Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Catch A Falling Star - Help Save Poleng Lounge!

Go to Poleng Lounge. Go there often. And go there soon. Word on the street is that they may soon meet the fate of many small restaurant startups here in San Francisco. I’m not worried though. Even if Poleng Lounge does close, 2007 Rising Star Chef Tim Luym’s anti-fusion menu is so relevant that I’m sure it will immediately reincarnate itself somewhere else here in the Bay.

Integrity of color on the local Half Moon Ahi Poke tells you that its fresh, but if you’re only going to get one raw fish plate then go for the Butterfish Kinilaw instead. This spicy, coconut-scented ceviche is true indigenous islander eating, born of a tradition of immediacy and locality. An order of this alongside a glass of Anchor Steam and I am content.

The Beef Tenderloin Salpicao is always a must-order. Think “shaking beef” topped with taro crisps, served alongside a poached leg bone, stack of coconut toasts, and a fresh pineapple/cilantro salsa. The toasts are cut to a size that’s perfect for dipping into the leg bone. Be prepared to fight over the marrow. If you’re like me you’ll struggle to negotiate every last bit of the unctuous beef butter out of the bone. Just make sure it lands on the plate and not on the floor. I accidentally got some into the tread of my sneakers once and was stuck with slick shoes for the rest of night.

The Dungeness Garlic Crab Butter Noodles are worth any season’s price, carry just the right amount of heat, and are even better with a squeeze of kalamansi. It’s the Thanh Long experience at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the calories. The recipe is posted on my blog if you want it. (www.UltimateBites.com)

The Golden Gindara was the very first black cod dish I’ve had anywhere outside of my own home that actually did the fish justice. They must have noticed our reaction because the manager brought us a second serving of the succulently steamed fish free of charge.

One of my favorite dishes is no longer on the menu. The Pineapple & Pork Butubara Yakitori, used to come on actual flat yakitori skewers, and it’s a good thing too because the pre-braised pork belly would have melted right off of regular skewers. Bring it back! Replacement menu items include fragrant Pandan Chicken Pouches, and Curried Corn Fritters.

Everyone seems to love the Crispy Adobo Wings, which are indeed wings but are decidely not adobo. The side of Achara is a nice accompaniment, but people say my achara is better (It’s the one thing I can claim I do better than the Poleng kitchen).

On my first visit the Salt & Pepper Drunken Shrimp must have left all their shrimpiness in their rice wine bath, and were not crispy enough to eat confidently knowing that you are not going to choke on shrimp shell. The lack of a crispy shell on the shrimp, and the dryness of the meat on the adobo wings both tell me that their fry temperature, on that day anyway, was too low. Adobo wings on all subsequent visits were excellent, but I have not yet worked up enough courage to order the shrimp again.

The tea menu is worth checking out even if you don’t think you’re a tea drinker. For us newbies to tea culture each pot comes with its own timer so we know exactly when it’s ready to drink. Try pomegranate oolong.

If you’re feeling adventurous ask for the “Secret Menu”, and your server will whisper an exclusive ever-changing menu that on any given night might include street food offerings such as pork sisig, braised lengua, fried chicken oysters, grilled gizzard skewers, etc.

Now that there’s air conditioning in the back room I’ll be giving the nightlife here another chance. They usually play great music here, but it used to be hard to enjoy yourself when the humidity level was as Southeast Asian as the food.

Many Filipino diners will have to adjust to the toned down seasoning on most dishes. Just remember that these dishes are small plates meant to be snacked on with a glass of beer or wine while enjoying the company of your friends. The food is neither salty nor rich enough to warrant steamed rice to balance it out. Your palette does not need the rice. Your body mass index does not need it either.

Dungeness Garlic Crab Butter Noodles

Serves 4

From Tim Luym of Poleng Lounge in San Francisco. If you're starting with a whole crab, you can use the "butter," or tomalley, to boost the crab flavor. Maine Rock or peekytoe crab can be used instead of Dungeness. At the restaurant, Luym serves the noodles in the crab shell.


