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Manresa ww levain

So I got a tip-off about the Manresa Bread Project.

My feeling for the restaurant is mixed: Mind-blowing the first … 3 years, then pretentious and grossly overpriced after they became famous and started the partnership with Love Apple. But I haven’t been back since they picked up their 2 Michelins so I fully admit that my opinion is based on outdated data, therefore irrelevant.

When asked “How does it compare to Tartine?”, my wheat-loving young friend was surprisingly hesitant: “erh ….. preeetty close”.

That’s enough to peak my interest.

Manresa bread menuThey currently sell at Campbell Farmers Market on Sundays. Me and Emily got there shortly after 8:30am and we found no baker nor mob. 15 minutes later however, we came around to the same spot and a dozen people magically appeared and were patiently watching the Manresa team setting up.

Within 10 minutes, the line was at least 30 people deep and this was all before any loaf was sold.

On the menu, there are the usual crowd pleasers of herby, nutty, olivey stuff. I want no distraction so I go for Levain ($12), Whole Wheat Sourdough ($12) and Brioche ($8).

For what you get, they are pricier than Tartine. But then, I never expect anything cheap from Manresa.

I am not sure why they want to mix the terminology of “levain” and “sourdough”. One would think that David Kinch should prefer sticking with the French term. Levain IS the yeasty starter (or “sourdough”) saved from the previous batch. Characteristics of breads made this way are much better crust and flavors because of the long proofing time levain requires.

You don’t get the tasteless, cottony effect of the fast-acting commercial yeast.

Both the chocolate brioche and the regular brioche are excellent – dense, moist and buttery. Long live the classics.

Manresa brioche

The Levain is the one most comparable to Tartine’s Country Loaf. It has a golden scaly crust. Thinner than Tartine’s, less charred (therefore less bitterness) but also less flavorful. It has a relatively tight crumb. Probably as flavorful as Tartine’s but not as … pretty. I swoon over Tartine’s moist, long laciness every time. Manresa’s levain is also a little more sour than I prefer, but that could be the batch variation. Overproofness has been known to happen even at Tartine’s. I later ate it with some cheese and salami, and its sourness was not intrusive by all means.

Manresa Levain

Levain

The true pleasure was probably the whole wheat sourdough. It has a charming, Poilâne Miche-like appearance. Flavorful and chewy crust. I am glad that they are not going all Miche and try their hands on 100% whole wheat. IMHO, most 100% whole wheat breads taste awful. People should just accept it that only at Poilâne’s it is allowed.

Manresa’s whole wheat sourdough has just enough whole wheat to give it a pleasant and balanced earthiness.

Manresa ww levain interior

Whole Wheat Levain

Overall, very good bread.

Without a side-by-side comparison like I did in Bread: A Love Letter for Tartine and Acme however, my very biased opinion is … No, it’s not Tartine.

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Lonzino from Angel's Salumi, with pickled mexican sour gherkin

Lonzino from Angel’s Salumi, with pickled mexican sour gherkin

Since last August, I have had my share of Angel’s Salumi’s lonzino.

For me, it is that first bite of hot pizza after coming down from Mt. Whitney, the first sip of ice cold Martini after a 14-hour day. Lonzino is about the essence of a pork. The closest flavor comparison is probably prosciutto. Not Parma, but San Daniele because of its hint of sweetness. Definitely not La Quercia which in my opinion, is always over-salted.

Prosciutto is the leg, and Pascal’s lonzino is loin, Berkshire loin, as in ‘Bond, James Bond”. Loin is naturally lean therefore you don’t get that oily aftertaste of prosciutto. Along side other fatty salumi, lonzino, in my opinion, makes a much better addition to a balanced charcuterie platter.

The color is a brilliant rose and I will be amazed if Pascal didn’t put any pink salt in it, but then, I am never the one who’s hung up on that. Every bite the wave of umami surges. So immensely savory that one wants to swoosh it in the mouth like a good Bordeaux. That savory lightning also reminds one of Jamon Iberico.

