Monthly Archives: August 2016

KEIKO À NOB HILL: Powerhouse Michelin starred Japanese cuisine served humbly in San Francisco

Regal but without ego or fanfare, Chef Keiko and her impeccable staff create a spectacular dining experience that is more than worthy of her Michelin star. While one’s credit card balance will definitely take a hit, I found it to be every foodie’s dream and worth the expenditure.
KEIKO À Nob Hill is one of those amazing finds that one either stumbles upon or is fortunate to learn of it through word of mouth. The former was true in my case, as I walked by it several times and learned that it was a $$$$ “sushi restaurant” according to Google Maps. Ummm, not quite. I was intrigued, but I put it out of my mind, until months later, when a few friends and I were researching the Michelin guide to the San Francisco Bay Area and surprise! KEIKO was listed. I knew at that moment I had to try it and immediately made reservations for when one of my best friends (and fellow foodie) was to visit.

  
KEIKO is almost literally hidden. A simple brass placard on the wall of an early 20th century high-rise condominium building is the only indicator to passersby of the gem within. The decor is a bit heavy and dated, not what one would expect to be a match for Japanese fusion. Yet it makes sense given the “old money” feel of the residential building in which it resides.

KEIKO has only one nightly seating in its tiny dining room, which adds to the sense of dining in someone’s (extremely fancy) home. If you’re late, you’ll hold up your fellow diners!

  
The meal proved to be sublime. Each dish was deftly executed and presented as if fine jewels or art on a plate. My only gripe was the exorbitant cost of corkage ($65). Luckily, our bottle of wine was nice enough to warrant it (Freemark Abbey’s Josephine Bordeaux blend red), but no corkage should cost that much. On the plus side, the staff accommodate dietary restrictions and allergies, calling me three days in advance to check.

  
On to the dishes! First up was Shimaaji, sashimi of yellowjack. As you can see from the photo, it was beautiful. It melted in my mouth.

  
Course two was Uni, or sea urchin, atop a cauliflower mousse and seaweed gelée. It was my first time trying sea urchin. It wasn’t quite so scary – it had a smooth texture and briny flavor, but I didn’t want to tempt fate with my shellfish allergy.

  
Course three was a fresh, slender Japanese sardine filet, Iwashi, accented with dill and accompanied by a wonderfully refreshing medallion of cucumber salad.

   
 Course four was probably my favorite overall. Seared foie gras perched atop a dark, rich coffee reduction – one of Chef Keiko’s house specialties. Our server presented us a petite brioche to soak up the delicious coffee reduction. I left nothing behind.

  
Course five, Hotate, consisted of a single, perfectly seared sea scallop, sliced thinly and accompanied by an unexpectedly rich duo of pea and corn purees. My friend and I reveled in every drop of those purees.

Course six showcased Maine lobster two ways, which included a lobster-polenta cake.

  
Course seven was our main fish course – a specialty flown in daily from Tokyo’s renowned Tsukiji fish market. Today’s feature was tilefish. It was served with its signature coral and tile-esque skin and poached in a light, delicate saffron broth with dill and scallions.

 

Cornish hen with three sauces

 
We moved from “surf” to “turf” in Courses eight and nine, starting with Cornish hen, accompanied by chanterelles, asparagus, black truffle foam and a single shaved bit of scrumptious black truffle. It was an elegant, earthy homage to late spring and early summer on a plate.

  
Course nine was a triumphant filet of rare and tender Wagyu beef, its trademark marbling visible yet well integrated. The accompanying yuzu soy foam, black kale chips, and wasabi added a hint of Umami and lightness to balance the heavy richness of the meat.

  
On to course ten and our cheese course. A light, mousse-like cheese managed to be both decadent and light as air, both tangy and delicately sweet like cheesecake. Bordeaux’s signature sweet, the moist cinnamon and toffee delicacy known as the canelé added another counterpoint.

  
Course eleven was the dessert course. Other than the foie gras, it was my favorite of all the courses. Why? I love dessert, but a fruit based dessert must be perfectly executed and novel in order to earn my praise. Chef Keiko delivered indeed. Today’s dessert was strawberry, four ways. Small bites of strawberry mousse, sorbet, and angel food cake, along with a banana mousse and Tart Greek yogurt powder only enhanced the delicate summer sweetness of the berry. And for an added bonus, a thick, lightly sweet-tart, strained strawberry puree was presented in the ornate sipper traditionally served with port. I can’t do justice to this amazing combination in words.

