Posted by: Travis | February 16, 2008

On Food

My life the past few days has happened to revolve around some of my favorite things: work (obviously), food, cycling, and politics. Okay, politics may not be one of my favorite things, but at this point in time, you have to take some interest in it. Anyway, i’ll start with the food and we’ll see if i get onto some other things. The Tour of California starts tomorrow here in Palo Alto and since thursday the whole town has been crawling with pro cyclists, they’re everywhere. Anyway Rachel and i will be seeing stages of the race on sunday and monday, so i’ll wait to put anything up about that until after monday.

On to food. This week i got a package from my dad with a copy of ‘H’ magazine and the latest Texas Monthly. The former has interviews with some of Houston’s best chefs, while the latter has the published results of a questionnaire sent out to Texas’ best chefs about where Texas cuisine is going in the future.

While i haven’t had a chance to read the article in ‘H’, i immediately turned to the article in Tex-Mo after opening the package. If you have an interest in food i would recommend checking it out, as it is pretty cool. Its really refreshing to me that people are getting sick of traditional fine dining and prefer a casual atmosphere with really good food. That was a theme that seemed really prevalent throughout the article. As much as i agree with the principles of molecular gastronomy (the general idea of not playing by the traditional rules just because they are the traditional rules), it feels like things are getting a little bit out of hand. It seems as though the chefs listed had the same feeling. Im okay with a few guys doing it out on the fringe of the cooking world (Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Barcelona, and Grant Achatz in Chicago), but it seems like that got so popular that people started doing it just to be shocking rather than innovative. I don’t know, i guess there weren’t many people doing it, but i feel like there was a point when there were some people just trying to be cool standing in a kitchen trying channel their inner howard stern all like, ‘Look at me! I’m freaking crazy!!!’ Anyway, it was cool to read the opinions of some of my favorite chefs. The list of people who responded and their restaurant in the back of the article was like a guide to great dining in Texas.

Its nice to see people starting a ‘slow food’ movement that emphasizes cooking things at low heat for long periods of time. Things like braising meat in a delicious sauce until it is so tender that it falls off the bone (hint: put a cup of coffee in the braising liquid, it works wonders in tenderizing meat). Its a beautiful thing. I also like the current trend of cooking with cuts of meat that aren’t so popular, kind of a return to the old world’s working man’s cuisine, but by way of interpretation of course. Turning things like pork belly, short ribs, veal sweet breads, boudin noir, ox tail, and pigs feet into something delicious is no small feat (feet? Sorry). However, like most fads this too could also easily get out of control. Imagine a world when these ‘inferior’ cuts of meat (who long ago were given to slaves by their masters because the masters didn’t want anything to do with them) become twice as expensive as traditional cuts like tenderloin. It sounds silly, but we aren’t far off.

I’ve got to say, i’ve also got some respect for the local movement. One of the things i’ve enjoyed doing while up here in NorCal is going to the farmer’s market, seeing what looks good, and designing a meal on the spot. Organic produce you find at farmer’s markets isn’t near as pretty as the stuff you find at your neighborhood supermarket, but its tastes 10 times better. But as with any trend, people have gone off the deep end. I give credit to the slew of writers who have moved out of the city on to farms to do subsistence farm and eat only what they grow (or things grown within 20 miles or so of their farm), then write a book about it. But the reality is that this is only feasible for a very small percentage of the population. Not only this, but these books tend to get preachy really quickly. I agree that the way the world eats has some very serious problems, but i think their proposed solution (basically that society regress 150 years) just isn’t going to work. I don’t know what the solution is, but i suspect that if we don’t find one rather quickly, rates of diseases like cancer will continue to grow rapidly. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley is one of the more famous advocates of the eat local movement but seems to have maintained an attitude of moderation. Im lucky enough to be going there when my parents come up to visit for my birthday. Im looking forward to visiting the place that is widely regarded as the birthplace of california cuisine and a pioneer of the eat local movement. I will most definitely be reporting back after we go.

I guess we should deal with food fads in the same manor as fads in other things, like clothes and music: do what you like, pay little attention to what others think of you, use your head, enjoy what you have, and use the concept that most things in moderation can’t be that bad for you as your guide. As much as Rachael Ray’s popularity baffles and frustrates me, at least it means that more people are taking an interest in cooking and starting to pay attention to what they eat, rather than slamming down the crap from MacDonalds. There’s something to be said for that. Its a baby step in the right direction, America. It may be a baby step, but a step none the less.

