Mar 072009

I returned from San Francisco last week. I’ve been to the Bay Area almost four of the past eight weeks; I’m getting to know my new coworkers at Google. While Google is based in Mountain View, I prefer to stay in San Francisco. It’s reminiscent of home.

One of the places I ate in San Francisco the first time I visited this year was Incanto, Chris Cosentino‘s shrine to offal meats. My friends and I had a fine time at his Noe Valley restaurant. This past visit I stopped by Boccalone, Cosentino’s meat shop in the San Francisco Ferry Building. I purchased a brown sugar and fennel salame. While I had some of it in San Francisco, I brought the rest of it to my friend Phil and Karen’s house. (Happy Birthday Karen!) The salame is chewy and has a strong fennel flavor. The sugar helps balance the strong flavors of the cure and fennel.

Today, I was reading Chris Cosentino’s blog post about receiving a letter from anti-foie gras folks. He and his business partner, Mark Pastore, discussed the letter, and Mark wrote a thoughtful note on the foie gras debate on the Incanto web site. It’s well written, and I agree with the gist of the letter.

If you get out to San Francisco, I recommend checking out Incanto and Boccalone. The folks that work at both restaurants are passionate about the food they make and serve, and it shines in the flavor of the food and experience of dining and shopping.

 Posted by at 11:42 pm
Mar 052009

When I visited Seattle in December, I was lucky to be able to take a tour of Theo Chocolate, an artisanal chocolate maker in the Fremont neighborhood. The previous time I visited Seattle, I had tried to go with my godson and his family, but we were unable to get tickets.
Jen and Samuel
There is a waiting room and retail area in the front of the chocolate factory. In this image, Samuel, my godson, and Jen, my godson’s mother hang out in the front of the store.

Samuel in a hairnet
The front room offers samples of all of their chocolate bars. Samuel enjoyed having chocolate as we waited for the tour to start. Everyone must wear a hairnet on the factory floor.

Dan, Roan, and Audryn
There are frequently people who reserve a space on the tour and don’t show up; Dan, Roan, and Audryn were able to join us at the last second.

Chocolate beans at Theo Chocolates, Seattle
Chocolate beans at Theo Chocolates, Seattle
Theo uses fair-trade and organic chocolate beans to make their chocolate. They produce confections from the bean to the bar. It’s fairly uncommon for a confectioner to make chocolate from the beginning to the end–most vendors focus either on making chocolate or on making confections. My understanding is that even Jacques Torres, perhaps the best confectioner in New York City, uses couverture for his bon-bons despite producing his own chocolate bars from beans.

Theo regularly visits their cacao manufacturers to make sure that they are adhering to fair-trade and organic standards.

Chocolate beans quality control at Theo Chocolates, Seattle
The staff at Theo take quality control seriously. While it’s always important to have strong quality control, it’s especially important at Theo since they produce such small batches of chocolate. In the photo, you can see the device that is used to split the cacao beans in half and inspect the contents. Beans that do not make the cut for Theo but are still good enough to be used for larger production lines may be sold to other chocolate manufacturers.

Chocolate manufacturing equipment at Theo Chocolates, Seattle
Chocolate manufacturing equipment at Theo Chocolates, Seattle
What was striking to me about the factory floor at Theo was that it was actually a factory with heavy manufacturing equipment. While roasting the cacao bean may seem similar to roasting a coffee bean, the process is very different. As distinct from coffee beans, the cacao bean will be processed much more than just a simple roast and grind. Impressively, the factory floor and equipment were spotless. I almost thought there would be a secret door where the “real” grimy, noisy factory was kept. But the one I saw was clearly not for show.

Chocolate at Theo Chocolates, Seattle
While bars are produced using another machine, the individual bon-bons (or truffles) may be produced by hand. There is another room beyond the factory store where people work to temper the chocolate and create bon-bons.

Andrew, Jen, and Samuel
Everyone had a great time at Theo Chocolates. This photo of Andrew, Samuel’s father; Jen; and Samuel was taken just outside of the factory.

Dew on sage leaves in Seattle
I left Seattle the day after the chocolate factory tour; I had a great time there. It gets damp in Seattle, and the dew clings to the leaves of a sage plant in front of Samuel’s house in the morning.

 Posted by at 12:42 am
Feb 282009

I try to travel to Seattle at least once per year. There are at least a dozen or more friends of mine who ended up in Seattle for one reason or another, and it’s always a pleasure to see them. I’m always amazed by how quickly time passes–until I just did the math right now, I didn’t realize that I’ve known many of my Seattle friends for almost twenty years!

I flew to Seattle from Las Vegas for $80 on Virgin America. It’s unclear to me how Virgin America is making money. The flight was terrific, but it was also only half full. I had to switch planes in San Francisco, but I didn’t mind. I enjoy Virgin America’s flights.

I visited Seattle well before their terrible winter storms that shut down most of the city–if anything, it was unseasonably warm, pleasant, and dry. Seattle rarely has the torrential downpours of the northeast, but it frequently is covered by a gray, steady misty drizzle of rain that manages to float underneath any rain coat or umbrella. Which is why many Seattle residents never carry an umbrella.

