Friday, October 28, 2011

Andronicos' Last Rites

by Jesse Hirsch
Fri, Oct 28, 2011 at 3:26 PM

You’ve likely heard that the University Avenue Andronico’s in Berkeley is wheezing out of business this week. As dying stores do, this one staged a deep-discount wind-down that ensured it would be a pristine skeleton by the last day of business (Saturday). Feeling uneasily similar to the deal vultures marauding the aisles, I paid a visit to Andronico’s yesterday to see if I could scavenge a bit of human interest from the wreckage.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Goofin' Around With Off the Grid

Plus Bites Off Broadway ends (for now) and Haven makes a test run.

by Jesse Hirsch
Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Off the Grid impresario Matt Cohen has a new lark. Each week he's loaning out a food truck to a different Berkeley brick and mortar for his Wednesday night pods. "Everybody likes to do something quirky and new," Cohen said.

But behind the giggles lies a dose of savvy PR. Though Berkeley's restaurant community has embraced food trucks more than, say, Oakland's, Cohen recognizes there's work to be done. His new "guest truck" gambit functions as community outreach, an olive branch to North Shattuck's non-mobile restaurants.

Lush Gelato got a truck last week, and upcoming guest hosts include: Saul's Delicatessen, serving pastrami latke and vegan mock liver sandwiches on October 26; a Juice Bar Collective member, serving tamales on November 2; and sandwiches and tallow chips from Local Butcher Shop on November 9. Guerrilla Cafe and Taste of the Himalayas are also slated to take a turn.

Does Cohen think the experience might entice anybody new to follow the call of the open road? "If you get a few drinks in Peter [Levitt] from Saul's, he might talk about starting his own food truck," said Cohen, "but I think it's just talk."

Bites Off Broadway Ends

Bites Off Broadway's six-truck pod staged its last event of the season on Friday, drawing record numbers. "I think people heard we were shutting down, and they wanted to check us out while they still had a chance," said proprietor Karen Hester.

The tumultuous on-again, off-again food truck event was initially booted from Oakland Technical High School on Broadway, before gaining cautious approval for a limited run in front of Studio One on 45th Street. Now Hester has her sights set back on the original location, an area she calls "blighted" and in need of some fresh entrepreneurial spirit (it's also across the street from her house).

Hester and some of the truck owners from Bites Off Broadway plan to speak at this week's Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, voicing support for removing Oakland's moratorium on truck pods. She hopes to get the ball rolling for a Bites Off (or On) Broadway next spring.

Despite a host of municipal setbacks for mobile food in Oakland, Hester maintains a hopeful stance. Pro-street-food city councilmembers Jane Brunner and Rebecca Kaplan will present a new proposal to the Community and Economic Development Committee this week, and Hester feels change is on its way. "It's like medical marijuana," she said. "Someday the council members who are against it are going to look back and see they were standing on the wrong side of history."

Haven Works Out the Kinks

This May, the entire kitchen staff of Sausalito's Plate Shop restaurant threw down their aprons and walked out in a show of labor solidarity. This left some of the area's best culinary talent adrift, most notably executive chef Kim Alter. Alter was very much an "it chef," and food blogs were agog with breathy speculation on where she would land. Oakland, as it turns out.

Last week, Alter kicked off a series of weekly pop-ups at Daniel Patterson's Plum, trying out potential menus and building hype before she helms Patterson's new Jack London Square restaurant, Haven.

For all the buzz surrounding the Alter-Patterson collaboration, the first Haven pop-up was mellow. Counter seats by the open kitchen were filled, but Plum's communal tables never hit capacity. "It was, uh, slower than I expected," said Alter.

The four-course menu skewed California casual, starting with a braised artichoke, caramelized sunchoke, and chicory salad; moving to clams and lardon in a barely detectable bourbon broth; then a bavette steak with chanterelles and cauliflower cheddar purée; finishing with a lemon ricotta green tea soufflé from Coi's pastry chef. Alter has been sous cheffing six days a week at Plum (filling the void left by Charlie Parker's sudden departure), and the pop-up menu wasn't wildly different from any other night there. Still, it was her own.

