I have a charming new neighbor named Frances. Most of us in San Francisco know about Frances, the sweet new restaurant of chef/owner Melissa Perello that opened a couple months ago to a massively warm welcome. I met Melissa a few years ago on a photo shoot at the tail end of her tenure as the executive chef at Fifth Floor. While I enjoyed dining at her occasional Monday night dinners at Sebo in the interim, I’m happy she’s returned to the kitchen full-time and is in her own, very personal space. And I’m even happier she put down roots in my ‘hood.

Evidence of just how personal Frances is can be seen in just about everything from its being named after her grandmother, to the wooden service boxes, cabinetry and tables crafted by her father…

…to the aprons designed by Melissa and sewn by her mother (and her mother’s friends…)

to the hand-sewn coasters that protect her dad’s gorgeous walnut tables.

The wine beakers are from Melissa’s personal collection and are a fun part of the wine program put together by wine director, Paul Einbund (his wife made the coasters!) Apparently Paul’s taken up Muay Thai Boxing (which he swears is not meant to be learned as an adult) and had a broken finger on my last visit. So I gave him a break and let him pour a beaker of his own Santa Barbara blend of grenache (50%), syrah and cab. It is mighty tasty and went really nicely with the meal. Had it not been a school night, I would have likely ventured a little further into the eclectic wine list.

Okay, enough suspense and on to the food. First off, love the manageable menu. On a weeknight when my brain power is usually spent by the end of the day, I appreciate a well-curated, simply stated menu. And Melissa’s dedication to sourcing from local producers garnered the attention of the American Farm to Table Restaurant Guide — a culinary website you should know about if you don’t already. It was started by a kindly gourmand chap named Maurice Graham Henry and aims to list the top farm to table restaurants around the country.

We started off with the applewood smoked bacon beignets (oh yeah!) and one of the highlights of my night, the perfectly crispy Panisse chickpea fritters. They were divinely silky inside — and dipped in a little Meyer lemon aioli, heaven!

Pickled currants, preserved lemon and winter squash were intriguing companions to grilled calimari and I was, admittedly, a little skeptical. I shouldn’t have been! It was fantastic. I love being surprised.

Trotters… okay, I’m not often a fan of trotters but these herbs fines and mustard seed seasoned pups were fab-u-lous. The pickled baby veggie garnish and chunky, tangy sauce gribiche elegantly rounded out the flavor/texture combo.

The gnocchi were pillowy (as in marshmallow pillowy), buttery, and the melange of green garlic, broccoli di ciccio and rapini was a refreshing, crunchy companion.

I really love a good bavette steak but am so often disappointed. THIS bavette from Lucky Dog Ranch was perhaps the most meltingly tender, flavourful bavette I’ve had. One’s gotta have frites with un steak, n’est ce pas? These spuds (Rose Finn Apples) had a nice lil’ kick from Aleppo chili and romesco. If only I had a bigger stomach…

I was stuffed by this point, but couldn’t resist the heavenly desserts. The citrus compote atop the buttermilk panna cotta was divine. The compote was made up of blood orange, cara cara, Meyer lemon and Bergamot… served with crisp, slightly salty shortbread cookies.

I realize this may be shocking to some, but I’m not a big fan of cake. I’m a huge fan of texture — especially contrasting textures — and tend to like my cake dense. This ‘Lumberjack’ cake is just my kind of cake! It’s chewy and has lil’ hunks of Medjool dates and D’Anjou pear. The mighty tasty maple-walnut ice cream from Humphry Slocombe usually sits on the plate with the cake but my dining companion is allergic to walnuts, so we played it safe and asked to have it on the side. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the all-around excellent service on both my visits!

So, if you can’t tell, I’m pretty smitten with my new neighbor and hope to visit as regularly as the heavily booked reservations allow. Fortunately, there are 10 spots at the wine bar available for neighbors, er, walk-ins. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Sweet India

If there’s one thing I’ve found in my travels, every culture has its own unique love affair with sugar. Unlike the Western butter+sugar+flour formula, India expresses its affection with jaggery, nuts, seeds and milk.

In Maharashtrian cooking, jaggery is used in just about everything, savory or sweet. And once again, a sucker for packaging, I couldn’t resist the heart-shaped hunks of it available in the market.

