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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Images from a Dinner with Koji...

Koji, as in the ingredient from Japan, a fermented rice product, that is increasingly finding it's way into many Japanese cook's tool box. A traditional ingredient, enjoying a resurgence, I had the opportunity to be a guest at an incredible dinner featuring this ingredient, at what I consider to be one of the best restaurants in San Francisco, Bar Tartine.

A bit about the chef, Nicolaus Balla is doing some amazing stuff, bridging his experiences from the Midwest, Budhapest and several stints in Japan, with amazing techniques and ingredients. Anytime I can dine here, I jump at the opportunity, this time, he was joined in the kitchen by a chef from Japan, who specializes in Koji, and a chef from Los Angeles, who would make a hand made soba for the dinner.

Special thanks to my friend Laiko Bahrs if Epicuring, for letting us know this was going on. On to the food.

Yes, that is 17 course, they were small...

Sadly, I did not get good shots of everything, but, I will show what I have. Koji creates an incredible umami flavor, like all fermented foodstuffs, it creates that 'fifth' flavor. It also offers health benefits, totally offset by gluttony.

Rice Porridge Toast, Karasumi, Butter, Radish

Karasumi, salted mullet roe, blah! I was tricked! Actually, this dish was amazing, easily as good as any dish that night, and it was toast. Next!

Wild King Salmon, Sweet Pea Kasu

I am not really sure what sweet pea kasu is, as kasu is the lees from sake making. Somehow that and sweet peas are involved. And yes, that is salmon sausage. I really don't like salmon, but, the sausage and sweet peas were great. Next!

Dry-aged Ribeye tartar, Nagaimo, Shingiku, Broth

Now we're talking beef. Raw beef, with a foam, nagaimo, once again, a taste and texture (slimy) element I normally detest, but, it was very good in this dish. It was very good. I find that I am bad, very bad, at picking up nagaimo with hashi.

Kazunoko Salad

More challenges to my limited palate. Kazunoko is herring roe on seaweed, I love seaweed, I hate herring roe. Yet, again, in this presentation, I had seconds. Since each dish was presented family style, there was an extra bite or two of most of these dishes.

Duck Tataki, Grated Radish, Negi

A barely seared duck breast, really getting at the essence of the duck, just a little koji was apparent in this dish. But, it was still very good, and something quite out of the norm for an American palate.

Satsuma Imo Korokke

Sweet potato croquette, nothing hard about eating this, totally a friendly dish. The mayonnaise as a sauce, the sauce on top, which appeared to be Tonkatsu sauce had a surprising bite, rich and spicy, a great counterpoint to the sweet and crunchy.


Although I have never heard it called this before, clearly this was a chicken and green onion yakitori. Classic izakaya food, classic comfort food. The chicken gets an added dimension of flavor from being marinaded in Koji. Another old friend in a challenging menu.

Kohlrabi in Broth

Clearly, this dish was meant for soup bowls, but, since none were forthcoming, the kohlrabi, not your normal root vegetable in Japanese or California cooking, was eaten with the mushrooms. Then, I drank from the bowl. No way that broth is going down the sink. Delicious.

Simmered Pork with Gobo and Egg

Ah, back to the things I like less, I am not a fan of gobo, the woody root that was a foundation of many stews and soups in grandma's cooking. Oddly, I found none in this bowl, someone beat me to it. Darn. Sort of. This was amazingly rich and served four, my cholesterol is fine.

Now, oddly, there are several courses, in which the photos were just unusable. It got dark in the restaurant, and I refuse to shoot with a flash. Bad enough I am shooting pictures of my food at all. Yet, there is this shot.

Barley and Koji Ice Cream, Shochu Cake

Yes, a semi-sweet ice cream, featuring barley and fermented rice. And it was delicious. I really wish the soba shot and the Wild Nori Yaki Onigiri shots had come out. The crispy rice ball was so good. Hand made soba, something pretty special still.