  
Just when we thought the menu was complete, we were presented with a lovely quartet (times two) of Mignardises – tiny desserts. Hazelnut profiteroles, a fruit tart, a (disappointingly dry) financier, and a dark chocolate hazelnut crunch truffle comprised the sweet finale to a more than outstanding dining experience.

As we departed, we managed to meet and effusively praise Chef KEIKO herself. She is a true rockstar in the culinary world. It is truly exciting to see such an extraordinary chef who just happens to be a woman, and my first impression meeting her was that of an exceptional artist, dedicated not to pursuit of celebrity, as some have chosen, but to her craft.

For insight into the world of a female chef in the traditionally male dominated world of Japanese cuisine, check out the Netflix Original documentary series, “Chef’s Table” – Season 1, Episode 5, which profiles star Japanese-American Izakaya chef Niki Nnaka and her Michélin-starred restaurant in Los Angeles.

Healthy Diplomat: Vegan avocado basil pesto brightens any savory dish

Even if you’re not vegan, this pesto is bursting with summer freshness. Rich, yet light, this savory condiment is perfect for everything from pasta to meat and vegetables.
When one of my friends conjured up a version of this pesto to get rid of some ripe avocado, I was curious how it was going to turn out. Turn out it did. Sampling it straight from the jar, I knew I would recreate it myself at some point. That point came when I joined another friend’s BeachBody challenge group. Needing “clean” recipes and having bought a giant spaghetti squash, now was the time for some dairy-free pesto.

 

Basil, the defining component of traditional Genovese (Genoan) or Ligurian pesto

 
I’m a huge fan of traditional Genoese pesto. I first made it back in college with my first food processor. For those who haven’t made it, it’s extremely easy. It’s also calorie dense. A typical pesto usually involves about 2 cups fresh basil, 4 cloves raw garlic (can we say garlic breath?), 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup olive oil, and 1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pignoli (pine nuts). That’s a lot of fat – even if most is fairly healthy.

My goal in creating this avocado pesto was to mimic the richness of a traditional pesto but with less oil and calories. I’ll remind everyone up front that this pesto still is not a low calorie food, thanks to the avocado, but fats are healthy and we get a little bit of crunch and fiber from almonds too!

The beauty of a pesto is you can tweak it to fit your own preferences. One clove of garlic was enough for the pesto to stand up to meat or roast veggies (or even as a dip – great with plantain chips or sugar snap peas as a snack!), but you may wish to add more garlic if you plan to make this a standalone accompaniment to pasta or a pasta substitute. 

  
I paired it with my Romanesca meat sauce over spaghetti squash for a bit of yin-yang (meat/veggie). You’ll also want to add the lemon juice gradually; its acidity is needed to preserve the fresh green color of the avocado, but too much and you’ll overpower the basil. Unless, of course, you’re going for basil guacamole!

Vegan Avocado-Basil Pesto

  • 1/4 cup roasted or toasted plain almonds
  • 1-2 cloves raw garlic
  • 2 cups fresh basil, roughly chopped
  • 1 small, ripe Haas avocado (or 1/3 to 1/2 large)
  • 2-4 Tbsp extra Virgin olive oil (preferably cold-pressed)
  • 1-2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon)
  • Sea salt to taste

In a food processor, chop almonds until ground. Add the garlic, basil, and avocado. Pulse to mix the ingredients. Slowly add in olive oil; puree the mixture on a high speed setting, adding more olive oil if needed. Add in lemon juice and salt to taste. Blend until smooth.

  
The pesto is ready to serve immediately, but it also can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to one week.

Gloria Ferrer: California sparkling house with Spanish Catalonian flair

Sample some French-style, Spanish-influenced sparkling wine (yep, that’s a thing!) made in Sonoma County, California at Gloria Ferrer.

Nestled in the cool bayside Carneros region of Sonoma County, the vineyards of Gloria Ferrer are well situated to grow Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes, the key components of most sparkling wines. Having visited nearby Domaine Carneros just across the Napa County line, I had wanted to try Gloria Ferrer.

