Just look at this legroom!
This is what Seat 17A on an Air Canada AirBus 319 looks like from the sitting position. The seat itself is pretty uncomfortable and too narrow, there’s no power plug and the fold-out table doesn’t seem capable of supporting the complimentary bevering of your choice, but wow! Legroom! You can barely see my foot. Definitely a great place to stretch out especially on a 6-hour flight from YUL to SFO with only food for sale and in-flight entertainment that I’ve already seen. I didn’t even mind the woman in 16B (that’s her arm in the shot) attempting to look at my purchases at duty-free.
The flight didn’t quite start out so swimmingly as Gate Agent Laurie was on the warpath for rollerboards that technically wouldn’t fit on the plane. Mine actually does (it’s a Briggs & Riley) but she took it anyway because the flight was full.
Remember how I said that it was a six hour flight with only food for sale? Behold my complimentary 3/4-full cup of coffee as part of the first refreshment service. My other options were water and tea, as the juice service had run out, but the foam Dixie cup of coffee was okay because it wasn’t horrible and I still had the ginormous amount of legroom which can be seen within the photo’s bokeh behind the cup. The arm of woman in 16B is still in the shot; apart from the times attempting to touch my duty-free bag, she kept them folded for most of the flight but at this point, it was pouty folding as she was upset that they didn’t have the yogurt option on the pay cart. Given that I was traveling on a per diem, I was astute enough to pack some food with me and purchase the largest bottle of water possible before boarding so that could hoard the per diem for something else.
So 9 hours or so after getting into the taxi, I found myself in the City by the Bay for the first time since 2005. Ugh. NINE YEARS since my last trip. That’s way too long, especially as my memories of the last trip were starting to meld with the Rice-a-Roni jingle.
Why was I in San Francisco? The official reason involved renting a car (a black 2014 Ford Escape, rather than the 2005 red Chevrolet Monte Carlo Avis gave me on the previous trip) and showing a photo of a boat. You read that right.
On the personal side there’s a great Aeroplan bonus running after CIBC decided I wasn’t a good-enough client, but the most important stupendous reason was to meet up with my pal, Michelin-trained Chef Amy Glaze.
I have proof! This is Amy at the Boot and Shoe Service (more later on this place). I don’t know who the people in the background are; they just got in the way of the shot.
In the intervening period, I have lost a lot of hair, gained about 20 kg and am slowly transmogrifying into the cranky old guy. And how has Amy changed? She now has a tan. This is not “oh she’s just your friend” and all: she was in Eater SF’s Hot Chefs contest though unfairly placed by Eater editors in an act my pal Ronny calls “chick stuff” in a group of male contestants angling for the gay restaurant-goer vote. The different between then and now is the tan. Don’t believe me? Click here.
This is another photo of her at the New Easy (more later on this place as well).
The rakishly handsome fellow beside her is not a hanger-on but Amy’s significant other. You’ve seen photos of him on occasion on Amy’s site, but they don’t really do justice to the live presence. I’ll reiterate (again!) that unlike Vladimir, I like girls but I’m comfortable enough with my own sexuality to openly say that he’s very personable and très attirant. Pretty sure he would appreciate that you refrain from pinching his bottom. That’s really not recommended given that he’s quite fit and capable of taking care of himself but should he decide to let Amy have a go at the “minor stuff”, you might want to remember my earlier anecdote where Amy does a Luca Brasi on many, many lobsters. Them’s knife skills, baby!
What else can I say about Mr. R? He likes bulles, dessert wines (ice wines, late harvest, botrytized) and foie gras, so I really need to get him to the same table as the Jedi just to watch the corks fly as I think the two would make sure it would be a lively time. He is also very supportive of his wife’s talent and is actively encouraging her to do a special pop-up theme event after he saw the tome of Canadian maple syrup pr0n I brought her. Yes, I really did bring my friend French-language pr0n showcasing squirrels, bathtubs of syrupy nakedness, and this hunky fellow (wow! shades of Ron Jeremy, especially if you squint a little).
Those of you who click on links and are astute enough to read contact information will have lit on the fact that neither of the photos were taken in San Francisco. I obviously arrived too late and without rubber hip-waders to start the outing with bottomless mimosas at Circa (not that anyone actually wanted to do that unless we also had soufflées with nacho topping), but Amy and Mr. R wanted to be just a little different different and also save me from fanny pack burns at Pier 39 and/or cruising the Castro, so it was time to go to Oakland.
