Look out Cyrus, here we come!
Circa is like a Vegas showgirl with an MBA: there's glitz, there's glamour, but there's also plenty of substance. Formerly Cozmo's Bar & Grill, this spot on the corner of Fillmore & Chestnut Streets reopened a few weeks ago, and we went in for dinner Sunday night.
There's more than a dash of Sin City in the decor, from the bright white neon sign that's perched sideways on the outside of the building, to the outward facing, semi-circular booths scattered throughout the dining room. Glass bead curtains hang throughout, reminding me of champagne bubbles, and gigantic photographs of flowers add a sense of drama to the walls. The restaurant is awash in hushed grays, soft browns and warm golds, and the huge rectangular bar that was the focal point of Cozmo's, though still just as big, seems less emphatic after the redesign. We were disappointed that their selection of gins was not more refined -- neither Hendrick's nor SF's own Junipero made it onto the list -- but perhaps they will eventually restock the bar to better effect. The only other disconnect for me was the presence of flat screen TVs in the lounge. When the owners announced the makeover, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted them as saying, "We want to get away from bar and grill." Maybe they're still hedging their bets.
As for the food, quite simply it rocked. We started with the Dungeness crab "tater tots," which is a cute name for crab croquettes. The smoky cayenne aioli had me nearly licking the plate, but Mr. Food Musing's mom, who has a more sensitive palate, wrinkled her nose. The sliders were meaty, juicy and perfect for sharing -- if you're willing to let anyone else have a bite of the Brie and truffle madness -- but the real draw of that plate is the pile of sweet Maui onions, lightly fried and served with housemade ketchup. We even ate the strays that fell on the tabletop without shame.
The tomato soup was creamy and rich but full-flavored, and though I liked the idea of the grilled cheese finger sandwiches on the side, the actuality was a bit average. No matter; chef Erik Hopfinger himself brought over the next dish, and it was a fitting one for him to deliver. As a friend reminded me, this is the man who opened Spoon (now Tablespoon), which is and was rightly famous for their amazing mac-n-cheese. Well, the man has outdone even himself and created The Best Pasta Dish in The City. Lordy, Lordy, the name alone made me weep with joy: lobster and white truffle mac-n-cheese. Small pasta shells hid in an ooey-gooey sauce alongside succulent bites of fresh lobster meat, and the heady scent of truffles oozed out of every molecule. Dahlings, it was divine.
Other favorite dishes included the grilled baby octopus salad with frisee, peppers and candied macadamia nuts; lamb "lollichops" with pomegranate seeds and mint; and the mini-creme brulees, four to a serving (one for each of us!) with a fruit surprise on the bottom. I got blackberry, Mr. FM had raspberry, and there was also white peach and guava. The tops were super crispy crackly, and the thimble-full was just the right amount of sweetness to end on.
Two dishes that didn't stand up to the competition were the Yucatan grilled chicken salad and the grilled king salmon. Something about that grill was too fierce for all our tastebuds; everything seemed overly smoky. Hopefully that's a kink they can work out.
I have to mention that the kitchen didn't seem to have hit their stride by Sunday. We waited a solid 20 minutes, maybe more, between our first two rounds of food, and another 15-20 between the next round. The restaurant was a third full, if I'm being generous, and it was almost painful to have the evening fall from the high of the mac-n-cheese to the low of drumming our fingernails on the table as we waited for salad. As we killed the bottle of wine, hoping to stave off the hunger pangs, Mr. FM wondered aloud how service could be so off since this is not a new restaurant. I reminded him that most of the kitchen is staffed by people who can ill afford to sit by without work during 6 weeks of planned renovation, much less the 3 months it actually took. More than likely, the chef had to replace all of his kitchen staff, and so in essence they are a brand new restaurant. I'm sure they'll get it worked out in no time, and we will definitely be back for a taste of that mac-n-cheese...soon.
Circa, 2001 Chestnut St (at Fillmore), 415.351.0175
When a girl on a diet gets invited to visit a chocolate factory to eat chocolate -- some of her favorite chocolate, no less -- she tells her diet to take a hike and heads over to Emeryville. That's how I found myself at Charles Chocolates last week, enjoying a preview of their new tea-infused chocolates.
