Food and Drink

Monday, June 17, 2013

Twenty Bucks for Riding a Bike? Sure!

Posted By on Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 9:23 PM


Let’s get this straight—just for riding a bike less than three miles, one can obtain a $20 gift certificate to a top notch San Francisco bakery and restaurant opening a new location in Santa Rosa? Now, does anyone have a helmet?

The “mother dough” culture, which reportedly gives San Francisco’s Boudin sourdough bread the legendary flavor it’s packed with, is heading up to the restaurant’s new Montgomery Village location tomorrow, June 18. It’s leaving the Rincon Valley Library at 9:30am to be safely locked away in the new space, less than three miles away. Anyone wishing to participate in this bike ride, from the beginning, middle or end, gets a $20 gift certificate. Well, the first 100 cyclists, anyway. But considering it’s a Tuesday, the middle of the morning, in Rincon Valley, chances are high to get in on the delicious, free action.

The new restaurant opens July 11 at 2345 Midway Dr., Santa Rosa. Progress is already quite visible from Farmer’s Lane on the new space.

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dierk’s Midtown Now Open

Posted By on Thu, May 9, 2013 at 11:05 AM


Fans of the always crowded but always delicious “parkside” location now have another option for upscale breakfast at decent prices. Dierk’s Midtown Café (1422 Fourth St., Santa Rosa) is now open for breakfast and lunch.

They’ve been open a week so far, and the buzz hasn’t caught on yet. Dierk’s Parkside is one of the most consistently

It’s a good time to get Dierk’s thick bacon, poached eggs or goat cheese in any of the breakfast dishes without having to elbow for position in line. Plus, the jam they put out on each table is as good as ever, and there can neer be too much on a slab of toast. Think of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, swishing around his knife on the White Rabbit’s pocket watch, getting jam everywhere. Now imagine that watch as a piece of toast about to enter your mouth. That’s my kind of toast.

Dierk’s expansion has been planned for a few months now. It’s taking over the former Midtown Café, a well-intentioned dining spot that just didn’t catch on. The small space is full of light, making a great atmosphere for reading a newspaper like the Bohemian during breakfast. In case it isn’t obvious, I might still be on a bacon high from this morning’s breakfast. Does that count as "Gonzo" journalism?

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Moonlight Brewing + Spoonbar = BFF 4 EVER

Posted By on Mon, Apr 29, 2013 at 11:33 AM


Spoonbar is a wonderful restaurant on its own. The place is beautiful and the food just as pleasing. The bar is highly acclaimed and it has a great reputation. So, why take a chance with pop-up dinners when the day-to-day operations are seemingly solid enough on their own? Because Spoonbar is not just about subsisting at a high level, it's about taking risks and pushing the boundaries to celebrate the culinary nirvana that is the North Bay.

Upon arrival at the Moonlight Brewing popup dinner April 25, Spoonbar's mixologist Daniel Sorentino served up a cocktail made with Death and Taxes beer, Genever gin, housemaid ginger beer, molasses, allspice and lactic acid. The best thing about this was the use of appropriate, large cubes of ice. It was an experiment, a risk, and though it worked well enough, I was expecting something more smooth and refreshing like the beer it was based upon. This cocktail was instead full of strong flavors with a warm profile, but the surprise and innovation was appreciated.

Course 1
  • Course 1
The first course, paired with Moonlight flagship Death and Taxes black lager, was outstanding. Caroway foccacia sandwiches with pork saucisson and dill made up fingerling grilled cheese-like sandwiches. My only wish for this course is that it there was more of it. The toasted grains played well with the flavors of the beer and the richness was cut by the refreshing taste and carbonation of the lager.

Course 2
  • Course 2
Second course was a mix of potatoes with preserved lemon and sorrel paired with Misspent Youth. The sweetness of the citrus brought out the best of the pale ale, and it seemed as though this dinner would just get better and better.

