Monday, January 10, 2011

San Francisco, Day Two: The 'cation Continues

On Saturday morning, we followed the essential ritual, coffee at Blue Bottle, and then a big breakfast at Tartine. We devoured an orange bun, exquisite frangipane and ham and cheese croissants, and another order of brioche pudding. If one has to discriminate, the brioche pudding was still fantastic with apples, but lacking the blackberries from Day One, it was not as gaspingly majestic. The de rigueur quiche was cooked on this particular morning with swiss chard and chanterelles.

After the Incanto debacle, we decided not to fuck around. Accordingly, we strolled down to perennial favorite, Zuni Café, which opened in 1979 and, in a stroke of genius, lured Judy Rodgers to its kitchen in 1987. Still reveling in San Francisco sunshine, we sat in a nook along Market Street, pondering the most logical way to approach Zuni’s indispensible roasted chicken, the one served atop a bread salad that soaks up all the fat and drippings. It also happens to be a dish that takes a good hour to cook. Of course the key to avoiding table listlessness, especially at Zuni, is more eating. So we ordered three antecedent courses, beginning with a plate of magnificent cured anchovies, accompanied by thin shavings of parmesan cheese; thinner, hyperbolic shavings of fresh green celery; and tiny black niçoise olives. Celery, it should be remembered, is foul: Its peculiar bitterness and disturbing crunchiness suit the vegetable for diets. It is probably the reason that kids hate vegetables. So I submit that the knife work necessary to extract celery’s concealed sweetness, somehow a natural accompaniment to the cured anchovies, is a technical feat on par with whatever biochemical tricks those zany Catalan folks are attempting.

After Incanto’s reckless evisceration of chanterelles from the night before, we required continued corrective action, which took the form of a slender cheese and chanterelle pizza, deftly executed and cooked to an enviable point on the crispiness-chewiness continuum. Always offering one pasta dish during its lunch service, Zuni coaxes improbably rich flavors out of ingredients that would be humdrum at most other restaurants. On this day, I happen to be talking about spaghetti al farro, a wheat trendy during those halcyon days of the Roman Republic. A decade ago in San Francisco, farro returned to prominence, according to the Chronicle, as “chefs like Judy Rodgers of Zuni … seem to be taken with farro's rusticity and its association with rural Italian peasant cooking.” History aside, our spaghetti al farro was in a sense a pauper’s dish in that it contained no luxury ingredients — that is, other than the farro which I’ll guess cannot be found at Ralph’s, but is subject to a healthy mark-up at Whole Foods. In other words, the spaghetti was prepared with julienned red and green peppers and onions in olive oil and was completely satisfying on this warm afternoon with the few sips of Bandol remaining in my glass. Cooked to the tooth, the spaghetti and those delicious peppers epitomized clarity of flavor and purpose, giving the dish the aura of effortlessness just like so many other delicious items on the Zuni menu.

As for that roasted chicken, there are few dishes as classic yet consistently botched in kitchens beyond 1658 Market Street. For at least 24 hours, Zuni salts its chickens, which, according to the restaurant’s accompanying cookbook, should weigh 2.75 to 3.25 pounds, as such chickens “flourish at high heat, roasting quickly and evenly, and, with lots of skin per ounce of meat…are virtually designed to stay succulent.”

But, arguably, it is the bread salad, the dish’s literal substratum, soaking up all the glorious chicken drippings, that has propelled the dish to great heights. A stuffing for all intents and purposes, Rodgers's euphemistic bread salad, is awesome proof that Zuni has earned its timelessness while yielding none of its modernity. Those hunks of bread, some chewy and some crispy, are moistened by wine vinaigrette and dripping fat. Emboldened by garlic, scallions, currants and pine nuts, the bread salad brings a necessary lustiness to the perfectly cooked chicken.

We were just getting started. Flaneuring up Valencia Street, we stopped for an espresso at Four Barrel, a café whose odious poseurdom matched its grotesquely over extracted coffee. Like Sight Glass, Four Barrel has a massive, industrial storefront, most of which is dedicated to roasting; only the front section is used for beverage preparation and seating. Four Barrel is so affected that it conspicuously employs disc jockeys to spin vinyl, as if to say, We and our record collection are hipper than thou. Let’s be clear: Four Barrel is the Dave Eggers of coffeehouses. Its espresso is heartbreakingly overdone and its disc jockey is a pointless footnote. (I do concur that vinyl is superior; there is no other medium that does Bud Powell justice. But Dave Eggers is loathsome, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius could be the most grating literary work published in English.) On their own, Four Barrel coffee beans are of unimpeachable quality and are far better utilized by the skillful hands of Tartine Bakery’s baristas.

We wound up the afternoon at Humphrey Slocombe where we encountered a gaggle of nerds manipulating their DSLRs while their ice cream melted. After a long meander up Harrison Street, I enjoyed my refreshing olive oil ice cream, which was much more lemony than Otto’s standard-bearer. But the black sesame confounded me. We all loved J-Wy’s tin roof sundae; the Tahitian vanilla was so pure and rich that the recipe could have been stolen from Guy Savoy, and hot fudge and the salty sweet genius of frosted peanuts only amplified its greatness.

Building to an appropriate crescendo, we and our already full stomachs, later made the 50-mile jaunt south to Los Gatos for a dinner at Manresa, a restaurant swiftly becoming the Chez Panisse of its day. David Kinch, Manresa’s chef, believes that he builds on Alice Waters’s emphasis on quality local produce by insisting on vegetables that are “biodynamically” grown at the Love Apple Farm, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a mere 20 miles away from the restaurant. Biodynamics is little understood, but its proponents can be accused of lunacy — literally. After all, biodynamics, the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner in 1924, involves planting seeds based on lunar phases because of the “link between growth and the life force of the moon and sun.”

