Sunday, October 28, 2007

Laiola, San Francisco - Good Things Come in Little Dishes

Laiola San Francisco

Long gone are the days when I used to relish over all-you-can-eat places, including Korean bbq, and made-for-Viking joints like Claimjumper's. America is about exceeding limits – a sometimes tacky and overbearing demonstrating to other countries that power is exemplified through making things faster, bigger and stronger. Is it a wonder that Americans don't live as long as, say Europeans, who bask in the sun with wine and gorge in meals 3-4 times a day? No, because they understand the concept of moderation and turn their heads away from fast food. As you can see from my profile photo, I haven't come to terms with eating in moderation –

I am clearly... American.

During my grueling 2-month stay in San Francisco for work, I came across this little gem, Laiola, with high recommendations from Bar Crudo's Chef Mike Selvera. Previously, I had asked Selvera about his favorite places to eat, during my 7 visits to Bar Crudo. I love finding out what chefs, sick of their own success, like to eat after a long shift. For those that haven't seen Mojo HD Channel's 'After Hours with Daniel', watch it. It's an intimate 60 minutes with celebrity-French Chef Daniel Boulud and America's famous chefs. And most of all, you get to see what they like to eat.

Laiola serves tapas. Tapas is Spanish for appetizers – delightful nuggets of goodness nestled into a 6 x 6" plato. I may be one of the last people on earth to have ever tried tapas, so for me, this was a meal long overdue. And just like dim sum, Vietnamese steamed rice cakes (banh beo) and izakayas... tapas are proof that small dishes are often very delectable.

I took a cab into the Marina district of San Francisco, an area much like the La Brea/Beverly Hills area, with restaurants ranging from passable to showstopping. I met J's brother at the front of Laiola and within a few minutes, we were seated front row. By front row, I mean, right in front of the kitchen set up behind the counters. And next to me sporting a shiny bead of forehead sweat was the head chef firing orders with an AK-47-like demeanor. For any restaurateur and guest, this arrangement can be the breaking point. It can be thrilling watching the line cook add some cognac to the pan, with rising flames that kiss the overhead range. But it may not be thrilling watching him pick out his murph and then using that same hand to plate your $35 dish. Excluding tax and tip.

In Laiola's case, cleanliness and orderliness was intact. The drinks were flowing naturally in a Spanish sangria-serving environment. And gossip was in the air amongst coworkers, business grunts and people with their date-faces on.

Laiola Sangria

Laiola's Stylish Sangria
I'm a beer and whiskey drinker and the chances of seeing me with this drink are very unlikely because it has fruit in it, unless I'm on vacation. It might as well have had an umbrella and a hula dancer on it because it looked like liquid vacation. I remember back a few years ago when I attempted to make Sangria for my friends. A little wine, some chopped up apples/oranges/grapes, 7-up and some brandy.... you're good to go. Or so I thought. My friends told me that the Sangria I had made was probably 150 proof, meaning 75% alcohol. I was convinced that I had made liquid death after seeing 2 of my friends pray over the White Porcelain God. Oops, sorry! But this drink was different, it was aesthetically pleasing, very light and flavorful as any drink should be. I had 2.

Laiola Pan Con Tomate

Pan Con Tomate
Literally means 'bread with tomato'. Fresh artisan bread, cut 3/4" thick was first grilled with a light drizzle of olive oil, rubbed with a cut garlic glove and then sanded down with an heirloom tomato. The result is a slightly-soggy, red-tinted, garlic-scented slice of bread... that is ultra savory.

Laiola Chickpea Fries

Chickpea Croquetas
We actually didn't try this Jenga-like dish. But since the chef was next to me, I asked if I could take a photo of it. From the looks of it, this is a healthier form of its cousin, the french fry because it isn't battered and well it's made of chickpeas.

Laiola Albacore Tuna Salad

Olive Oil-Poached Albacore Salad
I usually don't like to eat cooked fish because many times, the process of holding the fish overcooks it. Cooked fish tastes the best when served immediately. The poaching of the albacore resulted in extremely moist and tender strands of meat. I could taste a hint of cayenne or paprika in this. I didn't like this dish at first, but after a few bites, I grew to like the taste of it.

Laiola Blood Sausage

Cigrons Amb Morcilla (Chickeas with House-made Blood Sausage)
I've had Korean and German blood sausage before and was curious how the Spanish like to do it. I expected to see a sausage, but instead saw raisin-like cuts of meat. And it actually tasted very sour. The mixture and ratio of chickpeas and blood sausage was honestly quite bizarre. With recommendations from three staff members, we were left somewhat disappointed.