Third course reintroduced meat to the menu with wage beef tartare, red jalapeño and a puffed rice cracker paired with Twist of Fate bitter ale. The style of beer doesn't always accurately describe the taste of Moonlight's brews. This "bitter" was more of a rich amber ale, which was a great choice with the rich, sweet raw beef. The red, sweet jalapeño contributed to the sweetness with a touch of heat, and the cracker played up the beer's hop flavor. Could it get any better than this?

The main entree was slow roasted duck with ramps and sunchokes. This was paired with Points North, which tasted like an American schwarzbier (because, I found out later, it is). This dark brew is thick and rich, notes of fruits like prunes and red wine grapes. It went well enough with the duck, but it seemed that the pairings had plateaued with the previous course. Again, the food was superb, but I would have loved another slice of succulent duck.

Course 4
  • Course 4
Dessert wound up being the most filling course, and the most intriguing pairing. A butterscotch tart with coffee ice cream and baked meringue replaced the advertised menu item of tobacco ice cream and macaroon. However much I was looking forward to being able to have said I tasted tobacco ice cream, coffee flavor made a fine substitute, probably more suited to my taste, anyway. This was paired with Uncle Ollie, an unhooked beer flavored primarily with cedar. I was under the impression that beer was not beer without hops. Not true. The flavor is that of a grassy meadow, possibly the hay fever inducing scent of a horse stable. This didn't taste like traditional beer, and does not seem like a beer that would appeal to many on its own. But paired with sweets like this made the most unlikely delicious combination. It sang the tune of balance. Like wine, which can have "desirable" notes of a grassy meadow, old sneakers or wet dog, this beer was not unpleasant but extremely unique. It's a flavor that will be remembered for decades after only one taste.

Spoonbar proved once again that it is one of the better restaurants in Sonoma County, not just an over-hyped, overpriced Friday night reservation destination. Events like this should fill up fast in the future, and not just for fans of the hard-to-get beer.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Coffee's Come a Long Way Since 1963

Posted By on Mon, Feb 18, 2013 at 11:05 AM

Although the hyperbolic headline of this article from 1963 was completely unwarranted, it wouldn't feel too out of place these days in the Bay Area, where coffee is considered sacred in a time when the idea of a $5 16-ounce coffee is far from preposterous.

Whether it began the coffee renaissance in this country is yet to be determined, but it certainly raised eyebrows. Yeah, that cuppa' jo was just a nickel. Sure, couch fishing spoils could put a pep in your step. But was it worth it? Was the gut rot, the headache, the wonton destruction of taste buds and the horrible breath really worth that nickel? Would caffeine lovers in 1963 have been willing to shell out, say $.25 for a coffee? Still one coin, but substantially more expensive.

To some, coffee is like gas: an irreplaceable necessity of modern life. No matter the cost, it will be consumed. But unlike gas, its quality varies greatly. Directly oppositional to gas, cheaper the brew, the bigger the frown. But that doesn't mean a more expensive cup equals greatness. Once the basic need for caffeine is met, coffee becomes an artisan food. Just think of all the work that goes into making it: harvesting the cherries, discarding the fruit, drying the beans, roasting and then grinding into a powder to be steeped in hot water. And each of these steps influences the flavor.

Gas is not like that. Gas is a "yes or no" process, meaning "will this make my motor run, yes or no?" Companies like to pretend theirs is better, with special additives. But that's like toting what kind of milk or sweetener is in one's coffee. That doesn't matter if it's all the same stuff. But coffee is not gas, thankfully.

There is a definite difference between Intelligensia coffee and McDonald's. There's a difference between Flying Goat and Starbuck's, mainly that Goat's French press coffee has depth with notes of fruit, flowers and chocolate while the Bucks' has the flavor profile of an dirty oven left on all day.

