Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bushi-Tei for my birthday

My birthday celebration a few weeks ago featured three things: work, work, and dinner at Bushi-Tei in Japan Town. It was a last minute decision involving a toss-up between A) an impossibly busy artisanal pizza place in our neighborhood and a movie at the Balboa Theater (free admission on your birthday!) or B) a fancy, expensive dinner that would also grant us access to the toilet that's the talk of San Francisco.

It was a difficult choice.

Bushi-Tei is French-Japanese, and the interior is pleasingly minimalist. Sometimes minimalist strays into bad 80's territory, but here the walls are made of 150-year-old Japanese wood and lend the space a warmth that keeps things feeling very contemporary (I realize how contradictory this sounds, but trust me, it works). There is a giant glass table in the middle of the room lined with smooth, black pebbles where you may be given the chance to dine family-style. Thankfully we were not afforded that opportunity.

Somebody in the kitchen clearly also appreciates that quality of velvety richness that makes me go bonkers for foie gras. Their version involved a modest slice (slightly too modest for my piggish tastes) - seared - atop a kabocha squash pot de creme and adorned with red onion marmalade and pistachios. I could eat one of those suckers every day. It was smooth and silky - but not too sweet. Unctuous, if you will.

Randy's appetizer was more esoteric - a slice of Kobe beef that had been marinated in miso for three days was hiding under some languid and melty Camembert and served atop a crispy thing, drizzled with lemon oil. It was interesting, but not as sexy as mine.

Our main dishes were not quite on the level of my foie gras. I had seared bigeye tuna with a coconut curry and a neat, thin slice of dried pineapple. Randy opted for a duck breast; I remember nothing else about it. Couldn't stop revelling in my pumpkin pot de creme loveliness, I guess.

Reviewers of Bushi-Tei always insist that a visit to the bathroom is mandatory, so after we finished our entrees, I decided it was time for the toilet course.

Let me say that despite unhealthy levels of fascination with the country, I have thus far gotten no closer to visiting Japan than a brief, gut-churning stopover at the Narita airport. (My plane had a slight problem landing due to wind shear. I'm sure it's not uncommon, but it pretty much felt like we were going to go splat on the tarmac. After disembarking, I steadied my quaking hands, blubberingly called my mom from a payphone at great expense, and then drowned my terror in a large bowl of tempura udon before boarding my connecting flight. That was My Only Japan Experience.) For this reason, I was forced to wait until my twenty-ninth birthday to experience a high-tech Japanese toilet.

Bushi-Tei's toilet is a Toto (the BEST!), and is accompanied by a panel on the wall that offers a multitude of cleansing options that you never knew you needed. Push a button and a jet of warm water caresses your nether regions. Push another and a gentle breeze dries you off. A heated seat and an automated lid cap off the experience. I was gone so long, Randy thought I fell in. I felt slightly ashamed upon exiting, as if the waitstaff knew I'd been hanging out in there playing with their toilet. Actually, they probably just assume everybody does, right?

For dessert, my black sesame blancmange, topped with a thick layer of coconut cream and some perfectly diced tropical fruits, had a very similar texture to the foie gras. To me it was divine, but Randy thought its grey pasty texture was unappealing and preferred his apple dumplings. I guess grey food does kind of present a certain aesthetic challenge.

Afterwards we checked out the plastic tempura udon displays at the Japan Center mall and took some extremely flattering photos to commemorate the start of my final twentysomething year. Here's the best part: the photo booth, with instructions written entirely in Japanese, actually had a disturbing setting for "Whitening" (helpfully translated and available on a flipchart that helped us navigate through the complicated photo creation and Sanrio-fication process). Naturally we chose it; who better to benefit from flesh whitening than two of the pastiest people on Earth?


We are, in fact, so white that we have become virtually invisible, except for nostrils and beady little eyes. And lo, now I am twenty-nine.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006


At the IACP conference a few months ago, a single restaurant kept coming up in conversation. It seemed like the air was practically buzzing and hissing with this name as people murmured it back and forth in seminars, networking events, and happy hours.

That restaurant was Zuni.

Until last month, my only encounter with the food of the magical Zuni was in aromatic form. Specifically, I knew the smell of Zuni’s famous roast chicken with bread salad because my lovely friend in France made it one evening in her tiny portable oven while we were both recovering from a shared bout of food poisoning. Nothing like foodborne bacteria and Vin Diesel movies to bring two gals together. At that point I was still too green around the gills to actually eat, but it smelled delish.

When I moved to San Francisco, I really was more interested in trying Zuni than in unpacking my bags, but life got in the way. Eventually I got there with Alison, my oldest friend from childhood. We grew up about half a mile apart and used to meet up at the mid-point between our houses. Now we’ve ended up across the country together, still living about half a mile apart, and still meeting up with each other at the mid-point between our apartments. Thankfully, many other things about us have changed over the years (no more pastel scrunchies, braces, or in my case, permed hair matched with dangly tropical fish earrings).

So, Zuni. I had been forewarned. In spite of all the buzzing at IACP, a subsequent informal survey of the trustworthy eaters in my life produced the occasional rave, but more frequently a generous helping of apathy. “Inconsistent” and “underwhelming” were two common descriptions.

Atmospherically speaking, I give Zuni very high marks. It didn’t hurt that we had a fabulous table next to a big window looking out on Market St., right in the center of the action. The space is open, airy and bustling. I remember wood and white, and a pretty oyster bar.

