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Entries in Famous Chef (38)

Tuesday
May142013

Curing Salumi at Home

I was quite proud of my winter project: Home Cured Meat.

Using the Charcuterie book as my guide and with the visual inspection and eventual sampling of three different chefs, Dino at Diavola @diavolapizzeria, Pete at Sugo @sugotrattoria, and Mike at Trelio @trelio, I felt confident enough to serve my homemade salumi to my 3 year old nephew over Christmas and 12 dinner guests on Valentine's Day.

Thanks Dino, Pete, and Mike for your help and guidance. 

Here's a picture log of the two products, Bresaola (Beef) and Lonza (Pork):

Thursday
Aug022012

Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles, West Hollywood

Yes, I’m going to bash LA a little. I spent one year living down there. I was reminded on my 24 mile, 1.5 hour drive from point A to Mozza how much I dislike SoCal freeways. I was happy about trying Mozza and with all the pizza I’ve been eating lately, it was a good time to evaluate it.

 

Let’s start on a real high note; absolutely perfectly fried squash blossoms. Some of the best I’ve had. With all the variety of appetizers on the menu, I had to try something seasonal. Simply fried but without a greasy texture, lightly breaded, sprinkled with salt and stuffed with goat cheese, the squash blossoms were sublime. Any chef who has attempted to fry squash blossoms should take a lesson from Mozza.

 

On to the pizza, the highlight of Mozza, right? Well, it’s good. Maybe just good for LA. Mozza is a pizza manufacturing line, plain and simple. I sat right in front of the guys that make each and every pizza. Four people calmly make pizza from straight up noon, probably till close. Very professionally, always in motion.

 

However, it's the last two guys on the pizza line that I have a problem with. All of Mozza’s pizzas have a brown crust, not a speck of black blistering. Even my pizza, which had a black blistered area, was “pecked off” by the last guy who handles the finished pizza. And the 2nd to last guy tries to avoid blistering! I thought blistering was ok? But it’s LA. It’s an imperfection and must be rooted out. Sorry Angelenos, LA is not a foodie city like San Francisco, New York, Chicago or even Portland. Mozza’s pizza are “glam shots”. They look perfect, they have lots of different toppings to give the illusion of personality and they fit different moods. But they lack personality, just like a glam shot.

Mozza’s pizza is very good, but in the final analysis, not as good as it could be. In fact, it reminded me of Gioia on Polk in San Francisco, good, just not great.

Pizzeria Mozza on Urbanspoon

Thursday
May032012

Mateo's and The Healdsburg Dining Scene

Let’s get something straight, this is not a complete food review of Mateo’s. It’s a narrative about the Healdsburg dining scene, visitors from San Francisco, and why Mexican food tastes better with lard, not extra virgin olive oil.

My experience with the food at Mateo’s was limited; I only had one dish, the halibut ceviche and two salsas. In a high-end place like Mateo’s, the easiest comparison for me as to what I expect of refined Mexican food is Frontera Grill in Chicago. I’ve eaten at Frontera more times than I can count and have eaten the ceviche nearly every visit. The food Chef Bayless prepares in Chicago is authentic, regional Mexican cuisine. It’s refined, but not fussy or pretentious. It has a Mid-Western sensibility about it.

Mateo’s is what I would expect from a restaurant rated highly by Michael Bauer but without Mid-West or in this case, Healdsburg sensibility. With the level of refinement in Mateo’s cooking, one would expect a Michelin Bib or perhaps one star scoring, “a must stop” along the foodie trail in Healdsburg. But refined Mexican cuisine requires balance and with the heat coming off the salsas I sampled, I have difficulty believing this place will get a nod. When spicy food sticks with me to the point I can’t taste anything else but heat and I’m beginning to mark time as to how long I’m in pain, it’s not fun anymore. The ceviche is lovely to look at and well executed, but has no hearty soul. Mateo can probably make beans, rice, and corn chips look pretty. But I want beans, rice, and corn chips to make me feel satisfied.

