Friday, October 28, 2005

The Best Part of Having a Party is Planning for It

Since I moved to Novato, I've developed something of a party habit. As with most ah, habits, it's expensive and stressful, but oh, what a rush! My main influencers are a good-sized kitchen and a real dining room table - two things I haven't had in ever-so long. They entice me to write up menus and draft invite lists, and I can't seem to stop. So far, I've had small dinner parties for four or six; luncheons for eight; and larger-scale parties for twenty-plus. Each and every time, as I'm running here and there, trying to find an obscure ingredient or handing over my debit card yet again, I think: this is it. I'm going to take a break from entertaining. Then one week later, I'm plotting another.

A few weeks ago, I started dreaming about a grown-up Halloween party, with a sort of Day-Of-The-Dead theme. Then I started sketching out menu ideas. I was thinking October, cold night, lots of people... hey! We should serve paella! Ironically, when the Spanish Catholics marched through Mexico, they effectively folded the Day of the Dead into All Saints Day. . . so that works, right? Sort of?

I called Adam, and we started to hatch a plan. After a long conversation over beer and tacos, we had a menu. Adam will bring paella pans. I will buy bottles and bottles of Tempranillo. We will cook all day and the party will be at night. To my surprise, nearly 30 people responded to my invite to drive out to Novato for an evening, so I've been pacing around the house for the past couple of days, listening to Antony and the Johnsons and Tom Waits while I ponder where to place the red roses and black paper flowers and how to arrange the chairs.

I dressed up the light fixtures with black lace and scraps of silk and tulle, like a Spanish mantilla. I'm not sure if this picture really captures it, but it creates a very old-world look. Yesterday, I got a haul of autumn fruit from the farmer's market yesterday for a big batch of Sangria. I'm contemplating a rich, thick hot chocolate, and I've started to soak a big hunk of salt cod for baccala.

Last night I could hardly sleep thinking of everything that could go wrong. What if the paella doesn't turn out? What if there isn't enough sangria? What if nobody has a good time? Thank goodness for Tylenol PM.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

We Now Return To Our Regular Programming

I was working on a post about a meal I had during my recent visit to Portland, when it hit me: I haven't posted about Novato in quite a while, and, well, the name of my blog is The Novato Experiment. I guess you could say that I've been stalling a bit, trying to figure out how best to write about eating in this town...

At the beginning, I thought that I'd be reviewing places to eat within the confines of Novato, but thus far, I've only found two restaurants, maybe three, that I want to visit again. That seems like slim pickings to a girl who spent the last six years in San Francisco, and who relished the idea that she could put on her sneakers and find a fabulous meal within three to five blocks.

So there isn't much to write about Novato restaurants, but the question remains: what are people eating around here? I've been increasingly fascinated with this question. I've criss-crossed this area looking for clues, and have run into a host of other issues along the way. What happens when people have to drive miles to get to a good grocery market? What happens when there is a fast-food restaurant on every corner, but no place to buy a decent sandwich without driving an extra 10-15 minutes? And remember: this is Marin County we're talking about here, the fabled yogurt-and-granola capital of California!

Is Novato an exception? Well, yes: these problems don't exist in San Rafael or Larkspur or Corte Madera. But I would guess that there are communities like Novato sprinkled all over California that are similarly challenged.

So I may have been avoiding the subject of The Suburbs, but no longer. Bloom where you're planted, the old saying goes, and I'm going to do just that. I'm going to write about some of the things I've discovered during my voyages across Novato, and I'll occasionally report on a wonderful restaurant in Petaluma or San Anselmo or Ross... and I'll tell you how my own habits have changed, and how I've had to think a whole lot more about meal planning and suburban sprawl and the challenge of eating responsibly even though I'm surrounded by farmland.

And now this former City Girl is going to make herself a cup of tea and walk outside into the gorgeous fall morning and contemplate whether or not she should carve a pumpkin.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Satisfaction of Disastrous Biscuits

This is the recipe printed on the tiny brown card that accompanied the biscuits at BLT Fish:

Cheddar & Chive Biscuits

Flour: 1 1/2 cups
Baking Powder: 2 teaspoons
Salt: 1 teaspoon
Cayenne Pepper: 1/4 teaspoon
Shortening: 3 tablespoons
Butter: 3 tablespoons
Chopped Chives: 1 tablespoon
Sharp Cheddar: 1 cup
Cream: 1 1/4 cups

Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cayenne. Cut the shortening and butter into the flour mix. Do NOT overwork. DO leave the butter and shortening in small pieces.

Toss in the chives and cheese. Toss in the cream, stirring just until mixture comes together. DO NOT mix too much.

Bake at 375F for 15-17 minutes.

