Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Matsutake dreams.

The other day I ran to Uwajimaya and bought some matsutake mushrooms. It is still earlyish in the season, and they cost $50 a pound (a few ounces is all you need), but I am about to go on vacation for three weeks. Who knows if I'll be able to find any good matsutakes when I return. I rush home with my precious mushrooms and dig out the pot of golden chicken broth I made the other day, from the roasted carcass of a chicken I had carefully deboned under the expert guidance of a chef-friend. There was plenty of fat in the broth, which would make the rice taste good, so I heated it all up, washed the rice, then added broth instead of water, arranging the slices of matsutake mushrooms on top.

The rice was perfect, pale gold and confetti-ed with the matsutakes, which infused the rice with their perfume. I had some mushrooms and broth left, which I froze for future meals, but I thought that would be it for the year. Then I head to Lark for one last quick meal before leaving for Taipei, and one of the evening's specials is lobster agnolotti with matsutake mushrooms. It is fate. I sit at the bar, in my red lipstick and little black dress (I am on my way to a birthday party, and the staff at Lark, unused to seeing me wearing anything more formal than jeans and a t-shirt all say, "hey! You look nice tonight!") and have some bread and butter and chat with the servers while other diners trickle into the dining room behind me.

The agnolotti arrive, fat chunks of lobster meat wrapped in pasta dough, served in a pool of clear broth. Finely shaved slices of matsutake mushrooms curl around the agnolotti, the raw mushrooms absorbing the hot broth and infusing it with their piney fragrance. There is something minimalist about it, just lobster meat, noodles, mushrooms, a sprinkling of chives. Perhaps butter. As I eat my dinner the raw mushrooms become cooked, like the beef in a hot bowl of pho, but they are so delicious I finish them all before they have the chance to overcook, before my soup even becomes cold. I want to order another bowl, but it is time to leave.

I run next door to Licorous to find my friends, and then we head over to Tavern Law down the street for the party. The birthday girl is all glammed up in a vintage dress and the biggest hair I have ever seen west of the Mississippi, and there are hugs and kisses and camera flashes all around for the next few hours. I have a bourbon sour, foamy with egg white and heady with bourbon, and take sips of countless others. A pastry chef friend arrives with boxes of the most amazing buttery, caramelized cookies, like a cross between a palmier and a croissant, only better, and his homemade version of a sno-ball, or whatever those marshmallow-y balls with chocolate centers are called. I have one of each. More birthday well-wishers arrive, people I have only met briefly, or only know on Twitter. It's good to see them.

I walk back to my car in my heels, wrapped in a light trench coat against the cool air. Fall is here. Tomorrow, or is it the day after, I'll be in Taipei. I'll take the memory of those matsutake mushrooms, and conversations with new friends, with me.

Monday, September 7, 2009

San Francisco, day 3. Nopa.

When my mom planned this short jaunt down to San Francisco, two of the three nights were already spoken for, but the last night would just be us, and she left it up to me to decide where to go. N. threw around a couple of places she liked, but Nopa was the one that caught my attention. Then R. mentioned that she, too, had gone there and enjoyed it. I called them up and amazingly - apparently they are quite popular and hard to book, impossible to get into without a reservation - they had an open table for the next night. Labor Day night. Definitely a good sign. There is nothing that makes me happier than getting a reservation for a supposedly difficult-to-reserve restaurant.

The cab has trouble finding the restaurant, with its nearly blank wall facing Divisadero and almost invisible sign. But we get there, slip into the tiny waiting area, stand near the high communal table while our table is readied. It is a generous, open space, a long bar running back towards the open kitchen, with a big rotisserie full of chickens - everyone seems to be ordering either the roast chicken or the burger, and I almost regret not ordering either - lots of dark, polished wood and bright murals. We are led upstairs to a balcony table, with a perfect bird's-eye-view of all the action down below, the bartenders pouring drinks, the chefs plating dishes, the booths and tables full of happy diners.

We order soft goat cheese with a beet salad, which comes tangled with frisée and a heaping pile of freshly made crostini, the post-millennial answer to the Melba toasts of the last century. Next come crisp-skinned fresh sardines with roasted cherry tomatoes and oily - in the best possible way - croutons. Our main courses arrive, a roasted pork chop with peaches and escarole, and duck legs with beans, figs, and some dark leafy green that is probably kale. The pork is delicious, rosily brined and just cooked through, marbled with fat around the edges. The duck legs are tender, slipping from the bone. Everything is thoughtfully put together, the flavors clear and balanced. It is the best kind of cooking, simple, with only the barest flourish of caramelized cherry tomatoes that need nothing except heat to bring out their sweetness or figs as sweet as candy.

