Thursday, April 19, 2012
On one hand there’s the tiny foie gras and granny apple salad appetizer, perched on the end of a tongue depressor, with a mini perfume spritzer filled with key lime juice holstered on the other end. (The idea is put the goodies on your tongue and then spray them with the sublime citrus to “activate” the apple’s tart so it dovetails with the richness of the foie and caramel powder.) But on the other hand there’s Sherry Yard’s simple and flawless chocolate-almond cookie. On one hand, there are designer drinks like the far-ranging (and tasty) Spiced Apple Jack with Zacapa rum, yuzu, sour apple juice, Fuji apple puree and balsamic reduction by featured bartender Mariena Mercer of Cosmopolitan Las Vegas. On the other, there’s a perfect Patz & Hall Pinot made with just one specific type of grape from one specific patch of ground.
So it went at last weekend’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine, the fifth version of an event that rises every spring from the Del Monte Forest like a mouth-watering mirage: The elaborate and borderline unbelievable danced with the earnest and the everyday. Seven-course meals by teams of across-the-map star chefs descended a half-dozen at a time, seemingly from heaven, but locals like PBF&W “chef-whisperer” Dorothy Maras had hell to deal with, sorting through 18 18-foot trucks filled with food and mired in mud, and orders for 104 ingredients like goat (from Los Banos) and wasabi rhizome (from Japan) coming in 32 hours before Thursday’s go-time. Celeb chefs were gawked at and generally worshipped, but admitted they got into the gig before it was an all-powerful American obsession and – at the end of the day on the after-party dancefloor – remain basic eater-drinkers who just like to make others happy. Among 200-plus small-plot artisan wines – with my favorite local Pinot (Pisoni) and Syrah (Parsonage) within 10 yummy yards – those same chefs crave… a mass-produced beer. While food finds new altitudinal expression, opulence and price points, it still remains, in the end, just food. Anyone in search of perspective need look no further than Dory Ford’s Aquaterra Culinary team, where much-loved #2 Esteban Jimenez was conspicuous in his absence, hospitalized with an induced coma to stave off meningitis. (He’s now awake and recovering.)
Details from each extreme grow richer by virtue of the contrast – jumbo shrimp may be an appetizing oxymoron, especially with homemade aioli, but the Pebble foodie party’s paradoxes are tastier by about 17 miles. At the Tribute to a Legend Thomas Keller dinner, the contrast went beyond Daniel Boulud’s “quail egg en gelée a la Perigourdine” and Ron Siegel’s straightfoward oysters with elegant elderflower mignonette. David Bernahl’s opening thoughts on the PBF&W path were high hyperbole at its best. “Year one was like riding a bull, blindfolded,” he said, “on a sailboat, in a hurricane, with oil on the deck and you’re drunk.” (“Year five feels fantastic,” he added.) Against the understated notes shared by crucial early PBF&W collaborator Keller on the same stage, both his words and the chef’s found added meaning.
“You realize that just coming to work, and trying to do a little better than you did yesterday, really, really works,” Keller said.
There were plenty more comparisons to play with – but one more from Keller first: “People always have to know what’s next,” he says. “I’m conflicted: As much as I want to have something going, what’s wrong with right now, focusing on filleting a salmon and being happy with that?”
Perhaps the most risque oxymoron among the many: I was sexually assaulted without being touched.
“You loved having my [meat]balls in your mouth!” Todd Fisher yelled at Sunday’s grand tasting. “Now try my bone!” When I turned to his wife for comfort, she merely cackled and asked, “How’d you like that?” Further irony: the pervy-chef show gimmick is not a gimmick – dude is a freak – and also a gifted chef in need of no gimmicks. He’s built for creative tasting events like this – and for the happy four-chef chaos that was his STICKS (647-7500 x7389) kitchen at the insane Farewell to Foie Gras lunch. In other words, his bone marrow and popcorn was incredible, only a poblano-jalapeño-garlic-and-coriander baby chorizo on a fresh pressed parmesan gordita away from being Sunday’s best taste. (Ray Garcia of Santa Monica’s FIG – who last year stirred things up with bacon-wrapped bacon – crafted that one.)
Guy Fieri is a bundle of bleach-blonde spiked hair oxymorons himself, a “chef” who talks about drinking more than dishes, a surefire sell-out demo star whose last PBF&W performance featured an, um, stir fry. “I haven’t cooked a thing yet,” he said Saturday, “and I’ve been up here babbling for 10 minutes… If you don’t laugh at this stuff, it just gets worse.” But here’s something that needs no qualifiers: He can entertain the veal cheeks off a crowd. The rowdiest room of the weekend was either Saturday’s after-party tent or his cooking demo. He even had some helpful tips – “Don’t do a demo after me, I make a mess” – and news: He’s opening a restaurant just up the 101 in San Jose and training employees as this paper goes to print.