And yes, the CAPS were a part of the printed instructions. So charming! So quaint! Such a perfectly perfect thing to give out at a fancy-schmancy restaurant.

Naturally, I had to make them MYSELF. Quick: does anyone see anything wrong with this recipe? I didn't hear any alarm bells when I read through it, but perhaps that is because I haven't made biscuits for, like, YEARS. I can't even remember when I last made biscuits.

So anyway. I rustled up all the ingredients, and got to work, dreaming of that wonderful dinner while I grated cheese and chopped chives. As I poured the cream into a measuring cup, I thought: Gosh darn it all, that is a LOT of cream. A cup and a quarter? Whoa! There is a baby calf out there somewhere who is missing out on dinner! But I just forged on ahead, and poured the whole amount into the bowl, stirring just once or twice so as to not OVERMIX.

And then I had squidgy, splooshy, vanilla-colored muck. Is this what biscuit dough usually looks like? I thought to myself, feeling a stab of PANIC. I don't remember it being so...gloppy. But I went ahead and scooped roughly spherical blobs onto a baking sheet, and stuck it in the oven, hoping for the best. Prior to embarking on the recipe, I had a vision of surprising my sweetie with a plate full of floury, biscuit-y goodness. I had even purchased a nice bottle of maple syrup to pour over a wedge of Plugra butter, all the better to replicate our lovely New York dinner. But alas.

Inside the oven, the cheese and butter got all warm and happy, and melted into the cream, and the lot of them had a fun, oozy bubble-fest. Not long after, I opened the oven door to discover a baking sheet full of chive-studded saturated fat, with nary a biscuit in sight.

My prized recipe was a SHAM! I grabbed the card off of the counter and read it again, this time with a scornful eye. Since when do you put nearly as much liquid as dry ingredients into a recipe that also contains fat that will melt during cooking?! This recipe was supposed to make biscuits, not SOUP! And what about all that cheese and cream that I just wasted? Waaaahh.

But secretly, I was glad. Because, you see, that last post was all so sweet and fuzzy that some part of me didn't want the biscuits to turn out. It would have been a ghastly chore to write about the Perfect Biscuits that reminded us of a Perfect Dinner, and how comfort food truly is comforting, yadda yadda YUCK.

So they were a disaster, and that turned out to be good news in the END.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Eating Across New York, Part II (with apologies for the delay)

I meant to write Part Two right away, but then I had a whirlwind week, during which I impulsively decided to head right back out of town, this time to Portland, Oregon. That's what happens when you haven't had more than one day off in a row for two years - you get a little nutty when your schedule opens up. Now I'm home again, and the dryer is spinning with fresh, clean clothes, so I can finally getting my head back into blogging and other important things.

Like that dinner in New York. The one I mentioned in the last post. It turns out that visiting New York the week following Labor Day was an inspired choice, because the city was relatively empty. Relatively meaning that one can find a parking spot in 25 minutes instead of an hour, and that the wait at Serendipity III is 1 1/2 hours instead of 3.

But we felt grateful, we truly did, and sent silent thanks to the hordes of New Yorkers who, we imagined, were swarming the Hamptons, no doubt sipping gin and tonics and immolating their bodies beneath the last rays of summer sun. Grateful because their absence left coveted restaurant seats wide open.

Over lunch on Thursday, a good friend told B & I that we simply must check out B.L.T. Fish. He had dined there for his birthday, he told us, and it remained one of the best meals he had eaten all year. A tour of his Madison Avenue salon left no doubt as to his impeccable taste, and so his endorsement was all we needed to hear. But it was a Thursday night, and our friend expressed grave doubt that we would be able to score a reservation. "You're looking at two, three weeks out," he said, in a mournful tone.

But we were on a roll that week, having scored virtually every reservation we had hoped for AND a parking spot two blocks off of Broadway as we hustled to see The Phantom of the Opera. So we decided to toss the dice once again, and told our cabbie to take us to 17th at 5th. It was about 8:30 when we arrived, and we found ourselves walking into what looked like a fish shack transplanted from Coney Island. B bit his lip. "Interesting," he said. "Not quite what I was imagining, but who knows?"

The predominant colors inside were white & red & navy, a definite nautical feel enhanced by hanging lanterns and a huge, glossy fish - a marlin, perhaps? - mounted on one of the walls. Food was coming out of the kitchen in red plastic baskets lined in wax paper; the walls were hung with chalkboards upon which the latest offerings were scribbled. It looked like an adventure, and the menu was interesting enough, but we couldn't help feeling like were missing something. We remembered grumblings we had heard about another of Laurent Tourndale's places, BLT Steak, and wondered if we had made a mistake.

