Plaj: Scandanavian Food at its Best

My friends and I bought our tickets to see the musical Hamilton last December. The seven month wait was finally over and we went to see Hamilton at the SHN Orpheum Theater in San Francisco last Saturday. It was such an amazing show of talent. Lin Manuel Miranda is a genius to be able to tell a story of history in a relevant and entertaining way.  
About half a mile away from the Orpheum Theater is a Scandinavian restaurant where my friends and I dined before the show. Plaj is located inside the Inn at the Opera, a boutique hotel in Hayes Valley. We chose Plaj because one of my friends had eaten there a week prior before attending the opera. She enjoyed it very much and was willing to go again so reservations were made.
We were a party of four and decided we would share everything. We started out with some fresh baked bread with caramelized butter. It was a bit disappointing as it wasn’t warm like it had been last week. The bread is dense which I believe is typical of Northern Europe. For me though, the butter was the star.  
We ordered an oyster for each of us which was topped with pickled elderberry and smoked grapeseed oil. The acid from the pickled elderberry truly enhanced the flavor of the oyster.
My friend raved about the tomato and burrata salad she had last week, so we went ahead and ordered two of them. Additionally, the fresh salad came with pea shoots, padrone peppers, and dressed with a delicious olive oil.
I was intrigued by the Raraka & Caviar. Essentially, they are bite sized hash browns served on an iron skillet topped with sour cream, chives, red onion, and anchovies. A tube of whitefish caviar is on the side for you to squeeze on top. The whitefish caviar is orange and filled in plastic and shaped like a carrot which I thought was the cutest thing. This dish was amazing. I was happy we ordered it.  
We would be remiss not to order Swedish meatballs. We actually ordered two of these entrees since we each wanted to enjoy at least one meatball. It came with potato puree, pan gravy, lingonberry, and pickled cucumber. This was pure comfort on a plate. Everything melded well together and the potatoes were the creamiest potatoes ever.  
Another entree we ordered was the grilled pork chop with broccolini, torpedo onion, yellow peach, and cognac. This dish was full of deliciousness and felt like summer on a plate.
There was some debate over the halibut. One of my friends didn’t like it at all. While it was probably unanimous that it was the least favorite of the entrees, I still thought it was a pretty good dish. The halibut came with chanterelles, watercress, fennel, and coriander flowers. I especially loved the sauce and drowned my fish in it.    
We shared two beautiful desserts. The first was called Northern Lights, which was a meringue filled with passion fruit sorbet and chocolate. If you like the combination of sweet chocolate and tart fruit, this is for you. 
The Princess Cake at Plaj is more like a deconstructed Princess Cake. Chiffon cake, raspberry jam, and pastry cream are set in a jar with a layer of marzipan tied on top with a string. It is the cutest thing and tasty, but my friend turned me into a snob. It was love at first bite with her homemade Princess Cake.
Overall, Plaj Scandinavian restaurant is worth a visit and a return visit. I highly recommend it especially if you are attending an event near the Civic Center.

Hops & Hominy: A Hidden Gem

I had dinner with two of my coworkers in the City on Friday night at a restaurant called Hops & Hominy. It was my first visit to Hops & Hominy (H & H) so I was excited to try another restaurant serving Southern food. Although the restaurant is located in the popular Union Square, it’s not easy to find as it’s hidden at the end of a pedestrian alley.
We started with some drinks. I ordered the Lola, which is a cocktail made with whiskey and cherry cola bitters. The bartender at H & H makes the bitters. It was so good I had a second and my coworker switched drinks.  

The waitress brought out complimentary cast iron pan cornbread and whipped butter. I thought it was a bit bland, but dousing it with butter helped. If I were to make a recommendation, I would ask the Chef to add jalapeƱos to the recipe.
We ordered two appetizers to share. The first one was black-eyed pea fritters. Black eyed peas are blended and mashed with peppers, leeks, onions, and celery and then deep fried. They were crispy on the exterior and soft and creamy inside. The fritters had great flavor on its own, so I did not think it needed the guacamole it came with. My coworker would probably disagree since she ate up the guacamole.
Our waitress recommended the spicy chicken wings. This is no ordinary chicken because it’s cooked in duck fat. The sauce was similar to what you would find in a spicy buffalo wing. These were so delicious, I ate more than my share of them.  
One of my coworkers ordered the fried chicken which came with garlic mashed potatoes and a buttermilk biscuit. It came with three pieces of chicken, so I was offered the fried chicken drumstick. It was good, but turned into great very quickly after dipping it in H & H’s homemade hot sauce.  
My other coworker ordered the summer squash ravioli that was served in a tomato cream sauce. I didn’t try it, but she left her plate clean so I’m pretty sure she thoroughly enjoyed this dish.
I ordered the country fried steak which came with garlic mashed potatoes, heirloom carrots, mustard greens, and alligator gravy. A thin flat iron steak was used and coated in a batter like fried chicken. It was the best dish of the evening.  
We each selected a dessert. I ordered the French vanilla ice cream with olive oil, toasted almonds, and sea salt. This is one of my favorite flavor combinations. One of my coworkers also chose an ice cream. Her chocolate ice cream came with dulce de leche and pecans. These both felt like mini sundaes. I was happy.

