Thursday, September 27, 2012

San Francisco Days, San Francisco Nights

I am a city guy. I love cities. It is probably due to being a born and bred New Yorker. Don't get me wrong. I love nature. But I am most at home in a city. I especially love cities that have a truly distinctive character like New Orleans, Paris or Rome. After a long absence I just spent a weekend in one of my favorite cities, San Francisco.

Like New York and New Orleans, San Francisco is defined by its geography. In the case of San Francisco it is the hills, the water and the climate that help give San Francisco its unique character. More than most cities, San Francisco embraces it surroundings and the result is a city that finds a balance between the urban and the bucolic. You can have your city end enjoy nature too.

San Francisco has always been a food town. It has access to a tremendous and diverse amount of produce that is grown within driving distance. A visit to a weekend farmer's market will make you swoon. Local, fresh seafood is abundant and, of course, San Francisco is a stones throw from wine country. Add to this mix vibrant and diverse immigrant communities and you have an eater's paradise. But San Francisco has also been a leader in developing a culture with a deep respect and concern for where our food comes from and how it is grown. San Francisco has become one if the most important food cities in the US, if not the world.

I just packed in a week's worth of eating, drinking and enjoying San Francisco's bounty in three and a half days. I feel like I gained ten pounds (oh, the glorious abundance) but left in the best shape of my life (oh, the walking and the hills). Over the next few posts I will recap the highlights of my trip. It may take a while. First up, a few first impression of the things that makes San Francisco wonderful and unique.

View from the beach at Crissy Field

My good friend Josh picked my up from the airport and within thirty minutes I was standing on a beach looking at San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Yes, this is in the city of San Francisco. This is a town that understands the value of its waterfront. This is Crissy Field. It was an abandoned military airfield that was reclaimed starting in 2001 and developed into a wonderful park.  When this is the beginning of your trip, you know it is going to be a good one.

The Beach Hut Cafe

Next to the Crissy Field Center, a "multicultural urban environmental education center for youth," is the Beach Hut Cafe. It is a place for snacks. Josh and I stopped in for a quick hit before lunch. This was one of those "I'm not in New York anymore" moments. Remember, I was just on a beach. Now, I want you to imagine you are in Central Park or another park in NYC and you stop at a kiosk or "snack hut." Would any of this happen? 

First, you have to wait for a minute because the cashier is chatting up the people in front of you. No one else is bothered so you have to keep your impatience, which is a New Yorker's birthright, in check. Then it is your turn. And the cashier is very excited to see you and starts to chat you up. You engage. You can't help it. She is so friendly and her enthusiasm is undeniable. You order your tea, coffee or espresso and whatever else you would like. You pay and wish the cashier a good day. You head over to a condiment area to get some sugar and maybe a napkin. The first thing you notice is elaborate trash area. Trash, recycling, composting. This is no joke. Then you notice the array of Meyer's and Method cleaners for sale. Yes, the park snack hut sells green cleaning products. 

Suitably impressed you dig into the fruit salad you bought in an attempt to be healthy after all the garbage you ate on the plane. You don't have high hopes. Melon, strawberries. Not in season but what can you do. Then you taste the melon. Fresh, ripe. Then you try a strawberry. It is great. How is that possible? Then you notice the strange, dark purple mass in your fruit salad.

A FIG! There is a fig in my fruit salad that I bought at a snack bar in a park. I love figs. What is going on here? So you walk, eating the fruit, looking at the water and the bridge, and you marvel at your good fortune.

Golden Gate Park

A beautiful park that has among it's many attractions an arboretum, botanical gardens, a science museum and the de Young Museum:

The park also has winding paths that make you believe you have left the city and entered a primordial forest.

This is San Francisco in a nutshell.

Good Morning

Josh lives on Russian Hill. This is the morning view from his roof. Nice spot to have a coffee or tea.

This is the view walking down Larkin Street from the Russian Hill neighborhood. That is the three master Balclutha docked at the Hyde Street Pier (you can take a tour of it) with Alcatraz in the background.

San Francisco from the Hyde Street Pier. It looks like a toy city.

Beautiful and unique, San Francisco is one of these rare places that a New Yorker travels to and thinks, "Yeah, I get why people live here."

So much more to come.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Check in - Defonte's of Brooklyn

We all have those places. That restaurant, take out joint or food truck that we hit regularly and always order the same thing. We tell ourselves that the next time we go we are ordering something different. We never do.

Defonte's is one of those places for me. The legendary Brooklyn sandwich spot opened a Manhattan outpost near me and I have been a loyal patron ever since. The list of sandwiches is long but I always end up ordering one of two different ones. Cold Hero - The Nicky Special (italian meats, cheese, fried eggplant, hot salad, lettuce tomato, oil and vinegar). Hot Hero - Hot Roast Beef (roast beef, fresh mozzarella, fried eggplant, natural jus). Classic Italian hero or their riff on the French Dip. Cant lose either way.

(***For full disclosure, I have tried the Italian Tuna, which my wife likes, and it is great)

I recently found out that Defonte's is also one of those spots for my friend Arthur Bovino. Arthur is the Executive Editor of The Daily Meal and he is a Hot Roast Beef guy as well. Since we are both well regarded food and dining experts (at least that is what we tell each other), we decided that it was high time we sampled something else from Defonte's menu. With each other as back up and support, we made out way to Defonte's to discover new sandwich delights. We tried two new sandwiches. One was a solid double and one was a home run and will definitely be added to my rotation.

