Tuesday, May 30, 2006

I Said: "What About Breakfast at Tiffany's?"

I love the classic Southern California / Northern California dichotomy. Los Angeles has drop-dead gorgeous Hollywood celebrities and is the epicenter for glitz, fashion, glamour, and anorexia. Meanwhile, San Francisco epitomizes political and sexual open-mindness, progressive thinking, and musty, unshaven armpits.

But, not all is day and night between these two sister cities. San Francisco has its own celebs, or what we think is a close enough equivalent: the Board of Supervisors and the city's Mayor,
Mayor Gavin Newsom. These people have attained celeb status here in the Bay Area--god knows why. Well, it is not hard to see why Gavin Newsom is a superstar + rock god. Men and women alike idolize his dreamy good looks.

A friend of mine (who is now a Angeleno, but originally was a SF native in its truest form) came up to visit with me this past weekend, and we gossiped and ranted about San Francisco city politics and about Mayor Newsom's love life.

We gossiped in the only place that you can gossip openly in the city: the beautiful
Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean and nestled at the western most end of Golden Gate Park.

Had we been dining just a few blocks away, we would have had to hush our voices to an undetectable murmur, to prevent from being overheard. However, clanking of the silverware against the generous plates, and the clamorous discussions at each table drowned out our conversation. With the hustle and bustle of the restaurant patrons enjoying their weekend brunch, our voices were sufficiently obscured.

"Did you hear that Gavin's ex-wife is now engaged?"

"I thought she was dating that anchor from CNN! Well, Gavin broke up with Sophia Milos, the girl from CSI: Miami!"

At Beach Chalet, the gossip is great, but the visual scenery is even better. The breakfast foods are worthy of a hungry diner, but diners come for the California ambiance and the stunning view of the beach on a clear day. Just like Mayor Gavin Newsom is the poster child for San Francisco, the Beach Chalet is the poster restaurant the "best" of San Francisco. As you sit and bask in the warm sunlight streaming in from the ceiling-high windows, it is hard not to be entranced by the expansive beach view of the aqua-blue Pacific Ocean and the frothy ocean waves foaming onto the sand and sweeping back into the sea.

The breakfasts are satisfying. My recommendations: order the eggs with runny yolk insides, so that you can put the crusty slices of sourdough bread (a San Francisco invention) to use, sponging up the sunny and creamy yolk gravy, so that the yolks soak into and soften the bread. Also, instead of choosing breakfast meats like sausage or bacon, ask for the fresh fruit dish. That way, you will be able to taste the freshness, flavorfulness, and richness of California grown produce. Say it with me now in an Arnold Schwarzenegger-accent, "Support Caleefornyuh!"

Downstairs, visitors to the Beach Chalet can peruse the area that earned Beach Chalet its designation as a "historical landmark." Classic California murals elegantly grace the plaster walls and exert a breathtaking influence on the historical building. The murals portray the typical American lives of The Great Gatsby-1920s-era citizens of San Francisco, and the chocolate and cream colors employed are very Diego Rivera-esque. The visually stunning artwork is not limited to the elaborate murals, but also include detailed wood carvings, and polished glass display cases full of historical ornaments and newspaper clippings.

After and before brunch, don't forget to enjoy the flower gardens in Golden Gate park, gardens that closely cradle Beach Chalet and its outdoor restaurant component, Park Chalet, where upscale wines and sizzling barbequed ribs are served with a gourmet California-flair. When my friend and I casually strolled through the surrounding park area, we were fortunate to chance upon the seasonal flowers, including gargantuan purple blossoms that perfumed the air with their sweet fragrance. Also, whether you are a visitor or a resident of San Francisco, don't forget to admire the rustic and weathered windmill that sits at the end of the park nearby. A walk in the adjacent Golden Gate Park will help to burn up the calories, and work up an appetite for your next meal.

