Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Finally, Some Real Asian Street Food In Napa

My number one complaint about living in Napa is that we don't have strong representation in the Asian street food department. I realize this is an absurd first-world living-in-paradise problem, but Asian street food is my desert island choice for cuisine (assuming I can crassly lump multiple highly distinct Asian culinary cultures into a single category). So many of the world's most delicious and satisfying foods come from the streets of Asia ... marinated grilled meats from Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam; fresh southeast Asian salads bursting with aromatic herbs and citrus; Chinese bao stuffed with meats; and of course Vietnamese noodle soups and banh mi sandwiches.
Succulent chicken thigh yakitori ($7) at RaeSet.
So to the surprise of no one who's ever met me, I've been anxiously tracking the opening of my neighbors' new restaurant RaeSet (pronounced ray-SETT) which offers all of these beloved items for $12 or less. Maury (front of house) and Barry (back of house) describe the restaurant's concept as "Asian Grill and Craft Brew," but that really doesn't do justice to their menu.

Besides a solid yakitori grill selection (chicken breast, chicken thigh, tsukune meatball, miso-marinated salmon, shrimp, pork shoulder, tofu, or house-made Sai Oua Thai sausage), RaeSet also cranks out tender tsukune sliders and burgers, vegan pho (as well as chicken and beef, of course), Thai sausage banh mi, and a revolving board of specials that put a new spin on authentic flavors from east and southeast Asia. On my most recent visit (last night), they delivered some absolutely incredible okonomiyaki-style potatoes topped with bonito flakes, nori, and all the classic okonomiyaki sauces, as well as a shockingly good fresh spring roll stuffed with shredded chicken, portobello mushrooms, herbs and ginger, served with turmeric-spiked sate sauce. I inhaled both before I remembered to take a picture, alas.

Spicy house-made Sai Oua Thai sausage yakitori ($9). All
skewers at RaeSet are served like lettuce cups, with fresh
herbs and nuoc cham dipping sauce.
Beef pho ($11), made with tender
braised brisket.

Miso-marinated salmon yakitori,
showing off its medium rare center.

I'm obsessed with their mixed green
salad ($6) and order it every time. Fresh
Thai basil, mint leaves, cilantro, and
greens tossed in a sesame
and Chinese mustard dressing. 

Full-size tsukune burger ($8) goes full monty: topped with cheese,
chicken liver mousse, and a 
fried egg (per the advice of the staff).
Don't resist. It's worth it. And only $4 to add all of that. 
The RaeSet kitchen makes nearly everything in house, from the sriracha to the steamed rice buns and the refreshingly unusual menu of desserts. These include a compulsively delicious halo halo with a rum caramel flan, and a fabulous almond-apple bostock with Saigon cinnamon and cider caramel for lovers of apple cakes, bread pudding, or buttery decadence generally.

Desserts (L to R): Thai mint ice cream sandwiches, bostock, and halo halo
Beverage-wise, RaeSet stocks some serious craft beers as well as sakes, with tasting flight options to help you maximize your experience. (They also have a small but mighty wine list, with some screaming deals by the bottle for those who love French wines. Think Grand Cru Champagne, Didier Dagueneau, and a couple of other Burgundy delights.)

RaeSet housemade sriracha art by yours truly.
Maury and Barry both come from fine dining backgrounds, but felt passionately about opening a super casual, inexpensive eatery that both locals and tourists could enjoy on a regular basis. Nothing on the food menu is over $15. Dishes are served on paper placemats and cardboard boats. They do takeout. They do online ordering. The kitchen serves until 11pm during the week, and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. This fall, they plan to roll out late-night dim sum and weekend brunch. Children are welcome to come and behave the way children normally behave. There are flat screens visible from nearly every seating area of the restaurant, tuned to whatever sporting event of interest is on.  At the same time, the restaurant decor is contemporary and attractive, and you don't have to see a screen if you don't want to. 

