Delfina (San Francisco, CA)

Delfina
3621 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 11/26/11

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It’s hard to believe that Delfina has been open for 13 years. It’s as popular as ever, still being a very busy restaurant and oft-difficult dining reservation. Its popularity as a quintessential neighborhood Italian restaurant has helped Craig and Anne Stoll open up two other concepts, equally as popular: Pizzeria Delfina and Locanda.

I first dined here a long time ago and don’t remember much. I remember it being crowded. I also remember having the spaghetti and thinking it was too al dente. That’s about it (hey, I was pretty young). I’ve been wanting to return, particularly for some hearty pastas and just to check out the local scene. At the last minute, I was scurrying for a reservation on the day after Thanksgiving and a Delfina spot popped up. Bingo!

delfina interior

Grilled Monterey Bay Calamari warm white bean salad

squid

We started with this appetizer. The squid was tender and really benefited from some lemon zest and a nice smoky char from the grill. The warm bean salad was a nice touch too, adding some creaminess and body to the dish.

Spaghetti plum tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and peperoncini

spaghetti

A good spaghetti, the noodles had a delectable chew while the sauce had a bold tomato flavor, slightly on the acidic side. It’s no Scarpetta spaghetti, but it was an excellent pasta.

Pappardelle pork sugo

pappardelle

Seeing this on the menu, it was a must-order. The pork helped to create a rich sauce that really went well with the pappardelle. I wanted just a little more sauce and some bigger pieces of meat though. The pasta was perfectly cooked, while a little bit of cheese added some extra richness. Tasty.

Paccheri all’ Amalfitana rock cod

rock cod pasta

The pasta was chewy and the sauce creamy, but thought the fish was kind of fishy. Also, I thought the fish and sauce could’ve been better incorporated; they just didn’t seem to come together as well as I expected.

Liberty Duck in Guazetto polenta Valsugana, cipollini

duck polenta

I thought this was a pretty hearty entrée with two duck legs smothered in a rich braising liquid. The meat was tender, though not particularly moist or dry. Really nice depth of flavors. The polenta was fairly dry on the outside making me wonder if it sat under a heat lamp for a little while; however, some of the polenta underneath its shell was light, creamy and delicious.

Black Pepper Buttermilk Panna Cotta barolo and huckleberries

panna cotta

Soft and delicate, the panna cotta had a great smooth consistency and was a nice ending to the meal. Personally though, I don’t like a lot of tart flavors and the buttermilk definitely came through. As it should. The huckleberries were a nice touch too.

The meal at Delfina was a pretty good one. The food had a warm and comforting feel to it and I could see why it’s still such a draw. The prices were quite reasonable, with the food coming out to under $50 per person. Overall it was pretty delicious and I’d love to try more, particularly the small plates and pastas.

Ludo’s Paella @ Domaine LA (Los Angeles, CA)

Paella by Ludovic Lefebvre
Domaine LA
6801 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Dining date: 12/11/11

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I’ve been to DomaineLA a few times, a wine shop located in Mid-City/Hollywood. It’s a smallish shop but there’s enough variety to indecisively look at bottles for hours. I’ve found the wines to be both interesting and rather reasonably priced.  Ask for help; Jill can always point you in the right direction.

The wine store often offers tastings and pairings with select foods (oysters is a recurring one) and food trucks. I’ve been to one long ago, when the LudoTruck’s fried chicken was paired with a variety of sparkling wines. I’m not sure why it took me so long to return to one of the tastings, but interestingly it was again for Ludo’s food. This time, it was for something rather unexpected: Spanish paella. I love paella. For me, there’s just something about dishes where the rice cooks with the meat, sopping up all the good flavors. Arroz con pollo, jambalaya, biryani, paella. All favorites.

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At $40 a ticket, the setup was thus: 5 Spanish wines were available for tasting while Ludo cooked up paella on the spot all evening (two varieties: a saffron-based Valencian paella as well as a squid ink paella negra). He brought with him a couple paella pans, a heat source, a bunch of seafood and meats (mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, dark meat chicken, chorizo) and a box of spices. Peering into the box, I noticed a little bit of his French influence: piment d’Espelette.

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While Ludo was cooking, we tasted a couple of wines.

2010 Urki Txakolina

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2007 Pecina Blanco

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I particularly enjoyed the Urki Txakolina. Dry and crisp with some citrus notes, this definitely whet the appetite.

