There’s a reason that Town Hall has had buttermilk fried chicken as a menu staple since their inception. It is just awesome. It’s the best fried chicken you may have in the last year, or perhaps your lifetime. It is simply that good. Perfect batter crunch, and sweetly tender inside, the fried chicken comes with smashed potatoes slurred with a fantastic country bacon gravy. (A colleague who had it reckoned it was the best country gravy she’d ever tasted.) The veggies are seasonal: either collard greens or, here, a chop of summer squash and tomatoes. At mid-year, Town Hall’s buttermilk fried chicken is the best fried chicken of 2009, and gets our highest grade (awesome).
Caveat emptor: the buttermilk fried chicken at bacar was part of a special July 4th weekend dinner that also included ribs, cole slaw, and a honey-drizzled slab of cornbread (see pic below).
But the fried chicken skin was so light and crispy and the chicken so perfectly juicy, that I really hope they consider adding it to the menu as a more regular item. Slightly piquant, the batter was really great.
The waiter came by to say the fried chicken had soaked in buttermilk for 12 hours. Nothing like buttermilk to break down meat, making it incredibly tender. This is among the best fried chickens I’ve had in 2009, and gets my highest grade (awesome).
The Grade: Awesome
The Damage: $18
The Inside Tip: Order wines cautiously. Bacar’s wines by the glass tend to be expensive. Keep the wine list at your table so you’re not surprised at the bill.
Squab (pigeon) is a funky fowl that’s favored by the French. On an episode of last season’s “Top Chef” where contestants had to cook for culinary masters, Jacques Pepin confessed his passion for squab and how it resonated with pleasant boyhood memories of growing up in France. Certainly when squab is done well, it’s a nice, tasty bird, and we have to assume Pepin’s had his share of great squab. It’s just not the sort of dish you see much in the US. Squab’s not the kind of meat that sits politely atop anything; it looks awkward, no matter what you do. It looks like a little dead bird. Which, you know, it is.
But Chef Dennis Leary of Canteen recently pulled off the rare squab masterpiece. It’s a half squab roasted in an apricot-cumin glaze. The crisp skin was slightly smoky and sweet, and the bird rightfully juicy inside. An Indian mound of lentils beneath brought some earthiness to the earthy-toned squab meat, and a swirl of vinegar syrup rounded the plate for an additional palate tease. Visually, he couldn’t escape the dead bird on a plate fate of squab, but the tones of brown on the plate made for a clever, edible, monochromatic sculpture.
The squab was roasted to perfection, and the variance of flavors provided continual surprises. A nice birdy treat from King Leary.
The Grade: Excellent
The Damage: $11.50
The Inside Tip #1: Canteen’s website is updated with their daily menu.
The Inside Tip #2: Canteen’s not on OpenTable.com; you have to leave message for reservation, so reserve well in advance.
The Skinny: Canteen
817 Sutter Street (at Jones) San Francisco, CA 94109 Phone: (415) 928-8870 Website: www.sfcanteen.com
Goat is not a big culinary deal (yet) for most Americans who aren’t born into those cultures who can masterfully cook goat (e.g., Greek, Argentinian). So goat is a bit of a treat, albeit a daring one, when I find it. Cafe Rouge in Berkeley is an unassuming little bistro-style restaurant, but it offers an extensive list of house-made charcuterie items in a shop adjacent to the restaurant. And the restaurant’s approach to meat: spit-roasting in wood-fired oven. So I dared for the goat.
With mixed results. The waitress said the roasted goat plate would include goat leg or loin, but never came back to ask me which I wanted. Sadly, without being consulted, I was served up the leg: a tougher, stringier portion with less meat than the loin. The small accompanying goat bits on the plate (under the leg) were tender, medium-rare, and wonderful in the jus, and the roasted fennel beneath was terrific. So most of the plate could qualify as great.
