Saturday, November 28, 2009

Coi & Commis

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Coi Photoset. Meals are arranged in order of courses served. M1 is from the first meal, M2 from the second etc.

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Commis Photoset. Meals are arranged in order of courses served. M1 is from the first meal, M2 from the second etc. M3 is a special tasting menu I arranged with Chef Syhabout.

In this piece of required reading (note that the author is one of this post's featured chefs), Chef Judy Rodgers says, "All I care about is making delicious food. When there's plenty of delicious food in the world, then I'll start worrying about creativity." This is stupid because isn't it entirely possible for food to be both creative and delicious? While Chef Rodgers may lack the ambition to create tasty, creative food, chefs James Syhabout and Daniel Patterson do not.

You see, it all started with Alice Waters (whom I am told is a lovely woman. Please don't send your hippie assassins after me!) Back in the 70s, she had a revolutionary idea: Let's get some of the wonderful produce available in the Bay Area and cook it simply and beautifully. I believe it was a direct reaction to the heavy French food which was served in that era's fine dining restaurants. Put another way, it's similar to Mozart's reactionary light, clean writing to Bach's heavy, stodgy German compositions. However, Bay Area restaurants (and Bay Area tastes) haven't developed and many of the most highly rated eateries in this area still faithfully follow Ms. Waters' original conceit.  Commis and Coi are different because they bring a different perspective to Bay Area dining.

Now, I've got nothing against excellent ingredients. In fact, I believe quality produce is the first step towards quality food but it's not the last. Because great restaurants have access to great produce, it's what you do with those ingredients which makes me stand up and take notice. Furthermore, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with technique if done with intelligence and sensitivity. Take a carrot dish from Coi (pronounced "Kwah"), a Michelin ** restaurant helmed by Chef Daniel Patterson. In it, carrot coulis and carrot shavings sandwich burnt rice porridge, cocoa nibs and micro cilantro, the carrots providing sweetness and lubrication for the rest of the dish. This tiny, 3 bite dish really encapsulates Chef Patterson's mindset of local, seasonal food with a bit of manipulation, more of which can be read here.

Coi needs a bit of explanation. The restaurant is divided into two halves. On one side, the fine-dining dining room where you are fed a set menu. On the other side, a casual lounge where you can order the entire fine dining menu, individual courses from the fine dining menu or items off of the separate lounge menu. I am a lounge devotee because I love the flexibility. When I eat there, I typically look through the tasting menu and target one or two dishes. After that, I look at the lounge menu. Patterson always has a terrific Soul Foods Farm chicken dish...I know, it's just chicken but the quality of the bird and its seasonal accompaniments are FANTASTIC. However, I wish he'd put some seafood on his lounge menu...I bet he could work wonders with some local squid or sardines. If you're squeamish about wine, the service staff will be more than happy to pour you something that they think will go well with the food. I've yet to be disappointed with my dining strategy.

While Daniel Patterson is very vocal about his views, it's hard to get anything out of James Syhabout, head chef at the newly Michelin starred restaurant Commis. Chef Syhabout might be the quietest, most humble cook I've ever met. I almost always sit at the chef's counter and I rarely hear him say a word. However, his food speaks volumes. He adheres to the same principles of local, seasonal food which is de rigeur in the Bay Area but his plates are more intricate than what you might find at other places. While Patterson's fare leans towards acid and a cleaner flavor profile, Syhabout's food seems more lush and luxurious. His liberal use of butter adds a rich dimension to his food which Patterson's lacks. However, this richness is also the source of my one criticism. I find that his food, specifically the big meat dishes, can be a little TOO big. That is, they start to bore me halfway through. I start to crave an acidic/bitter counterpoint because all that richness becomes monotonous. I am specifically thinking back to my last meal and a dish of guinea fowl, confit leg, bread crumbs and escarole. The roulade of fowl was great but to add a large serving of confit leg? Meat overload. More bitterness or acid, please.

However, I am always excited to go to Commis because Syhabout has the ability to come up with smart yet unexpected flavor combinations which make you wonder "Why didn't I think of that?!?!?" In short, go early (meal pacing gets a bit long if you go during rush hour), sit at the chef's counter and watch one of the Bay Area's best chefs do his thing.

Anyhow, I'm not really a food writer so kudos to you if you made it through my rambling paragraphs. The next time you find yourself thinking about dining out, do yourself a favor and consider one of these two restaurants. If you're as sick as I am of generic Cal-Mediterranean restaurants, it's up to you to vote with your pocketbook. And, in the case of Coi and Commis, your mouth will thank you. Happy eating!

373 Broadway
San Francisco, CA 94133
Phone: 415-393-9000

3859 Piedmont Ave.
Oakland, CA 94611
Phone: 510-653-3902

Guest Post: Bucatini all'Amatriciana

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Loyal readers might remember these two posts: #1 & #2 and my little brother is back for another round of pasta posts! I'm not much of an Italianophile but his pasta is pretty much the best I've ever had. That's right, I went there.

