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San Francisco: Four Barrel Coffee

Just driving by it, I was excited about Four Barrel Coffee, the hipster coffee place on Valencia. For one, it has huge windows and a ton of sunny space. For two, there wasn’t a laptop in sight. (I like to be the only one on a laptop in a place if at all possible. I know: total hypocrite. Yes. Hater. Yes. Guilty.)

But now that I’ve been there, I’d like to offer a big shout out in the form of a gigantic thumbs down to Four Barrel.

I don’t care if they hand craft or double roast or ritualistically violate their coffee twice daily, that is some oily dishwater disaster coffee. To compound the error, they refuse to offer the usual buffet of bad coffee doctoring options. Raw sugar, half and half, and skim milk are the extent of the sideboard buffet. No actual milk. No Splenda. Not even a grain of white sugar. Nuthin.

So you get your crap coffee and then you’re stuck with it. Bastards.

So here’s what I have to say to you guys over at Four Barrel Coffee:

I don’t come to your probably all-organic, no-leather, egg-free, wind-powered house and take away all your vegan muffins and forcefeed you Chicken McNuggets, so don’t deprive me of my proper milk and artificial sweeteners after you charge me $3 for a small cup of blackened swill.

And don’t tell me that the coffee beans were picked by vegetarian, hemp-clad peasants either ’cause that doesn’t make it better coffee. Woody Harrelson and Ed Begley, Jr. could roast and brew my coffee one cup at a time in their environmentally-sound trousers and I wouldn’t care if it tasted like yours. Make a decent cuppa first and then I’ll be down with any sustainable plan you’ve got.

Geez.

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Birthday!

It’s been a busy week Chez Emma: my birthday was Thursday and on Friday we headed to Vegas for the Deranged Running of the Casinos. I’m mostly recovered but woke up with a phantom hangover this morning out of habit.

I know you’re wondering how the birthday went, and I’ll tell you: it was excellent. R took me to lunch at Serpentine, a new-ish restaurant in the Dogpatch that we hit over the holidays and have been wanting to go back to, mainly because I didn’t try their butternut squash bread pudding then and have been wanting to since. And you can’t have that sort of thing on any old day because it’s just too damn rich and obviously full of things that are bad for you. But on your birthday, it’s time to bring it, don’t you think? So I did and all I have to say is that savory bread pudding is the way to go, people.

Weird menu glitch though. See that first photo up there? What do you think it says? Puree of Celery Root Soup? With…I’m sorry, what? Peanut butter? “Glob of Jiffy with your yuppie soup, miss?” Oh. No wait. That’s “pinenut butter.” Never mind.

Then we picked up cupcakes (which you should always get from Kara’s Cupcakes instead of Miette*) and went to the California Academy of Sciences (more on that later) and visited the little seahorses and the alligator. (The alligator didn’t eat anyone while we were there, so that was a bit anticlimactic – it was my birthday – but maybe next time.)

Recently, I’ve been getting myself presents for my birthday and I recommend it to anyone who asks (which no one does, because it’s odd and why would they? But there you go: now I’m offering it out there for the taking). This year, I got myself a Nest Egg. I couldn’t resist. It’s a white ceramic egg about 4″ high, it comes in its own nest (see photo), and it has a slot for coins or folded up bills. Since it only has one opening, there’s no cheating: you have to break it to open it. Brilliant. I haven’t decided what to save for and on what deadline, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it? Yes. It is.

(I got it at Rare Device, a store I’d never been to but will definitely be going back to because it has all kinds of wonderful things from small designers: jewelry, books, stationery, glitter elephants, and the like.)

Also got myself a knitted coffee cuff, which matches my egg, and which R says undermines any edgy bad ass vibe I had going, but I don’t care because it’s cute and effective.

Speaking of R, he gave me a beautiful necklace by Evfa Attling from Hus (which has closed their West Village store – so, so sad – but whose online store still has some of their products for sale). It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? So lovely. What a great fancy.

Then we had dinner with a few friends at Dosa‘s new location on Fillmore. (Same great food, but a much swankier space than the original Mission location, plus a full bar.)

All in all, big birthday fun. Hooray! Thanks everyone!

*I don’t love cupcakes because they get dry, like Miette’s. Somehow, Kara’s avoids this and theirs rock. You have to try the Java (mocha frosting) and the Chocolate Velvet (absurdly smooth frosting) and, if they have it, their new Meyer Lemon filled one is a dream.

New York: 202 (brunch)

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Go to 202. Go. Go on. If I were in New York, I’d be on my way over there right now. They’re famous for their French toast, or at least that’s how I found them, and if you like French toast at all, you should definitely have that. It has found the line between “soaked enough that I’m not eating just toasted bread” and “not so undercooked that it’s crossed over to soggy,” and it lies there happily beneath excellent strips of chewy bacon.