Towards the end the heat from black pepper strikes, which feels like a ‘renewal’. The only sensible thing to so is to take a another sip of wine and go back for more.

The past 2 nights we had it with Marcel Lapierre‘s 2010 Beaujolais, also with Lopez Heredia‘s 2001 Vina Tondonia reserva. They went brilliantly.

Not only in the palate, also in the level of devotion to the ingredients and the pride to their craft, the makers all share.

A week ago, when it’s time to pack up and drive 3 and a half hour with a 5-year-old in the back who just had a 101F fever the day before, and me, a non-skier who also had a very long week, the whole idea of going to Tahoe seems … absurd. But it’s family vacation, it’s planned, and the thought of eating at Truckee’s Stella again does perk me up.

I always admire a kitchen that’s willing to do things from scratch, especially charcuteries. That takes understanding and appreciation of eating whole animals. At Stella, one finds terrine, pate and trotters. They also bake their own breads. These are far from those cottony, fast-risen, tasteless whitie (“but hot!”) you are likely to find elsewhere. Stella’s are robust, crusty country loaves.

The wine list is short but thoughtful. No obvious fruit bomb to numb the palate. William picks both Gruet and Schramsberg while we take time to deliberate on what to eat.

I have trouble picking what to start because everything looks interesting. Finally, I settle on what the waiter describes as “like a banh mi‘.

The pickled daikon, the texture interest of carrots and mustard seeds, the fragrance of micro cilantro accent perfectly that rich, tender, porky slab of the house-made head cheese. Yes, tender. The head cheese is slightly warm so the glorious jelly renders little resistance.

Sure, the sweet, sour and spicy combo is reminiscent of banh mi, but I will take the deep wheatiness of a single disc of artisanal bread any day, over factory-born, bleached ‘baguette’ that although is half-soggy inside, the sheer quantity of it still gives my jaw an arduous workout. Let’s not even think about how the pig lead its life before it ends up in a corner deli/convenience store that some also go in for cigarettes and packs of gums.

That is why, 200 miles away, I am staring at my ‘deer at the headlight’ shot of that dish and cannot help but lamenting at my inability to justly capture those glistening mounds, and their backdrop of XO sauce.

Everything we have is excellent. The salmon rillete is every bit as satisfying as its porky name-sake, but with an expected finesse that’s perfect with either the Gruet or the Schramsberg. The ‘salmon butter’ cap is brilliant.

The lamb is fork-tender and the aroma of the cumin seductive. Every piece of seafood in my cioppino is perfectly cooked. No rubbery clams, nor tasteless fish jerky.

I wave off repeated dessert offers from William because I am so chocolate-out from making 700+ truffles just a couple of days before. But he uncharacteristically insists: “It’s a celebration.” He picks the flourless chocolate cake which I thought “Great … only been done 1 million times since the 90’s.”

Cannot be happier to be wrong. The texture of the ‘cake’ I approve and the accompaniments win me over: luxurious basil-tarragon caramel, and blueberries spiced with grains of paradise.

I have no shame when it comes to food, and that usually makes William cringe. This time I decided to spare him the trouble of futile pleading, I simply got up and walked over to the kitchen and asked to see grains of paradise. Behind me, William was getting ready to crawl under the table.

“Sure.” unlike my husband, no sweat for Chef Jacob Burton. “Get the lady some grains of paradise.” I read about them but have never tasted them or held a small pile in my hand. He further explained to me that it’s actually seeds with taste and texture not unlike peppercorns, widely used in west Africa cooking.

Dinner AND hands-on education. I want to shout “Stella!”

If I must, find one thing I do not enjoy at Stella, it’s the lighting, or lack of it. Food like that deserves to be properly photographed without the garish effect of a flash.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Since I don’t have any worthy shot of Stella to relive a fine dining experience, wordy I have become.

There are maybe just 10 tables at Stella and so widely spaced it’s the antithesis of Paris. But for lamenting foodie-parents of under-aged children, this is a bonus: My 5-year-old is just fine with his iPad volume slightly turned on. Other tables more prepared mothers have headsets for the young ones.

