Monday, August 17, 2009

I Heart The Gorbals

There's a part in Jesus is Magic where Sarah Silverman, trying to counter the stereotype that Jewish women aren't sexy, sultrily describes slipping into a slinky negligee, then breaks into a ridiculous, flailing "hoydel-doydel" song and dance.

Can you think of a more hoydel-doydel name for a restaurant than The Gorbals? The whatnow?

The Gorbals is the new restaurant of Ilan Hall, former Top Chef winner and Scottish-Israeli New Yorker. When I first heard the name, I had to snicker at his folly, but when I read about the restaurant's namesake -- the neighborhood in Scotland where Ilan's dad grew up among a diversity of poor, outcast immigrant groups -- its unsexiness became lovable. Then when I heard what the restaurant would be serving: "old Jewish food date-raped by bacon," I was totally smitten. Admittedly, my fascination is more about cleverness than deliciousness; after all, Ashkenazi food doesn't exactly strike me as haute cuisine, but then again, Ilan won Top Chef -- obviously he knows some things about food.

This place is not open yet (though according to Eater LA, it should be opening within the week), but apparently there was a preview a few nights ago. Manischewitz flowed and irreverent bacon-wrapped matzoh balls rolled. And, thank goodness, Ilan's beautiful bubbe was in the house.

The Gorbals is at 501 South Spring St. downtown. Opening soon.

Friday, August 14, 2009

San Francisco Highlights: The Snozzberries Taste Like Snozzberries!

i love the sf muni logo

[more about panama in a bit. today though, san francisco.]

San Francisco is one of my favorite LA-getaway destinations. I have a few good friends who live in the bay area, and we always have a good time. Catching up on all the time we miss each other, eating and drinking really well (and really, a lot) never fails. This trip was no exception. In town for Jana's baby shower (bebe is a girl! welcome Amalia!), our Bay Area weekend seemed to focus on real flavors: simple preparations of exellent ingredients. Nothing flashy, nothing overdone, just snozzberries tasting like snozzberries.

In a world of grande half-caf low-fat double macchiattos -- two pumps and room for cream -- there I was standing in line, about half an hour, for a simple cup of drip coffee. Ample time to notice that the sign at the produce stall next door described one of their heirloom tomato varieties as 'tomatoey'. Really all we want from a tomato, right? So I guess that's why I was waiting in line -- for the most, well, coffee-y coffee I know: Blue Bottle. It's a humble stall, and there's nothing fancy about their paper cups or the brown bags in which they sell their beans, but the laser focus is on the coffee itself. And what makes coffee-y coffee? Well, organic shade-grown beans, ground and brewed, or sold, within 48 hours of roasting.

I feel like I drank more coffee in a weekend in San Francisco than I do in 2 weeks at home. But there was so much good coffee everywhere, I couldn't help it! And often it was served in Heath Ceramics -- at the courtyard at SFMOMA, at Jana and Juan's cozy table (thanks bridal registry!), and again at her shower. Even the dishes at Chez Panisse (more on that below) were Heath. Once again, sturdy, classic designs and nothing fussy.

salsicca pie

The same was true at Pizzeria Delfina (Oh sweet Pizzeria Delfina, with your 4 tiny tables and red Italian tile bathroom, how I love you!).

panna pie

The pizza that has recently gotten the most attention there is the panna pie, so pared down that it even eschews cheese, opting instead for a decadent pour of heavy cream before going in the oven (balanced with a bit of shaved parmesan once it's out). But when all you've got is cream, excellent crust, and a simple tomato sauce, you can taste freshness. Turns out freshness tastes pretty good.
the counter at teeny pizzeria delfina

As does their albacore tuna conserva, served over watercress with white beans. Take your first bite, and the taste of great extra virgin olive oil steals the show. It's all about the basics, kids.

the wood-burning oven at Chez Panisse

And then was there Chez Panisse* (I tell you, we go large in San Fran). Nothing showy about this place (so much so that part of me still feels like it was Aidan's parents' house in My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- boring white people food), but still there were some very special flavors going on here: the duck confit's simple presentation belied its flavors: perfectly browned duck skin around tender dark meat, with a fresh kumquat relish, tart and bright, to cut its richness. Same goes for the wild nettle pizza and rhubarb tart. A few ingredients at their freshest (whether tomatoes, coffee, or snozzberries) and solid culinary know-how go a long way.

