I had this former boyfriend, M., who used to listen to a Montreal-based band called Bran Van 3000. Since he had lived in Montreal for a spell, he actually knew some of the band members and used to go to their shows when they played locally. Bran Van was known for one radio hit–“Drinking in LA,” whose refrain was “What the hell am I doing drinkin’ in LA at 26?”
So, in the spirit of Bran Van 3000 and that fun song, my fellow Bay Area residents might ask me “What the hell are you doing eatin’ in LA?” I know many will think I’m committing some sort of betrayal or act of blasphemy for writing about yet another restaurant in LA, but it has to be done. Or maybe I’m just in need of a palate reset from being too spoiled by consistently good food at Bay Area eateries. The problem with consistent high quality, though, is that it ends up setting your bar very high. When the bar is high, it’s hard to find something that’s memorable or that reaches the level of superlative.
That’s been a problem I’ve had (I know, I know, spoiled first world problem) since coming to the Bay Area and dining in San Francisco and Oakland for the past five years. With most things so consistently excellent, I’ve ended up less and less impressed overall. Or maybe “less impressed” is not quite an accurate way to put it. It’s just harder to find something that really stands out and reaches a level of, yes, superlative memorable-ness—something that makes you want to keep coming back for more or that sticks in your head for a good while afterward. I had this discussion about consistency with my sister-in-law at Thanksgiving time a couple years ago, mentioning that it was hard to find stand-out stuff when everything is so good. Her reply?
“Then you need to have your palate readjusted. Either you need to go to the French Laundry or eat down on the Peninsula with us (they were living in Mountain View at the time) for a while where the food isn’t that great.”
This is not to say I haven’t had memorable stuff here. I have definitely had meals or individual meal components that have taken up residency in some corner of my mind under the rubric of “Wow – that was some amazing stuff!” For example:
- An entire meal shared with one of my college buddies (whose college nickname was PeeWee because he vaguely resembled Mr. Herman) and his wife when they were visiting town and invited me to have dinner with them at SPQR after a couple fun hours reminiscing at a wine bar. Everything superlative. They did some things with the humble carrot—every color of carrot imaginable, mind you—that blew my knee boots off on a typical cold, windy day in the Fillmore. (And we were sitting outside, so I really needed those boots, even with the heat lamp!)
- The eggplant meatballs at the now defunct Bar Bambino. I really liked that place and am very sad it is no more. They also had one of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever had. After years of living on the East Coast eating propah meatballs, I daresay those eggplant meatballs would have tempted me to give up a good Italian meatball made with the holy meatball trinity of ground beef, pork and veal to go back to being vegetarian.
- Cold heirloom tomato soup at Lolo in the Mission that I had over five years ago. Yes, I have been dreaming about that soup for five years. Which might be sort of f*ed up really or might well mean I’m in need of some sort of Freudian psychotherapy a la “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Whatevs… Lolo is one of the best kept secrets in San Francisco. Shhhhhh—don’t tell!
- Birthday lunch at (the also now closed) Ubuntu in Napa when Jeremy Fox was at the helm and it was shiny, new and très populaire. This was one of the best meals I’ve ever had—and completely vegetarian. His cauliflower three ways in a mini cast-iron crock not only introduced me to the glorious yumminess of vadouvan but it haunts me (in a good way) to this day. (Paging Dr. Freud…)
These meals not withstanding, I have to admit that a lot of the great—or really interesting—stuff I’ve had recently has indeed been in L.A. So maybe it should come as no surprise that Bon Appetit’s recent nominee list for the Best New Restaurants in America listed more LA restos than SF restos. Again, I know this is blasphemy to speak such things in the Bay Area. But even famed chef Rick Bayless recently said that the options in SF are far too similar after eating here on a recent visit, which, of course, caused a huge kerfuffle with our locals. But I have to say, he’s right, folks!
Anyway, my father was recently visiting from the Midwest where his away-from-home food choices are limited to crappy-ass chain restos. Blecccch. So it was our job to treat him to some good food during his three weeks in California, which my bro and I did, both in LA and in the Bay Area (where he got to have real bagels in Oakland at Beauty’s and great, Top 33 pizza in the nation at Pizzaiolo). Since my dad turned 79 in early September, we wanted to take him out for a special belated birthday dinner. We took him to Farmshop in Santa Monica. (Farmshop does, in fact, have a Bay Area location in Larkspur, so a bit less duking it out on LA vs. Bay Area food there!)
Farmshop is half restaurant, half gourmet grocery and deli. The Santa Monica location serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The deli sells artisan food products from all over the country, but I did notice, as I perused the store while waiting for our appetizers, that many of the products are from Bay Area artisans. (I was also proud to note that a lot of them were from Oakland – yay 510!) The shop also sells wine by the bottle – and on Tuesdays, I believe, you can buy wine from the shop at market price to drink in the resto. We took advantage of this deal and got a really excellent bottle of Pinot (Landmark, 2010 Grand Detour Pinot Noir, to be exact – look for this if you like Pinot—it’s one of the best I’ve had!) that normally retails for about $70 for more like $40, which was a bar-gain! The Tuesday wine deal is worth the price of admission right there!