The final dessert was the chocolate mousse crunch which came with hazelnuts, brandied cherry, and cherry coulis. I took a small bite since I wanted to eat all my ice cream. I liked the variety of textures and the focus on cherries in this dessert.
Hops & Hominy is pretty awesome. It’s a hidden gem that is worth finding in San Francisco. I look forward to coming back.

Fatted Calf: Salumi Class

Last weekend I attended a salumi making class at Fatted Calf in Napa. I signed up to take the course last September and have been looking forward to it ever since. This is a class my BFF recommended to me after taking it herself.
The drive to Napa from Oakland took about fifty minutes. The course runs about four hours and includes snacking on a well stocked charcuterie platter, lunch, and bringing goodies home. The class was made up of twelve students and three instructors, led by Taylor who would teach us how to make three items.  

The first item we made was “salame cotto” which means cooked salami. We watched as the pork meat and skin was grounded in a heavy duty machine. We then hand mixed the meat and seasonings before learning how to stuff the casing with the meat. 
We labeled our own “salame cotto” which were taken away to be steamed at a low heat. When it reached its doneness, it was placed in an ice bath. At this point, it is ready to eat. I placed mine in the refrigerator as soon as I got home. After a week, I finally cut it open to make a delicious tasting sandwich.  
The next item we learned about was guanciale, cured pork jowl. I am familiar with this meat having used it in pastas. It is loaded with fat which also means it is loaded with flavor. In this part of the course, we also learned a new skill, trimming glands from the jowl with a boning knife. There is a long timely process to get the pork jowl from its raw form to guanciale. There is a curing process, refrigeration process, and drying out process. Since the class is four hours, we would not be taking home the pork jowl we worked on, but someone else’s. 
Last night I made a simple pasta dish called Pasta alla Gricia, a recipe from Mark Bittman. It was a good way to make my homemade guanciale the star. The ingredients are limited to spaghetti, guanciale, black pepper, and Pecorino Romano cheese. I’ll be exploring other recipes to use my guanciale in the next few months.
The final item we made were “cacciatorini.” These are small, thin salami. After hand mixing the pork and seasonings, we had the opportunity to case three links, tying them together. We would take our own “cacciatorini” home to dry in a dark cool space.
I took my “cacciatorini” home to my tiny apartment in Oakland. I contemplated where I could hang dry it. The only place I could find was my hall closet. Yes, this is the closet that also stores supplies such as extra toilet paper and paper towels, storage boxes with miscellaneous items, and shoes. This photo shows the raw form and then seven days later (halfway through the drying process.)
We also got a tour of their refrigerator that stores much of their cured meats. It was like charcuterie heaven.  
After the class, we all enjoyed a delicious lunch together. We had a cheese platter, a salad, pork loin, and beans. The meal also included wine. 

 Unfortunately I couldn’t stay too long and hang out with my classmates. But I absolutely loved everything about the class and enjoyed the experience. Although I am doubtful I would make salame at home, I had a lot of fun. I would recommend anyone who loves pork to take this course. If you just want to buy their products, you can either visit the Fatted Calf butcher shop in San Francisco or Napa.

Goodnight Hawker Fare Oakland

The East Bay community is saying goodbye to Hawker Fare in Uptown Oakland, which closed its doors last night after almost six years. Hawker Fare is Chef James Syhabout’s Southeast Asian street food focused restaurant. I was able to dine at Hawker Fare on one of its final nights last week with a friend and her daughter.

One of the favorite dishes of the evening was the fried chicken. Similar to Japanese chicken karaage, these crispy nuggets of chicken thighs were well marinated, breaded, and deep fried to a golden perfection. It was served with a chili jam and went especially well with sticky rice. It was a hit for my friend’s daughter as well.

In the last several years I have been obsessed with the Laotian dish, Nam Khao, fried rice ball salad. I have been in search of the best fried rice ball salad in Oakland. I just love the mix of savory, tart, and spicy flavors and then the awesome crunch you get with this dish. Unfortunately, the fried rice ball salad at Hawker Fare fell flat for me. One huge factor was likely that it didn’t include pork meat. I also felt that the texture was chunkier than I have had at other neighborhood Laotian restaurants.

Similar to how I must order fried rice ball salad, my friend must order the Laotian style papaya salad. Some might call it umami and others might call it funky because of the flavors of fermented fish and crab that are very prominent. In general, this dish was fine, but my friend thought it was too saucy.

We also shared the mussels steamed in coconut milk. The fresh mussels from Washington are cooked in a coconut broth made with unique spices including fresh galangal, Makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, and fish sauce. The broth was so good, I envision dreams about it.

We ended the evening with condensed milk soft serve. I’m really gonna miss their soft serve machine. It was always a refreshing way to end a meal here.

The closing of Hawker Fare is sad for me, but likely bittersweet for Chef Syhabout. I still remember how cool it was that he opened up the restaurant in the exact location of the Thai restaurant his mother once opened. The saving grace is that there still remains a Hawker Fare, but you’ll have to cross the Bay Bridge to get there. He opened up a second Hawker Fare in San Francisco about two years ago.  

