Clay with Your Food – Jered’s Pottery Challenge 2016

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Chef’s Mis en Place

On Sunday, June 5, I was fortunate to be the guest of a good friend and fellow food enthusiast, Donovan Unks, better known on Twitter as The Dapper Diner. He’d been invited to judge the annual cook off contest held at Jered’s Pottery, which includes a trio of challenges designed to produce a victor in the kitchen. The challenges themselves are unorthodox, and the results were entertaining. Dapper’s fellow judges included Sara Paloma, a local ceramic artist, and Owen Rogers, a designer and partner from IDEO.org, a non-profit design and innovation organization focused on designing products, services, and experiences to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities.

The Chef-testants featured Kelsey Kerr from Standard Fare in Berkeley, Mark Liberman from AQ in San Francisco, and Galen Vasquez from Sons & Daughters in San Francisco. All were great sports, rising fearlessly to the various challenges, as guests watched while enjoying the wine and cheese provided by our host during the event.

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Whole Rabbit wrapped in guanciale, ready for the kiln

In the first of three events, the chefs were tasked with preparing a dish in the kiln, which was heated to an intimidating 800 degrees. Chef Kerr prepared a simple dish of anchovies, and I was selected to be the taste tester from the audience. I found the sardines cooked to perfection, despite the unorthodox preparation method, giving the dish a thumbs up. Chef Vasquez’ attempt to defeat the blast furnace temperatures was a whole boned rabbit, seasoned with fresh picked herbs, and wrapped in guanciale to keep it moist, but it was the offering from Chef Liberman, a black cod steeped in miso, resulting in a buttery soft flesh imbued with stellar aromatics, that took the first round of judging. Fortunately, I was allowed a taste of all three, and while I found the rabbit delectable, I can’t find fault with their selection. The cod was spectacular, made all the more impressive in that it was cooked at 800 degrees, in a kiln no less.

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Pottery Challenge – Pictured: (L-R) Jered Nelson; Mark Liberman; Kelsey Kerr; Galen Vasquez 

 

The next challenge was for each cheftestant to create their own serving dish out of clay. After a brief lesson from master “Clayboy” Jered Nelson, each bravely took to the pottery wheel. Results produced varied degrees of success, but they gave it their all and did pretty well considering the amount of time they had to acquaint themselves with the process and their lack of experience. The event was a rousing success with the crowd as the cheering and hollering from all present would attest. It was delightfully orchestrated chaos.

As a final challenge, each chef was given one of Jered’s creations on which to plate the perfectly presented dish. The products of this effort were mind-bendingly beautiful. The sleek and surreal shapes of Jered’s imaginative creations, upon which were placed delicate morsels of food in artistic shapes and designs, were sublime.

The winner was declared at the conclusion of the plating portion, with Chef Mark Liberman taking the prize.  Guests and judges finished off the afternoon with a buffet of okonomiyaki (a Korean pancake), kimchi fried rice and refreshing soba salad, all furnished by Namu (the folks behind both the food truck and Namu Gaji), it was the perfect end to an enchanting day. If you haven’t yet eaten at the restaurants represented, you should. If you’ve never checked out Jered’s incredible creations, that’s a must as well. I know I’ll do both.

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The winning plaing entry, by Chef Galen Vasquez

Jered’s Pottery
867 S 19th Street
Richmond, CA 94804
http://www.jeredspottery.com

Namu Gaji
499 Dolores Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Phone:(415) 431-6268

RICH TABLE (SF) – Follow the Yellow Brick Bridge

Chicken Lasagna & Popcorn?
Hell Yes.

I have lived across the Bay from San Francisco my entire life.  As a child, a visit to “the City” was a magical trip to the faraway land of Oz at the end of a winding road of yellow brick.   It was a place outside of reality that lay well beyond the boundaries of my childish imagination.  I remember my Great Aunt Susan taking me there for extra-special excursions.  The day to end all days, we would put on a fancy dress, don our best hats and gloves, and board the bus that would take us across the bridge.  Once there, in this place where magic was possible, we would ride the trolley car to the City of Paris with its sparkling crystal dome, to spend the day shopping; or perhaps during the holidays there would be a visit to Santa for photos.  For years, San Francisco was as far as I ever traveled away from home and it felt a journey to the Moon itself.  Looking forward to a trip to the city was the most exciting thing in the world.