Laiola Clams Lamb Sausage

Steamed Willapa Bay Clams with Lamb Sausage
I love clam dishes. It's almost like a double treat. Most of the time at restaurants, you'll get a clam dish steamed in wine and chorizo. But the addition of lamb sausage made this stellar. After you get to eat the clams, you still have all that delicious clam juice/butter sauce. We asked for more grilled bread so that we would not leave any of that juice on that plate. This was great.

Laiola Fries with Eyes

Frituras Con Ojos (Fries with Eyes)
The advantage of getting a seat at the counter with kitchen view has its advantages. We overlooked this dish on the menu because my Spanish has gone down horribly over the years. We saw this dish being fired every five minutes. I asked the chef if those were fries and he gladly replied "fries... with eyes!" Smelt fish is battered lightly and sent to the Deep Fried Sea. A little squeeze of lemon and a savory and memorable dish is made. For $9, you get quite a big portion of 'fries'. We could only finish 1/4 of it because we had so much food.

Laiola Grilled Octopus

Grilled Octopus with Romano Bean Salad
This was my favorite of the evening. Baby octopus are blanched really quickly so that the tentacles spread in a more presentable form and grilled with olive oil and served over a cold romano bean salad with chicken stock. Very healthy and very delicious! I wish the romano beans were served hot.

Laiola is a great place for those that are super hungry or those that just want something small to munch on. I'll be back here for sure to try the rest of the 22 -tapas on the menu. In addition, there are four full-plate dishes as well – roasted lamb, grilled swordfish (HUGE steak), slow roasted piglet (looked awesome!) and grass-fed steak.

Thanks for reading.

Laiola
2031 Chestnut Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 346-5641
www.laiola.com

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Fall Soiree - Man vs. the Wood Fire Beast

Fall Decor

We all have our fears, whether or not we're willing to admit them. But we're all human beings, and it's one of the many things that sets us apart. I've got a whole list of them. For example, I loathe the glaucoma machine at the optometrist's office. You know the one that blows AIR into your eye at like 528 mph. It takes me a good 4 minutes per eye and I wish I was a pirate or cyclops so I'd only have to endure the suffering for 4 minutes total. Another thing I fear is anything in tiny dot patterns. Blackheads, blueberry pies and bad 80s polka dot clothing. I'm not sure why but I think it might have to do with this cartoon I've watched before... where this character had 18 eyes on his face... all blinking at different times. Weird I know. And finally... my apparent condition of bakephobia. I've talked about it in my pizza posting a few weeks back and just can't get myself to appreciate baking because of the necessary precision and limitations set by recipes. I own about 30 cookbooks and because of my short attention span, rarely follow all the directions in them. I use cookbooks merely for the ingredient listing and I adjust accordingly to my own tastes. I also leave out measurements in my cooking posts because not everyone out there trying the recipe will like it. Some may want it spicier, sweeter or saltier. And you can't please everyone, especially when it comes to catering.

I baked a few weeks back, and I can honestly say that baking is an uncharted sea for me to navigate through. I want to learn how to bake. There is an inherent art and beauty behind the combination of eggs, flour, salt, sugar and yeast. Every country in the world has some sort of baked food, with bread being the most basic form of sustenance. In the wonderful book, Sauces, the author talks about the usage of bread as dinnerware. Wood and metal plates were just too expensive to mak during the 13th century in Europe, thus came the idea of bread bowls and flatbread. Not only would you not have to hold 300 degree stew in your own lap or hands, you could eat it afterwards! Genius. Imagine if we had to eat paper plates. This book by the way isn't entirely about making sauces, but explains how food has come to be over time. It's awesome. Did you know that Europeans actually used a form of fish sauce back then?

I started working with a group of nice people that run an event planning group called Fresh Events Company. Through a friend, we were brought together for this fall-themed party in Hollywood Hills. The client requested pizza made with their wood fire oven. It's tough enough dealing with an oven in a gig because you have to parcook food for holding, now I have to battle a monster: a wood fire oven.

Setting up a wood fire oven is similar to building a campfire. You set one large log in the oven as a 'backstop' and rest smaller pieces of wood on it, making sure that air is allowed to ventilate under the wood. You can't do more than two big pieces at a time otherwise the wood to fire ratio is knocked off balance and you're left with a slower temperature increase. It's hard to explain and I found myself scratching my head and swearing as I tried it out before the event. The client and I met again on another weekend before the event to practice the wood fire oven. In about four hours, we reached the temperature of 600 degrees. It's not the internal temperature of the oven that needs to be 600 degrees, it's the bricks that form the oven floor that need to be heated. I smiled when I saw the glowing embers of what was once wood. In the four hours it took, I had to come back every 15-20 minutes and feed it some more... much like a baby that wants to keep eating. Once you reach 600 degrees, the next goal is to make as much floor space as possible. Using a long metal spatula, we pushed all the coals to the left side, including the large backstop log. The client than grabbed a wet towel and wrapped it around the spatula and 'wiped' down the oven floor. It's ok if you get a little bit of ash on the bottom of the pizza, it only makes it look more rustic.

