Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Pleasures of Paris in a Flat World

Thanks to talented pastry chefs and bakers in the U.S. who are infatuated with French sweets and baked treats, it is not necessary to travel to Paris to enjoy them....well, at least, you can get by without doing so.
The display at La Pâtisserie des Rêves--tranlates to "the pastry of dreams." Amen.
For example, In San Francisco you can get killer bread, croissant, muesli and meringues at Tartine; canelé, if you get there early enough, at Boulette's Larder.
Macaroons displayed at a bakery in the sweet 'hood of Saint Germain.
In Palo Alto you can get a buttery, flaky croissant and satisfying pain au chocolate without searching too hard.
Rich yet pure: French strawberry planted in a jar of crème fraîche. 
Californian farmers markets can--unequivocally--match the quality of produce I saw at Raspail Market if not the selections (animal brains) and varietals (gariguette strawberries).
Raspail Market on a rainy Tuesday morning.

There was a food truck at Raspail Market!  Apparently more to come!
In the category of dairy, we have St. Benoît Creamery in Sonoma with Euro roots, whose sumptuous yogurts can easily compete with the delicious whole-milk ones I tasted in France.

And in the area of coffee, there is simply no competition. The U.S. does it better.
Never to-go. Café Crème (café au lait) from Coutume.  
So it is possible to get a taste of France without going far, at least living in the Bay Area.
Chocolat chaud at Coutume.
But I will have to go to Paris for everything else: to hear the melodic sounds of French being spoken in the Metro; to sip local café crème--even if Blue Bottle could prepare it better--, to admire a market's endless rows of butter and yogurt in pristine glass have a chat with the owner of a little, white dog in a neighborhood park.
Named for a cycling race from Paris to Best, le Paris-Brest is a wheel of small puff pastries filled with praline buttercream.  These, from LPâtisserie des Rêves, are absolutely deadly--among the best tasting pastries I have ever had.  

Yogurt anyone?  From Bon Marché before I was told to put away my camera.
Bottom line: though bits of Paris can be experienced here, Paris is still distinctly Paris, even if it is being invaded by food trucks at the moment.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Parisian Sweets Catwalk

I had a day to live out a Paris fantasy and it looked like these next few blog posts. 
Laudrée window.
Most of my time was spent in the swanky Left Bank arrondissement of St. Germain. This was Tuesday, May 13, the swearing-in of the new president, François Hollande, so there were gendarme (policemen) aplenty on the major streets.  
Laudrée inside.
But over coffee in a café at St. Germain, one would never know. The weather was maniacal: sunny, rainy, inside-out-umbrella-windy.  But none of that could shroud the city's irresistible charms.  
Café crème with shortbread spoon at Cuisine de Bar. Check out the shortbread spoon!!!
I took a food tour with Meg of Paris by Mouth, who taught me all kinds of things about French food. Photos and tidbits are from this tour and a visit with friend Elisabeth, a multiple-generation Parisienne, who knew so well about the food institutions that have been here for years.  
Cannelé from Bon Marché, the largest gourmet food hall in Paris.
À bientôt.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sweet London

In my zombie-like state this afternoon, following the ten-hour flight and associated terrorism prevention pleasantries of airtravel, I stumbled into Selfridges, just to have a look. Why not. An Israeli friend/London-phile, Y, told me about the food halls in the department stores.  Kinda like in Tokyo? Well, not really but sort of, she said.
I am not so sure I want to try these but I almost purchased them for the cute tins.
I get it now.  As soon as I saw the goods, my fatigue turned to mania.

As I strolled along Oxford Street, I kept muttering to myself: "This doesn't feel like London!"  Were it not for the British flags hanging like drapes above the streets, wretchedly glorifying the commercialism there, I did not feel like I was in the UK.  I know, what do I expect of Oxford Street.

This is Regent Street, which is just as bad but prettier.
But, the abundance of HAZELNUT chocolate and MARZIPAN in the candy section of Selfridge's  reminded me that I was indeed in London, and that the EU is so near.  There were candies from France, Germany, Italy and other places--even England!
Chocolate praline "Quail Eggs!"

Post Script: I went to buy these German marzipan treats three days later: GONE!
Displays from the food catwalk follow.

A show-off display of Italian nougat, from Italy.
Persian candies, including nougat...