The sheer beauty of the Beach Chalet should be enough to compel you to visit them. Undoubtedly, the Beach Chalet (and Mayor Newsom) typify all that is good in San Francisco--they are the real "San Francisco treats."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Pulling Pork Brings Me to a Better Place

One of my fondest memories as a child, was when my parents would pack me sack lunches to bring to school. Opening up the plastic, Disney-themed lunch box and pouring the juice from my mini-thermos into the twist-on lid cup was enthralling, because it made me feel like an adult. Although my mother and father always provided me with their homemade sandwiches (and never the envied Lunchables that the "cool kids" got), I always enjoyed my sandwiches. I loved copying those classmates and peers who would stuff their lofty sandwiches with side-snacks, like potato chips and cheese crackers. Their sandwiches would be awe-inspiring, because they would have "double the filling" and they were "Dagwood-style." (You know, those ten-feet high sandwiches that are slathered with overflowing spoonfuls mayonnaise and mustard, and layered with zigzag cut petals of dill pickles, perfect squares of American cheese, and deli-thin sliced cold cuts?)

Through the years, somehow sack lunches lost their appeal and childhood mystique. Now, I find the flat, tasteless white bread sandwiches bland and uninteresting. As a full-grown adult, I now delight in another "all-in-one" sandwich, a sandwich akin to those child-assembled lunch sandwiches: the sloppy yet delicious pulled pork sandwich. Luckily, I had occasion to further reminisce this week, when my beau and I made large quantities of pulled pork sandwiches for a weekly study group gathering.

As a kid, I found sloppy joe or chipped barbequed beef sandwiches abhorrent. The spiced tomato sauce would always end up on my best school clothes, and I'd inevitably get a stern lecturing from my parents. Although pulled pork sandwiches are a close cousin to the sloppy joe or chipped barbeque sandwich, there is something "refined" about them that reminds me that I am an adult, but that simultaneously brings forth images of my favorite childhood summers. Maybe the adult feeling stems from the fact that there is cabbage inside the sandwich. Unlike potato salad, coleslaw always has always been a non-kid friendly picnic side dish.

I think what makes me feel most like a kid again, is the preparation of pulled pork sandwiches. When I tear apart the barbequed pork meat into wispy tendrils with my two forks, I am taken back to the playground sandbox, because I feel like a beeping yellow construction bulldozer shoveling and moving piles of shredded meat across the surface of the pork roast.

Furthermore, I find assembling the colorful shreds of carrots and red cabbage similar to my responsibilities in my childhood art class. To me, the final image of coleslaw is a colorful picture worthy being posted on the refrigerator with the kitchen magnets.

And don't you dare forget the two essential sides for pulled pork: creamy mashed potatoes (which you can playfully sculpt into gravy volcanoes on your plate) and corn-on-the-cob (nature's ultimate finger[s] food).

Thank you for sharing a moment with me that helps me to relive a part of my childhood, but still permits me to relish in my adult tastes.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Singing Hot, Hot, Hot (Pot)

I realized today that my previous post on "easy entertaining ideas" might not be as "easy" as I let on, so, I just wanted to provide another entertaining idea with Chinese cuisine, that actually is more manageable. The idea is hot pot, where all the cooking is done by the guests at the party, and the serving dish is the pot itself! No washing of an additional serving bowl! Now that is what I call a great meal for a working entertainer!

Let me give you a quick hot-pot-how-to. So long as you have a portable electric or gas hot plate and a pot, you can have a hot pot party. The key ingredients that you should have your table stocked with, include napa cabbage; spinach; shrimp or fish balls; thinly-sliced red meat; daikon sliced into coins the thickness of poker chips; cubed tofu; and thin vermicelli mung bean noodles. All items should be cleaned, cut, unwrapped, and plated at the table.

