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Month June 2006

Chez Panisse last Friday

I had a great dinner last Friday at Chez Panisse, with Bryan, his wife, and mother-in-law. It had been quite awhile since I’d been to CP, given everything that’s been going on over the last 18 months or so. It was definitely terrific to be back, and to find that the restaurant was as wonderful as one remembers. Critics who claim that it’s become boring are missing the point: Chez Panisse isn’t about novelty for novelty’s sake, or flash, but about amazingly subtle renderings of absolutely first-rate ingredients.

Case in point – the starting dish: an antipasto of eggplant caponata, slices of Parma proscuitto, and wild rocket (baby arugula) salad. Simple, utterly lacking in the novelty we often expect from “great” chefs, the dish was a triumph of simplicity and flavor. The caponata was the best rendering of the dish any of us had had (and my friend Bryan is quite exacting as a foodie-chef). It’s hard to explain — it lacked anything I can point to except that it was just amazing caponata.

The second dish was even better. A simple “ravioli al brodo” preparation typical of northern Italy, the “raviolini” were stuffed with a sheep’s milk ricotta with very subtle flavor and the pasta were floated in a sage-spring garlic brodo which was incredibly rich in flavor, yet utterly clear and pale. Bryan and I spent much of the dish trying to figure out how the broth was done — double stock, consommeed, etc. Again — it’s hard to explain, because there really were only a couple of ingredients here, and no flavor explosions, weird juxtapositions of preparations, or “deconstructions” that are so popular today. There was just amazing broth, and perfectly cooked subtle pasta with subtle ricotta cheese.

The main dish pleased everyone – Paine Farm squab with squab liver toast and a salad of endive, romano beans, and porcini mushrooms. Bryan’s wife Liza really likes liver, as does Bryan, so this dish was right up their alley, and I love grilled small birds.

I’d brought wines for the preceding courses: Raveneau 1988 Butteaux, and a 1991 Henri Bonneau Chateauneuf “Marie Beurrier.” The former was amazing — approaching maturity with lots of lemon cream, but still plenty of acidity and structure. Fortunately I have one more 1988 left — a Vaillons — which I’ll probably try in the next year or two. The Bonneau was incredible, especially for a tragically bad year like 1991. But then, Bonneau tends to do really well in many “bad years” due to ruthless selection and singular winemaking skill. The 1991 MB was beefy and dark, with barely hints of maturity in the secondary “spices” showing in the nose. Not even a hint of bricking or orange color even given the vintage. The wine had tremendous length and I could have sat much longer and just smelled its combination of beef, blood, and herbs. If this is the 1991, I can’t even imagine what the 1989 and 1990 MB and Celestins are like. Or when I’d open any of the latter. Fortunately, medical science is on the side of Bonneau fans.

The dessert was peach leaf, boysenberry, and nectarine ice cream “bombe”, presented in three stripes on a plate. Given the strict two-bottle wine policy (which we tried but were unsuccessful at circumventing), we were unable to try Bryan’s 1989 Chave Vin de Paille with this, but there will be other nights and other dinners.

On bibliophilia, bibliomania, and what makes a good book store

Alright, I’ve admitted it before, but I’ll admit it again. I have a “thing” with books. By “thing” I probably mean addiction. OK. Definitely addiction. I’m a bibliophile, but it goes further than that. I’m probably a bibliomaniac….a condition described in wikipedia (in its more extreme form) as “identifiable by the fact that the number of unread books in their possession is continually increasing relative to the total number of books they possess and read.”

That pretty much fits. In this short Bay Area trip, I’ve bought books at Borders on Union Square (surprisingly amazing as chain stores go, giving many independent stores a run for their money), City Lights in North Beach, and Black Oak Books (well, two trips to BO. their new section on the history of ideas just can’t be missed). UPS now has two boxes of the proceeds, hopefully trucking their way expeditiously north so I can peruse and examine, if not quite immediately read, the fruits of my expeditions.

In the full flower of my bibliomania, however — a condition which often seems to strike me in the Bay Area — I want to reflect a bit about what makes a truly good bookstore. Because I think they’re a dying species. I think we may only have one in Seattle. Or one that fully qualifies, and a couple that try hard. And, as previously mentioned, Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, long an icon in my bookish universe, is closing. So the entire subject deserves pause, and reflection.

When I walk into a truly good bookstore, I can tell immediately, through long association and almost a kind of “steeping” in the spoor of other bibliomaniacs. We’d run in packs, except that trawling the stacks at a good bookstore is a solitary kind of hunt, if only because the shelves are too narrow to admit the herd. Or perhaps it’s simply that we don’t want to share the spoils.

