State Bird Provisions

My housemates and I love each other. This may come as a surprise, considering the mischief we’ve gotten into over the two, three years we’ve been cohabiting. Tensions often run high after the guys finish particularly competitive PlayStation NBA2K tourneys. Sometimes, prank wars escalate into near-traumatic territory involving elaborate hideouts, Halloween masks and surveillance cameras (I wisely choose to sit out as a non-partisan). There’s all the usual roommate drama: dishes piling up, fixtures breaking, bills coming in late. Once, an acquaintance stayed with us and basically took our money and ran, leaving us to pick up the pieces. Despite it all, however, we’ve managed not only to tolerate each other, but to genuinely care for our little family. Our cozy apartment has seen countless family dinners, yoga sessions, Netflix nights, board game matches, and heart-to-heart talks. Even when a few of us left for greener pastures, the ties that bind us stay intact. It’s reeeally cute.

In a truly telling example of our next-level friendship, my housemates forwent birthday presents this year. Instead, they looked deep into my soul to figure out my truest heart’s desires. Somehow, they beat out OpenTable hackers and pulled strings to get me the trendiest table in town: State Bird Provisions. Best of all — the reservation serendipitously fell on the weekend after my grad school decision. I was elated (as was Jay, the lucky incidental benefactor).

State Bird Provisions, from its nondescript exterior to its playful menu, is SF’s current it restaurant. The cuisine defies any neat genre, incorporating Eastern European, East Asian, and New American flavors and techniques. The food is served family- and dim-sum style, with small bites available as they’re fired and larger plates available a la carte. SF’s trademark rustic-hip aesthetic imbues the space, Blood Orange piping over the speakers and aproned, bearded servers circulating the room. As we pulled up at the best seats in the house (at the counter, facing the action), an ebullient Chef Stuart Brioza walked by. Later, he caught me snapping one of the below photos — and, to my relief, winked! Despite it’s larger-than-life reputation, State Bird isn’t frilly; it’s fun.

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NYC: CCCs at Jacques Torres and Levain Bakery

Once upon a time, I endeavored to bake the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. To this end, I used a beloved recipe: Jacques Torres’ 36-hour labor of love, made famous by The New York Times. While the end result was delicious, my curiousity wasn’t sated; I had to know if my rendition did the original justice. Obviously, then, when I found myself in NYC, a trip to Jacques Torres Chocolate found its way into my agenda.

However, I’d also heard whispers in the streets about a competing cookie. From the sound of it, Levain Bakery made a pretty penultimate CCC. In the name of science (and future holiday cookie bake-offs), I also scheduled a stop by their storefront. I scuttled from Manhattan to Brooklyn in the interest of testing out these two different sweets… and how did they compare?

One thing was certain. Even if there’s not a single “best” recipe for a chocolate chip cookie, there does appear to be a formula. That, my friends, is as follows:

Big + buttery = success.

Jacques Torres’ original CCC.

Frozen hot chocolate!

Goods to go.

Whereas Jacques Torres’ are broad, pliant discs marbled with oblong dark chocolate fevres, Levain’s are craggy heaps of tender dough and melted chocolate. Torres caramelizes his cookies until they achieve a rich mahogany color, with thin crispy edges and a chewy center. Levain’s cookies, on the other hand, are clearly underbaked, resulting in a lightly browned exterior and nearly custard-like center. We requested the Torres cookie warmed (highly recommended); the Levain cookie magically retained its gooeyness straight off the shelf.

Because we can’t control ourselves, we also tried an extra treat at each store. At Jacques Torres, Jay ordered the “frozen hot chocolate” smoothie – a delicious treat for a hot day. The drink was a bit bittersweet to pair with such a sweet cookie, however, and was nearly too rich for even three people to share. Speaking of rich, Jay bought another cookie after tasting our first at Levain; the dark chocolate chip flavor delivered dreamy cocoa-based fulfillment after only a few bites.

At the end of the day, both Jacques Torres and Levain produced top-tier chocolate chip cookies, with personal preference being the deciding factor. Levain’s chunky, rich cookie won Jay over, while I leaned towards Torres’ golden-brown, chewy version. We acknowledged each other’s choices and respectfully agreed to disagree. Emotions often run high when discussing things like politics, religion, and classic chocolate chip cookies. Unlike debates over the former two, however, discussions over baked goods typically end well. After all, they involve sugar.

Levain’s mind-blowing CCC.