Steiner actually favored “burying a cowhorn stuffed with manure at the time of the autumnal equinox,” because—and here is where the logic sputters—through the burial “we preserve in the horn the etheric and astral force that the horn was accustomed to reflect when it was on the cow. Because the cow horn is now outwardly surrounded by the Earth, all the Earth's etherizing and astralizing rays stream into its inner cavity. The manure inside the horn attracts these forces and is inwardly enlivened by them. If the horn is buried for the entire winter—the season when the Earth is most inwardly alive—all this life will be preserved in the manure, turning the contents of the horn into an extremely concentrated, enlivening and fertilizing force.” Jesus fucking Christ.

To those of us philosophy grads overly steeped in Berkeley and Hume, biodynamics would seem to be the object of cacchination, not strict adherence. But somehow Steiner’s ravings captured Kinch’s attention. All that aside, my sensory experiences over three meals at Manresa entail a conclusion that Kinch’s vegetables are the finest I have eaten in recent memory, at least since lunch with Jim (and, oh yeah, our wives) at L’Astrance in 2005, when it was a hungry Michelin two-star. Biodynamics is also employed by Domaine Romanée Conti and Domaine Leroy, which “are widely acknowledged to be among the greatest wineries on the planet” according to J-Mc. Where that leaves Steiner’s theory is another story. But I’ll chalk up Steiner’s recent prominence to being at the goofy nexus between hippydom and hipsterdom and to the meticulous, intensive, and small-scale farming that goes on in such agriculturally advantaged locales as Santa Cruz and the Cote D’Or.

Kinch differs from the Panisse mafia in that he takes enormous conceptual and technical risks, exemplifying his apprenticeships in Burgundy and San Sebastian, Spain, as well as in the Axis countries. Meals at Manresa always begin most propitiously with a rendition of the L’Arpege egg, paying homage to his ideological comrade Alain Passard, the iconoclastic and vegetable-focused chef of L’Arpege who first concocted this amuse bouche. This “hot-cold egg” contrasts a warm poached egg yolk served in its brown shell with cold cream and sherry vinegar as well as maple syrup with sea salt, plus some chives for good measure. It would seem that only an alchemist could transform a poached egg and cream into such a sophisticated little jewel that still tastes downright homey, owing to the presence of maple syrup. But we have Kinch (and Passard) to thank for this treat.

Manresa’s gargouillou, its “Into the Vegetable Garden” salad, is another modern French showstopper that in the right hands and with pristine produce, is a composition “of vegetables, leaves and flowers, each prepared in a different way and set upon a black ‘dirt’ of roasted chicory root and dried potatoes” that “showcase[s] the farm’s daily offerings, from roots to leaves.” Each vegetable is individually braised, and all of their collective juices are “combined to make the foamy emulsion that represents dew.” Michel Bras, a chef from Laguiole, France, specializing in modern haute cuisine, originated the dish over thirty years ago, and it tends to be served only in the most rarefied restaurants. Mugaritz near San Sebastian, Spain, serves it, as does Coi in San Francisco. Corton in TriBeCa achieves admirable results despite being in an unfavorable location, agriculturally speaking. Manresa’s gargouillou manages to be even snobbier. Kinch credits NOMA’s René Redzepi, a Dane who is perhaps the most cutting edge chef in the world, for inspiring the edible black dirt that is supposed to approximate the dirt at the Love Apple Farm. The dish is a perfect vehicle for testing Kinch’s thesis about a restaurant’s sense of place, and his work with vegetables that were grown 20 miles of the kitchen is electrifying. Perforce I examined each vegetable, considering and savoring every delicious bite.

My favorite dish of the night, Kinch’s own creation, was the ingenious rice-less risotto of big fin squid and Vietnamese lemon balm, mushroom, and parmesan. But I must first cavil before I kvell. I doubt that Manresa was serving big fin squid, which would seem impossible to capture. (This squid, which can be up to 23 feet in length, lives at depths thousands of meters under sea level, safe from commercial fishing operations. No adult specimen has ever been captured according to Wikipedia.) Regardless, Kinch and his staff, demonstrating tremendous physical stamina above all else, transform their squid into simulacra of grains of rice, possessing the same texture and color of an al dente risotto. With mushrooms and lemon imparted into the mix, parmesan would seem not to jibe. Yet at Manresa, the parmesan worked wonders as if the risotto really were rice, and not a delectable creature from the deep.

Totally sated after a weekend of hedonism, a full dessert course was not in the cards. But we managed to sample a few cheeses from the traditional cheese cart. Collectively we were most taken by a Portuguese cow’s milk cheese and an Oregon blue, and it is a shame that we—in our food-induced haze—never got their names.

Zuni Café

1658 Market Street
San Francisco
(415) 552-2522

Four Barrel Coffee

375 Valencia Street

San Francisco

(415) 252-0800

Humphrey Slocombe

2790 Harrison Street
San Francisco
(415) 550-6971

Manresa Restaurant

320 Village Lane

Los Gatos

(408) 354-4330

1 comment:

Gastronomer said...

You ate like a mother effing champion! This Zuni chicken that you speak of sounds out of this world. I will need to add Zuni and Tartine onto my already lengthy list. It's going to be a great trip.