I shouldn't order dessert; we're full. But who knows when I will be back again, to try the burger or the roast chicken or all the things I didn't have? We ask our server, who suggests the warm cookies with 'milk,' fresh chocolate chocolate chunk cookies hot from the oven, with a cool glass of almond milk on the side. They are like molten lava cakes in cookie form. We take some of the cookies home, for breakfast; I drink the last of the milk, and plot how soon I can return. Oh, very soon, I hope.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

San Francisco, day 2. Kuleto's.

We spend the day at Golden Gate Park, wandering through the de Young and the Academy of Sciences, now facing each other across an intricately plotted quadrangle of trees, statues, benches, fountains. For some reason I remember them being elsewhere in the park, which could be true. What I do know - the evidence is staring me in the face - that both museums underwent protracted and extensive redesigns, by the great architecture firms Herzog and de Meuron (de Young) and Renzo Piano (Academy of Sciences). The former is now sheathed in a skin of weathered mesh, with an angular tower whose viewing platform offers sweeping vistas (in the morning, everything was swathed in fog) in all directions; the latter is all light and air topped with an undulating "living roof" that contains some 1.7 million native plants (I checked the website for that number).

Lunch is a forgettable (though pretty decent) meal snatched in a crowded museum cafeteria, so I am eager for dinner. We head to Kuleto's, near Union Square, meeting up with some of my mom's friends, two of whom we'd seen the night before. Another friend I've never met before joins us, bringing with her the director of a local museum, who I had met during his time in Seattle. We order a few appetizers - pork pâté, coarse and hearty, scallops with mushrooms on potato slices, a Caesar salad, and calamari - and nibble on breadsticks and warm foccaccia. C. and I agree to share our mains - duck breast for me, linguine with clams for her.

Here I should admit the single reason I chose the duck breast is because it is accompanied by a Frog Hollow peach. I have been hearing about these damn peaches ALL SUMMER, so it seems, and here is my chance to taste one. A taste is all I get, because there is only half of one, which I have to share with C., and my mom, but a taste is enough. The peach is soaked in grappa and roasted, and it is the sweetest, juiciest, most fragrant, flavorful morsel of peach I have ever eaten. I want to weep from the pleasure of it, and then I want to leap up and demand that our server bring me another one. A few bites of the white polenta - rich and creamy - and the sliced duck - perfectly cooked - and then the excellent linguine with clams, makes me abandon that idea. But that one bite of grappa-roasted peach is the best thing I eat all night.

We order a few desserts, affogato of housemade vanilla gelato doused in espresso, tiramisu, and a warm almond cake with peaches. They are all good, but none of them overcome the memory of that one Frog Hollow peach. Summer is over; I will have to wait another year for more. They will be worth it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

San Francisco, day 1. Lalime's.

We arrive in San Francisco in the afternoon, making our way to the hotel with just enough time to settle in before taking the BART up to Berkeley for dinner. The train is crowded with football fans, getting off a few stops before ours in a flood of purple sweatshirts and caps that say "CAL" in swirly writing. Then we are at our destination, and C. is waiting for us. C. teaches Chinese at Berkeley and used to make beautiful pottery; now arthritis makes it hard to throw pots and build sculptures. We drive to our destination - a restaurant called Lalime's - and wait for the rest of our party. In all, there are eight women, including my mother and myself.

We agree to share appetizers and main courses - none of the others are big eaters - and chatter away, catching up as people do when they live in different cities and different countries and only meet once in a while. Our appetizers arrive - Caesar salad and another mixed salad, pizza with housemade sausage, mussels in a delicious, tomato-y broth, which we mop up with bread. It is simple, good food; the menu prides itself on locally, seasonally sourced ingredients. I wonder if Alice Waters knew how Chez Panisse would change the world, or at least the American culinary landscape, if we could have the kind of food we have now without her. Then our main courses arrive, and I can only think about food.

We pass plates around, Chinese-style, sea bass and an eggplant dish, slightly less successful than the lobster pasta, in a light tomato sauce. The best dishes are the smoked Duroc pork chop and the New York strip steak, the meat wonderfully marbled and rich-tasting, perhaps cooked a little more than I would choose (others at the table are not fans of rare, or even medium-rare meat), but still excellently done. Actually, it is just the right amount of food, and while usually I think sharing dishes muddles the mind and confuses the palate, I am grateful for the chance to try as much as possible at a restaurant I may never visit again.

There is just room for dessert; we order four, and my favorites are the strawberry mousse cake (Why does no one ever serve strawberry mousse? It is delightful), and the Berliner, a custard-filled doughnut served with a chocolate cup filled with coffee mousse on the side. I eat more than my fair share, hoping no one notices. But they are too polite to comment, even if they see me sneaking a few last spoonfuls of cream. I wish I could come back, soon.