First, begin boiling a large stockpot filled with chicken broth at the range. You can also add some daikon and fish or shrimp balls, as those items take longest to cook. When the guests arrive, pour some of the boiling stock into the "pretty" pot you will be using at the table. The whole concept behind hot pot, is allowing guests to cook what they'd like to eat, in what portions they want to eat them in. Additionally, they get to participate in the process. Think of hot pot as the "Asian man's fondue."

It is important to show the guests how to cook their items and prepare their individual bowls. Each guest is given a small rice bowl, in which they add the amounts of seasonings and sauces that they like. Usually, guests are to crack a raw egg into their bowl, and they are to add their choice of sauces, including a barbeque sauce made of dried fish, soy sauce, sesame oil, and chili sauce. They then cook the items they want (be it slices of meat or leaves of green vegetables) in the communal pot of boiling soup, retrieve the steaming items, and dip the cooked meats and vegetables into their egg mixture before shoving it into their mouths.

Watch out for the foamy froth that bubbles up on the top, and skim it off where possible. Also, a great utensil-tool that is almost imperative for hot pot nights, are mini-spider ladles, available in Chinatowns everywhere for as low as a buck.

Easy and entertaining!

But, moving on to the topic that I really wanted to discuss.

I had never been the object of criticism by a disgruntled reader (like Pam from Daily Gluttony or Kirk from Mmm-Yoso!!!), until today. It was entirely expected, as I've definitely written my share of controversial posts--or at least posts that I thought were controversial.

One of them was "De-fense!! De-fense!! De-fense!!," a quasi-obnoxious post, which was written in jest. After that posting, I actually waited with bated breath for a scathing response from some tempermental New Yorker... But, the moment quickly passed, and I continued blogging on mundane topics.

This afternoon, I received a comment from a poster named, "NYC Foodie." As I read this anonymous person's comment, I bust out in a hearty cackle, and couldn't stop grinning from ear-to-ear. Read it, and you'll share my amusement.

My feeling is that, so long as I've encouraged readers to engage in some sort of discussion, then I've done me' part mate! I've then helped to provoke discussion in this world, one forkful at a time! (Or some might see it as one fork jabbed in the crotch of your pants, again, at a time.)

I "do" appreciate the aspect of a blog that acts as a soapbox for me to unilaterally espouse my views, so I'll take this opportunity to respond to some of the points "NYC Foodie" brought to my attention.

First, as for Thomas Bouchon kicking himself in the @$$, hey, it's possible. (You know, when someone flings his or her foot backwards and kicks themselves in the butt with their heel?) If Mr. Bouchon wants to "kick his own @$$," who am I to judge? More power to him. But, just because he has two restaurants (one in Yountville and one in New York City) doesn't mean that one restaurant isn't better than the other. Some wealthy investors will invest in competing athletic teams for the love of the game. Thus, it is entirely possible to "kick [one's] own @$$."

Also too, I'm sure you've watched the Olympics. Perhaps you even watched television coverage of the Winter Olympics this year in Torino. Remember the feud between Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick? I'd say that there were some races between those two, where the U.S. was "kick[ing it's] own @$$," even though the U.S. ultimately won the gold medal.

As for your question, "There are more NYC restaurants on this list anyway, so how can the Bay Area be 'leading the pack'?" The answer is simple. Being fourth place, is arguably better than being eighth, sixteenth, eighteenth, thirty-second, and forty-fifth place. Again, refer to the Olympics analogy.

Furthermore, it's called the "Bay Area," and thus by definition encompasses an "area." For instance, Silicon Valley may also be an hour away, but it is still categorized as the "Bay Area." Many people consider Napa Valley to similarly be part of the "Bay Area." But, admittedly, there are also people who do not.

In closing, I concede that the "The World's 50 Best" ranking does show that New York is technically ranked higher than the Bay Area, as they do have more restaurants on the list...

But... my Suns and Lakers are still better than yo' Knicks!

Thanks for engaging in banter with me Anonymous-Commenter-Person!

