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A perfect food day in Oakland

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Yesterday was all about food in the Heimoff household. I was on deadline to complete a piece for Wine Enthusiast’s online site about foods that Napa chefs prepare for garden parties and wine tastings during our glorious summer months. I’d tasted through about 50 little munchies during the Napa action walkaround event at Jarvis, chosen 5 or 6 to write about, and gotten agreement from the chefs that they would work with me to develop the recipes and then come up with wine recommendations.

First let me segue by telling you how difficult it is to work with chefs! If you want to know why, read (or listen to) Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s funny insider’s tale of life as a cook. I’m used to having winemakers or their P.R. reps return my phone calls and follow through on their promises. They’re very good about that. Chefs? Fageddaboudit! It’s like pulling teeth. I had to beg, cajole, threaten, practically get on my knees and cry. But it all came together, so I got my recipes: golden tomato gazpacho with toasted garlic, basil and lemon; tuna taco with nuoc cham sauce and guacamole; and Dungeness crab Louis. You can read all about it, hopefully by next week, on the magazine’s website.

All that talking and writing about food made me a hongry honcho, so I hightailed it down to Whole Foods with Gus and bought a tofu burger sandwich on a 7-grain bun. Filling enough, but the chicken enchiladas in the prepared food area looked so good, I bought a box of that too. Ate them both right in the car, as Gus watched pleadingly but unsuccessfully. I never share my food with him, and he never shares his food with me.

But I’d invited Marilyn for dinner, so the eating was just getting started. I was bushed after completing the recipe article and in no mood for fancy cooking, so when Marilyn arrived–late, due to traffic; the Giants game had just ended [WE WHIPPED L.A.’S ASS! GO GIANTS!]–I told her that, contrary to our usual tradition, we’d be going to a restaurant, instead of me cooking up a meal. I had been planning on making–you won’t believe this–a Reuben sandwich, something I hadn’t had since I was a kid growing up in Da Bronx. It’s not the usual semi-fancy thing I like to cook for Marilyn, but I’m reading Jacques Pepin’s delightful memoir, The Apprentice, where on page 148 he has a recipe for a Reuben he says he became “a sucker for” after he moved to NYC (and approvingly quotes James Beard, “who said not many people appreciate a good sandwich.”).

But I was tired, so the Reuben will have to wait. Instead I decided to take Marilyn to the new Indian-Pakistani restaurant that opened in my hood when my old, favored Chinese restaurant closed. I hadn’t been there, but Rajeev, who is decidedly Indian, told me the food was good, so The House of Curries it was. But first, it was back to Whole Foods, for a half pound of cold smoked salmon, a jar of crême fraiche and a loaf of ciabatta, for an appetizer. I like to slice the bread thick, rub it generously with mashed garlic, drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil, and then–extravagantly–top each slice with a sliver of butter, then toast the bread on one side only in a toaster oven until the bread turns a golden brown around the edges. Top with the smoked salmon, add a smear of crême fraiche, and voila. With it we consumed the rest of a bottle of Domaine Carneros’s non-vintage Cuvée de la Pompadour brut rosé, which I’d reviewed the night before. It had been so good, I’d saved the rest, instead of pouring it down the drain, the fate that most of the wine I review suffers.

So we were already feeling good and sated by the time we stumbled down the hill to The House of Curries. We had the usual assortment–beef and lamb tandoories and chicken tikka masala and naan and jasmine rice so on. Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license yet, but there’s a market down the block with a wide assortment of beer (which is better with Indian food anyway), and our waiter encouraged me to get some and drink it at our table. So we did. A couple bottles each of Anchor Steam and some Mexican brand whose name I don’t recall but it was really good.

In Pepin’s book he talks about how amazed he was at the unconsciousness or ignorance of Americans in general about food when he came here, in the 1960s (did you know he was offered the job as White House chef for JFK but turned it down to be a head cook for Howard Johnson’s?) People, he said, looked at food as sustenance, rather than pleasure, as he’d been raised in France to do. I’m not sure I agree: As a boy of that time, I remember taking great pleasure in the foods my mother gave me: simple but satisfying things like grilled chicken, veal parmigiana, French toast, bacon and eggs, and, of course, bagels and lox. But I take Jacques’s point: As he wrote, the word or concept of “foodie” had not yet been invented.