For the sauce

1/3 cup soy sauce

2 teaspoons fish sauce (see note)

2 teaspoons sriracha (see note)

2 tablespoons michiu (rice cooking wine, see note)

3 tablespoons kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce, see Note)

2 tablespoons mirin (see note)

For the noodles

1 pound fresh egg noodles, chow mein thickness

3 ounces unsalted butter

4 tablespoons minced garlic

1/2 pound meat from a 1 1/2- to 2-pound Dungeness crab

Reserved crab "butter" (optional, see Note)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Chopped cilantro, for garnish


Instructions: Combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.

Boil 3 quarts of water, and cook egg noodles to al dente, about 6-8 minutes. Drain in a colander, rinse in cold water and set aside.

Combine butter and garlic in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Once butter begins to brown and garlic gets fragrant (about 1 minute), add the egg noodles and stir until butter coats them evenly.

Turn heat to high. Continue to saute for 3 minutes, adding the sauce mixture and combining evenly with the noodles. Once noodles have been cooked through (2 minutes), add the crabmeat and "butter" (tomalley), if using, and cook for an additional 1 minute.

Stir in lemon juice. Serve noodles on a plate, top with cilantro.

Note: Fish sauce, sriracha, michiu, kecap manis and mirin can be found at Asian markets. To extract "butter" or tomalley from a crab, lift off top shell and spoon out the thick yellow substance.

Per serving: 700 calories, 24 g protein, 91 g carbohydrate, 22 g fat (12 g saturated), 183 mg cholesterol, 2,377 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

When In Groningen...

We flew into Schiphol and immediately hopped on a tour bus for a scenic 6 hour drive through endless windmills and pastures on which grazed the happiest cows on earth, until we got to Groningen province in the northeasternmost tip of Nederlands. Usquert (population 1200) to the general public is not known for much else but their International Dance Festival, which is what we were there for. Over the course of 11 days, however, some friends and I would come to know it as home. Nini and I were lucky enough to have been selected to stay with the De Boer family, who in addition to speaking Dutch also spoke German, French, and thankfully English, and whose backyard included a strawberry patch and 2 egglaying chickens.

It was these two chickens who heroically provided our breakfast everyday morning. Like clockwork, I would hear the chickens make avian lamaz sounds for around 20 minutes until an eventual silence gave me my cue to make my way down ladders for stairs to the “magic box” where two eggs had magically appeared, still warm and wet with cloacal fluid. Being the guests of honor, Nini and I indulged in these little treasures, while our host family made due with the store-bought variety. I fear that those are the freshest eggs I will ever eat in my life. With the deepest orange yolks surrounded by creamy whites, we had them simply fried in butter, over ham, cheese, toast, and more butter.

Hearing the chickens in labor every morning while I lay comfortably in bed gave me a newfound appreciation for the incredible edible. I will not so hastily crack open an egg to eat with my leftover whatever, nor will I whip up 4 egg omelettes for myself on a whim. On the contrary, I have found that I am perfectly satisfied with one fresh, well-prepared egg.

After being served spaghetti one night, and southwestern-style chili the next, we could sense that they were attempting to cater to our “American” tastes. Finally we requested that they just cooked as they normally would, so we could experience how Dutch people ate.

One night we sprinkled bacon over stamppot, a root vegetable mash that Fenny made under one condition: that I not tell the neighbors. Apparently nobody eats stamppot during the summer. As I sat there sweating I understood why. Another night we ate the best meatballs ever, bigger than baseballs, laced with onions, wading in their own juices. Tasted like a really great burger. Served alongside what amounted to a cauliflower gratin: boiled cauliflower smothered in nutmeg scented white sauce. It seemed like beet sugar was sprinkled on everything, making it addictively good.

