Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Keller’
Spice Kit could have easily ruined me.
The pedigree of the bánh mì sandwich is more Banksy than Botticelli. A strange mash-up that reflects the history of Vietnam, it features an away team of French elements like crusty bread, mayonnaise, and liver pate coupled with roast pork, pickled vegetables, and greens from the Vietnamese home team. The combination of fatty umami from the pate and pork and acid from the pickled daikons and carrots makes for a nice balance in good hands. It’s also easy to see how this became popular street food, as it is a sandwich containing an ingredient list that can be prepared ahead of time and assembled into the final sandwich to order.
Unfortunately for me, my first bánh mì experience came by way of Thomas Keller and Ron Siegel. Two of their proteges, Will Pacio and Fred Tang, are behind Spice Kit. And while it might make some sense having two French-trained chefs making a sandwich that has some Gallic roots, the bánh mì at Spice Kit bears all the delicious indicia of its fine dining origins.
That being said, it did set me on the path to find a local version of the sandwich. After a bit of calling around, the universally praised option came first.
3086 S Redwood Rd
West Valley City, UT 84119
This tiny market on the west side of Salt Lake City appears to be a converted convenience store. There was a distinctively fishy smell that hit me as I entered, the source of which was presently clear: there’s a large fish counter in the back, as well at least two live crustacean selections housed in boxes on the ground. I hung a right at the counter and was at their hot food area.
I was surprised at the large selection available here. Next time I stop by, I’ll need to avail myself of some of the tasty looking spring rolls. This trip is all about the sandwich, though. I noted that there are several versions, so I may have to branch out and give others a try in the future, but I figured it made sense to start with the house special.
The house special version is their number four. I ordered one and when she looked confused and asked a question that I didn’t understand, I clarified by holding up four fingers. The prep area for the food is miniscule. It’s actually difficult to fathom how all of the food under the heat lamps could possibly have been made in the tiny kitchen. After a few minutes, she handed me a rather large bag and, on peering inside, I saw that there are many more than one sandwich. Thinking she may have mixed my order up, I clarified that I only ordered one. She separated one from the pack, puts it into a bag, and I was off to pay up front.
It was only when I was driving and about five blocks away that I realized what had happened: when I held up four fingers to her question that I didn’t catch, she took that to mean that I wanted four sandwiches. Since they were a steal at $3 each, I feel horrible at the mix up and wish I’d paid for them all.
And then I took the first bite and felt bad that I hadn’t paid for all of them for a whole different reason. That is one seriously tasty sandwich. It comes wrapped in a small piece of parchment to hold the fixings inside, secured around the sandwich with the rubber band. The bread roll is huge. Once I started eating, though, it’s clear that it is mostly air and probably even less bread substance than in your average deli sandwich.
The fillings are deliciously balanced. I love the pate they are using but didn’t get a chance to ask if they made in house. The pickled veggies are crisp if a bit sparse and are dominated by daikon and cucumber. In fact, I could have used more fillings in general to compliment the massive roll. Then again, my standard of comparison cost over $8 at Spice Kit, so for the price, this is plenty of food for the cost. I would probably have ordered two and ordered extra peppers had I not been on my way to a second purveyor.
Tay Do Supermarket
3825 S Redwood Rd
Salt Lake City, UT 84119
My experience at Tay Do Supermarket was less enjoyable. Although the rather large structure houses a much more spacious and organized market that has about 75% less stank on it, the product just didn’t measure up. I wandered through the store to the service counter in the back. The lone woman working a rather well-appointed deli area asked me to wait while she finished up making a bubble tea for the lone other customer.
Ten minutes later she was ready to take my order. Yes, ten minutes. One would think she was out back splitting durian by hand or something, but as far as I could tell, she was simply applying whipped cream to the concoction. When she finally took my order, I asked for their house special with extra pate. She looked rather annoyed, and wandered into the back area. Another five minutes later, she walked to the front counter where, if I’m not mistaken, she grabbed a sandwich from off the counter that appeared to have already been prepared and wrapped in plastic wrap. I guess somebody must have employed remote viewing skills to presage my interest in extra pate when making the sandwich before I arrived.
