Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Movin' On Up

Well, sort of.

It was recently brought to my attention that I never alerted all three of my faithful readers that I have picked up stakes and moved to swankier digs, in terms of blog space, that is.

My new(ish) home is

Otherwise known as Food for The Thoughtless. Why that name? Because I'm terrible at naming things.

I hope to see you on the other side...



Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Where the Blackberry is Never in Season

Dear Miss Manners,

"When dining, does one place one's Blackberry to the right of the plate, or to the left, near the salad fork?"

The answer to this unsent question is, of course, never. I don't care if you're the Pope. Of course, popes don't use Blackberries. They use people who use Blackberries.

Hey there, Mr. Business Guy. Ho there, Little Miss Connectivity. You want to see a hand held device appropriate for restaurant use? Look down and to your right, it's called a table knife.

It looks a lot like the one with which I'll impale your (expletive) PDA if you use it one more time during your meal.

At some point a decade or so ago, P.D.A. went from meaning an improper "public display of affection" to "personal digital assistant." The employment of either P.D.A. is rude at the table, displaying a certain lack of respect for your dining companions. Would you like to watch your mother give good old dad a hand job during the salad course? No? Then what makes you think they want to see you texting friends or fielding phone calls over dessert?

It'ss not just Blackberries. Last night, I watched as two men ate dinner together. Not such a strange occurrence, except for the fact that one of the men did not take his iPod headphones out of his ears for the entire duration of the meal.

I saw a woman who was so busy texting someone as she walked through our very busy dining room that she hit the chair of a man who was rising from is seat. There was no, "Excuse me, I'm sorry," from her. She didn't even bother to look up. I was tempted to trip her to see what it might take to make her drop her machine.

It's certainly annoying when I have to repeat a litany of specials to guests who are too busy on their phones to pay attention to me, but I take that as part of my job. After describing something a second time (unless there is a genuine communication problem), I consider myself done.

But I'd be happy to text you about today's whole fish, if you like, you self-involved (expletive).

Like I said, it's an annoying aspect of my job, and I deal with that type of rudeness in my own way. What I find so terrible about all this abuse of take-it-with-you technology is the toll I see it taking on the other diners, and on basic human interaction in general.

For example, on Tuesday evening, I waited upon a young woman, her boyfriend, and her mother. The young woman kept her Blackberry on the table to her right. She'd eye it occasionally as her mother or her French boyfriend spoke. When dessert time rolled around and I came over to the table, the boyfriend said they had made their selections. The girl didn't take her cue to order because she was busy texting someone. He gave her a soft, sing-songy "Heeeey!" and waved his hand in front of her face as one does when one is uncertain of another's consciousness. She pulled away like a sulky toddler. I could see the mother squirm. I felt terrible for the boyfriend, but I wanted to smack the girl. Hard.

What's getting me so angry is that no one is doing a god damned thing about it. As a server, it's not my responsibility to teach people lessons in manners. At the restaurant, I will just give you a wan smile if you misbehave, though some days the urge is more difficult to resist than others.

I am not seeing the recipients of this technological rudeness-- the boyfriends, the business clients, the parents-- call these idiots to task about this rude behavior. Maybe it's because they themselves are too polite to say anything. Whatever the case, their silence is sending a very bad sub-text message.

How long has this complacency been going on? Not forever, fortunately...

True Hollywood story--

In the days when cell phones were called mobile phones and still somewhat of a novelty, John Lovitz, Julianne Moore, Phil Hartman, and two people I did not recognize sat down at a booth in my section of the slick Beverly Hills eatery I worked in while at university. Mr. Hartman entered talking on his phone. When I approached the table, I asked quietly if I should come back when he had finished. Miss Moore nodded. Perhaps, I thought, it was a very important phone call.

After a while, it became quite clear to me that he was just yammering away on his new gadget, rudely ignoring his dining companions, but I stayed away from the table, nevertheless.

After a few more minutes, Miss Moore motioned me over to the table. She quietly asked for a piece of paper and a pen. When she had finished scribbling, she handed the paper back to me with a "thank you" and a sidelong glance at Mr. Hartman. I nodded and excused myself to read the note. On the paper were Mr. Hartman's name, his phone number, and instructions for me to call him.

