A New Show in Town

Pizza Romana

I wonder how many people out there are like me: when my birthday comes around (or within 4 months…) my mind immediately turns to restaurants.  Rather than thinking about holes in my summer wardrobe or dropping hints about my need for a new iPod, I go online and search for the location of my birthday dinner.  This year, while I was well underway with making my June 22nd reservation, my husband pre-empted me with a surprise the week before — a dinner and birthday gift rolled up into one.

He took me, and two friends, to Stir — Barbara Lynch’s new venture in the South End.  Not only did we eat a great meal, but we watched it being cooked in front of us by two of Ms. Lynch’s skilled chefs.  The concept is straightforward and brilliant: each class is based on a different cookbook, selected from one of the many stacked on the bookshelves on one wall of the cozy kitchen.  Two talents from the Barbara Lynch Gruppo choose 3 or more recipes from the cookbook to demonstrate and serve to the guests, who number no greater than nine.  My birthday dinner, based on The River Cottage Meat Book, consisted of french fries, charcuterie (cured meats, salami, and pork rillettes), sweetbreads with bacon and fava beans, and crispy pork belly with apple sauce.  It was not to be believed.  Of course, the entire meal is paired with excellent wines by the course, and a copy of the cookbook is yours to keep.  I left Stir that night with a smile from ear to ear and a book called Meat under my arm.


My mother’s birthday followed closely behind mine, and I borrowed RJ’s wonderful idea.  For Mom, the cookbook du jour was A16: Food + Wine, named for the famed San Francisco restaurant.  Nate Appleman, the chef/owner of A16, was recently named Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation and ranked as one of Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs 2009.  The featured recipes included pizzas (bianco – with green olives, parmesan and chili oil; Romana – with tomatoes, anchovies and oregano; and margherita – with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes); halibut with a preserved meyer lemon, caper and pistachio crust and a side of delicious kale; and chocolate budino, the most heavenly chocolate-on-chocolate tart I’ve ever tasted, topped with olive oil and sea salt.


What is so lovely about Stir is that it feels like a dinner party among friends.  They only allow 8-9 people at a time, and the chefs encourage questions and dialogue as they cook their way through the menu.  Of the people around the table at my mom’s birthday dinner, half were repeat attendees (one guy was on his fourth visit) and the rest was my family.  It felt very familiar and casual, despite the decadent food and wine.

There’s also a tactile element I really enjoy – at my first Stir experience they passed around raw pork belly so we could feel the skin before the cooking process made it crunchy like candy, and the other night we handled pizza dough at different stages of rise so we could understand the results of proofing and kneading.

IMG_0024Best of all, however, is the staff.  In June, we met Molly, the executive sous chef at Stir, and Jericha, one of the butchers at the Butcher Shop.  This month, Molly was again regaling us with her fun tales of culinary school but stationed just to my left was none other than Barbara Lynch!   I can’t tell you what a treat it was to watch and learn from this master chef.  She forced the elastic pizza dough into submission, loosed handfuls of kosher salt with abandon, and divulged some of her favorite places to eat in Boston/Cambridge: Oleana, Hungry Mother, and Sel de la Terre (plus Cambridge One and Upper Crust for pizza).  Personally, I must confess that my favorite place to eat in Boston is Stir.  The experience is unique, unpredictable, and fun – it would be perfect for a first date if it weren’t so gosh darn expensive.  While you’re saving up, however, consider buying the book, due out in the fall, to tide you over: STIR: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition.  While I haven’t seen it, I would bet the farm that it is fabulous, and will be appearing soon on the shelves at my house.

Chocolate Budino

Tongue in Cheek…Musings on Literary Food Porn


One of my best friends once dated a guy who claimed to read his pornography.  I don’t mean he **air quotes** purchased Playboys for the articles, I mean that he didn’t care for erotic pictures; he found lusty stories and written accounts to have a greater appeal and, er, effect.  The peccadillos of a true intellectual I suppose…

Until this past week I would have denied that the same preference was possible for a lover of food porn – that aside from the real thing nothing could make the mouth water more than a gorgeously styled gourmet photograph.  Of course, I’m not the first to repeat the wisdom that we taste with our eyes first.  The sight of a deep crimson strawberry, plump and glistening with morning dew can evoke the sumptuous sweetness of the fruit before it even hits the tongue, and increase the anticipation all the more.  Websites such as FoodGawker and Photo Grazing cater to the needs of the average degenerate foodie — offering a harmless fix (It’s just looking!) to get him through the day until he gets home to his own dinner.