...and fairy floss. Yes, that's right.
Selfridges has all kinds of luxurious sweets that make tasteful gifts for your divine friends.

How about some champagne truffles:

Now that I have seen Selfridges I have to see Harrod's food hall.  I will make myself go there, despite how I loathe crowded tourist traps.

I'll be back.  I am falling behind on my food journaling...Am leaving for Paris in less than six hours where I will be food prowling, first thing.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Greetings from London

Arrived in London today at 2pm.  Was exhausted from travel but came alive (think: Pulp Fiction scene when Uma Thurman character gets stabbed with needle by John Travolta character) when I went to the ground floor of Selfridge's a few hours later. More soon.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

San Francisco International Tea Festival - Year I

I kind of want to keep this a secret, but how can I?
This was the first annual (yes, they are planning on doing it next year) San Francisco International Tea Festival.  Though I love coffee, I am now seriously considering converting to being a 100% tea drinker. All, if not the majority, of products were from (or have North American HQs) in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York--an added thrill for me.
The display at Oakland's own  Sky Tea
Over a course of four hours, I learned about how tea is processed and sampled 15-20 varieties (green, black, red, white) including:

Black teas from Indian and British companies

There was also, oddly, one chocolate and ginger ale booth each, both marvelous.
From Pure Puer
  • Masala chai (blended with brown sugar and 2% milk) from Oakland's Sky Tea . It had a gentle kick to it, and its creaminess reminded me of the delicious chai I had in India which was made with buffalo milk.  
  • Ito En's matcha.  To be fair, we didn't see other pure matcha teas there so they didn't exactly have competition. But we were told that Teas's Tea Matcha won some kind of taste award...and that is quite believable.  This booth had at least a dozen varieties of their chilled teas as well, which were clean tasting and refreshing.  Ito En also produces green tea bags under the Kirkland (Costco) brand. They are the best tasting green tea bags I have had and contain a bit of matcha in them.
  • Claudio Corallo's chocolate with raisins in liquor.  Absolute seduction.  However, I did not buy it because a small package (< 6ounces) was $25.  But in case I regret this, I needn't travel to Italy as I can find them in Gourmet Ghetto thank goodness.
Claudio Corallo's soap-sized packages of chocolate.
  • Red Circle Tea was delightful and wins my award for friendliest and most informative service.  Sky Tea, with its enthusiastic crew, was excellent too.
Also from PurePuer.
Did you know that:
  • Unlike wine, all tea (we aren't talking about tisanes here) comes from one plant, but that its processing distinguishes them from one another? 
  • The difference between Japanese green tea and all the rest is in the processing.  Japanese green tea is steamed whereas other teas (including Chinese green teas) are roasted during production.  
  • Matcha, ground tea leaves, is the purest kind of green tea. For optimal brewing, do NOT use boiling water.  This is really important!
  • You can use the tea leaves you used for making tea and throw them in your stir-fry to get more anti-oxidants out of your meal says Ying Compestine.
  • "Kung fu" means something that is achieved through dedicated effort. (Imperial Tea Court's Roy Fong said so.) The reference isn't just to Bruce Lee et al.  Why he mentioned this in his talk, I cannot remember. But Roy Fong also believes that tea lowered his blood pressure (he had a heart attack at 41),
These were some of the bits of info that we were told.

Since this is their first year, the festival had some first-year glitches. For example, an intimate Japanese green tea ceremony, which I had won a ticket for, was way overbooked.  I couldn't get in as a result.  I was disappointed.   (But I got over it.)  All the volunteers we ran into (and there were many) were friendly and accommodating, if a little lost.  The crowd was also manageable and small enough that you could move around, but I would strongly recommend the festival stock their booths with double the number of staff next year. This would make traffic even better and reduce wait times.  