The event gave an up-close and personal view of the cooking. Ludo started by browning the meats and adding the seafood.

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Then added the rice.

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Then clam juice and chicken stock.

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Lastly, saffron gave it the characteristic vibrant yellow color.

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Once the broth was absorbed, the rice was left to crisp up a bit on the bottom. Voila! It was ready to serve.

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I thought this was a very good paella. Slightly on the oily side (though I’m sure that gave it a lot of flavor), the rice was al dente with a little bit of a textural crust where it was in contact with the pan. Both the meats and seafood were cooked quite well, something that I know is hard to do consistently.

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On his second pan, Ludo made another variation including chicken and shrimp. I was perplexed how the seafood was perfectly cooked even though he added it before the rice and broth. I guess that’s why he’s a chef and I’m not.

NV Mendall Poc a Poc

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2010 Tajinaste Traditional

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2009 Clos de Noi Samso

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We tasted the rest of the wines. My favorite of these was probably the last one, with its rather bold, fruity flavors coming through. It paired especially well with the chicken thighs in the paella.

Ludo alternated the saffron-based paella with this squid ink one featuring calamari and a lemon zest.

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Just like the first paella, I thought it was executed quite well. The squid ink was clearly the dominating flavor, while a last-minute touch of lemon zest really brightened everything up. Again, he was able to achieve a little bit of a crust on the rice.

While the butterscotch budino down the block at Mozza would’ve been a delicious end to the meal, there was another alternative available right inside the wine shop.

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Carmela’s salted caramel ice cream! Seriously, almost as exciting as the paella itself. Almost. DomaineLA carries a selection of the Pasadena ice creamery’s flavors.

I thought this was a very cool event. It was my first opportunity to actually watch Ludo cook and prepare something from start to finish (there was no yelling/expressing himself to be heard all evening). As much as I enjoyed eating the food, I was equally enthralled by the preparation of it.

During the LudoBites popups, Ludo is often trying to create unique flavor combinations, offering something diners have never tasted before. However, it was nice to see him preparing some homey, comfortable food here with this Spanish classic. I really like paella and his version definitely met my expectations, especially considering it was a temporary setup. I feel like there aren’t really many restaurants in LA that do a good paella so this was a treat. Oh, and I got to taste some great wines to boot.

Like all good chefs, Ludo tastes his cooking throughout the process. I can prove it.

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Koi Palace (Daly City, CA)

Koi Palace
365 Gellert Blvd
Daly City, CA 94015
Dining date: 11/28/11

When I try to think of my favorite place for dim sum, a number of places come up. I really enjoy Sea Harbour, Elite and Lunasia in SoCal, but I think of only one in the Bay Area: Koi Palace. I’m not saying it’s the best in the Bay Area (I really haven’t tried nearly enough to make that sort of statement), but it’s a really good one. Heck, Jonathan Gold even recently said it might be the best HK-style restaurant in America.

My dad was craving Koi Palace so we dropped by on a Monday morning (there’s always lines on the weekend so a Monday was actually a very good time to go).  This would be my last meal in the Bay Area over the Thanksgiving weekend; given it’s on the way to SFO, it was an ideal stop.

koi palace

I’ve been to Koi Palace a number of times, located in Daly City just south of San Francisco. Most of the dim sum places in SF are cart-based; I prefer ordering from the menu. I think the food comes out fresher and allows for better planning…but you do lose out on the spontaneity of the carts. Koi Palace has a combination of both, a menu to order from while servers come around hawking other items. Perfect!

The restaurant’s stance on shark’s fin is quite clear. At the front entrance is an advertisement offering the fins for sale – $550/lb.

sharks fin

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Love this teapot setup! I’m not sure why I haven’t seen this elsewhere, but it’s such a practical idea to have a candle underneath keeping the tea warm.

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Steamed Shrimp Dumpling

shrimp dumpling

These dumplings, or ha gow, are one of my standard-bearers at any dim sum restaurant. It’s so simple and easily comparable across restaurants. Kind of like a margherita pizza at a pizza place. The skin was translucent and slightly glutinous while the shrimp plump and moist. Passed the test!

Shrimp, Pork and Mushroom Dumpling

siu mai

These siu mai were good as well, served piping hot. Flavorful chunks of pork and shrimp made up the bulk of flavor.