On this particular night, even though there are 3 tables with kids, the mood in the high-beamed, romantically lit dining room is calm, sophisticated, and worthy of a marriage proposal if that’s what one has in mind.

In haste, I don’t think I managed to tell the kitchen how much I enjoy dining at Stella every time we come to Truckee. So here it is. Another love letter to food artisans anywhere who taking pride in their craft, no matter how remote of a town, or how small of a dining room.

You don’t know what love is until you go to Norcia.

A typical palm-size Italian village in southern Umbria amidst the mountain range of Apennine. Picture a statue of St. Benedicto at the town square, old men chatting with a smoke in hand, young mothers pushing strollers with giggling children. Swept up by that old-world nostalgia, you feel the urge to breathe in, deeply, expecting a rush of mountain air.

Instead, you get a waft of unapologetically strong and unmistakably porky smell of cured meats.

You don’t know what love is until you go to Norcia, love for salumi that is.

A norcineria is a shop that sells prosciutto, pancetta, salami, … you know, the essential stuff in life. Norcia has plenty of it and the smell permeates every stone, every wall. Every day and every meal we feasted on pasta with obscene amount of Umbrian truffles, but always started with an amazing array of local salumi.

I was a pig in previous life. But even if you are a vegetarian or do not care for pork, you have to respect that pride of a town, and its singular determination to continue an old, old tradition of preserving food, for humanity’s sake.

Ever since, I have been searching for anything up to that level of excellence at home.

Fast forward to summer 2012. Location, San Diego, California. You know, Legoland, mega strip malls and military bases, though most excellent sashimi.

First night, simply yelped for a wine-friendly and kid-friendly restaurant and Urban Solace came up. There on the menu, “Locally produced charcuterie platter”.

“Locally” … as in San Diego?!

Unconvinced but … bien sûr.

While sipping a biodynamic pinot from Williamette valley, a wooden cutting board was carried out with 3 small piles. I had no expectation of any kind. Plenty salumi from artisanal domestic producers like Fra’mani or La Quercia have been had. They are decent enough to eat and I figure this would just be another one of those, at best.

One minute and one bite of lonzino (cured loin of Birkshire) later, Will and I looked at each other with that knowing look of ‘Jack pot!’.

“Doesn’t this remind you of Norcia?”

After some ingenious Googling and feverish love-letter writing that borderlines on ‘begging’ (currently Pascal only sells to restaurants,) I have tried 7 salumi from Pascal Besset, the proprietor of Angel’s Salumi and Truffles.

Here is what I wrote to him after he Fedexed my 1st order:

‘Enjoy’ would be an understatement. I said to my husband just last night: “I don’t think I can eat anyone else’s salami anymore.”

“Even Salumi’s?” He was referring to Mario Batali’s dad’s shop in Seattle which I love. I thought about it for a minute and “Yes!”.

Every bite of the lonzino amazes me. Just massive ‘umami’. The rosette is simple but perfect harmony of spice and porkiness. Sopressata picante the best ever. The duck SO ducky. We have never had any domestic salami that we feel wasn’t overly salted until now. Whatever your recipes are really achieved the perfect balance of preserving and seasoning.

His spanish lomo and duck prosciutto are also pitch-perfect, by the way.

I love everything about and everything I had at Umbria. But artisans guarding traditions can be found anywhere, if you look hard enough.

Makes 2

  • 3 oz Plymouth gin
  • 1 1/2 oz Meletti amaro
  • 1 1/2 oz lemon juice
  • fresh ginger root
  • 24 fresh cranberries
  • Reagan’s No. 6 orange bitter
  • Slightly < 1 tbsp granulated sugar

Once in a while, you get a meal that’s not only fantastic, but also … motivational. It doesn’t make you just throw down the napkin and sigh “I am not worthy …”

Eleven Madison Park is like that.

Instead, it makes you want to run home, turn on the stove, get out that mandolin, and “invent”, because you have been ‘enlightened’.

Commonwealth is like that.