When our waiter came to ask us if we wanted drinks, B leaned over to him. "Is this... it?" he asked. The waiter grinned. "No," he said, pointing to the ceiling. "There's an upstairs with a more formal restaurant. Totally different menu."

"Can we go up there?" We chorused.

"Hold on," the waiter said. "It's usually packed, but this week is kind of quiet, so... just a sec." He returned in a moment. "We've got a table for you."

We rode up with the hostess in matchbox-sized elevator. When the doors opened, we were released into a long rectangular room with a vaulted ceiling made of glass. It put me in mind of an English conservatory. A table in the middle of the room held an enormous bouquet of flowers and silverware and carafes and things. The kitchen was at the far end, open to view, gleaming white. Bright, sparkling white. We were led to a table with a curved, booth-like seat and a birds-eye view of the kitchen. Color me happy!

Seconds after we sat down, an amuse of salmon terrine with country bread was delivered to our table. The bread was sharp and hard around the edges, a terrible hazard to the soft insides of the mouth, but the terrine was silky smooth with a subtle hint of smokiness. While we sipped our drinks, our server proceeded to explain the concept of the restaurant: the daily selection of whole fish can be ordered by the pound; prices per pound range from $29-35. Offerings range from Dover Sole to Chilean Turbot to a red snapper fried "Cantonese Style," one of the restaurant's signatures. Cuts of other fish (black cod, halibut, salmon) are offered with a choice of tantalizing-sounding sauces like ginger ketchup or tomato-tarragon hollandaise. The sides are served a-la-carte, and are centered around simple preparations of in-season vegetables.

But there were only two of us, which made ordering something of a challenge.While we deliberated between many appealing choices, a boy in an apron came to the table with a small wooden tray. "Cheddar-chive biscuits," he smiled, and pointed to a small white crock. "With unsalted butter and pure maple syrup." This was unexpected, after the salmon, but who would decline a fresh biscuit? We dug into the knob of butter with our knives and spread it, and the syrup, inside warm bites of flour and cheese. A funny thing, those biscuits. I have enjoyed incredibly complicated treats from kitchens all over the place, but nothing has ever seemed so right as those hot biscuits. Sometimes the best surprise is utterly simple. As we stuffed our mouths, we noticed a tiny little card printed on brown paper propped on the tray; I opened it to find the biscuit recipe inside. Insert a gusty sigh of contentment.

To start, we chose sardines grilled with bacon and bits of tomato and herbs. The sardines were pleasingly fishy, with the sweet acidity of the tomatoes as a perfect foil. The grilled octopus salad with bergamot oil was another inventive pairing, but then I'm a huge fan of Earl Grey, so I couldn't be anything but thrilled.

Our main course was rolled to the table on a cart, looking for all the world like an enormous mound of salt. The server expertly whacked at it with the side of an enormous silver spoon, and it began to split into chunks, revealing the delicate color of the New Zealand Pink Snapper inside. She slid the fish onto a separate tray, and then carefully de-boned it, all the while maintaining utter calm and cool under our gaze.

The fish, oh. It was tender and moist, with silky-sweet flesh that slid across the tongue. The flavors of pink peppercorn and star anise that were blended with the salt crust were ever-so subtle. We alternated bites of the fish with forkfulls of English peas and spoons of artichoke gratin. The gratin was a bit milky, but everything else was so perfect that we didn't much care. When we finally allowed our plates to be cleared away, we shared a grilled summer peach accented with vanilla bean ice cream.

Not a single item was stacked or friseed or julienned. It was the kind of meal that you might find in the countryside of France or Italy: straightforward preparations of ingredients served in simple containers without fuss. Like magic, they seem to transcend technique to become magnificent versions of themselves: glorious sardines, octopus, snapper, peas, artichokes and peaches, independent of a certain reduction or seasoning blend to make them taste anything other than what they are. And that was what made the meal so special; without seeming to try, it surpassed so many more complicated renditions of other meals that we have shared.

And of course, the atmosphere and the service added immeasurably to the experience. It is no small thing to have a fine-tuned staff, as I well know. The right server-diner chemistry is a combination of luck and mood and timing, and so it is truly remarkable that we felt like every single person we encountered that night, from server to sommelier to every other individual who visited our table, was warm and engaging and fabulous. Seriously, this almost never happens. But it did on that random Thursday in New York.

Which is why we felt, as we spilled back into the empty street, like two very lucky individuals. I was conscious of the biscuit recipe tucked inside my handbag, and of the man by my side who, whenever he notices that I am excited by a menu, closes his and says: "You choose. Order whatever looks good to you, and I'll be more than happy to share it with you."

For that, and for so much more, I have many reasons to celebrate.