Shrimp Rice Roll

shrimp rice noodle

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The noodle here was good, not great. It wasn’t quite as…sticky and glutinous as I was looking for, but the shrimp was spot on.

Deep Fried Crab Claw with Shrimp Paste

crab claw

These were fried to a nice crisp and I liked the moist shrimp filling. The small crab claw on the inside was slightly overcooked, but I find that’s true almost everywhere.

Shanghai Style Juicy Dumpling

shanghai dumplings

These were embarrassingly bad. The wrapper was mediocre – soggy and mushy, and the juice was leaking from many of them. The meaty interior wasn’t particularly memorable, either. Not sure what happened here.

Dried Scallop and Meat Sticky Rice, Lotus Leaf Wrap

lotus leaf rice

lotus leaf rice

A good lotus leaf rice dish, albeit nothing special.

Glutinous Dumpling with Pork

gluttinous pork dumpling

This is one of my dad’s favorite items. I liked the fried, sticky wrapping in tandem with the salty pork.

Tofu in Sweet Ginger Soup

tofu soup

Soft, silky tofu in a warm lightly sweetened gingery soup. Not bad.

Hand Roasted Suckling Pig

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suckling pig

This was outstanding. I’m not sure how they prepared this, but I think they removed the skin beforehand, skimmed off much of the fat, and crisped it up separately…then put it back together. What resulted was relatively lean pieces of really flavorful and moist pork with extremely crispy pieces of pork skin. Wow. Packed with a porky flavor and a very subtle sweetness (I think from some beans on the bottom), if there was one flaw it was that it was served lukewarm.

Sugar Egg Puff

beignets

These were served fresh and warm, and were light, airy and covered in sugar. The interior was so soft and moist while the outside was sweet and yielding. It was basically like a fresh sugar doughnut. A really nice way to end the meal. My mom had three.

I thought this was a good meal and typical of my past visits. It wasn’t perfect (I’m looking at you, xiao long bao), but everything was quite good with some very high ‘highs’ (the pork was phenomenal).  Everything was served rather hot and fresh (aside from the pork, intentionally) with rather clean flavors. Pretty tasty and satisfying. I’d have to say this is my favorite in the Bay Area from my somewhat limited experiences, and compares favorably to some of the best I’ve had in SoCal.

Cooks County (Los Angeles, CA)

Cooks County
8009 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Dining date: 12/1/11

cooks county signage

Cook’s County opened last month, the newest farm-to-table, seasonal spot to hit the restaurant-rich neighborhood of Mid-City on Beverly. The stoves are helmed by Daniel Mattern while the pastry chef is Roxana Jullapat, both most recently of Ammo. The space was previously occupied by Laurent Quenioux’s Bistro LQ, but the decor is entirely different. The dining room is more homey and comfortable; white tablecloths won’t be found here.

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The reasonably-priced menu is divided into a few main sections: snacks ($3-8), appetizers ($8-13) and mains ($15-21).

We started with a few things from the snack section.

Spretzel mustard dipping sauce

Spretzel mustard dipping sauce

Sort of a hybrid between spaetzle and a pretzel, the spretzel was served warm. I liked the soft, yielding texture of the dough and it was well-salted. A mustard dipping sauce was a nice accompaniment.

French breakfast radishes blue cheese butter

French breakfast radishes blue cheese butter

The radish had a nice, fresh crunch and clean flavor. I’m not the biggest fan of blue cheese, but I can say the butter tasted just as expected.

Chicken liver crostini pickled persimmons

Chicken liver crostini pickled persimmons

I thought the crostini was tasty. There was a smoky flavor in the smooth liver, and its minerality went well with the sweetness of the persimmons.

Three-day chicken wings cauliflower pickles

Three-day chicken wings cauliflower pickles

I’m not sure why these took three days to make, but whatever it was made for some good wings. The meat was quite juicy with good flavor, though I wanted the exterior to be just a little bit crispier. Good wings, but not the best value on the menu at $8 a pair.

We ordered a number of items from the appetizer section as well. We didn’t realize it when ordering, but the appetizer options were pretty much all salads (though it was hard to tell just from the descriptions).

