Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Quince Chef's Table

The most charming restaurant in San Francisco that I know of is Quince. Housed in a small wooden building on a quiet street corner in Lower Pacific Heights, Quince’s 15 tables are usually filled up six nights a week. People eagerly come for the refined, contemporary Italian haute-cuisine of chef/proprietor Michael Tusk.

I love coming here, especially on early Sunday evenings, when the twilight filters softly into the pastel room creating a romantic atmosphere that makes me hungry. Food and sex--what urge could be more similar? Alas, I will miss such moments because the restaurant is moving to another location next month.

So to bask in the charms of this place for the last time, ten of us showed up on Sunday to dine in Quince’s inner sanctum, the vaunted chef’s table. This private dining area consists of a rustic farmhouse table set in the high-ceilinged lower kitchen, next to the pastry station. You’re isolated from the bustle of the main dining room upstairs, while the kitchen cooks you a custom menu and the staff pampers you even more. I felt like a mogul for a night.

The evening started with a beautiful amuse bouche of wild king salmon gravlax in a pool of Tusk's signature orange-prosecco sauce. Not only did it taste great, it looked great. Now I regret not going for the 7-course, which would’ve included the wild king salmon entrée.

But I reminded myself that our 6-course menu is a dream, and we weren't even there yet!

While waiting for the white wines to chill, we happily nibbled on splintery, citrus-infused breadsticks..

I liked that the chef's table is window seating, so natural light flows in during the early evening, plus you can vent in some fresh air through a side door. The pasta dryer screens the large windows that looked out to the street.

We brought seven bottles: two Amarones, a Barbaresco, two Barolos, a red Burgundy, and a white Burgundy. Yumm!

Wine service at Quince is skilled and attentive, and never pretentious. Sadly, over the years wine prices and corkage have risen too sharply. From $18 not too long ago, corkage is now $35 for the first two bottles and $50 thereafter. Ouch!

The first course of sea scallops topped with horseradish foam and apple slivers was refreshing and sweet. The bitter accent of the foam intensified the sweetness of the apple and scallops. A gorgeous and bold pairing with the rich 2006 Movia Ribolla Brda (Slovenia) on the wine list ($65).

Established decades before the Kingdom of Italy was created, Movia's estate in Collio (Brda) straddles modern-day Italy and Slovenia. Movia's Ribolla is amazingly full and flavorful. Deep, golden straw colored, with soft layers of peach, melon, and hops, finishing with a hint of white pepper. Delicious as it is now, this Ribolla can age over thirty years or more. I'm a fan of this producer and, though few know of it, at Vineyard Gate we've been selling this wine for years.

The 1989 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Clavoillon was amazingly fresh, bright, and youthful. It had such rich fruit that I don't doubt this would age another ten years. 1989 is, indeed, a benchmark vintage for Leflaive.

We paired the Leflaive with both the scallops and the divine tagliatelli (a last-minute switch from the fettucine) with dungeness crab--it was perfect. Though, I'd say, the Movia was more interesting with the scallops. Yet, the Leflaive, with its botrytised fruit, was heavenly with the fennel-infused tagliatelli.

Just for contrast and because we drained the Leflaive quickly, we ordered the 2005 Germain Pere et Fils St. Romain Blanc on the wine list ($55). Totally unfair to compare with the Leflaive, but the St. Romain did its thing. It was flowery and crisp, perhaps too light after the Leflaive, but a tasty lubricant to the bread that I used to wipe the sauce off my plate.

As far as I'm concerned, the evening's two most memorable courses were the tagliatelli and the tortelli of carbonara that followed. This didn't surprised me, as Tusk's pasta dishes are always sublime. The strips of tortelli, filled with speck (Italian-style ham), were intensely flavored and exploded in the mouth. The course was so miniscule that I'm sure I finished it in less time than it took to plate it. It was awesome.