But a scrawny goat leg as the dish’s leading man diminished the experience. Perhaps if both goat legs were on board, to justify the chew-through. The waitress did apologize, saying they only have 1 or 2 goats when they’re on the menu so they had to serve what they had available. But if only leg was available, that would have shifted my decision to another dish. Hopefully, a lesson learned.
Despite the faux pas, I really like the sweet atmosphere of Cafe Rouge and what executive chef/owner Marsha McBride is doing there. The service is very good; the wine list is diverse and reasonably priced; and their spit-roasted meats are really a shining moment that would keep me and many others coming back for more.
Now if only their butcher shop was open during dinner hours so I could take some charcuterie home….(hint)
The Grade: Very Good
The Damage: $18
The Inside Tip #1:
Reserve or request upstairs seating because downstairs gets extremely noisy and tables are also a bit close together. (It’s a bit warmer, but quieter.)
The Inside Tip #2:
When Cafe Rouge has softshell crab (seasonal), you MUST get it as your appetizer. They serve one of the best fried softshell crab dishes I’ve ever had…that includes Baltimore, Washington DC, and New York. Perfect julienned beets, Russian dressing, crispy crab…too bad the season is so short.
Anything with Hobbs’ Applewood Smoked Bacon would be a treat, and Hobbs’ is just fine all by its lonesome as well. But topping cornmeal-fried oysters with a fat little dice of Hobbs bacon and preserved lemon twist, all nestled in a verdant spinach-Herbsaint puree hidden in the oyster shell….wow. It’s a full bite with vibrancy of color and a pulsating set of flavors that really sets a meal off. Go Town Hall. Another stellar dish.
A flatiron steak is usually compared to skirt or flank steak, but it’s actually a better cut that tends to be much more tender than either. When it’s properly done, it can be great. It’s a cut with nice marbling from the beef shoulder (chuck), and sometimes called “top blade,” a reference to its blade-like shape. The shape resembles a flatiron. (For more about this cut, visit Certified Angus Beef and click on the “chuck” portion of the diagram halfway down the screen.)
At $28, Oola’s flatiron steak is priced on par with more expensive steak cuts, but it is definitely the best flatiron steak I’ve eaten in 2009. Baring its flesh like a fashionable summer sunburn, the grilled slices skate up from a pond of peppercorn gravy: simply sumptuous morsels. The peppercorn sauce is wonderful, both rich and surprisingly light. The potato gratin is also great, and well-balanced with cheese that’s mild and doesn’t show up the beef. Again, Chef Ola Fendert takes something that is often traditionally heavy and lightens it without sacrificing any flavor. Some grilled asparagus spears add a jolt of crunch and color.
The waitress kindly shared that Oola’s medium rare is a bit more rare than usual, which I’ve found to be how French and French-trained chefs interpret medium rare. I recommend the flatiron medium rare (as shown).
The Grade: Excellent
The Damage: $28
The Inside Tip:
Don’t order a flatiron steak past medium or you will lose the juicy flavors; go for rare to medium-rare.
There’s a lot of hype around Oola restaurant’s BBQ baby back ribs, and they did not disappoint. Crisp and charred on the exterior, they do that fall-off-the-bone thing once you grab onto them. Call that the rib version of seduction. The barbecue sauce is sweet and tangy with a slow-rolling peppery smoke that catches up on the finish. Ginger, soy sauce, cilantro, pepper, brown sugar…they’re all in there. The problem is, if you order 3 (appetizer portion), you’ll wish you ordered the full 6 plate. The side slaw of red cabbage and apple is tasty but somewhat mild and creamy for my taste. The dramatic punch of the ribs craves a stronger counterpart.
Some baby back ribs and a cocktail or a glass of wine make a perfect little meal. But if you have the motivation to make Oola’s BBQ baby back ribs yourself, Food & Wine magazine published Oola’s crispy ribs recipe in 2006. It’s almost the Fourth of July…go for it.