Maybe it's the feeling of coolness from typing on a Bluetooth keyboard connected to my phone, maybe it's the cheerful folk music in this cafe or maybe it's the second-cup optimism kicking in, but I'm really glad we will never again have to see a headline containing the words "forced" and "swill." At least not with regard to coffee.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Meet The Crazy People Who Started Lining Up at 3am for Pliny The Younger

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 5:05 PM


It’s 4:30am outside the Russian River Brewing Co., dark and early, and I have to wonder: who the hell would be up this early if they didn’t have to be?

I often work early at my coffee shop job, and usually don’t run into anyone on my way to work. But as I ride my bike down Fourth Street this morning, three people sit in fold-out chairs wrapped in sleeping bags. Twenty-two year-old Kristen Halsing, 23-year-old Matt Regan and Will La Branche are here—sleepy, cold, and eagerly awaiting this year’s release of Pliny the Younger.

The three, from San Rafael, are the first in line for today’s big event. Halsing and Regan were both up at 1:30am to wait in line by 3am. La Branche was so eager, he woke up at 11:30pm. Hey, it happens—when the oft-rated No. 1 beer in the world is on tap.

Hundreds of hopster enthusiasts will soon file behind them, anxiously waiting along Fourth Street, and by 9am, the line manages to wrap down the street and around the corner. Yet most don’t mind the line, remarking that it’s always a guaranteed good time. Fifth-year Younger attendee Mike Von Miedema—who likes to go by “the Drinking Dutchman”—says, “The line’s a piece of cake. I’ve had some of the best times of my life. Met some really cool people, got a blind date once, played some Frisbee and snuggled a 200-pound man in line when I was cold.”

After the doors open, I’ve never seen the brewery so packed with customers and staff. Angie, a server, wasn’t even on the schedule to work today, “but I threw on a shirt and said, ‘I want to work.’”

I catch up with Halsing, Regan and LaBranche at the brewery in the light of day, seven and a half hours after meeting them at 4:30am. Halsing says they spent the time playing poker, eating Wheat Thins and chatting. “It’s hard to believe I spent seven hours in line,” he says. “I have no concept of time. All I know is this beer tastes amazing right now.”

The triple-IPA, 10.5% Pliny the Younger is available seasonally at the Russian River Brewing Co. for the first two weeks of February in half-pint glasses for $4.50—plus a long wait in line.

Russian River Brewing Co., 725 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.545.BEER.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Winner, Winner, Porky Dinner

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2013 at 10:44 AM

  • Porchetta

Pop-up dinners are awesome. 1) Prix Fixe meals are awesome. 2) Artisan meat producers are awesome. 3) Sitting at a table with people excited about food is awesome. 4) Wine pairing by people who know their stuff is awesome. 5) I am still full.

This was my list of notes after Sonoma’s Epicurean Connection Wednesday night Victorian Farmstead/chef John Lyle pop-up dinner. Tickets were $75, including wine pairing, tax and tip. Really, that’s like a three-course dinner for $35, because this wine pairing would be at least $15 and tax and gratuity would run about $25. This is how meals in many European restaurants are priced, and it just feels like this structure respects the food more. It’s not trying to trick a diner into not realizing the total cost of an experience, it’s offering the meal at a price that’s fair for the quality (1).

To start, chicken and dumplings were good, but not as great as what was to come. The dumplings lacked a bit of flavor for my taste, but the chicken and broth made up for it. The flesh tasted so pure, an unfortunately rare trait in commercial meat (2). The dish was surprisingly light, easing my fears of carrying a lead stomach by the end of the evening.

The star, porchetta, was impeccable. Hands down wins my vote for best main dish of the year. I don’t need to eat any more, folks. We’ve already found a winner. Pork belly, laid out flat, rolled over onto itself and cooked so the skin gets crispy, the fat gets juicy and the meat gets so, so tender but not in the “cut it with your fork” way, which I always felt to just be another way to say “mushy.” The meat had so much flavor with such little seasoning, basically just salt and pepper. “The food comes perfect right out of the ground,” says Lyle. “It’s my job not to mess it up.”