Brussels sprouts

Yet this week I have discovered literary food porn and damn, it is gooood…  Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients is my first indulgence (and you never forget your first, I’m told).  This novel, the author’s debut, is exceptionally crafted.  Bauermeister sculpts each character with rich language and heartfelt empathy, revealing them slowly through their most intimate histories – an elderly couple’s crisis of infidelity and eventual reparation, a young man’s heartbreak over the death of his wife, a new mother’s conflicted self-perception – and then bringing them all together around the counter at the cooking school named in the title.

I find this book nearly impossible to put down.  The stories are intriguing and deeply sincere, and the writing is decadent.  Certain passages have completely blown me away, particularly the lush descriptions of food and the simple but profound metaphors the author composes to explain her characters’ emotional strife.  At one point she writes, after a series of insults from a contemptuous, critical boyfriend: “Chloe felt sometimes that he was tying her up with string, into a small ball that he could throw far, far away from him.”  I cannot tell if you will read that and find it as apt and poignant as I did, or if it will mean nothing without reading the context, but I see that as further evidence of how engrossing the narration really is.  The words are not indulgent literary flourish – they are the story.


I contrast my experience with this book to my reading of The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, a memoir by Kathleen Flinn.  Also about a cooking school, specifically Le Cordon Bleu, Flinn’s writing lacks all of the elegance and expert pacing of Bauermeister’s.  Admittedly, Flinn is a trained journalist and is writing non-fiction.  Nevertheless, the reader could have been, but is not, transported by her book.  I don’t fall in love with her husband-to-be along with her.  I do not feel her frustration or her intense determination — I just hear it.  Does that make sense?  I recall the most basic lesson of college-level creative (and academic) writing — Show Don’t Tell.  Flinn’s book was more of a telling.  As one reviewer put it, “It’s all matter of fact: this happened, she had this amazing experience, she lived this dream, wouldn’t you like to read about it?”  Sure, I guess.

French spice marketThis is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all.  I did.  As did many other bloggers and critics.  The thought of dropping everything (or having everything dropped for you and against your will, as in Flinn’s personal story) to go to live in Paris and attend cooking school full time is quite enticing for me!  Plus, the book is riddled with funny stories and some great recipes I cannot wait to try.  I am just saying that I didn’t read The Sharper Your Knife with the same kind of hunger that I did The School of Essential Ingredients.  One review on Amazon.com of the latter book reads, “My main complaint is that there isn’t enough of it. It’s a very short book and feels highly polished, every line labored over until it gleams…but there’s just not enough of them.”  You certainly leave The School of Essential Ingredients wanting more… much like the first course of a fantastic meal.  I cannot wait to see what Erica Bauermeister comes out with next.  Consider your appetites whet!

California Cuisine

napa-bouchon-cardAs RJ and I toured Northern California, we often saw restaurants described as “California cuisine”.  For us New England folk, that means avocados.  A Californian sandwich in Boston could translate to any number of possible combinations but must include avocado and maybe sprouts but no red meat.  A California sushi roll has crabstick and avocado and sometimes cucumber.  Guess what lies in a fan atop a Californian salad?  Yup. The Haas.

Though I didn’t think that every dish we ate in California would be avocado-based,  my non-green-eating husband thought cuisine in California was suspect as best.  I knew, however, that Napa would not disappoint.  As you saw in my last post, I eased him into it with Calistoga barbecue.  Then I hit him with the fine dining.  Our first stop was Redd, which came highly recommended.  I started with hamachi sashimi which was melt-in-your-mouth tender, with touch of a great gingery sauce.  The fish sat on a rice, edamame, and seaweed salad mixture – tasted good but I could have done without the rice which seemed unnecessary.  Our other starter was the gnocchi pancetta carbonara with poached egg which was out of this world – creamy, rich and decadent beyond compare!  Neighbors had the tasting menu which looked so good – perfect portion sizes and a great variety.

Duck at Redd

Our dinners were the NY steak and the duck breast.  I was blown away by the duck breast – perfectly cooked, with a wonderful vegetable accompaniment (chard and wild mushrooms, I think), over gizzard polenta.  A couple bites of the steak were a bit chewy, but the fantastic sauce was redeeming and the fingerling potatoes were a treat.  What really made the meal for us, however, was the wine pairings.  Jason, the sommelier, was phenomenal.  He hooked us up with wines from the by-the-glass list for each dish — certainly the way to go, given our diverse choices.  I was really impressed with the Foxglove chardonnay with the gnocchi and the great Whetstone pinot that came with the duck.  Highly recommended!!