I marched over to the hostess stand at the front of the restaurant, dialed the number, and held my breath. He answered up my call with an abrupt, "Yeah?"

"Mr. Hartman? This is your waiter, I was just wondering if you'd decided on your order yet..."

Silence greeted me on the other end. Then a loud burst of laughter from both the receiver and the back of the restaurant. When I returned to the booth, Moore beamed, Hartman glowered. Fortunately, Moore picked up the check.

My love for her has never wavered since.

I think what the world needs now is more people like Julianne Moore. I'd suggest putting her at every dinner table in America if I didn't think it would be both exhausting and physically impossible. I'm sure she's busy enough as it is.

My point, of course, is that she got it. And she found a way to correct the bad behavior that was both funny and very effective.

I think that's what we all need to do.

I realize I've done a lot of name-calling this morning. I don't necessarily think the perpetrators are bad people, but their behavior is soul-killing. You want to invest in some great personal connectivity devices? How about turning off your iPhone for two hours and start using some eye contact instead? Face-to-face communication is far more effective than interface-to- interface.

As TennisPeter from Andover, Mass commented at Ask Annie, "Checking your Blackberry 24/7 doesn't make you important. It means you are insecure and lack the confidence to say, 'I'm not working right now.' " I am inclined to agree.

Oh, and while I'm on a rant, take that ridiculous Bluetooth thing out of your ear. It makes you look like some crazy homeless person who happened upon a dumpster filled with business casual clothing in his size. Sometimes, I like to pretend that these devices are hearing aids. I mouth my words with care-- slowly and with volume. And then I tilt my head and smile at the wearer in a way that says, "See? I'm sensitive to your special needs."

Can you hear me now?

I feel much better getting that off my chest. There is, however, one little favor I'd like you to do to do for me...

The next time you dine with the technology-addicted, kindly remind them that, for at least the duration of the meal, the phone gets locked back in its cell, the "i" retreats to its Pod, and the only blackberries allowed on the table have been baked into a cobbler. Smile when you say it.

If that doesn't work, gently place a ball peen hammer next to you on the table. Every time your tablemate touches his or her device, gently finger your hammer. If they pick up their phone, you pick up your hammer, and so on.

I think that might be one message they're sure not to miss.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Depression (Era) Food

Yes, I know. The word of the hour is recession but, frankly, I don't know the difference. Nor do I much care, since I've never had much money to lose anyway.

I do, however, smell a trend.

On Tuesday, my cousin Stephanie sent me an odd little collection of cookbooks from the 1930's-- all three of them product-related (Heinz 57, Royal Baking Powder, and Crisco). They made me giddy. And then, out of nowhere, my friend Lyle hands me a book called Cheerio! -- a cocktail book from 1930. Published in New York in total contempt for the Volstead Act. If ever there was a time one needed a drink, it was the 1930's. Unless it was the 1940's, of course.

On Wednesday, Amy Sherman commented that online traffic to low-cost ingredient recipes has nearly doubled in the past three months.

And yesterday? While soaking in a bathtub full of gin before work, I noticed, as I flipped through the pages of Saveur magazine, that this month's issue is featuring items like Mock Apple Pie, Rabbit Stew, and pasta, pasta, pasta.

In case, you didn't know, that's poor people food.

Is the American mindset taking a turn towards the cheap? I think this will be rather fascinating to watch. History repeating itself often is. If one doesn't mind reruns, of course.

In the meanwhile, I think I'll just pour myself a Cholera Cocktail, put a little Al Bowlly on the Gramophone, and wait for all this anxiety explode into a delicious panic.

Have a lovely weekend.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Pavlova

Oh, it's Spring. What joy.

In honor of this turning of the seasons, I bring you a light little piece of fluff-- the Pavlova.

