Zuni Cafe approached me from three directions.
Stephanie Anderson, former proprietress of the Quaker House on Nantucket, told me about Judy and Zuni when I worked for her. Stephanie tried to coach me on making an omelet the Zuni way (I made a scramble. Repeatedly).
Stephanie gave me a glimpse into Judy’s methods by telling me that some dishes sprung from Judy’s afternoon dreams, and she’d come into the restaurant and say, “that quail looks good, but” -shaking the plate to rearrange the quail– “this is what I want.”
But to read the Zuni cookbook–the second direction I had–is to enjoy and absorb a didactic, disciplined master class. Judy’s methods didn’t spring fully formed from dreams; they were learned at the foot of the Troisgros brothers. It’s the only cookbook from which I’ve ever photocopied pages for my own cooks. Inspirational.
The third direction is my wife, Elizabeth. We met on a blind date, and I used to go visit her in SF on my days off. Our ne plus ultra in those days was Zuni brunch on Sunday, and I’ve yet to taste a better Bloody Mary (tie with the Jared Coffin House on Nantucket).
There’s an ineffable but visceral effect still available at Zuni. Watch the flotsam and jetesam on Market Street, drink a Bloody Mary or three and wait 40 minutes for the roasted chicken salad . . . you’re hooked into California Cuisine 1.0, from which I and many others sprung.
In the analog era, before podcasts and youtube and top chef, the machinations of the great restaurants were much more mysterious. I have reams of photocopied pages from notebooks, stolen menu descriptions from disgruntled waiters, and pocketed menus from the days when Rocco DiSpirito was an up-and-coming, respected chef and Michelin had yet to set foot in NYC. A few fellow cooks that I traded these with pored over them like they were the lost papers from the Warren Commission.
There are a few portals, such as Marco Pierre White’s White Heat and Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie, that allow aspiring culinarians to glimpse inside those ivory towers and the minds they housed. But the flashy media of TV shows and hype-it-up websites is screwing up the psyches and expectations of young cooks.
My cooks are at present passing around my copy of Ma Gastronomie day-to-day, and telling each other what their takeaway was from the book. The fellow who spoke at lineup today turned out to be a true romantic–sad for the present and pining for the sunny slopes of long ago, when the music was better, the cuisine was pure, and it wasn’t 80 degrees in mid-November. I’ll let it go at that.
Here are two types of culinary contraband . . .
Colombian Alban white truffles
A lot of them, part of a dinner for Thomas Brown and his cellar crew. The whole dining room smelled like, erm, truffles.
And what could be better with white truffles that a 79 Barolo?
So here’s the old-fashioned sort of culinary contraband.
Cooking is mired in the analog world in a lot of ways, and there’s satisfaction to be had in not just making a batch of cookies, but also splattering some butter and flour on the cookbook. Cooking is sensory, and tactile, and somebody kick the soapbox out from under me before I sound too old . . .
dungeness crab salad with avocado green goddess, onion seed sprouts and red radish sprouts, and spiced leek griddle cakes. Bracing temperature contrast on this one, and fine balance between the cool of the avocado and the warm south-Asian spices in the griddlecakes.
Smoked salmon (we cure the salmon with Black Seal rum, brown sugar, salt, and spices, then smoke it with hickory chips) with horseradish creme fraiche, sausalito springs watercress, dry-farmed marble potatoes, and osetra caviar.
Winter on the Amalfi Coast–lemon-steamed halibut with artichoke and black garlic ribollita (traditionally, day-old minestrone cooked down with chunks of stale bread), tomato-clam broth, and a fricassee of littleneck clams with preserved lemon, celery, and pickled red chard.
Another Italian inspiration, this one from the brain of sous chef Sam McKenzie: seared diver scallops with navel orange puree, cannelini beans, nicoise olive salsa verde, and grilled chicory. Paisano-level ingredients but in delicate balance, and a perfect foil for the scallops.
Pre-Thanksgiving chicken: roasted with cornbread stuffing under the skin, with a block of crispy chicken confit, cranberry marmalade, creamed bloomsdale spinach, burnt orange jus.
“completely nude” new york strip, carola potatoes, shortrib marmalade, rapini, sauce bordelaise. The carola potatoes are cut to resemble marrow bones and cooked, then filled a la minute with hot shortrib marmalade and sprinkled with potato crumbs.
Word’s out in the streets, we have taken the reins at French Blue. New menus are posted online and outside the front door.
And at Solbar, I had the bright idea to go with four menu changes last Tuesday night plus a full turn on the fried chicken menu, so it’s not as if we’re stagnating here.
Here are a few images from 1-Day at French Blue. It’s difficult to put into words JUST how exciting and challenging this all is.
Beef tenderloin with bone marrow butter and horseradish-potato mousseline.
Shelling bean (butterbeans in this case) soup with salsa verde, bacon-onion compote, and crispy beer batter
Black kale. No other cooked green has a flavor quite like it. Started it with garlic and chili flake, finished it with a splash of cider vinegar.
kurobuta pork choooooppppppsssss!
