Monthly Archives: October 2007

Ubuntu on the Horizon

Okay, friends. The game is on.

Thanks to Chuck and Marc’s suggestions, I’ve got lunch reservations at Ubuntu in Napa this Saturday. Will it restore my faith in humanity? Dear Lord, I hope so.

I’ll report back.

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Universal Cafe

I’m becoming a colossal bore.

Seriously. If I’m boring myself this much, I can’t imagine what you must be thinking.

I’m talking about me writing the same old story, again and again. It goes a little something like this: Nice restaurant, well-prepared food, nothing but Risotto for the vegetarian entrée.

At first, it was funny. (Although, admittedly, not that funny.) But now, it’s just getting to be a downer.

Here’s another one to toss onto the pile: Universal Café. It’s everything you could ever want in a neighborhood restaurant. Small and intimate with an open kitchen, their space tells a story of craftsmanship and care. The menu changes every other day: It’s short and sweet, with a clear point of view.

My Mixed Lettuce Salad was perfectly dressed in Red Wine Vinaigrette. There was nothing fussy about it, and that’s the way I like it. Our table shared the Grilled Flatbread with Escarole, Juliet Heirloom Tomatoes, and Fresh Mozzarella. It was lovely. Uber-thin and crisp. And my Risotto (grrrrrr) with Roasted Butternut Squash, Leeks, White Truffle Oil and Thyme carried an uncommon depth of flavor. Subtly sweet, but never cloying.

Hu-freakin’-rrah.

I’m sure there are some folks out there who wish I’d simply get over it and take the yummy meal at face value. (Believe me. I understand. I have this argument with myself all the time.) But isn’t that admitting defeat?

Here’s the thing—as I look down at their menu, I see ideas and flavors that sing to me. Something braised in red wine with Tokyo Turnips, Carrots and Horseradish Cream. Something sautéed with Baby Leeks, Fingerlings, Mache and Verjus. These are combinations that never show up in Risotto. They just sit on the menu, taunting me. While my fellow diners explore a world of possibilities, I’m chained to the culinary kids table. No matter how delicious the Risotto is, it still lives in the same neighborhood as all its cousins, somewhere near the corner of Creamy and Savory.

So do me a favor. If you know a chef, tell them to branch out. Tell them to try something new. Please. I’ll love them for it. I’ll sing their praises and send all my friends.

And if they refuse, bitch-slap them. For me.

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Nua: Not So Much

While we’re on the topic of neighborhoods, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Northbeach.

In the love column: The ready availability of cannolis, the presence of some damn-fine coffee, City Lights, the cathedral at night, and the occasional feeling that you’re visiting another, more glamorous country than your own.

In the hate column: The neighborhood’s continuous celebration of Hoochie Fest 2007. (Which followed fast on the heels of Hoochie Fests 2006, 2005, 2004, etc, etc.)

The girls (and their “goin’ out in my striped shirt tonight” male counterparts) were certainly out in force on Sunday night when we visited Nua. The streets were clogged with ‘em. Squealing, hammered, holding each other up as they stumbled down the street. Is there some sort of elevation change on Columbus that causes accelerated absorption of alcohol?

But I digress. On to Nua.

Since I’ve already wasted your time with my bitching, I’ll cut to the chase. Nua didn’t rock me. At best, it gave me a playful nudge.

There weren’t any veggie entrees on the menu—not even a guest appearance by my nemesis, the veg-friendly risotto—so I asked the server if the chef would be willing to make a plate for me. (I noticed a number of promising sides and accompaniments to the meat dishes, so it wouldn’t have been difficult.) The waiter let me know the chef could do the Gnocci without the duck and the Seafood Risotto without the seafood. No way, man. I’ve been down that road too many times before. When you remove a main ingredient from a dish, 9 times out of 10, it’s going to suffer. Instead, I opted to start with a salad, then ordered individual sides of Roasted Cauliflower and Gigande Beans.

The salad—Red Crimson and Bartlett Pear with Mache, Belgian Endive, Candied Walnuts and Manchego—wasn’t half bad.  I wish it had been dressed more thoroughly, though. At first, I thought it lacked acid, but the pool of dressing at the bottom of the plate proved me wrong. My partner’s salad mysteriously arrived without Manchego. She was understandably sad.

My friend Susan went with the Gnocci, and I was glad I’d avoided it. She said it was salty in the extreme. My Roasted Cauliflower with Capers, Pine Nuts, and Parsley, had a nice flavor, but could have done with a bit more time in the oven. (For a lesson in how Cauliflower should be roasted, check out Pizzeria Delfina. They know the way: Keep it in the overn ‘til the cauliflower screams “uncle”.)

My Tomato-Braised Gigande Beans with Spinach were actually pretty tasty, but in desperate need of a buddy on the plate. I’d seen them being served at another table, snuggled underneath a pile of meat. I imagine they were quite happy there, harmonizing with some deeper flavors. On their own, they were okay, but…

Ugh. It sucks if you subtract a main ingredient, and it sucks if you just order sides. So what’s a vegetarian food lover to do? Chefs, I beg you. Think about this shit. You’re in California, for Christ’s sake. Give us something we’ll love, not just something we’ll tolerate for lack of anything better. It doesn’t take much. Just a little bit of effort. And another thing—if a vegetarian is ordering a bunch of sides to make a meal for herself, you might consider trying to plate it like an entrée, so she’s not made to feel like a picky little toddler at the table with the grownups. Just a thought.

Phew. Rant over. Moving on.