As always, my frequent dining companions Rob, Kevin and Michael were along, to geek over the food, joined by Michael's wife Wendy and a celebrity guest, Chef Hiroo Nagahara (the Chairman food truck and HN^2 Pop-ups),  and his girlfriend Wei Wei. It was fun sitting with Hiroo and getting his viewpoint on the food, his being from Japan, a shared heritage of food, and of course, his point of view as a chef, such insight and fun.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Shot and a Beer

I know what you're thinking, beer and whiskey, but, no, this is not about booze. Well, no, that is a lie, it is about beer, beer and food and a little guerrilla dining. I had the chance to attend an event called Shot and a Brew, put on by The Stag Dining Group and Almanac Brewing. A bit about these two groups.

Our hosts were The Stag Dining Group, who are a group of friends who decided it was time to work together in an industry that they loved, even as business and life moved them about. The work on what they refer to as Clandestine Dining, a great idea, of choosing venues, partners and foods that reflect a sense of adventure, sustainability, creativity, and a variety of other 'ity's' that you can read about. They are a perfect example of what can make a simple dinner in San Francisco delightful.

Almanac Brewing is one of my favorite breweries right now. They brew a series of ales, based upon seasonal produce and a crazy sense of adventure. Although the ales feature liberal use of fruit, there is definitely craft at work, as these brews are hand made and use great ingredients. Their mantra of 'farm to barrel' really shines through. Although I am not a fan of their Pale Ale, I seek out their other ales, such as the soon to be released Chocolat, which is an amazing brew.

In any event, on to the event. First off, was a reception and shoot around at the Pacific Rod and Gun Club in San Francisco, yes, a shooting club in San Francisco. We each had the opportunity to shoot a fine shotgun, eat some prosciutto and generally carry on like monied gentlemen, and ladies, blasting hapless clay pigeons from the air. I discovered, that from when I was 18, to some 34 years later, I still pull the gun and hit 50%. I shall await my return to the line at 86, with higher expectations.

Course One...
Scallop Ceviche, Nasturtium Leaf, Yama Imo Chips, Mojo Verde, Pickled Ramps

This was a wonderful opener, the scallops were cooked in the acids beautifully and the pairing was with Almanac's Honey Saison Farmhouse Ale. They use a local Bay Area honey to flavor the ale. This is an interesting point, that the dinner was completely paired with beers, and not wines. The same rules for pairing beers and ales to food, as to pairing wines to food. These were some fine considerations in the dinner.

Course Two...
Asparagus, Burrata, Meyer Mostarda, Shaved Fennel

This was paired with an as yet unreleased ale, the Farmhouse Number 4 Barrel Aged Sour with Meyer Lemons, Oranges and Buddha's Hand Citron. This ale takes a lot of aromatics and bitterness from being aged over the citrus, which are whole when the ale is added. These overall effect is a sour ale, with a bitter edge, but, not the bitterness commonly found in hops. It was a beautiful complement to asparagus, a notoriously hard pairing for wine. If you are wondering, that stuff that looks like jam is the Mostarda, a Meyer Lemon preserve that is blended with ground mustard seed.

Course Three...
Catalan Style Wheat Berries, Trumpet Mushrooms, Secret Vinaigrette, Baby Kale

This was one of the real stars of the dinner, paired with Almanac's Barrel Noir, an aged Dark Ale that is aged in a bourbon barrel. This is not a hoppy brew, it is what I call a brewer's ale, in that it is all about malts, brewing techniques and aging, without the over-bearing hoppiness that has come to be all too common in craft brewing. Smooth and deeply flavored, it complemented the kale, wheat berries and vinaigrette nicely. As for secret, well, some things are best left unsaid.