I quickly ran into the kitchen and pulled out my pizza dough from the fridge. Threw some flour on the counter top, rubbed my hands together like a gymnast, without the tights of course, and started massaging the ball of dough. After making a disc shape, I did a few rotations using my knuckles to stretch it. This takes skill because if you pull too hard, you'll tear the dough. No no no. For rookies, the rolling pin is still the best. I used my asian style rolling pin, which is smaller than the standard rolling pin, but without the handles. The smaller ones are used for making dumpling skins. Once the dough was as thin as it could be, I carefully laid the dough on a wooden pizza paddle with some flour beneath it. Flour works better than cornmeal in the case of the wood fire oven because it has a higher cooking temperature. If you're making pizza in a conventional oven, cornmeal on a pizza stone will be fine. I then added olive oil (vs. using tomato sauce), two kinds of cheese (a container of four cheese and mozzarella) and the appropriate accoutrements – the client requested portobello mushroom, white truffle oil and thyme. I carefully held the paddle and handed it to the client. He carefully guided the paddle into the oven mouth as if he was feeding a big monster. As soon as he pulled the paddle from beneath the pizza, I heard the most beautiful sound ever: the searing of fresh dough on hot oven bricks. 30 seconds later, the left hemisphere of the pizza was already bubbling... as high as 1.5 inches. The edge of the crust slowly blistering with dark spots. Another 30 seconds later, we used the spatula to rotate the pizza so that we could cook the other side. For a total of 2 minutes in the oven, something extraordinary comes out of the oven. He pulled out the pizza and set it on a table. I almost shed a tear because it was so beautiful. The cheese was bubbling quietly and the crust so fluffy and 'pillowy'. We all took a slice of pizza and sank our teeths in for that familiar and nostalgic food we've all grown up with. As I ate, I watched for the client's reaction and they loved it. I felt so much better doing a practice run and knew things would work out nicely on the day of the event.

Fall Decor

This catering event was very different than many others I've worked. For the first time, I was working with an event planning group. Not only did it mean that there would be decorations and invitations being taken care of, I had people to take care of the front of the house, meaning the wait/bar staff. It is HARD working the kitchen AND front of the house. I could focus more on cooking the food vs. running around like a lunatic.

Although it rained the night before, the dampness had evaporated and left a nice waft of cold air. I couldn't imagine cooking during the heatwave we had two months ago. Many of the decorations used by Fresh Events had orange, brown and yellow leaves, which were really nice.

Fall Decor

Woodfire Oven

And there she is, the wood fire beast. Inside the cavity, there's about 3 sq. feet of space, not very big. That's why it's important to slowly burn wood vs. stuffing it. Four hours to get it going, 2-3 minutes to cook your food. As it sounds, it's a lot of work, but the results do not lie.

Woodfire Oven

A close-up of the wood fire oven. Here, it's at about 425 degrees. By the time you're ready to cook, you shouldn't have any flames at all.

Wood Fire Oven

I gave this thing more attention on that day than I do with J. She wasn't happy with me, but she was very happy about the pizza.

Scallop, Shrimp & Avocado Ceviche

Scallop, Shrimp & Avocado Ceviche
I love love love ceviche and was dying to serve some food on white spoons. Whenever you can get the client to interact with the food, versus picking it up with greasy fingers and napkin, you whet their appetite. I "cooked" 32-40 size shrimp with baby scallops in lime juice for about 4 hours. Any longer, you may risk the chance of having no taste whatsoever. I added tiny-brunoised cuts of red bell pepper for color, green jalapenos for spice and put a small wedge of avocado and cilantro leaf on top. For some additional flavor, I added one of my favorite ingredients, smoked paprika. Client loved this.

Bacon Wrapped Dates with Parmesan & Goat Cheese

Bacon-Wrapped Dates with Parmesan/Goat Cheese
AOC and my friend Immaeatchu have made me love this appetizer more and more. The combination of sweet dates, goat/Parmesan cheese and salinity from the crispy bacon make it one hot kid on the block. There are two main types of dates out there: medjools and deglet noors. If you're going to use medjools, you might want to cut them in half lengthwise because they are huge. Dates may not appeal to everyone because they've got that sticky chew. I prefer deglet noors because you can pop them in one bite and are actually very easy to work with. There are recipes that call for goat cheese or Parmesan, why not bring the best of both worlds and do a 50/50 ratio? You can use a toothpick or skewer (put 7-8 of them on one stick) to secure the bacon if you're worried about them falling apart. Bake for 5 mins on one side at 400, then flip over and bake for another 7-10 mins until bacon is somewhat crispy... just don't burn the bacon. I saw guests take 2-3 at a time, popping them like they were tater-tots.

Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus

Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus Bundles
Everyone loves bacon and everyone loves prosciutto. For this dish, I cut the asparagus into 7" lengths and bundles of three using the prosciutto as 'tape'. Lightly spray some olive oil on the bundles and add a TINY bit of salt only on the asparagus. Fresh black pepper and lemon juice for a kick. These were very fun to eat.

Portobello & White Truffle Oil Pizza

Portobello & White Truffle Oil Pizza
And finally, the product of four hours of constant nurturing, arguing and making up: the portobello mushroom, white truffle oil and thyme pizza. These came out beautiully and guests kept requesting more and more truffle oil. Whoa, too rich.

By the end of the night, everyone had so much to eat, including my staff. It's too easy to get pizza'd out, but it was the crust that we kept coming back to. So soft and pillowy.

Great clients, excited guests, wonderful event planning group, loving gf and sister, loyal friends and one angry, tempermental 600 degree oven. That's the best way to sum up one of the smoothest events I've ever worked. Thank you to the McK's, Fresh Events, staff and to you for reading.
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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Chinese Beef & Scallion Pancake - 肉 卷 餅 or 牛肉 卷

Beef Scallion Pancake

On Sunday night, I invited my friends HL, Yoony of Immaeatchu and her beer-guzzling man over for for dinner. The irritating heatwave that had struck upon us a few weeks ago was finally, long gone. When it's cold, I immediately think of beef noodle soup because I am a noodle whore. Beef noodle soup calls for the usage of beef shank, the leg portion of the cow, and because it is tough and sinewy, it requires many hours of braising. Usually when I make this, I'm left with way too much beef. I had run out of soup and didn't know what to do with the remaining meat. Then, I remembered a delicious item I had eaten at Temple City's Mandarin Noodle Deli... scallion beef pancake. Such a good and easy snack to make.

Much like Koreans with their side dishes, known as 'baan chan', Chinese also have their own set of delicious snacks. We have something we call 'lu wei' (滷 味), which literally means 'simmered flavor' and requires hours of braising/simmering foods with spices such as anise, cinnamon and coriander. It's peasant food at its best. If you've been to a Taiwanese or Chinese market/deli, you might see a section of boxed foods with duck's feet, pig ears, tripe, intestines, etc.... that is 'lu wei' food. If you've ever had brown-colored boiled eggs, with that sweet, aromatic and somewhat salty taste... that's 'lu wei'. Good stuff! One of my favorite 'lu-wei' items is cold-sliced beef tossed with cilantro, chili oil and sichuan peppercorns... which is similar to what is used in beef scallion pancake.

Beef Shank Slices

I took my remaining beef shank from the beef noodle soup pot, wrapped it up and threw it in the fridge to let it harden. The next day, I sliced it into 1/8" cuts and poured a little bit of my beef noodle soup over it to revive it from dryness.

Scallions & Cilantro

Next, I chopped up some scallions and cilantro. One of the best kitchen gadgets I own is the scallion slicer/rake. For this dish, you don't want thick cuts of scallions otherwise it'll be overpowering.

Hoisin & Sesame Oil Sauce

For the beef scallion pancake, you need a sweet sauce. Not oyster sauce because it's too salty. Get hoisin sauce. I diluted it with a little water and added about 5-6 drops of sesame oil to brighten the sauce. Tasty.

For the scallion pancake, it's not hard to find it at the Chinese market. They either come fresh in the bread section or frozen. Fresh is best, but if you can't find it, no worries. Just don't use a tortilla or pita bread. Pan fry the scallion pancake for 3-4 minutes on each side until it's slightly brown. If you overfry the scallion pancakes, you'll see the mess you'll make when you try to roll it up. So the softer the pancake, the better it is.

Now, lay the scallion pancake flat, cover it with a generous amount of hoisin/sesame oil sauce, add the scallions and cilantro toward the bottom of the pancake in a tidy row (close to your body), add the beef slices.... and roll tightly away from you. Cut them at a diagonal bias and discard (or eat) the ends.

For the cold beef slices, you can just use the beef noodle soup recipe. Enjoy and thanks for reading.

Beef Scallion Pancake
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