I don’t have a lot of memories of Oakland before this. The one and only time I recall being in Oakland was back in grad school when Becton-Dickinson reps took me to this bar for tequila poppers to find out how I uncovered their Mac-based development plans. My local rep eventually told me the company’s plan was to get me drunk so that I would divulge how I knew about their then-unannounced plans to release flow cytometry systems on the then-current System 7-based Mac platform. Hello? you announce you’re dumping your Domain/OS-based software running on HP’s hobbled Series 340 workstations while publicly denouncing both Intel-based PCs and Unix in back-to-back-to-back press releases – there’s no other affordable computer platform left to go with. It wasn’t rocket science, but the reposado was nice.
But I digress…
First of all, the new Bay Bridge is beautiful. City officials appeared to have hired planners from La Belle Province because there’s an amazing cost overrun associated with it, but architecturally, the structure is visually stunning especially when compared to the old bridge that’s presently being dismantled. No photos because Homeland Security is really touchy about people photographing of bridges anywhere on American territory.
Oakland itself has really changed, with a lot of gentrification and hipsterism ongoing in the community. I looked a little out of place and naked because 1) I’m not hip, 2) I don’t have any visible tats, and 3) I was the only one shaped like an overripe Bartlett pear, but the locals are really open and friendly. There is a noticeable and refreshing dearth of fanny pack touristas in Oakland.
After a little sightseeing, it was time to stop and have a picnic on the shore of Lake Merritt in front of cormorants and American pelicans demonstrating their diving skills.
Very pleasant sunny spot with my hosts bringing out artisanal bread, crisps, donut peaches, cheese, and charcuterie (chorizo! yeah!) along with this really nice California rosé. Like a dumba$$ I didn’t take down the name of the rosé. And there was also this pack of Rustic Bakery’s chocolate cacao nib shortbread whose contents are a little too easy to Hoover down. Really a great spot to sit down and catch up on what’s been happening with both of them.
The would have been great on its own as dinner, but what do you do after a lakeside picnic? Cocktails.
So now, the New Easy Lounge. Yes, my photos are in the wrong order. Blame the booze.
Is this a dive bar? Not so sure because it was a little too clean and the food menu listed things that weren’t peanuts (e.g. warmed dates with bacon and Neufchâtel (which they spelt without the accent). The space started off as the Easy Lounge and was renovated a couple of years ago to become the New Easy. I really have no idea what the original Easy looked like, but this was one very long room with us sitting at the copper-topped bar in front and having a view of both bar and the open kitchen in the rear. There are two skylights which have chandeliers doubling as micro-gardens so that they can snip herbs for drinks. Interesting place to lounge out of the sun and to drink several glasses of water to rehydrate from the booze. We tried two cocktails but I can only remember one – it was called the “Oh Snap” as it was flavored with snap peas. The local beer was just okay, and I of course forgot to take photos.
After rehydrating, it was time to move on and speak with a local businessman selling goods curbside. Want to know exactly how wired the Bay Area is? “Old School” Copes is highly portable as the retail location is whatever corner he decides to set up on, accepts credit card payments via Square, and has an active modern e-commerce site. Mr. R got us T-shirts and I’ll be wearing mine on the next Casual Friday. We eventually wended our way to an alternate locale as Amy’s original selection was gauche enough to be closed on a Sunday. The alternate – a place calling itself Boot and Shoe Service – was more than acceptable. There was a 30 minute wait for a table but as we were aiming for cocktails and nibbles, we managed to get a nice corner at the bar in the back of the establishment.
Amy and Mr. R made the following selections to see how this mixologist did things. From left to right: the Tina Modotti (tequila, aperol, lime & grape), an incredibly well-made Piña Colada (rum, house-made coconut cream, pineapple, lime, cane sugar), and a green coriander daiquiri (rum, lime, cane sugar & green coriander).
All nice but the standouts were the Piña Colada and the daiquiri. Piña Coladas have been ruined by tourist traps serving the things using pre-mix funneled out of slushie machines so when a correct one is served, you realize exactly why it became popular, what you’ve been missing and how bad the pre-mixes really are. And the daiquiri? Fresh coriander and lime, and not sweet. This would be great with a well-made ceviche or tiradito. I’d certainly go back for both, though I’d also need someone to drag out my drunken carcass afterwards because they weren’t exactly skimpy on the hard alcohol content.