The winery is a venture started by the Ferrer family, which grew Freixenet in Catalonia into one of the most prominent Cava houses in Spain in the past century. For those that haven’t had much exposure to Cava, it is a sparkling wine made in the champenoise style and made primarily from Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes -sometimes, juice from other grapes, like Spain’s Xarello, may be blended in.

 

A sliver of the panorama facing east from the patio

 
Gloria Ferrer’s tasting room is hard to spot from highway 121 (which, annoyingly is still only a two lane road, which really cramps my style when heading to Napa), but its cheery stucco walls and red Spanish roof tiles are a comforting indication of the sparkling house’s Spanish roots. Tasting outdoors on the sizeable patio is a must when the weather cooperates. Sunshine and a better than expected view of the Vaca mountains that shield Napa and the rest of the region from the (worst of the) inland heat.

Gloria Ferrer’s specialty is sparkling wine; however as is typical for American sparkling wine producers, it also makes still wines. One aspect I loved about the winery’s tasting room was that one could also try wines from its Spanish and Australian wineries – a nice change of pace when you are a frequent visitor to California wineries.

At the tasting room, wines can be sampled by the glass, bottle, or one of five tasting flights. The tasting flights include two sparkling only flights, one still flight, and two mixed flights, each consisting of 3-4 different wine samples. I chose the 90 point flight, which is one of the two all-sparkling flights.

This flight started off with the extra brut, which was lemony and crisp from its Chardonnay grapes. It wasn’t the most complex of wines, but sparkling wines often aren’t.

We moved on to the Brut rosè. It had
Sweet berry notes, but the fruitiness of the Pinot noir was a bit more subtle than other houses’ varieties. As a brut, it was crisp and dry, a pleasant aperitif.

Next on the list was the royal cuvée, a source of pride for the winery. I wasn’t quite so impressed with it, as it just felt heavier, and our bottle may have gone a bit flat from an earlier opening. But the memory also quickly disappeared after our final wine.

The Va de Vi was fantastic. With a small amount of the aromatic Muscat grape blended into the two usual suspects, it was more complex than the other three. In addition, though a small enough dosage (sugar and yeast mixture added to the bottle for second fermentation) was added to qualify it as a brut (dry) wine, had a touch more sweetness than the other three. That hint of extra sweetness nicely balanced the citrus tang of the wine. It was by far all of our favorite.

Other friends, not fans of bubbly, opted to try one of the Spanish Ferrer family wines. Their chosen Morlanda wine is a blend of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carineña (Carignan) from the rocky, austere Priorat wine region of Catalonia. It was a smooth balance of fruit and tannins.

In any tasting experience, service is key. Our server, Diego, was friendly and happy to share wine knowledge yet left our group free to enjoy our sunny midday tasting and company of friends. I’ll be back!

Lavash: Fine Persian cuisine in San Francisco’s Sunset district

Anyone who knows San Francisco well is prone to complain about San Francisco’s changing food scene. Many of the good restaurants, particularly international cuisine, have been priced out of the city altogether – mostly due to ridiculously high residential and commercial real estate costs. Even celebrity chef-turned TV star Anthony Bourdain lamented in a special about the San Francisco Bay Area that the city has “sold out” to shiny pet projects of Silicon Valley executives with too much money with which to invest.

After nearly a year as a resident of the city, I have found good food throughout San Francisco, but I believe that the food scene of city itself faces stiff competition from other cities – even within the Bay Area. But a couple of San Francisco neighborhoods continue to prove that San Francisco is still worthy of its reputation as a center of cuisine: the Inner Richmond and Inner Sunset districts. What, surprised that I did not include the Mission in that group? I have yet to be impressed by that neighborhood, once the bastion of Mexican and Latin cuisine. It epitomizes everything Anthony Bourdain decried – the gentrification and Silicon Valley-ization of the city.

My friends of Middle Eastern descent warned me that Arabic, Turkish, Lebanese, and other regional foods in this city are not up to East Coast standards. I have come to believe them. Yet these same friends recommend one place in the city, and that is Lavash, located on Irving Street just south of Golden Gate Park in the Inner Sunset.