A truly good bookstore is staffed by other bibliophiles, and hopefully a bibliomaniac or two.

For example, let’s take City Lights on Columbus, in San Francisco. Perhaps an unfair example, because you’d probably expect any bookstore which was the spiritual home of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and the Beats to be a serious bookstore. But let’s be honest, that was half a century ago, and the staff ain’t nearly that old. So whatever is going on at City Lights isn’t “primary,” it’s culturally passed down and kept alive by a committed staff.

And committed they are. Three years ago, I found all three volumes of Morris Kline’s History of Mathematics on the shelves at City Lights, and immediately bought them, and enjoyed much of the first volume sitting outside Caffe Trieste and the Tully’s at Pacific and Fillmore. Today, all three volumes of Kline’s masterful history of mathematics are still in stock at City Lights, waiting for someone else like me to stop in and want something besides Beat poetry. That’s bibliophilia.

Or take the example of Pierre Bourdieu, the social theorist who is often shelved with sociology, but occasionally with philosophy. Honestly, there’s an argument for either, and when I walk in to a book store wanting to find The Logic of Practice I know to look in either section. At City Lights, Bourdieu’s more theoretical works are found under philosophy, while his more empirical works, such as Distinction, are found under sociology. That’s not random…that’s someone who thought carefully about where Bourdieu might fit in the human sciences, and where people might look for various of his books. I want to meet that person, because I have a feeling we have things to talk about…if only how we can possibly fit more bookshelves into our respective homes.

Obviously I have no idea whether City Lights really thinks about this stuff as deeply as I’m imagining, but if they’re faking bibliophilia, they’re doing it convincingly. Regardless, I find it heartwarming and reassuring that places like Black Oak Books and City Lights (and Elliott Bay Books in Seattle) still exist, whether or not I still order from Amazon. Amazon’s algorithms may be good at suggesting things I haven’t purchased yet, but they can’t capture the kind of thinking I saw on the shelves today at City Lights.

Restaurant review: Coi, 373 Broadway, San Francisco

Coi is the new project of Daniel Patterson and my friend Paul Costigan, located in a happening location on Broadway just east of North Beach. The name is pronounced (roughly) “kwahhh”, and I believe is an Old French word meaning “tranquil.” The restaurant certainly is that — superb and innovative food, mellow atmosphere, and friendly staff. I’d recommend visiting now before the reviews start rolling in and people “discover” Coi, because in six months it’s going to be tough to walk in the door and get a table.

Daniel Patterson is the former chef at Frisson, and Paul is coming from years of experience running Rare Wine Company in Sonoma, where I met him as a client. Paul also is an expert at jazz and blues history, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of both. His skills at creating atmosphere with the Jazz blend of structure, elegance, and yet studied casualness show in the casual yet beautiful decor, the music selections, and the wine list. Instead of aiming at the types of wine I’d typically purchased from Paul at RWC, the list is designed to present diners with wines which highlight the food but provide accessible prices. Paul is a master at explaining how the wines are selected to match the food, and if you’re wondering what to have you really should let him select a wine for your meal or course.

I went to Coi on two consecutive nights, to sample both the fixed-price dining room menu and the more relaxed (fuzzy pillow cushions!) lounge with its ala carte menu. I recommend doing both (especially if you’re local) because there are gems on both menus. In the dining room, a deconstructed ratatouille soup (with concentric rings of eggplant, red pepper, tomato) was excellent, but the highlight for us was the coriander-crusted duck breast, cooked sous vide and then finished off, with a reduction sauce. In the lounge, I strongly recommend the grilled vegetable bread salad, and the signature pork cheek stew. The latter went well with a Burgundy selected by Paul, and I finished with a Spatburgunder eiswein that was glorious — tart, sweet, with massive acidity on the palate.

Both evenings were terrific, and they’re just getting started. If you find yourself in San Francisco (or are a local), try Coi while it’s still possible to get a reservation!

The ideal San Francisco hotel

Thanks to my friend Bryan (the same guy who writes Soup Noodles, mentioned in the previous post), I’ve found the ideal base of operations while here in the Bay Area: the Hotel Rex, a block or so off Union Square. The Rex is a classic old San Francisco “small” hotel — sandwiched in the middle of a block on Sutter among other businesses and hotels, with only 90 or so rooms. But it’s perfectly located, well maintained, and has both wireless high-speed internet and (in many rooms) air-conditioning (don’t let them put you in the rooms ending with the number 15…none of them have airconditioning apparently because of the fire-escapes).

