lucky me, i got to travel to Sicily to work on a cookbook that will be published next year by Rizzoli. what an amazing way to experience the wonderfully warm, generous people and incredibly diverse regions. the wines and food and landscapes are out of this world. and i learned of the deep, rich, layered history. if Sicily is not on your bucket list yet, it should be!
spectacular scenery in between
caffeine with farm fresh milk
first breakfast: country eggs and home baked bread
nespole (loquat) fresh off the tree
precious wild strawberries
fava beans everywhere
unique shape of Sicilian lemons
nearly everyone makes their own olive oil
heavenly on fresh grilled zucchini
produce trucks roam every town
ricotta drained, rolled and pressed
chile and pepper ricotta
warm, fresh tuma
yes, a cheese pig
wild boar ravioli
linguine with bottarga
spectacular sea urchins
certain pastry are particular to a town
these are found in only one town
warm, tender dough filled with rich chocolate and fried
In sum, it was a delectable meal replete with the kind of creativity I would expect from one of Wylie’s eateries. Here, it’s just more down home. And the vibe is decidedly simple and stylish, with nostalgic nods to the past.
To commemorate the experience, rubber bands replace matches in a bowl at the door. I s’pose you could wear ’em on your wrist, but I plan to put it round my water bottle the way it’s done at Alder. That way it’ll serve as a souvenir and remind me of the fun evening I spent enjoying the thrill of some old favorites, entirely reinvented.
Around the holidays, I was asked to be a judge at a groovy potluck event for Slideluck, a non-profit organization committed to unifying community through slideshow-and-potluck dinner events all over the world. Check ’em out!
This event was in SF and during the slide show of local photographers and artists, these lively food illustrations by Dan Bransfield popped up and off on the screen. I just love ’em!
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I was recently reminiscing about travel to Japan in Spring. That conversation left me longing for the absolutely phenomenal food and hospitality I was introduced to by Japanese friends and colleagues there. ‘Oishi’ is the Japanese word for delicious and a word I used often.
These soba noodles with tempura at a little mom and pop food stall outside of Tskiji fish market in Tokyo in the early morning hours remain one of the most outstanding food memories of the trip.
Because it was cherry blossom season, sakura (cherry blossoms) were everywhere — including in special brews and on seasonal labels.
Sakura even made it into and on cheesecake. In the town of Nara, I wandered in the rain trying to locate a tiny café called Nanka, nestled in a residential section. Nanka is part library, part shop (local artisans), part café. Everything about it was absolutely charming: from the hand written and sketched daily menu to the flawless cherry blossom cheesecake to the apple adorned latte.
Fish are a symbol of celebration in Japan, so along with sakura season come lots of little sweet cakes in the shape of fish, called ‘taiyaki.’
A day trip to Nara led me to the discovery of a traditional taiyaki master. Traditional taiyaki are sweet, crisp pancakes pressed together and filled with sweet bean paste. Rest assured, the shape is the only thing fish has to do with it.
The two-sided taiyaki griddle is first heated up…
…then gets filled with a light, sweet batter.
It’s cooked over open flame and flipped back and forth, until….
…a warm, crispy sweet treat emerges. Kyoto is known as a place of refined food from its days of being the seat of nobility. This is seen in even the simplest food in the local corner joint like this grilled eggplant with both red and white miso. The creamy eggplant with the sweet white miso contrasting with the more pungent red was just dreamy.
Nishin soba is a traditional Kyoto dish (this one at Matsuba restaurant). Wow! Who knew I would really, really like dried herring with soba noodles & freshly chopped scallions.
I was also introduced to traditional sweet treats in Kyoto, like dango (mochi-like squares grilled on skewers and served with a thick salty/sweet sauce) and anmitsu (in bowl — jelly squares made with agar + red bean paste + gyuhi dusted with ground sesame powder + fruit + ice cream).
Arashiyama is a quaint, river-flanked, bamboo forested, temple-laden town just a short train ride from Kyoto. I spied this candied citrus — stem and leaf included — in a sweet shop in the tiny town. I was intrigued by its size; it was just a little bigger than a cherry tomato. I don’t remember the name of the particular citrus but the sweet crunchy candied outside followed by the slightly sour fruit and slight bitter of the rind made for a spectacular flavor explosion well beyond its size.
Fruit perfection is so treasured in Japan that one can easily pay upwards of $150 for a single piece.
I opted to spend my yen on a gorgeous piece of hand-forged knife perfection from a little known shop called Shigeharu. It’s a business that has existed for over 900 years and where no English is spoken. There was much bowing, smiling, pointing and bowing again as I was on my own that day and my Japanese is limited to about 20 words. I was — and still am — thrilled with my now favorite knife.