In a dim corner stall of the market, two gents were bagging up what looked like golf-sized birdseed balls. I asked what they were packaging and a third gent appeared and led me around the corner, down a dark narrow corridor to two small rooms. The square mold in the foreground is a mixture of cashews, jaggery and sesame seeds that have been dumped from the pan (the one resting on the spare tire), into the mold and rolled flat to cool before cutting.

**Fortunately, these two were so eager to have their photo taken, they posed patiently while I tried to figure out how to capture them in the flourescent-tinged near dark.

The various types of jaggery are weighed in proportion, depending on the type of laddu being made.

This gent was sifting through huge sacks of sesame seeds.

These two spend their day forming each perfectly round, cardamom-scented ball of sesame seeds and jaggery by hand. They were unbelievably fast!

I went in search of my friends to come join in the discovery and we were all generously treated to these still-warm, caramel-y, chewy, nutty, cardamom-scented samplings of laddu. It’s just this kind of experience I live for in my travels!

Sandbox Bakery

I was away when Sandbox Bakery opened for business in Bernal Heights. I finally made it over this week to check out the goods and was compelled to interrupt my India missives to report so you can enjoy the treats at Sandbox sooner than later.

Mutsumi Takehara is the pastry-chef owner and she has made this pastry-loving camper very happy. On my first visit, Mutsumi-san took pity on me standing there, looking pathetically dejected at the locked door. I’d arrived past closing and explained I was going to a friend’s house for dinner and asked if I might possibly (pretty please) purchase the only items left in her case: French macarons. The macarons were so excellent — wonderfully intense flavor, just the right texture, not overly sweet — that I went right back a couple days later to see what else was on offer. It was on my second visit that I learned the macarons are the one item not made in-house. Fear not!

This time I found the cases brimming and the findings were all good! First of all, you won’t see any overly-inflated, super-sized offerings here. Sandbox pastries are the size the pastry gods intended them to be. There’s a mix of French, Japanese and American breakfast pastries –from croissants to kashi pans to morning buns — along with other sweets and a growing variety of savory offerings for the lunchtime crowd. Based on my experience so far, I recommend going early and often and preferably on foot, by bike or some other self-propelled method so you can indulge even more.

For those who want locally roasted coffee with their sweets, Ritual and De La Paz are served up daily. And for you Mission dwellers, if Bernal is a little too far out, you can also find a sampling of Sandbox Bakery goods at Nervous Dog Coffee.

On my most recent visit, these were the picks of the day: the super soft, heart-shaped kashi-pan bun with still-warm and gooey chocolate & banana filling; a variety of intensely flavored macarons by Christopher David that I dare say rival the best Paris has to offer (and I assure you, I’ve tried them all. If you don’t believe me, you can ask my friend who had no choice in the matter as I dragged him around Paris on a tasting frenzy); and, the divine apricot-mango oat bar — missing from this photograph because I ate it on the way home. A girl can resist only so much temptation!

Craving Chai

I woke up this morning with a wicked hankering for a good cup of chai.

Of all the chai walla’s I visited in India, this cat had it down! He was theatre to watch. I figured since I’m reliving the fantasy, I might as well share.

…crushing fresh ginger with the all-purpose kitchen gadget: pliers.

…tossing the ginger into the boiling tea leaves…

…adding the milk…

…giving it a stir…

…adding freshly ground spices (cardamom, clove, star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns)…

(…stir some more…)

…add plenty of sugar and give it a vigorous last whirl…

…strain it…

et voilà! Best chai walla experience on the books. And then there’s my favorite home brewed experience…

I met this chap when I stopped in his village to ask if I might take a photo of his house. He was thrilled and invited me in for a cup of chai, as is the custom.

Whoa, this cup of chai blew my chappals off! Or, more accurately, melted me into a puddle of ‘ooh’ing and ‘aah’ing. Seriously, it was made with fresh goat’s milk and was the creamiest cup of warm, spicy goodness to ever cross my lips. I can still taste it, which, this morning, is going to have to suffice.

Wada what…??

I love, love, LOVE street food and had such a great time tasting my way around the scene in India. It’s one of my favorite parts of exploring new places. Thankfully, my stomach has the strength and stamina to handle my sense of adventure.