The sandwich cost $.50 less than at Hong Phat. It was about half as enjoyable. The pork loaf substance that was used instead of roasted pork was fairly terrible even by packaged lunch meat standards. The vegetation was sparse and barely pickled at all. There was a rather lush application of cilantro, but it was enough that it nearly overpowered the taste of meat. Tay Do uses a rather more spongy bread than Hong Phat, or perhaps it just seemed that way after having sat in the plastic wrap for a mysterious period of time. I’ll not be back to investigate.
I still have a couple of locations to visit before I call my search for perfection complete: I’m told that Cafe Thao Mi in Carriage Square and Indochine Vietnamese Bistro up by the U of U campus both make bánh mì, so I’ll plan to update when I visit both places. But at this point, if Hong Phat ends up being the best I find locally, I’ll be a pretty happy camper.
March 29, 2011
WonderCon and a host of new food experiences have beckoned us back to San Francisco. Among the experiences: we’re new parents, our daughter Ainsley having joined the family in October. So we not only attend a bit of the convention, but had our first family vacation.
Ainsley was her usual sweet self on the plane trip, so much so that I launched into the ambitious version of the first day’s eating: we checked into the hotel, dropped the bags, and hit BART to visit
Mr. Pollo – $15 Chef’s Tasting Menu
We left the hotel around 2pm, and I was worried that we may not arrive in time. Not only did we make it, but we’re rather lucky to have gotten there so late after lunch. Two of the four tables were already taken; a couple on what appears to be a first date had to slide over to another table to accommodate us. This place is tiny. The draw of a four-course tasting menu for $15 seemed worth a try, though. And chef Manny Torres Gimenez didn’t disappoint. Even considering how veggie-heavy the menu ended up being, it was high entertainment watching him through the lexan screen as he prepared labor-intensive food for six people simultaneously. All of the dishes were very much hands on. The couple next to us were also eating the chef’s menu, and they didn’t appear to get the same dishes, so I’m under the impression that Manny might just have been making this all up as he went.
Every dish was absolutely delicious. And, while there is only a touch of animal protein here and there, it’s clear that ingredients are important to the chef. I think in the dish descriptions we hear the phrase “farmers market” paired with “this morning” at least five times. We were served an empanada to start, followed by a soup, fish, and main course.
I officially declare this the closest I’m likely to come to enjoying vegetarian food.
Great start to the trip, and Ainsley had managed to charm both of the couples in the small dining area as well as the chef. We paid, left, and decided that we were still pretty hungry. I pulled up my SF Food map on the Droid X and we started a very long walk to a very tasty street that contains both ice cream and a bakery.
Tartine Bakery & Cafe – various baked goods
We stopped in here to quickly grab some cookies and other treats for dessert later that night. The place was absolutely packed to the rafters, with every table being taken and a long line going from the register along the display case and almost to the door. It was so long that rather than try to angle the stroller in, Loria sent me in on a solo mission and hung back by the door to entertain the baby. Having arrived in the later afternoon, I tried to peek through the line to see what is left. The cases were full of cookies, tarts, and breads, and each looked very inviting. For some reason I was feeling rushed, so I started pointing at random cookies without really getting a good sense of what looked best. I decided to skip the $6.50 miniature banana cream tart and ended up with a variety of cookies. As the line moved along the case, I inevitably saw this chocolate chip doodad or that walnut butter whatever, eventually requiring the patient woman helping me to bag my selections three separate times.
Later that night, we dug in and are fairly disappointed. Nothing tasted bad, per se, but it all felt like pretty standard bakery fare. It all looked much better than it tasted, unfortunately, and a few of the cookies went unfinished. It’s only later that I remembered that the place is renowned for its double pain au chocolat, but given how the rest of the cookies ended up, I didn’t feel terrible that we missed out.
Just up the street from Tartine was our real destination.
Bi-Rite Creamery – Roasted Banana, Orange Cardamom, Salted Caramel, and Brown Butter Pecan Ice Cream
This was high on my list of places we missed last year, so I was rather excited on arriving here. It’s doubly exciting because this was to be Ainsley’s first taste of ice cream.
