29 January 2008

Bar Crudo propositions

Unfortunately, San Francisco's quaint, little raw restaurant Bar Crudo is too unpretentious, endearing, and charming for bright lighting that befits a point-and-shoot camera, so I don't have pretty photos of their simple yet beautifully presented food. I would have brought my digital SLR, but seeing as how I had a gift-wrapped 11th Anniversary iPod in one pocket and an engagement ring hidden in another, I did not have the room nor the inclination to bring the super duper camera. More on that in a bit.

First of all, this may sound silly, but Los Angeles is just too sunny. Even when it rains, it's sunny. So, my annual Christmas trip back to Northern California is always a breath of fresh, brisk, damp, jacket-required air. Camille once visited Bar Crudo without me and sang its praises, and I coincidentally read a review at Eat, Drink, & Be Merry (which includes terrific photos), so I figured it would be a nice, romantic spot for our anniversary. My imminent proposal was a big factor in the decision, too -- I didn't want to break out the ring only to have the bill shoved in my face by a harried waiter at a bigger, busier restaurant.

Bar Crudo is an intimate place featuring a tiny kitchen and bar downstairs, and a loft up top containing about nine or so tables. In my experience, raw food is presented without too much adornment, the more to highlight the single flavor/texture being presented. Bar Crudo's menu is a selection of mostly raw seafood, but sushi this ain't. Each dish is a sublime and subtle yet complex layering of ingredients. It is food preparation of the highest order, but using differing ingredient combinations instead of cooking techniques to create the flavors. In some ways, this is even more difficult than running proteins through a gamut of searing/braising/roasting/frying because these dishes require a high foodie vocabulary. I get the sense that chef/co-owner Mike Selvera has tried all of these ingredients every which way you can imagine, and knows how best to play them off of each other. Absolutely sublime.

Small Seafood Platter
Well, it's a plate of shrimp, crab legs, oysters, clams, and mussels on ice. I love this stuff with the exception of the clams (there's a reason "clammy" is an adjective, and a bad one at that). When oysters and mussels fresh, and they were, then they are sweet and delicate, without that rank sea smell you get at supermarket seafood counters. Very good, but I'm not going to go on hyperbole overload (yet). I will, however, stand up and cheer for Bar Crudo's various types of tobiko. The seafood platter comes with the standard sauces you'd expect (cocktail, vinegar, etc), and then there was the familiar snow-like look of tiny, briny fish roe. Except it was bright yellow and tasted distinctly of lemon.

I had no idea you could flavor tobiko. When it comes to movies I like, I can typically point to one scene that wins me over, where in my head something clicks, I tell myself it's a good movie, and the film can do no wrong from that point on. I had that very feeling when I first spooned the lemon tobiko onto a tiny, juicy oyster and sucked the thing into my mouth. Bar Crudo can do no wrong.

Crudo Sampler
I warned you about the hyperbole and here it comes. The Crudo Sampler is like a canvas of fish with various produce and sauces as paint. The flavors compliment, amplify, and otherwise kick things up a notch. This is where things got eye-opening for me.

First up is the Rhode Island Fluke, topped with fennel, orange, and pomegranate seeds. At first, I thought the fluke was yellowtail. It's similar in color and texture and has a mild sweetness. Fennel has a vague licorice flavor (I guess anise would be the proper culinary term) and smells almost like citrus, so it pairs well with orange. The pomegranate provides not only an extra bite, but a tangy, sweet punch.

Next was the Arctic Char, a fish in the salmon family. For some reason, salmon and dill go together. A dab of creme fraiche blends things together more and also balances with the second flavored tobiko of the night, wasabi tobiko. Seriously, who knew you could do this to tobiko? And this wasn't colored horseradish masquerading as wasabi, this was full-on, balls-out, spicy wasabi tobiko. It's like gourmet pop rocks.

Following this was a raw scallop topped with a celery root puree and finished with a fairly standard but still delicious classic, tuna with soy, ginger, and scallions. Basically a big, single piece of ahi poke. All in all, a tremendous single plate of food.

