Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Noodling For A Change

This past week or so was a blurrish gastronomic romp for me. I started on the 16th at the new RN74. A wine dinner featured Benjamin Leroux and his new 2007 negociant wines, plus a vertical of grand cru-like Pommards of Comte Armand des Epeneaux (details soon). The Cobia with grilled turnips and broccolini proved fantastic with the red Burgundies, surprisingly even more so than the duck cassoulet. That wine dinner was followed by our own wine dinner on the 20th. An array of Schloss Schonborn Rieslings accompanied by the haute-pan-Asian cuisine of Unicorn Restaurant made for a stunning evening.

Schonborn's hat-trick of 2006 Kabinett Rieslings--the Nusbrunnen, Pfaffenberg, and Erbacher Marcobrunn--was mindblowing. Impossible to find better Riesling values than these!

I changed pace on the 22nd at Izakaya Mai, washing down excellent small plates of seafood supplied by IMP with a cold Hatsumago sake. But on the 23rd it was back to RN74 for a casual dinner, including a couple of Burgundies from the list--a lovely 2006 Aligote by Roulot and a fading 1990 Pommard Epenot Dubreuil-Fontaine. This last made me wonder again: is the 1990 vintage overrated? Anyway, the Sea Urchin (uni) Carbonara on the wine bar menu is probably the best pasta concoction I've ever had; it was delightful with the Aligote.

With such classy meals and memorable drinks, I never expected that the finale of back-to-back lunches on Sunday and yesterday at a cheap noodle joint ensconced in Oakland's inner neighborhoods would blow me away. But they did. And for a change, there were no fermented drinks involved on these meals.

Noodle Trend is the new noodle house operated by the family of Unicorn proprietor Kiet Truong. After selling the original Unicorn in Berkeley, Kiet's family decided to go back to basics and open perhaps the only Chao Zhou eatery in the Bay Area. Kiet's parents are both cooks from Chao Zhou, a district in southern China's Guangdong province. They moved to Saigon, where they raised a family and run a successful restaurant serving a kind of Vietnamese fusion cuisine with Chao Zhou influences. After the fall of Saigon the family fled to the US, settling first in Minnesota and eventually finding their way to the Bay Area.

It may sound contradictory, but Noodle Trend is both a simple noodle joint and the epitome of fine cookery. Every main ingredient is prepared from scratch. The stock is extracted from a mountain of bones and herbs to get a rich flavor and is cooked for several hours until everything has reduced and melded perfectly. No dish tastes greasy, bland or fake. Live free-range chickens are butchered in the gleaming stainless-steel kitchen. Amazingly, no item on the menu costs more than $6.95, and every plate, every bowl is served almost overflowing with magnificently tasty food!

The unsweetened, thick fresh soybean milk (Sua Dau Nanh) served piping hot is made in the kitchen from pure soybeans boiled with pandan leaf to bring out the taste of the soybean. $2.00

A starter of Salt and Pepper Calamari (Mu'c Rang Muoi). $6.95

The Chao Zhou Fried Rice Cake (Banh Bot Chien) cooked with beaten eggs and turnip. It reminded me of tortilla, the classic Spanish tapas. $5.75

Qui, Kiet's brother, told me that in the streets of Chao Zhou this Chao Zhou Ho Fun combination soup (Hu Tieu Hoac Mi Trieu Chau) is prepared in minutes by street vendors for passersby hungry for a quick snack. $6.25

Orange Peel Duck Thigh Noodle (Vit Tim) $6.95. The confit-like duck thigh is fork tender and the broth is classic Vietnamese duck stew mix of herbs and tangerine orange peel with the traditional side dish of pickled carrot and cabbage.

Free-Range Chicken Ho Fun Soup (Hu Tieu Hoac Mi Ga Di Bo) $6.95. The strips of chicken meat skin-on was so tender and flavorful!

For variety I opted for rice, instead of noodles, for this Beef Stew (Hu Tieu Hoac Mi Bo Kho) $6.95. Tender beef brisket and tendon in a flavorful broth of Chinese herbs, carrots, and lemon grass. A squeeze of lime makes the taste of the stew explode in the mouth!

Three Colors Dessert (Che), a street food classic in Vietnam. Red bean, Jell-O, and agar-agar flavored with coconut milk and sugar and topped with shaved ice. Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines have versions of this popular ice treat.

Noodle Trend
401 International Ave.
Oakland, CA
Open 11am-7pm except Wednesday

Monday, May 11, 2009

Drinking Champagne $$$$!

The Iron Chevsky posted a question recently, "what's the most expensive Champagne you've ever had." I've drank some pretty good Champagnes in my life but I've never thought about them in terms of dollar value. So this question made me reflect. Surely, a bottle with "Krug" on the label has to be the most expensive. But which one? I've had some vintages of the Clos du Mesnil (1986, 1988, and 1990 come to mind) but I haven't been lucky enough to try the Clos d'Ambonnay, which at around $3,500 or so for a bottle is the most expensive Krug Champagne made. Notwithstanding this glaring shortcoming, I've had a Krug that is at least as expensive as the Clos d'Ambonnay, a magnum of the 1971 Krug Collection.

