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April 12, 2011

So in the past two months I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege to dine out. I say privilege because I think it is certainly that. Not everyone has the luxury of dining out once a week, or even once a month. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do both, when able.

Now let’s discuss pleasure (in reference to dining out). The primary goal for me when dining out is the experience, from start to finish and all of the tiny details that lie in between. If the stars align and the cookie crumbles in just the right way, this ultimately may result in a wonderful and pleasure-filled dining experience. Who doesn’t want that? Especially considering you’re paying a pretty penny (which you will in SF). Is it wrong to want some ooohing and ahhhing during your meal? Or moaning with pleasure after it? (And people, I’m still discussing food. Thank you).

I’m not one of these people who dines out strictly on the basis of:

1) I can’t cook (ie; I burn water).

2) My kitchen is too small (I think, if I could find it).

3) I really don’t want to (I can’t be bothered).

No. I dine out to be dazzled. I dine out to try what is new and inventive. I dine out so that I might have the experience to eat parts of animals I may not want to buy or cook at home. I dine out so that I may walk away with a memory from a dish. So that I may be haunted by a taste, weeks later even. Whether it’s a 7$ meal for two at In-N-Out Burger ( a sure thing) or the phenomenal Gnocchi with Black trumpet mushrooms at Commonwealth. I feel something has been achieved if your still drooling for it weeks later. If many a kitchen knew that people were still lusting after a plate of dumplings, I think they’d feel satisfied in knowing they’d achieved their task. Thank you, Commonwealth.

Recently I’ve tried some places highly recommended by many. Some of these places even made it to the top of coveted lists held by esteemed food critics in San Francisco. And I’m not just referring to 7×7 Magazine. Yet again I am going to chalk this up to preferences. We all have them. Food, meals, dishes and restaurants, it’s all so completely subjective. What I like, you may not. That doesn’t mean it is bad.

Here are some things that I really enjoyed recently and am still thinking very fondly about.

I popped into Nopalito for lunch one day with a friend. Some say, you can tell how good the food is in a restaurant based on who is eating there. In other words, if it’s a Chinese restaurant and everyone eating there is Chinese, then chances are the Chinese food is going to be good. I think this formula can apply to some restaurants, but certainly not to all.

Chicken Mole tamale at Nopalito

At Nopalito, we sat at the counter. I left myself open (and without judgement), to experience  all we would be partaking in. Sure, everyone eating there at the time was Anglo (as was the FOH) and the kitchen was completely Latino, but the food was solid and uncompromised. The tamale itself was light, and sweet with corn, while the Mole was deep, dark and absolutely rich. It’s just the type of sauce you want to dip your finger into. Over and over again.

We dined at Marlowe a month or so ago and let me tell you, there is nothing wrong with the food there. The room is dark and cozy, the service is pleasant and most importantly the wine, I mean the food, was outstanding.

Bone Marrow at Marlowe

I can never resist Bone Marrow if it’s on the menu. Though not exactly like the Bone Marrow magic (bacon marmalade) at RN74, the marrow at Marlowe is worth ordering and worth returning for. Perfect with a complex glass of Pinot.

Carrot Cake in a jar at Marlowe

I like to joke that you can’t throw a stone in SF without hitting a jelly jar. They are everywhere. I’ve seen Chicken livers served in them, Yogurt parfaits, Cocktails and Cheesecake. Here at Marlowe all the desserts are served in a jar. The Carrot Cake was just incredible. I don’t really care if it was in a jar on a plate. It was just damn good.

You know what else is damn good? Everything at  4505 Meats. I sing the praises of the 4505 Meats team. I also have decided to leave my Thursday lunch (when possible) in their capable hands. The weekly specials they are slinging are just incredible. I recently had one of their Fried Chicken Yum Yums (Fried Chicken on brioche, coriander mayo, pickled jalapeno, slaw) and it was deadly in all the right places. But one Thursday last month I stopped by and ordered their Lamb Merguez.

Lamb Merguez Zilla style (Kimchi from Namu, $ sauce, Chicharrones)

Feeling a bit naughty, piggy and absolutely decadent I decided to take it to the next level and get it ‘Zilla style’. This is exactly (almost) what heaven tastes like. Plus who knew something could be so beautiful without the crutch of bacon or cheese. I will get this again and immediately go home and take a nap.

