Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Patrick Bui is my hero

My banh mi blowout last week chez @Ish and @kristysf triggered a serious flare-up of my Vietnamese food obsession.  Thank god Patrick Bui opened a restaurant in Napa last year, so I can actually get a hit of authentic Vietnamese flavor without having to drive to the East Bay.  I've been there several times in the last couple of days to get my fix, most recently today for an early lunch with my honey.

As always at Bui Bistro, the food was spot-on, swoon-worthy, and so impossible to stop eating that I devoured every bite of our 11:30 lunch despite having had breakfast only 2 hours earlier.  Today's crack arrived in the form of banana blossom salad with chicken, and the grilled pork vermicelli bowl. 

I have fond memories of grilled pork vermicelli bowls from my summer of bar exam classes, when my best gay buddy and I used to walk into the Tenderloin in SF for cheap, awesome, feel-good Vietnamese lunches every day.  This Bui Bistro version was even better than those, though---it had fresher more flavorful veggies, and pork that didn't require a major suspension of disbelief to have it taste like pig meat.  The sweet, fish sauce-y marinade had caramelized into an enticing mahogany crust, and little crispy bits of black char at the edges of each piece confirmed (once again) that pork carcinogens are the finest tasting in all the world.

Even the delectable banana blossom salad with finely shredded cabbage, bosc pear, thai basil, and delicate paper-thin slices of chicken breast paled in comparison with the pork noodle bowl.  We ate all the salad too, of course, but the vermicelli went first. 

If anyone hasn't been to this place yet, go there NOW.  The menu has an impressive range of different flavors and presentations, ranging from classic pho, rice plates, and noodle bowls at lunch, to 5-spice duck confit (A MUST ORDER), Saigon sweet and sour wings, shaking beef, caramelized claypot fish, and eggplant chicken at night.  The ultra-fresh, delicious salads are fortunately served for both lunch and dinner.  On my next visit I want to try the Vietnamese cabbage salad with calamari, which our waiter accidentally delivered to us today instead of the banana blossom salad.  And perhaps the claypot fish, one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes of all time.

Food aside, though, I love this place because it is the ONLY restaurant in Napa where you can get French, German, Italian, and Austrian white wines by the glass (all $10 or less), one of which is an excellent gruner veltliner---my favorite varietal to pair with Vietnamese food.  The bottle prices are reasonable, and the selection is refreshingly different from every other place in town. 

Bui Bistro knows what it's doing, and I know that I'm hooked.  Can't wait for my next hit.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Nom Nom for everyone

I've been watching a new show on the Food Network lately called "The Great Food Truck Race."  Each week, the food truck competitors travel to a different U.S. city, with an empty pantry and three (generally emotionally unstable) people to man the truck, and try to sell as much food as possible in two days using the uniform budget given them by the show.  The team with the lowest profit is eliminated.  So far, Nom Nom the banh mi truck from L.A. has been annihilating the competition.  Last Sunday in Santa Fe they had almost double the profit of the next-best team, and didn't even bother to create a new menu item in order to compete with the others for immunity--they really didn't have to.  This, in a city with an Asian population of only 1.3% (according to the 2000 Census).

Anyone who's ever had a good banh mi finds these results completely unsurprising.  Banh mi are, quite simply, phenomenal.  For the uninitiated, a banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich consisting of: a 6-8 inch piece of fresh baguette (true Vietnamese versions use shorter baguettes made with rice flour for added fluffiness), split lengthwise and spread with paté or mayo, then topped with a modest portion of warm sliced meat, sliced jalapenos, and--the pièce de résistance, a color, flavor & textural wonderland of tangy julienned veggies (usually carrot and daikon, sometimes cucumbers) and fresh cilantro. 

My favorite type is the 5-spice chicken banh mi, and I seize every opportunity/excuse to make it when I'm cooking for more than a few people.  It's easy because you can do 99% of the prep ahead of time, and just grill and slice the meat when it's time to eat.  Also because the leftovers (if any) can all be thrown together into one container for consumption in salad form the next day.

Watching Nom Nom kick some food truck ass inspired me to make my banh mi for some Napa friends at a dinner this week.  Eating the banh mi at said dinner inspired me to post the recipe here so that others may delight in it as well. 

I like to serve this with a Vietnamese cabbage salad and NZ sauvignon blanc, but do what you want.  New world pinot noir also works well, particularly if it has a sweet spice character to it.  I also once had an awesome dinner party where every guest brought a different bottle of bubbly to pair with the sandwich, and there wasn't a bad match to be found.  This is truly one of my all-time favorite staple recipes for barbecue season, and I haven't yet found someone who doesn't love it.

5-Spice Chicken Banh Mi
(serves 4-6, depending on gluttony levels)

The Bread
2 French baguettes with light, fluffy texture
1/2 cup mayonnaise (or more if you want)
1 T 5-spice powder

Combine mayo and 5-spice powder, and refrigerate until ready to use.  If you want to thin the mayo out and make it a bit less rich, add the juice from 1/2 lime and stir it in before serving. 
Cut baguettes into even lengths--I like to cut each one into 6 pieces if possible so you can eat a greater number of sandwiches and feel more decadent.  Split each piece lengthwise and toast.

The Meat
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 T fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1.5 T sugar
6 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 T five spice powder
8 boneless skinless chicken thighs (or 4 thighs and 2 breasts)

Combine the first five ingredients in a small mixing bowl and whisk to combine.  Put the chicken in a solid ziploc bag and pour the marinade over, making sure it coats all the pieces thoroughly.  Refrigerate 2-10 hours, whatever is convenient.  Leaving it in longer makes the soy sauce flavor more pronounced, which may be too much if you're using all thighs--their greater relative surface area makes them more sensitive to marinade flavors than thicker pieces like breasts.
When you're ready to serve, take the chicken out of the marinade and barbecue over medium high heat.  Let it rest a few minutes after cooking, then slice them into thin, 1/8 inch slices and serve warm.

