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Randall Grahm Chinese New Year Banquet & More in the New Year

Wednesday, 4. January 2012 5:25

Randall Grahm will host an unforgettable Chinese New Year's banquet. (Photo courtesy of Grahm)

Chinese New Year Banquet at the Cellar Door in Santa Cruz

Winemaker provocateur and bon vivant Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard, is joining forces with Alexander Ong, executive chef of San Francisco’s Betelnut, for what promises to be one memorable Chinese New Year banquet, 5 p.m. Jan. 29.

The feast, in honor of the “Year of the Dragon,” will be held at Grahm’s Cellar Door Cafe in Santa Cruz.

The multi-course dinner with paired wines will feature pork and chive dumplings with crispy shallots; whole California black cod in miso, ginger and scallions, Betelnut’s famous “Beggar’s chicken” that’s baked in clay, and of course, long-life noodles with Dungeness crab sauce.

A whole chicken that's been marinated...(Photo by Carolyn Jung)

...is baked in clay until the meat is oh-so tender. (Photo by Carolyn Jung)

Price is $88 per person. For reservations, call (831) 425-6771. The Food Gal will be there, so stop by and say “hello” between bites.

Chef Joseph Humphrey Plans Pop-Up Dinners in Oakland in January

Joseph Humphrey, the noted chef who has helmed the likes of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena and Cavallo Point in Marin, has been working hard on his newest project: Dixie, a Southern-inspired contemporary Bay Area cuisine restaurant planned for the old Pres a Vi spot in San Francisco’s Presidio.

While that’s still under construction, he’s eager to get back in the kitchen. So, in January, you can find him serving up a sneak taste of his Dixie fare at Guest Chef in Oakland, a unique, full-service restaurant that allows established chefs to do pop-up stints.

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Category:Chefs, Enticing Events, General, Restaurants, Thomas Keller/French Laundry/Et Al, Wine | Comments (10) | Author:

A Visit to the New Ad Hoc Addendum

Tuesday, 30. August 2011 5:25

Ad Hoc's fabulous fried chicken -- now available to-go three days a week.

If you’ve lamented never being able to make it to Ad Hoc in Yountville for one of its famous fried chicken nights, you’re now in luck.

The newest addition to Chef Thomas Keller’s gourmet empire is Ad Hoc Addendum, a take-out operation, where you can enjoy the fried chicken, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

You’ll find the Addendum kiosk by walking behind Ad Hoc restaurant, past a small parking lot to a pretty picnic area complete with tables and chairs, plus lush trees for plenty of shade, and a small vegetable garden that grows provisions for the restaurant.

The sign marks the spot.

Order here.

Enjoy your fried chicken at one of the picnic tables. Or take it home to enjoy.

Addendum, which opened opened two months ago, offers a choice of the superb buttermilk fried chicken or a barbecue entree, such as tender, spicy baby back ribs with pulled pork when I was there last Friday. Of course, I had to buy one of each.

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Category:Chefs, General, Great Finds, Restaurants, Thomas Keller/French Laundry/Et Al | Comments (13) | Author:

The Brilliance of Benu

Friday, 6. May 2011 5:26

Caviar atop "brioche.'' One of the many astounding morsels at Benu.

When a former chef de cuisine of the French Laundry leaves to open his own restaurant, it’s a big deal.

When his former mentor, Thomas Keller, thinks so highly of him as to invest in that new restaurant — the only one Keller has ever poured funds into that wasn’t one of his own — it’s a huge deal.

And when that not even year-old San Francisco restaurant is up for an award on Monday for “Best New Restaurant” in the country by the James Beard Foundation, it’s beyond the realm of  impressiveness.

Or maybe it’s just all according to plan in Chef-Owner Corey Lee’s world.

With Benu restaurant, Lee, who won his own James Beard award for “Rising Star Chef” during his nearly nine years at the French Laundry, set out to create an elegant, serene restaurant in a historic 1912 building that was once home to Hawthorne Lane restaurant, then Two restaurant.

From the start, he wanted to create something extraordinary. Award-winning New York architect Richard Bloch, who created the look of Masa in New York, was brought in to transform the space. And kitchen designer to the star chefs, Tim Harrison of Harrison, Koellner, LLC in Mill Valley, took charge of creating a brand new kitchen here from scratch, one that boasts a rare feature — a wall of windows to let natural light in. Lee was already familiar with Harrison’s work, as he also created the kitchens for both the French Laundry and Per Se.

Even the filted water carafe is tres stylish here.

Crunchy, thin, buckwheat lavash with nori and sesame seeds.