One of the places I visited in Seattle was the Zig Zag Café. Several folks had recommended I go there, including Jim Meehan from PDT and Eryn Reece formerly with Bar Milano. The Zig Zag Café is located on the hill between the Public Market and Elliott Bay, just next door to a taqueria and downstairs from where the Spanish Table used to be. (Hey, if you know the shops near Pike Place Market, it’s a perfectly good description.) Jim specifically told me to be on the look out for Murray Stenson, an award-winning friendly and talented bartender. He wasn’t there the first evening I visited, so I spent some time chatting with one of the other bartenders who worked there and Kacy Fitch, one of the owners. It’s an elegant dimly lit bar with a tremendous selection of liquors, beers, and cocktails. There are many tables, but it’s a popular spot and fills up quickly. The staff is warm, friendly, and unpretentious.
Zig Zag Café, Seattle Zig Zag Café, Seattle

Of course, I had to visit the Zig Zag Café a second time to see Murray. It was worth the second trip out there. Even though the place was packed, Murray took the time to say hello and recommend some other good restaurants in the area. I was walking around the waterfront area before going to Zig Zag, and I saw one of the most spectacular sunsets I had ever seen in Seattle. Friends of mine who were out agreed that it was a rare sight.
Sunset over Elliott Bay, Seattle Sunset over Elliott Bay, Seattle Sunset over Elliott Bay, Seattle

While I was in the Pike Place Market, I stopped by World Spice Merchants. World Spice Merchants has been featured on television shows like Alton Brown’s Good Eats. They have a very large selection of teas and spices; in addition to their retail and mail-order businesses, they also supply restaurants around the Seattle area. I feel that the folks there are more knowledgeable and passionate than the folks who work at a typical Penzey’s retail outfit. And that’s saying a lot: the folks at Penzey’s are smart and dedicated.
World Spice Market, Seattle

From a food perspective, no trip to Seattle would be complete without a trip to Salumi next to Pioneer Square. Salumi is a salumeria, a place where meats are cured and salamis are made. The store is divided into several parts: in the front of the store is a very small seating area, followed by a sandwich line and cashier, then a small seating area and a small kitchen. Beyond that there is another intimate dining room. Finally, the curing rooms are beyond the final door.
Curing meats at Salumi, Seattle

Salumi was opened by Armandino Batali after retiring from Boeing where he was an engineer. Last year, Armandino turned over the shop to his daughter, Gina Batali, and son-in-law, Brian D’Amato.

One of the best features of visiting Salumi is purchasing sandwiches from the counter. Most of the sandwiches are served on a nice white rich and not-overly tough sandwich roll with a variety of spreads and sauces. The tongue sandwich is one of the best sandwiches there: it’s served with slow-cooked soft onions and two spreads. (I believe one was a garlic spread, and one was a pesto spread.) I also had sliced fresh mozzarella. It was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.
Tongue sandwich at Salumi, Seattle

There’s more photos to come from my trip to Seattle.

 Posted by at 1:47 pm
Feb 172009

Before joining in Google in December, I decided to do a bit of traveling. One of the places I visited was Las Vegas. I had heard a lot about Vegas from many friends; it seems to be a love-it/hate-it type place. One friend described it as a “cultural wasteland.” Another friend described the ideal trip as no more than two nights–fly in one evening, spending one full day there, and leaving on the third day. I decided to stay four days.

Las Vegas reminds me of a theatrical set; there is a flashy, shiny veneer on top of rough poured cement and two-by-fours. The decorations are reminiscent of famous places, but they simply don’t match. For example, consider this fountain which is clearly influenced by Trevi Fountain in Rome:
Fake Trevi Fountain in Las Vegas
I’ve been to the real Trevi Fountain. The real Trevi Fountain is elegant versus kitschy and made of stone versus poured cement. It is also twice the side of the Las Vegas knockoff.

The kitschy theme continues along the strip. Consider this image of New York, New York:
New York, New York in Las Vegas
As someone who lives in New York City, this casino hurt me. The Brooklyn Bridge is reduced to a flashy venue for advertisements; instead of dazzling people with its majesty and grandeur, the version in Vegas is nothing more than a scale model with neon. What is supposed to be the Chrysler Building is unrecognizable. The real building is a elegant and stunning example of Art Deco architecture. The Vegas version is a joke.

And don’t get me started on the Vegas version of the Eiffel Tower:
Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas

I stayed at the Planet Hollywood, which was perfectly acceptable as a hotel. It was $100 per night, but then they gave me $40 for “gas money.” Vegas has some issues with occupancy right now; the city felt empty.
Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas
On the way up to the hotel room one night, a woman walked up to me near the elevators and said, “How about $700 for 30 minutes?” Of course, I answered, “I think I’m worth more than that,” and walked away laughing. Incidentally, don’t stay through the time share presentation at the Hotel. It’s boring, too long, a hard sell, and most importantly, not worth $250 in chips.