Course Four...
5-Spice Quail, Green Strawberries, Tangerine, Thai Basil

Now, my nemesis, I really have not liked quail in the past. No surprise, this was well, still quail, and I still do not like quail. However, to carry on, it was paired with a Farmer's Reserve Number 3, Barrel aged sour with strawberries and nectarines. And it complemented the richness of the quail beautifully, the strawberry adding tartness and the nectarines's aroma working through the dishes richness. I ate just enough to determine that A) I felt the match was excellent and B) I hate quail.

Course Five...
Porter Braised Beef Cheek, Rancho Gordo Hominy, Pickled Onions, Cilantro

Now we are talking, back to beef, and not that rotten quail. This was served with, and cooked in, Almanac's Bier de Chocolat, a Porter brewed with cocoa nibs from Dandelion Chocolate (yes, the Au Curant flame of all S.F. Food snobs, except apparently me). This was so tender and rich, the porter lending it's flavors to the beef, the hominy coarsely mashed, some still crunchy on top, and the tart pickled onions, an excellent match for what has to be one of the most chocolately Chocolate brews I have ever had. Also not yet released, this is an ale that will be worth seeking out if you like chocolate and beer.

Course 6...

Essentially the ending was cheese. And to be honest, I cannot remember what the cheese was, but, it was delicious. It was served with Almanac's Dry Hopped Pale Ale with Mandarins. It was a good match, the hoppy and light textured Pale Ale matching the rich and sweet tastes on the cheese plate. Now, this was a good match, it makes perfect sense from a food point of view. But, if you remember way up top, I said I think the Pale Ale in not to my taste, this held true here. It was still just a hop centric pale ale, a good one, but, not distinctive enough for what had preceded it. I do love a hop-centric ale, but, much like a huge Cabernet, it is often a feature drink to me, not a pairing drink.

It was an excellent meal, and the Brewers and Chef's did themselves proud. I am actually looking forward to joining them again, perhaps at their weekly seating, at Off the Grid, yes, these guys cook a seated meal, with cocktails, at a food truck event. Every single dish, except the quail, was executed with utmost care and technique, these guys rocked that kitchen. Okay, maybe the quail was perfect, who cares? It quail.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Last of my Heroes ( not food by a long shot )

My heroes were never the men you saw everyday on the television, batting some ball around, running for a goal, or wooing some beautiful starlet in some fantasy world.  I know it is popular to say that now, but, when I was growing up, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was very common to hold on high a great athlete, a handsome movie star, or perhaps a world figure. Surely, I admired men such as Willie Mays, Paul Newman or even someone truly influential, such as Martin Luther King. But, there men were abstract entities; they lived in newsprint, and electrons and stories I heard from other people, no more real than the stories in movies. They did not live in my life, I didn’t touch them, relate to them, and they didn’t live my life. My heroes were men like my grandfather, my dad, my uncles, and the circle of men that surrounded the daily lives we lived on the nursery and in Richmond, California. We would tag along, as my dad went to market in San Francisco, or to other nurseries to ‘check on things’, even at church, these men seemed to be a breed apart. Tough, rugged, enduring, especially the old men, my grandfather’s generation, all immigrants, who left Japan, to some to a land where there was no Little Italy or German Town, just land and a dream. And they endured. And there is the sadness of today.

For in truth, they could not endure forever. One by one, time took the elders, then their successors and eventually my greatest heroes,first was my Uncle Heizo, who made sure I knew what ‘the good life’ was, and let me know that being an iconoclast was okay; then my Uncle Roy, who was always there, and who showed me what true humility was, as we never knew until after he died, that he had been a decorated Captain in the Army; then my first and best hero, my dad Saburo Fukushima, who I have yet to prove wrong about anything, who showed me that a man is greatest when he is most gentle; then my mother’s brother Henry Kawai, the youngest men of their generation; the last of them, Tom Oishi, my dad’s lifelong friend was buried last week. Tom was an amazing friend, and loyal to the core, an example that no matter what, you stand by your friends.

