a la carte format. By comparison the downstairs dining room has a fixed menu which increases in length as the week goes on from a mere 3 courses on Monday to a lengthier 5 on Friday and Saturday.

Crémant du Jura, Stéphane Tissot, France, Jura, NV
For such a brief meal we decided to stick to a single wine. My companion has a propensity for sparklers and with good reason they tend to be quite enjoyable on their own or with a wide selection of food. The Cremant du Jura comes from a mountainous region of eastern France. A fairly easy drinking wine the nose started out showing off lemon zest and mineral with hints of vanilla and toast on the palate. As the wine warmed, the nose started to pick up some of the creaminess as well.

Amuse: Crab and Lobster Salad
An apértif - Vin du Orange
The meal opened with a glass of chilled vin du orange think white sangria with a lingering essence of orange oil. Along with the apértif came a amuse of crab and lobster with mayo and vegetables. As much as I dislike slathering food in mayo, the creamy mouthfeel is a natural compliment to shellfish. Similarly the vegetables add a crisp textural variation and vegetal foil to the amuse.

Artichoke and spring flower tempura - with horseradish cream
Such fresh vegetables deserved a gentler treatment, the flowers in particular were so delicate that it was difficult to taste anything over the savory fried batter. It didn't help that this course came with onion rings; easily the most flavorful part of the dish, they ended up coloring the rest of the vegetables with their sweetness.

Chilled asparagus soup - with Roasted Scallop
Easily the best savory course of the night. The soup resonated with the pure essence of asparagus, slightly sweet with a distinct herbaceousness that is like no other vegetable. Add to that a warm scallop, lightly roasted to preserve the savory flavor and texture. Both components were minimally adorned, celebrating their innate qualities and letting us appreciate the contrast between them.

Grilled Sonoma Liberty duck breast - with rhubarb sauce, potato and pancetta gratin, and garden salad with fava beans
It goes without saying that the duck breast was tender and moist, at a restaurant of Chez Panisse's caliber that is a given. The sweet rhubarb sauce was just too much. The potato and pancetta was enjoyable though its hard to screw up a gratin potato. The salad was also a nice touch with fresh leafy greens and sweet grassy fava beans. Overall a very well structured dish, solid preparation all around, classic flavor, well balanced but utterly boring.

Bittersweet chocolate crêpes - with bourbon ice cream and candied pecans
Probably the most interesting course of the night. A slightly drier and crisper crepe, liberal application of melted chocolate added some much needed moistness. The star was easily the bourbon ice cream with its subtle woody flavor, just a fantastic foil to the chocolate.

An enjoyable pair of mignardises the orange zest was fairly typical and one of my companions described the other dessert as a mini pop-tart.

My meal at Chez Panisse reminded me of a conversation I had with Chef Jose Andres at The Bazaar. He felt that the primacy placed on the origin of ingredients was coming at the expense of the overall flavor of the dish. At one point we were brought a plate of Watermelon with Sexy Tomato Seeds, consistently one of the best courses at The Bazaar. Chef Andres explained the watermelons came from Mexico, why because it was the only place to get watermelon in the middle of November. Chez Panisse espouses the opposite view, tailoring their menu to suit whats at hand rather than creating the best tasting dish. Not to say one view is better than the other but for my part I'd rather have a better tasting dish than one that came from the organic sustainable farm next door any day of the week. Of course what do I know, the restaurant has been in business for nearly 40 years and maintained a sterling reputation; they must be doing something right.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ubuntu - 04/08/2010

1140 Main Street
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 251-5656

Those who know me well know that I am an unabashed carnivore. Despite my bias, the vegetarian menu at Ubuntu managed to pique my curiousity. Under the leadership of Jeremy and Deanie Fox, Ubuntu garnered heaps of acclaim, including a Michelin star, and has become arguably the best vegetarian restaurant in the country. More importantly, they proved that being vegetarian is not a prerequisite for cooking exceptional vegetarian food.