Working Eater Series: Everyday Entertaining with Chinese Cuisine

A few afternoons ago, I was strolling through downtown San Francisco, when I noticed a foil-wrapped packet of ketchup that had blasted open and sprayed in an artistic "fan" across the sidewalk. It looked like it exploded from the pressure of someone's high heel. Looking at that lonely, mutilated packet of ketchup motivated me to take that packet of insta-seasoning, and elevate it to an artform.

I wanted to pay homage to the insta-meal, and
combine two discreet blog themes (quick meals and entertaining), and focus on the venn-diagram-like areas they intersect. Thus, this post is a working eater's guide to entertaining, with ideas for simple dishes (that in and of themselves would be a great working eater meal), but when combined, would be even better for a group-load of guests. My beau and I invited some guests over to his house, and went crazy creating dishes and ideas for this post.

Quick entertaining dishes (that take much less time than meat dishes but still provide the necessary protein nutrients) include tofu. Don't limit yourself to using the regular plastic containers of cold uncooked tofu, but think about trying tofu that has been fried, dried, fermented, pickled, or marinated in different spices and sauces. For our party, we stir-fried dried tofu with carrots, and soy sauce, and sprinkled the dish with roughly chopped cilantro.

Another easy shortcut for a working entertainer, is to serve shrimp unpeeled. Unpeeled shrimp not only provide a unique beauty to an Asian dish, but also impart a more intense seafood flavor to the dish. For our party, we cooked unpeeled shrimp with scallions, ginger, and a tomato-vinegar paste.

Cold noodle salads like cold Szechuan peanut noodle salad also are wonderful "prepare-ahead-of-time" dishes, and great for working entertainers, because the night of the party, you just take them the dish of the fridge without any additional prep whatsoever! We prepared a peanut sauce made with peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine vinegar, and mixed the sauce with Chinese wheat noodles, scallions, shredded carrots, matchstick-cut cucumbers, and cilantro. We incorporated the ingredients until the noodles were thoroughly coated with the sauce, and served the dish with a bean sprout garnish.

Remember that for all entertaining, one must make plentiful use of fresh ingredients and seasonal produce. The number one easy dish that has "great taste, [and not necessarily] less filling," is stir-fried leafy greens. Remember however, when you fry up vegetables (like coeng ching tsai with garlic), you must control the wilt, and prevent the leafy greens from becoming sloppy or soggy.

A great (and easy) crowd-pleaser is steamed fish with soy sauce, ginger, and scallions. If you purchase fish with scales, employ the entertaining shortcut of removing the fish skin right before serving. That way, you don't have to struggle with scraping off the scales and cleaning up the floor (that has been littered with chipped scales and sprayed with fish liquid). Also too, your guests won't have to deal with the slimy fish skin.

For fast cooking, the most important entertaining tip I know is portion control. Always cut ingredients into bite-sized pieces and make it healthy: regulate the amount of oil and cornstarch that you use. We made three dishes that had bite-sized and easy-to-serve components.

We made drunken chicken, or chicken breasts that were marinated in rice wine and ginger;

Pan-fried chicken thighs marinated in soy sauce and honey, and that were cut into "chicken tender-sized" finger food pieces;

And the universally recognized Chinese dish of meat (here, chicken) and broccoli, again cut into small, bite-sized pieces.

Cutting up the meat and vegetables makes the food cook significantly faster, and helps the flavorings to penetrate more surface areas than if one cooks one large piece of steak for each person. It does take more prep-time of chopping up ingredients, but it also extends the food across more guests.

Another great entertaining idea that I use for all Chinese-inspired parties, is to incorporate dim sum (or other dumplings or snacks) into the meal. Usually, since these types of snacks are so time-consuming, it is best to just buy frozen dumplings or premade dim sum. One great suggestion, that will make your guests believe that you labored all day, is steamed daikon cakes, or lwoh bwoh gao. You can buy the refrigerated, premade version (below is the homemade version), and right before your guests come, pan fry the cakes with some peanut oil, and serve the soft cakes with a hot and crispy exterior.