Peach mostarda with brown sugar, bay leaf and cider vinegar. By now you can see where this is going.
Not pictured: a pot of white rice and a big skillet of cornbread. To drink: I think we had Copain Tous Ensemble.
So we had a photoshoot with Lily Berlin of El Molino winery and her chickens the other day, which I hear jacqi has already uploaded to the Solbar f’book page. Coupla things:
Lily runs a very tight operation. I would swear under oath that the chickens were actually taking orders from her.
What a stunning setting. The pictures don’t even do justice to the wildflowers, grass, and vineyards surrounding us, not to mention the Napa River about fifty yards away.
They’re got a very ergonomic chicken coop set up. It does not resemble the foghorn-leghorn contraptions of the cartoons of my youth.
Those eggs are delicious.
The solbar kitchen is throwing haymakers . . . . for lunch, the lamb gyro is back and we have a KILLER duck confit banh-mi-ish sandwich served with a green papaya and ripe mango salad. Don’t ask me to share. Oh yeah and we have black truffles on the breakfast menu.
Dinner–we have salmon with creamed super sweet white corn, peanut-molasses relish, and sauteed collards; halibut with black and fresh chickpeas, pickled kumquats, and artichoke persillade; pastrami-spiced ahi tuna with gnocchi, mustard, caraway, and corned beef shortrib; and tomorrow, pork belly with bacon-fat baked shallot, white verjus glaze, and these spicy little radish pods that Nick Zetts is bringing in.
Let’s see if i can get a picture uploaded here
That’s kind of been the undercurrent of thought in the kitchen lately . . . lots of intriguing ideas and ingredients making their way through. Borage flowers, wheatberries, powdered egg whites, Pope Valley beef tenderloin, cobia from the redneck riviera, etc.
AHA! finally I got a picture in there again! I’m more excited that Danny Amendola. Well, okay. He has 31 million reasons to be excited, and I have a 99 Tacoma, but still, good development here.
Fish tacos. I could eat them every day. I could use them to colonize San Diego or convert vegans or distract Dennis Rodman.
Half-ass culinary anthropology observation of the day: from my POV, the reason that a lot of the Asian foods that we’ve been working on involve pork, cabbage, and vegetables–transformed through exacting techniques into intricate finished products–are that these are relatively cheap and plentiful ingredients, made by rural folk (folks? why do we need both “folk” and “folks” when both are plural? It’s not the same as “fish” and “fishes”. It’s something else.) with a lot of time on their hands but not wealth. So the simple doughs became thin, delicate wrappers, precisely folded and lovingly cooked.
That’s my historical tidbit for the day and I hope I didn’t come off like Jimmy the Greek.
ACC tournament begins today. Expectations are medium to medium-lowish. GO HEELS!
How can ESPN POSSIBLY put Laettner and Hurley in the same regional bracket of their “Most Hated College BBall Player of all Time” Bracket? Did Danny Ferry come up with that? With help from Alarie, Parks, Wociejowski, and Redick, all sitting around Kryczewski’s cauldron? [EDIT: Duke got its own regional bracket, natch. I couldn't see that because the capillaries in my eyeballs were bursting when I first saw it last night.]
Been a while. Rant over.
New on the menu next week–confit of Niman ranch shoulder with pickled black trumpets and lots of other cool stuff like maybe braised carrots, TBD. Zach is figuring how to get a black-truffle-egg dish on the breakfast menu. Goose is cooking up wonders on the grill menu and preparing to take it over. We’re getting a Devil’s Gulch hog next week and Chef Brad Borchardt returns for a whole-beast feast on Friday night 3/22 with Asian-inspired pork preparations for the menu that expires on 3/31. Like JJ said, Get it while you can.
extremely unstoked that I can’t seem to post pictures here for the time being. thousands it seems things have happened since I last posted . . .
(Asian) comfort food menu up and running (tantanmen ramen, five-spice brisket steam buns, hijiki salad, etc),
amuse bouche program during solbar dining room dinner service (picture not included),
Tour of Sufferlandria only one day left,
Paul Lemieux from Auberge du Soleil joining us next wek to develop our dinner dessert menu (you will be blown away.),
Zach put pupusas on the lunch menu,
Lance caved but came off like he’s still hiding something,
why did the Grizzlies trade Rudy Gay?,
completely new cocktail menu started last night . . . winter is project time here at Solbar, because during the spring, summer, and fall, we just RUN.
And to top it off I have churrascaria swords and a ceramic Japanese hibachi on my desk, both borrowed from Jayson Woodbridge, over which to further cackle like Mr Burns. Swords and fire. My four-year-old son would be IMMENSELY impressed.
The new lounge menu kicked off this past Saturday night, from sushi rolls to hijiki salad to chiang mai steam buns to chicken noodle soup (okay, double-boiled cantonese chicken and ginger soup with shiitake wontons and chile oil:
And of course I upgraded to wordpress 3.5 and can no longer insert images into my posts. That’s not the least bit frustrating. OK, off to call the techies for help . . .