When I was cooking at a little restaurant in the Mission called the Moa Room, my favorite Kiwi and boss, Chef Jan Gardner often let me run off and do my own thing with our desserts, which was rather brave of her. But not so when she felt the call to make her Pavlova-- the most famous dessert to ever come out of New Zealand. I would stand back to watch her work, asking her to say things like "milk" and "bottle" so that I might be better able to imitate her accent as well as her dessert-making technique. She was a very patient woman who only occasionally would ask a co-worker if he or she wouldn't mind punching me in the neck.

This pleasant breath of fresh air is rarely seen on San Francisco dessert menus, which I think is a pity. It is as light and airy as the dancing of its namesake, the most famous of all ballerinas, Anna Pavlova.

There is some argument as to the origin of this dessert. Australians claim it was birthed by Herbert Sachse of the Hotel Esplanade, Perth, Australia, citing in 1935 that the dish was "as light as Pavlova." She stayed at the hotel while on tour in 1929. It just took him six years to come up with something clever to say about it.

New Zealand has an earlier, similar claim coming out of Wellington in 1926, when a hotel chef created a dish inspired by the shape of the touring dancer's white tutu with green cabbage roses and frothy netting. I'm no social archaeologist, but I'll just bet the farm he was gay.

Well, I love Australians, but I am siding with my friends from New Zealand on this one.


Jan Gardner shied away from kiwifruit, most likely because they are not echt New Zealand. To her, a kiwi is the smaller, non-extinct cousin of the moa. The Chinese Gooseberry arrived in the land of the dead moa from, unsurprisingly, China in 1904. The name "kiwifruit" was originally a marketing ploy. One that has worked all too well. Though this meringue happily supports a wide variety of fruit, I have used the kiwi because the original dish, as far as I can tell, contained them. Remember those green cabbage roses.

This is not Jan's recipe. I never got it. I could just punch myself in the neck for not asking for
it. The recipe listed below is a culling of several.

For a great run down on how to approach a meringue, read Shuna's take on the Pavlova.


For the Pavlova:

4 large egg whites, room temperature
1 cup of superfine sugar (you can make this out of table sugar by whizzing it in your Cuisinart.)
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon corn starch
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract. Tradition does not call for this, I just like it in my meringue.

For the Topping:

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup buttermilk. Again, this is not traditional. I just prefer a bit of tang to compliment the
über-sweetness of the meringue.
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Fresh fruit. Tart is good. Things like kiwifruit, strawberries, raspberries, beri beri. I don't care.
Passion fruit is really amazing with it, too.


1. Pre-heat oven to 300 F.

2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Create and cut out a separate circle of parchment paper about 7 inches in diameter. Cut out a matching circle of cardboard. Attach the parchment circle to cardboard with a smear of corn syrup or whatever you've got handy to adhere. I'll bet even Elmer's glue would work, though I would not recommend it. (Note: this cut out circle business isn't absolutely necessary, but I find it helps me get a cleaner edge on the meringue.)

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk egg whites at slow speed (Thanks for the tip, Shuna), gradually increasing the speed as the volume of the whites increase. When the whites begin to hold a soft peak, add the sugar a little at a time to dissolve. Increase the speed and whip until the mixture is silken and holds stiff peaks.

4. Having made a slurry of your vinegar and cornstarch, stir to discourage any lumps. Sprinkle the slurry over the meringue and fold in.

5. Gently heap meringue onto your parchment disk, making certain to leave a shallow bowl in the center for eventual cream-and fruit-filling. Smooth the edges of the meringue for a clean look or make any sort of design you wish. Please email me if you've come up with anything interesting or vaguely obscene.

6. Place your meringue-topped cardboard parchment onto the lined baking sheet and place in oven. Bake for 15 minutes, turn off the heat and walk away. Baking should take about one hour, but it is best to peek in every once in a while to see how your creation is doing. The Pavlova should not brown, but take on a slight cream color. Leaving it in the oven to dry out a bit is a good thing.

The now-baked Pavlova will keep for up to a week when stored in non-humid conditions in an air-tight container.

7. For the topping, whip cream and buttermilk until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar and vanilla, then whip a little more. You make chose to remove half the cream at this stage for spreading, whipping up the remainder for piping those tutu-like frills around the edge that I somehow failed to achieve.