My brother's Italian food bible is the excellent and widely available Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion chopped fine
A 1/4 inch thick slice of pancetta, cut into strips 1/2 inch wide and 1 inch long (Pancetta is salt and spice cured like American bacon but isn't smoked. James also doubled the amount of pancetta and cut it into simple chunks)
1.5 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, drained and cut up
Dried red chili pepper flakes to taste
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese
1 pound pasta (James used bucatini pasta. So fun to eat! It's kinda like spaghetti but hollow on the inside.)

1. Put oil, butter and onion in a sauce pan and heat over medium flame. Saute the onion until it is a pale gold then add pancetta. Cook for a minute. Add the tomatoes, chili flake and salt. Gently simmer for 25 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

2. Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce. Add cheeses, toss thoroughly and eat!

So easy and so good. Please try!

Friday, November 27, 2009

St. Louis Eats

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I just returned from a trip to St. Louis. It's not exactly a gastronomic capital but my brother and I decided to focus on two things: BBQ and fried chicken. We succeeded on both fronts.

1. Let's start with the BBQ. Pappy's is, without question, the best BBQ I have ever had. I'm no expert when it comes to BBQ'd pig but I can not imagine BBQ'd ribs which taste better than this. These Memphis style ribs (dry rub only, no sauce) have a great texture. They're toothsome enough to resist but still tender so that you can cleanly rip the meat from the bone. Sauce is served on the side if you are into that sort of thing. In addition to the ribs, I ate some brisket (not a huge fan), BBQ'd chicken (dark meat, really moist and tasty) and the best BBQ'd sausage of my life. I LOVE THIS PLACE. I think the coleslaw is a must. It's not the mayonnaise-y stuff you find at most joints but is just a simple cabbage, celery seed, vinegar and sugar concoction which works beautifully as a palate cleanser. My brother, a semi-regular, says that it's essential to go during busy hours as Pappy's times its meats to coincide with the lunch and dinner crowd. If you are at all interested in BBQ and find yourself in St. Louis, you owe it to yourself to check this joint out. AWESOMELY GOOD.

Fried chicken, oh how I love thee. I am a fried chicken fanatic. It is my favorite food and has been for quite some time. In fact, my mother would always ask us what we wanted for our birthday dinners and the answer was always "Fried Chicken!!!!!" This river runs deep so it was with great excitement that James and I embarked on our hunt for poultry perfection.

2. Newstead Tower Public House- This establishment bills itself as a restaurant which "specializes in high-quality food a step above the more basic 'pub grub.'" I guess their claim to fame is that they were voted "Best Hamburger in St. Louis" back in 2008. At any rate, we went on a drizzly Sunday night to experience their hamburger but were side-tracked by the Sunday night fried chicken special. It cost around 28 bucks for the entire fried bird and came with roasted potatoes and a well-dressed side salad. Sundays are also 1/2 off canned beer night but we're not talking Miller Lite...think Fat Tire etc. in cans for half off! Anyhow, the chicken was technically well done. It's breadcrumb crust was completely greaseless and the flesh was quite moist. We also found the flesh more chicken-y than most other birds because Newstead uses free range chickens from Benne's farms. You can really taste the difference although some diners might find the chicken a little too flavorsome. Anyhow, the bird was very well fried but just didn't satisfy that lip-smacking craving we both have when eating fried chicken.

3. Porter's Fried Chicken- Our winner of the fried chicken challenge. Porter's is in a janky little storefront location but its appearance belies the quality of the bird. This chicken came incased in a thin, yet crispy, crust. We could not stop eating this chicken. James must've pounded down 6 pieces and I stopped at 4. In addition, we ate nearly an entire order of fried gizzards. PHENOMENALLY good gizzards. The chicken was definitely on the greasy side but we both loved the slick of oil the chicken deposited on our lips and fingers. Healthy fried chicken just doesn't feel right, ya know? A definite must visit when I return to St. Louis.

4. Hodak's- Along with Porter's, Hodak's was the other name mentioned most often when we did our fried chicken research. It wasn't bad but it sorta fell into the Newstead camp of fried chicken. A great, greaseless fry job but the meat was sorta bland and it just didn't have that lip-smacking goodness. However, I have to give them props for the insanely juicy chicken breast. I think it was the first time in my life where I ate the breast before tackling the thigh. Also, we split an order of toasted ravioli. Toasted raviolis (or T-Ravs as they are commonly called) are a St. Louis original and consist of meat ravioli which are breaded, deep fried, dusted with parmesan and served with marinara sauce. Eh, they weren't bad but once is enough for me.