Double the chocolate if you dare…

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th St.
New York, NY 10023

Jacques Torres Chocolate
66 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

best bites of 2014

Cooking versus eating: there’s a difference. I cooked a lot in 2014… but I ate even more. I ate well. Really well. Often outside of the four walls of my home. Sometimes outside the four boundaries of our 7×7 mile city.

As such, I thought it’d be nice to reflect on my favorite restaurant experiences of the year. I tried to identify specific dishes, since those are typically reflective of entire meals, service, atmospheres, etc. Interestingly, the priciest dinner (with a flashy double Michelin star rating) didn’t stand a chance on this list — perhaps the tasting menu format just doesn’t elicit the same full-bodied reaction I get to a nice, big burger. Either way, I am truly grateful to have enjoyed myself so thoroughly in 2014, at the dinner table and beyond.

Iyasare’s kakiage tempura. Our dinner had nearly concluded when we caught sight of this gorgeous, structural beauty on someone else’s plate. We promptly ran over and snatched it away. Just kidding. We put in another order and are so very glad we did. This was a masterpiece of texture and flavors — earthy, tender, addictive.

Broder’s aebelskivers. I am a donut person. These Danish fritters, accompanied by lemon curd and lingonberry jam, had my name written all over them. Truly a simple pleasure.

Coqueta’s wood-grilled pluma. Quite the opposite of a simple pleasure: acorn-fed Spanish Iberico de Bellota pork shoulder loin with honey chili glaze. Pricey. Fancy. Absolutely worth it. The entire group paused in silence to observe its melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness.

Wes Burger’s Hot Wes. This was no-holds-barred, perfectly grilled, f-your-diet perfection. I’m reminded that I need to track down the pop-up to try more of these babies.

Dominique Ansel’s cronut. I stood in line for the morello cherry and toasted almond cream version, and I’ll stand in line again for anything borne of this magical bakery. Very rarely do hyped things exceed expectations… but this, perhaps the most hyped of all things, did.

Clinton Street Baking Company’s blueberry pancakes. If drugs were butter, biting into this would be shooting heroin straight into one’s veins. Get into it, because that glut of butter (glutter?) makes these stacks unbelievably moist and tender. Pancakes epitomized.

Toro Bravo’s octopus a la plancha “becerrita”. So good, we had these twice! In an already intensely delicious dinner, these tapas were the most flavorful of all. It’s unclear to me now what was in these, but it looks like there’s potato, crema, a tomato reduction, octopus… all the best things.

Tasty N’ Alder’s grilled octopus. I suppose Jay and I are just dining voyeurs. This is yet another dish we ordered after spotting it across the restaurant. I’m cool being creepy if it allows us to eat things like this. The octopus was cooked to a level absolutely unmatched — the perfect crispy sear, the loveliest creamy middles.

Mamoun’s combination plate. This cost under $10. UNDER $10. And yet, it’s without a doubt one of our favorite meals of the year. We went to town on this. What’s more, we were totally sober. This hole-in-the-wall definitely isn’t just for drunk college kids.

Nopa’s custard French toast. Does this surprise you? It shouldn’t. I love you, custard French toast. I really do.

As for the full list of restaurants? Click onward!

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NYC: noodles at SobaYa and Xi’an Famous Foods

… And now, back to recapping NYC!

Jay and I were pretty excited about hunting down Asian food while we were in Manhattan. Luckily, it wasn’t difficult to get our fix, being that we were staying only steps away from Eastern eateries of all stripes. We stopped by a mid-range restaurant and a low-brow shop for variations on a favorite: noodles.

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SF Farmers Markets: Sunset District

Some people want to be President. Some people want to stay young and beautiful forever. Some people want to be rich enough to afford a garage full of European cars.

Me, on the other hand? My current ambition is to Have a Tradition.

For weeks, I’ve been goading poor Jay about becoming “regulars” somewhere. My wildest fantasy is to walk into a tiny greasy spoon, park my butt at the counter, and have a waitress walk by and ask me, verbatim: “The usual?” (I would also accept the shortened “The ush?”) Sadly, however, my series of special diets and the scant selection of diners in the area doesn’t lend itself to fulfillment of that particular dream.