We also tested the kitchen, with a ricotta salad (no photo – busy drinking) and their heirloom tomato salad served with chick peas and yogurt.
Apart from my crappy photo taking, this dish is emblematic of how difficult it is to recreate San Francisco cuisine outside of California. I should be able to make this stupid-simple dish, but I can’t, not because I don’t have the fundamental skills to put tomatoes on a plate, but because I don’t have access to the heirloom tomatoes. The bulk of my tomatoes are extruded from the cardboard machine in Northern Canadian greenhouses, and those few heirloom ones available from my select purveyors aren’t ever fully ripe because of the short growing season.
Setting aside the whining over the lack of purveyors for a minute, the question of course is “was it good?” That would be an affirmative because they have great product to work with. The chick peas were spiced (a little cumin and a few other things), the tomato was very nice, and there was a different tang that the smear of yogurt brought to the vinaigrette. Mr. R casually mentioned that it would have benefited from some chopped hazelnuts (filberts, avelines) and you want to know something? He was absolutely right. The man has an excellent palate.
After a little discussion, it was time for dinner at Oliveto Restaurant & Café, as it was a place Amy hadn’t been to in a while and she was curious as to whether its kitchen still had talent.
We almost didn’t make it inside, because we were standing at the entrance for a good ten minutes before the hostess came out of the back of the bar to see if we really wanted to go in. Really? Restaurants generally try to have personable lively people working front of house because potential diners like nice warm welcomes. This young woman in her 20s(?) really had me going in the wrong sense because she showed about as much enthusiasm as oh, the participants in the Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón, and on the general liveliness level, Ariolimax californicus has a run for its money. Restaurant welcomes aside, we eventually did get seated at a table on the second floor dining room so that we could continue the conversation.
Our waitress was also just a tad pushy trying to get us to 1) order and 2) order complete meals but we kept brushing her off because after the hostess experience we weren’t too inclined to be compliant and there was a whole lot to hear about Amy and Mr. R’s many projects. Really fascinating because topics ranged from gardening to what makes a good kebab man to the future of information access and exchange. Plus they were showing me stuff that I didn’t know you could do with Siri (very true especially as I haven’t acquired an iDevice yet). We even talked about the photo of the boat I was going to show the next day.
These are the antipasti: grilled peach panzalella with frisée (wild arugula listed on the menu), balsamic vinegar and pecorino,
and the grilled squab (!) with charred sprouts and pesto.
The panzanella is well, panzanella. It’s got textural differences because some of the bread was crunchy, it’s got a ripe peach in there for sweet elements, the frisée gives bitterness, and the pecorino gives salt and umami. Competent dish, but I was also told that panzanella is currently the “in” thing to do in San Francisco. It certainly isn’t on the Big Croissant – I took a quick look at some local Italian menus and no one’s doing it.
I really like the squab, though a lot of it had to do with the presentation – apart from the rarity of having pigeon on offer, try getting the pigeon foot still attached to the pigeon. I’ll have to ask Éric at Claude et Henri whether he can get squabs with the feet because I’ve generally only seen feet on chickens and ducks in Chinese grocery stores. I would have to save that for the less squeamish since that probably wouldn’t have gone well at all from my silent pigeon dinner last year.
Nice lacquer to the bird, which was cooked medium rare at least on the breast. I’m guessing that the leg was likely slightly underdone because the different musculature requires longer cooking time and if the breast was medium, the leg would have been chewy. Loved the charred sprouts.
I really have no idea as to what wines we were drinking because my weakness on Italian varietals and wine regions is well-known, but the white was from the Alto Adige (the ancestral home of Gewürtztraminer in case you’re interested) and the red was an Amarone. White with the antipasti, red with the primi and secondi.
The wine did start an interesting tangent to our discussion, which was informative and a bit puzzling. San Francisco is the gateway city to Napa and Sonoma, which you should recognize as two of California’s powerhouse world-class AVAs for wine. While there are Italian varietals being grown in California, I was in an Italian restaurant so I wasn’t really expecting a California-heavy list. Amy told me that many of San Francisco restaurants have turned away from California bottlings and are only offering very small curated lists of French wines. Even with the renewed strength of the Euro and all the locavore chatter, there’s an uptick in French wine consumption in San Francisco.