Korean porcelain makers created special pieces to showcase Lee’s progressive American cuisine tinged with Asian influences. Tabletops of steel, metal and synthetic rubber were custom-made and are intentionally left bare. And a plush, gray-blue carpet was hand-loomed in Thailand for the main dining room.

Recently, I treated my husband to dinner at Benu for his birthday. Choose either the tasting menu or a la carte options. Although I paid for the $160 per person tasting menu we each had, Lee, whom I interviewed extensively last year for a profile story in Food Arts magazine, was kind enough as to give us the wine pairings on the house, about $110 per person.

After visiting the site last spring, when it was a mere construction zone, it was amazing to see what it had become. On a rainy night, we drove past the large iron gates and into the Japanese-inspired garden courtyard with maple trees and flowering vines. As I got out of the car, a valet immediately approached with an open umbrella, which he handed to me. Then, he escorted my husband and me down the short path to the restaurant’s front door, where he let us in and retrieved the umbrella from me.  Talk about being taken care of right from the start.

The interior is all soothing grays and earth tones. A dramatic light well gives the main dining room a sense of airiness.

The tasting menu is composed of about 16 courses. That may seem like a lot, but they progress from precious, jewel-like, one-bite morsels to more substantial ones as the courses go on. Lee, who is Korean-American, may use a lot of molecular gastronomy and classic French techniques, but he also draws on his Asian roots, so that the dishes don’t rely on lots of butter or cream for flavor. Indeed, even after about 16 courses, you will leave very satiated, but quite comfortable.

Instead of the usual baguette or other artisan bread, dinner here starts with buckwheat lavash imbued with nori and sesame seeds. Paper-thin, they have the flavor of brown bread and the aroma of an umami bomb.

A "thousand-year'' quail egg.

If you’ve ever eaten a Chinese thousand-year-old egg, you know it’s one of the funkiest things you’ll ever taste. Lee’s refined take on it comes in the form of a thousand-year-old quail egg. Draped with a little ginger and scallion, and nestled on a spoon, it’s far daintier and with a much more mild taste.

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Category:Chefs, General, Restaurants, Thomas Keller/French Laundry/Et Al | Comments (24) | Author:

Etoile’s Perry Hoffman — A Chef To Watch in the Future

Wednesday, 27. April 2011 5:26

Chef Perry Hoffman in the kitchen at Etoile.

Perry Hoffman, executive chef of Etoile at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, has quite the pedigree.

His grandparents, Sally and Don Schmitt, were the original owners of the French Laundry in Yountville, who turned a dilapidated building into a destination restaurant in 1978, before selling it in 1993 to a then down-on-his-luck chef named Thomas Keller.

At age 4, Hoffman played in the kitchen of the French Laundry, while his grandma cooked in the kitchen, his grandfather seated guests in the dining room, and his mom (Sally and Don’s daughter) arranged flowers and worked as a waitress in the dining room.

His Mom later started her own florist business, which still supplies the blooms to the French Laundry, as well as a host of Wine Country restaurants. His grandparents went on to buy the Philo Apple Farm in Mendocino County, once again turning a rundown property into a showcase. Today, it is an organic, biodynamic farm that grows 80 varieties of heirloom apples in a setting so picturesque that Pottery Barn does catalog shoots there.

Hoffman, 27, followed in his grandmother’s footsteps, working in restaurants since he was 15. His food is already quite refined and mature for his young age. In fact, two years ago, he became the youngest chef in the country to garner a Michelin star — an achievement that prompted Keller to send him a hand-written note and a bottle of Dom Perignon.

For the past three years, he’s overseen the kitchen at the elegant Etoile, the Napa Valley’s only fine-dining restaurant housed inside a winery.

Etoile, the only fine-dining restaurant inside a winery in the Napa Valley.

The serene dining room.

Starting the evening off with a rose from Domaine Chandon.

During fall and winter, too, there are apples aplenty on his menu, which, of course, come from the Philo Apple Farm. My husband and I couldn’t resist honing in on those particular dishes when we treated ourselves to dinner at Etoile in December. Choose either a seven-course chef’s tasting menu for $110 or a four-course tasting menu with options for $85. The latter is what we went with, though we added one additional dish.

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Category:Chefs, Fruit, General, More Food Gal -- In Other Publications, Restaurants, Thomas Keller/French Laundry/Et Al | Comments (10) | Author:

Take Five with Chef Grant Achatz, on His New Memoir Chronicling His Brave Battle Against Tongue Cancer

Tuesday, 22. February 2011 5:26

Grant Achatz's new book. (Photo courtesy of Penguin)

Next is the prophetic name of the new restaurant expected to open this spring in Chicago by acclaimed chef, Grant Achatz, of the James Beard Award-winning, Michelin three-starred Alinea.