Lobster & Beet Salad
What really sold this dish for me, aside from the perfectly-cooked lobster and fresh beets, was the addition of the pistachios. There was burrata cheese and figs amidst the arugula and a vinaigrette, too, but the pistachios really punctuate the salad and, in the words of The Dude, really tie the room together. The whole thing was sweet, fresh, buttery, juicy... and then the pistachios knock it out of the park. This is what I'm talking about when I say a high foodie vocabulary -- I never would have thought to put lobster, beet, fig, and pistachio together. Yum!

Seafood Chowder with Smoked Applewood Bacon
Again, perfectly-cooked fish that was still juicy and flaky despite having been stewed for God knows how long. It's a nice, rich take on clam chowder, and the smoked bacon flavor is subtle but distinct. It's the perfect soup for a damp San Francisco night.

So, back to that proposal business. We had a pretty late reservation, so by the time we were finishing the chowder, we had the loft entirely to ourselves. I gave Camille her anniversary gift, the iPod, which I preloaded with a video slideshow featuring pictures of us and our various adventures. Except for the handful of photos at the end, which were pictures of me taking an engagement ring out of a bag and offering it up to the camera.

Camille actually looked a little confused, which was when I plopped the ring down on the table in front of her. She offered up her hand, I slid the ring on, and that was that. Pretty smooth, if I do say so myself.

It's worth noting that I never verbally asked the question, and she never verbally responded. Good thing I have a really expensive degree in film to help me communicate these things. Perfect woman, perfect meal, perfect night.

Thanks, Bar Crudo.

603 Bush Street (at Stockton)
San Francisco, CA


28 January 2008

Reverse Graffiti

I originally found this video via a bizarre (and random) trivia blog. So, check that out, too.

Reverse graffiti is basically cleaning dirt and grime off of a surface in such a way to create a picture. Like all those people that write "clean me" on dirty car windows, except for imagery. The genius of it is that it's not really vandalism -- the artist is selectively cleaning a surface that the local government otherwise has neglected. Suddenly, authority types are forced to do their jobs and take care of public spaces, but are they doing it to suppress art or are they doing it to be responsible and clean up their mess?

This video is clever. I found it oddly provocative and moving, too. It helps that it's shot and edited well and has cool music. It brings up all sorts of issues about not only art, but the use of public spaces, and the relationships between neighborhoods, their inhabitants, and their governments. On a separate note, comedy has certainly found a home in online video like YouTube, etc... will more dramatic stuff ever find a footing? Or are videos like this just one-off novelties, the rare non-comedy to gain a viral audience?

17 January 2008


I'm normally allergic to the independent darling of the year. They usually come with a cheeky behind-the-scenes story (screenwriter Diablo Cody was a stripper!) and get championed as the Little Movie That Could (take that, big studios!) despite the fact that they usually mistake oddball dysfunction for character and plot. Combine this aggravating annual ode to hipness with the fact that, damn it, I wanted to be this year's cheeky behind-the-scenes story (blogger hits Hollywood big time!), and I usually hate these flicks before I see a single frame of film.

Things didn't look well during the first few minutes of Juno. More specifically, things didn't sound well during the first few scenes. The film is front-loaded with an avalanche of oddball verbiage, with every character speaking in some strange, ironic, quirky vernacular. Like, dude, for shiz. I'm a big fan of euphemism and irony and wit, but this was like being forced to listen to an inside joke that's evolved between friends to the point of not being funny anymore. Yes, that is a back-handed complement to the nuanced realism of the writing, but my bigger point is that it's off-putting. For realz, home skillet, it totally annoys my balls off, yo.

But then something happens. Pregnant Juno can't go through with an abortion, decides she'll put the baby up for adoption, and drops the bomb on her parents. Quirkiness abounds. Her father puts her down, telling her she isn't the kind of girl that gets pregnant. "I don't know what kind of girl I am," she says. It's a telling line, delivered with the perfect mix of remorse, exasperation, and heartbreak by Ellen Page. It turns out Juno isn't merely a collection of overtly ironic catch phrases, she's a living, breathing teenager trying to make sense of the world.