This was a big surprise to me as I would have thought that having such easy access to great wines (Napa and Sonoma to the north, Santa Barbera and Paso Robles to the south among others) would have people want to showcase how their terroir and their cuisine are harmonious in the way that French regional cuisine is highly complementary between food and wine. Then again, I’m not in the trade so the only thing I can think of is that eateries are trying to provide something that’s just different.
And now onto the primi. I appreciated the opportunity to try three because my pasta making ability is still mediocre at best and these were forms that either get hammered (gnocchi) or just not offered in my neck of the woods (fusilli bucati, agnolotti). The two ragù are also uncommon locally, partially as the local Italian population comes from different regions and partially as the locals prefer/expect Italo-American cuisine.
Fusilli bucati with ragù all’abruzzese; a very toothsome pasta form paired with a surprisingly mild lamb ragù. There was a bit too much cheese, which I think overpowered the lamb.
Agnolotti dal plin; very masterful preparation of the pillows – the pasta was thin and very tender, and the agnolotti were filled with a very balanced pork filling that worked well with the sage.
Gnocchi with poultry giblet ragù. The gnocchi were very light but I was shoveling in the chicken hearts. A great sauce and compliments to both the restaurant for making it and Oakland diners for open-mindedness in embracing it.
I have to go back and ask Amy what she thought of the pasta, because I know that she can make all three forms pretty much in her sleep and she makes a beautiful ravioli variant.
And the secondo: rack and tenderloin of lamb with pesto and fried okra.
The last time I had fried okra was at a biker bar in Atlanta, while I was wearing both a pink shirt and pink tie and doing my best to show that I was a manly man. It’s something I associate more with the South than Italy, but it was pretty good and still retained a little crunch. No sliminess. Can’t complain about the rack – nice frenching of the longbones and cooked to rare/medium-rare. There were also some red peppers underneath, but I don’t have a taste memory of those.
And finally, the dolci. There were actually two, but thanks to my state of inebriation the other photo didn’t come out at all. This is the charred peach with fennel pollen ice cream. I’ve had fennel ice cream before (meh) but fennel pollen tastes different than fennel, fennel seed or star anise. There is an additional floral element (d-uh – it’s pollen) that’s not found in the other licorice-like sources.
And that was the third and final stop. Good thing too because I was really full and really hammered, but well worth it because I had great company.
What we were doing is what Mr. R refers to as an abbreviated iteration of “Monday Night Football” where he and Amy go from eatery to eatery for a couple of plates and interesting wines or drinks. Very similar to the tapas culture in Spain, though with a lot less jamón, no toothpicks and more than three stops.
And how did my night ultimately end? Passed out in an alcoholic stupor. Amy and Her Man are very polite and didn’t say anything when my snoring started vibrating the vehicle. They let me sleep it off until we reached my fancy digs at the airport.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in San Francisco but still have two regrets about this trip. The big one is that I wasn’t able to stay longer because San Francisco and its surroundings are both beautiful and full of things to do (it’s just not the Castro) with my friends. And those great friends are more than welcome to line up and kick me for not staying longer. The small trivial one is that I wasn’t around long enough to go help Amy with choppy-chop (hey! I may have regressed to making wiener octopi but I can still chop onions) as I heard she was short-handed the last couple of days.
It was also my first chance to meet Mr. R and he certainly didn’t disappoint. I didn’t get a chance to see his current activities because I was unconscious, but that’s what follow-ups with Skype are for (I’d do FaceTime but I still haven’t acquired an iDevice yet – I’m looking at you, giant iPhone6). I do need to – those activities are very cool to say the least and I want to be able to speak intelligently about them to my pal Jeannette and others.
Finally, I also would have liked a chance to make them some beef and broccoli as that’s the yellow thing to do, but that will have to wait until the next trip and before the alcohol.
But wait! there’s more. You ask “Ivan, what about the photo of the boat?” What about the photo of the boat? The number one rule about the photo of the boat is that one does not talk about the photo of the boat.
|New Easy Lounge 3255 Lakeshore Avenue Oakland, CA 94610 Tel : +1 (510) 338-4911||Boot and Shoe Service 3308 Grand Avenue Oakland, CA 94610 Tel : +1 (510) 763-2668||Oliveto Restaurant & Café 5655 College Avenue Oakland, CA 94618 Tel : +1 (510) 547-5356|