What was that warm tingling sensation glowing from the back of my throat? Was it my imagination, or did my pulse just quicken a touch? I retraced my steps to Richie Nakano (Hapa Ramen) and shot him a quizzical look. “You felt it, huh?” he said, reading my mind. Yes, Richie. I felt it. What did I just eat?
Oh you know, your standard crostini, spiked with nicotine. Nakano’s dish started out innocent enough: toasted slices of crusty bread topped with Straus Family Creamery ricotta made fresh that morning, and butternut squash seasoned with thyme and oregano. Here’s where it gets interesting. He roasted the squash over tobacco leaves. Sourced from Happy Quail Farms, the leaves are typically used to wrap cigars. Used for cooking…the result is a unique, sweet, spicy, smoky flavor, with some interesting physical reactions. Nakano made sure not to put too much of the butternut squash on each crostini (and don’t worry, this was a 21+ event). He did warn that if trying this innovative method at home and you’re tasting a lot as you cook, be careful that your heart doesn’t explode.
Hapa Ramen was just one of the 11 restaurants who participated in Sunday’s SF Food Wars: Ultimate Potluck Cocktail Brunch edition with Amanda Hesser. The sold-out event was the official West coast launch party for The Essential New York Times Cook Book. Hesser spent six years cooking her way through the New York Times’s recipe archive, testing more than 1,400 recipes from across a 150-year period. For the potluck brunch, each local chef prepared a dish inspired by recipes from the cook book. Here are a few highlights:
This impossibly pink Beet Tzatziki (page 89) from Adam Timney at Starbelly was just what we needed on this rainy gray afternoon. Made with thick, creamy, Greek-style yogurt, the beet dip was sweet and tangy, and served with a spoonful of smoked trout and a little mint in a crispy lettuce cup. This was one light, refreshing, and well-balanced bite.
Aziza outdid itself with three solid dishes from Mourad Lahlou, Louis Maldonado, and Melissa Chou. Their take on Poached Eggs with Date-Chorizo Paste (page 636) was beautifully presented in an eggshell. Composed of a soft-poached egg layered with a date-chorizo mixture and topped with some creamy crÃ¨me fraiche foam, the flavors had the familiar feel of a hearty huevos rancheros brunch even though the aesthetic was more refined. I especially loved the play between the spicy, meaty chorizo and the molasses-like pureed dates. Rather than accenting the dish with truffle oil, as recommended in the original recipe, the chefs bumped up the flavor with a pop of citrus zest in the filling and tied it all together with the soft, airy creaminess of the crÃ¨me fraiche.
Joyce Goldstein’s Pickled Salmon (page 404) was presented in pretty hors d’oeuvre form with the pickled salmon served in a mousse-like consistency accompanied by delicately sliced cucumbers and pickled onions over dainty squares of pumpernickel.
I adored pastry chef Melissa Chou’s sophisticated take on Banana Cream Pie (page 863). It started with a buttery, flaky pie crust round, topped with vanilla-specked cream, slices of banana, and a sprinkling of oatmeal crisp. A garnish of some dark chocolate and mocha cream was the perfect addition that graduated this dessert from finishing school.
Unlike other SF Food Wars, this event was a non-competitive tasting event so no one officially took home the crown. As far as I’m concerned though, after eating my way through these creative dishes, I’m the real winner.
SF Food Wars
November 7, 2010
Ferry Building, San Francisco