"[Patterson] is notorious for being very specific about every detail, down to the plates used for each item," Alter said. "For Haven, I'm getting more room to breathe .... I just want to make simple, delicious food that you can eat with a beer, elbows on the table."

The pop-up's only anxiety belonged to staff, who seemed hyper-focused on customer reaction. After much prodding from our server to fill out comment cards, the general manager introduced himself and asked for more feedback. After we left, another server followed us, asking us again if we had enjoyed everything.

"We're working out the kinks. Like, we learned that some people don't like eating soufflé out of the same dish. I guess that would be awkward if you were out for a business dinner," Alter laughed.

To join the Haven focus group, make a Tuesday-night reservation through December by calling 510-444-7586 or visiting PlumOakland.com.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Goofin' Around With Off the Grid

by Jesse Hirsch
Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 5:45 PM

Off the Grid impresario Matt Cohen has a new lark. Each week he’s loaning out a food truck to a different Berkeley brick and mortar for his Wednesday night pods. “Everybody likes to do something quirky and new,” Cohen said. Oh you crazy guy.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Haven Works Out the Kinks

by Jesse Hirsch
Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 5:53 PM

This May, almost the entire kitchen staff of Sausalito’s Plate Shop restaurant threw down their aprons and walked out in a show of labor solidarity. This left some of the area’s best culinary talent adrift, most notably executive chef Kim Alter. Alter was very much an “it chef,” and food blogs were agog with breathy speculation on where she would land. Oakland, as it turns out.

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Bites Off Broadway Ends (for the Season)

by Jesse Hirsch
Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Bites Off Broadway’s six-truck pod staged its last event of the season on Friday, drawing record numbers. “I think people heard we were shutting down, and they wanted to check us out while they still had a chance,” said proprietor Karen Hester.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Adesso's Pig Roast for the Cloth Napkin Crowd

Its last roast of the season. Plus, Charlie Parker departs from Plum.

by Jesse Hirsch
Wed, Oct 19, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Walking off a hearty lunch in Piedmont last weekend, I happened upon the Los Carnales/La Familia Motorcycle Club BBQ. It was a rough-and-tumble affair, beer and belly laughs and lots of (non-Folsom Street Fair) leather. Also: puffs of aromatic meat smoke wafting toward the sidewalk. My stomach a taut balloon, I still entertained the notion of grabbing a hot dog.

Clearly it had been too long since my last outdoor family-style food jamboree.

This, loosely, was my thinking when I bought tickets for Adesso's pig roast the following weekend. Even if I couldn't hang with bikers, I'd still have the chance to carve scalding hunks off a spit-roasted pig, meet strangers, and mill about in the sun with some beer. My fantasy was based on the country fair template, not the reality of an indoor restaurant with cloth napkins and table service.

This would be the third and final pig roast of the season for the Adesso crew. Tickets ran $30 a pop, giving you a four-hour window to stuff yourself silly. Adesso's dinner prices are usually $9-plus for small plates of salumi; the price seemed fair. Plus it would be my last chance before the roasts took a winter siesta.

The event started at 2 p.m., and seasoned eaters entrenched themselves early; by 3, Adesso's prime tabletop real estate was completely occupied. Seats at the bar were also full, so we got to "mill about," except we were jammed up in the tight restaurant interior. Plates in hand, we tried to make small as servers jockeyed for position. After watching us dance into three or four different spots, a group of seated eaters took pity, scooching over to make space.

Sadly, there was no whole pig turning on a spit. Instead, individual pork sections roasted all day in the Freelove Music School parking lot across the street: 3 porchettas, 4 hams, and 65 pounds of sausage. Adesso and Dopo (its sister restaurant) buy two whole hogs weekly, and Sunday's roast was only a portion of this week's haul.

The tender, fat-slicked porchetta was peppered with chili and sage, while the leaner ham was roasted in a lemon honey, red wine marinade. Both were sliced deli-thin and heaped onto buffet platters. The two sausage varieties were mildly spiced, one a fennel/sweet chili blend and the other pecorino romano and parsley. All the meat ran tepid to lukewarm, the consequence of hoofing it across a busy intersection, then carving it up inside Adesso. The situation couldn't be helped, but I'd really been hoping for hot grease to dribble down my chin.