I hope that I gave you some family-style entertaining ideas that are heart-warming (if this is the food of your family) or daring (if this is not the food of your family)! This was an idea-inspiring post to use Chinese dishes for a simple entertaining dinner. All these dishes were made "free-stylin'," without the use of recipes, but in the best way to make food--based on family memories and measured by continued tastings throughout the cooking process.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Sex (and Pizza) In the City

San Francisco loves sex. Raunchy S & M stores (that sell tight leather pants, kinky fish net stockings, and human dog collars with the "obligatory" metal spikes) abound and an unassuming pedestrian walking down Market Street will inevitably encounter a barrage of "untrustworthy" massage parlors and flashing neon lights that advertise nightly burlesque shows at each street corner.

But not all the sex in San Francisco is raunchy. The city acceptingly embraces sexuality, and is open about doing so. Just visit San Francisco during the Folsom Street Fair or Gay Pride Parade, and you'll know what I mean when you see naked people (or people wearing see-through spandex + rubber getups) casually walking around, and bystanders who won't even do "the quick glance" to stare at the parts that are out in the open. To them, it's just another ordinary day in San Francisco.

San Francisco is a place to feel comfortable about yourself and your sexuality. Thus, a place named Pizza Orgasmica fits right in.

Despite its name, Pizza Orgasmica doesn't cater to perverts or pedophiles, but instead counts the upper-crust, uptown, Versace-wearing Marina district-ites as its staple patrons. (The Marina is San Francisco's closest equivalent to Southern California's Beverly Hills.)

Given a name like "Pizza Orgasmica," how could cool 20 to 30-something people not eat there? Essentially, it is one of those "cool-by-association" places. Not only does Pizza Orgasmica score points by thinking up an innovative name for itself, but it also gets extra credit for the names of its menu offerings. They suggestively name their plain pizzas after sexual positions, terms, and innuendos. My personal favorite? The three-cheese pizza cleverly named "ménage à trois."

Other than the hand-painted images of Adam and Eve sporting fig leaves and seductively snacking on pizza, there is nothing striking or erotic about the interior design of Pizza Orgasmica. It is a "classic" pizza place, with dim lighting and shiny wooden tables adorned with rotund glass shakers of dried oregano, red pepper flakes, and the powdery canister-type parmesan cheese.

I ordered their signature pizza, which is essentialy the supreme, topped with sliced red onions, bell peppers, pepperoni, salami, sausage, mushrooms, and mozzerella cheese. Upon one bite, by beau started moaning in ecstacy about how delicious it was.

The crackly exterior and doughy and chewy interior of the crust reminded me of gourmet-style, Wolfgang-Puckian-CPK faire, but after consulting with my resident East Coast expert / beau, he informed me that the crust was authentic New York-style.

Unlike chain restaurant or fast food pizzas, the pizza wasn't greasy or overly oily, but lightly glistened from the bubbling and elastic mozzarella cheese. Each bite was coupled with a satisfying crunch from breaking into the crispy crust, and a warming flood of flavors from the marinara sauce that had been enhanced by pungent Italian spices. Salty circles of pepperoni, sausage, and salami were generously layered on the landscape of the pizza. Best of all, the mozzarella cheese stretched off into wispy strings and softly melted away on my tongue.

Although I'd like to say everything about Pizza Orgasmica was absolute pleasure, I think my dining experience was marred by the "parking ordeal."

Parking in Marina District really is a nightmare. If you don't own a Mini Cooper, you won't be able to park in Marina. I know that there is no such thing as "easy parking" in San Francisco. All parallel street parking is marked as a permanent red zone or is someone's driveway, but you don't know it until you physically shimmy your car into what you "thought" was a space. Plus, San Francisco is notorious for its narrow lanes that barely provide enough shoulder to squeeze by without sideswiping the mirrors of other parked cars. Despite this, I am still bothered that we spent over 45 minutes looking for parking in the entire Marina! (On top of that, I forgot my digital camera, so I had to use the crappy cell phone camera to snap these pictures.)