I have had shishito, pimiento di padron, friariello di napoli, your classic frying peppers many times over. Here at Commonwealth however, they were served with goat cheese foam and rose petals. The floral note and the fresh gaminess pairing is just so unexpected from what I am used to.

The ‘corn pudding’ is basically corn pastry cream, another “why didn’t I think of that?!” moment. Its complete lusciousness, is so contrasting in texture to the fresh kernels and corn-meal-coated fried okra. So interesting.

Just 4 nights ago, I participated in an uni-orgy. Basically 90 GIANT pieces of sea urchin roes consumed 6 different ways by 4 people. We had them with corn soup, pasta, scallops, cucumbers … you name it, but no one thought of contrasting its creamy texture. Commonwealth did and more. Like a deconstructed, Asian-inspired carbonara, our uni was topped with a thin brown rice cracker and 2 halves of perfect soft-boiled quail egg.

I thought I had to wait another month to eat uni. Not when it’s done so brilliantly.

Now squash blossoms. I found them in Rome years ago and had not stop eating them every summer. I have had them batter-fried, stuffed with cheese, with basil foam, with nothing, which was actually my favorite. Not to mention in salads, in risotto … squash blossom is me! I have been harvesting my own since the beginning of the summer. But at Commonwealth, they stuff it with brandade. William started making his own version of salt cod fritters since … I don’t know how many years, but none of us thought of combining these 2, until now.

Even thought there isn’t as much revelation from the crowd-pleaser of pork belly and waygu beef, they were executed flawlessly, as good as any preparation I have had anywhere.

The geoduck is probably the only thing I didn’t hear the calling. Not that it’s not delicious or impeccably fresh. It is just too exotic of an ingredient, for home.

Foie gras torchon with cocoa and coriander, recipe from Eleven Madison Park

The very first time I encountered foie gras, I was luckily armed with an expense account, courtesy of Kinko’s. The project lasted for months, and every night it’s the same old question of: Where to eat. Sitting at Downey’s, Santa Barbara, Ed and I quickly discovered that the most expensive starter was also one we couldn’t pronounce.

“What’s f.o.i.e.g.r. …” I cut him off with a made-up mind: “No idea. Let’s get it.”

Ed was obviously disappointed: A single piece no bigger than a baby’s palm. But one bite in, our eyes widened and out came the woo-ing and ah-ing. Giggly soft, rich and smooth, the taste was like none I ever had. There’s obviously a LOT of fat since it dissolved so willingly and seductively in my mouth. I felt utterly … ‘pleasured’.

In a dining room full of plaid sports jackets, Burberry dusters and Channel No. 5, Ed’s faded jeans and my open-toe seashell sandals screamed techno dweebs from the Valley of Geeks. There’s no need to expose our culinary ignorance.

As I signed my name and carefully put away the receipt for expense reports, still had no idea what it was.

Since then, I have had a lot of foie gras. The most memorable being the 2 weeks Will and I spent in Dordogne where we had it seared, poached, stuffed, pâtéd, torchoned, mi-cuit-ed, first course AND main course every meal, 2 meals a day.

I knew, or I thought I knew, how foie gras was made before Dordogne. Ducks or geese were force-fed with corn in a short period of time before they were slaughtered. That process fattened up their livers to have the incomparable rich taste and texture. I recalled seeing Anthony Bourdain on TV, and vaguely remembered him saying the ducks and geese didn’t mind it.

They LOVED it actually.

Roadside sign, Dordogne, France.

Off the narrow country roads of Dordogne, there were signs for tasting and demonstration left and right. “Foie Gras farm 100 meters” “Gavage 200 meters”, “Foie Gras and Camping, 150 meters”.

Let’s stop and see one!

The setting was absolutely idyllic under the afternoon soft light. Lots of space for the ducks and geese to roam and ‘lounge’. There were corn fields for them to mow down, literally, streams and ponds to cool off. The ducklings were playful and adorable. The French granny who gave the tour tended to them lovingly.