Three oily, acidic salsas served as apparent condiments for the meat (no mustard?). The inoffensive sides also ran high on vinegar and oil, including a fresh tomato, celery, and red onion salad; another salad of cooked potatoes and peppers; and a dish of homemade pickles. One stand-out was the conserva, an excellent dish of summer squash, zucchini, and tomatoes, fried with a hint of garlic and served with fennel shavings, capers, and green olives. The fennel gave texture to the stew-like base, while the olives and capers lent welcome bursts of salt.

Near the meal's end, our tablemates got chatty. This wasn't their first Adesso roast, and they had crafted a routine. They would leave to drink at the tiki bar across the street, then return for more pork, head back to the bar, and so on. "We just keep stumbling back and forth." I think they were onto something.

Following Charlie Parker

In an announcement that's sending shockwaves through the gossip-hungry blogosphere, last week the Chronicle's Inside Scoop got word that Charlie Parker would be leaving his post as head chef at Plum. I'm trying not to take this one personally, but it seems I'm cursed to always arrive late to the Parker party.

First I visited Santa Cruz's Cellar Door Café this winter on a friend's recommendation, only to learn Parker had left that kitchen a month prior. I tasted the eminently fine vapor trails of the last menu he had designed, but still was left wondering: What was I missing?

Then several times this year, I've been muy close to visiting Plum for a special occasion meal, but something always got in the way (read: lack of reservations). Until, to celebrate my new position at the Express, my partner planned a surprise date for me there. The day after I learned about this upcoming treat, Parker quit. Was it something I said?

Personal wistfulness aside, this is the most recent in a string of high-profile departures from the Daniel Patterson empire. First Jeremy Fox, who was initially slated to helm Plum, abruptly parted ways with Patterson last fall. Then this year Patterson protégés Lauren Kiino and Evan Rich also left the fold. Each parting had its own set of circumstances, but still: That's a lot of shake-up in a brief period. No word yet on where Parker will land, but you can be sure I'll try it shortly after he departs.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Pig Roast for the Cloth Napkin Crowd

by Jesse Hirsch
Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 12:20 PM

Walking off a hearty lunch in Piedmont last weekend, I happened upon the Los Carnales/La Familia Motorcycle Club BBQ. It was a rough-and-tumble affair, beer and belly laughs and lots of (non-Folsom Street Fair) leather. Also: puffs of aromatic meat smoke wafting toward the sidewalk. My stomach a taut balloon, I still entertained the notion of grabbing a hot dog.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Chef Shake-ups at Panisse and Plum

by Jesse Hirsch
Sun, Oct 16, 2011 at 12:32 PM

October has been a big month for upper-tier chef turnover in the East Bay. First there was the high-profile revelation by the Chronicle’s Inside Scoop blog that Jeremy Waag would be taking over David Tanis’ co-chef role at Chez Panisse starting next summer. Waag is a busboy-turned-sous chef, but his upward arc isn’t exactly groundbreaking; Panisse has a long-standing democratic tradition of discovering and promoting internal talent.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Getting to Know You

The Express gets a new food writer. Plus, highlights from the Armenian Food Festival.

by Jesse Hirsch
Wed, Oct 12, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Yes, it's only been a few months since John Birdsall took over the Express' food coverage. But now I'm taking over for him, after he accepted a full-time position at Chow.com. I've been writing about food for years, but I'd rather skip the yawn-inducing details of my résumé. I'll just tell a story.

Three years ago, I was living in the culinary mecca of Brooklyn. I had just relocated from a stint in the Midwest (think: deep-fried everything), and I felt immensely blessed for my newfound playground. I loved a good urban escapade, especially when there was a beach taco, a Korean stuffed chicken wing, or a perfect pastrami waiting at the other end.

One night, my friends and I had clam pizza in our sights. It's a white, thin-crust pizza, topped with plump littleneck clams, olive oil, oregano, garlic, and a handful of grated cheese. We had read a lengthy article exploring the origins of this regional treat (pleasure reading for food nerds), tracing it back almost eighty years.