Ubuntu is anchored by an open kitchen and dark wood bar, the dining room has a an airy feel courtesy of a high ceiling. The decor is a combination of bare urban pipework and rustic rough wood. In keeping with the healthy lifestyle image, the building also houses a yoga studio upstairs. The restaurant offers a selection of 10 "small" plates good for sharing as well as a trio of light snacks and 5 desserts for good measure. Ubuntu's menu requires a bit of explanation, words in all upper case represent ingredients grown in the restaurant's biodynamic garden, the (v) represents vegan dishes, astrisks mean the dish can be prepared vegan style, and italics are for foreign words. My companion and I decided to order everything on the menu in order to experience the restaurant properly. Our waiter actually did a double take when we told him we wanted one of everything and after the meal he said we were the first customers to do so.

French Sourdough
A milder but fairly prototypical sourdough sourced from a local farm whose name eludes me.

marcona almonds - LAVENDER sugar, sea salt (v)
The most addictive almonds I've ever had, the sugar and salt combination would have been a strong combination but the addition of soft floral lavender raised these to a level all their own. I'm going to try to recreate these at home.

castelvatrano olives - marinated in CARROT TOP pesto (v)
Not being a huge fan of olives, I wasn't thrilled by this course, though these were fairly mild and buttery working very well with the sweet vegetal twang of the pesto.

slow cooked chickpeas a la Catalan - sauce romesco, CORIANDER
I always think of chickpeas as a staple Indian vegetarian dishes though it was served here with a tangy sauce romesco rather than a spicy curry. The elegant freshness of the pea shoots that really tied the flavors of this course together.

CALCOT and lemongrass curry CHARD condimento & pickles (v) - 'picadura' NETTLES, whipped coconut, preserved lemon
Easily one of the strongest course of the night, the chilled yogurt and sweet coconut base were combined with a light curry spice giving the dish a Thai essence. Hidden within the soup were tangy pickles that added a splash of flavor and textural crunch to the creamy base.

'ruby queen' BEETS and their micros with whipped goat's milk * - torn brioche, pistachio pudding, honeyed pamplemousse
Root vegetables like beets are a great source of sweetness but when they headline a dish that makes it all to easy for it to become cloying. It was a good idea to use fresh grapefruit and bread to counter that sweetness but there just wasn't enough.

carta da musica, our homemade crispy Sardinian flatbread * - today's LEAVES barely dressed, truffled pecorino, orielles
This next course deserves its spot as Ubuntu's signature dish. The salad itself is immensely complex, nutty and vegetal with the light dressing adding a nice tang to the mix. The truffled pecorino adds a touch of elegance while the flatbread gives the whole mixture a toasty sapor. Who knew such a light dish could pack so much flavor.

seasons first 'orion' FENNEL, compressed - confit - puree * - our vadouvan, 'meyer' LEMON, FENNEL frond falafel
I normally love the depth of sweet herbal essence of fennel but I found this course far too astringent. The combination of the bitter vadouvan tart lemon with the fennel made for an overly medicinal flavor profile. The one bright spot was the savory fennel falafel that didn't taste all that different from the traditional chickpea falafel.

warm 'purple haze' and cool 'white satin' CARROT salad - 'tru green' FRISEE, local raspberries crushed in an HERB vinaigrette
Like beets, carrots can easily overwhelm a course with their sweetness but the kitchen handled this course much better than the earlier beet dish. The accompaniments were much bolder, their acidity contrasting well with the cooked purple haze carrots. The white satin carrots were served raw leaving their slightly bitter vegetal flavor intact while adding a superbly satisfying crunch to the dish. Kevin mentioned the herb vinaigrette reminded him of a ramen spice.

today's poached EGG on KOHLRABI crumble - 'surrey' ARUGULA, dressed with kumquat a la Greque
Ubuntu's menu gives diners the option to add an egg to almost any course. Though I was tempted to add an egg to every possible course, the presence of a dedicated poached egg dish on the menu was enough to sate my egg lust. Sadly the egg came out a touch overdone, the yolk didn't run so much as dribble when cut. Still, the accompaniments made this one of the stronger courses of the night To one side is a bed of lively nutty arugula and to the other, a bed of earthy mushrooms with a citrusy twist from the kumquat.