8. Spread the whipped cream over the meringue. Top with the fruit of your choice, and serve immediately in the fifth position, thereby impressing your friends and family with your limberness of both lower body and culinary expertise.

Eat immediately.

Serves 6

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Brenda's French Soul Food

My friend Mark, who knows about everything before I do, has been wanting to go to Brenda's French Soul Food for months. He planned to take some people to brunch there a few Sundays ago. It was, however, closed. They don't do Sunday brunch. Who can blame them? Unless drag queens are somehow involved, the thought of Sunday brunch makes me cringe. The two of us hoped to have dinner at Brenda's last week. The only glitch in that little plan was this: Brenda's doesn't serve dinner. Rather than being miffed, I found that news heartwarming.

When I was a young and foolish California Culinary Academy student, one of my courses called for creating a restaurant business plan. My teammates and I decided that a breakfast and lunch-only venue would suit our tastes just fine, since you can really mark up egg dishes. We'd be doing what we loved-- serving up great food, but we'd have our evenings free-- enabling us to have a relatively normal social life. We could have our pancake, as it were, and eat it, too.

Brenda's, then, is a place after my own heart. It's exactly what I'd want to do if I were crazy enough to run a restaurant.

Located at 652 Polk Street between Eddy and Turk, Brenda's shares a stretch of road with two other food venues. On its right is Kentucky Fried Chicken-- a place of no culinary pretensions whatsoever. To its left and across the street is the California Culinary Academy-- a sad, musty diploma mill that churns out nothing but culinary pretension every few weeks. Hovering somewhere pleasantly in the middle, Brenda's has not disturbed that delicate balance of the block in the least. What it has done, thankfully, is bring great food to the neighborhood.

When I arrived at Brenda's on Wednesday morning, I was told I might sit wherever I liked by a tall, thin gentleman with a scruffy beard who was, it would seem, the sole server on the floor. I took a small table near the door, where I could have a clear view of the customers around me.

The restaurant is small. Two white-clothed tables for four in the center of the room, one small table in the window, and five small tables along the left wall.Counter stools populate the right wall, just below a bank of mirrors which runs the entire length of the place.

I ordered a coffee and dug into my portable Sherlock Holmes, which I placed on top of my little notebook. To my left was a man about my age with a scruffy beard, also reading, but near the end of his meal. Looking at my notebook and camera, he asked me if I was going to do a write up on the place. I cringed at my obviousness. That and the fact that every man in the place, including myself, was wearing a scruffy beard. I lied to him and took another sip of coffee.

There were two men sitting in the window. One was a handsome fifty-something Frenchman . His non-French breakfast companion was rattling on loudly about Napa wineries, San Francisco restaurants and who he knew just about everywhere else. Fortunately, he made his great show of saying goodbye to Brenda before I started eating.

I asked my server which beignets he thought were best. He suggested I try the beignet flight ($8.00) and decide for myself. I did.

From fore-to-background in the photo above: plain, Granny Smith apple with cinnamon honey butter, molten Ghiradelli chocolate, and crawfish with cayenne, scallions, and cheddar. It is the order in which I ate them. My server stated that people normally consumed the crawfish first. I am delighted that I didn't, because it was by far my favorite-- the chewy sweetness of the crawfish popping every so often through the ooze of the cheese, the heat of the cayenne, and the sharpness of the scallion. I am already planning my return to have a full meal of them.

They were all quite good, really. The apple beignets weren't overly sweet. They had a subtle saltiness to them I found appealing. I'm not an expert on these pastries, per se, and I've heard some people (Yelpers) whine that beignets in New Orleans are normally much bigger and cheaper. I would hardly call the portions here small. Or over priced. In fact, nothing at Brenda's is more than $10.00.

Wondering what to order next, I asked my server's opinion on the matter. Mentioning that I was intrigued by the Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes with Vanilla Bean Cream and Ginger Butter, he said that, while they were great, I might not want them after so much beignet. He was right, of course. When I asked about the Hangtown Fry special I noticed written in white grease pen on the mirror across the way, he smiled. That's all I needed. It doesn't take much arm-twisting to get me to order a Hangtown Fry. "Grits or potatoes?" he asked. "I'm kind of a potato guy," I said. I saw his smile fade a little. "But, I suppose I'd better have the grits, right?" His face brightened. I was grateful for my ability to read social cues. I told him I'd keep the menu, in case I wanted to order anything more.