I started with Roasted Banana. Intense banana flavor, dark brown flavor, and it is just beautiful. It’s one note played perfectly. Next was Brown Butter Pecan. I love butter pecan ice cream in general. I’ve been anticipating what nice dark notes browning the butter might accomplish. I was slightly disappointed on that front: if the butter was browned much before this batch was made, it doesn’t appear to change the taste of the ice cream much from what I expected. Still, it’s a really good incarnation of butter pecan.
Next up, Orange Cardamom. There are floral notes to the orange flavor that pair very nicely with the cardamom, which is fairly understated by comparison. I would absolutely order this again, though, as it’s a lovely counterpoint to the fourth flavor, Salted Caramel. The first bite of this flavor had me hooked. It is intensely burned sugar with some surprising and welcome bitter notes. In fact, this is probably the most intense caramel flavor I’ve had, bar none. Some of that is likely due to the salt, but it’s seems mostly intended. That they get a flavor that strong to show up in a frozen dessert is impressive enough, but it showing up in a dairy dessert, which has a tendency to dampen the intensity of most flavors, is absolutely noteworthy. And, although Ainsley clearly enjoyed the banana and orange cardamom flavors, she really seemed to enjoy the caramel. Mom and I agreed.
After a return to the hotel for some rest, we take a trolley up Market to First Street and then walk the rest of the way to
Spice Kit – Bánh mì Sandwich
With names like Thomas Keller and Ron Siegel on their resumes, Will Pacio and Fred Tang present well-cooked and easily understood Asian fast food at Spice Kit. I’m glad we hit this place our first night, as it would become a go-to choice from the rest of the trip. The concept is simple: choose a sandwich, wrap, or salad as the platform and then choose a protein. We had two bánh mì sandwiches, one with roasted pork and one with beef shortribs. This was my first foray into bánh mì territory. It’s a Vietnamese sandwich traditionally garnished with liver pate, mayonnaise, a slaw of pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, and cilantro. The shortribs weren’t bad, but the roasted pork was perfect. The acid in the slaw cuts through the fat of the pate and pork and adds a nice, bright note. I have had dreams about that pork bánh mì since then, and have already located a recipe for pate that I want to try making soon. If Out the Door didn’t have proximity going for it, I suspect Spice Kit would have become our default choice for a quick meal.
We also ordered some steamed pork buns. My experience with the dish in the past has been a soft, pillowy dough which completely surrounded a chopped pork filling similar to what you might find in an egg roll, only a bit sweeter. The Spice Kit take on them is a grilled slab of pork belly basted with hoisin and some veggies. They were delicious, but I’ll admit that I was far too enamored with the bánh mì to get terribly excited about them. For those keeping score at home, roasted pork + pate > pork belly alone.
We also got an order of the ginger peanut slaw to share. It was fine, though barely registered compared to pork buns and other porky goodness.
Next up: a walk through Thomas’ garden.
It’s a rare meal when, at the end, I’m excited to have only paid $100, tip included. It’s even more rare when I am anxious to return, and nearly do so the very next day.
Loria and I visited The Venetian resort in Las Vegas last year specifically to enjoy Bouchon Bakery, a small stand outside of the Phantom of the Opera Theatre. The first visit made such an impression that our final stop on the way out of the town consisted of my parking illegally in the hotel’s covered entrance, leaving her to watch after the car, sprinting to drop a silly amount of money, and then running back with two bags full of baked goods.
While the eponymous bouchon, a dense, rich chocolate brownie bite, the lemon and raspberry macaron, and the eclairs were each delicious, it was the ham and cheese sandwich that really surprised me. It takes something this simple and elegant to really make the point that Thomas Keller is a genius, and clearly knows how to coax maximum flavor out of each ingredient. On a not entirely unrelated note, we repeated the exercise this year, nearly doubling last year’s expenditure. The prices are, in some cases, double that of a regular bakery. Food with the precision and thought like that served in a Keller restaurant is worth every penny. Which is my way of saying, visit the bakery, go prepared to spend some cash, and don’t look back.