rustic rancho gordo 'yellow eye' bean stew (v) - ROSEMARY, CHILI and slow cooked 'black' KALE
Maybe it was the change of pace after so many leafy courses but I really liked this dish. I'm not typically a fan of bean stew even in a cassoulet paired with ingredients as rich as pork belly and duck confit so this was a pleasant change from the norm. The bean stew had a nice meatiness despite being a completely vegan dish, the bold flavor of the chili and heartiness of the beans gave the dish an endearing hominess.

a simple plate of horseradish gnocchi and assorted RADISHES - midnight moon, 'scarlet' TURNIP thinnings, smooth FAVA LEAF
The gnocchi grounded the vegetables with more of a neutral savory flavor than the sinus clearing heat of horseradish. More importantly the chewiness of the dumplings helped gave the dish some weight, but let the interplay between the cheese and greens come to the fore.

organic grits from arbuckle, goat's milk ricotta and it's whey - trumpet mushroom salsa negra, 'ruby streaks' mustard, SAUERKRAUT
The natural sweetness of the grits is complimented well by the gamy cheesiness of the ricotta. I would have expected a plate of grits to be somewhat monolithic but the vibrant flavor of the sauerkraut and depth of the mushroom come through spectacularly.

young potatoes baked in while FENNEL & CALCOT ash * - warm CALCOT-MUSTARD "mayo", vineyard LEAVES raw and smoked
The potatoes themselves were superb a study of the natural flavor of the humble potato coupled with a satisfying fried sapor. The vegetables were a bit one-dimensional though, with the smoked leaves smothering the palate

meyer LEMON sorbet float, orange cream soda (v) - BEET tapioca, citrus CHAMOMILE granita
I'm always a sucker for fruit granita and this was no exception. The orange cream soda starts things off with a flavor reminiscent of an orange creamsicle which contrasts well with the sharper sweet citrus of the granita. The beet tapioca finishes the dessert off with a round sweetness and a lovely textural contrast to the numbing granita.

'mutsu' apple pain perdue, macadamia "custard" - english THYME ice cream, greenhouse CELERY
Not really sure I got much apple initially, rather more of a spiced cake flavor from the pain perdue. Masterful use of celery and thyme ice cream to add a vegetal note and draw out the crisp tartness of the fresh apple

ubuntu's cheesecake in a jar - sour cherry with satsuma, teeccino-nut crumble
I can easily see why this is Ubuntu's signature dessert. On its own the tangy "cheesecake" cream is nothing to write home about. It's the layer in between that makes this. Sandwiched between the cheesecake is a spread of absolutely delicious tart cherry and citrus as well as a "crust" of buttery rich nut crumble.

soft TCHO chocolate, garden SAVORY ice cream - freeze dried MARIONBERRY, shattered shortbread
TCHO chocolate is a relatively new player in the world of gourmet chocolate. Located in San Francisco the company was founded by a "Space Shuttle technologist" and combines technology and chocolate to manufacture extremely high quality dark chocolate. The chocolate certainly lives up to its lofty origins, offering a rich complex chocolate so flavorful that it completely overshadowed the delicate savory ice cream. Absolutely superb on its own, the chocolate just doesn't play well with others

shot of hot chocolate, ritual sweet tooth espresso - chicory sugared doughnuts, vanilla whip
The doughnuts reminded me of a churro, lightly crunchy on the outside but spongy soft inside and covered with sugar and spice. For me the thick soothing shot of hot chocolate with its lingering sweetness stole the show on this course.

I came to Ubuntu based on the reputation the restaurant garnered under the Foxes; however, prior to my visit they left the restaurant abruptly. I was a bit skeptical whether the restaurant could continue to perform at a high level without their leadership, but aside from the decision to call the courses "small" plates there is very little to question about the food at Ubuntu. Despite some serious palate fatigue by the end, the courses were masterfully executed, showing the flexibility of vegetables and proving once and for all that meat is not necessary for flavorful or satisfying dishes. The restaurant is an ABSOLUTE must for any fine dining vegetarian and a great choice for just about everybody else.

