Recipes for restaurants
May 23, 2017
Let me begin by saying that I went to Saison kicking and screaming. Nothing I’d read about the restaurant sounded appealing. It was now officially California’s most expensive restaurant. It had three Michelin stars. It sounded beyond pretentious.
Everyone in our little group was equally suspicious. But none of us had been, and we were curious.
So we were utterly unprepared to walk into an old brick warehouse and find the most casual, quirky and comfortable three-star experience of my lifetime. Sitting in that high-ceilinged room, right in front of the walk-in refrigerators watching a gaggle of chefs cook in the open kitchen gives you the sense that you’re eating dinner in a friend’s loft. The room is so open, so airy, that although other diners are all around you, they never become obtrusive.
The food? Josh Skenes’s food is simple, subtle, delicate and very much about this place at this moment. There was not a single dish I didn’t love.
The meal began with caviar: cured in kelp, drenched in clarified butter and eaten with wooden spoons. Pure heaven.
Turbot. Eating the turbot at Elkano in Spain (read about it here), I had a fish epiphany. Saison was different – but every bit as good. First we had sashimi – the fish slightly crisp and very clean, with Japanese lime, salt and an astonishing elixir made from the bones. Like clear soy sauce; I wanted to pick the little dish up and drink it down.
So were the ribs, grilled and so sweet I ate every little morsel, leaving the bones stacked like tiny toothpicks on the plate.
The heart of the fish, raw.
The fish innards, turned into ambrosia.
Santa Barbara spot prawns with their delicious roe.
Sea urchin on fat, crisp chunks of sourdough grilled and drenched in a rich umami combination of butter, bread and soy until it had a texture both crisp and wet at the same time. It’s hard to upstage uni, but the croutons almost did.
Last year’s tomatoes, confit.
Tiny red abalone.
A box crab- funny little fellow, with the sweetest flesh.
Turnip and – you guessed it – butter.
Peas and sorrel, as limpid as a springtime brook, each tender pea cut in half.
The biggest, sweetest, juiciest quail I’ve ever encountered. Barbecued.
Antelope: remarkably clean meat.
Here comes Mr. Bear. At the beginning of the meal the chef came out to discuss how we felt eating bear. I’d never had it before, and I was expecting something strong and gamy. This was not that: had you told me I was eating bison, I would have believed you. These were big meaty, delicious ribs.
Desserts were blessedly simple. Some pickled blueberries…
Ice cream and caramel.
And a Cara Cara orange, frozen into ambrosial creaminess.
This was a parting gift, snuggled into a beautiful box of extremely soft wood:
Salt distilled from the bay and lightly smoked. Herbs gathered on the farm for tea. And a clear soy-like sauce brewed from seaweed, smoked fish and dried mushrooms and cold-brewed over for six months. I’m going to treasure this – and think about that fantastic meal every time I open the box.
A note about the wine list: it’s everything you expect in a three-star establishment. Huge, well-sourced, often rare and always expensive. If you want to spend thousands, that’s no problem. But when I asked the sommelier to rustle up some bargains, he was up to the task.
May 22, 2017
The drive down Mount Tamalpais, through the tall, dark redwoods, the roads almost deserted, is almost unbearably beautiful. Then we’re driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, and someone is saying that almost all the people who jump off, jump facing the city, not the sea. Little wonder: San Francisco sparkles in the distance like some promise of a better future.
We have many wonderful treats in store. For one, that wild nettle sformato up above, at Cotogna, where the food is never less than wonderful.
Even a simple green salad, which arrives on a bright red plate, looks better here.
A single, gorgeous raviolo bursts open to spill egg across the plate. Irresistible.
And have you ever seen a more appealing sundae? The ice cream arrived on its own cart – a great soft mountain of cream so appealing that all the pastry people got out their phones and started snapping away.
We ended with this lovely confection, all berries, ice and lemon verbena.
Dinner was at Izakaya Rintaro, which may be the purest expression of the Japanese esthetic I’ve encountered in this country. The journey begins with the spare, elegant beauty of the woodwork and continues in the modesty of the food. This is old fashioned Japan, where the wasabi is fresh but gentle, the soy sauce has no burn, the flavors are restrained. Everything here is thoughtful and precise, from the sashimi – local big eye tuna and kombu-cured halibut
to fresh anchovies marinated in spicy vinegar and topped with carrots.
The various kinds of yakitori are all perfectly cooked
a lovely dish of Dungeness crab comes with pickled cucumbers and crab miso
and then these is this most surprising salad. The bite of baby chrysanthemum leaves is tamed with the tang of kumquat, and then enriched with rosy slices of duck.
It says something about the restaurant that even gyoza are not clunky dumplings, but something delicate, light and lacy.
If you like the food of Japan, you owe it to yourself to visit Rintaro. Whether you choose noodles, natto, a fig-wrapped trout or a few plates of yakitori, you will not be disappointed.
Tomorrow: a truly memorable meal. Here’s a tiny taste:
May 21, 2017
My favorite dishes on this road odyssey weren’t actually in a restaurant. They were in the quirkiest, most super-Northern California abode I’ve ever encountered, the home of Evan Shively and Madeleine Fitzpatrick.