We were fortunate enough to visit just 2 weeks into herring season, so the pickled fish was at its freshest & sweetest. At first I was a little worried at how well the diced onions stuck to the sides of the fish even as I dangled it vertically by its tail. I expected it to be overly fishy, but it was very clean tasting, much like sashimi of mackerel. After a test nibble I quickly inhaled the entire fish in the manner of Heathcliff the Cat, and loved it so much that I requested it 3 days later.

The Dutch might have omega-rich herring fishing industry to thank for their cardiovascular health, but they can thank the dairy industry for their height. These people are giants. Standing in the center of Groningen city, where the population is homogenously Dutch, you really get the point. This was dairy country. And it showed. The Dutch surpassed the Americans in the 1950s in average height. The average height of a Dutchman is 6 foot 1 inch. Yet they couldn’t care less about basketball.

Dutch yogurt is rich, creamy, naturally sweet, less acidic than the yogurt we’re used to, and sipped through straws from Capri-Sun type container’s. It was this taste of quality yogurt that made me seek out quality American yogurts back home like Stonyfield Farms.

I miss air pudding, a bubbly custard that pours easily out of a carton and into a bowl of berries. I missed Hagelshlag (chocolate sprinkles we shook onto buttered toast), until a friend told me that you can get it at 99 Ranch Market. I also missed “stroopwafel”, syrup waffles traditionally softened just before eating over cups of steaming hot coffee or tea. I recently found miniature versions of the caramel sandwich cookies available at Trader Joe’s, and heard that Starbucks sells them now too.

I still have a bottle of jenever in my freezer, and haven’t yet found an occasion special enough to open it. The national liquor is the juniper-flavored precursor to gin. Many Americans mistakenly believe that this is Dutch “gin”, but in fact is something completely different. Ketel One started out as, and still is today, a jenever distillery.

When I came home sick one night, they served me shots of a liquor called Berenburg, which tasted remarkably like Jaegermeister. I was good as new the next morning. It could have been the herbs used in brewing the stuff. Or it could have been that the alcohol raised my body temperature just enough to kill whatever bug I had. Either way, getting completely wasted will forever be an option for treatment.

The Dutch don’t eat anything after 5:00 except yogurt or pudding. Many restaurants close around this time, making late night dining impossible. This took a few days for my stomach to get used to, but not as long to recognize the health benefits of the tradition. They claim that the secret to their health is the regular consumption of the herring, but it probably has more to do with their active lifestyle. In the U.S., when the elderly get too old to walk, they use wheelchairs or lie in bed. In Nederlands, they say that when the elderly get to old to walk, they ride bikes.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hash House A Go Go

As I swing the diner door open I see Nini pouting in the waiting area with her arms and eyebrows folded, clearly upset at the news the hostess has just given her. I had used my girlfriends’ arrival as an opportune excuse to revisit Hash House A Go Go, which is located about a mile away from San Diego Airport. I can’t blame her for being angry with me. She has just flown in hungry from SFO, specifically instructed to skip breakfast by yours truly. Lesson 1: Save your appetite. This I had learned during my last encounter with the mammoth portions of what they call “twisted farm food” served here. After spending the past 20 hours building up my appetite, and the past month visualizing myself actually eating more than the third of a plate that was my limit during my last visit, I wasn’t going to let an extra hour & a half wait distract me from my primal goal of gluttony. Nevertheless, under the circumstances I felt obligated to expedite our seating. A gray-haired man in a polo shirt stomped away from the podium grumbling, “…this is ridiculous…,” and I recognized an opportunity. A sincere smile and a few kind words were all it took to be seated almost immediately at the bar.

After the unexpected gesture of hospitality we felt obligated to order some drinks. A potent Bloody Mary came with a skewer of pickled green beans, cornichons, and olives. Everything about this place feels heavy: industrial design, steel furniture, rock music, high-alcohol drinks, high-carb food, & the platters it is served on. With Depeche Mode blasting in our ears, we waited for our meal to arrive, distracting ourselves from our empty stomachs by reminiscing about the dinner we had a month prior at the now occupied table across a packed dining room.