By the time we reached the third course the reds have been opened and decanted for about an hour. First up was the 1988 Domaine Maume Mazis-Chambertin, Maume's flagship wine. Anh Thu asked me what bottle she could bring, and when I saw the '88 Maume as one of the choices I didn't hesitate. '88 grands crus are drinking lovely these days. Mainly under radar, too, which makes them taste even sweeter, the satisfaction of having proved the Burgundy experts (and their dedicated score monkeys) wrong once again.

The Mazis was darkly colored and packed with fleshy red fruits and sweet licorice spice. It felt soft and juicy with a velvety tannin backbone. Some may opt to age this further, and why not? But I like its fruitiness now, as Mazis has a tendency to harden with age.

With our meat courses, the Nebbiolos were poured together. 1990 Rocche Costamagna Barolo Vigna Francesco, a single-cru Barolo, was a classic La Morra--feminine, forward and fruity. It is in fine form, the tannins are rich and it has very good balance.

A muscular, powerful Barolo was the 1990 Domenico Clerico Barolo Pajana, the debut vintage of this single-cru Barolo. Clerico adheres to modern Barolo-making, but his wines age long and well. I think traditionalists shouldn't be too critical of his wines, but his prices are another matter! I like the way this wine is showing. It is, of course, way too young, unlike the Vigna Francesco. This has high acidity, as it should be, allied with marvelous fruit concentration. Its bouquet is beguiling.

The 1988 Gaja Barbaresco simply gets better with time. It is another high acid wine, but unlike the Clerico its fruit is more supple. Yet, this Gaja pulls it off as it is expansive on the palate, hence it tastes filled in. Layers of red fruits and plum liqueur, and hints of anise. On the nose, it has gobs of rose petals.

After the Nebbiolos were poured, the table was a sea of glasses. As the night wore on I was having trouble finding that '88 Barbaresco!

Much as it excited me, as I can't ever remember doing it, I had my doubts on tasting two Amarones side-by-side on a summer night. But then again , we are in San Francisco. I was also worried that paired with the fatty heritage pork, the Amarones would obliterate the dish. On the other hand, the chocolate torchon might be too dessert-like for these dry wines. So the safe bet was to order some cheese. Alas, the cheese plate, wonderful though it was, lacked a Parmigiano-Reggiano, the touted accompaniment to Amarone.

However, upon tasting the 1964 Bertani Recioto della Valpolicella DOC Amarone (during this time the DOC was not yet Amarone) Steve concluded that it could have paired well with the pork. Too late, the pork was history, but I agreed.

The '64 Bertani was supremely fresh and elegant, its fruit was bright and its acidity was fully intact. For a big wine it was unbelievably refined. Suave and silky, filled with macerated fruits, dried cranberries, and cinnamon bark. What a treat!

In contrast the 1997 Masi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Campolongo di Torbe, from a ripe year, was dense and fruity like a baked blackberry pie. Its tannins and acidity were blanketed by the heady fruit concentration. This is a powerful and delicious Amarone; with something like gorgonzola cheese and dried figs it would even be more pleasurable. But to reach the finesse of the Bertani more patience is required.

1701 Octavia, San Francisco, CA
Tel 415.775.8500
Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday
(last night on this location is Aug. 30th)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Las Vegas Thai

I was in Las Vegas the other day, where I vowed to dine in what America's food cognoscenti ostensibly judges "the best Thai restaurant in the country". I regard this sweeping pronouncement as rather pompous. How can anyone make that claim? Why my neighborhood Thai joint, Thai Stick, occasionally rises to that superlative, I believe.

Neon signs, standard in this large strip mall, cast an alien glow at night

Lotus of Siam occupies a unit in an aging strip mall in a rough area of north Las Vegas Strip. Out-of-towners don't just wander here, it is a strange place to be, in the shadow of the bright lights, polished marble, and glass glitz of the Bellagio or the Wynn's. As I entered, parties dropped off by limo service head straight to their waiting tables.

Without a reservation, I was consigned to the waiting area for an hour gazing at framed reviews from Gourmet, the Robb Report (???), and David Rosengarten and at pictures of famous people who made the trek before me.