Corn field at foie gras farm, Dordogne, France

Would we like to see ‘gavage‘, or force-feeding next? “Bien sûr!” I felt so in peace with my surroundings. Me and all things living, we are One.

As soon as we stepped into the barn where the maturing ducks were housed, we saw how quickly, 10 or so large ducks scurried to one far corner, i.e. AWAY from us. The force-feeding machine was simple and effective: A big metal funnel at the top for the soaked corn kernels, a foot pedal at the bottom that would spin a spiral to push down the kernels, and conveniently leave 2 free hands to handle the duck.

I knew, trying to ‘interpret’ whatever I saw in the eyes of the ducks would be ‘projecting’. I speak no duck and I despise anthropomorphizing in general. But the sound they made when the granny reached out to grab the next in line, was deafening. The way they all squeezed into one corner to be as far from the gavage machine as possible, did not seem to me they looked forward to having a long tube shoved in.

I was appalled, but at the same time, fascinated. This was by no means pretty or pleasant. But THIS, is gavage. THIS, is “how your food is made”.

Before we could ‘digest’ all these imageries mentally, the daughter of the old lady waltzed in: “Shall we go for tasting now?” “Bien sûr!” Anything to get me out of here.

In the office, we tasted goose foie gras and duck foie gras, in various potency, meaning entier, bloc, mi-cuit, pâté, with other mix-ins … etc. Afterwards, we bought several cans and walked out.

“What was THAT?!” Me and Will looked at each other in disbelief.

How could we chow down immediately after seeing what we saw in the gavage barn?! Have we no moral compass??!! Have we no shame?!

We continued to eat foie gras for the remainder of the trip.

That was 7 years ago.

Canned foie gras products at farmer's market, Sarlat, France.

So this is how I resolve my own foie gras complex today:

Compare to millions of Americans who eat factory chickens from Tyson or pork from Swift on a daily basis, either aware or unaware of the appalling conditions those animals were in, I am on the other hand, very aware of where my food comes from and how they lived. I grow most of my vegetables and I know my chicken farmer by name. I eat foie gras no more than 4 times a year, and never waste a drop of it. When I prepare foie gras, I feel grateful for my good fortune, and proud that I am doing honor to their sacrifice.

Every bite I put in my mouth, I think of the paradise they lived in, AND the grinding sound of the gavage machine.

Trout roe with creme fraiche on fennel salad

So my parking lot rendezvous with San Francisco Specialty Food continues.

As I was glancing over their caviar price sheet, what stood out wasn’t the laundry list of white sturgeon roe. It’s the salmon. Practically 10% of the caviar price. What a bargain I thought.

Salmon roe or, ikura, in a bad sushi joint, can be slimy, foul-tasting, offers no resistance, or pop. A double whamming of health hazard and culinary disappointment.

But, when they are good, they reflect light and sparkle. Every cool, little bead gushes a burst of sea water and fills the mouth with an oceany flavor that triggers imageries of small tidal waves rushing a rocky shore.

It is an infinitely addictive sensation. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a whole 4 oz jar of it and pop it all?” I dreamed.

I had to order for a side-by-side caviar tasting party (paddle fish and California farmed white sturgeon) anyway, why not try the salmon.

So I did and … yuck.

After I picked up the caviars at the parking lot of Alexander’s Steakhouse, I popped into the kitchen to say hi. Chef Stout was in the house. He took a quick peek into my box an yelled: “Get the trout roe! The trout is great, the salmon is BAD!”

On the kitchen counter, he popped open a brand new jar of his trout roe (also from San Francisco Specialty Food), and I opened my salmon. Chef beamed triumphantly with an implied “what did I tell you”.

Night and day difference, just looks alone. And their taste, sadly for me, reflected their look.

The salmon was grey, dull, no shine whatsoever. There is no clear boundary between beads anymore, just mush. The texture resembles tapioca, slimy.

I dared not analyze the taste too much. Just a hasty swallow to ‘get it over with’.