The great parts of Las Vegas happened when the locations did not try to mimic another city or location. For example, the Bellagio was beautiful and elegant. I loved the water show in front of the casino.
Bellagio water show in Las Vegas
Bellagio water show in Las Vegas
I also loved the Chihuly installation in the lobby.
Bellagio Chihuly installation in Las Vegas
Bellagio Chihuly installation in Las Vegas
Bellagio Chihuly installation in Las Vegas

The Bellagio is home to a Cirque De Soleil show, O. A couple of friends recommended that I go to one of their shows, and I’m so glad I took their advice. (Thanks, Kristen; thanks, Todd!) This show was a spectacle on so many levels: it was artistic, athletic, funny, and surprising. The show has a stage that acts like a Trivial Pursuit piece; as each of the slices lower, they dip into water. The performers fly above the stage and plunge into the water; they dance with fire, and they throw each other across room. It was an amazing show, and if I had just seen that show it would have made the trip to Las Vegas worthwhile.

Another place where Las Vegas shines is in the food. On the low end of the scale in price but not enjoyment was In-N-Out Burger. There are no In-N-Out burgers in the Northeast, so I don’t generally have an opportunity to visit them. There burgers were some of the best fast-food burgers I have ever had. The most notable part of the burgers was the freshness of the lettuce and tomato. For most fast food joints, the lettuce and tomato are generally worth ignoring. But for In-N-Out burger, the lettuce was crisp and the tomatoes were bursting with flavor. I had a great time.
In-N-Out burger in Las Vegas
In-N-Out burger in Las Vegas

I have a couple of friends who work in the Batali/Bastianch restaurants in Las Vegas, and their food was kick-ass as well. Zack Allen is the Executive Chef of their restaurants there; he had previously worked at Otto in New York City. He is a brilliant chef whose talent for food is only matched by his organizational and management skills. The one dish I had at B&B; that rocked my work was a single large ravioli filled with liquid egg yolk. It was rich and decadent. I believe Chris Crocetti’s title is General Manager. He is also a warm and terrific person who hails from New York, and he works hard to make sure that his customers have a enjoyable meal. I had drinks one night at the bar and ate at the bar another night. The bartenders were friendly and knowledgeable. (I was not surprised; the bartender I chatted with had come from working at Babbo in New York City.)

I also ate at L’Atelier De Joël Robuchon. Joël Robuchon is a famous French chef; this restaurant is his “causal” cozy dining establishment in Las Vegas with a 36-seat bar and an open kitchen. The staff here was the epitome of French service: friendly yet reserved and knowledgeable without pretension. It was a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach; the open design allowed me to witness the calm, quiet ballet of the kitchen. The dish I remember most was a sous-vide poached langoustine that was then flash fried in a light pastry with sage and a dollop of basil pesto. It had a rich flavor that managed to complement, not overwhelm, the delicacy of the shellfish. (I found a photo of the dish on flickr; the poster enjoyed the langoustine, but was not as impressed with the restaurant as I was.)

Low points of Las Vegas:

  • Kitchy
  • Fake buildings

High points of Las Vegas:

  • Traditional casinos
  • Dining
  • Shows

I’m not sure I would want to go back to Las Vegas, but if I do, my friend’s advice about only staying for three days is worth taking.

 Posted by at 6:24 pm
Feb 122009

I use Tripit to manage my travel. It’s a service to consolidate all of your travel plans. Whenever you receive mail from an airline, hotel, or other travel service, you simply forward the mail to Tripit will automatically read all of the information from your mail and create an itinerary for you. It also allows your to share your plans with other people, and you can add the plans to iCal or Google calendar automatically.

Today, Tripit really saved me. I booked a trip to San Francisco last week for next Tuesday through the end of the month. Or so I thought. When I went on Tripit to view my plans, I saw that there were two itineraries: one for the hotel and one for the flight. This was odd, since Tripit will combine locations that occur on the same dates. On closer inspection, I was dismayed to find out that I had booked the flights for March instead of February; I hadn’t noticed earlier since the days and dates of February and March are identical!

I was able to rebook by tickets on Virgin America without paying any change fees. I only had to play a higher rate for the outgoing flight.

I would say that I was lucky to catch the mis-booked flights, but it wasn’t luck at all. It was the design of Tripit that alerted me to my mistake.

 Posted by at 11:24 am
Dec 112008

I went to Las Vegas. It was very…. (I think an adverb is the best description for the city.)
I went to Seattle. It was a lot of fun to see my good young friend Sam, not to mention all of my other good friends. It was a wonderful trip.
I started at Google on Monday and have been very busy. They are sending me to their headquarters in Mountain View next week. I will be staying in San Francisco. I’m learning a lot, and it’s very intense.

I have some great photos from Las Vegas and Seattle, not to mention here and NYC. It’s been very busy, but I’ll try to post some photos this weekend.

 Posted by at 2:20 am
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