It is obvious from the above photo where I placed the most of my gustatory enthusiasm. The grits. Buttery, lightly peppery, and just salty enough. The pat of butter I was given may have been intended for the biscuit, but mine ended up on the grits. I did not ask for instructions.

I never knew I liked grits. In fact, my two or three previous experiences with the dish had left me rather bored. In my thoughts, grits were an unseen province of salty, beehived situation comedy diner waitresses and they were meant to be kissed in some kind of submissive fashion. Well, I kissed Brenda's grits, and I'll kiss them again, happily.

While I was tucking into the fry, a man and woman dressed in chef whites wandered into Brenda's from the Culinary Academy. I thought how sad it was that they couldn't find anything worth eating over there. The man, I noticed, had one bright blue eye and one of milky hazel. I got caught looking, so I initiated a brief conversation with them about the school. I admitted my status as an alumnus and warned them to keep a wary eye out for people who do not understand the etiquette involved in walking around a busy kitchen with 10" chef knives. Their reaction to the pitying look on my face when I was told that tuition at the school had nearly trebled since my graduation eleven years ago indicated to me that our little interview should end as quickly as possible. I went back to reading The Adventure of the Copper Beeches and stuffing my face.

As I sat eating and reading, another man of my approximate age and scruffiness sat at the table beside mine. I really must shave. Unlike his predecessor, he seemed uneasy in his status as a single diner. He tapped is fingers and wagged his foot as though it had fallen asleep within the first ninety seconds of his being in a seated position. When his eyes weren't darting about the place, they were fixed upon his iPhone. I didn't know whether to laugh (on the inside) or cry. Few people seem really at ease with dining alone. It made me mildly depressed, but it did give me an idea for another blog post, which made me mildly cheerful.

The Hangtown fry itself was good, loaded as it was with salty, smoked bacon and fresh, fried oysters. But my delicate, hummingbird frame was challenged by the enormous portions of both dishes tried. Delicate, too, was the biscuit-- the flavor of fresh butter melted in my mouth as is the way with the good ones and it had a flakiness that, had the biscuit taken a human form, might be diagnosed as Brittle Bone Disease by medical students. I mean that in a good way.

I was unable to finish my meal, being as well-stuffed as one of those beignets from earlier in the meal. I took my remaining victuals home and had them for lunch. The grits were good even then, served cold.

My server returned, looked at the menu still placed on the table, and said, smiling, "Are you still planning on ordering more?" My brain said yes, but my stomach disagreed. I looked out the window at the Eastern Park Apartments, a retirement home that is neither in the East nor anywhere near a park. I thought to myself that, if I kept eating like this, I might not live to an age which might necessitate my inhabiting such a place. I sided with my stomach and asked, instead, for the check.

Now, I do not know Brenda Buenviaje, namesake of the restaurant. I chose not to introduce myself nor ask questions during my first visit. My photo-taking and journal entries made me look idiotic enough. When I took a closer look at Brenda's website, I read her profile and had a better clue as to why the food made me happy-- she is a former head chef of Sumi (the only good restaurant in the Castro, as far as I'm concerned) and of Cafe Claude (my I'm- hungry-and-tired-of-watching-other-people-shop/ I-need-a-drink place of choice). She looks like someone I might like to sit down with over a glass of wine. I only hope, should that occur, that I can stifle my desire to blurt out grits-kissing remarks.

I'll be back to Brenda's, and soon. There's a lot there that I still need to try, like the Grillades and Grits, the Egg and Bacon Tartine, and those Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes. But really, it's that crawdaddy beignet. Second only to relieving my bladder, it was the first thing I thought about this morning. Really, I swear.