Barndiva, Dry Creek Kitchen, and Cyrus make sense in Healdsburg with glitz, glamour, and the cuisine to match the wine country they reside in. I expect a certain degree of premium pricing and a certain degree of calculated arrogance about the food.

Mateo’s Mexican food is inspired by his former position as chef at Dry Creek Kitchen.

Translation: It’s overwrought and pretentious.

One classic Mexican staple stands out at Mateo’s as simply out of touch; guacamole made with high-end extra virgin olive oil. Really? No one expects olive oil in guacamole even if it’s made in wine country and even if Dry Creek Valley has its own olive press. What people want with guacamole is a heaping bowl of it along with chips and a beer! Not extra virgin olive oil.

There are other troubling factors at work, namely price and expectations.

It’s $10 for a single taco at Mateo’s. Hefty price tag for a single taco. A popular spot for residents and visitors of Healdsburg is El Farolito, just down the block from Mateo’s. A Super Burrito costs $7.25. Most taco shops in town have a la carte  tacos on their menu for $1.25 to $3.50 per taco.  Execution, ambiance, and ingredients are totally different at Mateo’s versus Mexican restaurants in Healdsburg, but what about the perception of value?

A single hand-crafted margarita at Mateo’s is $12.Once again, a pitcher of Rita’s will set you back $24 at El Farolito. I know, the quality of the tequila is different, but that isn’t the point. The point is perception of why one usually enters a Mexican restaurant in Healdsburg. Value.

Another factor beyond price is the wine country experience and pairing wine with your food.

When in wine country, most people drink wine. When food is hot and spicy, what wine would possibly pair with it? None or a few select varietals. This makes it even harder for the weekend visitor to reconcile spending hard-earned money for a weekend away in wine country to drink tequila and beer. By the way, for tequila and mezcal drinks, there is no better place to go in town than Mateo’s. Knowledgeable bartenders and a great selection of tequila, if you want to try new tequilas, Mateo’s is the place.

As for the weekend Bay Area visitor, deciding with your spouse between Michelin rated Italian, American, or French inspired food and pairing it with your treasured $150 Cabernet or browsing the wine encyclopedia at Cyrus or Barndiva is what Bay Area visitors think about when they come to Healdsburg. Not a $10 taco or guacamole made with olive oil, no matter how good they are.

Look at the closed Shimo Restaurant across the street. Severely overpriced food in an atmosphere that didn’t exude or warrant it will never gain the favor of locals and only a few critics. And critics won’t keep your doors open for very long.

Mateo’s should take a lesson from Scopa, Diavola, Zin, and Willi’s…make your atmosphere more inviting and your food less fussy (but don't skimp on quality) and you’ll be in business for a long time AND get the critics to come in. The perception of being overwrought and overpriced will keep locals away.

So if Mateo’s is only a place for critics like Michael Bauer to visit and not a place to dwell for people who live in Healdsburg or the casual weekend traveler from the Bay Area, who’s coming here? I want Mateo's to succeed and it has a place in the Healdsburg dining scene. But Chef, don’t charge $10 for a single taco or put extra virgin olive oil in your guacamole…I don’t care how good they are. 

Thursday
Apr262012

Zazu, Santa Rosa

It was a rainy night in Sonoma County and I really didn’t want to drive anywhere. However, I attended Pigs and Pinot on Friday night and didn’t know if I wanted to stay in town another night to eat either. I had a bit of a dilemma. I didn’t want fussy. I didn’t want Italian. But I wanted to stick with a porky theme. There was one place, but I had to drive. Zazu.

I’ve never been to Zazu. I’ve heard about it. I’ve seen Chef Duskie Estes on TV. I’ve eaten Black Pig Bacon at my house. I know pork will be involved in tonight’s meal. But how much more pork could my body deal with?

"I'll start with the house made prosciutto please."

Four slices of prosciutto are presented to me. Fantastic product. Rich fat, not overly salty. A real top-notch product and as good as any Italian product I’ve had. I would love to buy this by the pound and serve it to hard-core prosciutto lovers.