* Chez Panisse, whose website has gone from homespun to oddly fancy and French in the time between my coming home from San Francisco and right now.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Panama City, I like you

Since I started writing this little blog many years ago, something big has changed. It's called Facebook. That thing is the blog to end all blogs. You post pictures and thoughts and musings and curses with the click of a button. It takes zero effort! So, by the time I get around to posting here about things, like say a trip to Panama, I've kind of already gotten it out of my system.

Lucky for you though, I am endlessly verbose. I'll find a way -- 112 photos, 1 video, and countless status messages, comments, likes, and super-pokes later -- to make it fresh. Besides, I haven't told Facebook a single word about what I ate in Panama. That's all for you, baby.

Now then. I can tell you what I didn't eat: Panamanian food. Oddly enough, my trip -- 4 wonderful nights spent between Panama City's romantically retro Casco Viejo area and a barely-walled hut on a Carribbean island that's a forty-minute boat ride out from the nearest town -- included more cases of gourmet European takes on the local bounty of seafood and produce than anything traditionally Panamanian. That tells a story of modern Panama though: laid carefully over the country's own rich heritage, international prospectors and expats are taking Panama in new directions (as in, shopping malls and bennigans. yikes.).

Let's start in the city. Here's the deal with Casco Viejo: beautiful colonial buildings now in ruins. Colorful, grand buildings, many are which are roofless, windowless, completely gutted, and overgrown with moss and grass (sad, but wonderful for an afternoon's exploring). In the last few years, though, the artists have figured out the area's potential, and cropping up among the ruins are stately restorations housing art spaces, jazz clubs, wine bars, and more.
the insane view from kevin's apartment

We had the luckiest hookup in history, and stayed with friend-of-a-friend (and our new best friend) Kevin, a Chicagoan with a top-story apartment in the heart of Casco Viejo: rooftop balcony, midcentury furnishings, art and books strewn everywhere, a baby grand in the window (!), and air conditioning to boot. Kevin is in the process of restoring a delapidated 3-story building into an art space: gallery, studios, cafe, bar. Basically, Kevin is the coolest person in Panama. No, seriously.

cow's tongue carpaccio and grilled shrimp with tamarind sauce at Manolo Caracol

Our first night there, we went to Manolo Caracol. Ten-course tasting menu, Andalusian owners (and thus, delicious Spanish house wine, of which we partook generously), focus on local, seasonal ingredients and lots of fresh seafood. Highlights: tiradito de dorado (freshness incarnate), shrimp with tamarind sauce, Kevin's velociraptor impression.

our guitarrista in Plaza Bolivar

Then, we had a mojito in Plaza Bolivar. Plazas might be the best thing ever. Walk a couple blocks to a grassy public square, sit at one of the surrounding tables served by Ego Y Narciso restaurant, sip some minty goodness, enjoy a serenade by a sweet gentleman wandering among the tables with his guitar, take in the balmy summer night surrounded by others doing the same. We liked it so much we came back on our last night in the city -- for sangría at Casablanca restaurant on the other side of the plaza.
La Casona
And then, we went to la Casona. La Casona de las Brujas is yet another building dedicated to art, music, culture, youth. We went to the bar. Dark and gritty, with weird things dangling from the super-high ceilings and strange images projected on one wall. Brought Kevin's friend Rafa home with us, stayed up until 4am on the balcony drinking wine and talking crazy (6am flight to Bocas the next morning notwithstanding. I'm not smart.).
A few days before leaving for this trip, I ran into Tai (owner of Scoops) at Golden State and mentioned to him that I was going to Panama. He told me to look out for a particular ice cream shop there: apparently one of Scoops' rotating art exhibits -- a set of photos of an impressive array of ice cream scoops -- was taken there. I remember these photos -- they really were great -- but no way was I going to search the country for this place. But lo and behold, seeking reprieve from a sudden thunderstorm, Rachel and I ducked right into it! Turns out it's a fancy French ice cream shop in Casco Viejo called Granclement, and the back wall is lined with a million ice cream scoops. Try the coconut sorbet (and avoid the fresh basil ice cream; it tastes like pizza).

We did make a quick stop in Cafe Coca Cola, purportedly the oldest cafe in the city. It's as close as we got to actual Panamanian food, not to mention cute old men in hats that looked like Buena Vista Social Club. All I had was a cafe con leche, but it was solid.

OK. That's enough for tonight. Island roundup to come in a subsequent post. In the the meantime, from my vantage point, Panama was incredibly picturesque, and I managed some gorgeous photos. Check them out.