I didn’t take many pictures; it was a private home and it seemed impolite. Now I’m sorry, because you can’t see us walking through the wooden gate, wandering through the wildly wonderful garden munching on crisp fresh asparagus and exotic flowers. You can’t see the genuine throne in the bathroom, Madeleine’s mad hat collection, or what may be the world’s largest catfish, swimming happily in a spring-fed pool out in the garden. But you can take a look here:
Evan, who now crafts furniture and creates wood works for artists and architects, once made his living as a chef (he worked at Postrio, Manka’s and Oliveto). He stood casually in the kitchen, slicing a slab of tuna, marinating shrimp and squid and complaining that we weren’t eating enough. The food was fresh, clean, completely irresistible. Then Madeleine made salad – 100 different greens, herbs, flowers and tiny vegetables- dressed in nothing but olive oil and vinegar. We ate it with our fingers. Salad doesn’t get better than this.
But first things first. The day began in Healdsburg, at a long table in the lovely garden at Shed, surrounded by the prettiest flowers….
Shed is a restaurant and a shop selling fabulous bread, cheese, fruit, charcuterie and prepared foods, along with all manner of cooking gear. It’s become one of Healdsburg’s major destinations. Having finished lunch we browsed the store, bought bread and cheese, then drove through the hills and across the valley to Coal and Feed on Tomales Bay, right next to Hog Island Oysters. The fabulously funky house hugs the water. It has room for 8, a giant extremely well-equipped kitchen, a couple of bathrooms – and some of the best views on the planet. I took this picture lying in bed: I can’t think of a more sympathetic place to stay; I wanted to move right in. Did I mention that Evan and Madeleine own it?
Dinner that night was in exactly the same mood. We went to Sir and Star in Point Reyes, one of the most relaxed, most unpretentious and most lovable restaurants you will ever find. (The chefs continue their tradition from the long-lamented Manka’s.) I regret to say I was so relaxed I neglected to take pictures, but the meal began with carrot soup, buttery buns, duck liver faux gras – and ended with hot fudge sundaes. In between was the single best grass fed steak I’ve ever eaten.
Here’s the thing about grass fed beef: unlike conventional beef, which consumes a standard diet of corn, this is all about terroir. And right now, after a rainy winter, the grass in Sonoma is lush and green, which makes the meat gorgeously marbled. Sir and Star uses local beef that’s aged; it is an extraordinary treat. So is everything about this restaurant: this is the taste of here, the taste of now. Simple but perfect, it is why you come to Northern California.
Tomorrow: I wake up with gulls cawing outside, the sun rising, watching an egret fish on Tomales Bay. Oysters for breakfast – and the world’s best panettone. Then a meandering drive through giant redwoods to San Francisco – and a stunning taste of Japan.
May 20, 2017
Heading north from Los Gatos toward the Napa Valley, if you stay on the east side of the bay you drive through tawny hills and cross lovely little waterways. You also, surprisingly, hit a lot of traffic. What should take a couple of hours stretches to three, then more.
No matter, we’re among friends and we talk the entire way.
Actually, we do more than that. We argue over where to eat. So many choices! In the end we opt for the two day old Acacia House at Las Alcobas Hotel, mostly out of curiosity. Chris Cosentino is a chef I admire; he won Top Chef Masters one of the years I was judging, absolutely crushing the competition. But his virile offal-centric cooking strikes me as a strange choice for a boutique hotel.
It seems even odder once we arrive: Las Alcobas is so graciously old fashioned you expect to step onto that deep wrap-around porch and find people fanning themselves as they drink sweet tea and speak in southern accents. How can Chris fit in here?
But the man, it turns out, is a cat of many spots. The appropriate adjective for the food he’s serving here is… lovely. Like that little salad above, with its uni, its uni butter, its infant vegetables, this is very pretty food.
And very delicious.
I loved his version of chips and dips: thick labeneh is swirled with olive oil and lemon juice, crowned with caviar and a tiara of potato chips.
And look what a dainty dish he makes of lamb tartare with flatbread!
This icy little salad comes with a white bean pesto dip.
But my favorite – the dish that stays with me – is this spring bouquet of pasta. Deep green pea rigatoni is tossed with sweet fresh peas and topped with pea greens then spun into parmesan-enriched creme fraiche. Hiding underneath it all, like little gifts, are small morels. (I should, perhaps mention, that those in need of more manly food are well served here as well: there’s a great burger, a steak, a monster mole sandwich…. And coming soon is home-brewed beer.)
This lovely, refreshing little rose popsicle makes the perfect ending.
And then, over the hill and through the Russian River Valley to Healdsburg and the fantastic Healdsburg Hotel. I love this modern inn with its comfortable beds and delicious bathrooms. But we’ve come to experience the most written-about new restaurant in the country. Can Singlethread be as good as the hype?
How to talk about Singlethread? It’s the dream – the crazy dream – of Kyle and Katinka Connaughton who have spent their entire lives working toward this fantastic creation. They’ve built what looks like a Japanese farmhouse in the middle of Healdsburg. They also have a small farm a few miles away where they raise fruits, herbs, vegetables and rare chickens.