5. Wei Hong Seafood Restaurant- My brother has a fairly serious allergy to soy products so it's really nice for him to find a Chinese restaurant which is willing to work with him. However, this isn't the only way in which Wei Hong is extraordinary. First, it's in an old movie theater so it's absolutely cavernous on the inside. Second, the lights like to dim themselves mid-meal so it's a fun variable. Third, THE WAITRESSES DOUBLE AS THE COOKS. Let me say this again: Not only do they take your order but they also cook your food! I've never been to another restaurant like this. And not only is their service friendly and gracious but they're also pretty good cooks. James tends to stick to a fairly standard set of dishes so that's what I ate. The best thing? Harbor-style crab...Dungeness crab which is stir fried with pork, garlic, ginger, green onion etc. Really, really tasty. Also, you can't go wrong with stir-fried pea shoots. A very enjoyable meal, even given that I have pretty high standards for Chinese food.

All in all, a pretty fun food trip. Much better than I was expecting and, given the quality of Pappy's and Porter's, I've got two GREAT restaurants to look forward to on future visits.

Pappy's Smoke House
3106 Olive Street
Saint Louis, MO 63103

Phone: 314-535-4340

Newstead Tower Public House
4353 Manchester Ave
St Louis, MO 63103

Phone: 314-535-7771

Porter's Fried Chicken
3628 S Big Bend Blvd
St Louis, MO 6314

Phone: 314-781-2097

2100 Gravois Ave
St Louis, MO 63104
Phone: 314-776-7292

Wei Hong Seafood Restaurant
7740 Olive Blvd.
University City, MO 63130
Phone: 314-726-0363

Friday, November 6, 2009

Oven-Crisped Chicken with Maple Vinegar Sauce

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All right! Given that I am unemployed, I am 1. Cooking more at home & 2. Have tons of time so you can expect lots of future excitement! And can any of you tell me why custards are baked in an oven but custard sauces are cooked on a stovetop? I need answers people, not excuses!

This recipe is from The Elements of Taste by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky. It's an interesting book which has a unique view on food and taste. In it, the authors dissect taste into 14 distinct profiles. For instance, "Tastes that Push" contains 3 subdivisions: Salty, Picante and Sweet and each one of these subdivisions has a few recipes which demonstrate the characteristics of the subdivision. It's an intellectual approach to flavor which is quite different from other cookbooks. Additionally, there are "Taste Notes" on how each recipe tastes. Here's the "Taste Note" from this chicken recipe:
First a tangy vinegar aroma and, right along with it, nuttiness from the almonds and butter. The crunchiness from the chicken skin and intense saltiness follow. There's a smooth overall sweetness from the maple syrup, cut by the bitter cranberry and the nuts. The cranberry also has tang, which works with the vinegar to pull out more meaty taste. The flesh of the chicken gives texture and punctuation, plus a full meaty aroma. The end notes are sweet, meaty, and salty.
Neat, right? I really like the perspective this book provides but, at the end of the day, would not recommend it to beginning cooks. The recipes are a little bit complicated and it lacks the kind of clear instruction beginners need. Furthermore, the food might be a bit too adventurous for middle-America. Although today's recipe seems fairly benign, this book contains recipes such as "Poached and Crisped Turkey Leg Provencale with Lemon Pickle and "Okra-Bell Pepper Ratatouille with Mung Bean Curry Crepe." Not the kind of food most people crave on a busy weeknight.

And we're off!

2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup maple syrup

1. Melt the butter in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat.
2. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally until they are soft and transluscent.
3. Add the pepper and nutmeg.
4. Add the vinegar, bring to a boil, then add the maple syrup.
5. Return the sauce to a boil and reduce by half. Set aside.

1 3-4 pound spatchcocked chicken
Salt and Pepper
Vegetable Oil

1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Make an incision in each of the chicken's thighs, then tuck in the legs. Season chicken with salt and pepper.
3. Heat oil in a large heavy ovenproof skillet. Place the chicken, skin side down in the hot pan and transfer pan to oven.
4. After 10 minutes, flip the chicken. Continue to roast until the thigh juices run clear. This will take somewhere around 30 minutes.
5. Remove chicken from pan and allow it to rest.
6. Pour fat from the roasting pan. See all those little brown bits crusted to the bottom of the pan? Those taste good so we're going to deglaze the pan with the pre-made sauce. Pour the sauce into the hot pan. You should be able to scrape up the brown bits. Set the sauce aside.

3/4 cup slivered almonds
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup leeks, sliced and THEN measured
1 tablespoon dried bread crumbs
Salt and Pepper

1. Combine almonds and butter in a skillet. Heat and cook the almonds until they turn golden brown.
2. Add the cranberries and leeks. Cook for another minute.
3. Add the bread crumbs, stir, and season with salt and pepper.

Cut the chicken into serving size parts. Arrange the chicken on a plate, spoon the sauce over the chicken, then the topping and serve.


Cost- I forget. I made this a while ago. Serves 4 hungry adults.
Time- Mebbe 45 minutes? It doesn't take long.