The Firehouse

This one is not on the menu but a daily special. It is on the specials board every time I am there so at this point it it a regular item. Since it first appeared I have almost ordered it numerous times. It is a roast pork sandwich like the kind mastered by Tony Luke's in Philly.

Defonte's version features roast pork, provolone cheese, fried eggplant (Defonte's signature) and broccoli rabe. It is a nice sandwich. The best touch is the cold broccoli rabe which give the sandwich bite and contrasts well with the warm pork. I wouldn't mind a mind a heavier dose of garlic on this sandwich, but it is solid nonetheless.

Sinatra Special

I am an idiot. A sandwich named for the Chairman of the Board and I never ordered it. Steak Pizzaiola and fresh mozzarella. Simple and delicious. Defonte's steak pizzaiola is top notch. Chunks of beef, falling apart, swimming in a warm and spicy tomato sauce. The Steak pizzaiola is ladled onto a hero roll and topped with mozzarella that starts to melt. The hero roll soaks up the tomato sauce but stays firm enough to handle and eat. This is an absolute winner. I can't believe I have never ordered it before. I can promise you I will again. This is made to be eaten in front of the TV while watching Derek Jeter or Eli Manning.

So here is to Arthur and I for ordering outside our comfort zone. I encourage you to do the same. We were well rewarded. I think you will be too.

And I just noticed Defonte's has a meatball parmesan hero called The Dino. "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie........"

Defonte's of Brooklyn - 261 Third Avenue at 21st Street -

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Check in: Cookshop

When Cookshop first opened on Tenth Avenue "market to table" was just starting to enter the food vernacular and the dinning options on the far west side of Chelsea were extremely limited. This was before The Highline transformed the neighborhood. My daughters were taking ice skating lessons at Chelsea Piers at the time so we found ourselves looking for a decent place to have lunch on the far west side of Manhattan on Saturdays. Cookshop was a welcome find.

It had been some time since I had been back to Cookshop (we haven't had weekend activities at Chelsea Piers in a while) so when I decided to treat myself to a birthday stroll on the Highline I stopped in for lunch at Cookshop.

Cookshop is located on the corner of 20th Street and Tenth Avenue. It is a big, bright room, lit up at midday by the sun streaming in through the enormous windows lining 10th Avenue. It is a warm, attractive room that finds a nice middle ground between the rustic farmhouse of "market to table" restaurants and the sleek modern look of a lot of newer restaurants that can leave you feeling a bit cold. The staff was welcoming and the food was as good as I remembered.

Cookshop really does practice what it preaches. Seasonal, sustainable and farm fresh are their mission statement but they deliver it with a smile and a sense of joy. No preaching, just good food. Here is what I had:

The End of Summer Crush

Muddled cucumber and cilantro with fresh lime juice and club soda. Sweet, sour and sharp, the Crush awakens the senses and refreshes at the same time. I am definitely going to try to recreate this at home.

One of the telltale signs of a great restaurant is attention to the little things. Like bread and butter on the table before the meal.

Lovely in presentation, delicious in execution. Fresh baked bread with creamery butter and salt. Even though both of the items I ordered for lunch had bread as an ingredient I couldn't help myself. Neither should you.

For lunch I went with what seemed like an old favorite. Tomato soup and grilled cheese. It was as far from a can of Campbell's soup and grilled American cheese as you can get.

Sour Dough Bread Soup

With tomato-cheese panade. I asked my waiter to explain what exactly this dish was. He was at a loss. I asked two other people to explain it as well. The all agreed it was delicious but couldn't quite explain it. I will try to give it a shot.

You have just had a big bowl of pasta that featured a delicious marinara bursting with spice and tomato.  You have purposefully saved a lot of the sauce for the end so you can scoop it up in spoonfuls and with chunks of bread. It is now saturated with pieces of bread and cheese so that it is a thick mess. As you take bite after bite and wipe the bowl clean with the last bit of bread you smile and congratulate yourself on being so smart. That is what this soup is. And it is good.

Griddled Cheese

Goot Essa cheddar, peaches, candied pecans, arugula and whole grain mustard, toasted. It sounds wacky. It is wacky. It probably shouldn't work, but it does. The various ingredients don't mingle. Instead they stand their ground, butting up against each other. It is a riot of flavors and textures and messy fun to eat.

After my lunch I took a walk on the Highline. It is one of the great additions to New York City and a reminder that every once in a while we manage to get things right. It has transformed the neighborhoods it runs through and acts as a magnet for the area. It got me back to Cookshop after a long absence and I am grateful.

Cookshop - 156 10th Avenue at 20th Street -

Monday, September 3, 2012

Coming to the end.

It is Labor Day. We are wrapping up our summer and our summer vacation. I will be writing about the highlights of a great summer staring tomorrow, when we are back to reality. Until then, a few teasers:

                                                              Crab Boil

                                                                      Ice Cream

                                            Bacon wrapped scallops with maple glaze

                                                       Grilled Clams

                                                     Grilled Shrimp and Swordfish



                                                Old Barney at Sunset

See you in the fall.