But these aren’t really opposing polarities in the pot here. Rather, they are parts of the whole. Case in point: “Some of you have heard me talk about passion before,” Keller says. “It’s definitely overrated. It’s really about desire and determination.” It’s harder to conjure the determination these talented chefs do without a little passion, but I hear you, chef (and I held onto your place marker in case the Smithsonian calls). It’s a “both/and” kinda deal. These characters love what they’re doing – as do their fans on the proliferating foodie fest circuit – and are willing to work their aprons off to keep doing it. The delicious dualities will continue, with wildly modern recipes based on age-old understandings, with chef shooting the skies as their greasy feet remain planted at the sink.
Keller gets it. He started as a dishwasher in his mom’s kitchen, blindfolded, riding a bull…
• Brian Christensen of Brophy’s Tavern (624-2476) is heading to the James Beard House in New York to sous for friend and former kitchen compadre Daniel Corey, of S.F.’s Luce, on Friday, April 27. “I knew I’d get there,” he says, “one way or another.”
• Freshly re-opened Habanero’s Grill & Cantina (375-3700) has new owners, a new menu and new prices – including $5.99 lunch specials, 3-6pm happy hour with half-off apps, and $4 drafts and $5 well drinks all the time. Look for their grand opening on Cinco de Mayo.
• In N Out’s got company in the upscale fast food department. Five Guys Burgers & Fries, which enjoys a similar cult following only with an East Coast origin (D.C.), is scheduled to open in Salinas’ Harden Ranch Plaza Monday, April 23.
• The food trucks are coming. The first Monterey Street Food Fest parks at Monterey County Fairgrounds noon-6pm Saturday, May 12. Hypesters are calling the free-admission Olympics of mobile munchies “gourmet and international” – and are working on getting me an actual list of vendors.
• Fifi’s (372-5325) knows wines as well as it does French food. Scramble for the last seat at tonight’s (April 19) Napa Cab and Merlot tasting ($20) and you won’t regret it.
• Carmel Food Company shuttered on Junipero between Fifth and Sixth earlier this week. RIP CFC.
• Sometimes you gotta throw something at people they don’t see coming. So instead of, say, the pork trio at Montrio Bistro (648-8880) – pork tenderloin stuffed with pulled pork and wrapped in Baker’s Bacon from Chef Tony Baker ($23.50) – Montrio owner Tony Tollner got a Seaside style pork trio at Mi Tierra (394-8113) for lunch the other day. For those scoring at home that’s a selection of chorizo, al pastor and carnitas tacos. Yum, plus the sizeable lunch for two is only $15. Tollner’s other restaurant, Rio Grill (625-5436), is throwing a new 11:30am-3pm Sunday brunch at people authored by Chef Cy Yontz: chicken and waffles with five-pepper gravy, carnitas omelets, tequila-cured-and-house-smoked salmon with sweet potato hash, poached eggs and Andouille sausage (the menu’s $11-$19.95).
• From the Perennial-Pursuit-of-a-Nice-Patio-For-a-Sunny-Afternoon-Beer File: Often-overlooked Santa Lucia Café (333-1111) next to East Village in downtown Monterey has a nice sidewalk “beer garden” and the German beers (and schnitzel, sauerbraten and brats) to back it up.
• Abalonetti (373-1851) toasts 60 years 5:30-7:30pm Thursday, April 19, the best way it knows how: with different delicious calamari treatments – one from each decade of existence, in fact, ranging from the Marty special (the ’50s) to buffalo-style (the ’00s). The $30 event benefits Peace of Mind Dog Rescue; there will also be adoptable dogs, Diggidy Dog fashions for auction and nice local wines.
• Pizza pioneering: Allegro (625-9970) is doing a wine dinner with Joyce ($50) 6pm Thursday, April 26 with antipasti, five different wines and four courses like caprese bruschetta salad, pasta alla Kathleen and spring lamb stew and polenta.
• Feeling your tequila is OK. Stealing your tequila is not. Police reports say Plaza Linda Restaurant (659-4229) was robbed of $8,000 worth of tequila some time Saturday night (April 14-15). First of all, I have an alibi. More importantly, we all have a chance to help the family op out by stopping by.
• Point Pinos Grill (648-5774) is popping a four-course English Ales Beer Dinner 6:30pm Saturday, April 21 ($55 in advance): Dory Ford goods like poached quail eggs and boudin noir, curried fish and shepard’s pie with braised beef cheek, all paired with EA’s best.
• As Thomas Keller said Friday, “How are we going to make whatever we’re doing today better tomorrow?”