Fried Squash Balls with pumpkin seeds

To my Italian grandparents, North Beach was a second home.  My grandfather was the reigning bocce ball champion for several years running.  They knew everyone in the City.  I remember the dinner shows at Bimbos 365, a place where they mingled with luminaries like Rocky Marciano and Earl Warren, while I tried to figure out how they got that tiny naked lady into the magical fishbowl.

Much of that youthful fascination still lingers when I find myself in this City by the Bay, and she remains a place outside the boundaries of the familiar, having never lost her alluring sense of adventure.  As I traverse her often foggy confines, wandering beneath the landscape of towering buildings that scrape the sky, I feel as though I have been transported to Wonderland.  There is even a hint of danger — perhaps I will soon be snatched away by the Red Queen and forced to play games for my life.  The otherworldliness that bewitched me as a child is a lingering thread of connection that compels me back as often as I can manage.  Though vastly changed in architecture and culture, she is now, as she was in my childhood, a large part of the East Bay experience.

THE RESTAURANT

Wagyu Tartare

When the reviews began to come in on RICH TABLE, the delightfully inviting new effort from Evan & Sarah Rich, located at the corner of Gough and Oak, I made our reservations immediately.  RICH TABLE is one of those places that is difficult to describe, its decor all at once comforting, inventive, and classy, but without a hint of pretension.  It’s community seating is European in atmosphere and yet somehow completely embodying the feel of the current San Francisco, with lovely planters provided to “divide” the seated parties into a slightly more private community feel.  Brilliant.

RICH TABLE is laid out in such a way as to be incredibly inviting for such a small space.  Diners arrive to feel immediately embraced within its walls. Elbowing through crowds is not something I relish when I want to enjoy a meal, so kudos to management for understanding this and setting it up so smoothly.  Quite an accomplishment.

THE MEAL

We lucked out in our seating assignment, being placed directly adjacent to the kitchen.  I’m always a fan of watching them do their magic and this group was particularly lively and obviously enjoying what they do.  After a few moments chatting with the expediter, I was informed he was Evan Rich, chef, (co)owner and proprietor of this lovely new addition to the SF dining scene.  He is a delightful young man who absolutely gets it.  His food was spot on and his attitude for feeding people is undoubtedly the reason.  Well, that, along with his significant talent for inventive cuisine.

Sardine (stuffed) Chips

The menu here is seasonal, so you may find that the dishes I have listed here will be off the menu by the time you read this.  The good news is that whatever Evan & Sarah have invented in the meantime is likely to be just as tasty, if not more so.  When a restaurant starts out this well, the possibilities are endless.

We began with cocktails, all of which were delicious.  Mine was a concoction of mezcal, my favorite new alcoholic beverage.  The modern cocktail, with it’s tinctures of fresh produce, essences of fruit and the occasional spice, is a journey all its own—  and their cocktails rival the the standards of the best in the business.  Scott Beattie could order a drink here and come away pleased.  They were just that good.

The appetizers and “bites” were intriguing, so we ordered several.  The Fried Squash Balls had a nice topping of crunchy (I believe) daikon and a smattering of pumpkin seeds, and the Wagyu Tartare was magnificent.  Beautiful fatty meat seasoned to perfection.  The “Sardine Chips” are house made potato chips literally stuffed with a sardine.  They were the crispiest house chips I have ever had.  Still warm and not at all soft.  I love house chips, but often miss the crunch that a mass prepped chip generally has and have found house made chips a little soft for my tastes.  Not true here, as these chips had the freshness without sacrificing the appropriate toothsome bite, add the salty goodness in the middle and one has a really inviting “bite.”   Kudos.

Flatbread with perfect poached eggs….

Another favorite at the table was the chicken lasagna.  How Chefs Rich thought to add popcorn to the dish remains a mystery, but the crunchy puffed corn topping gave it a texture and interest that was both unique and magnificently satisfying.  The waiter recommended we try the spicy pasta dish, (I believe it was a tagliatelle) and it was perfectly al dente and completely engaging.   I devoured mine.   My daughter loved her ribeye steak as well, and the bottle of Barbera from the solid wine list was a perfect compliment to everything.

THE TAKE AWAY

RICH TABLE is one of those hot places you have to visit.  But it is more than that.  It was instantly one of those places I must return to, and often.  Dining is about more than just good food, and while Chefs Evan & Sarah Rich serve blissful fare, they also know how to invite you to their table in such a way that you want to return.  Like dinner at a favorite relative’s house, a meal there is something to be anticipate, enjoyed, and then, once digested, experienced again and again.

Brava.

Chocolate Magic (dessert is a must here)

Check it out for yourself, and make a memory.  I can guarantee it will be a pleasant one.