Was the experience orgasmic? The pizza was definitely worthy of repeat visits, but honey, it wasn't Viagra.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Although Borscht Rhymes With Boar $#!+, It Tastes Pretty Good

This weekend, my beau and I were invited to lunch with his supervisor, who is of Indian descent. His supervisor and his supervisor's wife made us a traditional Indian meal, with a few amusing and enjoyable "non-traditional" elements.

My favorite part of the meal were the savory and moist cakes made with rice flour and stone-ground lentils. The cakes were steamed until soft and puffy in a rice-cooker fitted with an elaborate steaming rack. The cakes were filled with thousands of tiny air pockets, almost
reminiscent of that of a carbonated beverage. The fluffy and airy consistency of the savory cakes was a cross between the chocolate cake within a Hostess Snowball (the ones coated in a neon pink coconut "snow") and spongy steamed dim sum char siu buns (that are filled with red barbequed pork).

We also sampled homemade paneer cheese, which had been cooked in a thickened curry-like gravy. As we dined, our hosts provided us with a step-by-step explanation on how to make authentic paneer. First, one must begin with two gallons of whole milk and a plastic container of plain yogurt. Then, the dairy combination is boiled until the curds and liquid whey separate. The curds are then strained in triple layers of cheesecloth, and the bundle of curds are balled up and hung from the metal faucet in a sink until the cheese solidifies into the deliciousness known as paneer.

Our main course was an Americanized cheesy vegetable casserole that had been baked until golden brown, yet molten hot and bubbly. Additionally, we enjoyed stewed and curried carrots and peas cooked in an ornately-decorated Indian pot, and deep-fried nests of shredded zucchini flavored with pungent spices that provided an almost Southwestern-like flair.

After our spicy lunch, we rushed over to church to help out with cooking. This week, we were to help out with making borscht. By the time we arrived, the other volunteers had already completed the "chopping" stage. Our duties? To stir the bubbling purplish-red soup contents in the behemoth vat. The soup contents included hot strands of stringy and limp red cabbage, tender cubes of beets, and softened red bell peppers that had been sautéed in olive oil. The liquid in the borscht was stock made from ham bones, whole cloves of garlic, cubed yellow onions, and black peppercorns. As we stirred the soup, it was hard not to cackle and pretend that we were witches, vigilantly adding vials of powdered ingredients into a blackened cauldron.

After the vegetables in the borscht had cooked through sufficiently, we took the soup off the heat and readied ourselves to blend the contents into a thickened purée. We couldn't find a long-handled metal ladle, so we used bowls with stumpy glass handles (handles that were not nearly long enough to keep the hot, sloppy, and sloshing soup contents at bay from inflicting our skin with stinging burn wounds) to scoop the soup into the narrow opening of the glass blender.

The molten melange burst through the volcanic hole at the top of the blender, and the steam from the boiling fluid prevented the rubber lips of the blender lid from forming a tight seal with the glass circumference of the glass pitcher component of the blender. The blender acted like a steaming geyser spewing forth hot magma. Our hands and faces were reddened with anger and chapped from being repeatedly scalded by the hot soup.

Although the process was miserable, the outcome of the soup was rather tasty. After the soup was puréed, it darkened into a deep, thick, and creamy magenta. The soup had powerful overtones of spicy peppercorns, and released the sweetness of the red cabbage and red bell peppers throughout the purée. After sampling the borscht, my tastebuds helped to make my raw and blistered hands feel much better.

It was a hot and spicy Sunday, that's for sure. But it was still a success, in terms of delighting in deliciously fiery foods, and also learning to make a boiling hot borscht (for the first time).
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