As such, I’ve pinned my hopes on a different type of weekly routine: a run to the farmers’ market. Instead of cantankerous cooks, I’ll cozy up to kindhearted producers; rather than gorging on stacks of pancakes, I’ll go HAM on free samples. To that end, I’ve been regularly making time for the wonderful markets in the Sunset district. While these are among the friendliest neighborhood gatherings in the entire city, however, the clientele aren’t afraid to get down ‘n dirty for the fantastic Sunday deals. I found myself standing in a swarm of old ladies crowded around a mountainous pile of peaches. Yes, I decided as a grandma (accidentally?) elbowed me quite vigorously. These are my people.

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NYC, Williamsburg: Pies N Thighs, Traif

Williamsburg, your reputation precedes you.

In an attempt to prepare myself for the well-publicized hipness of the ‘hood, I did a visualization exercise. If Brooklyn is to Manhattan as Oakland is to San Francisco, what would that make Williamsburg? I pictured, as its equivalent, the Temescal district: young, eclectic, and cool. I quickly discovered that both areas were every bit their caricatures of 20-something-dominated gentrification. Unlike its West Coast counterpart, however, I found Williamsburg sprawling, residential, and cleaner cut. I also found it full of delicious eats.

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NYC, Brooklyn: Smorgasburg

Last time I was in NYC, I didn’t step foot in Brooklyn. As I pictured it, the borough was just too much to do justice within a single trip. This, I now realize, can be said of nearly any metropolitan area. I had to accept that I was never going to see it all, neither in breadth nor depth, and still give travelin’ my best shot. With that in mind, on a Sunday afternoon, Jay and I boarded a ferry bound for BK.

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NYC: parent pleasers at Pylos and Pio Pio

While Jay and I particularly enjoyed pinching pennies at Manhattan’s finest holes-in-the-wall, there were occasions where the pendulum swung the other way. Take, for example, the dinners that we shared with Jay’s parents, who were coincidentally visiting New York at the same time. Lovely and easygoing as they are, I couldn’t imagine digging into chicken and rice with them in some dingy corner of the city (as amazing as that sounds…). It just wouldn’t do. The situation called for real, sit-down restaurants, with ambiance, class, and a discernible lack of drunk people puking in trashcans by the front door. (Not that that ever happened, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, right?)

Anyway. Twice in New York, Jay and I put on our best business-casual and headed out to respectable establishments for Dinner with the Parents. We had delicious Peruvian at Pio Pio and to-die-for Greek at Pylos. The wine flowed, the family feasted.

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NYC: classic cheap eats at Halal Guys and Mamoun’s

The Bay Area is often painted as a food-lover’s paradise — the cradle of the slow-food movement and a modern-day mecca for local and sustainably-sourced cuisine. Nowadays, turn a corner and you’re bound to stumble upon artisanal, gourmet goods. As spoiled as we are, however, there’s one area in which SF’s food scene can be found wanting: cheap, good eats.

There are a few places where one can stretch a dollar — but, for the most part, dining out in San Francisco is generally pretty pricey. Not so in NYC. Inexpensive eats abound. I like to imagine an alternate East Coast life wherein I live in a shoebox and subsist off of bagels, coffee, and dollar slices all the livelong day. Anyway… back to the food. In particular, Jay and I made sure to try the Mediterranean street food impossible to find in our fair city. It came as no surprise that these unpretentious meals were among our very favorites in all of New York City.

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SF Farmers Markets: Richmond District

I hate to be the nth person to say it, but where did the time go?* It seems like only yesterday I was promising myself that I’d write about my favorite farmers’ markets. I’d cover all my favorite vendors at the peak of the season, just in time for the best of summer’s bounty to start appearing. Now, however, I find myself post-Labor Day with nothing to show for it (but a very full belly). Summer squash and stone fruit, once winking at us from within their crates, are growing sadder and smaller; leafy greens, once piled high on pallets, are suffering from severely thinned ranks. Though I may praise vendors for their gorgeous produce, the turning of the seasons inherently changes their offerings and the market’s overall experience.

This post may be too little, too late to capitalize on the abundance of Summer 2014 — but I still think there’s something to be said for the farmers’ market culture in San Francisco at large. Even though we’ll soon be entering months more sparse and scarce, there remains plenty of goodness to be found. In the [mild] dead of winter, the producers of Northern California still grow a strong, delicious variety of fruits and vegetables. Sun or snow fog, I make it a priority to regularly stop by farmers’ markets. This week, I’ll cover my two of my favorites, both found in my neck of the woods.

* Oh, I recognize that San Francisco’s Indian summer is only just beginning — but the farms themselves, which are located well outside of the realm of Karl the Fog, still abide by the rest of the world’s regular seasons.

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