Kyle and Katina obsess about the details – down to the double-walled titanium water glasses, that keep water icy cold and coffee very hot. (You’re going to covet them, but it turns out each little cup costs $175 .) The wine glasses are so thin you’re afraid they’ll snap off in your hand. And the kitchen has cameras trained on your table, in order to perfectly time your meal.
The meal is a California kaiseki. (Kyle grew up partly in Japan, and then worked at Miyamasou and Michel Bras’ restaurant, Toyo Japon in Hokkeido. Meanwhile Katinka was working on Japanese farms and the couple forged a relationship with the great donabe makers, the Nagatani family, who make the clay cooking pots and much of the pottery.)
We sat down to find that huge still-life above already arranged across the table. It was the most delightful little treasure hunt offering dozens of hidden treats. Eating slowly, it could easily take an hour to make your way through all the delights on the table. My favorites were the gently pickled oyster, the geoduck in gelee, crab claws, uni, sashimi. And I loved this tiny little egg with caviar.
Next up: kanpachi with frozen cara cara orange,
This little jewel was sugar snap pea blossoms, Dungeness crab, salsify, preserved lemon.
A walk in the woods….
King salmon with char roe and myoga.
Poached foie gras with a tea of last year’s tomatoes and turnips
Black cod, maitake mushrooms, leeks, broth of young lettuces
This was the most remarkable slice of duck: a Duclair which tasted so wild I imagined I was tasting everything the bird had consumed during its journey through the world: morels, white mushrooms, asparagus, green garlic.
The heart of the duck is buried in here, along with grains, herbs and a little farro beignet.
A shiso sorbet created a little interlude, followed by hojicha ice cream with a cherry compote.
Singlethread is an extraordinary experience – but it’s not for everyone. This is a contemplative temple of dining that demands your attention. If you’re planning a meal here, I’d suggest going with a couple rather than a group. You want to look across the table to someone who enjoys eating as much as you do, someone whose main desire is to focus on the food. And then, if you’re really lucky, you can retire to one of the rooms in the inn upstairs.
Up tomorrow: pure fun. Great salad, oysters… and the most extraordinary place to stay.
May 19, 2017
On Sunday morning, I woke up and took this picture from my bed…. Gulls swooped, and off to the right, where you can’t see it, an egret fished. Breakfast was oysters from Hog Island next door, with a splash of lemon. (And yes, I will tell you how to stay in this magical mystery place.)
That will give you a sense of what this mad odyssey of driving, talking and eating was like. In a word, wonderful.
Over the next few days I’m going to post the highlights of the food we ate as we meandered through California, from Los Gatos to the Napa Valley, Healdsburg, Point Reyes, San Francisco and finally Carmel. Along the way we had what I think was one of the best meals of my life… But that comes later.
Our first meal – it was meant to be just a snack – was at Bywater in Los Gatos. We didn’t want to eat much because we were having dinner at Manresa that night… But we started with that bam bam shrimp above, and after that, well, we were lost. Really fresh, sweet and tender, the shrimp was split, dipped in cornstarch and then fried to an astonishingly crisp crackle. Utterly irresistible.
After that we had one of the finest gumbos I’ve ever encountered. Deep, rich, clarion clear, and singing of the sea. I just couldn’t stop eating it.
And then, of course, a po’ boy. Fried oysters and the greatest pickled okra.
At that point, happily, we had the sense to stop. Dinner at Manresa was only an hour away.
There’s something wonderful about eating at a chef’s casual place and then moving on to see what he does when he gets really serious. David Kinch gets both experiences: Bywater is the kind of place you could happily eat in every day (if you were lucky). Manresa is a slow it down, think about it, special occasion place. And for a three-star Michelin restaurant, it is wonderfully lacking in pretension.
I’m not going to go through all of the twenty or so courses we had at Manresa, although there wasn’t one I didn’t love. It built slowly, from the pure simplicity of this…
Two clean, simple bites of perfection.
To this tricky little mouthful. What you can’t see from this photo is that the fried anchovy is in a “puttanesca” sauce made of strawberries. It turns your head around, and suddenly your mind is playing with you, jumping back and forth between tomatoes and strawberries. I loved it.
Panna cotta with clams and salmon roe. The trick here was the way the richness of the custard was edged with the saline tang of seawater vinegar. Again, you found your mouth vibrating between rich and astringent, a boomarang, an echo.
The loveliest little salad – a walk in the spring woods,
Asparagus. Salmon. Asparagus.
Abalone in a “gumbo” of its liver. I often find abalone disappointing; this was not.
We had duck. We had lamb. And then we had a slice of beef- the richest, most intense piece of steak I’ve ever experienced. The mineral tang of that meat still haunts my mouth. (And I’m sorry, but my photograph is just so ugly I won’t subject you to it….)
Afterwards there were strawberries, ice cream – and a whole bag of breads to take home and eat in the morning. Eating that toast the whole meal came back to me… a truly wonderful ending.
Then we packed up and headed north to two truly astonishing meals. Not to mention the most spectacular salad I’ve ever eaten.