Trout roe with horseradish-spiked creme fraiche. Minced peanut brittle

The trout, on the other hand, every pearl glistened and looked inviting. I could see the angles on each bead and because they are smaller, I seem to get more pops each mouth full.  I was practically sitting on the rocks dangling my feet over the water.

What do I do with the salmon?!

“Return them.” Chef said matter-of-factly.

But it’s open!

The sales guy who was still lingering in the kitchen delivering winter truffles, explained that the trout is $10 more per 4 oz jar, therefore should be pretty self-evident that it’s a superior product. He then offered to take back the salmon, if it was unopened.

What I wanted to ask was: This is the company that offer Italian white truffles. Why include sub-standard products in the line-up? because it’s ‘cheap’?

After a game of shuffling engineered by Chef Stout, I did get my money back and took home the opened trout. Now I owe ASH an unopened one.

Two amuse inspired by the sensational quality of the trout. Hayden pulled a fennel out of the ground earlier, so I had it mandolin-ed and simply dressed with a sherry vinaigrette. The anise flavor accompanied really well with the trout’s oceany profile but the fennel’s crunchy texture regretfully took away the spotlight on the pops of the roe.

A fennel bisque would’ve been much more appropriate.

The other is horse radish-spiked crème fraiche with a sprinkling of home-made peanut brittle. Blanketed by the warmth of a soft blini, the luscious crème fraiche, the tingling horse radish, the hint of caramel and nuttiness of the brittle, diffused and paradoxically, accentuated the intensity of the trout roe.

It’s a carnival of taste and texture.

Dream realized. Thank you Chef, for the save.

My very first taste of caviar was in the first class cabin of China Airlines from Taipei to SFO. Also the first time I flew solo to begin my ‘western schooling’ in America.

I remembered it being the foulest thing I ever tasted.

To be completely open and honest about that particular journey, I was also the country mouse who brought a freaking alarm clock in the carry-on. What was I thinking?! So I wouldn’t oversleep and miss my stop? The alarm went off during the flight of course, although judging from the gentle and nonchalant reminder of the flight attendant, I probably was not the first Taiwanese who did that.

I digressed. My point is: Anyone who had the sound mind of taking an alarm clock onto a flight, her opinion on anything should not be entirely trusted, if at all.

Fast forward 1,000 years, Sastri introduced me to caviar again. Blini, chopped shallot, crème fraiche, minced egg, 1995 Bollinger Grand Année and all. It was glorious.

Thanks to Alexander’s Steakhouse and my former role as the restaurant liaison for Full Circle Farm, I had a chance encounter with the sales representative from San Francisco Specialty Food. Our parking lot cash dealing started with one winter black truffle from Tasmania and now, Sacramento-delta raised white sturgeon roe which he branded as California osetra.

I wonder if he sells fresh goose foie gras too.

I miss long and elaborate meals.

Most days I cook 2 meals. Each meal, I prepare two versions. One that’s wine-friendly since I have to drink. One for Hayden who hates smelly cheeses that I adore and practically only eats pizza and pasta.

When we go out, it’s ‘family restaurant’, which means at its best, the food is prepared as well as I could, if I didn’t have a demanding 4-year-old.

I miss long and elaborate meals.

 Last time I braved a local Michelin starred restaurant with Hayden for lunch, I ended up running out with him kicking and screaming because they didn’t have free WiFi for his iPad while I was told they would.

Instead of the much-needed password to their secure WiFi, my waitress kept coming back with “Would you like Still or Sparkling water?”, or “Have you decided what you to eat?”

By all means, please do not deviate from your script for my sake.

Completely clueless that we were in the presence of a restless volcano who was about to erupt if she didn’t get that WiFi password back ASAP, and thoroughly ignorant that if the child was not happy, the Mom would not get to eat, to drink, or to think.

I ended up canceling my order which I had never done before in any restaurant, and ran!

First time trying prepped raw ingredients from Whole Foods, time-server that I used to violently object when I had time to cook.

Escargot is excellent and the mini crab cakes are very nice too. Pankoed fish, not so much.

I miss long and elaborate meals.

As prepared by Whole Food's seafood department