Clearly, RaeSet is aiming to fill the gaping holes in Napa's dining sceneand I really think these guys can do it. Things have been slow (due to the absence of a publicity campaign), but now that they've worked out their opening kinks, their rave Yelp reviews are multiplying fast, and more and more people are venturing into the Jefferson Street strip mall. 

Get in there and show them some love.

3150 B Jefferson St. (in the Grape Yard Shopping center, where Pizza Hut used to be)
Napa CA 94558 
(707) 666-2475

Monday, March 16, 2015

Irish Soda Bread for Lazy Dummies

I've always loved celebrating St. Patrick's Day. With a name like Deirdre, it's the closest thing I get to a namesake feast day in this country. 

Consequently, every year on March 17 I feast my eyes and ears on the cinematic glory of The Commitments, and feast my eyes and mouth on something involving homemade Irish soda bread, butter, cheese, and smoked salmon (no stinky, time-consuming corned beef and cabbage in this house). My personal faveother than devouring the bread in huge crusty hunks while it's still hot from the oven, of courseis a sandwich made with thin buttered slices, bacon, smoked salmon, cooked fresh salmon, and a handful of arugula. Washed down with a Guinness for strength.

Until a few years ago, I had to rely on others for the homemade bread piece of this tradition because I tinker too much with recipes to be a good baker ... and also because I'm generally too lazy to deal with flour-intensive recipes that snow all over my kitchen counters and floor.

Last year's effort, moments before the attack.
But then I hit on a recipe variation that is so easy and so forgiving, even I can make it consistently ... and so I do, every year.

Check the recipe out at WineCountry.com, here, and let me know how it goes. Sláinte!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Turning Water Into Water

Have you noticed a theme in the local wine news lately? California's stubborn drought has focused renewed attention on how much water it takes to produce some of our state's most prized and delicious pleasures.

Mike Dunne recently wrote an article in the Sacbee about the staggering amount of water the wine industry needs to make wine, and how pioneering growers and wineries are taking major steps to reduce their consumption.  Industry experts Dunne interviewed concluded that it typically takes 5.6 gallons to grow enough grapes for a single four-ounce pour of California wine (!), and that the winery will need another 2-6 gallons (most for cleaning) to actually vinify a gallon of wine.  Hardly a model of sustainability... so as the drought drags on, more and more people in the industry are getting serious about reducing those numbers.

Earlier this month, I was invited to the headquarters of Free Flow Wines for the first annual Keggy Awards
Photo credit: Bob McClenahan. Used with permission.
for wine on tap sustainability, and was able to check out how they've tackled the sustainability problem -- an issue that has always been near and dear to their founders' hearts.  Free Flow puts premium wine brands into wine-certified stainless steel kegs, and since its founding in 2009 has prevented the equivalent of 3.9 million bottles from entering our trash system. By eliminating  most traditional packaging (the bottle, the cork, the capsule, the label, and the wooden case), the company saves wineries money and decreases the financial cost and carbon footprint of shipping the same volume of wine.

Once installed and tapped at a restaurant or bar, the kegs also preserve the wine in perfect condition for weeks using a proprietary blend of inert gases -- reducing the restaurant's spoilage losses from oxidation, speeding up service, and lowering the garbage bill for hauling off the empty bottles.  Free Flow rounds up the empty kegs and sends them to headquarters for a thorough cleaning, before filling them up with another 26 bottles' worth of wine from one of Free Flow's premium wine clients -- which include Au Bon Climat, Breggo, Cliff Lede, Copain, Iron Horse Vineyards, J Vineyards, King Estate, Matthiasson, Qupé, Round Pond, Tablas Creek, and dozens of other brands, large and small.