I also give it a good grade for people-watching potential. It does feel like a generous slice of San Francisco life -- fashionably casual, quirky, sophisticated, but not super snooty. In fact, food aside, to me Zuni exuded a rich, well-loved feeling that you can’t construct in a place. It just has to happen.

But then the food happened. What can I say? I wanted to love it, I really did. I wanted to adopt Zuni and take it to meet my friends and relatives when they come from out of town looking for a representative San Francisco gustatory experience. But dinner was a big, mouth-wide-open yaaaawwwwnnn. A starter of ho hum anchovies (or were they sardines? It was a few weeks back...), olive oil and celery that didn’t taste like much. Stuffed squash blossoms that also didn’t taste like much. A pleasant piece of pork rubbed with a nice crust of dried orange, chilies and spices, on a lukewarm plate with some blah-tasting beans. The ideas were there and it all sounded great on paper…but somehow it just didn’t have any heart.

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Yeah, we didn't order the roast chicken. We debated over it, but when we asked the server she said, "Well, it's good, but in the end, it's a roast chicken. If you want adventure, order something else." Fair enough. Also, apparently we made a grave mistake by not ordering any oysters. I am told that they are delicious at Zuni. Duly noted.

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By this point, I was feeling a little deflated. And then… dessert arrived with a capital D. It was simple, perfectly executed, gorgeous. A nectarine tart and a nice deep dish of espresso granita layered with robust poofs of whipped cream. I doubt I will ever have another granita that wows me as much as that one did. Come to think of it, granita had never once wowed me until Zuni's version crunched under my spoon.

After dinner, we headed around the corner to Hotel Biron, the first wine bar I've visited in this city. We settled into our table with lovely, giant glasses of red and kept the conversation going. As far as I'm concerned, my wine bar search began and ended with Hotel Biron. It felt like a cozy little cave, complete with perfect music and a cute, hipster guy behind the bar.

After our topsy turvy dinner, I'm not yet prepared to strike Zuni off the master mental restaurant list that constantly hums in my head. Problem is, there are so many intriguing places to try in San Francisco that it may take a long time for me to get back there. But next time I do, that damned roasted chicken and oysters will be on my order. Then we'll see whether there's anything worth kvetching about.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Bay Area Recap

I've been so busy lately that I haven't had much time to post, obviously. There's just something about working on a computer all day at a full-time job that really sucks the fun out of computing when I get home at night. Funny, that.

Anyway, I've been up to lots of stuff, food-related and otherwise. Since most of the stuff that falls into the "otherwise" category involves painting, unpacking boxes, and commuting, I won't even bother telling you about it.

Here are some of the food highlights of the past few months:

1) Discovering Fenton’s Ice Cream on Piedmont Ave. in Oakland, where they offer my own personal Dream Flavor: Coffee ice cream bursting with big Oreo cookie chunks AND cookie dough nuggets. It’s so wrong and yet so very, very right.

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Fenton's ice cream.

2) Discovering Joe’s Ice Cream on Geary in San Francisco (close enough for us to walk there from our new apartment, which is key.) They have pumpkin ice cream, which I like to pair with hot fudge. Don’t knock it 'til you’ve tried it.

3) Discovering the joys of Clement Street in San Francisco, where we have already eaten Malaysian, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, bubble tea, Turkish, Moroccan, hot pot, Russian (including my beloved strudel at the Gastronom deli), and pizza.

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Hot pot, buffet style. Kinda scary, so thank goodness we were very drunk.

4) Eating at Dopo, a tiny place in Oakland, also on Piedmont Ave., where they made one of the best dishes I have ever had and then promptly whisked it off the menu, forcing me to call repeatedly, plaintively wheedling on behalf of the return of the nettle pennone bedecked with tiny meatballs and transparent shavings of lemon. It haunts my dreams and yet they won’t bring it back for me because they insist on rotating their menu continuously. “We have other great things,” they keep telling me. Phooey. I considered offering to wash dishes for a night in exchange for the recipe, but I wimped out.

Incidentally, I really blame Mrs. Delicious for my continual Dopo cravings, because she was the one that told me about the place to begin with.

5) Meeting ME and her husband for tea and a delicious tart at Modern Tea in Hayes Valley. ME is a very jolly person and you should certainly start reading her blog. At Modern Tea, we were exposed an extremely intensive tea training session; I like tea as much as the next humanities major, but my taste is more in the trashy PG-Tips-with-lots-of-milk-and-sugar vein instead of the hand-picked-by-monkeys-in-ancient-treetops variety. I don't remember exactly what I learned about tea that day, because the tart and conversation were too distractingly delicious, but I'm sure it was something important.

6) Speaking of tea, did you know that you can drink Thai tea warm? Yes, it's true! I had only sampled Thai tea in its iced, heavily sweetened and creamified format, but one particularly chilly night in the Richmond inspired my friend Rachael to simply order a steaming mug of it, served plain.

My eyes were opened. Warm, it has this uniquely round, comforting, spicy flavor that's overwhelmed when it's served cold, sweet and creamy. So pick up a box today and try it hot. I realize that for most of you, this will be an unpleasant prospect given that it's probably summer where you live and you're busy baring as much skin as possible while gleefully licking popsicles and tubing at the water park. Damn you all. For those of us living a few blocks from the ocean who are still wearing their parkas out to dinner most nights, a warm mug of tea sounds depressingly appealing.


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