Krug Collection are bottles and magnums of vintage Krug that are kept since bottling in the Krug cellars and gradually released decades later. Though they are identical to the vintage bottling, the passage of time in the cold, quiet comfort of the Krug cellars make them take a unique path of evolution and provenance.

About fifteen years ago, at the end of 1993, I was leaving for another job and as a farewell my colleagues treated me to the magnum of 1971 Krug Collection suitably accompanied by jars of beluga and ossetra caviar. My leaving provided a great excuse to have a good year-end office party, and since we all got paid a bonus, why not the best Champagne?

I remember the Krug being more wine than Champagne, there were hardly any bubbles left and the color was deep yellow straw with aromas of hops and citrus. It was more akin to grand cru Chablis or to Montrachet--very mineral, and quite dry and austere. The salty, oily, and nutty taste of the caviar fitted the Krug perfectly.

To purchase the 1971 Krug Collection today would set you back about $2,000 for a bottle and probably about $5,000 or more for a magnum. It is a rare Champagne and the price surely reflects that. Since then I've never gotten together with any of my old friends who shared that magnum with me, nor have I had another Krug Collection. I thought the rarity of the occasion more than matched the Champagne.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Friday No-Corkage Dinner at 231 Ellsworth!

Three Course Prix-Fixe Menu
$ 39. per person

Baby spinach, strawberries, balsamic vinaigrette
Spring vegetable pistou
Crab cake, braised romaine, olive vinaigrette
Roasted salmon, citrus grilled gambones, asparagus, bearnaise
Filet of beef, braised kale, potato gratin ($5 supplement)
Chicken breast, creamy polenta, wild arugula, roasted peppers
Chocolate pudding cake, strawberries, vanilla crème fraîche
Kaffir lime crème brûlée with housemade cookies
Mandarin soufflé with crème anglaise
($5 supplement)

Indeed, every cloud has a silver lining. To thrive in the economic slowdown savvy restaurants are coming up with deals I've never seen before. The best restaurant in the Peninsula, 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, is offering a most attractive Spring special: 3-course prix-fixe at $39/person and no corkage on Mondays and Fridays. How can I resist?

My buddies Kevin and Ben couldn't resist either when I mentioned the deal. So we all headed down there Friday night, with wives in tow, and were treated to first-class fare at economy price. And lucky me, when I'm with Kevin and Ben I always drink first-class. These guys have the two best wine cellars I know of.

I brought a 1997 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles that dazzled us. 1997 is a Leflaive year and I advise you to scoop up 1997 Leflaives--you could probably find some at Vineyard Gate at a great price. My notes said: intense floral, honey, citrus, gravel, and botrytis (the telltale sign of a Leflaive) scents; flavors of greengage, grapefruit, lemon custard, and minerals. Utterly persistent. Its petrol scents got more noticeable as the wine opened up. Very lovely.

Ben recalled a tasting several years ago of 1969 Leflaive Pulignys. People thought they were tasting German Rieslings. The petrol and botrytis emanating from the wines surprised everyone.

Kevin commented: "The Leflaive kept unfolding. The botrytis component was oh so good. Thank you. *** (**)"

The 1954 Chateau Latour is proof yet again that being vintage-obsessed is dim-witted at best as one misses out on sublime wine experiences like this. A gift from Ben's 49 degree F cellar to honor Kevin's birth year. Decanted, it was unbelievably youthful; deep ruby up to the rim, with no bricking. More fragrant than the '55 Margaux we had a few months ago--cedar plank, dried herbs, blood, and earth. Started off with flavors of velvety ripe blackberries that brightened to cranberries as the wine faded. What a treat!

Ben brought a bottle wrapped in aluminum foil and already uncorked, no doubt he had given it his usual seven to eight decantings before leaving home. Both Kevin and I assumed it was red Burgundy, but we did a quick blind tasting before unwrapping the label. I said definitely grand cru because of the power. It was dark ruby and really fruity, I thought about a Russian River Pinot Noir for a moment, like a Williams Selyem or Gary Farrell but said, "nah", not likely Ben would bring something like that. Kevin later said that he thought it was a Corton, and so it was--a 1966 Corton from Coron Pere et Fils, a negociant I'm totally unfamiliar with. Anyway, it was wonderful and paired well with my beef filet. Black cherries, mint, sage, earth, beef broth, cinnamon, and cloves. A melange of flavors that showed the odd, anything-goes character of aged Corton.

231 Ellsworth Restaurant
231 Ellsworth Avenue
San Mateo, CA
650. 347.7231