Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hog Island Oyster Odyssey

Photographs by Robert Birnbach

“People come to this area with a specific mission if they don’t live here,” says my driver as we twist and turn up the damp coast of Marin County in Northern California. “They are either here to cycle these amazing green hills, drop in to a secret ex-hippie’s musical performance like the one Van Morrison threw in 2006 at Rancho Nicasio, or they come for the oysters. It’s mostly the oysters.”

Our mission? A car full of oyster freaks on the hunt for fresh kumamotos accompanied by acclaimed 30-year old Chef Aaron Kiefer, who promises to deliver us an on-the-spot, gonzo-style meal created from whatever ingredients we can find along the way, reflecting the region’s signature foods.

The region we are headed towards is Tomales Bay at the tip of the Point Reyes Seashore about an hour North of San Francisco—the high energy city where we’ve been engaged in long days of cookbook photography for classical creations and sophisticated meals that have left us longing for something more grassroots and simple, a true da-da inspired meal in an uncomplicated setting. 

The entire area is home to oyster farms where you can stop along the way and enjoy whatever oyster experience you crave from barbecued, down home to-go style to fancy, sit down restaurant and Rockefeller style. Our destination is Hog Island, where we hear you can picnic by the bay, hand shuck your own pleasures and eat them raw or cooked on your own private grill. 

Our first stop is at Cowgirl Creamery in a converted barn in Point Reyes Station, a small town among the rolling hills dotted with cows, sheep and goat, where we sample some of their signature, artisanal aged cheeses. Devil’s Gulch, crafted from rich Jersey cow milk, is soft and creamy, within a rind dusted with the dried rust-colored flakes from a red pepper field nearby. Mt. Tam, a few notches firmer than brie, melts on the tongue—an organic milk triple cream. Red Hawk, with its sunset colored rind tinted from a brine wash, delivers a full-bodied flavor; and the butter colored Wagon Wheel, the company’s “everyday” cheese, provides a juxtaposition of toothy bite with mild sweetness. Aaron chooses two of the Cowgirl cheeses along with two artisanal cheeses—an Italian Roccolo and Spanish Patacabra—which are bland enough to go well as a starter with the meal he has planned in his head.

“This is how everyone should eat,” says Aaron, adding a long, slim baguette to our loot for the day. “Whatever’s fresh and whatever’s available.” Our visit to the local grocery store yields multiple herb bundles and fennel.

We arrive at Hog Island Oyster Company where we have reserved a table and grill. It’s a cold, grey day with streaks of sun threatening to emerge from a dense strata of clouds—perfect for bundled jackets, rich foods and the smoke streams dotting the lawn, emanating from charcoal and communal outdoor breathing. All around us, groups of people are hovered together over sizzling meats and various types of oyster condiments. The sounds of wine corks popping, laughter, and the occasional joyous child’s shriek consistently puncture the air.

We learn that Hog Island co-owner John Finger is a Marine biologist whose commitment to creating oysters that retain the flavors and nuances of the bay from which they are produced also entails a passion for preserving the water’s cleanliness and environmental safety.

Chef Aaron, a man of few words with a no-nonsense cooking mien, gets right to work. At the outdoor oyster bar, a long basin filled with four varieties upon twinkling, diamond sharp piles of ice, he orders up several dozen oysters and netting full of clams. Back at the table, he fires up the grill.

Mindy Reed, owner of Zin American Bistro in Palm Springs, California, uncorks the white wines for our cheese plate, chosen for their ability to maintain a neutral palate as canvas for the strong and creamy cheeses, mini gherkins, garlic stuffed mushrooms, and dried figs that provide a hearty appetizer to the oysters that Chef Aaron will prepare simply and swiftly in conjunction with the stark environment, salty bay scents, and crisp winds off the dark waters. Aaron begins to hand shuck the small kumamotos, lining them up on a strip of wet wood accompanied by a quickly mixed mignonette of red wine vinegar, diced shallots and Meyer lemon juice. The small nuggets of meat are perfectly sweet and creamy, spiked with fresh, watery brine.

