Monday, May 19, 2008

HOUSE OF NANKING

The food at this restaurant came out so quickly that within 20 minutes of sitting down, it was like the nine-course meal never happened. Luckily, this was food that could not be forgotten.

One wouldn’t know upon arriving at House of Nanking that it is famous, but you utter it’s name and any self-respecting foodie who hears you (like the bellman at our hotel) will moan in recognition. Not exactly located in the most savory section of San Francisco (the apartment above the restaurant had long strips of meat drying in laundry bags on the fire escape--some might find this grotesque, I thought it was awesome), don’t be afraid to surrender your control of this experience. What I mean is, when you sit down, there are no menus on the table. Peter Fang, the chef and owner, walks over to your table with a pad of paper and asks if he can order for you. He asks you how many dishes you’d like, and within minutes, the day’s specials start landing on the table. Beverages? Steamy and greasy in there, what else was I to do? I ordered a can of soda.

The food is amazing. Chinese food San Francisco style—each dish was fresh, colorful, and filled with al-dente vegetables. I was impressed. There were six of us, and the feast proceeded as follows:

1. Zucchini just barely cooked, sauteed with chili pepper, red onion and Thai basil.
2. “Shrimp Cakes:” Wonton-like (but bigger and more delicate), filled with tender shrimp, peas and drizzled with a hot peanut sauce.
3. Fried calamari—a dish I’ve had many times, but which my cohorts called “the best calamari” they’d ever had. Sprinkled with hot chili oil, this was the only dish without vegetables.
4. Congee with crispy fried beef, zucchini, basil and spicy chili oil. At the time, we were calling this “white soup” having no clue what was in it, but slurping the thick stuff down hungrily. It was indeed however, congee, or savory rice porridge.
5. Garlic Pork—my favorite dish of the entire meal. Pieces of steamed pork with lots of bitter wilted greens and a hot vinegar sauce poured over the entire thing. Spicy, savory piquant goodness.
6. Sesame Chicken—fried chicken strewn with raw pieces of bitter melon and cooked sweet potato.
7. Sauteed whole mushrooms with Thai basil and red onion.
8. Spring rolls—now, these were the best I’d ever had—full of roasted chopped pork, no filler.
9. Onion Cake--the shrimp cake wasn't enough for our party, they had to have the onion cake (that they tried there the day before). Same thing--delicate fried won ton wrapper filled this time with scallions and drizzled with peanut sauce.

Everything came and went so fast and furiously--hot, crisp, fresh, salty, sour and alive. We left the restaurant stuffed, and as we walked out, I glanced up at the beef jerky hanging off the balcony of an apartment overhead and smiled, wondering when I'd eat something that authentically flavorful again.

House of Nanking is located at 919 Kearny Street, San Francisco

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


As many of you know, I had a fantastic trip to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. The smell of that city (of cool ocean, cedar and eucalyptus) was permanently etched into my sensory memory when it first blew into my nostrils as a child on family vacations. To me that scent embodies the city’s feeling of freshness. The sun shines on it. People smile there. People wear color.

The California sun seems to bestow upon it’s kingdom the promise of hope, new ideas and thus, innovation. These things in a way are true of much of the West Coast, but in California there is a lightheartedness that prevails—a feeling that allows people to try new things without too much seriousness. For example, a discussion over a light dinner led a friend of my Mother’s to state that to her, a European ex-pat, California is where one can reinvent themselves numerous times over the course of their lives, and that’s okay. Earlier that day, I met a friend for lunch, and afterward strolled over to her boyfriend’s office, where I met him and found that he runs an entire company (at the age of twenty-eight) wearing a t-shirt and jeans. There are grown-ups running and raising families in cooperative businesses (The Juice Bar collective, The Cheese board, etc.). In Berkeley, it’s a system that works.

Anyway, coming from cold, grey Portland, I was easily seduced by all of this. There's the weather, and then all there's the food! I mean, within moments after I arrived at at the airport, I was enjoying a delicate shrimp and avocado salad at the Cliff House, taking in the a breathtaking view with the sun gleaming high above the sea.