An unassuming storefront and elegant but cramped interior do not give much indication of the powerful flavors of Lavash’s Persian cuisine. After two visits, I’m a huge fan of this restaurant. Its meats are tender and packed with flavor, but its vegetarian dishes also are a treat for the senses. A reasonable wine and beer list are a good indication Lavash is far from ordinary, and it’s no “ethnic” dive either.

 

kashj-e badamjam and sabzi panir

 
If you’re unfamiliar with Persian cuisine, here’s a primer. You’ll typically start with sabzi panir, a refreshing salad heavy with fresh herbs – mint, cilantro, basil; tomatoes, walnuts; and cubes of feta-like fresh cheese. For appetizers, you won’t exactly find the mezze/meze/mezeh to which you’re accustomed in the Middle East, but instead Iran’s unique versions – such as kashj-e badamjam, a pureed eggplant salad infused with pomegranate molasses; or a thick, strained yogurt not too far from Lebanese Labneh, for instance. Saffron, yogurt, and pomegranate are prominent accents in meat and rice main dishes.

 

The taste of Persia combination platter is a feast of joojeh, koobideh, and veggie kabobs atop lavash and served with saffron rice

 
Kabobs are like Persian currency. My good Assyrian-American friend pronounced that Persians are the best at tenderizing and flavoring their meats of all culinary traditions in the Middle East. Joojeh – lime, yogurt, and saffron marinated chicken skewers; shishlik (lamb chops) and barg (beef); salty koobideh – a mix of ground lamb and beef; roasted veggie kabobs: and even less traditional mahi and prawn kabobs Grace Lavash’s menu. Oh, and lavash – thin flatbread – is usually served both alongside and underneath kabobs, soaking up the meaty juices so no bit of flavor is wasted.

 

the lavash salad

 
Salads are fresh and healthy side or light main course options as well. The Shiraz salad (cucumber and tomato) is a refreshing accompaniment to the heavy dose of meat in the kabobs and other main dishes. The lavash salad is more substantial, with feta, walnuts, and apple atop mixed greens.

Lavash Restaurant is a wonderful ambassador of Persian cuisine. In both of my visits, every dish, every bite was memorable.

A tour of Willamette Valley, Oregon’s best wineries

Where in the USA can you go to experience world class wines in a gorgeous setting, among friendly faces, and all without breaking the bank? Oregon’s Willamette Valley!

After nearly a decade since my last visit, Oregon’s Willamette Valley has transformed from an up and coming wine producer to a globally recognized producer of complex Pinot noirs. But too much focus on Pinot may come at the expense of the AVA’s prowess and potential for Alsatian white varietals. The Willamette is home to fantastic whites and rosés, too.

What I found when researching wineries is that grape diversity in the Willamette has decreased since my last visit. Sadly, most Willamette growers have chosen to specialize in Burgundian varietals – pinot noir and Chardonnay grapes. The finicky Pinot noir grape does make deliciously complex wines here. Most of the Willamette Chardonnays I’ve tried are more crisp, made with less oak or malolactic fermentation than their Northern California counterparts, with less fruit and more minerality – not unlike their Burgundian sisters.

Meanwhile, Riesling and Alsatian white varietals still have a cult following here, but according to winery anecdotes, less acreage is devoted to these days. That is a great shame, because Oregon’s terroir and climate are well suited to them.

The friendliest of the major regions of American wine country
Tasting room quality in the Willamette has improved immensely in 10 years. Many wineries have renovated or built new tasting rooms to accommodate the increased popularity of the Willamette Valley – and to keep up with California’s Napa and Sonoma Counties. Spacious, comfortable, and well decorated, one could easily spend the better part of a day tasting and relaxing either indoors or outdoors. Hospitable servers come directly to your table, happy to chat about more than just the wine.

I’ll highlight three wineries we visited on this most recent Willamette wine tour.

Rex Hill
Rex Hill gained national recognition with its nationally distributed A to Z label, but wines bearing their Rex Hill label are higher quality and the focus at its tasting room. Rex Hill is known for its Pinot noirs.

   

part of Rex Hill’s garden picnic area

 
My favorite was the fruit forward La Colina Pinot, with its complex cherry notes and smooth, almost imperceptible oak. The Willamette Valley Pinot noir, their flagship wine, is spicier and more acidic, with a touch more oak, than the La Colina or Jacob-Hart.