Free Flow's south Napa production facility, home of The Hoff.
99.375% of the water used here is recaptured, cleaned, and reused.
Photo credit: Bob McClenahan. Used with permission.
The cleaning and sterilization part of this operation obviously requires a fair bit of water... about 4,000 gallons per day, even with water-efficient keg-cleaning equipment like the machine they call "The Hoff," pictured at right. (As CEO Jordan Kivelstadt explains, "It's pretty, it's German, and it's tempermental.")  But Free Flow designed a proprietary closed-loop water recycling program that enables them to recapture and reuse all but 20-25 gallons of that 4,000.  Using pH balancers, digesting bacteria, and ultrafiltration, they restore their wastewater to a pristine and sterile state that tastes better than the UV-filtered water in the office water cooler -- at least, according to the employees who took shots of the water to demonstrate their faith in the system.  The company says they save about $14,000 each month in water costs.

This is amazing! And exactly the kind of thing that needs to catch on. Less waste, lower transport costs, and lower consumption of resources at every level.  Hopefully we will see more and more of this ingenuity in the future, because a future without wine is no future at all.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Best Sushi Since Breakfast at Tsukiji

The Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is (or should be) on the bucket list of every foodie worth their o toro.  On my first pilgrimage there, armed with the breakfast recommendation of my former colleague Naoto, I ate the best sushi of my life. The pristine freshness, clarity, and simplicity of each piece of nigiri were a revelation for me, just as they have been for so many others.

Toro nigiri at Daiwa in Tsukiji Fish Market

I haven't tried to replicate the experience in the Bay Area, partly because I didn't want to ruin my blissful nostalgia for that major life adventure, but also because of my pessimism that anything here could measure up to that memory. And then I sprang for the tasting menu at Pabu.

Pabu is the brand new restaurant venture between restaurant titan Michael Mina and sushi chef Ken Tominaga (of Hana Sushi in Rohnert Park), located in the financial district of San Francisco at 101 California.  The menu covers izakaya-style food as well as shabu shabu, but the sushi captured my attention. 

Glitteringly fresh, and gracefully seasoned with a brushstroke of soy, citrus, wasabi or combination thereof (you DON'T dip this sushi yourself), the sixteen pieces of nigiri were the star of the night.  If only Pabu were open for breakfast.

No soy sauce dipping bowls here. Just pickled ginger to refresh your palate,
and (for us) a remarkable umami-driven Savagnin from the Jura.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

50 Shades of White (Asparagus)

I just got back from a wine pilgrimage to Champagne, Burgundy, and Alsace. After weeks of diligent research in local restaurants featuring regional cuisine, I learned that these three very different areas -- whose wines also differ dramatically -- nonetheless share a gut-bustingly rich eating tradition. Meat monopolized these restaurant menus, appearing in every dish in at least one form, but frequently two or three.  All green salads were systematically loaded with lardons (sauteed nuggets of pork belly similar to bacon), if not also cheese, various regional charcuterie items, and/or foie gras.
Burgundy is known for its Charolais beef and Epoisses cheese.
Regional specialists frequently combine the two to achieve maximal artery blockage.

This was called the salade Sparnacienne -- Epernay-style salad. Fried lardons, fried potatoes, a quarter-pound of goat cheese toasts broiled with honey, and a few pieces of lettuce and tomato (for color).

The only vegetable dishes to be found in most regional restaurants were the aforementioned salads, potatoes, sauerkraut (in Alsace), and the much-beloved white asparagus that was making its annual appearance while I was there.  Seemingly every restaurant I visited offered a form of this ultra-seasonal delicacy as its vegetable offering.

Some preparations were more successful than others.

The oddest version we tried on our first night in Alsace: a gigantic (white) platter of boiled white asparagus -- easily over two pounds' worth -- served with two white ramekins of (white) mayo and off-white, mayo-based mustard sauce, and two different types of sliced hams on a side plate.  This monochromatic mountain of blandness was far more asparagus than any human could eat in a single sitting (though I felt this way frequently in Alsace), and really didn't do any favors for the mild flavored vegetable. Not my favorite preparation. Also not very photogenic.

I loved the version we found at the excellent Brasserie Boulingrin in Reims (Champagne), though.  Here a comparatively stingy serving of asparagus had been cut into bite size pieces and baked inside a small coffee cup as part of an oeuf cocotte.  The asparagus lent its delicate flavor to the cream in which the egg had been baked, adding a lovely fresh counterpoint to the richness.