Steak at Redd

Blue Cheese ChipsThe next day we stopped in at the Rutherford Grill for lunch.  The fish sandwich was good, but we were both unhealthily infatuated with the Pont Reyes Blue Cheese covered potato chips.  Unadulterated sinful goodness.  When we had finished the chips there was still a good amount of the luxurious cheese left on the bottom of the bowl.  As RJ and I were poised above the dish, both contemplating sticking our fingers in to swipe up the excess, our kind server came by and offered us more of the homemade potato chips.  Accepted!

Bouchon-appsThough we had planned on going to Market restaurant in St. Helena that Sunday night, followed by fried chicken night at Ad Hoc, RJ convinced me that we did not have time on Monday to stop for dinner before proceeding to Tahoe.  As I am mildly obsessed with the man, I was not about to leave Napa without having eaten at one of Thomas Keller‘s restaurants.  Thus, we tramped over to Bouchon and demanded a reservation.  Not really – but close!  Thankfully, they had a last minute cancellation and we were in.  The meal was spectacular.  We began with bread served with a choice of butter or warm white bean puree.  They also gave us some citrus-marinated olives to tide us over.  I had the oysters, which ranged from piquant and briny to lucious and creamy.

Bouchon Roast ChickenFor dinner, we ordered the pinnacle of bistro foods: a perfectly-cooked steak frites with maitre d’hotel butter for RJ and a roast chicken half au jus for me.  I have never eaten chicken so good before in my life – sorry Gordon!  I could have taken swigs of that jus out of a juice glass it was so delicious.  It was resting on a pea and bacon mixture that perfectly summed up the character of the dish – rustic, flavorful and familiar.  If I could have fit another ounce in my stomach, I would have had the profiteroles with chocolate sauce, but ’twas not to be.  Even RJ was astounded when he saw a man stand up from a table behind me, walk to the kitchen, and return with a second basket of fries – who could eat that many?!?  I turned to look and whom should I see but THOMAS KELLER!  Wearing a jean shirt and carrying fries to his table, the Man himself was eating right behind me.  I nearly kissed him but for the chicken-greasy mug I wore!  Total satisfaction at Bouchon.Bouchon Steak Frites

I cannot close this post without a mention of our San Francisco eats as well.  We had our biggest splurge meal at Gary Danko – one of the most difficult reservations to obtain in SF, at least that’s what they tell me.  RJ and I both ate four courses — for me: Dungeoness crab salad, branzini, bison filet and cheese.  For RJ: rock shrimp and lobster risotto, porcini-dusted scallops with pea puree, filet mignon and a trio of creme brulees of considerable size (coffee, chocolate, vanilla bean).  Great wine, port and scotch were imbibed by all…  We also dined at Zuni Cafe — I had heard so many raves about the signature chicken that I simply had to partake!  I am sorry to say that I was disappointed.  The dish did not hold a candle to either Boston’s Hammersley’s Bistro or Napa’s Bouchon, plus we had to wait over an hour for it to arrive (stated on the menu, but really — is that necessary?).  The meat was cooked perfectly, but the skin wasn’t all that crispy and we didn’t think there was any stand-out flavor to the chicken except perhaps salt.  That being said, RJ’s cheese risotto was amazing and kept us satisfied for about 45 minutes of the chicken wait.

All in all, we left the state loving California Cuisine, whatever that is!

Day One on a Napa Vacation

Schramsberg cavesI have a great excuse to explain my recent absence from posting — RJ and I have been on our (belated) honeymoon – a whirlwind tour of California, including Napa, Tahoe, and San Francisco.


We started our wine tour with Champagne, a la francaise…  A beautiful drive up a winding path took us to Schramsberg Vineyard, where we met Marshall, our guide.  The tour was short and sweet – we saw the caves with thousands of bottles, stacked 30 racks deep, 50 bottles high, and hundreds of bottles long. The atmosphere was musty and dank – partially because they are caves cut deep into the Napa bedrock, and partially because they recently had a spill of over 700 bottles occur due to rotting wooden racks.  So sad to waste such delicious stuff!  We went deep into the caves and saw the techniques of riddling (the hand-turning of the bottle-fermenting champagne which gradually works the spent yeast up into the neck of the bottle.  We ended up in a dark cavern with

Roman arched walls (hand-chiseled by Chinese workers with pick-axes in the 19th century), complete with lit candelabra and 16 champagne flutes. We tasted the blanc de blancs (bought 2 bottles), the rose brut, and the lower-carbonation P. Schram and Reserve. The last two are reverses of each other – the first 80% chardonnay grapes, the latter 80% pinot noir. Pinot Meunier does not seem to be as popular here. Our favorites were the Blanc de Blancs which had a light, crisp feel – perfect for a summer evening, and the Reserve (unfortunately the Reserve cost $100 a bottle and we couldn’t justify it). The fact that we even considered it scares me, as we pass a $110 Dom Perignon at Costco regularly and scoff. We are definitely in vacation mode!  old-faithfulActually, everything we tasted here was very good, and we were astonished to know that this vineyard we’d never heard of before was the second vineyard ever established in Napa, and the first to start making champenois-method sparkling wine here.