Juno has a heart. The film turns out to be terrific, smartly walking a fine line between biting sarcasm and heart-warming sentiment. After these opening scenes, the screenwriting stripper finds a gear that works. The writing and the fantastic performance by Ellen Page really capture the voice of a precocious teenager who is certainly smart but also inexperienced -- a person who wants to be better than the thoughtless, hormonal teen who wants to know what drove adults to coin the phrase "sexually active." There's another telling scene when Juno meets the couple she hopes will adopt her baby, and her nonchalance about the situation quietly wounds Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a woman who yearns so badly to switch places with the smart ass pregnant teen poking fun at her home decor. Beneath her eloquent sarcasm, Juno's just an emotionally-unstable kid.

The distinct difference between the first ten minutes of the film versus the remainder is that the opening moments are trying so hard to reach for laughs that aren't there. The rest of the film settles for telling a story and letting the comedy come out of the characters and the situations. Juno's battle of wills with her step-mother is hilarious, as is her sometime best friend, sometime boyfriend admitting that he tries very hard to be cool. There's an awkward sweetness to Juno's relationship with Mark (Jason Bateman), Vanessa's musician husband who'd like nothing better than to be in his twenties again.

The Juno-Mark relationship is the key to the film. It unfolds in a way that confounded my expectations. The way it forces Juno to reflect on what she really wants is surprising, and it really brings the film's emotional undercurrents to the forefront. I loved the way the film builds to these later moments where the audience begins to fully understand what kind of girl Juno is just as she's discovering this for herself.

I especially appreciated the unforced nature of the story. It avoids cheap melodrama and lets the characters breath. Thankfully, Juno isn't too hip for its own good. It's a little gem of a character piece that's thoughtful yet biting, sardonic yet warming. For shiz.


That's bu-la-LO. Don't worry, the first time I read it, I mispronounced it, too.

I really enjoy the notion that food is true living history, even though 99% of the time it's, you know, dead. The term "comfort food" doesn't quite capture what happens when a dish not only works on your senses and sentiments, but connects you to a culture. Especially when said culture is "your" culture. Nostalgia from childhood is one thing. Realizing that thousands of people for centuries have eaten what you're eating is oddly transcendent.

I'm a first generation Filipino-American. I don't speak Tagalog. I despise pinoy movies. Some of the food even scares me. At least, it used to. My mom didn't make too many Filipino dishes while I was growing up, but one staple she always fell back on is bulalo. I did reference a recipe when I made it recently, but I mainly went along with my mom's beautifully simple directions. Beef shank. Bones. Water. Cook it.

It's about two parts water to one part beef material, then reduce it down and taste as you go. Whole peppercorns and sliced onions add a nice layer of flavor, but really all you're making is beef broth that's savory and rich from the bone marrow and melted fat. While it's probably a good idea to skim some of the fat, that's precisely what makes bulalo into lip-smackingly good stuff. Toss in some cabbage and potatoes to go along with the tender, stewed beef, and then ladle the stuff over rice, and you've got a cheap meal fit for fine, upstanding immigrants. Suddenly, I was ten again.
I specifically remember my dad spooning and eventually sucking the marrow out of the bone. This always freaked me out to no end, but now I know better. The bone marrow is by far the best part of the dish. It's where the flavor in the broth comes from. Camille and I tried foie gras recently, the fattened goose liver that's always prevalent in the menus on Top Chef. It's creamy and rich, well deserving of it's reputation.

Stewed beef marrow is kinda like that. Concentrated, decadent, fatty beef flavor. Not quite as creamy, but just as guilt-inducingly good. I don't know what kind of fat and cholesterol takes to my veins after eating this dish. I don't want to know. All I wanted to think about after scraping the last vestiges of marrow from the bone was more efficient ways to get it out from inside the hollow. If you handed me a stewed bone and a wide straw, I'd totally go for it.

09 January 2008

Bacon Days, Part 2: Bacon-Wrapped Scallops

Oddly, I can't think of a restaurant where I've had bacon-wrapped scallops, or even a cooking shown where I've seen it prepared. I certainly didn't invent them, but somehow it's entered my bag of tricks. Maybe because it looks fancy and makes a good impression. Though it's a little time-consuming because of the bacon, it's pretty straightforward.

I use the frozen scallops from Costco, which are actually pretty large. Each one's about two or three bites, so while I think of it as an appetizer, three or four of these bad boys on a plate with some greens and some vegetables would make a solid meal, too. The light sweetness of the scallops and the savory, rich, crispy bacon are a natural fit. It's light and fatty surf and turf (kind of). And I'm telling you, it's a conversation starter.