John Lyle
  • John Lyle

Indeed, it came to him near perfection in its raw form. I could probably eat it as sashimi. This pork is so pure, I could taste its diet, which I imagine consisted much of wild grasses and shrubs. Sitting next to Victorian Farmstead farmer Adam Parks, I discovered he gets his pork from Marin County, though it’s one of the few meats he doesn’t raise on his own (3). His high standards are obvious, though, with the chicken and pork both surpassing already high expectations.

The pork sat atop red buttery red potatoes, cooked whole and cut in half on the plate, as well as a mixture of greens from Bloomfield Farms. The greens were on everyone’s lips during dinner. I wanted to talk about the pork, but no, everyone was so taken with the damn side dish that I didn’t even get to my Porky Pig impression (a dinner party favorite). To be fair, they were really good greens, which Lyle said was just a simple mix of kale, spinach and chard. Again, he doesn’t do much to them here, but the mixture of flavors took away from the natural bitterness that usually turns me away from greens, especially kale. Yeah, I said it. Kale sucks. But this kale, mixed with other goodies, didn’t suck. Maybe I’m beginning to see the light. Maybe I was just high on pig juice. (Wouldn’t be the first time).

Fig tart
  • Fig tart

Dessert, spelled with two esses because you always want seconds, did in fact make me want seconds (5). The fig tart was sliced like a pie, served with vanilla ice cream and a carmel sauce that stole the show and took home the award for best supporting condiment. Served with two cheeses that “literally just came in hours ago,” it was a nice comedown after the pork. The crust was king of this dessert; Lyle is a master of this craft. “It’s a gateway pastry,” he says of pie crust. It leads to nefarious debauchery such as croissants, puff pastry and other sinful doughs. If the Body of Christ were made of Lyle’s pie crust, communion would have lines out the door.

Sheana Davis
  • Sheana Davis

I didn’t mention the wine yet, but the pairings by Sheana Davis were unexpected and well chosen (4). Idell Vineyards chardonnay with the chicken didn’t overpower the lightness of the dish, and the winemaker sat across from me at the table. (It’s pretty amazing when people who made the raw ingredients for a dinner are at the table, it shows real confidence in their work, and with good reason.) The Korbin Kameron cab had about six years to mellow out, and it wasn’t really meaty or super bold. It was more like a zin, really, like a big zin, which paired so well with the pork I almost had another glass (but I’d have left the pork all alone, and I couldn’t do that). Forget pork and pinot, this is even better. And with dessert, the 2006 Parmelee Hill syrah was a great wine that went better with the cheese than fig tart. Depth makes this a good drinking wine, which makes it a smart choice for dessert. I’ve never been a fan of super sweet wines at dessert, because dessert is already sweet. Why add more sweet? This syrah was a good choice and left a wonderful lingering reminder of the evening after we left.

I always forget Sonoma is only half an hour from Santa Rosa and half an hour from Petaluma. Actually, it’s about the same to drive between SR and P-Town as it is from either city to Sonoma, and much more pleasant. The only tough thing is passing up the great, super cheap taco-portunities on the way to the Promised Land.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Coffee Champions Crowned Thursday

Posted By on Tue, Jan 15, 2013 at 3:37 PM


Battle of the Baristas, the long-lost chapter in the fight for Middle Earth, is taking place Jan. 17 at 6pm in Sebastopol. OK, it has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings, but it does have a lot to do with coffee and local food and drink, so it's pretty cool, nonetheless. Three baristas from Oliver's Market will vie for a grand prize of a trip to a Guatemalan coffee farm with Sebastopol roaster Taylor Maid Farms or a fabulous home espresso kit.

I try to imagine that last line in the voice of Monty Hall from “Let's Make a Deal.” But that's what too much coffee does to a person, makes them imagine things read in game show hosts' voices. Everything sounds so exciting and full of promise. But I digress, back to the barista smackdown. It roughly follows the rules of the World Barista Championship, though there is no signature drink and it includes a trivia section. What is this, Jeopardy? Sorry, I mean, What is, Jeopardy? No, that didn't work, either.

