Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Inside the Heart & Soul of Père Jacques

Here's Jacques (left) with the Beach
Blanket Babylon star who closed the show
in true San Francisco style.
Chef Jacques Pépin is a hero to countless food lovers and chefs around the world, not because of the number of Michelin-starred restaurants he owns (zero), or the amount he swears and postures on TV (zero), or the shock factor of his cuisine (zero). He's our spiritual father because his love for food and cooking is so incomparably pure and generous, and because his samurai master kitchen technique inspires us all  professional chefs and amateurs alike  to improve our skills. At nearly 80 years old, this guy can still cook the pants off the Michelin chef of your choice... though his modesty would never allow him to admit it.

I attended the KQED event honoring Jacques last night, and am so glad I did. Almost two hours of non-stop surprises and candid moments enabled Jacques' charm and humor to shine throughout, from his smooth deflection of difficult questions (Interviewer: "Are the French better at romance or cooking?" JP: "Well, I dunno, I'm great at both"), to his gluttonous attack on freshly-made fines herbes omelettes by Douglas Keane and Roland Passot (which were nearly buried under mounds of caviar and black truffles, respectively), to his absolutely captivating vocal performance of "Les Feuilles Mortes" with the live band.

The event really revealed Jacques as he is: a self-professed glutton, loyal friend, shockingly talented painter and singer, erudite French literature PhD, dedicated family man, and irrepressible jokester. As he's done for the last 40 years in his classes and TV shows, Jacques shared his immense knowledge and humor freely with the audience, without pretension, expectation or hubris. We ate it up and begged for more.

Chefs suffused with love after their presentations.
L to R: Narsai David, Loretta Keller (with salad bowl),
Mitch Rosenthal, Steven Rosenthal,
Duskie Estes, and Jan Birnbaum.
An avalanche of heartfelt video tributes from food world luminaries like Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud, Lidia Bastianich, Eric Ripert, Danny Meyer, Anthony Bourdain, Drew Nieporent, Chuck Williams, and many others piled onto the live thank you presentations by some of the Bay Area's own top chefs. This phenomenal outpouring of love and appreciation swept us all into a state of grace and tearful smiles.

Last night's event celebrated the launch of Jacques' new cookbook Heart & Soul, his new KQED cooking series of the same name (supposedly, his final TV series), and his upcoming 80th birthday in December. Do yourself a favor and watch the show (Saturday mornings at 10:30am on channel 9 in the San Francisco Bay Area), pick up a copy of the book, or preferably both. They offer a glimpse straight into the huge, warm heart of one of the food world's most deservedly beloved people... our collective Père Jacques.

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, here, and let me know how it goes. Sláinte!