I was intrigued by the crowd at this vendor in the heart of the main food market in Pune and asked what the fuss was about. There were a few items in the offing but was encouraged by all in the vicinity to try the wada pav.

Wada pav are spiced potato patties coated in graham flour and lightly fried, served on a little bun and accompanied with pickled chilies (or chutney). At this locale, it’s served on swank, crisp magazine pages. My Indian friends had a good laugh when I told them about this latest of my food discoveries. It’s really considered nothing special at all….just a super-cheap, fast food. While it’s true it only cost 8 rupees (about $0.17), it was a food revelation for me.

My next discovery was kachi dabeli: buns (again) stuffed with masala spiced potatoes, pomegranate seeds and spicy peanuts, and served with delicious tamarind and coriander sauces and a chili oil. The stuffed bun is ‘sauteed’ with a little ghee…

…and then topped with freshly chopped onions, coriander, grated cheese and a squirt of ketchup for good measure. Soooo tasty!

Then there’s the world of panipuri. They are everywhere in Pune. These little crispy discs get filled with a mixture of spiced chickpeas and potatoes that are then dipped into a water/tamarind/chili sauce (in the silver pot below).

You pop ’em straight in your mouth and let the spices wash over your tongue. I was so thrilled with the discovery that even my trepidacious friend decided to give it a try. This panipuri walla was so pleased that we enjoyed his food so much, he wouldn’t take our rupees.

And of course, no afternoon would be complete without a little chai on the go.

Perfecting Pomegranates

I’ve been meandering through the markets of Maharashtra, India, and as my first dispatch from the subcontinent, I thought I’d start with my (ongoing) obsession with pomegranates. Here, the pomegranate walla carts are spectacular displays.

I was in awe of the perfect clusters, so I asked one especially nice chap for a demo.

And there you have it…

…perfect clusters! Plus, the sweetest pomegranates I’ve experienced to date.

Bohemian Bourgeois

I’ve been fantasizing about this wonderful West Village, NYC restaurant I discovered last summer called Bobo. The name is short for ‘Bourgeois Bohemian’– a term that definitely describes the aesthetic of the space. There’s lots of exposed brick, long curtains, antique chandeliers, books, candles and knickknacks tucked around the room.

And the outdoor patio stole my heart. Dining outside on a warm balmy eve is one of my favorite ways to cap off a long day, NYC or anywhere.

Sitting down to this bright, fresh asparagus and crab amuse, I knew I was in for a great meal.

I still think about this salad of frisee, celeriac, watermelon radishes, avocado and crispy shallots drizzled with balsamic reduction. It was just the right balance of flavors and textures.

And this ahi was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

I’m a sucker for mason jars and couldn’t help smiling when this one landed on the table filled with sugar for our coffee. It’s not only cute but smart (I’m also a sucker for smart!)

So many chocolate cakes fall short, but this one was spot on: chocolate cake layered with milk chocolate mousse, topped with salted caramel and a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream with a shard of toffee. Yum!

Okay…well, that was fun to relive out loud. I think if I were in NY right now, I’d be hailing a cab. Next year!

**top photo by Noah Sheldon for NY Magazine

Getting Local

When I’m in NY, I make sure to hit Local in Soho (on Sullivan between Houston & Prince). It’s just a couple doors down from my sis’s place, so it’s not hard to do. The owners, Craig and Elizabeth, have lived in the hood for a long while and have seen the myriad changes over the past couple decades. These two clearly knew just what the neighborhood needed, as it’s become a favorite hangout of, well, locals.

The menu is fresh, seasonal and consistently tasty with plenty of breakfast, lunch and snack options to satisfy sweet or savory hankerings. Their own unique (and fully Fair Trade) coffee blends are available to purchase so you can have your brew at home, too.

I was pretty smitten already but my bond with Local was solidified earlier this year when I walked in to find the fab photo essay ‘Obama’s People’ by Nadav Kander — published in the NY Times Magazine — framed and hung along the length of the one once-empty wall.