Brenda's French Soul Food is located at:

652 Polk Street (at Eddy)
San Francisco, CA 94102

Telephone: (415) 345-8100

Hours of Operation:

Breakfast is served Monday through Friday from 8 am to 3 pm.
Lunch is served Monday through Friday from 11(ish) to 3 pm.
Brunch is served on Saturdays from 8 am to 3 pm.
Closed, for now, on Sundays.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Health Care Ordinance Infects Restaurant Industry

San Francisco restaurants are suffering from what Michael Bauer at The San Francisco Chronicle called "another 1-2-3 punch to their already slim wallets." The first hit: a minimum wage increase to $9.36 per hour. The second: a sick leave law which states that employees receive one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

And then came the rabbit punch: The Health Care Security Ordinance, which mandates that businesses employing 20 or more employees to spend a minimum of $1.17 per employee per hour on health care. For businesses employing more than 100, that minimum increases to $1.76.

If one also factors in sharp increases in fuel costs, the doubling of wheat prices, and a public hyperventilating over dismal economic forecasts, the San Francisco restaurant industry isn't looking forward to a rosy-hued 2008.

The cost of business, my friends, is rising like so much expensive dough. How, then, are our local eateries attempting to punch it down?

A few are taking it on the chin, while others are increasing their menu prices to help absorb the costs.

And some are implementing an additional service charge, in the guise of either a percentage of the total bill, or a per person cover charge. With letters of explanation attached.

There are those among us who appreciate the transparency of these explanatory letters, even applaud them. Others find this new trend offensive. I sense that composing such letters and adding these charges was a tough call for those who have added them-- one made under the strain of coming to terms with a well-meaning, but essentially flawed ordinance. The result has become unavoidably political.

Personally, I don't want my dinner to be any more political than it needs to be. I make enough of those choices in my daily life as it is. Even the choice of which restaurant I go to is often a political decision. Once I enter that restaurant, however, I'm done. I want someone to greet me warmly, I want to be fed and watered well, and I want to forget-- for an hour or two-- the problems I purposefully left outside the front door. I want to feel taken care of.

If I want a full explanation of what goes into a Tripe alla Fiorentina, I'll ask my server, thank you. The same goes for any price increases. I don't need an essentially whining, buck-passing letter of explanation slapped in my face. It is the diner's role to whine, not the restaurant's.

If these letter writers were indeed so "proud to do business in a city that has chosen to test a landmark solution to this ongoing and serious national problem," these letters would not have been written in the first place. It is clear that the authors are distressed about the increased financial burden this new ordinance places on their shoulders. Of course, they are. But these letters just smack of insincerity. What's next? "Dear Guests, we are excited to announce that our rent has just been raised! We are proud to live in a city of astronomical real estate values..."

I think not.

For the time being, the health care ordinance is, for better or for worse, part of the cost of doing business in this city. There are many other restaurants here that have chosen to deal with this hit gracefully. And, yes, I think that a discreet increase in menu prices is graceful. It allows customers to make their own choices. Actually, it allows customers to feel more akin to what they should be feeling like-- guests. It offers a choice. It allows them to feel a little more in control of the dining process. If a guest wishes to pay x amount of dollars for a steak, he will. If not, he will opt to pay y amount for something else. Regardless, he is paying for his seat one way or another. Adding an extra math equation in the form of a service charges is anything but guest-friendly.

Great restaurants don't just fill the stomach, no matter how spectacular the food. They must satisfy an emotional need, as well.

Think of all the people who go out to dinner and then think for a moment about how these people have spent their day. Most likely, they have been working at their own jobs, seeing to the needs of others. How many people come into restaurants after hours of taking on the stress of their children, their bosses, or their customers? As a waiter and twenty-year veteran of the restaurant industry, I have to remind myself daily that it is my job to see that the people who walk into my place of work forget their troubles and get happy, even if it's just for the two hours they are under my watch. They've got problems of their own. They don't want to hear about mine. Or yours.

By writing these letters and adding this charges with little notes attached, restaurant owners are chipping away at the fragile-yet-necessary façade that a diner's needs are what matter most. By reading these letters, people of good conscience trade in a part of their much-needed role of the care-given, to that of care giver. It's a subtle shift, but it's important.