The Rex is also located near amenities: the (very surprisingly good) Borders books on Union Square, and the UPS store, which is necessary to ship back all the books I’ve bought so I can still make the “one carry on” rule at the airport. The Rex is also right down the block from the Hidden Vine, an underground wine bar in the 600 block of Post. The bar is very nice and the proprietors committed to a great wine experience. I didn’t find a lot to my taste on the menu, at least this time, but fans of domestic wines undoubtedly will.

Speaking of book stores, what’s up with Cody’s in Berkeley? Normally a staple of my excursions to the Bay Area, Cody’s had almost no books on the shelves. Are they moving? Doing inventory? Hanging up the shingle?

Fortunately, Black Oak Books (up Shattuck by Chez Panisse) has gotten even better. Their new section dedicated to philosophy and the history of ideas is both massive and brilliantly stocked. I managed, in half an hour of looking at every square inch of the section, in piling up some 20 books. Naturally, common sense or guilt or the lack of desire to explain the receipt to my financial advisor got the better of me and I pared the stack down to just “the essentials,” but somehow the essentials still included some Zygmunt Bauman, Robert Brandom, Charles Taylor, Robert Axelrod, Ian Hacking, Quentin Skinner, etc. Previously, I’d snagged some Rorty and some cognitive science at the Cal Berkeley student store (oddly better than both Moe’s and Cody’s right now), so I figured that was a good enough haul for now.

Today I’ve got to pack all these books up and ship ’em to Seattle, where they’ll join their brethren in being tucked away so as to not spoil the staging at my house, to be read soon on the deck of the new house.

UPDATE: Cody’s on Telegraph is indeed closing in early July, after years of losing sales to chain stores and Internet sales, apparently. This is really a sad thing — one of my favorite things about a day in the Bay Area was shopping at Cody’s and then taking my purchases across the street to have a giant tossed salad at Cafe Intermezzo (which is fortunately still going strong). A moment of silence for the passing of a once-great book store….

Adventures in Culinary San Francisco

I’m down in San Francisco for a couple of days, having a few meetings and seeing some friends. While here, I’ve had the pleasure of a couple of great meals, with more to come.

After arriving, I checked on Jardiniere, the French/Californian restaurant by Traci Des Jardins. Traci is probably familiar to fans of Iron Chef America, where she appeared in a battle this last season (and did some very interesting dishes). I’ve been going to Jardiniere since shortly after it opened, having experienced her cooking at a private dinner party and Chave Hermitage tasting back in 2000. I wasn’t disappointed – the food is still excellent at Jardiniere, and the wine list is superb: four separate Raveneau Chablis selections are available, for example. I was a little less thrilled by the signature short ribs, but I think this is mostly my issue: braised fatty meats, which can be incredibly tasty, are now the French equivalent of fugu for me — it may be a delicacy, but it can also kill me. So I tend to eat very small portions of it, and feel guilty the whole time. I suspect if I’d ordered the risotto I’d have been happier.

Tuesday I stayed with a friend up in Sonoma, who (despite a full-time career in the software industry) is one of the best Chinese cooks I know. He writes Soup Noodles, an occasional journal (with pictures) of his attempts to interpret and perfect various dishes. If you’re not hungry by the time you read his essay on Chicken with Red Pepper Shreds, there’s not much hope for you. His kitchen was recently remodeled to provide massive BTUs in the stove and dedicated wok burner, and to give him an excellent work flow. We relaxed a bit with the remainder of Monday’s 2003 Raveneau Butteaux from Jardiniere, and then he made a superb spicy halibut with ginger, garlic, hot peppers, and a simple soy/vinegar/rice wine mixture. Gorgeous despite its simplicity. He also marinated cornish game hens (knowing my weakness for small birds) in a big pot of “master sauce” (a topic about which I’ll be researching!), finished with some organic chicken livers to give the sauce body. We drank a 1971 spatlese with this (which regrettably I forgot to write down), and the dregs of the Raveneau.

Tonight, he and I, his wife and her mother are going to Chez Panisse for downstairs dinner, accompanied by a couple of wines I brought for the occasion: 1988 Raveneau Butteaux and a 1991 Henri Bonneau Marie Beurrier Chateauneuf. The latter is a weak (to say the least) vintage in CdP, but in the hands of Bonneau we’ve had great wines and more to the point, they’re actually ready to drink — unlike his 1989 and 1990. The official menu for tonight at Chez Panisse is as follows:

An apéritif

Antipasto of eggplant caponata, Parma prosciutto, and wild rocket

Raviolini with ricotta, pecorino, basil, and yellow tomato sauce

Grilled Paine Farm squab with squab liver toast and warm salad of curly endive

and porcini mushrooms

Peach leaf, boysenberry, and nectarine ice cream bombe

We’ll see what last-minute modifications arise but altogether it looks like a terrific evening.