I suppose I can handle a bit more pork from this chef master after the perfect prosciutto. But I had to plan my dinner. I couldn’t just order the fresh pasta with rabbit, which was my gut reaction. Pasta would tap me out early. I needed to experience the atmosphere, the sense of place, the mood of the chefs; virtuoso performance on piano (the prosciutto) or a night of improvisational jazz? Smaller plates was my call; I wanted to eat a full performance.

The “Pigstrami” reuben speaks to me in many ways. I asked my server what the portion size was, as I’ve got a lot of eating to do. He said it’s a single reuben slider. Done deal. When my slider sandwich was presented, I was told that the Pigstrami was made with pork heart. Oh yes. My little slider came with side of potato salad. This little bite was outstanding.( I recently was forced to eat a pastrami slider at Yard House and I didn’t like it then and I really hate it now.) The side of potato salad was perfect to match up with the slider.

Next up was a single pork rib with pork hash. I eat a lot of pork ribs and this rib was underwhelming. Sure it was tender and reasonably seasoned, but it just wasn’t at the level of the Pigstrami or other more traditional BBQ places. The rib tasted more like an oven roasted rib than a rib that had been BBQ for 8 hours. The pork hash was ok, but again, nothing to write home about.

As my meal was lacking any ruffage, I decided on the frisee, bacon, egg, and asparagus salad as a "greens" course. The flavors were fine, but the dish felt and looked a bit like a list of ingredients placed into a plate, dressed, and an egg placed in the middle. Lazy? Maybe. More of an afterthought I think in the grand scheme of the menu. Sort of like my choice on greens. I should probably have greens, but I really want the farm egg and bacon that come with it.

All was forgiven when my main course of fried red rice with foie gras and roasted duck, topped with pan seared and tamarind glazed Liberty Farms duck breast was presented. Asian inspired perhaps, but French-like in its richness and execution. The whole dish came together like nothing else that evening. While the rice on its own could have been a meal, a slice of breast with each fork of rice was absolutely wonderful, along with the occasional dollop of tamarind to accent the flavors. Well done.

The staff at this point actually encouraged me to have dessert. I think they wanted to see if I could actually eat more. Or they’d taken out a term-life policy on me. I asked a few questions about the desserts and said that the “Better Butters” looked great, but that I couldn’t do a full order. “We’ll cut it in half for you.” Done deal, Better Butters it is.

Better Butter or a peanut butter cookie sandwich with peanut butter gelato and dark chocolate dipping sauce was fantastic. I have always loved Nutter Butters from my youth. Zazu’s Better Butters are certainly an improvement on the original.

There’s a sense of home cooking here, country sensibility and a sense of place about it. For comparison, Petite Syrah was refined with cleaner lines and a deliberateness about the food but with a sense of simplicity. Diavola also has a sense of choreography about it. Zazu draws outside the lines, that was evident from my first step in the door. But that’s its edge up here, a little outside of town.

So, was my experience at Zazu classic piano or a free jazz saxophone solo? Zazu is a bit more improvisational jazz than I would have expected. Not every part of the solo is brilliant, but it feels good, there is heart (pig heart) behind the cuisine and the next solo will be better than the last one as long as they keep performing night in and night out. There is a certainly a virtuoso at work.

I’d be happy to eat another performance from Zazu.

Zazu Restaurant & Farm on Urbanspoon

Wednesday
Apr042012

Pigs & Pinot 2012, Healdsburg

It seemed natural that The Cured Ham would attend a Pig Event in Healdsburg. Not just any pig event, but the premier event in town, Charlie Palmer's Pigs & Pinot.

Chef Dustin Valette's Charcuterie

In between my feasting on pig, I managed to snap a few pictures of some of the food and celebrity chefs participating in the event. I walked several times around the Square later that evening after eating a lot of pig meat. Oh, there was wine too, but pork poses for the camera better than Pinot.

A humble Pork Taco from Michelin Starred Cyrus

Chef Casey Thompson and her Fried Trotters

Chef Jeff from Zin Restaurant

Charlie Palmer working the Carving Station