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Friday, April 9, 2010

The Restaurant at Meadowood - 04/07/2010

900 Meadowood Ln
St Helena, CA 94574
(707) 967-1205

You know you've got a successful business when your name is "The Restaurant" and the signage is the size of a dinner plate. The Restaurant at Meadowood is nestled in a nondescript part of the Meadowood resort in St. Helena with only a sign labeled "The Restaurant" right next to the door.. With the demotion of Michael Mina to a single star, the Restaurant at the Meadowood resort was the last two star in California that I had yet to try. The dining room itself was comfortable with a farmhouse style coupled with a touch of luxury.

Canape 01: Pillow Bread - Herbs, Fromage Blanc
The Pillow bread is similar to The Bazaar's Air Bread a toasty flavorful crust filled with a tart fromage blanc complimented nicely by the fragrant aroma of fresh herbs.

Canape 02: Squid
I totally missed the description of the course. All I know is that it consists of a single perfectly cooked slice of squid. The dish an immense amount of flavor for such a small bite with a strong vegetal bitterness upfront with a blend of spice and brine on the finish.

Canape 03: Garden Radishes - Caraway Rye "Dirt"
The last canape consisted of a quartet of radishes nestled in "sand" of Caraway and salt. The radishes themselves were a bit lean with a resonant crunch and verdant pepperiness complimented by the subtle salty sweet flavor of the carroway and salt mixture.

Amuse: 7-Layers of Potato
When our waiter described this I had a feeling it was going to be fantastic, combining luxurious oysters and caviar with herbs, cream and hearty potato. We were instructed to dig straight down with our spoons and get all the layers. This multilayered dish opens with light salinity from the seafood which is brightened up by the herbs and ground with the starchy feel of the potato.

01: Wagyu Beef Cured in Meadowood Pine - Hamachi, Scandinavian Flavors
Schramsberg, J. Schram Rosé, Calistoga 2000
Wagyu would normally be overly heavy for a first course but the faint spring essence of pine and brine from the fish and caviar help mask the fat leaving the luxurious tenderness. The beef is paired with a pumpernickel bun that reminded me of Chinese "bao" that gives some weight to the ethereal beef. We were given a sparkler to start, laden with berry and citrus fruit on the nose and grapefruit with some vanilla and yeast on the palate the wine stood up nicely to the tempered beef.

02: Scallop, Dungeness Crab, White Asparagus - Two Preparations
Husic Vineyards, Chardonnay, "Dos Palmas", Napa Valley 2007
Next up was a two part dish consisting of warm and cold preparations of scallop. One plate consisted of a single scallop in sauce with sprigs of baby white asparagus. This was an extremely blunt preparation, slightly overcooked with an overwhelming amount of butter. The other plate had a single sliver of raw scallop atop a lightly cooked dungeness crab claw that offered an interesting contrast between the bolder sweeter crab and soft ocean essence of the scallop both flavors are complimented nicely by the vegetal chill of the ice cream and herb. The Husic Vineyards Chardonnay had notes of tropical fruit and slate as well as a creamy vanilla flavor which went very well with the chilled crab and scallop.

03: Black Truffle Broth - Sweetbread Canelloni, Puffed Farro, Maitake Mushroom
Capiaux, Pinot Noir, "Wilson Vineyard", Sonoma Coast 2006
The predominant flavor of this dish was the sweetbread though it had a hamminess to it instead of the traditional offaly sapor. With such a dominant flavor it was difficult to taste any truffle in the thin broth, a thicker cream based soup might have stood up to the sweetbread more effectively. The Capriaux was a bit more fruit forward than a typical pinot noir, typical flavors of spice and sour cherry are present as are stronger flavors of ripe plum and citrus peel.