More house activity…

I’m on the ferry back from Friday Harbor, after a day of inspections on the new house yesterday.  Panorama288willow

The picture to the right, by the way, is a stitched panoramic shot of the view from the deck of the new place.  I had one clear day on this trip and took advantage of it to take some good photos – mostly inside for planning bits of work, but a couple of decent view shots as well.  Click on the thumbnail here and it’ll open a bit larger.  I’ll have the original source shots up on Flickr soon.

The left-most island visible is the northeastern tip of San Juan island itself, with small McNeal Island inside Rocky Bay.  If you squint, to the right of that is the small southeastern sliver of Spieden Island, looking dry and brown like normal.  Waaay behind that is Saturna Island, one of the Canadian Gulf Islands, to the northwest across the channel and border.  The smallish lump hear the  eastern edge of Saturna is Flattop Island, on the American side, and then in the center of the photo you can see the southern and western aspects of Waldron Island.   Then, to the east, there’s a small sliver of Sucia off the western edge of Orcas (the big island in the background on the right), with Jones Island as the green-landscaped foreground island.  The channel right in front of the house is San Juan Channel, and we’re looking (between Waldron and Orcas), more or less NNE up President’s Channel. 

I came up Wednesday, since the spring ferry schedule doesn’t have very many boats and we wanted to get an early start on Thursday.  My inspector, Mike O’Handley (of YourInspector), came up from Seattle — I trust him from past inspections, and he does more than just inspect — he sees this as a chance to educate the new homeowner and almost build a "todo" list for the first couple of years.  Well, the house is in good shape generally.  A few things here and there to work on, but the only big thing is replacing the roof on the upper part of the house.  I’m going to get a bid on a metal roof for the whole thing, because that’ll last the rest of my life and be robust to all the tree debris, wind, and rain.

While Mike was disassembling all the heaters and poking around in the house’s undercarriage, I measured the kitchen for some upgrades:  Wolf dual-fuel stove, a water-conserving dishwasher (I’m thinking about the DishDrawers from Fisher-Paykel, so I can run half a dishwasher to conserve the community’s precious water, and have full capability for dinner parties), perhaps some other little things.  I confirmed that the stove can vent upwards, which will help a lot when installing the hood and blower.  And I re-confirmed that DSL is available, or so the CenturyTel installer I ran into in Friday Harbor believes, which is good because that’s basically a show-stopper for me. 

The geotechnical inspector from Bellingham verified that the house was on good bedrock with no signs of movement, and the deck is pretty well anchored given its close proximity to "The Edge" — the high drop down to the water.  I actually don’t know how far down it is, but it looks like somewhere between 75 and 100 feet by eyeball.  But the slope is bedrock, not soil, and there seems to be little movement — all the rock is nicely vegetated.  And if the deck footings do become a concern down the road, I can add some cantilever supports back to flat bedrock on the top of the hill without much trouble. 

My friends Kim and Kris came down from Saltspring yesterday, so we could look at the house together and then hang out before Kris heads off for the summer’s kayak guiding.  He’ll largely be over in Barkeley and Clayoquot Sounds (or thereabouts) all summer, leading trips.  Pretty sweet job — especially for someone who doesn’t much mind being out of touch with the world.  We had another terrific evening at Steps in Friday Harbor.  Madden had fresh Copper River sockeye on the menu, done very rare and extremely juicy, excellent halibut with mustard seed spaetzle and cabbage, and my favorite of the evening, fish cakes with green curry sauce, and a Japanese-sounding leafy green whose name I have to Google to remember.  We had a glass of Duval-Leroy to celebrate, and then a terrifically expressive bottle of the 1999 Jasmin Cote-Rotie (much more expressive than the bottle two weeks ago).  We finished with two desserts — chocolate crepes, which were good, and an amazing twice-baked lime souffle resting on a bed of super-dark molasses.  The latter dish was a revelation – something like a deconstructed key lime pie but light and fluffy.  Accompanied by 1985 Warres (probably the LBV), and the 1971 PX, it was a terrific evening.

Now it’s back to Seattle to do some work on the old house, and start planning the actual move.