Next to the Local canvas tote bags for sale, there was even a laminated copy of the narrative for each of the portraits in the series – for anyone who hadn’t yet had a chance to take a gander. Not all of the politically conservative old-timers in the hood were as thrilled to see the photo essay as I was…

It’s a teeny joint with an open, welcoming, laid-back vibe and is entirely conducive to bumping into neighbors and other regulars. It’s one of those places that makes me feel at home even when I’m away. That goes for the delish, local food, too — including the breads from Grandaisy Bakery down the street.

Local 123 – Berkeley

Just a few months ago, I was hunting and gathering for work over in Berkeley and stumbled upon Local 123.

Local 123 was named after a union headquarters that used to occupy the space and the owners, Frieda and Katy, have created a really comfortable spot both inside…

…and out back. Since I am often in search of warmer pastures in the summertime (which Berkeley usually provides) the outdoor patio’s been duly noted!

Local 123 is known for their housemade shortbread cookies, with versions in rosemary and cardamom. I’m especially partial to the cardamom as it’s one of my all-time favorite spices. And they serve up Flying Goat Coffee from Healdsburg to go with those fab shortbread cookies or any of the other carefully crafted menu choices that strike your fancy. Be sure to take notice of the groovy light fixtures that were created by a local artisan.

It’s nice to know that whether I’m traveling to the E. Coast or just across the bridge to the East Bay, there’s a local spot I can tuck into to ground, regroup, refuel and feel right at home. Maybe I’ll see you there one day!

Ode to Eloise

I just learned that the lovely Restaurant Eloise in Sebastopol closed on Nov 29. I only had the pleasure of dining there once for a family celebration. We were all smitten with every aspect — it was so elegant and yet down to earth.

I regret not posting this delicious memory sooner. Here’s my ode to the lovely Eloise:

Perfectly spicy, marinated Monterey Bay sardines with diced avocado, scallion and black sesame.

These clams were a bowl of spicy deliciousness.

Pillowy, ricotta & Swiss chard gnocchi with sage brown butter that just melted in my mouth.

A refreshing escarole salad with walnuts, red onion and shaved pecorino.

To finish, a perfectly soft vanilla panna cotta with the sweetest strawberries and a sprinkling of candied orange peel.

Should the super-talented chef/owners, Eric Korsh & Genevra Iverson, open another place anywhere near as delightful as Eloise, I will be sure to hustle on over and report back tout de suite!

Thank you to everyone at Restaurant Eloise for the delectable food and fond memories.

Top Turkey, Vegas Style

Last week, work took me to the Encore resort in Las Vegas for the ‘Top Turkey’ showdown: a cooking competition taped in front of a live audience for the Regis and Kelly show airing the day after Thanksgiving. The challenge for the competitors was to create two dishes using Thanksgiving leftovers. The kicker was a 25 minute time limit. Anyone who has watched a quickfire challenge on Top Chef knows that’s precious little time for just one dish, let alone two. But these are serious competitors: Paul Bartolotta, Alex Stratta and Hubert Keller — three phenomenal chefs hungry for this prized trophy and the prestigious title of Top Turkey.

Backstage in Turkey Battleground, Chef Paul Bartolotta cracked open the top-shelf secret ingredient in his tasty turkey cakes: lite beer.

Chef Alex Stratta made fresh pasta for his pumpkin ravioli dish….

And Chef Hubert Keller whipped up fancy pumpkin pie milkshakes and a turkey cappucino.

I snuck down to the audience to watch the judging portion of the show. Regis pretty much left the tasting to Kelly, who — tiny, hyper-fit gal that she is — didn’t have nearly enough time to relish the dishes as much as she would’ve liked. The three audience members cum guest judges seemed to find the experience a little, well, overwhelming. However, they pulled through and in the end, the scoring was VERY close.

Ultimately, Chef Alex Stratta reigned supreme. As Top Turkey, he gets to proudly place that regal, one-of-a-kind trophy on the mantel among his collection of Michelin stars and James Beard awards. Truly a proud moment for Chef Stratta, to be sure.

As for my part, it was a blast working with the chefs and all the Regis & Kelly posse. I must confess that until I started working in Las Vegas, it was not a town I frequented. These days, I look forward to the royal treatment: gorgeous resort room, amazing meals (including the in-room dining – thanks, James!), reserved tables at clubs, chauffeured grocery shopping and wonderful staff make for a very enjoyable work gig indeed!