But back to the championship thing. Seven baristas total from all three Oliver's Markets in Sonoma County competed in the semifinals Jan. 7-9. The winners, Marghi Sulas (Oliver's Stony Point), Aubrey Bell (Oliver's Montecito) and Tanu Peleti (Oliver's Cotati) will be judged on temperature, texture, foam art and overall presentation for a shot of espresso and a latte, says Taylor Maid Marketing Manager Kara Klinge, as well as their shouts of “NO WHAMMY, NO WHAMMY, NO WHAMMYYYY AAAAAANNNNNDDDDDD STOP!” No wait, that's the game show network leaking out of my head again.

But seriously, the coffee contest is going to be great. There will be music from the Restless Sons Band, food from East West Cafe and Bakery Angelica and a keg of kombucha, in case the coffee buzz isn't enough to calm those shaky hands. This whole thing came about through Taylor Maid and Oliver's, who have been partners for the past seven years with Oliver's serving the Sebastopol-roasted coffee exclusively for all it's hot coffee drinks.

Battle of the Baristas commences Thursday, Jan. 17 at Taylor Maid Farms. 7190 Keating Ave., Sebastopol. 6pm. Free.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Farmed Salmon Worth Another Look

Posted By on Tue, Nov 6, 2012 at 2:21 PM

Salmon with pear vinegar cream by John Ash
  • Salmon with pear vinegar cream by John Ash

There are two opinions on farmed salmon. One says that salmon is salmon and it’s good for you no matter where it’s from. The other says farmed salmon is horrible for your body and the environment no matter where it’s from. Whereas though the latter school of thought may have once been the case, in the past few years there have been dramatic changes made in the way salmon is being farmed; it now takes another level of investigation to determine what really is the wave of the future.

John Ash
  • John Ash

Chef John Ash has been involved with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program since it launched in 1999. The organization is regarded as the most stringent guide of what’s sustainable in terms of fishing and what’s safe for the human body in terms of minerals and pollutants. Currently, farmed salmon is on the “Avoid” list because of environmental concerns from the process and the amount of fish it takes to feed the salmon. The current standard, according to the Seafood Watch, is three pounds of feeder fish for every pound of farmed salmon harvested. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that isn’t sustainable, and that’s one of the main reasons the program does not endorse the practice. But if the wild population of salmon continues to be the only source that’s used for food, even with the best regulations on fisheries it is estimated there will be none left by the end of this generation.

“I’m an old guy,” says Ash at a demonstration this morning for a new company offering sustainably-farmed salmon. “I’ve seen the ups and downs of farmed salmon.” He even took a tour in 1981 of a salmon farm in Norway, but it was less than inspiring. “It was like conventional chicken farming,” he says. “You could literally walk across the water on the backs of the salmon.” This created the need for extensive antibiotics and still resulted in low-quality fish. Fast forward thirty years, and companies are still trying to figure out how to sustainably farm the world’s favorite fish, but things are getting significantly better.

Japanese style roasted salmon by John Ash
  • Japanese style roasted salmon by John Ash

For example, Verlasso, the company he was endorsing and which supplied the fish for a cooking demonstration to about 30 students, media members and fish buyers at the SRJC Culinary Café, has found a way to control the ratio of feeder fish to 1:1 by supplementing omega 3-rich sardines, anchovies and herring with omega 3-rich yeast borne from algae. Coloring of the flesh comes not from dyes or chemical agents fed to the fish, but from beta carotene harvested from another type of algae, “which is what makes flamingoes pink,” says Verlasso Director Allyson Fish (yes, that’s her real name). The resulting mixture is pressed into pellets and fed to the salmon. As for Ash’s first farm experience, Verlasso is among a new breed of companies expanding the size of their ocean-based pens, giving the fish enough room to keep them from getting sick en masse.

