Sunday, November 18, 2007

name dropping: the pastry chef game

I just got back from a lovely dinner tonight with my cupcake coworker Bruce. We met at the hot and crowded Ritual and took our coffees elsewhere. As requested, he brought me cupcakes so my coworkers get a lil treat tomorrow.

It took us a while to catch up on the goings on at the cupcakery, my jobs new and old, the girls and boys in our lives, the baking projects we have going on (things with pepper for me and malt for him). I had not seen Bruce in a while, since shortly after I started the new job, when the cupcakery was still fresh in my mind. It was nice to reminisce about all that but from a distance. People have come and gone. Some of the bakers have apparently discovered this blog (and to them I say hola, que paso?). I miss them sometimes and I think about going by, but don't want to see the old boss and then it's also clear across town in an area of SF I never really find myself in by chance). For dinner we decided to do Farina on 18th, and we sat outside.

I thought I'd be decadent and order a cocktail. Since I'm working ridiculous hours all week it seemed appropriate. I got a basil martini (with gin, thanks) and it was a lil off-putting in hue (it looked like a heaping glass of wheatgrass) but very delicious and icily cold. We settled on splitting two of the entrees, the focaccia with capers, tomato, cheese and anchovies, and a pesto pasta. But which one? When we asked our server to explain the difference between the two she was very eager to do so, and then pro0ceeded to push us toward one which would melt in our mouths and be unctuously soft. The other, in her opinion, was tough and chewy and left people disappointed. Soft pillows or the one no one likes? Bruce had been more intrigued by the under-loved pasta (which was chewier, and toasted lightly before being baked) and I appreciate thorniness, so we eschewed her recommendations.

First we received bread on a lovely little paddle that was tempting for whacking passerby. A white bread and an olive bread. The white bread had a nice firm crust but was rather dry, and could have used some dipping oil to doften it. The olive bread was a little sweet, very soft, and had a soft and chewy crust. Neither was very enticing and we chewed dispiritedly. A very few minutes later our food showed up.

The foccacia was the better of the two. The dough was wonderful, very thin and flaky. The pesto on the pasta was a sexy green color but was sweet and underseasoned. We begged a pepper grinder off our server, who a lil lightly gave us some black pepper, but there was no salt in sight. The focaccia in contrast was perfectly seasoned if a bit limp in the center, and the way it was halfheartedly cut seemed to suggest that if you were inclined to get to work with one of the very many serving utensils you might free a piece.

While I faced the street Bruce had the more intriguing view of the pasta guy working in their open kitchen. He had some sort of machine. We were clearly going to have to go inside and check this out after dessert. We knew we were going to order the milk fritters. As the meal unwound I doubted. I certainly didn't want to be disappointed in the milk fritters, but if we didn't get them we'd have to go up the block to the Bi-Rite and I broke up with them, so it'd be that awkward visit where you see if they've got anything new going on and scowl whether they do or don't, and Bruce had also broken up with them over inconsistencies within their flavors (though when I revealed to him that they use Strauss organic base rather than make their own, he was aghast. No going back) It's Okay, I told him, I'll Take You To Ici Where They Change Their Flavors All The Time.

So we went ahead and ordered the fritter. A short moment later they arrived and they were beautiful. Two sugar coated fritters, a mound of grapefruit and orange segments, some impossibly thin slices of candied orange, and a hard-crack caramelized orange slice. One of the things I love about dining with cooks is how we play with our food. We need to know how and what. Sometimes I'll touch with my fork before I taste, teasing apart the elements on a plate. Sometimes I'll just be surprised, as when I had my first forkful of the citrus dessert at work and found raw citrus segments and icy, sharp sherbet hiding under the prettily perched souffle. Bruce indulged me and we teased apart the candied orange in a fork duel. When I finally got around to eating the damn dessert it was Amazing. It was sweet and acidic. It was well plated, well sauced. The flavors were incredibly well balanced, and after the food we'd had it was such a great experience to eat something and not want it to be more than what it was. When you eat something like that, you want to know who makes it and you want more of it. Alicia Something said our server, furrowing her brow. She disappeared and came back a couple of minutes later with the check and the pastry chef's multisyllabic last name I knew I'd never remember. It wasn't on the menu, which is a shame. Ir was the absolute best part of the meal. And judging from the yelp comments it seemed to be the best thing a lot of diners had there, too. Bruce and I made our way back to the silent pasta machine. We scrutinized the clean, quiet semi-open kitchen. There was dough, pasta and bread. And then, we realized, there were sweet things.