As diners, we know that we all have to pay in the end-- the check, I mean. But tacking on an extra percentage or per-person fee to the end of the bill will ultimately cost the restaurant industry far more than the money it hopes to recoup from the sting of this health care ordinance. Like goodwill.

The letters? To me, it's like reading the list of ingredients on the side of a pint of ice cream. I already know the basics of what goes into the mix, but do I want to know everything? Not always. Sometimes, I just want to treat myself to something that is going to make me feel good for a little while. If the machinery involved in the perfect churning of the cream is expensive to maintain, if the vanilla pods are of the best quality, I am quite willing to pay the reflected price for my indulgence. I don't want to read a god damned sob story about it on the side of the package.

What is most irritating to me is that these charges are being implemented by some of the busiest -- and most influential-- restaurants in the city. These chefs and owners have ridden mighty high in the good times. Now that the going has gotten tougher, they're still busy as hell but, rather than deal with their problems gracefully, these darling prime ballerine of the food press are bitching to the audience that their toe shoes are too tight.

If they want to play the Dying Swan, I suppose we should let them. However, to the best of my knowledge, no one ever paid Anna Pavlova to honk and squawk when she first performed it-- it is a role that is most effective when it is played in silence.

Yes, this is a troubling time for the city's restaurants, but if these restaurateurs could stop their covert complaining and blame-gaming long enough to realize that their integrity is potentially at stake, they might hopefully get back to the business of doing business. If these already-successful places keep providing us with the food and service they're known and respected for, we'll keep supporting them. If they need to raise prices to offset the costs of a harsh city ordinance, no one in their right mind is going to think they're greedy. I just want them quit their pandering, stick out their grease-encrusted chins, and remember that the show must go on.

Because it will.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Fish on Fridays

Why is this fish sweating? He isn't. Fish can't sweat. They don't have sweat glands. But he does look rather distressed. Why does he look distressed? Because he was painted that way. He's not real.

If he did have the slightest understanding of human food ways, Fridays would be met with a great deal of anxiety indeed. There are more than one billion Catholics around the world.

And it's Lent.

My family was not the greatest model of a Catholic household. Neither son was an alter boy, holy days of obligation were not obligatory, and an experiment with Catholic school was an unmitigated disaster for my sister, ending with her prompt placement in a public school after her habit-wearing instructress was not-so-quietly removed in a piece of protective (for others) outerwear. So the story goes. But somehow, we always managed to eat fish on Fridays.

To my own horror, this invariably meant a tuna fish sandwich in my lunchbox, the smell of which permeated the plastic and even the skin of the accompanying brownish banana. I loathed this part of Lent. But, of course, Lent is about privation and penance. Lent is also about alms-giving, but try as I might, no one-- not even the poorest of my classmates-- wanted my tuna sandwich.

The one, bright, fish-related candle upon my Lenten cake was the occasional Friday foray to Anthony's Fish and Chips, a dark, wood panelled establishment housed in a mini-mall that smelled, unsurprisingly, of grease-- both from the fryer and from the heads of the old men that always seemed to be loitering around the place. My mother or sister would send themselves down the road to pick up a bright pink box filled with monoliths of battered cod and hot, steamy fried potatoes. Fish and Chips. It was the only seafood we ever saw as kids, barring the occasional shrimp cocktail. I loved it.

I had nearly forgotten how much I enjoyed fish and chips until it was suggested the other week that, while visiting friends in Redwood City, we all go have some for lunch.

We went to Al's Fish n' Chips on Roosevelt Boulevard, located in an unassuming mini-mall not unlike those of my suburban youth. It led me to question whether or not there was some sort of zoning law specifically targeting such establishments.

We ordered several items, but the fish and chips ($7.95 for a two-piece order) really stood out in my mind. It was (and I don't use this word often) perfect. A crisp, flavorful batter coating that complimented rather than competed with the tender, steamy cod inside. The chips were nearly the same. A tad thinner than the usual chunky chips associated with the dish, but still thick enough to produce both exterior crunch and inner steam. Everything we consumed there was fresh and really very good (the black beans? Yes, do try). I nearly wet myself with joy. And I cursed myself for not having my camera with me.