Jennifer Bushman
  • Jennifer Bushman

Despite the slew of feel-good facts about any company, and no matter how environmentally friendly the farms are, the bottom line boils down to taste. Will chefs and consumers buy this? Does it taste better than what’s available now? With endorsements from Ash and chef Jennifer Bushman, who also spoke on behalf of Verlasso this morning, the tide may be turning on the farmed salmon debate. It tastes good, with a fat percentage closer to wild salmon than any other farmed Atlantic salmon (which is by far the most popular farmed salmon species). Ash said, “I don’t think you could tell the difference,” between Verlasso and wild Atlantic salmon. One caveat to this argument, however, is there may not be a chance to tell the difference. Wild Atlantic salmon are all but extinct due to overfishing. Pacific salmon is a different species, therefore will have a different flavor to begin with, farmed or wild.

But no matter how tasty farmed salmon is, wild salmon will always be preferred by top chefs. David Holman, executive chef with the Charlie Palmer restaurant group in Reno, said he has to keep salmon on the menu year-round due to customer demand, but chooses to offer wild salmon when in season. He says customers are always informed of the origin of their fish.

SRJC culinary students taste the lecture
  • SRJC culinary students taste the lecture

Holman cited showcasing local ingredients and seasonal bounty as reasons, but it’s no coincidence that wild salmon does taste better. As a former fishmonger, I have never had anything from a farm that tastes as good as wild salmon. Consumers know this, too. Wild salmon, even at $25 per pound, was nearly impossible to keep in stock when we could get it. Farmed salmon, despite being from a sustainable farm similar to Verlasso, sat neglected in the corner of the case even though it was half the price.

Jodie Lau, of Sonoma County supermarket chain G&G, was on hand with other executives from the market. All seemed impressed with the fish and the company, and Lau said she hoped the market could look into ways to begin carrying the fish year-round. If offered at $10.99 per pound retail, it would be comparable in price to other farmed salmon of lesser quality.

Verlasso is trying to break the stigma of farmed salmon not just for profit, but for the future of the world’s fish supply, says Allyson Fish. The company is working with Seafood Watch in hopes it will become the first farmed salmon to earn a “recommended buy” from the organization. It’s one of six aquaculture companies, the only one producing salmon, vying for this certification. By shooting for the top, this opens the door for other groups like the Marine Stewardship Council to look at farmed fish in a different light, and hopefully help change public perception through education.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Play With Your Food at Square Belly Food Theater

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Chris Hanson explains science in the kitchen
  • Chris Hanson explains science in the kitchen

It’s cool to play with your food. That’s the mantra behind Square Belly Food Theater, a series of monthly workshops being held at the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa. The most recent one on Oct. 3 featured chef Chris Hanson and food writer Heather Irwin showcasing molecular gastronomy techniques. Despite the fancy science words, it’s actually pretty easy to mess with the traditional way foods are served. And it can be damn impressive, too.

The demonstrations began with lemon powder. This would be easy enough to purchase at a local spice shop (there are two in Santa Rosa), but it’s much more potent and impressive when made at home. This is good to stir into recipes where liquid would throw off the scientific reactions of the dish (baking, for example) or as an interesting kick as a garnish, like on the rim of a lemondrop martini.

Basically, it involves peeling a lemon, scraping the white interior off and drying the peel in a food dehydrator. Hanson says these are for about $20 at local stores and probably online as well. I know they are often available at larger thrift stores for less. Throw the dried peel into a spice grinder (they used a bullet-type coffee grinder) and voila, lemon powder. This can be done with any kind of dried fruit, even pre-dried fruit, as long as it’s brittle.

Next was 63-degree eggs, cooked sous vide. Pronounced “soo-vee,” this cooking technique heats water to a certain temperature using an electric hot plate and cooks vacuum-sealed food in the hot water. Since it never goes over the desired temperature, overcooking is not a problem, and food can be made to a very precise doneness. Meat is often prepared this way, but at 63 degrees Celsius an egg becomes cooked evenly. Since it’s already in a vacuum shell, all one has to do is control the temperature and put in the eggs. The result is an “elegant poached egg,” where the albumin (white part) is the same consistency as the yolk.