Also on the menu: a British breakfast not drowning in grease. Simple: poached eggs on toast, a sausage, bacon, perfect grilled cherry tomatoes, and a paddy of shredded potato. Their coffee is outstanding, which is a crucial exception to me. I usually don’t even order coffee in restaurants for brunch because it’s usually bad or cold. Main point? 202’s breakfast menu is standard stock done well and carefully.

Couple of other notes: they’re open at diner hours in the week (well, 8:30AM), even though they’re located inside a chic retail store that opens later, so that’ll give you a chance to score your French toast without a wait. Their tables are narrow antique rectangles which are surprisingly conducive to both conversation and light writing, but this is not a free-wireless place packed with hipsters typing on their laptops: breakfast will set you back $20. Lunchtime gets trendy – it is in Chelsea Market – but mornings in the week or brunch a little on the early side on the weekend (10:30) are ideal times to get some real food, a little time with your coffee and sort yourself out.

75 Ninth Ave. nr. 16th St., 646-638-1173
Hours: Mon-Fri, 8:30am-11pm; Sat-Sun, 10am-11pm

Cheese: Chaource

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I first had Chaource on my gay cruise* in France. I loved it then and I love it now. It’s a cow’s milk cheese made in small rounds, usually sold as a piece, which is fine for a cheese plate for about six.

(If you don’t eat it all, it’s OK: just make sure you wrap up the remainder in a new wrapper – cheese paper or I like Press n’ Seal – and eat it within a week. As long as you keep the air out and use new wrapping every time you re-wrap it, it shouldn’t spoil.)

Don’t be put off by the smell as you taste it: if you don’t like smelly cheeses you might veer away, but trust me, it’s not as pungent as its smell. The center is soft, heavy and has the strongest taste, bold and buttery. The outer edges are milder and slightly crumbly, somewhat like your average goat cheese in texture. The rind is thin, white and edible.

Since we were having a cheese and charcouterie picnic dinner, we went with a light red wine and the Chaource held its own nicely. Artisinal recommends champagne as the ideal pairing and that sounds fine too. For a balanced cheese plate, I’d do this + a hard cheddar + a blue and walk away happy. If you’re partial to milder cheeses, maybe sub this in for your medium-strong option and do a light goat, this and a mild blue, like Point Reyes.

Remember to take your cheeses out of the fridge an hour or so before serving. This is especially critical with soft cheeses like this one: Chaource will not be a treat when it’s cold and, as a result, hard.

*Me + R + our friend John + fourteen of his closest gay friends on a barge through the canals of Burgundy. (Re)convinced us we don’t like traveling in groups and we don’t like package tours, but it was worth a shot and we needed a holiday badly. Best part: three different cheeses a night at dinner.

Cheese: Cambridge: Formaggio Kitchen

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Dude. Cheese. Mad cheese. More cheese than you can shake a stick at. (Not that you’d want to in this place because you’d definitely knock over one – maybe two – hundred things.) With a little perseverance, you can get your very own salesperson who will offer samples of anything you want to try and point you in the right direction. Ask about local offerings and cheeses that might be hard – or impossible – to get elsewhere.

We – well, I – went just a tad overboard, buying five cheeses for four people, but we were not disappointed. I grabbed onto a small round of Chaource, which is hard to find in good condition in San Francisco, half a round of Coulommiers (too much: get a quarter round for your average cheese plate), a Manchester hard cheese that had a nutty bandaged cheddar flavor, a Belgian blue (medium strong as blues go) and a lovely creamy Italian goat cheese (Robiola Pura Capra Carlina) that had just enough flavor to hold its own next to the Coloummiers. (Do you think “Carlina” is the name of the actual goat?)

Ihsan and Valerie Gurdal own the place – and sister stores in the South End of Boston and in Essex Market in New York – and stock it with excellent gourmet goods of all types. You can snag the baguette you’ll be wanting (as well as other kinds of breads) at their bakery counter, any condiment from anywhere in the world (try the chili and red pepper jams with your soft cheeses), goodies from their pastry counter (their small meringues with their chewy insides are the best I’ve ever had), wines from anywhere in the world, all manner of olive oils, pâté, crackers, honies and on and on and on.

As with Whole Foods, I wouldn’t recommend doing your general shopping here. It will definitely cost you to score the perfect picnic dinner – that chili jam runs $11 – but it’s worth it for an occasional anti-recession splurge or a mini splurge if you’re after a specific product (or just want to try something new). Also, don’t even think about going at peak times – the place is a zoo. Go on a weekday afternoon or first thing on the weekend when you can get some of their stellar service, enjoy some samples and generally rummage among the goods.

