The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga


The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga. Served with huckleberry sauce and pine nuts.

In my experience, people from Napa tend to discuss Calistoga with an air of levity. Is this fair? I’m not sure, but there may be a few reasons for this attitude. Perhaps it’s mainly because Calistoga has remained somewhat rustic, despite the tourism boom that seems to have affected the rest of the valley. Or maybe it’s because Calistoga is the very last stop to the north before you cross from Napa County over into Sonoma County (surprisingly enough, Calistoga is actually two miles closer to Healdsburg than it is to the City of Napa, which says quite a bit about our geography).

As the culinary centerpiece of Solage Resort & Spa, Calistoga’s Solbar is easily the town’s finest restaurant, having maintained its Michelin star since 2009. Though Solbar can easily be overlooked because [… read more …]

Book Review: “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” by Jonathan Dixon


April will mark the 10-year anniversary of when I first began attending the Culinary Institute of America, which feels difficult to believe. Has it really been that long? One decade removed, and I still lament my student debt each month, and I always try to discourage people, especially young line cooks, from attending my pricey alma mater.

I tell them to instead just keep working, and to push themselves to get into better and better kitchens while they’re young. If, at some point, they feel like they need to learn the academic and scientific side of cooking, then a junior college program can satisfy that requirement at a fraction of the cost.

The paradox to all of this sagacious wisdom is that deep down, I don’t regret my own decision to attend culinary school. I enjoyed the experience immensely, and I still have actual love for many of my [… read more …]

Book Review: “The Treasury of American Wines” by Nathan Chroman, 1976


Dust jacket for “The Treasury of American Wines” by Nathan Chroman, 1976. Please click to enlarge the photo to full resolution.

I’m a geek when it comes to food history, but I’m especially nerdy about California’s wine history. Old wine books are often fascinating to me because they’re like time capsules, snapshots from a bygone era. The California wine industry has evolved so dramatically over the last four decades, it’s interesting to be reminded of past trends and early beginnings.

To place “The Treasury of American Wines” into historical context,  this book was published in the summer of 1976, perhaps just weeks before California’s triumph at the now-famous Judgment of Paris. I thought it was prescient (and perhaps just coincidental) that the very wine that won the Chardonnay category in Paris — the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — is actually pictured on the dust [… read more …]

Book Review: “Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” 1989


“Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” Chronicle Books, 1989.

I’m convinced that used bookstores offer much more than any big box book retailer (what’s left of them, anyway). The problem with Barnes & Noble, or Borders when it existed, is that these stores don’t offer any old out-of-print books in their inventory. The large book retailers deal exclusively with new books, or new versions of old books, whatever the case may be. But as time goes by, there are so many interesting books that go out of print, our only chance of discovering them (if we missed them the first time around) is when they cycle back through a used bookstore.

I suppose that I’m the ideal used bookstore patron. First of all, I’m an old English major (not the normal prerequisite for becoming a chef, I admit). Second of all, I was born [… read more …]

The Last Days of Pacific Books and Arts, Inner Richmond San Francisco


One of the last morsels from Pacific Books and Arts…

I’ve been rediscovering San Francisco’s Richmond District lately because, well, I feel like I’ve probably devoted most of 2013 to eating through the East Bay. My epicenter for this exploration has usually been 8th and Clement, a locale that places more than a day’s worth of attractions within easy walking distance.

The five-block stretch of Clement between 5th and 10th includes such noteworthy restaurants as Good Luck Dim Sum, Clement Restaurant, Burma Superstar, Halu, Cherry Blossom Bakery, Pizza Orgasmica, and many others. There’s also a fantastic bookstore in the mix — Green Apple Books — which easily boasts the city’s best used cookbook selection.

I noticed today that another bookstore in the area, Pacific Books and Arts, was closing down. I hate to see mom-and-pop bookstores disappear, but Pacific Books was liquidating its inventory as part of a [… read more …]

Book Review: “Hong Kong Dim Sum 60″ by Various Authors

The cover of “Hong Kong Dim Sum 60.”