For me, what was always a great truth, that the heroes of my youth were living and breathing men, who called me Bobby, and saw me not as an old man, but, as a boy, who were always there to talk and support me, that truth is no more. With the last man down, the circle of real life heroes, men who grew a living from Richmond soil are merely memories, now to become legend, for me to touch back to. These were the men whose respect I most desired, to have my dad and uncle, to have the men they respected, accept me, which was what I worked for.

When I was a boy, the men who ran the community I grew up in, my world, were of my grandfathers, Sango Fukushima and Goro Kawai’s generation. These men built businesses, and along with those businesses, they build a community. Stores, churches, schools and in some cases, even the roads and towns; but, most importantly, they built a community of families that supported each other through many hard times. They built this community by pulling life from the earth. And their sons and daughters did the same. My dad’s generation built the foundation of a life, which allowed my generation to go to college, to get off the farm, to live the American Dream in all of its glory. There were many men who did this, and I got to know many of them, and I like to think I earned a little of that respect from them, that I so dearly wanted. However, nothing endures forever, our bodies are fragile, much like the plants we grew, like the roses and carnations, that so quickly fade, our bodies fail even as our influence in life grows. There are still a few of my father’s generation around, such as my great friend and benefactor Flora Ninomiya, perhaps the youngest of the Nisei rose growers, my mom's childhood friend and a fine nurseryperson, whose sad honor it has been to eulogize all of her colleagues. 

But, of these men I idolized, in their khaki’s, weathered hands and faces, who smell vaguely of a sweet mix of sweat and flowers, I have only my memories and a few faded photographs. I search for a clever ending, some device of words, to close this little self-indulgent and misplaced essay, which I publish on a food blog, but, there is nothing more than to say, that the last of my heroes is gone today.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The House of Prime Rib

I don't do restaurant reviews, it's not my gig. And I don't happen to think that the House of Prime Rib is in any way related to Pacific Rim BBQ. But, this is more about the reviewer.

When my mom and dad got married, back in the 1950's, they had little in the way of money, but, friends and family came together and gave them a night or two of living extravagantly. A night at the Claremont Hotel, and dinner at the House of Prime Rib. Through the years, especially during the very lean years, my mom would recall the dinner at that restaurant and how luxurious and elegant it was, how everything was so special. She would describe in detail how the meal unfolded and how it felt so special, she would talk about the 'someday' that we would all go there again. That day never came, it seemed that it was always just outside of our grasp, and what little money that did not go to day to day, went to enriching our minds. It remained a gap in my dining card, in some ways, because it was not meant to be my experience alone.

Yesterday, I got a call, around 5pm, that a couple of dining friends had decided that they had to go to the House of Prime Rib. And that I had to go with them. It seemed to be the time. My dining credentials do not want, if it is San Francisco or the East Bay, I am not short on the great food I have eaten, but, this was the hole in my cred. So, I was in, time to see what the experience would be, although, how could it be the same. Modern dining is not the same.

I was wrong. It was as if I had dined there all my life, each phase of the evening unfolded as if I had been there dozens of times, it was as familiar as hearing my mom's voice walking me through the room. From the cocktail mixed and served in the mixing glass, the shaker top still in place, to the salad spun table side and all the way through, each experience was totally familiar. And clearly elevated, in a classic manner, it was beautiful women and handsome men in jackets and trousers, old men in tuxedoes and suits, each catering to the table. The trolley is old, and the design hearkens to mid-Century Art Deco, it might well date to the 1940's. Beautifully cooked Prime Rib, a huge and blemish free baked potato, and an iceberg, beet and egg salad, nothing daring, nothing farm to table, nothing but a classic dinner. I should have worn a suit.

I can imagine how this must have felt to my mom and dad, who grew up on dirt roads in Richmond, California. One day married, eating in this classic dining room, catered to with table side service. The best dining is when you can connect, whether it is with the people you share the table with, or the ghosts of your youth, when the experience feeds your being, and not just your appetite, it becomes something you never forget. I get it now mom.