The Girl was young, trim, clean. Her elbows were impossibly thin. We watched as she drizzled chocolate on a plate, disappeared, returned with a bain and a molded creme caramel. She tried to remove it, but it didn't want to go at first. She finished that, scooped ice cream and I smirked that they weren't as pretty as Michelle's fanatic scoops at Range nor the quenelles at work (my coworker complimented me on my quenelles on Saturday and I was so happy! they are a challenge...) Then the server muttered something to the Girl and she came quietly toward us to introduce herself with a half handshake. She was apparently the pastry chef, and she was quick to tell us she would soon be leaving Farina for a SOMA restaurant that's never before had a pastry chef. Are You In The Industry? she asked.

Duh. Of course. Who else would ask for the pastry chef's name, nevermind come back to the kitchen and watch the dessert plating process like it's a spectator sport. She had not heard of the restaurant I work at, so I was tempted to name drop further: who is boss is, where else she's worked, where else I work. But I didn't. She had heard of the cupcakery and seemed to think favorable of it from the tone in her voice, but then Bruce got into other places he's worked and we moved to banter. Gossip. What did you think of this person, do you remember that person, etc. You can tell when someone is keeping you on the outside and when they've taken you into their confidence and we were having the insider's discussion. We asked her about her assistant, how big was her team, did she like this person. Her assistant is a line cook new to pastry, and she was quick to praise her as fast, clean, good. I presume the desserts will stay the same for a while after Alicia leaves but what will happen when it's time to change the menu?. How will someone without the background knowledge of what each component is, ow it's constructed and how it works, be able to create another dessert that good?

We assured her we'd visit her in the new place, and made our way outside where we walked up to the Bi-Rite to peek in. I hurried away thinking of Ici and the malt ice cream I may someday or never get, and the impish fun I had last week in Berkeley which I have to write about, but enough for now. It will be an early morning of pie prep and I should stop staring at the screen.


Anonymous said...

A very apt review! I thought she reacted favorably to cupcakes as well.... Friends would like to go back there in two weeks; I will try those charming Latte Dolce Fritto again and see if they have changed. (By the way, the only recipes I've found so far are in Italian. Do you have an Italian grandma lurking in the background somewhere who could translate???)

Busy all the time. said...

As it turns out i DO have an italian grandma tucked away! not exactly, but a coworker who should be able to translate for me. But i think that means you owe me fritters a tu

btw, the coworkers tried cupcakes today...general verdict is nay on the frosting, the vanilla cupcake is liked more or less and i believe my sous chef liked the chocolate. they restrained themselves very well saving the vanilla chocolate all day for my boss and then she de-frosted the cupcake and threw most of the buttercream away! sigh. it old them next time we would do my favorites.

Anonymous said...

Well, I have a deep fryer. Not that I really know how to use it, but I'm certain we can muddle through. So, si, fritters a mi casa. :) Which are your favorites, btw?

Marusya said...

well, I am s-o-o-o relieved you liked the milk fritters! sorry you had a so-so experience with the pasta and sounds like you were fine with the rest...Don't know why I feel so responsible, 4,000 miles away!

Y'know, I only had a taste of those milk fritters since I was so full. I will go back and I will have that basil martini and maybe some focaccia...and those damn fritters!

Enjoyed your account of it.

Busy all the time. said...

the fritters will still be there by the time you return, but the pastry chef will have since moved on (but who pays attention to those things, anyway?)

the martini was good. the focaccia dough was super too, but there are so many other restaurants i want to try before going back there!