New York in Winter

So far, it’s been a trip marked by reversals. You know when you know you’re scattered and you can give the people around you a heads up, “Hey – I’m scattered. Don’t count on me to return the ball after the first bounce”? That’s not where I am. Where I am is racket back, watching the ball come over the net, I’ve got it covered and at the last minute realizing we’re playing water polo.

There are two sides to every story though, right? Same day, two stories.

Thursday: Red eye. ‘Nuf said.
Thursday – the other version: I do not die.

Friday: Feel desperately tired and overwhelmed. In an effort to regain equilibrium, walk so many miles around lower Manhattan that I practically maim myself.
Friday – the other version: Find stripey hat for $16 at Muji. Cannot stop wearing it even though it’s very possible I look deranged. Go see Mike Birbiglia (funny) and have excellent sandwich.

Saturday: Regain equilibrium. Have great dinner at Raoul’s in SoHo with friends.
Saturday – the other version: Same.

Sunday: No sleep. Equilibrium lost track of again, possibly under bed. Make plans to be in three locations at the same time with three different people. As am not able to bend laws of time/space continuum (still), spend the day making excuses on my cell phone. R leaves for Baltimore. Attend Oscar party featuring a woman I used to loathe but have not seen in several years. Turns out, I still loathe her. Some things do not change. Good to know. Lose all my Oscar bets. Go to bed at 3AM upset about not having neutralizing ray gun to take down enemies.
Sunday – the other version: Discover the French toast at 202 (squishy, tasty) and their perfect cafe au lait. See my brother, which could be fraught but isn’t. Help R with some of his work, which never happens because he is Señor Executivo and I am the one who usually needs assistance because Excel is stupid, stupid program and R is a genius. Have play time with friend’s perfect baby (after convincing said baby that I was not a kidnapper). The Academy Awards show wins Most Improved.

Monday: Finally get some sleep. Have lunch, write, scrap all plans outside a 20-block radius. Chat with David at 19 Christopher (which is not going out of business like their neighbor, Hus, thank God). Do not buy the Serge Thoraval necklace I desperately want at Destination. Nice British dude at Tea & Sympathy with ’70’s hair makes me an excellent cup of tea to go in the bitter cold. Overcome urge to buy everything at Murray’s Cheese due to personal recession incurred by leaving job. Instead, pick up red velvet cupcake at Amy’s Breads. Have more Pegu drinks with bro. (Is there any liquor in the Pisco Punch at all? Or has the sustained stress of the last month upped my tolerance for liquor somehow? Does your liver also process stress?) Have dinner with excellent friends at Stanton Social. Order everything on the menu + many cocktails. Get 25% off total bill because we rule. (Also because that is, in fact, their rule: after 9PM Mondays, 25% off.)
Monday – the other version: Same.

Tuesday: 202 breakfast. Writing. Good start. Downhill from there: go to Met, decide against Calder jewelry exhibit as being too blah to justify $20 entrance fee ($20?! I know everyone else got upset about this a long time ago, but the sticker shock has, um, stuck.) Do not buy snowglobe I wanted as, like many celebrities, it is not good looking up close and in person. Go across the Park to UWS. Lose wallet. Recover wallet. Am unable to find the hoodie I want. Go back downtown hoodie-less. Have walked self lame (again). Hurt shoulder injury due to overpurchase of heavy things like books and conditioner (don’t ask). Go to Hable, which is closing their store on Perry St. this Saturday. (So you should go now and get that cool bird lamp I didn’t buy. You’ll know which one I mean: it looks like I made it for you in shop class.) Kristen Johnston is there (and ridiculously too thin). Cannot tell if she is drunk, wildly insecure or just super annoying, but she takes up all the air in the place. Have 100 crossed wires with friend re: evening plans. Have emotional tantrum because am overtired and have had only Levain cookies and no lunch. Get very depressed. Go out anyway. Have wine with friend at Riposo 72. Lose wallet again. Am too tired to care.
Tuesday – the other version: 202. Write. Recover lost wallet (twice). Levain cookies. Find Banksy book at the Strand. Get bag at Hable. Get time with friend, despite Oscar fiasco + tangle of crossed wires + tantrum. Do not die.