The Veggies
1.5 cups julienned carrots (I buy the pre-julienned bag from Trader Joe's)
1/2 peeled seeded cucumber, julienned
some julienned daikon radish if you want--I usually skip it
2 T sugar
3T rice wine vinegar

Combine all ingredients, mix well, and refrigerate until ready to serve.  Drain off liquid before serving.

The Finishing Touches
1-3 (depending on your heat tolerance) fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced thinly
1 bunch of fresh cilantro sprigs (about 5 sprigs per sandwich is a good estimate)

Construction and Demolition

Letting everyone build their own sandwich avoids problems of including too much/too little mayo or jalapeno, or having a cilantro hater reject dinner altogether (offer mint as an alternative to these people).  Spread the 5-spice mayo generously on the toasted baguette, top and bottom. Layer the sliced meat on the bottom half, then add sliced jalapenos to taste, then a layer of the veggies, and finish with cilantro sprigs.

To preserve the roof of your mouth from brutal laceration (and to better appreciate the texture and punchiness of the sandwich fixins), hold the baguette with the smooth bottom side facing up as you eat it. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thrill of the day... so far

I just met the planning committee for "Sex On A Plate," a full-frontal, pan-sensory food and wine experience to be held in Napa next April.  The culinary masterminds behind Gilded Fork have combined forces with Napa social maven Linda Cordair and Linda's army of local friends and associates to produce a three-day celebration of the sexier side of cuisine. 


Tap into the mounting excitement (heh heh) via Twitter by following @foodphilosophy @ChefMark and @CordairGallery

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gott Tomatoes?

Last night my friend Ashley invited me and a group of other local bloggers to tour the vegetable gardens of Gott's Roadside in St. Helena. 

This garden is a new project for the Gott's team, having only been planted earlier this year, but it's already generating a lot of excitement as the first summer harvest rolls into the restaurants.  Every week, Landy the baby-faced garden meister sends out pounds and pounds of whatever is falling off the vine into the capable hands of Rick the Executive Chef, who transforms them into "tray gourmet" specials for the three Gott's locations.  So far this summer, we've seen zucchini fries, Szechuan green beans, fried green tomatoes, home fries with basil pesto, and homemade pickles from the garden cucumbers, all plucked from the organically farmed garden behind the St. Helena Gott's location. 

Bloody Butchers.
The focus of last night's garden feast, though, was tomatoes... the long-awaited, late-summer love apples that ruin you for tomatoes the rest of the year.  Landy introduced us to the 350 tomato plants that had provided the evening's entertainment, and let us taste the punchy, marble-sized "Bloody Butchers" that were just ripening, as well as a few other random sun-warmed veggie crudités calling out to us as we strolled the garden rows.

Landy harvesting snacks for us.

Back at the picnic area, Chef Rick had devised a parade of dishes celebrating the timeless, universal romance of tomatoes and bread.  Here's the lineup: Pa Amb Tomaquet, the primally delicious tomato-rubbed toast from the Catalan region of Spain; Tomato "Gottzpacho" inspired by the Andalusian classic; Tomato Cucumber Panzanella Salad from Italy; a Tomato, Zucchini and Chèvre Tart riffing on the savory staples of Provence; Scalloped Tomatoes, an updated version of the classic Southern Sunday dinner gratin; and the Kitchen Sink Tomato Sandwich, so named for its ideal eating location.

Every dish was a delight to eat.  Choosing a favorite among these was no easy feat, but I have to say my heart belongs to the Pa Amb Tomaquet.  Second only to the sliced tomato-Duke's mayonnaise-Wonder Bread Tomato Sandwich in simplicity, this soggy toast gets my vote for best taste of summer. 

For his version, Chef Rick gilled sliced levain bread from Model Bakery on his barbecue til it was toasty and slightly charred, then ran a cut garlic clove across one side of each slice.

Chef Rick grilling levain.

Next, you "grate" each cut tomato half (Rick used beefsteak, but any ripe juicy variety would work) against the garlicked side of the bread to shred and juice the flesh.

Once the tomatoes are worn down to their skins and the erstwhile toast is soaked with juice, you season the sodden mass with sea salt flakes, fresh ground pepper, and a drizzle of excellent olive oil.  Messy, juicy, and totally awesome.

This dish is only as good as the quality of its ingredients, though. Toothsome, tangy, charred artisanal bread... the warm allium bite of garlic...the seasoning and crunch of high quality salt and pepper... the round buttery mmmm of good olive oil... the sweet, sun-warmed juice from the tomatoes... and the fresh aromatics of any torn herbs you may feel inspired to toss on there, combining seamlessly into one of summer's finest snacks.  Napkins optional. 

It's a major craving-inducer when done well... so damn you, Rick!  And thanks.

Thanks also to Ashley Teplin for the great photos!

My fellow tomatavore attendees also posted on the glories of last night's feast.  Check 'em all out, because these chicks rock:

Literary Legacies
Napa Farmhouse 1885
Inspire Your Lifestyle
The Nest
Healthy Napa
I Heart Napa

A Blog of One's Own

What to say on the inaugural post?  Should I attempt to explain/justify this blog's existence, and its further cluttering of the online world? Should I try to explain what kind of vision I have for this collection of random musings and subjective commentary? Should I explain how this blog differs from my writing on the Food, Wine and Travel blogs of Winecountry.com?

Probably.  But I'm not going to go there.

Why this blog of my own? 

Why not?