Eh, oui.

More kudos go to Au Pont du Courbeau in Strasbourg (Alsace), who served a handful of perfectly-cooked spears on top of a French lentil salad with a gorgeous soft boiled egg (oeuf mollet) to provide the sauce. Minced shallots, chives, and a splash of vinaigrette rounded out the seasoning.

Was this an asparagus dish? Or just a vehicle for that mesmerizing egg?

Takeaway lesson: unless you are German (and thus culturally bound to worship the white asparagus as a physical manifestation of the divine), feel free to skip white asparagus dishes that are only about the white asparagus.  In this writer's opinion, the veggie really shines when it's singing backup to more colorful lead vocalists.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Top 4 Springtime Inspirations (so far...)

Living in paradise never gets old, but spring might be my favorite season in Napa, when the verdant new veggie crop hits the market and locals hit the back patio with rosé in hand.
Spring also signals the time for my annual celebration of rapacious gluttony (other people call this a "birthday"), which tends to unearth a lot of exciting new dishes celebrating the sweet glories of the season. This year's gluttony was truly exceptional, but here are my top four dishes that brought a fun new idea to the springtime table.

1. "Sweet pea, farmstead butter, mint, bitter chocolate,"AQ (San Francisco).

This dessert blew me away, and not just because of the clever terrarium presentation. It was flat out delicious. The delicate green flavor of the peas took a starring role in this frozen gelato-like preparation, with fresh mint and pea tendrils providing backup. Combined with the fresh creamy nuttiness of farmstead butter, these garden gems paired spectacularly with crunchy bitter chocolate. Who knew?

2. Puntarelle foccacia, Oenotri (Napa)

Oenotri started serving weekend brunch this spring, and everyone must go try it immediately. I found this mountain-sized sandwich in the pizza section of the menu, and special ordered the extra egg that's pictured above. As you can see, the dish consists of an entire loaf of house-made foccacia -- split in half, toasted, slathered with crescenza-enriched sauce, and finally buried by what seemed like a full pound of tender braised puntarelle greens. Devouring the entire thing is the only way to ensure you get your recommended daily allowance of greens.

3. Smoked trout salad, the girl & the fig (Sonoma)

Sometimes you forget about certain ingredients, because your eating habits don't see them for extended periods of time.  This dish reminded me how much I dig smoked trout, and prompted a rash of smoked trout meals at home in the week that followed. Smoked trout is the Audrey Hepburn of smoked salmon -- delicate and lovely, but with a focused intensity that belies its waifish frame.  This salad showed it off beautifully with Pink Lady apples and shaved fennel (some of my favorite complements for trout) and a creamy anchovy dressing I'd never had in this context before, which helped spread the richness of the fish flavor across all the veggies, and unite the dish.

4. Sweet pea aperitif, Aziza (San Francisco)

I love surprising flavor combinations, the sweet-savory counterpoint, and paradigm shifts for traditional ingredients.  I especially love them when they are actually delicious.  This drink was listed under the aperitif section of Aziza's famed cocktail menu, combining sweet pea juice, calvados (my favorite brown liquor, a French brandy made from apples), and sour orange.  I don't normally enjoy mixing apples and oranges in any context, but here the combination was superb -- with the sweetness stripped away, they complemented both the sweet pea flavor and each other.  Truly a remarkable beverage and unique taste experience.  I can't wait to have another.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Book of (Asian Food) Revelations

I just got back from one of the most exciting, delicious, and flat-out FUN vacations of my life, bar none.