For Valentine’s day Rachel got me the French Laundry cookbook. The French Laundry is a restaurant in Yountville, California (near Napa), that many consider to be the best restaurant in the country, some even say the world. I think the tasting menu runs about $300 per person (and thats without wine!) so it will be a while before i make it over there, but i would still like to go before Rachel and i move away. Anyway, the cookbook is incredible. Im not sure if i’m capable of cooking anything in it, but even if im not, its so beautiful that i would be happy to just have it as a coffee table book to thumb through every once in a while.

Last night Rachel and i went on a Valentine’s date to a restaurant a few blocks away from us called Tamerine. During the tech boom 10 years ago Palo Alto was quite the spot for fine dining. Wolfgang Puck had a restaurant here, along most of the other celebrity chefs of the era. When the tech bubble burst, and people’s disposable income spending reduced from ridiculously stupid to really stupid, all of the celebrity chef restaurants closed up shop and headed out of town. Now with web 2.0 (google, yahoo kind of, apple, etc.) people are starting to pick up the spending again and fine dining is starting to make a comeback. There have always been a ton of great restaurants in the area, but they were mostly very casual. The new breed of restaurants though place less emphasis on celebrity chefs, vallet parking, and requiring coats and ties. Instead that attention is focussed on the food and creating a more casual environment where diners can relax and enjoy the experience.

Tamerine is one of the only Palo Alto restaurants on the San Francisco Chronicle’s list of Top Restaurants in the Bay Area and widely regarded as the best place in Palo Alto. I’ve been walking by it ever since we moved here and was always curious, but never went. Finally for valentine’s day Rachel decided that enough was enough, and it was time that we use the occasion to suck it up and lay down some cash for premium food. I had really high expectations and they were exceeded.

Tamerine (website) is officially a vietnamese place, but that label doesn’t really do it justice. While they stick mostly to the ingredients and preparations of vietnamese food they mix them in with elements of other cuisines for food that is different and innovative, but without falling into the exhausted tag of ‘Asian Fusion’. They do mostly small plates that are enfluenced by spanish tapas (the size of the dish, not the dishes themselves), where tables are encouraged to order a bunch of dishes and share them.
We started off with a first course of salt and pepper calamari in a cilantro emulsion. It was easily the best calamari i’ve ever had. It was lightly battered with something (maybe tempura) that was crunchy but light and fluffy. It wasn’t heavy like most fried food. The calamari itself tasted of fresh seafood and there wasn’t even a hint of the chewy rubber band thing that plagues most calamari. Then the sauce. Oh my goodness, the sauce. It tasted like lime juice, cilantro, some olive oil, and a tiny bit of coconut milk pureed into a smooth sauce that could not have been more perfect.

Next up was Ha Long Bay soup. It was a smooth combination of cocunut milk, a little bit of lime juice, and coriander. It was simple but delicious. Inside the soup were crab wantons which were steamed rather than fried and were closer to dumplings than wantons. Rachel couldn’t eat the crab wantons because of her normal ‘texture issues’. They were good, but definitely the only part of the meal that didn’t blow me away.

For the next course we got Hoisin lamb chops cooked medium rare with bok choy and sweet potato fries. Most people stick to preparing lamb with mint. I love this preparation as i like how the flavors compliment each other, and if i were to cook lamb, i would probably choose to do something with mint, so i was curious as to how this was going to work out. Lamb is a tough meat to work with. Unlike chicken or beef you can’t really force flavors on it. With pork you can try to do something sweet (or sweet and spicy), cook it slow, and usually come up with something pretty good. With lamb, its much easier for things to go horribly wrong. This lamb was perfectly cooked and the flavors were complex and well balanced. The bok choy complimented it perfectly. The sweet potato fries were also simple, but wonderful. The chef resisted the temptation to over season them to make them sweet. Instead they were ever so slightly dredged or breaded in something and then fried with no seasoning at all. They had the perfect crunch on the outside, soft on the inside of a great french fry.

For dessert we got a butterscotch pot de ceme. The preparation was a traditional pot de creme but was perfect. I have no idea how something done so traditionally with no twist what so ever could be so good, but it was.

My expectations were high, but i was really impressed. This is without question my new favorite restaurant in the Bay Area.

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