Persimmon pomegranate, mache, ricotta salata & toasted walnut croutons

Persimmon pomegranate, mache, ricotta salata & toasted walnut croutons

Roasted beets tangerines, endive & sunchokes

Roasted beets tangerines, endive & sunchokes

Warm autumn chicories California chanterelles & sheep’s milk ricotta toast

Warm autumn chicories California chanterelles & sheep's milk ricotta toast

Crostone house cured pancetta, poached duck egg & parmesan

Crostone house cured pancetta, poached duck egg & parmesan

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As for the appetizers, I enjoyed the last two best. The chicory salad came with tender sauteed chanterelles as well as a creamy ricotta toast. Perhaps my favorite was the last one, the crostone. Hard to go wrong with pancetta and a poached duck egg; the crusty crostone provided a really nice vehicle to sop up these flavors. While a salad may be one of the best ways to showcase fine produce, I wanted to see a little more technique and variety out of these plates.

We also sampled 5 main entrees.

Tagliatelle slow braised oxtail, dandelion greens & parmesan

Tagliatelle slow braised oxtail, dandelion greens & parmesan

Really nicely cooked with just the right chew, the pasta was pretty well executed. Closer to a pappardelle than a tagliatelle in my opinion, but I really didn’t care. An oxtail ragu is one of my favorite sauces; this was less saucy but still delivered with a rich and savory flavor that was complemented by some of the bright greens.

Pacific seafood soup grilled bass, Dungeness crab, mussels, clams, white shrimp & romesco

Pacific seafood soup grilled bass, Dungeness crab, mussels, clams, white shrimp & romesco

The seafood soup was another strong dish. Because of the variety of seafood, I often find some of the seafood over/undercooked in a dish like this. However, it was all on-point in this plate. The soup was flavorful and had a lot of depth, and I thought the romesco was a good pairing too.

Grilled pork ribs roasted yams, applewood smoked bacon & spring onion rings

Grilled pork ribs roasted yams, applewood smoked bacon & spring onion rings

The wood-grill flavor was definitely noticeable in these ribs, adding a smoky essence to the tender pieces of meat. The meat was tender but still had texture, covered in a sticky savory/sweet glaze. I liked the sweetness of the yams and texture of the fried onions to pair.

Braised beef cheek polenta & fresh flageolet bean salsa

Braised beef cheek polenta & fresh flageolet bean salsa

This was a pretty generous portion of the beef cheek. Very rich, I would’ve appreciated a little more acidity from the bean salsa. However, it was tender and quite delicious still, particularly when dipped into the jus. The polenta was light and creamy.

Wood grilled duck breast Brussels sprout leaves, kuri squash & Santa Barbara pistachios

Wood grilled duck breast Brussels sprout leaves, kuri squash & Santa Barbara pistachios

The unmistakable wood flavor came through on the duck as well. The skin was crisped up nicely and the duck was cooked well, although I felt it was slightly chewy. I liked both the squash and Brussels sprouts, while the pistachios provided a nice texture.

Long cooked greens

Long cooked greens

Roasted root vegetables

Roasted root vegetables

We opted for two side dishes. They were both very simple and straightforward, yet altogether unmemorable.

Stuffed, we managed to fit in only one dessert.

Meyer lemon angel pie citron & mountain huckleberries

Meyer lemon angel pie citron & mountain huckleberries

The light and airy meringue displayed the tart flavor of the meyer lemon, while the huckleberries provided a fruity, sweet counterpoint. A nice way to finish.

I thought the meal at Cook’s County was a good one, with the strong points being in the mains (that is, after all, where much of the money is spent). Given that the most expensive plate we ordered was $21, I thought the portions were pretty sizable and quite tasty. I’ve heard pretty strong things about the desserts, so I’ll have to come back to try some more as well. Overall, Cooks County showed a lot of promise and I’ll be interested to see how the menu changes with the seasons.

Note: This meal was sponsored by a third party.

Wolvesmouth (Los Angeles, CA)

Wolvesmouth Underground Dining
Wolvesden – Various Locations
Dining date: 12/3/11

I’m not sure how I first heard of the idea, but surely I thought it was a joke at first. But sometimes, ideas that start as a joke turn into a reality…even if they sound a little nuts. Exhibit A:

For my friend Remil’s 40th birthday, he set up a 40-course dinner with ever-in-demand underground dining chef Wolvesmouth. Craig Thornton (aka Wolvesmouth) created a 40 course tasting, almost all of which were just a couple bites. I will admit that I was both excited and a little scared to take on such an endeavor. A whole host of questions came to mind: Would this be way too much food? How long would this take? Clearly one thing was for sure; it would be a memorable meal.