The recipe: join a crack team of adventurous eaters assembled by girl & the fig owner Sondra Bernstein on a luxury Silversea Cruise through Hong Kong, four major coastal cities of Vietnam, and Singapore.  Bring your most fearless, hollow-legged and good-natured foodie friend, her male clone (brother), and spectacularly shameless/fearless/hilarious sister-in-law.  Tack on an extra day before and after the cruise to enjoy those ports, and -- why not? -- an extra 24 hour layover in Tokyo so you can see the Tsukiji Fish Market before it moves to its new location in 2014.  With only 24 hours in each city, surrender to the whirlwind of tastes, smells, sounds, colors, cultures, and sights and just do what you can with the time you have -- camera and antibiotics at the ready.  No fear, no pouting you don't have more time, and no thoughts of how swiftly the end of the vacation is approaching.  Just embrace the adventure and go for it.

It's taken me weeks to ponder and review everything we devoured with our eyes and mouths, and choose what to post as my highlights.  The visuals of this trip blew me away -- from the majestic elegance of the cruise ship, the impossibly beautiful sea/sky/cloud/light of Hong Kong at sunset, Tokyo's futuristic urbanity, and the eerie perfection of Singapore streets, to the incredible snapshots you face at every turn all over Vietnam (the most photogenic country I have ever seen).  But this post is going to be about the food revelations of the trip... those thrilling new experiences that open your mind to a new way of tasting, eating, and cooking.  

So here we go, in no particular order because I hate ranking favorites -- choices which are, by definition, all favorites.

1. Bun Bo Hue, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon (Vietnam).

Bun bo Hue, before you add the extras. The herbs on top
include lots of Chinese coriander, which looks sort of like
dandelion greens but tastes far different. 

After mixing in the veg, chilies, etc., you really start to drool.
Despite my disclaimer above, this may be the dish of the trip. Unlike pure beef pho, the broth for this classic Vietnamese soup is made with beef, pork, and lemongrass, and you'll find both beef and a light-colored, smooth-textured pork mousse/sausage slice nestled in there with the noodles and herbs.  Add fresh lime juice, chili paste, fresh sliced chilies, and additional fresh herbs and veggies to taste as you eat it.  The vegetable add-ons may vary, but typically include shredded banana blossom, shredded raw morning glory, and bean sprouts.  

The rice noodles used for bun bo Hue are thicker than the vermicelli used in pho -- more like a classic spaghetti, so that they don't become mushy in the broth no matter how long it takes you to get through the bowl.  I did not need this extra insurance, but it's a good thing to know.  

We first encountered this dish on our life-altering, back-of-the-motorbike nighttime tour of Saigon's best local street food spots (YOU MUST DO THIS. Contact XO Tours).  Despite the parade of incredible edibles we stuffed ourselves with that night, I was starving for it the next morning, so we sought out a street-food specialist Saigon restaurant (Quan Ngon 138), located just across the street from the Reunification Palace. 

At Quan Ngon 138, you will find lots of pork and tasty
nuoc cham dipping sauce as well as the other condiments.
The second version I had (pictured to the left) included a piece of pork shoulder that still had the skin and fat layers intact -- a visual turnoff for most Americans, including myself, but an important lesson in why we must overcome such aversions.  That piece of pork was unspeakably delicious... fat, skin, and all.  It was also completely tender throughout, no rubber or mush in sight.  I cannot imagine the sad, colorless life I would have had if I hadn't broadened my mind with that piece of pork.

2.  Mystery Bao, Hong Kong (China).

I took this shot the day after, so the bun had
dried up a bit from its original succulence... but it shows
off the varied textures better than the fresh pics I had.
The morning we did dim sum, we really did dim sum.  Two girls, ten dishes, no holds barred.  Neither our prior breakfast of congee and pork buns, nor my partner-in-gluttony's even earlier breakfast at the hotel  held us back at Maxim's Palace City Hall (a fantastic recommendation from Hong Kong native Joe, who sat next to me on the plane ride there).  Among the many delicious items we devoured was this little steamed bun on the dessert cart.  Our favorite cart-driver (who seemed simultaneously impressed and amused with our voraciousness, and kept egging us on to greater glory) told us it was called something like "mai yung pau" -- but since she spoke next to no English, and we spoke zero Cantonese or Mandarin, it's hard to say for sure what this was.  It TASTED like a bun stuffed with sweet, crumbly peanut paste mixed with chunks of cooked unsweetened kabocha squash.  The balance of sweet and savory, gritty and smooth, toothsome and succulent won us over, big time.  Anyone know what the real name is? I'd love to find this little gem again.