As a warning of what would follow, we were each presented with a biscuit the size of a softball, served with butter & honey. We both wished we had just brought it home to enjoy the next day in order to save as much room in our tummies as we could for the main courses, which followed not too long after…

Her Pan Seared Chicken was strewn with fried leeks and propped up on a stage of fried polenta triangles, roasted asparagus thick as cigars, and creamy mashed potatoes, with grape tomatoes and mushrooms swimming in the moat of Madeira cream sauce that encircled the tower of food.

My Wild Boar Pot Pie was erupting with yams, broccoli, peppers, gravy, and of course wild boar, which was dark, lean, full-flavored, and nothing like pork. The cracker crust bowl was unusually thick and not as flaky as I like, but probably as delicate as it could be considering the half gallon of pie ingredients that it was used to contain. The mashed potatoes that the cracker bowl was balanced on were decent, but together with the cracker there may have been too much starch on the plate, especially in proportion to the amount of gravy.

Both dishes could have done without 2 things: the mashed potatoes and the fried angel hair garnish (presumably simulating hay). They only add unnecessary height and calories, and take focus away from the fried polenta and the cracker crust, in the chicken and boar dishes, respectively. Then again, the culture code for food in America is “fuel”, and perhaps it is this emphasis on quantity that appeals so much to active lifestyle San Diegans whose purpose in eating out might be to refill their tanks.

Sauce on the edges of the plates made me think that maybe the kitchen was messier than it should be. My initial instinct was to hate on the overdone rosemary branch garnish that seemed to be protruding from everyone’s plate. But the aroma of its oils made me feel like we were sitting in the same forest our chicken & wild boar played in.

When my Sage-Fried Chicken Benedict came I had no trouble finding the trademark rosemary branch violently protruding from the chicken breast, but I did have trouble finding any suggestion of sage. I was expecting chicken fried in a batter containing sage. What I got was a bacon-wrapped chicken breast over two more slices of bacon, smothered in a chipotle cream that could have used more chipotle. The bed of fresh baby spinach was extremely helpful in rationalizing to myself why I could get away with eating all that bacon. Their signature “hay” garnish of fried angel hair made yet another appearance, only this time it was positioned on top of the mashed potatoes, and underneath everything else, making it impossible to remove.

We left that day once again with a bag of leftovers that had us feeling like we had placed an order for pick-up. You might say this is part of the experience, and I for one am someone who assigns value by how many meals you can actually squeeze out of one order of food. But breakfast is really something that is best eaten fresh. This brings us to… Lesson 2: Share entrees. The house charges a $2.50 “sharing fee” to keep diners from eating family style, but this can be avoided by having your friends just order sides. So the bag of leftovers isn’t entirely unavoidable.

We spent the rest of that day not eating and wondering why people seemed to line up at Hash House only for breakfast & brunch. Nobody seemed to be saying anything about the dinner menu. I knew I would definitely be coming back, but it would not be for breakfast. Our dinner experience had been fantastic. Our leftovers were very good the next day. Breakfast leftovers are never good. And for dinner you can still get signature dishes like Griddled Chili-Crusted Indiana Maple Duck Breasts, Crispy Indiana-Style Hand-Hammered Pork Tenderloin, and the Sage Fried Chicken with hardwood-smoked bacon waffle tower, the New York Times favorite. On top of all that, there’s no line for dinner. Their dinner menu might be one of San Diego’s best kept secrets. And I, for one, would like to keep it that way.

Lesson 3: Avoid dinner rush

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Patio Filipino

Watch out point-point joints. More discriminating diners are pointing toward the new wave of sit-down alternatives of San Bruno, which are setting a new standard for the way we eat Filipino food. There’s Kuya’s, Ihaw-Ihaw, Tribu Grill, and my favorite at the moment: Patio Filipino, where they emphasize the lesser known Spanish-influenced dishes comprising 80% of the fare that is considered Filipino today.