16 scallops (1 bag from Costco), thawed. Fresh is nice, too.
16 slices of bacon. Most packs of bacon are not 16 slices, so you're screwed here. Buy two.
16 toothpicks. These also don't come in boxes of 16, so you're screwed again.

Obviously, you can make more or less, but you're pretty much guaranteed to have extra bacon or extra scallops and definitely extra toothpicks.

Be sure to remove the toothpicks you need before you touch anything raw, or else you'll end up with 484 toothpicks with raw bacon/scallop juice drying on them.

Cook the bacon first. You can do this in a frying pan, but I'd recommend cooking them in the oven. Especially if you have one of those oven grill pan deals that'll let the bacon fat drip down into a pan. A lot easier.

So, preheat your oven to 350 while you're getting everything else together, and then cook the bacon 4-5 minutes, about halfway. Don't cook them all the way as you want them pliable. They should turn from their raw, pale pink into a slightly-cooked, pale light brown. Set aside and let cool.

Heat a frying pan on high heat.

Once the bacon is cool enough to handle, tightly wrap one slice around each scallop, securing with a toothpick. Revel in their beauty.

Make sure the pan is hot, then cook in batches. Sear, cooking about 3-4 minutes on each side until browned. The scallops will shrink slightly and little gashes will open up. Cook until the juices stop running. Set aside to cool slightly. Season with salt and pepper if you want, but you don't need to.

If you're feeling saucy, lay down a bed of greens on a plate and place the scallops on top. Serve and revel in your guests' gushing remarks of your culinary prowess.

Orange-Cranberry Sauce (Eat it, Williams-Sonoma!)

I can't remember a Thanksgiving where someone in my family actually made cranberry sauce. We've had roasted turkey and deep fried turkey and turducken with all sorts of stuffing and sides, but never a homemade cranberry sauce. After a lifetime of this, I just assumed a homemade cranberry sauce was too difficult or simply never compared to the scientists at General Mills or whoever makes those store-brand cranberry-flavored jelly-type substances.

In recent years, Camille and I have resorted to a $10 jar of orange-cranberry relish from Williams-Sonoma. It's mighty good, but for our recent Christmas party I bought a package of fresh cranberries to make my own cranberry sauce.

Well, it didn't happen for the party, but I finally did it. We had turkey breast in the freezer (also left over from the party) so I finally took my crack at the elusive cranberry.

And boy, oh boy, it was exceptionally easy. So easy, I nailed it on the first pass. And it's good.

Seriously, this is the first attempt. Go ahead, jar it up and sell it for $10 a pop if you want.

3 tablespoons butter
2 small yellow onions, chopped
12 oz. (1 bag) of fresh cranberries
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 clementine oranges or 1 regular orange, roughly chopped.
salt, to taste

In a pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onions and saute 4-5 minutes. Add the cranberries. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries begin to burst and break down into a sauce. Add the sugar and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the oranges and cook about another minute or until the sauce has thickened to your liking. Add salt, to taste.

See? I told you it was easy. This must be what it felt like to have "invented" bottled water.

05 January 2008

Bacon Days, Part 1: Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dog

When you start a conversation about hot dogs in Los Angeles, talk invariably turns to Pink's. And, in a way, Pink's does represent all that is Hollywood. Lots of glamor, lots of hype, and an ultimately empty experience. Pink's is like watching a cool trailer for a big summer movie 10 months in advance, waiting with dreams of how awesome it will be, and clawing for seats on opening night, only to realize it involves an annoying CGI character named Jar Jar who speaks quasi-ebonics with a cartoon Jamaican accent. In a word: disappointing.

While I plan to do some serious, in-depth hot dog research, just off the top of me head I'll name four hot dogs better than Pink's: The Wiener Factory in Sherman Oaks, Dodger Dogs at Dodger Stadium, Costco Polish Sausage at your local Costco Wholesaler (yes, THAT Costco Wholesaler), and the bacon-wrapped hot dog carts orbiting most sporting events.
Speaking of sporting events, allow me to serenade Pink's with my most favorite stadium chant...