Once smoking hot, Aaron slaps on four strips of applewood smoked bacon to the grill next to a cobalt blue colander that holds two dozen clams, orange slices, and large broken fennel chunks. He douses white wine atop the pile every few minutes to create a steamer, clouds of fragrance wafting into the ethers. The bacon comes off and is replaced by the large variety, thin and watery oysters, which sit on the grill like little canoes, only long enough to receive a sprinkle of chopped bacon, shaved fennel and chive, a dash of vinegar and the ultimate exclamation point of a fresh, cracked quail egg. Leaving no time for the egg or oyster to overcook, the shells are quickly handed out to guests for the pleasure of one long slurp.

Next up are the clams, spiked with the fragrance of wine and with a subtle peppery zing, hand picked from the bowl, and devoured readily by the group.

A moment’s reflection follows the swift meal as we digest amongst the natural environs. Beyond the picnic area, egrets and herons walk like old men, their angular joints tip-toeing across the rocky shoals, respecting our distance as we communally watch each other, mutually sated on the fruits of the sea. Their screeches remain in our ears on the road back to the City, reminding us to visit again soon, the place where the oyster experience comes authentic and alive with fresh air. 
Producing 3 millions Kumamoto, Atlantic and Pacific oysters and Manila clams annually.
102 miles north of Pt. Reyes Station
20215 Coast Hwy One
Marshall, Ca. 94940

Cowgirl Creamery
80 Fourth Street
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
Phone (415) 663-9335
Fax (415) 663-5418
Wednesday through Sunday, 10am - 6pm
Friday morning tours at 11:30am and 3:00pm on select summer days.


Oysters With Quail Egg
1 dozen Hog Island Oysters, Opened and Muscle Cut
4 oz. applewood smoked bacon, grilled and chopped
1 dozen quail eggs
½ cup raw fennel
1 tablespoon sliced chives
Olive oil
Sprinkle all ingredients on top of the fresh-shucked oyster halves before the final step of cracking a quail egg on top. Oysters can be made cold or thrown on grill for few minutes for slight warmth but do not cook. Serve immediately.

Steamed Clams
2 dozen Hog Island manila clams, raw
1 whole fennel, broken into chunks
1 whole shallot, sliced
6 cups white wine
1 head garlic, smashed
4 Tbs. butter, cubed

Place all ingredients except for the wine and butter, into a porous container (like a colander) directly onto a hot grill. During the cooking process, drizzle with wine to create steam. As clams begin to open, toss in bowl with remaining wine and butter. Serve immediately!

Roccolo Cheese slices
Patacabra Cheese, slices
Devil’s Gulch Cheese, wedges
Inverness Cheese, wedges
Dried figs
Garlic Stuffed Mushrooms

Courtesy of Mindy Reed, Owner of Zin American Bistro, Palm Springs, CA

Vouvray Domaine Pichot
France 2008

Argiolas Costamolino
Vermentino di Sardegna 2008

Rueda, Spain 2006

Burgans Albarino
Rias Baixas, Spain 2008

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Makeshift Chinese at Mao's Kitchen

When it comes to Chinese food there is stellar cuisine and really bad, greasy cuisine and then a huge assortment of in between. The truth is, when you're hungry and hankering for some orange chicken or curry or any of the fare's traditional standby dishes, it's hard to go wrong with anything in the in between.

 So I was thrilled to discover the restaurant Mao's Kitchen in my neighborhood recently. The first time I went there I was with a family of four picky eaters with an assortment of dietary restrictions and we managed to satisfy everyone for $60 with a table full of dishes that everyone shared. The restaurant looks more like a down home catfish joint with its picnic table-esque seating and bare bones decor and the service is super slow, perhaps because it's staffed with surfers and budding actresses who spend extra time cleaning the stainless steel machines so that they can look at their lipstick applications in the reflections. But this also means that they tolerate the loud kids and buzzed youngsters that frequent the place so if you're not in a hurry and down with the mentality of live and let live, it's quite all right. Also, try not to ask for more than one take out container, they must be counting their pennies when it comes to things like cardboard cartons, because they look at you a little funny if you have the nerve to try and take home more than a small portion of your leftovers.