Like his first Chicago ground-breaking sanctum to molecular gastronomy, Next also will challenge and provoke the defiinition of what a restaurant is by completely reinventing itself every three months with period-themed menus and decor, along with an audacious non-refundable ticketing system as the only option to snag a table there.

It’s bold. It’s daring. And it’s a miracle that it’s even possible.

After all, if you know Achatz’s story, you already realize that the odds were stacked against him far higher than the city’s iconic Sears Tower when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer four years ago at age 32. By the time it was caught, his squamous cell carcinoma was at stage 4. There is no stage 5.

Doctors told this chef and father of two young sons that he would die a painful death in mere months if he didn’t undergo radical surgery to remove his tongue and part of his jaw, which would leave him disfigured, unable to talk and without the ability to taste. Despite conventional thinking, Achatz decided to gamble on an alternative, experimental and brutal treatment of intensive, targeted chemotherapy and radiation that ended up saving his life.

His stunning story is recounted in his new memoir, “Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat’’ (Penguin), which debuts March 3.

You can meet Achatz on March 17 in San Francisco, when he and his business partner and co-writer, Nick Kokonas will be signing copies of the book at 12:30 p.m. at Book Passage in the Ferry Building. Later that day, 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., they will also sign books at Omnivore in San Francisco. The talk they will hold afterward at Omnivore sold out days after it was announced.

Last week, I had a chance to talk by phone with Achatz on what it was like to reveal so much about himself in this book; his relationship with rival Chicago chef, Charlie Trotter; and his feelings on who might portray him in the feature film-version of his memoir, which may be directed, surprisingly, by David Dobkin of “Wedding Crashers” fame.

Q: Has your sense of taste returned fully now?

A: I believe so. Taste is a funny thing, though. If you go to an ophthalmologist, they can tell if your eyes aren’t working correctly. They can give you a prescription for glasses or contacts. Same with hearing. But taste is something you can’t measure.

To me, at least in my memory, my tasting ability is the same as it was pre-cancer. I would even argue that certain aspects resulting from the treatment helped me to taste better now. It doesn’t have to do with the physiology of it. It’s the mental thing. It’s learning what taste is and how it’s composed.

My ability to taste came back in pieces. I was down to under 130 pounds and I never used to drink coffee with sugar in it. But I did then to get calories. I’d put three giant tablespoons of sugar in my coffee. One day, I took a sip and I could actually taste the sugar. Up to that point, I couldn’t taste sweet at all. Then, three months later, I’d drink my coffee and say, ‘Damn, this coffee tastes bitter.’ And so, I could taste bitterness again. Having tastes come back in stages like that really teaches you about how they all relate to one another as they come together on the palate and function in relation to one another. It was a very informative process. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. (laughs) But it works for me.

Alinea's hazelnut yogurt, curry saffron, freeze-dried corn in edible tube. (Photo courtesy of Penguin)

Q: How did your fight against cancer change you as a person and as a chef? Do you look at life differently now?

A: It does make you look at life differently. You have to make fundamental decisions. Different people handle things differently. Some people might say, ‘I need to reprioritize my life, spend more time with loved ones, and work less.’ When you face mortality, you undergo a self-evaluation of your life. I’m pretty happy with my life. I didn’t feel like I had to change anything. How lucky am I to get to go to work for 14-16 hours a day to do something I love? I probably do focus more now on my two young boys. And I make a more time now for relatives, and for my girlfriend. But on a whole, I really didn’t change anything.

I don’t think it made me more driven. My trajectory pre-cancer was such that I think I would be exactly what I am now even if the cancer had never happened.

Q: Did you ever think, ‘Why me?’

A: I had maybe a couple moments of that. But it was not a consistent feeling.

In the book, I reveal how I was sitting on the couch with my mother and she started to cry and I started to cry. She asked me what was wrong. And I thought, ‘What’s wrong??!’ I guess you could call it self-pity. I guess it was then that I thought it was unfair, that I was too young for all of this, that this was supposed to happen to old people. There was a sense of helplessness. That was my low point. I did nothing to deserve this. I wasn’t a chain-smoker; I wasn’t an alcoholic. So, I did ask myself, ‘Why me?’ It was probably only twice. That time with my mother and then when I was sitting with Heather (Sperling, his girlfriend who is the editor of the Tasting Table Chicago e-newsletter) after the diagnosis. I felt bad for her and for my boys.

Q: In the book, you state that your experience in working at the French Laundry in Yountville as a young cook essentially helped save your life. Can you expound on that?

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