There is so much delicious, fresh and inventive food to consume in the Bay Area, that my strategy was not to seek out large, extravagant meals, but instead to nibble my way through those four days. Which I did with satisfaction.

One place that is a mecca for this type of grazing is the Ferry Building, which houses a mall of gourmet shops and restaurants of the highest quality. Two days a week they hold one of the most beautiful farmer’s markets that I’ve ever seen, with chef’s demonstrations on Saturdays. We arrived there mid-morning on our first day in the city, and didn’t have much time before we were to catch the ferry to Sausalito (which honestly bears an incredible resemblance to the island of Capri, or the Italian Riviera—a little piece of Europe in America). So we grabbed a couple of lattes and I got a cinnamon roll from Acme bakery (the famous bakery that supplies most of the most esteemed restaurants in the city with their table bread). That cinnamon roll was my favorite kind—not the grotesque bready or gooey kind, but the type that seems like the baker took some croissant dough, sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar and just rolled it a different way. Mmm...

When we returned from our ferry ride, it was, conveniently lunch time (okay, I planned it that way). We poked our heads into the various restaurants, open kitchens bustling with cooks preparing daily specials. My mom chose some chicken soup, but I decided to try Japanese food from the most impressive Japanese deli, DelicaRf-1.

I think I’ve mentioned this place before—bustling, efficient, clean and healthy, their cases are filled with mounds of seaweed salad and trays of beautiful delicacies. They sell bentos for super-speedy lunches, or pick-your-own combinations at the counter. I had a chicken-tofu cake (a dense and flavorful patty laced with onion and hijiki and topped with daikon), hijiki seaweed salad (rich and black, decorated with bright green soybeans and chewy mountain yam gelatin), and mizuna greens with carrot and marinated lotus root salad. They also had these amazingly alien looking things that were messy balls of veggie tempura—check ‘em out...


A few weeks back, my best friend came to Portland to attend her Grandfather’s eightieth birthday. Her grandparents live out on the Oregon Coast, and I was lucky to be invited to the party as well. I jump at any chance to see the ocean, or to spend time with good people, so I was really looking forward to this event. Little did I know what a treat the food would be...

We arrived early to set-up at the Newport Visual Arts center, which was a small room with two huge walls of glass, perched high above the coastline. From high above, you could see seagulls diving in the air against layers of grey clouds moving over miles of beach. It’s an incredible spot. The room itself was decorated with colorful glass, flowers, and desserts. Two women made at least ten different desserts, set around the room on cake stands and platters. Each homemade confection was labeled with personal attributions like “Mrs. Regan’s Persimmon Pudding,” and some not-so-personal, such as "Grammercy Tavern Gingerbread." I thought this was incredibly sweet—the love and care in preparing each of these treats, and the thoughtful presentation.

The desserts were set out during the dinner service (passed hors d’oeuvres catered by Local Ocean Seafood in Newport—fresh oysters, salmon, shrimp, etc.) so that all of the guests could admire (and salivate) over them throughout the evening. I was lusting after the least beautiful of them all (but most gluttonous)—the pumpkin trifle. And, I guess so was someone else, because an hour into the party, there was a huge spoon stuck right through the middle (and one portion missing). I guess an enormous bowl of whipped cream is impossible for some to resist.

Apparently, the trifle was an accident, as Victoria, who made many of the desserts, told me that she started with a pumpkin cake that didn’t turn out as she wanted it to and ended up turning the thing into a trifle (speckled with walnuts, spice and cream, maybe some vanilla pudding--this thing was heaven and hell at the same time—I went back for seconds).

Another treat was that a close friend of the family is a goat farmer and artisan cheesemaker. I met her at a Thanksgiving on the farm when I was in college, when she just began making her cheese and only sold it locally. That year we had suckling pig instead of turkey (luckily my friend’s Grandpa is a welder, because it required a custom-made baking pan). She now goes by River’s Edge Chevre, and sells her cheese at Whole Foods and New Seasons in Portland. She had at least five different cheeses out on a marble block, but my favorite was her smoked chevre. She smokes a maple leaf, spritzes it with bourbon, then wraps the chevre in it and smokes that. It was amazing—reminiscent of the flavor of smoked gouda but softer, silkier and earthier. By the end of the evening, I had stuffed myself sick with all those tasty finger-foods, but isn't that what being with family is all about?