We finished the meal with Churros and Chocolate. They were tasty, but what fried thing isn’t? I was hoping for some of that super-creamy wonderstuff you get in the center of a good, fresh churro. Sigh. Didn’t get it.

Maybe if I were a meat eater, I’d give Nua another shot. But with nothing on the menu for me to eat, save a hobbled-together meal of sides, I don’t think I’ll bother any time soon.

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Lolo: Welcome to the Neighborhood

Last weekend was Folsom Street Fair, and we had friends visiting town for the event. It was Saturday night, we were all famished, and I had let everyone down. I’d forgotten—gasp—to make dinner reservations.

Thankfully I remembered a tip from Marcia over at Tablehopper. There was a “cute new restaurant” alert in her newsletter about Lolo, a LatAm/Mediterranean newcomer in the Mission. Turns out, they don’t take reservations, so I was totally off the hook. I passed off my negligence as a sense of adventure. “Hey guys, I thought I’d take you to this brand new restaurant. Nobody even knows about it yet!” Except for the gazillion people who read Tablehopper. But whatever.

We waltzed in at 7:30 and got a table for four. (Don’t expect this phenomenon to last. The restaurant is tiny, and the Mission is hungry like the wolf.) Our waitress turned out to be as delightful as the décor. Now, usually, when I use the word “delightful,” you can be 99% certain I’m being facetious. But in this case, it’s actually the most appropriate word. Our waitress was a peach—sweet and genuine—and the interior reminded me of mojito-buzzed holiday in Mexico. It was a Technicolor daydream, with seagull-shaped mirrors and soothing ocean sounds pumped over speakers in the bathroom. It could have been overwhelming, but instead, it felt comfortable and unpretentious. The space fit the neighborhood.

There weren’t any vegetarian large plates (tsk, tsk), so I made due with two small ones. I started with the Happy Boy Organic Heirloom Tomatoes, with Feta Mousse, Kalamata Olives, Oregano, and Chive Oil. The mousse was interesting verging on delicious—feta’s lighter, whipped cousin. Then I opted for the Huitlacoche and Ricotta Stuffed Gyoza with Roasted Pepper, Tomato, and Squash Blossom Sauce. The gyoza kind of feel flat for me, despite my excitement over trying Huitlacoche for the first time. (It’s corn smut, by the way. A fungus that most American farmers treat as a pest, while in Mexico, it’s considered good-eats. Wikipedia claims “Huitlacoche” comes from the Aztec word for “raven’s excrement”. How fun is that?) Anyway, the little buggers just kind of sat there on the plate, phoning it in. I was disappointed. I mean, when there’s raven poop rolled up in your pasta, your mouth expects a party, am I right?

I’m going to give them some time, though. It was only their second week, after all, and the place has tons of potential. If nothing else, I love their attitude: organic and local on multiple levels. Yet another reason to adore the Mission.

No website yet: Check out Lolo in person. 3234 22nd Street.

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Paul K

Proximity is everything. That certainly seems to be the case for Paul K. If you’re headed to the ballet or the symphony, Paul K is a no-brainer. Otherwise, personally, I’d take a pass.

Last night was my second meal there, and I had the same reaction as before: Myeh. (That word makes more sense if you picture me putting my palms up, shrugging my shoulders, and pursing my lips like a Jewish grandmother dismissing some half-hearted koogle.)

Before I get into the details of the meal, let me give Paul K a word of praise. They actually had a vegetarian entrée on the menu last night that wasn’t risotto. It wasn’t even pasta. In fact, it wasn’t carb-based at all. And that made me truly happy. The sad part, though, was that it kind of sucked. What’s worse, the suckage could have been easily avoided.

I’m talking about the Eggplant Napoleon with Tomato Coulis, Feta, Garbanzos and Arugula. In theory, a great plate. In practice, a bit of a mess. The garbanzos were waaaaay undercooked, scattered like hard little pebbles on my plate. We’re talking almost crunchy. And the tomato coulis struck a singular note—acidity. I like tartness, but in this case, it was overwhelming. Did anybody taste what they were serving? Learn from Casey’s loss on Top Chef, y’all. Take a bite before you start sending it out. (Ugh. Don’t even get me started on the finale. When—WHEN?!—are we going to have a woman win Top Chef?)

From a vegetarian perspective, Paul K is a decent choice. There’s a veggie mezza platter, and a veggie entrée. I dig that. But there’s no excuse for rock hard chickpeas. You want hard-rockin’ chicks, listen to some Damone. (I couldn’t resist that one.) (For-reals, though. Damone totally rules.)

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Bar Bambino

First things first, I suppose. I’ll tell you about Europe eventually—but after all this build-up, it’s sure to be a snooze for you. Anyway, I feel compelled to provide some “news you can use” that’s a bit closer to home. Let’s start with Bar Bambino.

Now, I may complain incessantly about my work and travel schedule, but my job does have some lovely side benefits. Client dinners are a prime example. We usually get to go somewhere hip and cool—our reputation as leaders of cultural smartypantsedness is on the line with every reservation. Most recently, we hit Bar Bambino, a new favorite amongst the magic makers of the company. (Read: the boys of Biz Dev.) Continue reading

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Aggghhhhhggh!

I’m so painfully behind in writing, it’s ridiculous. You know when you get to the point that your so far behind, you almost can’t get started? Yeah.

Coming soon(ish) London, Rome, Barcelona, and a few reviews closer to home: Bar Bambino, and newcomer, Lolo.

Standby.

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