Developed in conjunction with Teance Fine Teas, a local importer of premium, whole leaf teas from boutique growers throughout Asia, the Tea Collection includes five flavors. Each one consists of tea-infused chocolate ganache enrobed in 65% bittersweet chocolate that is "painted" with the Chinese character that best represents the flavor inside. There are five chocolates in all, and we tasted four:
Formosa Baochong -- made with a variety of oolong tea that is the signature tea of Taiwan. This had the most pronounced tea flavor of the four. It was smoky and pleasantly bitter.
Special Jasmine -- this was very floral in character.
Osmanthus -- this is the favorite of Charles Chocolates' founder Chuck Siegel. It was delicately floral and didn't taste much of tea. A hint of salt brought out the flavors of the ganache.
Lichee -- this chocolate was strong, boldly floral, and tasted to me of roses.
Matcha -- this chocolate was not available for tasting, but it's made with "the highest quality, traditional Japanese tea used in tea ceremonies."
All the calligraphy for the chocolates was done by the father of Teance founder Winne Yu. He is a master calligrapher, and in addition to the Chinese characters, he also painted the image of the Yellow Mountains that adorns the edible chocolate box that houses the collection.
The collection will be available beginning in the next few weeks at www.charleschocolates.com and Teance, as well as a few select locations like Gump's. $60 per assortment of 18 chocolates in an edible chocolate box
psst...Teance Fine Teas, formerly Celadon Fine Teas, is opening their new Berkeley location on November 10, 2006. There will be a tea bar with tea flights, similar to wine flights, as well as classes and a selection of more than 65 teas from Asia, India and beyond. 1780 Fourth Street, Berkeley.
To many people, Kiss Seafood is the ultimate sushi experience. I have read so many rave reviews, I can barely remember them all, and so it was with baited breath that Mr. Food Musings and I met there last night.
The dining room is t-i-n-y -- there are but 3 tables and 5 seats at the sushi bar. But it's not a suffocating closeness; rather, it feels cozy, and watching a new guest arrive has the air of sitting on the upstairs landing in your footed pajamas, mesmerized by the parade of people at your parents' cocktail party. Many -- most, in fact -- of last night's diners were Japanese. Several were also loaded up with cameras: one, a humongous digital affair with an enormous flash and a lens as long as an elephant trunk; another, a small, pocket-sized job that was used to shoot photos of Naka-san, the sushi chef and owner, who works quietly behind the bar, greeting customers when they leave and occasionally sipping from his glass of beer. I heard him tell one couple that he starts work at 9 a.m and finishes at midnight, every day but Monday and one Sunday each month, plus a month of annual vacation that he takes to go skiing in Colorado.
We ordered the Chef's Special Omikase ($60), 6 courses of the chef's choice. I asked what the difference was between the regular omikase ($42) and the special, and was told that it was the quality of sashimi and sushi. We knew we wanted toro, so we splurged. There is Japanese beer and a wide selection of sake, but no wine. Mr. FM and I each ordered a glass of sake, which was refilled at our request throughout the night, and we both enjoyed our selections. Mine was "kaiun" and our waitress described it as a medium sake. I loved it, and sipped far more than I planned.
I'm a bit shy on details, but we started with an amuse bouche of a small tangle of daikon sprouts and black seaweed. Sweet, crunchy, delicious. Next was a dish in three parts that puts Michael Mina to shame: a miso salad with Asian pear; two slices of cold eggplant that was the dark purple of a bruise. Our waitress said it had been deep-fried, but it seemed more pickled to me (her English was good but imperfect, so perhaps something was lost in translation.) Either way, it was my favorite thing of the evening. The final bite in the trio was a solid cube of soft tofu and ginger. All three were different, brightly flavorful, succinct.
~ sashimi: halibut, sweet shrimp, toro, amberjack, giant clam, and tai snapper. When our waitress set it down, Mr. FM nearly gasped, "Is that fresh wasabi?" But of course it was. The fish was undoubtedly the freshest, most pristine I've ever had, and the tuna toro was soft as a whisper. The only thing I didn't care for was the giant clam -- it was so briny, it put me off. So Mr. FM got a double dose.
~ a tower of tofu, fish, Napa cabbage and a chunk of daikon radish in a small sea of sauce. Everything was perfectly cooked and the flavors, while distinct, worked beautifully as a team. Mr. FM used his miniature wooden spoon to lap up the sweet, caramel-like sauce.