The following weekend, I rode up to Sausalito for a morning run to Heath Ceramics with my friend Mark. He suggested lunch at Fish nearby. There was no need to twist my arm. No guessing what we ordered.

I was a bit shocked at the sticker price-- $21.00 for beer-battered fish (3 pieces) and chips. It was, however, extremely good. I just had to tell myself that I was sitting in a restaurant in Sausalito and not in a suburban mini-mall. Perhaps the proximity of a bait and tackle shop adds incalculably more to property value than, say, a Tan n' Nails.

The final stop on my cod binge was a place in my neighborhood I've wandered by for years-- Piccadilly Fish n' Chips. A fire knocked it out of commission a little while back but it has returned. I ordered the 2-piece fish and chips, of course, for $6.95. Since this is classic English takeaway, I did just that. What made me happiest was the fact that my order was wrapped in newspaper-- the SF Weekly. I stifled any impulse I had to engage in Cockney rhyming slang, since I was the only person in the place apart from the sweet woman making my fish who is, I believe, Korean. And I'm not a Cockney. I took away my take-away.

When I arrived home, I found that the fish and chips had continued to steam as they snuggled in the Pink Section-- exactly what is supposed to happen. To my joy, the fish was still crispy, but not beer-battered. More tempura in style-- delicate, brittle and pock-marked. It was good. I ignored the small packets of tartar sauce and made my own impromptu condiment of mayonnaise, chopped sweet pickles and cider vinegar (since I didn't have the traditional malt vinegar handy). It worked in the pinch. Disappointing, however, were the chips. Rather soggy and bland. Of course, I am partly to blame. I was the first person in Piccadilly's door at 11:00 am and these were the first batch of chips of the day. I should have known better. The fish (and the price point) will bring me back.

All this battered cod and fries over the past few days. I'm actually not sick of it. Could you, my reading public (yes, all three of you) tell me of other, great places to go for a Friday Night Fish Fry? I'm all ears. And all stomach.

And now for the history lesson.

A Brief History of Fish and Chips

The potato has been known to the English since the late 16th century-- about the time that old canard about Sir Walter Raleigh introducing it to a grateful nation started making its rounds. According to The Straight Dope, the Irish refused to plant them, since potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible. They have since eaten their words. It was the French, naturally, who invented pommes frites, in the 1840's.

Fish has, not surprisingly, been known to the English for a much longer time. They live on an island, after all. Frying the fish is believed to have become popular in England in the early mid-19th century, even being mentioned in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

There is a bit of controversy as to where the inspired idea of combining fried fish with fried potatoes first occurred. A Mr. Lees opened a fish and chip shop in Mossley, Lancashire in 1863 while a Mr. Joseph Malin opened his London shoppe in 1860. Or 1865. No one is certain. The National Federation of Fish Friers recognizes that both should share the Oscar. They ought to know, since an average of 300 million servings of fish and chips are served each year in Britain. That's six servings for every human.

Fish has a rather entertaining website, its map is drawn on a napkin.

350 Harbor Drive
Sausalito, CA 9465 (latitude and longitude also given)
415) 331-FISH

Open seven days a week
11:30 am- 4:30 pm for lunch
5:30 pm- 8:30 pm for dinner

Piccadilly Fish and Chips

1345 Polk Street (at Pine)
San Francisco, CA 94109

Open seven days a week

Monday- Thursday 11 am - 11 pm
Friday 11 am - midnight
Saturday 11 am - 11 pm
Sunday 1 pm - 11 pm

Al's Fish n' Chips

2139 Roosevelt Avenue
Redwood City, CA 94061
650) 366-FISH

Open seven days a week

Monday - Thursday 11 am - 8 pm
Friday - 11 am - 8:30 pm
Saturday - 11 am - 8 pm
Sunday - 11 am - 7:30 pm

* Oh. A food person's fun(ish) fact about Lent. Marie-Antoine Carême's last name means "Lent", derived from the Latin quadragesima. Go now, and impress your friends.