Now it has. One of the things I love about Oakland is that it is truly a foodie’s Paradise. So many ethnicities, so many interesting and charming little local restaurants, so many weird and wonderful markets (Korean, Afghan, Ethiopian) to delight in. I love my wine country cuisine, yes I do, but don’t try and get between me and my Ye Feseg Beyaynetu at Ensarro.

  1. Once I represented a chef, and it was a disaster. He “said” he’d like to be getting publicity, but when I’d have a writer show up, he wouldn’t come out of the kitchen. It was so disappointing… to have someone say s/he will, then not show up. Made me look bad… as well as the chef.

    As you’ve written… Fageddaboudit!

    Re: “did you know he was offered the job as White House chef for JFK but turned it down to be a head cook for Howard Johnson’s?) Get out!!!

  2. Oaksterdam baby!

  3. @Jo. Seriously! Read the book. I think he went for the $$. It’s all good.

  4. @DR: Oaksterdam! Thanks for the love.

  5. Regarding the Bay Area food paradise, we should not forget, we profited greatly from the man Jackie eventually hired as White House chef and who later moved here to teach us all a thing or two about food. Rene Verdon. Regarding the other guy who turned down the job…

    I had this girlfriend in the 70′s who, with another J.A.P., had a cooking school in Beverly Hills. It was mostly for ladies with too much spare time and spare change. The girlfriend arranged for this French chef to come in for three days and teach classes and for weeks she bored me with all these stories about his exploits in and out of the kitchen. Somehow I got this image of a guy who dazzled the ladies with his French accent and handsome smile, but was otherwise an empty toque. Before any cookbooks or PBS, he was relatively unknown.

    I was used to the limelight, so maybe I was a wee bit jealous. He arrived in town from Connecticut, and the girl friend hosted him for dinner at a restaurant. She was bubbling with excitement, I reluctantly tagged along to meet this Jaques Pepin.

    From the minute I met this guy, it was man-love on my part. This dude was the real deal. Apprenticed in the kitchen of his parents restaurant as a boy, working his way up with his hands and back in other kitchens in Paris. Personal chef for heads of state. In his mid forties his legs were shot from grueling work of his trade, had to wear braces for support when he was cooking.

    We talked about terroir in wine and in food. He had honest and simple tastes. His favorite dish was one of the chickens he raised in his backyard, freshly killed and plucked and roasted hot in his wood fired oven. He was this deep resource of knowledge, all this stuff I always wanted to know, and I didn’t realize it until after we had dropped him off at his hotel that my girl friend was totally pissed. She had not been able to get a word in the entire meal and just watched these two guys talk about the taste of different chicken breeds, their favorite wines, and their favorite dishes. It erupted into a pretty big fight, I was totally guilty. It was worth it.

    Pepin is still the real deal. His cookbooks are the best and his PBS shows are timeless classics that will hold up as a resource for our grandchildren. The level of quality in cooking in this country owes a lot to these two men.

  6. Morton, if you never read “The Apprentice,” check it out.

  7. Re: Reuben sandwiches. I decided to make Montreal Smoked Meat the other day (look it up–it is a cross of sorts of corned beef, pastrami and spices that is its own brand of wonderfully spicy brisket). I came close and wound up a little closer to pastramin than what I had come to love at Schwartz’s in Montreal.

    So, Reuben time. Very satisfying and glad, Steve, that someone else knows the joys of a real Reuben.

  8. Jason Carey says:

    Steve, I have to tell you that The old Seafood was one of the absolute WORST restaurants I have ever eaten at.. Horrible dim sum and greasy, rancid soggy regular food.. but hey everybody has their own taste.

  9. Jason, I used to stick with the sole in black bean sauce and the pot stickers. For $16, it was a great meal.

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