Supplement 01: Poached CK Farm Egg - Morels, Fava Leaves, Congee
Clos Sainte Magdeline, Cassis, Provence, France 2007
Easily the best of our four supplements, the silky egg absorbed the rich meaty savor from the plump morels and the herbed guanciale added a complex saltiness that lingered on the palate. Delicious though extremely time sensitive, with the molten center congealing as it cooked in the congee. The wine, a white blend from Provence offers muted fruit and white flower as well as a salinity which linked the wine to the food.

Supplement 02: Cured Wild Salmon - Asparagus, Smoked Sesame, Trout Roe
Captûre, Sauvignon Blanc, "Les Pionniers", Sonoma County 2009
The cured wild salmon had a dense texture, almost gelatainous though the curring robbed the fish of much of its original flavor which was restored by the trout roe. Seems like a very roundabout way to end right where the fish started.

Supplement 03: Crispy Poussin - Turnips, Tofu, White Soy
El Molino, Pinot Noir, Rutherford 2006
Next up was a duo of chicken in dashi broth. The loin was fairly forgettable but the shredded chicken flavored with the dashi tasted like the purest chicken noodle soup, instantly hearty and soothing.

Supplement 04: Suckling Pig - Compressed Pineapple, Taro, Sorghum
Outpost, Zifandel, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley 2007
The last course was the suckling pig. I found the loin itself a touch dry, the dense meat lacked much flavor on its own, instead relying on the pineapple and taro. At least the sorghum faithfully recreated the caramelized sweetness of the crispy skin of a suckling pig.

04: Goat Poached in Whey - Preserved Bergamot, Marinated Spring Vegetables
Altamura, Sangiovese, Napa Valley 2006
Seeing goat on the menu invariably brought up discussions of the brilliant Bolinas goat at COI. Meadowood cooks their lamb medium giving it a tougher texture but leaving the subtle grassy flavor is completely intact. Using light vegetables and preserved citrus help temper the gaminess of the meat without masking it entirely.

05: "Charred" Bavette - Morels, Ramps, Foie Gras butter
Jaffe Estate, "Transformation", Napa Valley 2006
The Bavette is made from compressed A5 Wagyu skirt steak. The densely packed lean meat keeps the generous marbling from being overwhelming. Prepared sous vide, the texture is similar to the otherworldly short rib at Citronelle. The superb meat is best enjoyed on its own or with lightly flavored compliments and the meaty morels and tangy ramps fit the bill perfectly. The Transformation is a big opulent wine, loads of ripe fruit and soft tannin powerful enough to stand up to the beef.

06: Stilton Cheesecake - White Port, Dried Cherries, Pecan
Francois Chidaine, Vouvray, "Clos Baudoin", Loire Valley, France 2007
For our cheese course we were presented with a cheesecake with a strong essence of blue cheese from the Stilton. The fruity sweetness helps temper the power of the cheese and the pecan crust ties the whole dish together with a buttery nuttiness.

07: Green Apple and Ginger Sherbet - Vanilla, Mint Snow
Our palate cleanser was a sherbet with icy mint granite. The jarring cold of the snow and floral heat of the ginger provided clashing flavors, equally refreshing in very different ways.

08: White Chocolate and Foie Gras Ganache - Banana, Black Walnut, Passion Fruit
Cossart-Gordon, Bual, "Colheita", Madeira 1997
The dessert was a multifaceted affair. The chocolate/foie gras ganache and caramelized banana were both sweet and savory while the passion fruit had a crisp acidity and sweetness while the black walnut added a light crunch to the softer creamy texture of the other components. The Bual grape is the second sweetest Madeira varietal available and the Cossart-Gordon had a nice woodiness and a brown sugar sweetness on the finish.

09: Mignardises - Chocolate & White Tea Bonbon, Snickerdoodle with Devonshire and Raspberry
Paolo Marolo, Liquer of Grappa & Chamomile, Piemonte, Italy
A pair of solid finishers though I think we enjoyed the ornamental cocoa nibs best. This might be the first time I have had a wine pairing with mignardises.

I came to Meadowood with extremely high expectations and at the end of the day I left a bit disappointed. The food is sophisticated and polished, the staff attentive and knowledgeable but the whole experience just didn't resonate with me.

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