But for a debut, nice job, tea festival!
From Roti Roti.  Not a vegetarian sandwich! Hunk of porky inside. 
Of course the venue, on the second floor of the Ferry Building, is a gem. Before entering the tea festival, we got a bite. At the Ferry Building on a Saturday morning, the options are luxuriously overwhelming.  Miraculously, there was almost no line at Roti Roti and J was able to get one of their famous porchetta sandwiches in no time.  This was possible only because it is still officially winter and tourists haven't yet taken over the place.  Just a few more precious weeks before they do...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Philz Coffee (Downtown Palo Alto) - Review

What was all the fuss about Philz Coffee?  No matter when I pass by this glass-walled cafe, I see tons of people inside. Nevermind about the spectacular customer reviews.
Disclaimer: this is based on one visit on a springy, Sunday February morning.
Tip: Order first at the barista bar and then go to the cashier and pay.
  • All coffee is made to order.
  • Service is efficient even though the coffee prep takes time.
  • Vibe on a Sunday morning: all kinds of Palo Alto types, slim, trim and wiling to pay $3.25 for a small cup of black coffee. So they are 20-40 somethings typing into laptops and adults with children in jeans, hoodies, button-down shirts, and Patagonia jackets. Some customers are alone
  • Pastries to stay are served in huge coffee filters. 
  • Baristas take care of your cream and sugar if you want any.
  • Lots of individual attention and coffee counseling (as needed). I felt like I could take my time talking (unlike at some places I love in SF) because there was not a long line of customers behind me.
  • Lounge chairs, tables, and lots of natural light. Bottom line: I am intrigued! I like it!
Went in and wasn’t exactly sure where to go. The place is big and there was a cluster of people both by the cashier and on the other side of the deep barista bar.  But since the staff is attentive, listening was all that was required to figure it out.  Still, maybe Philz could benefit from having someone out on the floor guiding people.

I asked for a black coffee.  I barely glanced at the menu in part to avoid being overwhelmed with choices (I had heard that so many drinks were good here) and because I just wanted black. But the Philz’s hot chocolate was tempting me.  Anyway, I ordered. “This your first time here?” said the long haired man behind the counter. He had a cross earring dangling from his left ear.  He could have been a professional wrestler. In fact the entire line of baristas looked as ethnically and culturally diverse as what you’d find on BART.

He told me: every serving is brewed individually and that I should try Tesora, described on the menu as “a grand representation of our coffee and they way coffee should taste."  He also asked: cream or sugar? We prepare that back here.
At the cash register I asked a kind kid who looked like a graduate student in CS to recommend some pastries. He likes the chocolate croissants best.  When I kept probing, he also suggested the almond twist and the apricot bar. I went with the bar. But I will be back for the other two.

Philz Coffee
101 Forest Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Good Food Awards - Year II

Got milk? Got crackers?
I adore cheese, coffee, jam, and chocolate so much that it's hard to believe that I could ever get enough of these foods...but I did after 30 minutes of sampling at the Good Food Awards. This was probably and only because most of these items were served straight up, without their usual accompaniments.  Imagine  sample-sized spoons of jam, fermented cabbage and cubes of cheese without bread or crackers or hotdogs, and tiny cups of black coffee without milk. 

Had Whole Foods and Gilt, sponsors of this event, donated crackers and bread and milk, I am sure that more products would have been sold.
Italian cookies from Galla Rulli in New York City.  Available on Gilt.  Recommended!
In this second year of the event, the Good Food Awards charged $5 per person ($12 more if you wanted to try beer and spirits) and had fewer sampling booths.  But it was still fun to meet all the purveyors from New York, Utah, NC, Washington, Oregon, and of course California and to get bites and sips of their wares.

Not surprisingly, my favorite section was chocolate.  I can eat chocolate in any form without any accompaniments and still be in a state of bliss.  All the chocolate I tried (15 different kinds?) had a clean mouth-feel and were made with just a few ingredients: cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla.  Yet they all had distinct flavors, emanating from the beans used.  When ingredients are simple and pure, the beauty of the natural flavor can emerge. I will devote a separate post to this delicious topic.
Apart from chocolate, my favorite product was these little almonds.  Way smaller than the kind you normally see, these were flavored with smoked salt and Herbs en Provence.

Bits & Bites - Point Reyes, CA

Need a pick-me-up while devouring the eye candy that is Point Reyes?  Bovine Bakery has sweet breads and coffee to-go.   My friends says that the marzipan berry cake is out of this world. This particular bun, which weighs a full pound, is sweet and dense with cooked apples.   It was just okay, I thought.  I will need to return for the cake.

Bovine Bakery
11315 Shoreline Hwy
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
(415) 663-9420