I was first introduced to yuba (tofu skin) in New York. Wylie Dufresne had recently opened his doors at wd~50 and was using thin strips of yuba as a pasta. Several years later, I found myself watching yuba being made by professionals in Japan for the first time. Then I was next treated by Japanese friends to a most memorable night at a restaurant in Kyoto where we made our own fresh yuba by skimming the top layer from a simmering pan of fresh soy milk —
which we topped with freshly grated yuzu and shoyu. Yuba heaven!
The intense cultural drive for mastery in Japan yields outstanding pastry. Patisserie Au Grenier d’Or in Kyoto is a fine example. I wish everyone could experience their outstanding, limited production hyuganatsu marmalade. I’m such a citrus lover (if you haven’t yet caught on)! The yuzu pound cake I handcarried home to a picnic in the park soon as I got off the plane was nothing short of perfection.
I had so many phenomenal food experiences in Japan. One common thread that stood out — from simple food stalls to top-secret, 8 seat izakaya spots to haute Kaiseki — was the tremendous care and pride taken by all involved with preparing and serving the food. To everyone who shared all things oishi with me, I’d like to say, gochisosama deshita.
I was already looking forward to Namu Gaji moving to my hood and on the first visit, I was officially hooked (returns have been frequent). The space is casual chic and the vibe friendly.
Small little touches like individual baskets to stow your bag/jacket/helmet are spot on.
If you find yourself hungry/thirst on the early side, happy hour is from 4:30-6 with small bites available, like Korean tacos. You can transition into dinner once that menu starts.
Sake pours are not only generous, they arrive in beautiful vessels.
I’m a pickle freak, so the complimentary banchan was a bonus. All told: asparagus, cabbage, ramps, kim chi, sprouts and greens.
Tender, melt in your mouth, raw scallops with cucumber, grapefruit and marinated kombu, with beet stem garnish.
Cold soba salad with tofu, little gem lettuce, pea shoots, scallions, cucumber, sesame seeds, pine nuts and kimchee vinaigrette.
Soft and chewy shitake dumplings in an incredibly rich dashi (drinking the last drop is highly encouraged).
In the comfort category is one of my fav dishes: a sizzling stone pot of deliciousness brought to the table with rice, steak, daily banchan, mushrooms, egg and gochujang (spicy Korean chili sauce). Tip: if you leave it sizzling a few extra minutes, the rice on the bottom gets golden crispy.
Okonomiyaki is a rich, savory pancake with kimchee, oysters, yamaimo (root veg), cabbage, scallions, kewpie (mayo), okonomiyaki sauce, and bonito flakes that dance from the heat of the skillet.
Shave ice seems to be the dessert of choice at Namu Gaji. My favorite rendition to date is the caramel-drizzled chocolate with salted peanut butter cookies on the side.
Be sure to say ‘Hey’ if you spy me when you go — there’s a good chance you will.
I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am that Glen Ellen Star has moved into the tiny downtown of, yes, Glen Ellen in Sonoma — a mere hour’s escape from the foggy summer skies of San Francisco. [For those of you who knew Saffron, Glen Ellen Star is in that still charming, though much transformed space — both indoors and out.]
The food, self-described by Chef Ari Weiswasser as ‘refined rustic’, is just that. The cast iron quick bread with an island of local feta in zaatar spiced olive oil is testament to his description and an excellent indicator of the wonderful feast to follow. Paired with the warm greeting we were met with by the lovely Erinn Benziger-Weiswasser, it was clear we were in the friendly and proficient hands of skilled service.
Next out of the wood-fired oven, rolled chili spiked, meyer lemon olive oil drizzled, fennel pollen crusted fennel wedges and blood orange oil, harissa crumble topped golden beets. Yum.
I’m a sucker for fava beans, especially when someone else is doing the prep work. This labor minimizing rendition of whole roasted pods in a chunky bacon marmalade is scrumptious and highlights the fava’s very best attributes.
In my opinion, there’s nothing like a pizza crust from a wood oven. And this was one skillfully baked pie — white with guanciale & arugula.
Apart from the gorgeous presentation of these wood oven roasted lamb meatballs in a ridiculously tasty tomato soffrito, they are the makings of an addiction.
The wonderfully tender and flavorful grilled flat iron steak came with a lovely fresh, crisp salad of escarole, fingerlings and roquefort. It’s definitely on the more refined side and you will hear no complaints from me about that.
Dessert is simple, straightforward and delightful: house made ice cream and sorbet, served in little half-pint containers. For me, it conjured a bit of nostalgia of eating ice cream with a little wooden spoon — though the ice cream of my childhood was definitely not of this caliber.
For now, Glen Ellen Star is open for dinner 7 nights, with lunch Friday-Sunday to come this summer. Personally, I’m calling today to make my next reservation. I highly recommend you do the same while you can still get a table.
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