Saturday, May 03, 2008


4-30-08

Today I became the proud parent of my very first musubi. Yep, that’s it there in the picture. Isn’t it cute? I made it with brown rice and everything.

I had to laugh when I finished it this morning, because I didn’t intend to make just one precious little musubi. I just didn’t make enough rice. I’m so used to making such a small little pot of rice for my meals that I thought nothing of it, and little did I know that the whole pot would fill up just one musubi mold!

See, the thing about musubi is that it is a food created to use up excess—to recreate leftovers into something different to eat later. Usually (for those smart enough to own a rice cooker—now #1 on my kitchen wish list, sorry blender, you’ve been out ranked), there’s always extra rice left in the pot after dinner. So you take that, some protein (teriyaki chicken or beef, tofu, sausage, egg, whatever), add a little drizzle of shoyu, press it in the mold, and wrap it up in nori. I used smoked salmon and a little sprinkle of furikake—I’ll see how it tastes when I bring it to work tonight. Musubi is the perfect travel food—compact and contained, they stay good for hours, and they’re meant to be eaten at room temperature.

I’m proud of my little musubi, especially because I made it with the old musubi mold that my Tutu (grandmother) gave to me years ago, and the sight of its little box conjures memories of her cooking in her kitchen. Next time though, I’ll make a bigger batch (and try not to burn the rice).

Thursday, May 01, 2008

5-1-08

You really don’t know what you’ve got till...you can’t have it anymore. A naturopath prescribed an anti-inflammatory diet for my recent onset of “digestive issues,” and it’s been a mess of cravings ever since. I have a fairly healthy diet, I think—mostly organic, mostly whole foods, little processed or packaged foods, and a decent amount of fresh produce. Little did I know, that somewhere in between the lines of my healthy diatribes, I had become a sugar junkie.

Yep, now that I can’t have sugar (in it’s true form, or corn syrup or artificial sweeteners), I try to get my fix in anyway that I can. I think about sweet stuff all the time. I can’t wait for my morning oatmeal with maple syrup (the amount that I pour on is surely not allowed in the diet, but I have to give myself some slack somewhere, right?). I squeeze honey over my almond butter smeared on crackers, order the poached pear salad at work every other day, and have been eating more fresh fruit than ever before. I’m about to go online to see if there’s a recipe for sugar-free macaroons (stevia anyone?), if those even exist.

But sweets aren’t even the worst. The worst craving is for golden-outside, soft and chewy inside, warm-and-waiting-for-butter baked goods. The desire that I feel for croissants, muffins, bagels, ciabatta bread, foccacia and even whole wheat toast, is overwhelming. Especially, when I see them, round and ready, in glass pastry cases just about everywhere I go. Rarely have I ever really thought about these things as special, or lusted over the many varieties of sandwich bread. As bread is such a standard element of the American diet, I had never even thought about what life would be like without it, or the emotional comfort that it provides. When it’s cold outside, and you’re tired and hungry, home late after a nine hour shift at work, not being able to throw a piece of toast into the toaster and eat it warm with butter is almost painful.

I was inspired to note this as I’m sitting in the coffee shop at Powell’s bookstore, sipping on my caffeine-free rooiboos chai (which probably contains some form of sugar, hopefully honey, but really, I don’t care), after to summoning every element of willpower I possess in order to suppress the compulsion to give in and buy one of the glistening pastries in the case at the register (is it just me, or are the double-wheel cinnamon rolls there the best looking ones you’ve ever seen?).

Walking in here, I stopped at the cookbook aisle and flipped through one of the Moosewood cookbooks, reading through recipes. As I really got into the details of one of the pancake recipes (envisioning them warm and brown and...), I almost dropped the book. My body tripped for just a second as I got lost in the idea of those delicious treats, and, just like a strength test at the chiropractor’s office, my weakness was pin-pointed.