The peasant's onion pancake was a disappointment. I was expecting something light, subtle and fluffy but received a big piece of chewy, flavorless dough that resembled more of a glutinous pizza base.

A nice surprise was the Shao Mountain Lamb entree that contained slices of meat, leek and jalapenos stir fried with preserved black beans and secret sauce.

The coconut curry impressed me. I love curry but hardly find any I like because some places make it too gloppy sauced and overly sweet, while others make it too bland. This one had huge pieces of vegetables and chicken and was the perfect consistency of slightly creamy and spiced just right.

I found myself choosing the place again when a friend came to town and we wanted to walk somewhere close by. Because Mao's doesn't have a liquor license, we stepped into a wine store for a bottle of mid range syrah which the waitress joyfully popped for us for a small corkage fee. That night we chose to sit outside at a small, wooden table for two and watched as all the art walk drunken hipsters oohed and aahed over our table of food. I found myself ordering the curry again that evening, and then again on another evening when my daughter and her friend came to town late one Friday looking to find a joint open into the wee hours that would satisfy their 20-year-old girl desires to be in a place still bustling with young energy. It fit the bill.

Day after Mao's curry is excellent with the over-sized carrot slices and generous chunks of chicken having had an overnight chance to steep in more flavor. A great microwaved breakfast dish that I will go back for again and again when I am not in the mood to dress up or get in the car for a good cheap and easy meal.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Over Urth

I have been really excited to eat lunch at Urth Caffe in Santa Monica since becoming a Venice Beach resident. It's the place my friend Mark and I would go on all of my visits to see him over the past few years and when I was planning on moving here I relished the idea that I could pop into the cafe at whim and order up one of their urth-ly delights, because the food can be really good. Great matcha drinks in all different forms, luscious organic salads, interesting wraps, gobo teas, magnificent muffins and more.

But, the other day when I went to lunch there I realized that all my prior visits must have been filled with that kind of "ignore-your-wallet" mentality that allows us to plop down more than average dollars for items we normally wouldn't even consider spending that kind of dough for when we are on vacation or away from our home towns.

Yes, they have mastered the art of cappuccino foam art, but so has Groundwork where you file into a tiny hole in the wall space, get greeted by a jovial girl commandeering the espresso machine and get to read your daily horoscope that they paste on the counter top daily with care in a very grassroots and personalized way.

This whole meal cost me $16. That's not a dinner plate, but a small side plate of salad. And it's only the half order. Urth Salad is a yummy thing with hearts of pine, garbanzo beans, feta cheese and artisanal lettuces but notice the only two tiny tomatoes? Very delicious ginger, carrot, celery and beet juice as well but it came to me warm.

The place is always super packed, customer service doesn't seem to be high on anyone's mind, and it's oftentimes hard to find seating. I can do better at the Venice Farmer's Market and recreate that salad anytime at home. I'm over Urth and not likely to go back anytime soon.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Izakaya at Aburiya Toranoko

This past Sunday I was invited to a night of Japanese culinary and cultural celebration by my friend Bill that began with my first experience with Izakaya (Japanese tapas) and ended with a dance performance at the Japanese American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

We chose the restaurant Aburiya Tokanoko because of its across the street proximity to the theater but also because we had both been reading exemplary reviews of the place that offered more than sushi and was rumored to have a bar staffed with an exquisite mixologist.

The restaurant, dimly lit and bustling with street energy, offered a New York meets Tokyo style ambiance with its graffiti mural along one wall and triptych above the sushi bar that was reminiscent of old traditional Japanese tiger, nature and warrior paintings. The service was a tad bit slow but the meal was memorable.

I love places where you can order a bunch of small plates and share them. We quickly chose a round of dishes that appealed to us, deciding to forego the sushi since we could get sushi anywhere and there were too many delights on the menu to tantalize us away from that usual fare. I imagine all of our dishes, if they had been dumbed down a bit in ingredient and price, could easily mirror things we might find at two a.m. on any Tokyo street side food vendor's cart. Although I thought our order wasn't going to be enough for dinner, as sizes here range on the very small side of the scale, I was pleasantly full at the end of our meal. It reminded me that when you order a bunch of small things and enjoy them with relish, taking your time between bites of creatively concocted cuisine, you actually have enough time to feel full and not overindulge.