Petit Crenn: One for the Books

Women and girls all over the Country were disappointed this week that the highest and hardest glass ceiling did not break. In the restaurant industry, women are continuing to fight this battle. Just a few weeks ago, Michelin Stars were announced and some observations were made that Atelier Crenn, Dominique Crenn’s fine dining restaurant in San Francisco should have received three stars, the highest rating. Dominque would have been the first female chef to earn that accolade, but it did not happen and the restaurant remains with two stars.
My good friend from New York came to visit two weeks ago and took me out for a birthday meal. We thought about Atelier Crenn, but with a price tag of $298 per person, we opted for Dominque’s other restaurant Petit Crenn in Hayes Valley in San Francisco. The restaurant is focused on seafood and vegetables. The preparations were very French, but with a California freshness.  

The menu is a set menu that is served family style and here is what we had that evening:

Complimentary Gruyere gougeres with pickled onion gelee


Shigoku oyster and heirloom tomatoes.


Tartine of grilled mussels


Fluke, grilled squash, and gnocchi with mushrooms


Little gem salad


Poached pear galette


Mignardises


I appreciated that the food at Petit Crenn was delicious, innovative, and on the lighter side.  I was filled by the end. The presentation contributed to the overall experience that I will savor. The meal is one for the books. 
Women like Hillary and Dominique are indeed breaking glass ceilings, being role models, and fighting for equality. I found this Ted Talk with Dominque Crenn on her experience and how she measures success, and I continue to be inspired.

F.O.B. Kitchen: A Filipino Pop Up

F.O.B. Kitchen has been popping up in a couple of locations in the Mission District of San Francisco. I crossed the Bay Bridge yesterday to have brunch at this pop up. F.O.B. Kitchen serves quality Filipino food. My understanding is that they do regular dinner service on Wednesdays and have had a few of these weekend brunches.    

  
Yesterday’s brunch location was at a bar called Cease and Desist. My friend and I were ready to eat. I had run four miles and she completed a long bike ride. We shared several items. We ordered the hot buttered bun, aka pan de sal which came with a house-made strawberry jam. What’s not to like about a warm buttered bun? The jam was not too sweet and offered a hint of tartness that I enjoyed.  
The meat lumpia at F.O.B. kitchen were filled with ground pork and water chestnuts. They were complimented with a Thai chili sauce. The lumpia came out hot and crispy and was a great starter. They also offer a vegetarian eggroll, but we didn’t go that route.
 The Tapsilog plate included thinly sliced marinated grass-fed beef, garlic fried rice, a sunny side egg, purple cabbage slaw, and fresh pineapple. The marinade on the beef had nice flavors, but the meat was missing a juiciness. Everything else on the plate was spot on.  
The Torta Talong is a charred eggplant omelette topped with shallots and tomatoes served with the same items as the other plate. It came with Jufran, a banana ketchup. I have a memory of eating this dish before many years ago, but this one was pretty awesome. Rarely do I think a vegetarian plate is better than a meat dish. This is one of those cases.  
 The dessert that was being served was a sweet lumpia filled with banana and nectarine. It came with macapuno, or coconut ice cream. This warm glazed crisp dessert had great texture and the flavors melded together perfectly.  
 You can interpret F.O.B. to mean what you want. I’m confident the F is for fresh because I clearly saw and tasted the freshness in all the dishes. This kitchen uses organic ingredients whenever possible. I might call it Fresh off Bon Vivant! Make sure you stay connected to F.O.B. Kitchen so you can hear about where they’ll be popping next!

Dol Ho(le in the wall)

Dol Ho in San Francisco Chinatown is the epitome of a hole in the wall. Every table could potentially become a community table, as I watched customers squeeze themselves in. My friend sat next to me, but strangers sat across from us.

Dol Ho is probably one of the last few dim sum restaurants that still have push carts. The majority of the customers at Dol Ho are at least 80 years old.  
  The most popular dish at Dol Ho is their spareribs over rice. Almost every table will order at least one of them. The spareribs are steamed with a black bean sauce and then a sweet soy sauce is poured over the ribs and rice. I often get an order to go so that I can have it for lunch the next day.
 
 My friend introduced me to a new dish at Dol Ho. It was a rice roll cooked with dried shrimp and chives. A sweet soy sauce is poured over these noodles and topped with cilantro. This dish is made to order which is nice because it comes out fresh and hot. I really enjoyed the consistency of the noodles and the flavors that the chives brought out.
 Those are the highlights of Dol Ho for me. We ordered a couple of other dim sum dishes that weren’t that interesting. It really only takes a few things to bring in customers to a restaurant. I will continue to get my spareribs over rice as take out, but it’s quite interesting to sit down at Dol Ho. You get a sense of Old Chinatown when you see the clients coming here on fixed incomes. They will come in using canes, walkers, and I even saw one in a wheelchair. Nothing will come between them and their spareribs over rice. The food at Dol Ho is authentic and cheap.