As with other Wolvesmouth dinners, it’s BYOB. This was most of the alcohol we brought; luckily for our livers, we didn’t come close to finishing.

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The menu, 40 lines long:

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“caesar salad” baby gem, brioche puree, crouton, parmesan, meyer lemon

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85 day aged beef, shallot jam, horseradish, pink lady

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scallop, mango vinegar, mango, cauliflower

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carrot, chicory malt, carrot tops, lime yogurt

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uni tart, ginger lime vinaigrette

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mandarin concentrate, mandarin gelee

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cornbread soup, bacon, kale, onion

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fried green tomato, tabasco

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black eyed peas (boston baked), smoked tomato, pork belly

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pimento cheese, buttermilk corn fritter

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banana pudding, fruit salad poprocks

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date, almond, serrano ham, cabra romero, sherry vinaigrette, piquillo

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kohlrabi, caramelized onion, mascarpone, thyme

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duck, skin, sauce, brussels sprouts

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candy cap mushroom

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sweetbreads, lingonberry, dill, potato puree, creme fraiche

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chanterelle, pine soda

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squab, chestnut, maple squab jus, jerusalem artichoke

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fig (poached & fresh), roaring forties blue, hazelnut

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squash soup, goat cheese crumble, goat cheese, cider

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brown butter rice krispy treat, toasted marshmallow

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roman gnocchi, pesto

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beet, morbier, apple

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chicken liver, crouton, watermelon radish, pear

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broccoli, cashew cheese

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clam, potato

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crab, toast, pickled chili, chive

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rabbit, chipotle, grape, hibiscus onion, cilantro, cotija

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pork belly, pickled papaya, rice paper, garlic peanuts

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duck, orange, black vinegar

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lobster, celery root remoulade, black sesame cherry white soy vinaigrette

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persimmon, wasabi pea

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japanese black sugar shortbread, yuzu curd, green tea panna cotta

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delicata squash, yogurt, orange blossom

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tuna, haricot verts, 12-year balsamic

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fluke, spinach, meyer lemon, red pepper

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hobo fish, tartar sauce, blt, tomato

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rabbit, mustard, plantain, onion

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coconut sugar pound cake, coconut finger lime, lime curd

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tofu doughnut mousse, soy bean coffee

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In between courses, some people sat and chat, others walked into the kitchen to check out what was cooking, and still others walked around looking for extra stomach space.

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Craig and his small team (7 in total) did an impressive job putting this meal together. Pacing was quick and relatively even in between courses, completing the dinner in just over 5 hours. Apparently, we went through 560 dishes, 98 pieces of silverware, and 42 glasses. There’s only one sink (along with the 4 burners and 1 oven) and I’m pretty sure I saw someone washing something each time I looked over. Crazy. Of course the execution of the food was a crucial element of this meal, but the planning and organization behind it was just as integral. AND I’m happy to report that just about everyone finished all 40 courses (including me)!

With 40 different tastes, expectantly there were some hits and misses; however the former easily outweighed the latter. Below, some of the highlights:

#4 carrot, chicory malt, carrot tops, lime yogurt – The glaze heightened the sweetness of the carrot, but it was balanced by the bitter chicory and tart yogurt. The chicory also provided a slight crunch to the bite.
#9 black eyed peas (boston baked), smoked tomato, pork belly – One of the richer and more savory dishes, the pork was tender and luscious, while the beans and tomatoes added a very smoky complement to the meat.
#14 duck, skin, sauce, brussels sprouts – Succulent duck and duck skin! Loved the added crunch and flavor, as well as the brussels sprouts. Nice colors, too.
#15 candy cap mushroom – Very interesting. The mushroom’s flavor was extracted, leaving a liquid that had a bitter, earthy flavor upfront with an unmistakable maple character at the end.
#16 sweetbreads, lingonberry, dill, potato puree, creme fraiche  – this was very similar to a lamb dish I had at the Wolvesmouth dinner @ Beer Belly. Moist, crunchy sweetbreads were paired with a creamy potato mousse, while the lingonberry sauce really brightened up the dish.
#22 roman gnocchi, pesto – Not quite as pillowy fluffy as I was expecting, but this was still a light gnocchi and I really liked the crusty sear. The pesto was just what it needed to provide some vibrant flair.
#27 crab, toast, pickled chili, chive – A generous amount of crab, dressed in mayonnaise, rested atop a piece of toast. Somewhere between a crabcake and a crab roll, I enjoyed the chunks of sweet crab and crusty toast.
#31 lobster, celery root remoulade, black sesame cherry white soy vinaigrette – The lobster was cooked well, but I thought the sesame soy vinaigrette made the difference here, adding an intriguing nutty flavor to the mix.
#33 japanese black sugar shortbread, yuzu curd, green tea panna cotta – I liked the panna cotta and its subtle green tea flavor. I thought it went well with the creamy yuzu curd, though I wanted something with a little more texture than the soft shortbread.
#40 tofu doughnut mousse, soy bean coffee – Fascinating. The bottom of the cup held a light tofu mousse with a doughnut flavor, while the “coffee” was actually brewed roasted soybeans. The brew had a nice roasted, earthy depth of flavor that went well with the doughnut.