Pickled Octopus with Cucumbers

Perfectly seasoned with just the amount of sweet pickled tang, this cold and refreshing starter was full of julienned, chewy bits of octopus and thin slices of refreshing cucumber intensified by the subtle nuttiness of sesame seeds that packed a lot of punch in each bite.

Eggplant with Sweet Miso

This was my favorite dish of the meal. I love eggplant and order it whenever I see it on a menu, always surprised at the myriad ways it can be cooked, seasoned and textured. This now competes with the the warm julienned eggplant, mozarella, corn and olive oil salad I ate daily at a bistro in Venice, Italy six years ago as my top eggplant dish. Boiling hot chunks of eggplant swimming in a creamy, warm sweet miso paste and topped with the added crunch of sprinkled sesame seeds. I will order this again and may make a special trip just because of this dish. Comfort food in small bites.

"Chikuwabu" Fish Cake

My dinner companion was not that fond of this dish but I liked it. For those who are not into "fishy" tastes, stay away, but those who love the taste of the ocean like I do, order away! It's an acquired taste for sure. A dense, chewy roll swimming in a sauce of pure briny delight, made even better when powered up by a dab of the accompanying specially made yellow wasabi sauce. The sea, the fire, and the flesh in one concise mouthful.

Chili Shrimp

Extremely spicy little plump and delicious shrimp full of fire that popped in the mouth and seared the tongue. 

BBQ Pig's Feet

The restaurant serves up an alternative chef's specials menu nightly depending on whatever they have around for that day. We asked the waitress what we should order for the evening in this spirit and she pointed to an adjoining table where the patrons were slurping bones joyously. So we ordered the BBQ pork feet in the spirit of Anthony Bourdain and were pleasantly surprised. Although you had to literally wield around bones and between toes to get the elusive slivers of gelatinous, chewy, and tiny chunks of meat amounting to probably only a few bites in the overall experience, it was fun and very tasty in a sweet caramelized meaty way.

Shiso Leaf Vodka Infused Martini

The place has the ordinary list of good sakes, Asian beers and rice or traditional wines and my dinner companion who is a straight up martini man stuck safely with those. I am typically a Sapporo girl in joints like this but because I am always tantalized by the words "expert mixologist" I decided to try a cocktail. My first attempt, the Ginger Dream Martini, was a disappointment. It tasted like watered down champagne absent of vodka. But my second attempt, the Shiso leaf infused vodka martini was incredible. Floating with a giant leaf, it tasted verdant, bitter and green like the forest and is something I would definitely drink again.

Although we also ordered the White Fish Sashimi with Kiwi, we were both not pleased with the thinnest ever slices of fish that were almost transparent and swimming with a thick kiwi sauce that was way too sweet that it overpowered the fish that was hardly there to begin with. 

I would like to go back to see if this is the case with all the sushi or not and will definitely go back for a fresh round of untried tapas in the future until I conquer the entire menu!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sumptuous Saturday Sloth at Joe's

I walk past Joe's Restaurant everyday on my afternoon walk but today I had the opportunity to eat within its hallowed walls. I say hallowed because my favorite places in the world are the ones where the chefs decide what they are making daily on the day that they are making it according to what is fresh, local and interesting in the moment. What a way to stay passionate about your culinary calling! Everyday a blank slate to fill with something thought up on the spot and delivered to a crowd used to trusting such surprises....

A meeting today with my friend Michael and his gallerist over the most interesting brunch I have had, ever, maybe. The reason simply being in my entree of grilled shrimp served with a fried egg over honey grits with walnuts embedded into the mix. Comfort food gone extreme, served in small portions to just delight the palate but not overindulge it.

Prior to that a bread plate was served. Sweet dark breads shared a plate with a bastard child of sourdough and brioche that was fluffy and served with jam or butter. The hostess suggested the pate plate as a starter and we enjoyed it, again in small bites. A slice of perfect pate with some radish and salmon and grainy rich mustard worthy of an Austrian meal.

Everything in small bites so that you had to savor each one.

To top it all off, very good espresso in tiny white cups with lemon wedges.