Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bay Area Bites (May 27-30), Part I

On Saturday, May 27, the day of my arrival in San Francisco, a couple of good friends took me to a favorite place of theirs, Vivande Porta Via, on Fillmore Street. The restaurant has been around for quite a while, and it has a very good reputation for artisanal Italian cooking with the best imported ingredients. Well, my meal unfortunately was a dud. The three of us shared their signature pasta dish as a first course: scrigno di Venere (Venus’ jewel box): beggar’s purse of pasta filled w/spinach tagliolini, rosemary ham, and peas; served on besciamella sauce w/prosciutto and parmesan.

Is it just me, or does the name of that dish sound like an ancient Italian euphemism for the vagina? The restaurant is known for its pastas, and this one sounded intriguing, but it also sounded overly rich, so the decision to share one as a first course was a happy arrangement. For me, if food is layered, stuffed, or made into a Chinese box, there ought to be a variety of flavors and textures. Well, poor Venus's box was rather monotonous. First of all, to make the pouch, the pasta has to be cooked soft enough to make it pliable, which is not the way I like my pasta. The stuffing had neither a different taste nor any texture variation to speak of. Overall, the bechamel, with it's cheese accent, overwhelmed everything. I felt that our $19 had purchased us a glorified mac & cheese. My main course, pollo al mattone (boneless chicken breast, marinated in rosemary, sage, and garlic; seared under weights, and drizzled w/a warm balsamic reduction; sautéed swiss chard w/garlic) suffered from an over-saltiness of the meat and the greens. I shall not return.

* * *

The soul food weekend brunch at Luka's Tap Room in Oakland was a pleasant surprise. I'd heard it was good, and good was all I was expecting. Well, it was better than good. The first thing they brought for the table were some small squares of a delicious black pepper cornbread, accompanied by a mini-jar of honey. We ordered some beignets for the table (3 adults & two kids), and they were spectacular: hot, flaky, chewy, non-greasy, subtly luxurious, and served with a blueberry coulis and dark chocolate squares. I ordered the eggs with catfish filet and hash browns. The catfish was tasty, though the breading could have used more spice. I only made a dent in the massive hunk of hash browns, but they were quite good. I don't know who their bread supplier is, but the whole wheat toast was wonderful, and they served some excellent strawberry preserves to go with it. Luka's also has a large and interesting beer selection, and I hear that their dinners are good too. Good food is a good reason to head to this otherwise non-destination area of downtown Oakland.

* * *

I often go to the Bay Area for Memorial Day weekend, and one of the main reasons is for the amazing pot-luck barbecue my friends Robert Lauriston and Gail DeProsse throw every year. There are usually about 30 guests, and most are serious foodies, so the event is always a cornucopia. This year was different only in degree–somehow the food, in general, didn't match last year's bacchanal. This year's highlight was the mini-burgers made of Buffalo meat that one of the guests had brought and cooked on the grill. Here’s what I had to say in a pre-blog email about the 2005 event, the standard by which I’ll judge future Lauriston-DeProsse pot lucks until it’s eclipsed:

“Robert & Gail are psycho-foodies, and many of their friends are too. There were about 25-30 people there. I’ll try my best to remember what was served, or at least what I tasted: noodle kugel, Basque chicken salad pintxos, eggplant salad, 3 kinds of potato salad, bay shrimp kebabs, grilled prawns, kalbi (Korean marinated beef short ribs), steak, spicy dry rub baby back ribs, sweet & messy spare ribs, pork belly with star anise & cardamom, boudin blanc, Italian sausage, chocolate cookies with a hint of chili & ginger, Grand Marnier cookies, blueberry pie. . . . I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch.”

* * *

I had a pleasant lunch at the bucolic Lark Creek Inn, in Larkspur, with two old friends and a friend of theirs, all academics: an ancient historian (actually he’s relatively modern, if not quite 21st-century) and two research psychologists, one who studies visual perception and the other who studies lying (I’ve dubbed her a mendacitologist). Somehow, despite the assembled expertise, we never got to the question of whether all Cretans are liars.

The Lark Creek Inn was opened in 1989 by Bradley Ogden, who created a California version of American heartland cuisine. Ogden, now head of a mini-empire, had passed the Lark Creek kitchen on to others in recent years. The Inn is a beautiful 1880s-vintage house, and a meal there is a peaceful getaway. Though no longer a place with buzz, it’s blue chip. The appetizers were highlights: the Dungeness crab fritters were excellent (I just made the tail end of the season), and the ham hock raviolo (yes, singular) was unique and memorable. The raviolo is a signature creation, and I always seek out specialty dishes that are unavailable elsewhere. The large, open-faced raviolo was stuffed with slivers of smoked ham hock and Vella dry Jack cheese (new to me). The pasta was properly al dente. All in all, it was much more satisfying than the Venus jewel box of several days earlier. My main course, a grilled shrimp salad with smoked paprika, was good, but less interesting than the starters.

For dessert the four of us shared one butterscotch pudding. We could easily have skipped dessert, but Lark Creek’s butterscotch pudding has a reputation. Now, butterscotch pudding is not normally something I’d be attracted to, but a reputation makes me prick up my spoon. Well, the pudding was very sweet, too sweet, and frankly I can’t understand what the vaunted reputation is all about.

The ‘40s swing recordings and the ‘50s Sinatra ballads they played were just right for the mood of the place. The atmosphere is very WASP, but to their credit I felt right at home nonetheless.


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Blogger wendygee said...

For excessive amounts of food info about the Bay Area check out Bay Area Bites, KQED Public Broadcasting's food blog.

12:06 PM  

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