3.  Tea-coffee (aka yin yeung, yuanyang, or yuangyang depending whom you ask), Hong Kong (China).

The breakfast we ate just before we hit Maxim's. This
photo is actually of pantyhose milk tea, but the
tea-coffee version looks almost identical -- just a touch
darker, as you would expect.
This staple breakfast drink mixes classic Hong Kong "pantyhose" milk tea (nai cha) with coffee.  The unlikely combination completely enchanted me with its depth of flavor, silky texture (from the milk tea), and just plain uniqueness... it isn't tea, it isn't coffee, it is a wholly different animal with its own set of charms.  According to a variety of sources I read, the name in Mandarin means "mandarin duck," and the drink symbolizes matrimonial harmony -- a nice image for a recipe that unites two such strong, often polarizing characters into something greater than the sum of its parts.

4. Lime Dipping Sauce, Ha Long Bay (Vietnam).

I am hard pressed to think of another dipping sauce as primal, delicious, and simple as this Vietnamese classic.  The first time I tried it at a beach restaurant on Ha Long Bay, I fell head over heels in love. I had vivid, sordid fantasies of the stuff for days afterwards.  I later confirmed (in the authoritative and stunningly beautiful Taste Vietnam: The Morning Glory Cookbook) that this miraculous ambrosia consists only of a soft sea salt, ground black pepper, and fresh lime (and, in this version, sliced fresh chilies as well).  You squeeze the lime's juice into the dry ingredients to make a slurry, then dip whatever you want into it.  I cannot stress enough how delicious this was. 

5.  Banh Mi Thit Xiu, Hoi An (Vietnam).

We found this spicy little beauty at The Market Cooking School & Restaurant, where we picked up countless tips and details about Vietnamese cooking (and scored our autographed copies of Taste Vietnam, which was authored by the owner).  Our market guide recommended this particular banh mi as the most popular among the Vietnamese workers who go there for lunch:  sliced pork pâté,  sliced roast pork belly, crunchy fresh and pickled veggies, aromatic Vietnamese herbs, and generous dollops of local Hoi An chili paste stuffed into a thin Vietnamese baguette spread with mayonnaise.  This is one of those sandwiches you know as you're eating it that you can never replicate at home.  Treasure the memory of its endless layers of flavor, for that is all you'll be taking home.  Alas.  Naturally, I'm still compelled to try to approximate this, so will keep you posted if the reverse engineering attempts are successful.

6. Chicken Yakitori, Tokyo (Japan).

What, chicken yakitori made the favorite list?! Yes, but this was no ordinary chicken, my friends.  This was THE most intense chicken flavor I've ever experienced, and it came just from skewered chicken thighs seasoned with salt and grilled -- I watched the family do this from about three feet away, and there were no tricks involved.  Incredible. Why can't we get chicken like this at home?? Even the most organic, free-range, well-educated chicken in California doesn't taste this good.  Thank you, Yakitori Tori-Cho, for this revelation.  (Good luck finding this place though, we stumbled upon it by chance after failing to find either of the two yakitori places recommended to us.  Mom and pop and son kinda place, and we were the only white people in sight. Fantastic.) 

7.  Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo (Japan).

Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo was a bucket list item for me.  They say there is no fresher, more authentic sushi in the world.  We hit Daiwa Sushi in Building 6 on the recommendation of Naoto, a former colleague of mine from my Kinokuniya Publications Service days.  Never in my life have I eaten such uni, ika, toro, anago, and tuna belly.  Incomparable freshness.  The toro was probably my favorite, so I'm showcasing it here.  Well worth the one-hour wait, and the long long flight to get there.  CHECK.

The bucket list is looking a lot shorter after this trip, so I think I should add a few more things. Foremost among them: securing a source for excellent Bun Bo Hue in Napa.