After centuries of colonization, the Spanish left behind a legacy of Catholicism, last names, and the “guisado” method of sautéing with garlic & onions. Classic recipes were refined with local ingredients to help form a cuisine that is distinctively Filipino.

Thought pancit & lumpia was all there was to it? Think again. Ever tried Callos ala Madrilène? Bistek Tagalog? Catfish Escabeche? Carne a la Cubana? Leche Flan? How about Paella Valenciana?

A great starting point for anyone who wants a broader understanding of Filipino food, this is the place I take people who have never had a chance to try the diverse cuisine. First impressions are everything. While the menu does go far beyond the safe bets of adobo, pancit, and lumpia, offerings are served in an environment that might inspire even the uninitiated to be a little adventuresome.

No other restaurant of its kind in town does it quite like Patio Filipino, so you can expect them to be busy every day of the week. In addition to pleasing the many locals who frequent the eatery, Patio has become a destination spot for people who come from far and wide to visit the place they saw advertised on TFC (The Filipino Channel). The mixed crowd of families, young foodies, and business professionals keeps the place packed, with up to an hour wait on the weekends. Either make a reservation or arrive early when they open and you won’t have to endure the torture of watching others eat. On subsequent visits you may even want to play it safe and place an order for pick-up by phone. The waiters do their best at turning tables. And kitchen production is as fast as it can be when you are cooking fresh food that is made to order. There simply aren’t enough tables to satisfy the demand. It also doesn’t help that the soft Spanish guitar and the cozy feel of the modest dining room tend to make patrons take their time. Still, most seem to think that it is worth the wait.

On one visit I wished the bussers would use a soapy towel to wipe down the tables instead of spraying them with Windex. Ammonia isn’t the most appetizing of aromas. Other than that the service is usually considerate. Another time I was glad that they forgot one of my orders because we had ordered too much food anyway. After realizing what had happened they sent over a free dessert to make it up to us. Every time I go back hoping that they forget to cook something, but I’m never that lucky.

Even after 8 visits, I’m still working on conquering the entire menu, but here are the dishes that keep me coming back…

Lengua Champignon is beef stewed in a white wine cream sauce with mushrooms & green olives. This is usually the most tender beef you will ever taste, but it was surprisingly chewy the last time I ordered it. I wished they would have told me that they were all out rather than rush a braise. Once out of 5 orders is forgiveable.

If you’ve never tried balut but have always been curious about the high protein aphrodisiac, here’s your chance. The Balut ala Pobre is de-shelled, sautéed, and covered in gravy, as denaturalized as this delicacy of nearly-developed duck embryo gets. Its hearty, healthy, guilt-free, and best of all you’ll be able to show off to all your Filipino friends that you’ve tried it.

Their Sizzling Sisig is the best version of the palutan that I’ve had in the Bay Area. Diced pork with onions & jalapenos is served traditionally on a hot plate and mixed tableside with a raw egg, which helps brings everything together. It felt wrong not having a glass of San Miguel to sip on between bites. As delicious as it is, one missing and essential ingredient is an acidic component of either citrus or vinegar, which helps cut through the pork fat. I guess I’ll ask for calamansi on the side next time.

Sizzling Bangus Sisig is the milkfish version of the prior, and is served with lemon wedges on the side. This is bangus in its most accessible form: boneless and chopped so that the belly fat is evenly distributed among the smoky meat for a perfect mouthful every time. This one seems to be the favorite of most the females I eat with. What woman wouldn’t like the idea of substituting heart-healthy fish for pork while still feeling like you’re eating meat?

My personal favorite is the Crispy Binagoongan. In a lot of other places this dish can tend to get dry and overly salty, but these pitfalls are avoided with a few thoughtful variations. Diced fresh tomatoes & ripe mangoes balance out the richness of the bagoong (shrimp paste). The bed of grilled eggplant serves to soak up all the juices, and its creaminess is a nice counterpoint to the crisp skin of the roast pork. This dish is their best-seller. Try it and you’ll know why.

