11 January 2009

Sunday Repose - and - Three Local Restaurants

After nearly a month of celebrating, catching up, visiting and more or less constant companionship, I am enjoying a quiet, solitary Sunday. Please do not misunderstand, I thoroughly enjoyed my holidays and was lucky enough to be surrounded by family and friends, all of whom I care for very much. But I am a quiet person and need to remove myself from the world at large from time to time. I have my work, cats and kitchen (and a couple of films) and intend to spend a couple of quiet days at home. There is nothing more relaxing or therapeutic then standing in my pajamas, peeling, coring and chopping something (in this case apples) while listening to the npr or, today, Bach's Goldberg Variations. It is very important to focus on your chopping (if you care to keep all fingers, that is), and I find that cooking allows me to rid my head of other thoughts more than (almost) any other activity. I love yoga, but even then my brain runs ahead of me.

So now I find my mind more peaceful than of late and while my apple sauce cools, readying itself to be pureed and further cooked into apple butter and my lunch of leftover lentils (with carrots, potatoes, onion and garlic from my CSA share) digests, I will finally address those three local restaurants I keep referring to, but not writing about.

By local, I do not mean local Philly restaurants, but rather I refer to three restaurants in three different cities (towns) which organize their menus around the cuisine local to their location and season. My winter break was divided between Woodbury, CT, New York City and San Francisco/Berkeley and in each place I enjoyed delicious locally-influenced cuisine.

One summer after my first year of college, I had the great fortune to work for the catering side of Carol Peck's culinary services. Carol Peck, like Alice Waters (indeed, she has been named the Alice Waters of the East), is world-class chef who focuses on cooking largely organically, seasonally and connecting to local farms in order to create her gastronomic masterpieces. There is a pronounced French influence to her cooking, so dishes are often simple, made to highlight the individual ingredients. That being said, it is not rare to find Asian touches. Her restaurant, Good News Cafe, opened in Woodbury in 1993 and has enjoyed great success ever since. Though not exclusively so, her restaurant is very vegetarian friendly, and there are certainly vegan options as well. She employs excellent local bakers and pastry chefs, which means that I generally tailor my meal around dessert. My latest visit (or two, and I fear I might be combining various visits to this, my favorite restaurant in CT, but I am rather predictable in my order, so...) with my parents found me sticking to my usual plan of salad entree and saving room for dessert. On the daily specials was an incredible salad of shaved fennel, greens, feta cheese, shrimp, scallops, oranges and a citrus dressing. Yum is all I have to say to that. The dessert I saved room for was also a special: chocolate layer cake, with hazelnut buttercream frosting and brandy-poached prunes. I love dessert and these are the best. The greens in my salad very likely came from the greenhouses across the street. I also overheard Carol on the phone, speaking to the fish-monger across the street, looking to find todays fresh fish to feature on the menu. Obviously, such moment-specific ingredient choices can be much more stressful and perhaps risky in terms of cost, but I do greatly appreciate these efforts.

Before heading to San Francisco, I had lunch in New York with my friend and food-activist role model, Paula, at a restaurant I've already mentioned, Angelica Kitchen. As opposed to Good News Cafe, Angelica Kitchen is an entirely vegetarian/vegan restaurant, focusing on "organic plant-based cuisine." Their menu changes daily based on the season, weather and food availability. I love eating at Angelica Kitchen because of their innovative meals, using only plant-based ingredients to make the most satisfying of dishes. There is always a raw option and the daily specials get "recycled" the next day at a lower price. This economical and waste-less-minded reusing of food that might not have been consumed on day one, but is still perfectly edible (and delicious!), is an excellent restaurant model. I shudder to think how much perfectly edible food is thrown away if not eaten by customers. Why not serve the same special two days in a row (and owe up to it!)? For our lunch, Paula and I both partook in the lunch deal, which included kukicha tea, the soup of the day (a "creamy" root vegetable soup), a salad (filled with lots of goodies like sprouts and carrots), a bread (we chose the whole grain sourdough) and a spread (ginger carrot). We also indulged in one of their yummy desserts: a cranberry, hazelnut parfait; in place of yogurt there was a hazelnut cream. Good food, good practices and excellent company.

This meal was good preparation for all of the excellent organic/local/innovative/vegetarian/raw/delicious food that I would enjoy in the Bay Area. Let me tell you -- so good. But for now I am just going to focus on my dreamy, dream come true, meal at Alice Waters' restaurant in Berkeley, Chez Panisse! This was a much anticipated meal and outting and it did not disappoint. Compared to the other two restaurants I mentioned which either cater to or devote themselves entirely to vegetarians, Alice Waters does not. At least not in the restaurant downstairs, where each night's fixed menu features various (local, free-range, organic, etc.) meat courses. The cafe upstairs, however, does offer some vegetarian options and the weeknight fixed menu which accompanies the à la carte menu is (nearly) always vegetarian. That's where we ate! My dear friend gifted me a dinner at the cafe and had made reservations for our first night in Berkeley. I must note though, that while the building is utterly charming and the food delicious, the popularity of Ms. Waters' restaurant leaves the dining room packed to bursting, which makes savoring each and every last bite somewhat strained in the loud and cramped setting. I point this out, as the enjoyment of food is an important element of Slow Food and perhaps fewer diners at any given point should be considered for the return of intimate dining. That being said, it was such a lovely meal and generous gift (and the lights were not bright and the company and food both excellent, which distracted from the commotion in the rest of the place). I opted for the fixed menu: a green salad with avocado dressing and marinated beets, winter vegetable cous cous with harissa and, for dessert, tangerine sherbert with a wafer thin cat tongue cookie (the meyer lemon sherbert originally featured on the fixed menu was out). My friend had a salad that consisted of an unusual relative of the artichoke, potatoes, cauliflower with an anchovy based dressing, an incredible baked steelhead fish (perfectly cooked and unbelievably delicious -- yes, I tasted!) and burnt caramel gelato with chocolate crinkle cookies. Needless to say we split the desserts 50-50, because I could not resist that caramel gelato (my companion graciously ordered it upon my greedy request). So, you see, even the crowd could not prevent this from being a memorable meal. And I am very thankful for having been taken.

You might notice that there are no pictures. I was not a very good photographer during this trip - as in I took next to no pictures, and definitely not of food. Hopefully, you will be able to imagine the beauty of these foods on your own. Use your imagination!

(and while I wrote, my apple sauce was pureed, spices and sucanat were mixed in, and it is slowly bubbling - making incredible noises - its way towards apple butter goodness)

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