Thank you to Craig and team for making this happen. It’s truly a meal that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Commonwealth (San Francisco, CA)

Commonwealth
2224 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 11/26/11

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Given that I only spend a couple of weeks a year in San Francisco nowadays, I don’t return to restaurants as much as I’d like, opting instead to try as many new places as I can.

I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Commonwealth last December…so much that I wanted to make a return trip during the Thanksgiving weekend. Opentable was not on my side having only a 5:30 reservation available, but I must’ve checked that site dozens of times during the course of the week and stumbled upon a 9pm slot (seats at the bar are available on a first-come basis, though). The timing would be perfect; it was just enough time to see USC take a 29-0 lead over UCLA at halftime.

Commonwealth offers an a la carte menu of plates ranging from $6 to $16 as well as a 6 course tasting at $65. It’s a great value, made even more impressive by the fact that $10 from each tasting menu goes straight to a local charity (currently, it’s Mission Graduates). Additionally, the restaurant was willing to add any a la carte items to our tasting, splitting it evenly into three equal portions at no extra charge. Effectively, extra courses were at most $5pp – awesome. We opted to tack on three extra courses to our tasting (it amounted to $77pp), and the kitchen was kind enough to add an additional one on the house.

housemade pear-star anise soda

Pear-star anise soda

This was a fun soda. Star anise was definitely front and center, but there was a subtle pear flavor as well.

potato chips with seaweed

seaweed potato chips

More exciting than a typical bread basket, these were tasty and addicting. The seaweed flavor was fairly subtle but you knew it was there, and each bite had a wonderful crunch.

grilled chicken tsukune, umeboshi, shiso, sushi rice cracker

grilled chicken tsukune, umeboshi, shiso, sushi rice cracker

This was one of the a la carte dishes. Basically meatballs, the chicken was moist (dry chicken meatballs are the worst!), and I tasted a little bit of lemon essence and spiciness. The rice cracker added some delicate texture. A nice start, for sure.

The kitchen then brought out two amuse bouche.

geoduck crudo

geoduck crudo

chestnut & celery root soup, chestnut creme fraiche

Chestnut and celery root soup w/ chestnut creme fraiche

The bite of geoduck was chewy, slightly fishy and smoky. The soup was very comforting with warm, earthy flavors and a lingering sweetness. A little bit of creme fraiche countered with a tart flavor that also added some richness.

foie gras bon bons, quince, tonka bean, Szechuan peppercorn
GRENACHE BLANC > Domaine Fontanel > ’99 Rivesaltes, France

foie gras bon bons, quince, tonka bean, Szechuan peppercorn

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Amazing. The creamy foie gras was encapsulated in a shell of hardened chocolate. I thought this was a great combination of flavors and textures, totally resembling one of my favorite desserts. The quince was a nice touch as well with a refreshing, complementary sweetness. The grenache blanc pairing was one of the best I’ve had in recent memory.