This book review is going to be woefully short on text, since I don’t read or speak a lick of Chinese. I’ll try to make up for it with pictures. I found “Hong Kong Dim Sum 60″ while I was browsing through Kingstone Bookstore inside Richmond’s Pacific East Mall (perhaps better known as the “99 Ranch Mall” by some). This cookbook was a serendipitous discovery — as many times as I’ve visited the Pacific East Mall, I had never before recognized Kingstone as a bookstore. Honestly, this little shop is surrounded with so many Hello Kitty knickknacks that it’s easy to overlook the main book section in the center.

Recently published in Hong Kong, “Hong Kong Dim Sum 60″ is a beautiful paperback collection of 60 dim sum photos, food created by Hong Kong’s most revered dim sum chefs. Of [… read more …]

Thirsty Reader Book Review: “The Telling Room” by Michael Paterniti


“The Telling Room” is not an easy book to categorize: Is it a post-modern travelogue, a footnote of food history, or a treatise on the virtues of the Old World? At any given moment, “The Telling Room” might be any one of these things, but above all else,  author Michael Paterniti’s book remains a culinary cautionary tale.

Billed as “A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese,” “The Telling Room” profiles the everyday agrarian life of former Spanish cheese maker Ambrosio Molinos, whose passion and taste for simpler times proves both inspiring and woefully short-sighted.

The consummate Castilian, Ambrosio is the creator of Páramo de Guzmán, an artisanal sheep’s milk cheese that embodied the very pinnacle of culinary craftsmanship throughout the late 80s and early 90s (earning several prestigious international awards along the way), but which has since become somebody else’s mass-produced, middle-of-the-road, [… read more …]

Vintage Kitchen: Carnation’s Noodle Ring with Creamed Chicken, 1935.

Why, yes, these are noodles. Thanks for noticing.

I turned up a copy of the “Carnation Cook Book” at a used-book shop in Santa Rosa the other day, and for a measly $2, I had to rescue it. Written by Mary Blake in 1935, this promo pamphlet is chock full of product placement, bound with staples, and just under 100 pages long. I believe this little cookbook was probably a giveaway, or perhaps cheap mail-order fodder, but I’m not totally certain about how it was originally distributed. As the author, Blake is credited as being Carnation’s “Director, Home Economics Department,” which fascinates me as a chef. Corporate recipe testing, and in that era — I wonder what the kitchen looked like, and how Mary Blake had become accomplished as a cook. Or did she cook anything, and only supervise a staff?

The photograph above is what sold me. [… read more …]

Book Review: “Knives at Dawn” by Andrew Friedman

Knives at Dawn

Despite our ever-growing fascination with food, the legendary Bocuse d’Or competition represents little more than a culinary footnote for most Americans, and given our taste for competition-based cooking, these circumstances can be somewhat puzzling. While many Americans could easily name several of the past “cheftestants” on Bravo’s “Top Chef “series, I would wager that less than 1% of Americans could name Team USA’s most recent representative at the Boscuse d’Or (or any of our past representatives, for that matter). Of course, the Bocuse d’Or’s lack of exposure here in the United States accounts for much of our national indifference. But while there may be a latent interest in the world’s most famous culinary competition, I still can’t help but wonder if the Bocuse d’Or will ever become anything more than the “soccer” of our culinary landscape.

I hate to sound so skeptical, but while reading “Knives at Dawn” by [… read more …]

Book Review: “Hungry Town” by Tom Fitzmorris


I’m headed to New Orleans a week from today. It’s a spiritual journey that I try to make at least once a year, just to recalibrate my taste buds with true American cookery. My point, before I get too carried away with thoughts of New Orleans cuisine, is that I discovered a discounted copy of “Hungry Town” by Tom Fitzmorris last week, which seemed like a fortuitous coincidence. What better way to get into the proper New Orleans mindset than by reading the culinary memoir of one of the Crescent City’s most important food critics? A native of New Orleans, Fitzmorris has authored countless magazine articles on New Orleans cuisine, as well as a comprehensive restaurant guide, and a weekly newsletter, The New Orleans Menu, that spans more than 30 years (the newsletter is now published online). Fitzmorris has also hosted a radio show in New Orleans since 1975, [… read more …]