Wednesday: Pack. Feel organized and self-satisfied. Leave apartment for leisurely breakfast and to write. Realize will do no such thing as have miscalculated schedule despite checking itinerary four times because that’s how I roll and am bad at math. Panic. Call car service. Car service goes to wrong address. Car service drops me at United. United says flight is with USAir (one mile away, other terminal) despite ticket having been purchased from United and stating United flight number. Miss out on together time with the shuttle lounge, which is a happy place: plugs, comfy chairs, business men who know how to travel (quietly). Have somehow permanently scratched my glasses. Arrive in Boston. Find out that R is attending a conference for the next two days. Have mini breakdown contemplating re-planning next two days.
Wednesday – the other version: Have superior latte (albeit speedy). Score rugelach at Amy’s. Catch flight. Find R. Am definitely not dead.

New York: NoHo Star

nohostar.jpgWhen you go to the Bleeker Theatre – which, by the way, you should, because, if my 2-for-2 experience is any predictor, they put up entertaining shows there – you should hit the NoHo Star on the corner of Bleeker and Lafayette, just across the street. It’s a little too trendy and expensive to be a destinaation dinner spot for me, but the drinks are good, they have boiled eggs on the bar (and who doesn’t love that?), and the baguette sandwiches are reasonably priced ($10-12) and super delicious. I have no other sample set from their menu because I usually only drink there, but those sandwiches should be enough to get you in the door for an early or late light dinner. (It’s mad crowded with what appear to be locals at dinner hour.) The rest of the menu trends towards the $20-$28 range and I just don’t want to eat pricey in a locale that loud and that central. But if you want the best toasted baguette with sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato, greens, capers and aioli, this is your stop. Put a little salt on it before you munch. The bar is good and the house prosecco + raspberry Stoli is a pretty drink for a lightweight evening out.

Cheese: Brie Coupe Explorateur

brie_explorateur.jpgI have inexplicably taken a recent dislike to bries. Maybe once I moved on to triple creams, regular brie was just not good enough anymore. Baked brie with honey and almonds is where I’ve been drawing the brie line of late.

Yesterday at Whole Foods, I accidentally bought a brie I didn’t know, Brie Coupe Explorateur. I saw the label when I got home and cursed my eager hand for snatching it, but it looked white and creamy, not yellowing, so I thought maybe I’d snagged the extra cream after all.

It turns out I had, but it was not what I’ve come to expect from triple cream bries. Most are smooth, very rich and a brie flavor comes through the creaminess. The Coupe Explorateur tastes nearer to a triple cream goat cheese, It’s very, very white, almost granular before you spread it, and with a non-brie-like subtle flavor more common in goat cheeses than cow. My sample must be very young, because the rind was almost non-existent. (The photo to the left is of a more aged sample.)

It’s a really lovely cheese and I’d recommend it without reservation. No special tastes are required and it wouldn’t present a challenge to any cheese plate. Try it with fresh fruit and don’t serve it on a board with a strong blue unless you move to the blue and don’t turn back.

The Tasty

Oh. My. God. If you live in San Francisco, you have got to venture over to the land of Gucci babies, Pucci mamas, over-bred puppies and post-frat bankers and get yourself a grilled cheese sandwich at the Blue Barn on Chestnut Street in the Marina. Holy Lord but they are good. They make me want to move into their storefront. In the mornings, they would give me cups of their famous Blue Bottle coffee to cleanse my palate. After that, I could help them fill up their organized, shiny containers with quantities of perfect, colorful vegetables for their custom-made salads. I wouldn’t have any salad though. I would eat only cheese.

They have six kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches. Goat, Sheep, Cheddar and three other kinds which I barely looked at because I snagged on the sheep’s milk cheese with jambon serrano and fig jam. The jam caramelizes in tiny chewy pockets in the bread. It is the best – the BEST – sandwich I have had in a long time. And I love me some sandwiches. I am a grilled cheese fanatic. For the record, I am also nutty for BLTs but that’s not what we’re talking about right now.

In addition to their grilled cheese menu, they have other sandwiches (which, I am sure, are of a lesser breed since they don’t include grilled cheese), macaroni and cheese and salads (fresh and packaged). They also have a mini cheese counter and Acme baguettes if you feel like you need to go home and have DIY grilled cheese. Oh – they also sell the jammy figginess that makes me swoon.

The place only has a couple of tables, so it’s mostly a take-out thing. If you have to take-out, don’t wait until you get home to open up your toasty warm packet of cheesy goodness. Eat it immediately. Go back often.

Eastern seaboard love affair

Me: Let’s go get Thai food.

R: By ‘Thai food’ do you mean ‘Dunkin Donuts’?

One of the things I miss most about the culinary world of the northeast is Dunkin Donuts. Their coffee – Maxwell House – is the best of any donut house and better than most non-donut emporiums. If that weren’t enough, they have French cruller donuts and their Munchkins don’t taste like soap. What more could you ask for?