Over-RATED! (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap)
Over-RATED! (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap)

Back to the bacon-wrapped dog, which apparently is a Mexican creation. If you don't think encased meat encased in more meat is appetizing, also consider that the kindly, Spanish-speaking illegal immigrant purveyors typically transport the dogs, sliced onions, and sliced bell peppers in used plastic grocery store bags, untying and dumping as needed. This is probably why the LA County Department of Health folks don't give permits for such things. But don't worry you're pretty little nose off with such details.
If the kindly, Spanish-speaking illegal immigrant asks if you want it with everything, "everything" typically includes grilled onions and peppers, mayonnaise, and mustard. The dog itself is pretty standard fare, most likely whatever was on sale that week at Ralph's or Vallarta or the back of some truck. It's the crispy bacon coating that elevates the entire affair to high levels of sublime. It provides a crunchy texture, a fatty richness, saltiness, and a seared smokiness. The bacon brings bite. It turns an everyday, ordinary hot dog into a... well, a multi-layered extravaganza of animal parts that you wouldn't otherwise eat. The bell peppers provide sweetness, the onions do that airy heat thing that onions do, the mustard adds a little tang, and the mayo goes all mayo on you.
It's victory in a bun. If these people sold horchata, I'd probably get lost in a daze of culinary goodness and stumble into traffic.

UPDATE: Bacon-wrapped hot dog vendors fight for their rights!

The Fountain

The Fountain is a lot to take in.

Pardon my French, but Darren Aronofsky sure knows how to fuck with people's heads in an immediate way. He's a director with a distinct visual style that manages to capture emotions with striking, visceral imagery. I haven't seen the film that made his name, Pi, but I distinctly remember watching his lyrical ode to self-destructive addiction, Requiem for a Dream. If you haven't seen it, let me summarize my initial feelings once the credits roll: "Fuck me." You will want to go into the shower, curl into a ball, and cry like a starving, sick little African child after watching Requiem. Yes, that is a recommendation. And again, pardon my French.

Inside of a minute, Aronofsky establishes The Fountain's theme of circles in about ten different ways. The circular head piece of a staff, the crown of a queen, a crest in the floor. Circles, circles everywhere. He's not shy about letting the audience know that this film isn't a one-way trip. There's the past story about the Spanish conquistador looking for the Tree of Life, the present-day story of a doctor looking to cure his wife's cancer, and the future story of the strangest damn astronaut you ever did see using the Tree of Life as a spaceship to reach a nebula of life-giving stars. And it's not even that simple. Each story affects the others in direct and indirect ways, some you see coming, others completely unexpected. Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, maintain an emotional and symbolic logic to drive the story. It doesn't make sense, per se, but it maybe kinda sorta sometimes does.

While there are distinct parallels between the future, past, and present stories, the present day vignette could have existed as a film all by itself, especially since the "past" story is actually a novel-in-progress in the present. What I especially appreciated is how tapped in it is to raw, strong emotions. It's involving and heartrending, with Thomas's desperation consuming him. His drive to cure his wife is what keeps him at work and away from her. His desperation is palpable. I don't know why Hugh Jackman isn't a bigger star than he is, because he's terrific. (Plus, his name is Hugh Jackman. He can go up to girls and say in his exotic Aussie accent, "Hey, baby, I've got a Hugh Jackman, if you know what I'm saying. Don't Hugh wanna be Jackman'ed?" By the way, why do future sci-fi protagonists always speak American English? Why not the Queen's English or Aussie? Or, God forbid, something other than English?)

Where The Fountain leaves you wanting more is, unfortunately, the 3rd act. It's something in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, an ending that makes sweeping, bold thematic gestures without giving the ripe emotional undercurrent of the preceding scenes. It's not a cheat or a trick, but it's not wholly satisfying either. I was mostly perplexed, but not to the point of not caring. The film sticks with you because it's a mind bender with an emotional core. It leaves the job of connecting the dots to the audience, and in turn, has you thinking about the things people pursue, the ceaseless drive towards finishing, and the links between the end of something and the beginning of something else.

It's like finding an old puzzle and putting it together, only to realize you're missing quite a few pieces. The big picture is there, you can see it, but it'd be nice to have it all down. And maybe after repeat viewings the other pieces will emerge. The good news is I want to find them.