Speaking of the Ferry Building, I recently became acquainted with this Beignet below from Les Elements. He calls it a ‘Beignet’ but what it looks like is a cream-filled donut. A Bombolini, even. I don’t really care what he wants to call it. What is important is that he keeps making them. They are divine. I’ve had his cookies and cupcakes in the past, but I must admit the beignets have always given me a cute wink. Between you and me, I’ve been looking back at them too. So it was about time we came face to face, and it was worth every stare I got from the passersby. So what if I was talking to this beignet as I sat on a bench in front of the Ferry Building? Perhaps I was on my knees. It’s also possible my eyes rolled back in my head. I might have even kissed the thing. Forget the chocolate, get the vanilla. This is one of those occasions where original is best. Original is King. Original is where it’s at.

Vanilla Beignet at Les Elements

I like my food (like my men) simple, good and uncomplicated. A few months back after a long and luxurious wine-tasting in Napa (on a Wednesday) we stopped into Rotisserie and Wine for an early bite.  The room at R&W is handsome and memorable (like my date). We sat at the marbled U-shaped bar, which in my opinion is the best seat in the house. What appear to be vintage plates decorate the walls. You feel is if you are sitting in the country home of a French designer. Again, the room is very lovely and hard to not gawk at. The food, unfortunately, was not hard to forget. But with that being said there was one exception, and funny enough it is free.

Complimentary Corn cakes with soft honey butter at Rotisserie & Wine in Napa

Simple, uncomplicated and delicious. These corn cakes are excellent all on their own, or to accompany a dirty Martini (I had to). I wouldn’t mind returning to R&W and giving it a second try. I believe in second chances. especially when it comes to restaurants.

As far as second visits go, the only reason I’d return to Bar Agricole is for a stiff drink. At about 5:20, before all the nearby start-up companies let out for work. We ate there recently and had a very early reservation. Yes the room is smart and well designed. It was enjoyable to sit in while still empty, as it was peaceful and almost meditative. It quickly filled at 6 p.m. sharp and transitioned to a dot com swingers mixer. At least we hope (about the dot com).

When it comes to new and ‘happening’ restaurants to try in SF, I had been advised (warned) to try Bar Agricole for drinks only and Commonwealth for food (only). Bar Agricole definitely lives up to the drink part. Though when I told the Bartender to make anything she wanted, she simply made me something on the menu. #fail. I was really hoping that if a mixologist was given the chance to make anything, then they might just maybe, just perhaps, get creative. I guess she wasn’t in the mood. The food, overall, was interesting. I will leave it at that. There is one dish I ordered which stood out considerably. I thought it was very, very good.

Uni Carbonara with pancetta at Bar Agricole

Uni is a very popular ingredient right now. I’ve seen it on burgers, on pizza and in pasta. Strangely I haven’t seen it a jar yet. Perhaps someone will make a Uni Fried rice and stack it in a jelly jar. I’m hoping. Morimoto in Napa also serves a decadently good Uni Carbonara. But what’s more decadent than eating testes? And with pancetta. It is an acquired taste which I do enjoy. I actually preferred the Uni Carbonara at Bar Agricole as it was generous on the cream, pancetta and Uni. It was quite memorable. Unfortunately it is off the menu now.

I’ve  tried to convince my partner to take the journey to Oakland, for more than just a Warriors’ basketball game. A recent visit to Plum proved delightful and was without incident. We sat at the bar, which gives you a great view of: focus and steady hands. The entire meal was really exceptional. We started with the panisse fritters made of greens and served with yogurt. (Another) Beet Salad was absolutely extraordinary featuring red and golden beets that exemplified jewel tones on a plate. But when it came to what I imagined would be a simple Oyster stew, I was completely blown away (and moaning with pleasure). Nothing is simple at Plum. Let that be known. There are certainly complex things taking place on the plates that leave this tiny kitchen. Each and every one is a success.

Oyster stew at Plum

The Oyster stew sent me into a frenzy. It looks so unassuming and so ordinary. It is neither. I loved the juxtaposed elements happening in the bowl. Cool potatoes with leeks and greens on one side and the warm creamy richness of the oysters on the other side. Just incredible. This is a dish I thought of days after. This is the sort of dish which left an imprinted memory of pleasure in my mind. This is the sort of dish after which I want to tell the kitchen: Thank you, you are amazing. You are all extremely talented. Thank you for making this dish and putting so much love and passion into it. I can taste it and it is incredible.

When you’ve had soul-less food before, you know the difference. I’ve had the luxury of eating in some very fine restaurants with a very elevated price tag. Take, for instance, a tasting menu at Murray Circle. The dishes (each and every) were plated and composed gorgeously by what I know was the skilled hand of an experienced person. In my mind I could see the cook or Chef, leaning over the plate firmly holding tweezers in their hands putting the final components on the dish. I know it took 3 days to complete the veal stock. I know that there were multiple people involved in the production and execution of each dish. I respect this. Unfortunately– and back to the point– the food at Murray Circle was beautiful. But it tasted completely terrible. It was devoid of flavor, devoid of salt, devoid of soul. It wasn’t loved. The price was unimaginable.