~ chawan mushi: an ethereal egg custard in broth with three Manila clams on top and white fish waiting for our spoons beneath the custard. I can't imagine a more perfect food on a cold wintry day.
~ sushi: marinated tuna, wild salmon, toro, a Japanese fish similar to a sardine ("no translation," smiled our waitress) and tai snapper. A repeat performance of the sashimi, with the fish so fresh I almost expected it to flop a time or two before settling down. I consider myself, if not a salmon connoisseur, at least a big-time lover, and so I order it at every sushi restaurant. This was the best, hand's down. It was a deep, brilliant red. Taste aside, all of the fish also smelled and looked better than anything else I've ever eaten.
~ miso soup: If that was miso soup, then all the other restaurants in town are obviously ladling out nothing but dirty water. Rich, piping hot and the color of deep amber, this soup was earthy, but neither muddled nor salty.
We floated out of there after a few bites of the lushest, sweetest honeydew melon this earth has ever grown.
My only quibble -- and I do have one -- is the price. I'm not that sure it's a bad value, per se, and I realize that good, clean, fresh fish is expensive, but it was undeniably expensive. Walking out of there, barely-to-not-quite-full and $200 lighter is definitely something that makes you go hmmm.... But there is no denying the quality of the food, the service, the sake, or the evening. Origato, Naka-san, see you again soon.
Kiss Sushi, 1700 Laguna (at Sutter), 415.474.2866
Or the lovely runner up prize: a collection of keepsake recipes from some of the Bay Area's best chefs! Remember, Friday is the last day to request your free copy. Check the original post for details.
Personally, I thought it was good, but not good enough to merit the work. Since I did find an easy, delicious pate brisée recipe (especially nice for savory tarts and quiches), I'll consider it an even trade, and you may stay on the shelf.
Well, the goddamn pate brisée is done. The Cook's Book is a great cookbook with lots of helpful hints on technique, but dammit it if it didn't stress me out to read, "Lightness of hand and speed are very important, and the whole process should not take longer than 4-5 minutes, or the pastry will be tough."
My knees started to shake, so I did what I always do when I'm panicked: I got anal. I carefully measured out scant teaspoons of salt and sugar and deposited each one into its very own mise en place bowl. I isolated the egg yolk from the white, c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y ridding the pretty golden globe of every last bit of sticky albumen, then plopped it into its own little bowl. So far, so good.
Then I realized, again too late, that the milk (like the butter before it) needed to be at room temp. "Curses!" I yelled. No...wait...what's that I see? Hello, pretty little microwave, come to mommy.
Then I sifted the pastry flour -- and came up a half-cup short (GASP!). I made up the difference with regular flour.
And then bit all my nails off. Just what I need, one small detail to torture myself over if the pate brisée doesn't come out right. ("Was it the flour?" I'll wail tomorrow again and again.)
When all was finally ready, I stilled myself for a minute. "Focus, self, focus. You can do it." I turned an eye to the clock, and considered setting the timer, but then reconsidered. What would happen if it went off at minute 5 and I wasn't finished? It's not like I'd just shrug and turn the buttery glob into the trash, so why add the pressure?
And then I went to it.
Tomorrow: the proof is in the pate.
Buoyed by the recent success of a homemade pie crust, I decided to make a pear tart Bourdaloue yesterday. I had some pears that needed to be et or cooked, and I chose the latter. Yesterday afternoon I poached the pears in a mixture of fresh lemon juice, water and half a fresh vanilla bean. (Talk about something that smells good.) They had to marinate overnight, so today I made the almond cream. That teeny weeny step alone created all those dishes you see here. Once the rest of my butter softens (always read the entire recipe before you start, ahem) I'll make the pate brisée.
And then maybe I'll pull up the carpet and lay down some wood floors, polish all the silver and give myself a pedicure. Ha. Ha. Ha.
On Cnn.com today, I noticed an article about some new purple tomatoes in development by an Oregon State University professor. Apparently, they're creating a hybrid tomato that incorporates the cancer-causing phytochemical in blueberries. They were offering tastes of them at some local Oregon farmers' markets this summer...wonder if anyone nabbed a bite (didja? If so, speak up!).
I don't think this counts as genetically modified food since they're merely breeding hybrids they way they have been for years with tomatoes, roses, etc.
Makes me wonder if the purple tomatoes already in existence have those phytochemicals naturally...anybody know?