Rex Hill’s Jacob-Hart vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot noir are their crème de la crème wines. The Chardonnay is aged in 2/3 neutral French oak and 1/3 concrete vats – latter of which impart minerality. With a nice balance of fruit and minerality, it was smooth and drinkable. It almost felt like a Burgundian Chablis, but with less smoke and more New World fruit.

 

outdoor sculpture at Rex Hill

 
The Jacob-Hart Pinot noir had more noticeable bright acidity and complexity. The Rex Hill staffer noted that these grapes fought their way to harvest growing in one of the rockiest vineyards in Oregon.

Looking for a nice summer wine, we took home a bottle of Rex Hill’s rosé. It was drier than many American rosés, with notes of dried strawberry and cherry. It made for a refreshing post-dinner sip.


My favorite aspect of Rex Hill’s tasting room was its display of various aromatic notes typically found in wine. Dried fruit, flowers, herbs, minerals, and organic matter (ok, dirt) in individual glasses help give visitors a real vocabulary for wine.

Argyle
Argyle specializes in sparkling wines and the still wines made from sparkling wine varietals (Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Pinot meunière). 

 

the HGTV-worthy interior of Argyle’s barrel room-turned-tasting room

 
Their new (2015) tasting room, created from their old winery site, is a study in architecture and ambience. I described it as “Chip and Johanna’s tasting room” (from the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper”. Reclaimed wood from the winery, open and airy, high ceilings, geometric patterns and sleek rugs, deep teal bathroom paint made me happy.

  
Despite the sleek modernity of the tasting room, tastings are relaxed. Patrons have choice of three flights with three (2 oz.-ish) tastes each. Looking around at our fellow tasters, everyone seemed seemed relaxed and happy. Each of the four sparkling wines we tried were solid. The Knudsen Brut (90% Pinot noir, 10% Chardonnay) and blanc de Blancs were especially fantastic.

  
Looking at their list of still wines, I was sad not to taste some of them, but I was able to snag a taste of their dry Riesling and their late harvest Riesling. Their Nuthouse (named after a hazelnut production facility) Riesling was medium-bodied, dry and deliciously smooth and slightly complex with honeysuckle and minerality. The late harvest was slightly syrupy but definitely a sweet ending.

Brooks
Brooks winery was by far my favorite of the day. Its hillside location offers stunning views of much of the Willamette Valley and beyond, including the property’s vineyards, farmland, and distant mountains, including the volcanic Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and Washington State’s Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens. The tasting room was eclectic and modern, the patio expansive like a (wealthy) friend’s living room and deck. The wines, with names inspired by world mythology, were fabulous. If you’re a frequent visitor, wines are available by the glass or bottle. Newbies can sample flights from three options: six whites, six reds, or a selection of three of each.

 

View from Brooks’ sundeck – the iconic peak of Mt. Hood is visible in the distance

  
 I chose the Isis flight of six whites. The Amycas white is a blend of the four major Alsatian grapes: Pinot blanc, riesling, Muscat, and Gewurtztraminer. The crisp Pinot blanc (a less-known Pinot noir mutation) brings to mind the minerality of Central European whites.

  
Brooks is well known for its varied Rieslings, which range from dry to sweet and dessert. I tried the Ingram Road dry, Sweet P off-dry/semi-sweet, and Tethys dessert versions, though several other styles are off-menu, including the 2014 Ara Riesling. The White House put an earlier vintage of the Ara on the map when it was served at President Barrack Obama’s first state dinner.

Each Riesling was a refreshing departure from its predecessor. The dessert wine was fantastic and complex, extremely rich and great paired with cheese.

  
The red Artemis flight highlights six Pinot noirs. From Brooks’ crisp rosé of Pinot noir to the delicate, mineral-laced Terue (made from grapes grown along the Columbia River Gorge) to the bold Runaway Red Pinot noir, Pinot lovers will find plenty of nuance to enjoy.

For those in need of a nibble, Brooks has a menu of small bites, including a Marcona style hazelnut (roasted with rosemary and sea salt) and a tasty cheese plate with Oregon cherries, olives, roasted hazelnuts, and crostini.

Overall, our 2016 Willamette Valley wine day proved to be a perfect tour. Make the Willamette Valley the destination for your next wine excursion!