The menu is more extensive and varied than any Thai resto I've visited, and features an entire page of dishes from the North, where Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos.

But the other reason for the pilgrimage to Lotus of Siam is the extensive wine list. The resto keeps a 5,000 bottle cellar, about half of it in-house and the rest off-site. Offered are dozens of German and Austrian Rieslings, various vintages of Raveneau's Chablis Montee de Tonnerre, Dagueneau's Pouilly-Fumes, and Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc, among others. The prices are quite reasonable, $195 for a 1995 Raveneau Chablis Montee de Tonnerre, for example. The wine service is precise and without fuss.

Tom Yum Kai ($14.95 for the flaming pot). Thailand's famous hot (both in temperature and taste) and sour soup. Someone listed it as one of the ten best soups in the world. I can't disagree, especially this Lotus of Siam version. It reminds me much of my beloved sinigang.

Ah, the Soft Shell Crab Salad ($17.95), crispy quarters of soft shell crab on a melange of julienned cabbage, carrot, granny smith apple, chili, and ginger, dressed with sweetened lime juice and sprinkled with peanuts and cilantro. Everything comes together. Crunchy and refreshing!

Crispy Duck Curry ($19.95). It was indeed crispy and surprisingly not greasy, but the thick curry sauce weighed down the dish.

Crab Fried Rice ($12.95). Again, not greasy at all. I preferred this over the steamed rice, though the flavor of the crab meat got lost. Red Lantern in Redwood City serves a meaner version.

A unique feature of the menu is a section on sea bass. I love the dense, buttery meat of this fish. The Deep Fried Sea Bass on Drunken Noodle ($23.95) arrived smothered in Thai basil. Trust me, it was perfectly cooked.

Chunks of the crispy fried sea bass infused with basil leaves.

In southeast Asia, sticky rice, sweetened or unsweetened, is a favorite snack, and with mango it finds a heavenly partner. Sticky rice with mango is like going back home for me. This Lotus of Siam Sticky Rice with Mango ($7.95) is a luxurious version with its generous quantity of ripe mango slices. I totally enjoyed it. Still, Pagan, a Burmese resto in San Francisco, serves a more memorable one.

I was drinking almost by myself, otherwise I would've ordered another bottle as the wine list is so tempting. Yet, it was easy to pick the right bottle to have this evening, that's the brilliance of a list with a good range. The 1998 Franz Hirtzberger Riesling Federspiel ($32) has good body and is bone-dry. It came to the table chilled at the right temperature and poured by the waiter in tall, good-size glasses. Golden straw-colored, somewhat viscous, infused with citrus oil, crunchy Asian pear, apricot, and minerals, it proved wonderful with every dish.

Lotus of Siam
53 E. Sahara Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89104
Tel. (702)735-3033
Lunch: Monday-Friday
Dinner: Every night
(Advisable to reserve at least a day in advance)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cassis and Bouillabaisse

Where do I find good bouillabaisse in the Bay Area?

I have the best white wine to pair with this famed Provençal fish stew, the 2007 Cassis Blanc from Clos Sainte-Magdeleine.

The last time I enjoyed a bouillabaisse was a few years ago at Chez Gilbert in the old port of Cassis. I washed it down with the local Cassis blanc, unfortunately it wasn't the Clos Sainte-Magdeleine.

The best producer of Cassis blanc is the estate of Clos Sainte-Magdeleine. I don't think I've ever visited a more beautiful winery. Set on the edge of a sheer limestone cliff overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean and the calanques of Cassis, its vineyard rises up on the foots of Cap Canaille, the highest cliff in France. It's a breathtaking scene.

Tall pines and shrubs surround the vineyard where Ugni Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, and Sauvignon Blanc are planted. These grapes make up the blend for the Cassis Blanc of Clos Sainte-Magdeleine.

If you ever find a resto that serves good bouillabaisse, or if you have the skill to whip one up yourself, make sure you drain some of the 2007 Clos Sainte-Magedeleine Cassis Blanc between slurps. You'll be in heaven for sure.