The most impressive feat of the night was vegan caviar. I get a kick out of things that mimic other things but in fact are completely unrelated to the thing they’re mimicking (trying saying that 10 times fast!). This balsamic vinegar looked just like black caviar, but could be made completely vegan, using no animal products at all. Hanson also demonstrated the technique with Sriracha hot sauce, making spicy red caviar.

It’s about timing with this one. There’s a time in the Jello making process when it’s not Jello yet, it’s just viscous, colored liquid. That time window is exploited here. Hanson made clear gelatin (agar agar can be used for vegan substitute), poured balsamic vinegar into it and, while still warm, poured the liquid into a squeeze bottle with a small tip. This will be dripped into cooking oil that has been placed in the freezer for a bit. Though he had a tall graduated cylinder, it’s fine to just throw a whole tall bottle of vegetable oil in until it’s not quite frozen, but still very cold. Drip the balsamic gelatin liquid into the semi-frozen oil and the gelatin cools instantly, forming little spheres that can be strained out when finished. The oil can be strained and re-used without taking on any flavor from the “caviar.”

The series continues with John Lyle and the Secret Life of Pie Crust at 6:30pm Nov. 7 at the Arlene Francis Center. Cost is $20 or “whatever you can pay.” As someone who has tried and failed miserably at making pie crust, I will probably be attending this workshop. I also want to know how to use lard in a crust, because why not get animal fat into everything you can?

Techniques of top-notch chefs don’t have to be shrouded in mystery. It’s actually possible to do this stuff at home. And after doing so, it creates more appreciation for those great chefs and opens doors to new, exciting possibilities for home hobbyist cooks.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tomato, Tomahto, Tomatoe, KJ Festival Shows it's all Good

Posted By on Sun, Sep 16, 2012 at 11:42 AM

It’s tough to pick one standout memory from the Kendall Jackson 2012 Heirloom Tomato Festival. There were dozens of chefs serving a variety of tomato-themed samples, a copious amount of wine, a great Latin band, the giant centerpiece tent with over a hundred different types of tomatoes cut up for sampling, the lovely weather, the interesting people, the interesting outfits, celebrity sightings, beautiful scenery—it’s almost too much to take in at once. Luckily, this annual event seems to get better each year, but get your $85 general admission tickets early; this one sold out in advance.

Starting with the food, because that’s probably the main draw, it was a mix of local restaurants and a host of others food purveyors, with catering companies and tomato product companies. Upscale plates like savory tomato and bacon bread pudding from John Ash mingled with Everyman food like wood-fired pizza with tomatoes and pork cracklins from Johnny Garlic. Then there was the unique, like the tomato, watermelon and mint gelato from Fiorello’s, which had a long line most of the afternoon.

There were seminars on wine tasting and a competition between two Top Chef contestants, but with so much food and wine to try I didn’t get to see any of them. I did hear the music, as the Carlos Herrera Band played several sets throughout the day, and the Latin flavor could be heard throughout the grounds. Very good sound system, as well. Top notch, all the way around.

The tomatoes were the star of this day. Under the central tent, over 175 different varieties were up for sampling, varying widely in taste and names. Some are named after taste, some after appearance, and some, like God Love, are named by the whim of the grower. Personally, I would name them all after Pokémon. When I ran out of Pokémon, it would transfer over naturally to names of bosses from the Megaman video game series. If there were any left after that, maybe start naming them after the sayings on Frank Rossitano’s hats in the sitcom 30 Rock.

Some dishes that stood out to me were either fantastically original, extremely creative or simply perfect. One such dish was the tomato sushi from JoAnne & Jimmy, a catering company of sorts from San Francisco. They host pop-up dinners from time to time and Jimmy, also known as Culinary Institute of America-trained Master Chef James Corwell, uses his imagination and skills to create interesting menus. He’s been perfecting this sushi for years and hopes this 4-month-old company will help create a buzz for this and other specialties.