RICH TABLE
Chef Evan Rich
Chef Sara Rich
199 Gough St (at Oak St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: (415) 355-9085
http://www.richtablesf.com

COTOGNA: Strawberry Fields Forever

Strawberry Specialty Cocktail

About three weeks ago while checking my email, I found an invitation to attend an event celebrating the California Strawberry.  The event was hosted by the California Strawberry Commission, designed to educate the public about just what it takes to bring these summer delicacies from farm to table.  Each course of the meal was to feature strawberries, and the Chef preparing the meal was (Score!) the renowned Michael Tusk of Quince.  That was the icing on the cake, but if I’m honest, they had me at strawberries.

The event was held at Cotogna, Chef Tusk’s most recent entry on the San Francisco dining scene.  It presents as a modern Italian Pizzeria-slash-Bistro, and is a beautifully tricked out space, complete with giant wood ovens and a gorgeous bar.  Though not quite the pizzeria of my childhood, it manages to maintain the familial inviting atmosphere I recall from days spent watching my uncle toss the stretchy dough, flatten it tenderly, slather it with his special tomato sauce, finishing off the pie by covering it with all manner of toppings to order.  Cotugno had the effortless ease down pat, while updating it to a slick and modern interior.  This was a place I’d want to hang out even if I hadn’t been mesmerized into attendance by the promise of strawberry delights.

Strawberries & Prosciutto

The FOOD

Guests were treated to a menu designed by Chef Tusk specifically for the event.  Beginning with a specialty cocktail: a mixture of pureed strawberries with a bit of campari, a hint of anise and enough selzer to bubble it up nicely.  It was an intoxicating and refreshing beverage.  The hors d’oeuvres were a cacophony of strawberry surprises.  Among them: tiny arancini of fried strawberry goodness, a perfect fresh strawberry wrapped in a blanket of prosciutto and drizzled with a hint of balsamic.

But the magnificent strawberry and burrata pizzas that emerged from those wood burning ovens were the pièce de résistance: the creamy burrata melting into each perfect berry, the familiar toothsome crunch of the perfectly baked pizza dough—  they were a culinary treat I will remember for some time to come.  This was the kind of food that is so tasty you can’t stop consuming it because your brain wants your mouth to experience that thrill just one more time.  At least that’s what my brain was telling me as I consumed almost an entire pizza.  It seemed that over the course of the evening those ovens continued to produce the delectable treat on tray after tray; they came at me as relentlessly as circus performers exiting a clown car.

The BERRY

Pizza Magica!
Just EAT it!

The evening was coordinated for the California Strawberry Commission by Golin Harris, a company whose expertise at putting together a delightful evening while keeping the focus of the gathering front and center is impressive. And that is an understatement.  Among those present was Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones, but I imagine he hears it quite a bit) of the Tom Jones Farms in Monterey.  A strawberry farmer for decades, Mr. Jones told those present a great deal of fun facts about the strawberry.  The highlights for the health conscious are that strawberries are surprisingly low in calories (this I knew from my years of Weight Watchers, their Strawberry Shake, which, if memory serves, consists of a cup of strawberries and about two cups of cracked ice and comes in at under 100 calories). They contain enormous amounts of antioxidants, more Vitamin C than an orange and high amounts of folic acid and fiber.

The EXPERIENCE

We wrapped up our evening with several delectable desserts during the seated portion of the presentation.  Strawberries atop a creamy panacotta, a beautiful pistachio ice cream, with a light strawberry garnish over an airy meringue (like eating strawberry pistachio clouds).  By now I was stuffed, yet my table mates and I managed a final slice of the last pizza making its way around the room.  That pizza was one for the record books.

All in all, this was the kind of educational evening I’d love to repeat.  A far cry from the sterile classroom of my youth.  Perhaps that’s the solution for our schools. Serve up that knowledge with a platter of sweet, simple California strawberries.   Too bad they’re only in season from April to October. (Though this is peak strawberry season in California, a reader points out that these days strawberries are harvested and available year-round from growers in Oxnard, Santa Maria and Orange County.)

Cotogna is a lovely restaurant.  While my particular experience isn’t one that can be repeated, I can honestly suggest you check it out for yourself.  Make some memories of your own.  And do try the pizza.

Cotogna (Michael Tusk)
490 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 775-8508
http://www.cotognasf.com

And for more info on the California Strawberry – the California Strawberry Commission’s website can be found here:

http://www.californiastrawberries.com/