I can’t help but feel you can taste the emotions and the intentions that go into food. A former Chef of mine told me to always cook in a good mood (or at least try to). Don’t cook when you are mad, nor when you are sad, because you will taste it in the dish.

At Aziza I can taste the love. I can taste the intention. The food here is full of passion, full of life, and full of magic. Time and time again. As much as I go on and on about Aziza, you’d think I had stock in their restaurant or at least handled their PR. It is neither. I happen to just really, really like this place. The very mention of the word causes me to get emotional. I can’t explain why. The space is enchanting, the service is outstanding and the food is consistently beyond remarkable.

A recent dinner was no exception. We enjoyed two dishes which were near and very dear to us. One was a return to the ‘fishes and loaves’ dish which we both still long for. Anytime we see Sardines on the menu we jump at the thought that it may be similar to the very original Sardines and Brioche (below).

The first time I had this dish it truly moved me in such a way food has never moved me. I know this seems dramatic (or something), but for the people out there who love and appreciate food as I do, you will understand.

After having this simple dish of Sardines and Brioche I immediately was compelled to write about it here. It  was one of the deciding factors in beginning this very blog. Because the experience of eating was beautiful and magical. When it is.

I can imagine Chef Mourad has tired of making this dish over and over again. I imagine it might be how Sir Elton John and Billy Joel feel when being asked to perform Your Song and Piano Man again, and again.

I completely respect the fact that Chef Mourad wants to, and likes to, tinker with this dish. Since first having the original we’ve had countless versions of his sardines– sometimes even featuring brioche cubes or as crumbles. It is always a surprise. I appreciate the fact that our most favorite server, Troy, would often bring us a side of crisp toast or bread when we ordered the sardines. Troy knows how we like it.

Sardines & Brioche (almost like the original) at Aziza

Last and definitely not least is this gem in a cup (below). On our last visit to Aziza we took the plunge and ordered the Tasting Menu, which we’d never done before. To be expected, it was a journey, a surprise and fulfilling. And then this was presented before us. It was simply an unadulterated arrangement. You’ve had one, I hope.

Chicken Charmoula, Jidori egg, Potato foam

On the bottom of the cup was succulent pieces of chicken folded into charmoula sauce. Above this was a single Jidori egg awaiting to be punctured. A indescribable concoction of potato foam sat on top of the chicken and egg like a patient fluffy white cloud floating along in the sky. Is there any other kind? My partner was equally moved by this dish. He said it tasted of Kabanos. Which means it tasted of Polish sausage, it tasted of his youth and of lands far, far away. There are tears that wanted to be shed. This I know.

Dare I compare this to that of a first kiss you had as hormonal adolescent? No, not that first time, but the first time you knew what you were doing (so you thought) and you wanted it. As much as he did.

It’s like touching something hot, unexpectedly. But you like it. So you do it again.

It’s like the scene in Ratatouille. The one wear the notorious food critic takes a bite of the Ratatouille and is immediately transported back to his mother’s kitchen. He is overwhelmed. He cries for that memory. He cries for the experience. You are lucky if you’ve had one of those.

You hear thunder in the sky. So you walk across the room and put your hand on the doorknob. It shocks you. It reminds you that you are curious. You walk outside and the sky opens in relief. The feeling fills you with overwhelming comfort, familiarity and excitement. You know that there is something greater than your self.

The question is: What is it?

Dare I suggest Chef Mourad is an alchemist? For what he conjures in his kitchen is more than food. It is literally a transportation, through his vision. I am always a willing participant.

Or perhaps I’m just dramatic. Dramatically dazzled.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011 10

    ooooh the food you eat Alexa…….so amazing I live vicariously through you…..

    • April 15, 2011 10

      As you can I see I am moved by very simple food. Simple is the best. Pasta, Lamb dogs, Sardines, Cream filled donuts, Corn fritters….a good roast chicken.Some of my best meals were from trucks…like yours. Your roast chicken with fries and boiled eggs is out of this world perfect…and then the Moroccan burger with red sauce….OMG.

  2. April 14, 2011 10

    I want to eat at Aziza with you one day and be transported……moved to tears…..yes one day…..

    • April 15, 2011 10

      Ok. So what are you doing next week or the week after that?….you should fly on in for the weekend..think about it.xoxo

  3. April 17, 2011 10

    I have to eat at Aziza this week. Can’t wait to see you!

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