Vegan tomato sushi, super sustainable seafood.

He starts with great sushi rice, forms it for nigiri and dabs a bit of wasabi on top. Then he carefully fillets tomato, removing the skin and seeds, placing each piece atop a bed of rice before wrapping it with a thin seaweed seatbelt. The result is an incomprehensibly accurate visual representation of maguro tuna, but it’s completely vegan. It tastes great, as well, with the familiar taste of sushi rice and the unexpected flavor of tomato combining into a new sensation that wouldn’t leave my mind.

James Corwell and his crew preparing non-traditional sushi in a traditional way.
  • Nicolas Grizzle
  • James Corwell and his crew preparing non-traditional sushi in a traditional way.

Another dish that captured my imagination was the scallop on toasted tomato bread with clear tomato gazpacho from Bistro Boudin in San Francisco. Yes, it’s the same company that makes the sourdough bread. But the bistro is upscale, and chef Misael Reyes wanted to create something special for the festival that would really highlight tomato without forcing it to be the focal point of the dish. His scallops were delicious, and the bread for the toast points he made from scratch, folding tomato puree into the dough. The highlight was the gazpacho, which he says was clarified for four hours through strainers and cheese cloths to finish as a semi-opaque, very flavorful shooter of tomato soup in a totally un-traditional way. If the voting boxes hadn’t been collected before I went to cast my vote, this would have been my choice.

Scallop on tomato toast with clear tomato gazpacho

Reyes said he had never made tomato bread or tomato gazpacho before this attempt, and seemed happy with how it turned out. He says he might have had a different opinion, however, if it were he and not his sous chef that did most of the strenuous straining of the soup.

Chef Misael Reyes, second from left, with his crew from Boudin Bistro in San Francisco
  • Nicolas Grizzle
  • Chef Misael Reyes, second from left, with his crew from Boudin Bistro in San Francisco

Right next to Reyes and his crew was a sweet tomato dish that stood out to me, the heirloom tomato and apricot spice jam bars with oatmeal streusel by chef Reneé Pisan at Chloe’s French Café in Santa Rosa. These little gems were perfect in consistency, not too sweet and packed with tomato flavor, with just the right amount of oats on top for texture.

Heirloom tomato and apricot spice jam bars with oatmeal streusel
  • Nicolas Grizzle
  • Heirloom tomato and apricot spice jam bars with oatmeal streusel

It was so balanced, and the combination of apricot and tomato made a great jam. I could spread that on toast, make a sweet pizza, dollop it in yogurt or just spoon it into my mouth like a slob. I don’t care, I just want more of it.

Dawn Hubbard, left, and Emily Levitan of Chloes French Cafe
  • Nicolas Grizzle
  • Dawn Hubbard, left, and Emily Levitan of Chloe's French Cafe

The weather was perfect, the grounds are beautiful, outfits ranged from shlubby to stunning and even traffic and parking weren’t that bad. This was the 16th KJ tomato fest, and already I’m planning on how to get in next year. The cadre of volunteers seems able to handle every task, from chopping tomatoes to delivering water to pouring wine, and I suspect the abundance of eager free labor has something to do with free admission to the festival. Either way, hats off to them; these tomato enthuiasts made everything run smoothly.

Guy Fieri was there, and he was cool and pretty down-to-earth. We talked for about 10 minutes about how much he really thinks the North Bay is the best place on Earth. As much as I tried to find something to find fault with about the guy, because we all know controversy sells more than praise, I couldn't disagree with him on that one. But really, bro, outta my league? Let's let her decide that one.

Perhaps I shall start a website called, beginning with this pic of Guy Fieri
  • Photo by someone else using my camera
  • Perhaps I shall start a website called "," beginning with this pic of Guy Fieri

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