Having enjoyed the baked goods last year, we decided to make the actual restaurant the central dining experience of the trip. Good call.
If you’ve ever read a Thomas Keller recipe, you’ll know that “precision” isn’t finely detailed enough a word to describe the man’s work. When somebody suggests that I cut up a chocolate bar for use in a chocolate chip cookie, and then use a sieve on the pieces of chocolate to make sure that the smaller shards don’t end up melted into the dough and change the pale color, you know that you’re dealing with somebody who really cares about the smallest details of his food. It shows and I’m grateful.
Bouchon Bistro is a recreation of Keller’s casual eatery in Yountville, California. It serves French bistro food, dressed up for a night on the town. Or, in some cases, dressed down and simplified in very elegant and flavorful ways.
The staff was beyond friendly. Our waiter bantered wittily when appropriate, and gave us plenty of space when we needed it. I love a server who pays attention, and this guy was very much on his game. His description of the specials indicated clearly that he’d sampled each of them, which seems to be a dying tradition in restaurants. His first recommendation put us in a quandary: the night’s special appetizer sounded amazing, but I’ve read a bit about the pate and have my heart set on it. In an evening filled with great choices, we decide to do both.
It consisted of pork shoulder, cooked low and slow for the entire day, pressed into the shape of a long, thin candy bar. The pork presse was topped with an apricot preserve and a salad of marble-sized heirloom tomato halves. These parts of the dish alone would have been worth the money. The genius bit, though, was a sprinkling of dried garlic flowers, so pungent and flavorful, with a bit of creme fraiche to combat the acid of the tomatoes. I would love to know what, exactly, had been done to those small flowers to make them so filled with garlic flavor. Whether they were soaked or treated in some manner before drying, or they came from The French Laundry’s garden, they were the extra bit that put an already remarkable dish over the top.
As for the pate, I honestly don’t remember the details. It had some bacon around the outside. It made me feel very happy for the lucky pig that gave its life for the dish. I remember feeling like it would have been a serious mistake had we passed it up. I will not visit Bouchon again without getting the pate before my meal.
For our entrees, we choose the Kurobuta pork loin and the croque madame. The pork was served with a mustard water and creme fraiche on a small bed of wilted swiss chard and lightly heated peaches. I will admit that, though I do dearly love pork, I have only rarely had a pork loin that I was really excited about. Given how the appetizers went, I was fairly confident that Bouchon’s take on it stood a decent chance of turning that around for me and I wasn’t disappointed. It was weet, tender, and very delicate. The pairing of stone fruit with pork, a traditional favorite in late-summer, was a nice compliment. I certainly enjoyed it and might even order it again.
The croque madame was, however, all kinds of amazing.
This one was my wife’s choice, though we shared both entrees. Here is the menu description:
toasted ham & cheese sandwich on brioche,
fried egg & mornay sauce
served with French fries
Reading that, I was underwhelmed. I was wrong.
The visual impression the sandwich gives is monumental: a tall, sharply squared block of what appears to be very crisp bread with a bit of ham visible from the outside, topped with a round and very flat egg, and a mountain of frites on the side. Cutting into it revealed the reality to be a bit different: the bread was ethereal and nearly disappeared under my knife. The egg, it turned out, was fried just to the point where the white appeared to be solid. It was not. Both it and the yolk ran immediately and coated the exposed bits of the sandwich, and the fries. The combination was a perfect bite of light, airy bread, a bit of protein, and runny sauce from the egg and mornay.
Eventually the server came over with a small container of house made ketchup for the frites. It was a nice touch, but it’s going to be hard from here on out to eat frites without lightly fried egg coating them, no matter how well they are cooked.
We skipped dessert in favor of another trip to the bakery. Our server’s recommendation turned out to be another favorite – half a croissant, smeared with raspberry preserves, topped with a brown sugar and butter crumb and baked. I wish this read more like a critique and that I had some suggestion for the restaurant. My only real complaint is that, since Keller seems willing to recreate the bistro and bakery pair, that there isn’t one closer to home. Maybe someday.