We tracked down Franny's, a joint legendary for clam pizza wizardry. Franny's put some tweaks on the traditional clam pie, foregoing cheese, lacing the crust with white wine and heavy cream, adding a bit of chili pepper fire. Maybe non-conventional but still, a revelation. After a couple of slices, I felt beholden to (and smitten with) our chef. We ordered more pizzas, including one with a baked duck egg in the center.

And damn, was that a fine egg. Rich, unctuous, almost aggressive, its memory has eclipsed anything else on the pizza (figs? offal? cheese?) We were seated near the controlled chaos of the open kitchen, and I yelled to the chef: "That egg was the best thing I ever ...." He stopped me short. "Duck is good and all, but you know what lays the perfect egg? Goose. It's totally overpowering, makes a fucking incredible omelet."

After that night's brilliant dinner, I trusted the chef implicitly. If he said goose eggs were the best, then they must be. I had a new grail.

Clam pizza had proven to be a straightforward quest, but I would spend countless man-hours scouring food message boards, calling poultry farms, and trolling off-brand ethnic markets in search of the elusive goose egg. Duck eggs were easy to find in Chinatown, and I saw goose carcass hanging in the Greek butcher's window every day. But goose eggs? I got a lot of shrugged shoulders and shaking heads.

A couple of years went by, and I moved to the Bay Area. I had all but given up on my quest. Until, at a farmers' market this summer, on the counter of an unremarkable chicken egg booth, there were two goose eggs, each as big as a grapefruit. By week's end, I had scrambled one, poached the other, and closed the book on another food adventure.*

Goose eggs were just the beginning of my Bay Area culinary wish fulfillment. Abundant, year-round produce; fresh-caught Atlantic seafood; carnitas burritos .... Honestly, you're probably sick of hearing East Coast transplants rhapsodize about your food. But I can't help it. I feel very fortunate to write on something I'm so passionate about, in a place so rich with material. I hope I can convey that.

Taste of Armenia

Tell people you're going to an Armenian food festival and see what happens. Puzzled faces mostly, with heads tilted to the side like a cocker spaniel. If they care (or want to do a good job pretending), they'll try to place Armenia on the globe, then deduce the cuisine based on its neighbors. "Lots of onions? Lamb? Hearty grains?"

Throw in some phyllo dough, cheese, and gobs of butter and you've nailed much of the fare at last weekend's Armenian Food Festival at St. Vartan's Church in Oakland. Though the diet-minded could nibble on a limp side salad with vinaigrette, most items brooked no dainty eaters.

One highlight was the koofta, aptly described as "meat stuffed with meat." No turducken this, it's a dense little hockey puck of lamb-on-lamb action. Despite its simple look, koofta preparation is a two-day ordeal: First some lamb is mashed with onion and spices, then left to firm for a day in the fridge. Next a springy outer shell is created with more lamb and bulgur, and a portion of lamb paste is injected into each one. At the St. Vartan's festival, one 97-year-old woman oversaw all koofta aesthetics, by all accounts a pretty tough customer.

Next was the beoreg, phyllo dough (in a continental flair, the festival described the dough as "French puff pastry") baked around lamb and onion paste or parsley and cheese. This was a bulls-eye find, as we've been trying to locate beoreg's Balkan cousin, burek, since moving to the Bay Area (I used to bring a few slices from New York in my suitcase). Burek was often denser than the Armenian version, each slice weighing over a third of a pound, and the Armenian cheese was an oddly inauthentic Monterey Jack, unlike the salty feta-like filling I expected.

The Armenian sarma, little grape-leaf cigars surrounding lamb and rice, was virtually indistinguishable from a Greek dolma. In fact, in a bit of cross-cultural fusion, the festival sold T-shirts that boasted: "My grandma's dolma is better than your grandma's."

*How was it? I'll let you have your own adventure.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Taste of Armenia

by Jesse Hirsch
Tue, Oct 11, 2011 at 4:28 PM

Tell people you’re going to an Armenian food festival and see what happens. Puzzled faces mostly, with heads tilted to the side like a cocker spaniel. If they care (or want to do a good job pretending), they’ll try to place Armenia on the globe, then deduce the cuisine based on its neighbors. “Lots of onions? Lamb? Hearty grains?”

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