Jerusalem artichoke, onions cooked in hay, chickweed, quinoa, quail egg
ALBANA > Tre Monti > ’10 Emilia Romagna, Italy

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Jerusalem artichoke, onions cooked in hay, chickweed, quinoa, quail egg

The artichoke was prepared in two ways, a creamy heart portion and a fried, crispy portion. I thought both of these were tasty, while quinoa added some extra body and earthy tones. Texturally, this dish really intrigued. The quail egg was fun, providing a little more richness. This dish had a lot of components that really came together.

carrot, sprouting broccoli, yuba, puffed buckwheat, coconut milk, thai spices

carrot, sprouting broccoli, yuba, puffed buckwheat, coconut milk, thai spices

This dish (from the a la carte menu) was compliments of the kitchen. The carrots were clearly spotlighted, crunchy and sweet. I liked the extra texture of the crispy puffed buckwheat and I’ve been loving yuba lately.

scallop, pumpkin, vadouvan, black rice, nasturtium, nettle emulsion
GRILLO > Di Giovanna > ’09 Sicily, Italy

scallop, pumpkin, vadouvan, black rice, nasturtium, nettle emulsion

Again a duo of preparations for the main ingredient: a seared scallop was paired with dehydrated slivers. Interesting. The scallop was good, nicely seared, and I liked it in tandem with the sweet and creamy pumpkin. The black rice added some extra body while the dehydrated scallop was a nice touch – it tasted of the sea but had a chewy, almost leathery texture. Fun, but I probably won’t be craving a whole bag of them. Colorful presentation.

petrale sole, wrapped in feuille de brik, nicoise olive, celery root, grape, spinach, verjus

petrale sole, wrapped in feuille de brik, nicoise olive, celery root, grape, spinach, verjus2

petrale sole, wrapped in feuille de brik, nicoise olive, celery root, grape, spinach, verjus

I thought the fish was cooked well here, and the feuille de brik wrapping provided a very delicate texture (almost resembling crispy fish skin). I thought the olive filling may have been slightly overpowering though, as the fish’s flavor was pretty mild. I wasn’t sure I was going to, but I enjoyed the celery, grape and spinach flavors here.

quail, parsnip, chicories, beurre rouge, fig leaf, vanilla
CARIGNAN > Broc Cellars > ’10 Alexander Valley, California

quail, parsnip, chicories, beurre rouge, fig leaf, vanilla

I thought the quail had good flavor, tender and cooked well. Also, I liked the sweetness of the vanilla and parsnip in tandem with the bitter fig leaves. My dad thought the meat was slightly overdone though, and I did think one of my four roulades fell into this category (the other three were perfect). He also found a few pieces of bone/cartilage within his meat…yikes. Disconcertingly, I’ve been finding bones/shells in a surprising number of higher-end meals in SF lately (ahem Benu, Coi) and it’s just not fun.

coffee rubbed beef cheeks, salsify, pickled walnut, beet-horseradish gremolata

coffee rubbed beef cheeks, salsify, pickled walnut, beet-horseradish gremolata

This was our last savory course and another from the a la carte menu. The meat was expectantly very tender, and the coffee rub definitely came through, adding some depth. I didn’t think the salsify and beets were able to stand up to the richness of the beef and coffee flavors, but I didn’t mind too much.

green apple sorbet, honey-coriander granita

green apple sorbet

The sorbet was as advertised; the flavor of green apple was bright and clear. The slightly sweet, slightly herbal granita was a nice touch.

peanut butter semifreddo, chocolate ganache, frozen popcorn
TAWNY PORT > Quinta do Infantado > Douro, Portugal

peanut butter semifreddo, chocolate ganache, frozen popcorn

The peanut butter flavor was clearly upfront, and I enjoyed it with the chocolate and butterscotch. Classic flavor combinations. The frozen popcorn was interesting but I didn’t think it added much flavor.

bruleed marshmallow infused with douglas fir

Bruleed marshmallow w/ infused douglas fir

Lastly, we were served one more thing. A marshmallow was caramelized and poked with a twig, and a pine essence really came through. How seasonal!

The wine pairing was very reasonable at 5 pours for $30. The restaurant even refilled the glass a number of times for our supplemental courses. Of the pairings, the grenache blanc was easily my favorite, paired with the chocolate and creamy foie gras.

wine1wine2wine3wine4

My meal at Commonwealth was both interesting and delicious. In fact, it was one of the more interesting meals I’d had in some time. For some reason, I can’t think of anywhere in LA that has the same combination of such refined dining in a very casual atmosphere. I liked the way that chef Jason Fox would take the central ingredient and often prepare it in multiple ways on the plate.  Accompaniments were well thought-out but never took away from the focus of the dish. This was quite possibly my favorite sub-$100 meal of the year. Now, why doesn’t this restaurant have a Michelin star?

Service was very attentive; silverware was changed and the entire table wiped down after every single course – twelve times. Even when I’m pretty sure it didn’t need it. The French Laundry didn’t even do that.