If you’re feeling really naughty, order the Sizzling Softshell Crab, 3 whole crabs lightly fried and served still hissing in a garlicy sauce of “taba ng talanka” (translation: crab fat). I have always thought of talanka as the “foie gras of the ocean,” and caloricly this dish is the seafood equivalent of topping a seared duck breast with fattened duck liver. Just make sure you have brought along enough people to share this dish with, because it is best when eaten immediately, and you will feel guilty if you end up eating more than one crab.

If all this food sounds rich that’s because it is. DO NOT come here if you have a heart problem. DO come here if you wouldn’t mind developing one. Patio Filipino makes no apologies for what it is: sinfully decadent fiesta food. Just try not to make every little event a special occasion as an excuse to eat here. As long as you come here every other week and not every day of the week you probably won’t need to go on another Hydroxycut binge.

Come here with your friends and eat family-style to try a little bit everything. Come here to have your first taste of Filipino food. Come here to experience the food that you could get away with eating more often if you weren’t sitting on your ass all day. But most of all come here to witness the future of dining, Filipino style. Come here once and you will come back again…probably sooner than you should.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Universal Café

We took it as a good sign that the menu was slightly different from the one listed online.

When a chef is committed to using only the highest quality ingredients available to her on any given day, the menu might change no matter how inconvenient it may be for the kitchen & staff.

After getting over the initial disappointment of not being able to order the lobster paella and chicken liver tagliatelle we had been thinking about on the rainy ride to the Mission District, I focused on the menu in my hands. It being such a cold & wet winter evening, we agreed to comfort ourselves with a selection of Niman Ranch proteins. I cook mostly fish for myself at home so I was excited at getting my fix of red meat.

The black pepper and rosemary scented olive oil that came with the crusty bread was flavorful enough to keep us from asking for balsamic. Behind us is a single row of tables squeezed so close together it looks like it would be impossible for the person sitting against to wall to get out without having to slide sideways and ask for an apology from her neighbor. We were seated at the bar because the place was packed and we had no reservations, but it gave us a perfect view down the line. Imagine how organized 2 cooks have to be in an undersized kitchen serving 40 occupied seats. It was entertaining watching chef/owner Leslie Avalos roast chicken, sauté skate wing, slice flatbread, and scoop ice cream all at the same time.

Delivered much sooner than we expected considering the circumstances, the rustic offerings stood in sharp contrast to the industrial setting. I knew right off the bat from the deep color on the meat and the way it quivered when the server put our plates down that we were in for a treat. Red-wine braised short ribs (16) w/ winter greens and pecorino are served over a fresh linguine just toothsome enough to withstand what little amount of chewing it took before the buttery beef fell apart in your mouth. Braised lamb shoulder (19) is paired with creamy white beans, wilted spinach, and a garnish of pomegranates, whose berry explosion served as a reminder of how the mellow meat was marinated. For dessert, warm persimmon pudding cake (6) w/ grappa chantilly called for a moment of silence. I opened my eyes to Leslie joking, ‘Should I make you another?”


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Popularization of Filipino Food

"Tolerance can only be developed through cultural exposure. The human brain responds more quickly and favorable to taste than to words. We are done talking. Mainstream appreciation of Filipino food is a crucial step in the humanization of Filipinos and their acceptance in this country. We are all aware that the most common racial stereotypes are associated with food - "beaners" for Mexicans, "crackers" for whites, "krauts" for Germans, "limeys" for Brits, chicken and watermelon for blacks, dogs for Pilipinos, etc. The belief that 'we are what we eat', and the notion that one's food is superior to Filipino food are both major foundations for racist attitudes toward our people. Our goal should be to elevate the status of Filipino cuisine to a gourmet level."
- Kevin Gueco, 2003