Farmshop is one of those restos—and I’ve been seeing this more and more, at least in the Bay Area—that eschews cell phone use. Not that I blame them. It is sort of obnoxious for people to be either talking on the phone at the dinner table or so glued to their email or texts that they aren’t enjoying the company of the people they’re with. Isn’t that, afterall, part of the reason to be dining out and sharing a meal with someone in the first place? Because you, presumably, enjoy their company and want to talk to them? If not, then you may well need new friends (or a new family!) or you may be in need of a serious electronics de-tox! (If you can’t part with your electronics for the span of one nice meal, then maybe you should only go out to coffee shops with WiFi – that’s what they’re for!)
Anyway, I sort of like this policy BUT it makes me feel like a naughty child when I want to pull out the damned cell phone to take photos of what I’m eating, either so I can blog about it or maybe post to Foodspotting, which I do on occasion (read: when I remember). Every time I wanted to try to pull out the camera it seemed a waiter would walk by, and I was sure they were giving me the hairy eyeball. Or maybe it just seemed that way because I was being paranoid. I’m just sayin’ that taking a couple snaps of the chow proved to be a surreptitious act akin to sneaking a puff of cigarette in the school parking lot with the assistant principal seemingly looking straight at you as he walks to his car.
Despite feeling guilty about taking photos, the meal was a real pleasure (although maybe I should have felt guilty about how much I ate!). We started by sharing a couple appetizers around the table. The first was a super silky burrata served with steelhead trout roe (salty goodness!), baby onions and topped with maple syrup accompanied by rye toast. Second was a smoked Idaho trout rillettes served with Persian cucumbers, Asian pear, pink lemon (I’m not quite sure what this is, but it was good nevertheless), dill (of course—what’s a smoked fish without dill? A lonely, naked tasting fish!) and whole wheat bread. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I simply can’t get enough burrata, so that was great – especially with the combo of the saltiness from the fish roe and the sweetness maple syrup. Salty sweet gets me every time. Having both of these apps together felt a little like a mini Scando smorgasbord—and being a Scando family, that’s good by us!
I had pasta as my entrée. Pasta Mancini Fusilli to be exact. This was a smoky dish served with a star-anise-braised pieces of pork, tangerine, mint, fried chicken mushrooms, pistachio breadcrumbs and San Andreas cheese. Wow. It was super savory and smoky. I particularly liked the texture of the mushrooms, which provided some nice al dente-ness along with the fusilli. My only complaint was that it got to be a tad salty as I went along. This coming from someone who really likes salt and always has—I used to pour a teaspoon of salt into my hand and lick it when I was a kid (yes, seriously!). My dad once almost slapped my hand at a resto when I was a kid when I was about to shake some parmesan on my pizza because he thought I was dumping salt on it. That’s how much I like salt.
Being of Scando descent, my dad always goes for any sort of fish entrée whenever he’s out—also because my mom hated fish and wouldn’t let him make it very often. So my dad and sister-in-law had the salmon entrees, and my brother had a gargantuan pork chop. My niece had a bowl of pasta with butter and cheese large enough to feed the whole proverbial village it can take to raise a child. We’re one of those families that shares our entrees, so we each had bites of each other’s food. We also split an order of sweet corn with chanterelle mushrooms and figs. Everything was spot on. Everything stood out, each in their own right.
When I was a kid, we rarely ate dessert. Dessert mostly consisted of fruit in my family growing up. I didn’t start actually eating dessert after restaurant meals until I was in my mid-20s living on the East Coast. For some reason, my parents got really into having dessert over the past 10 years or so. My dad always wants dessert now, unless he’s super full. So dessert was definitely going to be on the menu that night—and as soon as my bro and I saw the list, we knew exactly what my dad was going to want to order. Butterscotch pudding. My dad loves butterscotch pudding. I actually do, too—that was a special treat to have when I was a kid. This was really great butterscotch – obviously made from real scotch—really rich, really buttery and nicely offset with some candied ginger. It also had a piece of pecan shortbread—which is yet another of my dad’s favorite things. I can barely remember a time—at least in the past 30 years—when my dad did not have Pecan Sandies in the house—and this Farmshop cookie put the Keebler elves to shame of course. We ended up sharing two desserts among the five of us, which was plenty. I can usually only take a couple bites of the really sweet stuff anyway, otherwise I get too much sugar overload. (Like I said, I’m a salty girl, not sweet, and not just because I’m sarcastic and sassy!) The second dessert was a chocolate banana semifreddo with peanut butter. So very Elvis. So much more sophisticated. So much more tasteful—and tasty.
Now I’m going to have to make the trek over the Richmond/San Rafael bridge to Larkspur sometime to try the Marin outlet. Whether in SoCal or NorCal, Farmshop is definitely worth checking out.
All recipes and photos copyright of Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes unless otherwise noted.