Monday, March 22, 2010

Etoiles Michelin

Top tier restaurants around the world covet elusive Michelin stars. Michelin stars are the equivalent of Nobel prizes in the culinary world, and just as hard to attain. Awarded by anonymous, professionally-trained experts, Michelin stars instantly endorse a restaurant for outstanding quality in culinary achievement, not only for taste and appearance, but for innovative food, drink, and top-notch service. I've been to a handful of restaurants which have received this honor and enjoyed each one immensely. The three-star designation in particular is exceedingly rare with only 81 restaurants in the world achieving this status. The following Bay Area restaurants have received a Michelin star for 2010:

Three stars:
The French Laundry, Yountville

Two stars:
Coi, San Francisco; Cyrus, Healdsburg; Manresa, Los Gatos; The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena.

One star:
South Bay/Peninsula: Chez TJ, Mountain View; Plumed Horse, Saratoga; The Village Pub, Woodside.
San Francisco: Acquerello, Ame, Aziza, Boulevard, the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, Fifth Floor, Fleur de Lys, Gary Danko, La Folie, Luce, Masa's, Michael Mina, One Market, Quince, Range.
East Bay: Chez Panisse, Berkeley; Commis, Oakland.
North Bay: Auberge de Soleil, Napa; Bouchon, Yountville; Etoile, Yountville; Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant, Forestville; La Toque, Napa; Madrona Manor, Healdsburg; Murray Circle, Sausalito; Redd, Yountville; Sante, Sonoma; Solbar, Calistoga; Terra, St. Helena; Ubuntu, Napa.

Of these, I have enjoyed deliciously memorable meals at Chez TJ , The Village Pub, One Market, Bouchon, and Chez Panisse. I count myself lucky to have this many Michelin starred restaurants to choose from in the San Francisco Bay Area, and look forward to trying even more.

This year I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Michelin group has created a new tier of recognition for more ordinary restaurants called Michelin Bib Gourmand. These restaurants have been designated as high quality and good value for the money even if they don't achieve worldwide status. Good value for the money means that for less than $40, you can get two courses and dessert or wine, not including tax or tips. This category of more affordable, casual, and realistic options identifies a welcome new set of go-to great restaurants for Bay Area food lovers to choose from.

The ones I've eaten at include: Bay Wolf, Crouching Tiger, Junnoon, The Slanted Door, and Yank Sing.  I haven't been to elegant Bay Wolf in years, but used to love going there when I worked at the Clorox Company in Oakland.  Crouching Tiger isn't too far away from us in Redwood City, and features many spicy and mouth-watering Szechuan dishes. Junnoon takes Indian food to a new level with its Indian-California fusion cuisine and fabulous ambiance, featuring colorful decor and hypnotic music. The Slanted Door is a Bay Area institution, with to-die-for Asian dishes including spring rolls and BBQ steamed pork buns. Yank Sing features delicious dim sum and is always busy. A dim sum tip: Get a table near the kitchen so you have first pick of the hot dishes as they're wheeled out on carts.

Which Michelin restaurants have you eaten at? I would love to hear what you think of them, both good and bad, and what dishes you'd recommend. Bon appetit!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Popping Chocolate Gomashio


Even though it's been twelve years since I worked at Intuit software company, several former co-worker friends and I enjoy getting together for food and conversation. Recently Mari Baker, CEO of PlayFirst, invited six of us over for a delicious dinner featuring food and a cooking lesson from Chef Laura Stec, co-author of a cookbook called Cool Cuisine.

Laura is one of the Bay Area's forward thinkers when it comes to food and its link to the environment. She believes our food choices can have an even greater effect on global warming than our driving choices. As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and former chef at local restaurants Flea Street Cafe and Left Bank, Laura has in-depth experience creating flavorful and innovative dishes using local, organic, environment-friendly ingredients.

She calls her food philosophy 'high vibe', meaning that we put energy into growing, producing, transporting, selling, and preparing food, and then get energy from eating food both physically and emotionally. It takes more effort to seek and use the ingredients and recipes that adhere to Cool Cuisine's high vibe principles. But by putting in the effort, Laura walks her talk and teaches others about her food philosophy. Taking this approach to the food we eat can result in more meaningful and satisfying meals.

I enjoyed each dish that Laura prepared for us. Laura's stories behind the foods helped me appreciate and understand each ingredient better. I ate more mindfully. It felt quite different from mindless eating that can happen when I'm preoccupied, in a hurry, or just plain stressed. Her approach is live to eat, instead of eat to live.

Our menu included these delightful dishes:

- Hometown Cheese Platter featuring bee pollinator crops
- Grass-Fed Beef Tagliata on Crostini with Arugula and Green Peppercorn
- Local Honey Sparkler
- Japanese Hot Pot with Slow-Cooked Carrot, Cauliflower, and Braised Tofu
- Baked Hato-Mugi (barley) and Brown Rice
- High Vibe ice cream with Popping Chocolate Gomashio

While each dish brought plenty of flavor, texture, and sustenance, my taste buds popped most both literally and figuratively when savoring our dessert, the Popping Chocolate Gomashio. Gomashio is a Japanese condiment (goma= seed, shio=salt). Laura brilliantly combined chocolate nibs, sesame seeds, brown sugar, agave nectar, sliced almonds, and (surprise!) pastry pop rocks (available at Rubber Chef). When Laura combined the ingredients and sprinkled them on top of Straus ice cream, she created a cold, crunchy, sweet, savory, popping experience both unique and delectable. I enjoyed every bit of the sundae, marveling at her and its genius. The sesame seeds added a wonderfully nutty flavor and texture, and the pop rocks made me laugh out loud. Try this dish if you want to make a dessert that's truly memorable, completely original, and indescribably yummy. Oh yeah, it's earth-friendly too, making it that much more enjoyable, especially when eaten with good, long-time friends.

Popping Chocolate Gomashio

Our food choices can have an equal and possibly greater effect on global warming than our driving can! Eating carbon dioxide pop rocks, like the ones in Popping Chocolate Gamashio, won't solve global warming, but they are a great conversation starter about the issues and a fun addition to any dinner party. This sweet gomashio can be sprinkled over your local organic ice cream, yogurt, pudding, or fruit. Makes 1/2 cup.

3 tablespoons brown sesame seed
1/4 cup chocolate nibs (look for fair trade and organic)
4 teaspoons organic brown sugar (see note)
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
2 teaspoons agave nectar
2 tablespoons pastry pop rocks (optional- sold at pastry stores and online)

Heat a stainless steel frying pan on high. When hot, pour in 1/2 of the sesame seeds in a single layer. Cover; the seeds should start popping immediately. Toast while shaking the pan as if you were popping popcorn, for 30-60 seconds. Watch and listen closely because the seeds burn quickly. The seeds should be lightly toasted, not dark brown or black. Pour popped seeds from the skillet into a medium-size bowl while they are still popping. Repeat with remaining seeds. Add the chocolate nibs, almonds, sugar and agave nectar; combine. Right before serving, mix in the pop rocks.

Note: Look for organic, fair-trade sugars and unique varieties, such as dark brown molasses sugar.

(Cool Cuisine- Taking the Bite out of Global Warming. Reprinted with permission from Laura Stec.)