I convinced RJ to pass through the “Old Faithful” geyser hot springs in Calistoga – something he wasn’t thrilled about and only agreed to after I agreed to forgo the petrified forest. I paid our $7 entry fees (thanks to the online coupon) and we walked down a wooden boardwalk, past some baby goats which, in my opinion, were worth the price of admission. After about 3 minutes, we saw the spring start to steam up, and eventually a large spray of water shot into the air. RJ immediately reacted: “Really??! That was it?!? $7!?!?”  Video of the Old Faithful spray available on request…

It was interestinBusters BBQg as a natural phenomenon (to me) but doesn’t look more impressive than the fountains in Las Vegas or even some here in Napa…. After that, I redeemed myself by taking RJ to some good ol’ fashioned BBQ at Buster’s, a place I read about on Trip Advisor. We ordered the famous Tri-Tip sandwich with baked beans on the side, and the ½ rack of ribs with coleslaw on the side. The ribs were rather blah… pretty standard and certainly not the baby back version that RJ prefers. The tri-tip, on the other hand, was phenomenal. A slow-cooked cut of steak, sliced and smothered in BBQ sauce, on a sandwich of toasted garlic bread (with a beer for RJ). MMM! I am absolved of all previous (tourist) sins. We aimed to go to Sterling vineyards next and ride the gondola, but the line (not too long, but the first we’ve seen) deterred RJ and he directed me to look at a picture of the view rather than to take the actual trip.  Fine by me, as I’m not wild about the wine there.

Darioush - The Persian PalaceWe continued on, following the recommendation of our guide, Marshall from Schramsberg, to the Silverado trail. Though I have no complaints about the St. Helena Highway, the Silverado Trail was certainly a treat. It was curvy and fun, weaving through fields and hillsides covered with acres of vines and blankets of mustard flowers. We went back through the towns we’d seen on our way in – St. Helena, Oakville, Yountville – and ended up in the Stag’s Leap district. We went first to the “Persian Palace” – Dariouche – and were mildly disappointed with the spiciness of everything from the Chardonnay to the Cabernet Franc to the Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines weren’t bad, but were not – in our opinion – worthy of the high ratings in Wine Spectator. On our trip back north, we stopped at Chimney Rock for two tastings – a current release flight for me, and a Cabernet tasting for RJ. I was incredibly impressed by the ragusciBordeaux-style white served first, and again by the Cabernet 2004. RJ thought the 2003 Cabernet was one of the best Cabs he’d ever tasted – so much so that he neglected to share!! We agreed to come back later to taste the “Reserve” flight and maybe buy some wines. Mike is on the lookout for us! I think that that was our last sober experience of good judgment, for as we tasted at our next stop – Regusci – we were much less prudent! I don’t, however, doubt our tastebuds, for this was the best wine I’ve had in a long while. The Chardonnay was phenomenal, followed by great merlot, transcendent zinfandel, and a blend red that we could not stop raving about: the Patriarch. While our favorite was the 100% Cabernet, our good pal Jonesy recommended that we wait for the 2006 vintage to shell out on that one. We ended up purchasing a bottle of the Zin and one of the Patriarch, and they comp-ed our tasting fees. Love it!!

Best judgment aside, we decided to stop just one more time – at the second recommendation from Marshall – Robert Sinskey winery. We came into a busy tasting room about 10 minutes before closing and made friends with the pourer and a guy a the bar from San Diego. They served us tiny hors d’oeuvres that matched the wines (delicious) and allowed RJ and myself to share a flight. While I talked to Mr. San Diego about California ports, RJ bought up 2 bottles of the Cabernet! At Day One’s End, our tally included: 2 bottles of champagne from Schramsberg, 2 bottles of Sinskey Cab, 1 bottle of Zin from Regusci, 1 bottle of Patriarch from Regusci.

We eventually did stop back at Chimney Rock for the third tasting they offered – the best Cabs on the menu – and we were very impressed!  I feel like I could spend weeks here, not to mention millions of dollars, and never get bored. The scenery is out-of-this-world beautiful, the weather has been extraordinary, and the wine has made the two of us happy as honeymooners!  Next post: Napa cuisine!

Vineyard Shot