Monday, August 18, 2014

Fairweather at Rare Form - Downtown San Diego

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Hey now!  Look who's got the scoop! Sorry, but I can't resist - I'm just so excited to be writing about something that happened less than two months ago.  This past weekend I was lucky enough to see a Facebook post from the chef at Ironside, indicating that Consortium Holdings was opening an open air bar called Fairweather over Rare Form this weekend.  It was sweet serendipity for me, because I was staying right around the corner from there with a friend this weekend at the Omni.  She needed a little mini getaway so she booked a room through Priceline for a mini-staycation and invited me to join her.  We were pretty impressed with that place too.  The room was nice, the pool deck was lovely, and it was a lot of fun to be on vacation in my own town, ten minutes away from my house.
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After meeting up at the hotel we walked literally around the corner (ok, maybe two corners) to Rare Form and climbed the stairs in the back (it's a little more complicated than that, but you'll figure it out) to the brand new upstairs rooftop bar.  It's not as high as some of the other rooftop spots in town, but what it lacks in external view (which is a pastoral view of the Park at the Park just outside Petco) it makes up for with its own internal beauty.

Like all Consortium projects, this place is long on gorgeousness, with that same killer Granada Tile that makes Intelligentsia in LA such a popular spot, and lots of marble, citrus and greenery.  Always a winning formula.  
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It's a long narrow space, with cozy booths along the railing, the bar right in the center and a long communal marble table at the far side backed by a green wall.
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The tables were decked out with little brass hurricane lanterns and they were serving a limited cocktail menu for the opening, but will be in full swing soon.

There were a lot of people in Hawaiian shirts and tiki gear - no doubt because Tiki Oasis was in town this weekend. I didn't make it to any of the festivities but James went to the party on Thursday and checked out the hotel on Friday and said it looked like a blast - we'll have to make that happen next year.  I saw this snappy group by the bar on Saturday and asked if I could take their picture - turns out the couple on the right are the owners of Smugglers Cove, one of our favorite tiki bars in San Francisco.  Fun running into them.
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We ordered tiki style drinks too as it turned out - the Rum Runner for me, and the "Blue Drink" for Beth.  There were some opening night jitters in the service and drinks, but we know these guys know how to make cocktails because they do them so well at Craft & Commerce and Polite Provisions, so I have no fear those things will be ironed out asap.

They aren't serving food upstairs and haven't quite figured out how that is going to work yet, but you can order food to go and take it upstairs yourself.  They gave us half of our order wrapped to go and half for here - which worked out well enough since the sweet girl working downstairs helped me carry everything.

This was my second time eating at Rare Form. They specialize in sandwiches and call the restaurant a delicatessen.  That might be a stretch, but the sandwiches and sides I've tried so far have all been good.  I especially liked the Chicken Crisp sandwich we had the other night - a crisp chicken cutlet with buffalo sauce, caper aioli and red cabbage slaw - it's got some good punch to cut the richness of the chicken.  Iv'e also tried the Rare Form 44, their version of a Reuben, and the Italian Roast Pork, with braised kale and mustard.  We also tried the chicken liver mousse in a jar - called the chicken liver parfait.  For the first time in my life, I think they gave us enough toast to go with it.  We also had the farro salad, which I wasn't so crazy about it but my friend loved it, and some chips to snack on while we waited for our food.

I haven't always been so complimentary of Consortium Holdings places in the past.  The attitude at Craft & Commerce annoyed me, as did the lack of spoons and the frigid atmosphere at Underbelly, and I wasn't bowled over by the meatballs at Soda & Swine at first - but I've continued to go back to both Craft & Commerce and Soda & Swine/Polite Provisions and they've solved a lot of their issues over time.  Ironside is gorgeous but the food has been a little uneven - amazing one day, not so much another. As for Rare Form, the service and attitude at are as welcoming as can be. Though the food isn't always perfect and you can't eat the atmosphere at any of these places, I'll definitely keep coming back to this one.

Fairweather/Rare Form
795 J Street
On the walkway next to Park at the Park - off J Street
www.godblessrareform.com
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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lunch at St. John - London

Lunch at St. John
The problem with being a food lover in a great city full of fun stuff to do, is that at the end of the day - after doing all that stuff - it's hard to muster the energy for an evening of fine dining.   We solved that dilemma by keeping our eating in London pretty casual for the most part, with the exception of two pre-planned meals:  lunch at St. John and dinner at the Clove Club.  (Other places I strongly considered:  The River Cafe, Wild Honey, Arbutus, the Ledbury (which was booked solid for the week) and Upstairs at Ten Bells.)  
Lunch at St. John
I had heard about St. John from several people and it seemed like a great "only in London" dining experience.  A chance to try some real British food.  My main quandary was whether to do St. John Smithfield, or St. John Bread and Wine. Since this was our first visit to either and the location was slightly more central, I went with the original at Smithfield.  Generally it seemed Bread & Wine might be more casual with a focus on smaller plates, but that's about all I could discern about the differences. When you walk into the building you pass through an airy enclosure holding the bar and the bakery counter - and then upstairs to the right is the dining room. It's white paper table cloths and rather formal service, but not quite fine dining exactly.
Lunch at St. John
On the day we visited a large table in the center of the room was "Feasting" - which allowed them to order special dishes that aren't on the regular menu, such as heaping platters of whole crab and hog roast. It appeared to be a wedding party with the bride and groom on the far right, above. They were very chic and fab.
Lunch at St. John
The menu at St. John changes daily - almost entirely.  There are three things that are always on the menu.  The bone marrow, the rarebit and the eccles cake (and possibly the madeleines, now that I think about it.)  Other than that it's entirely fluid, and they actually post it ahead of every meal on their website. We had the bone marrow, broad beans & berkswell (a cheese) and the brown shrimp with cabbage to start - all of which are pictured below.  The marrow was served with the traditional parsley, shallot and caper salad with a little mound of damp, gray salt.  If you like marrow, and I do - it was terrific.  The broad beans and berkswell was very good too - but the "brown shrimp and cabbage" was entirely different from what I was expecting, basically a slaw with parsley dressing and a few shrimp sprinkled in.  For some reason I was expecting a hot dish, and I expected the main element to be shrimp.
Lunch at St. John
After receiving our first round, I realized the broad beans and brown shrimp were more salad-esque than I had originally thought, so I canceled our order of an additional salad and substituted the welsh rarebit.  I was really glad I did.  If you were looking for a food that exemplifies the concept of umami, this is it.  It's the English version of a Croque Monsieur - toast topped with a creamy strong paste of cheddar, mustard, worcestershire and ale - with even more worcestershire broiled on top. I thought it was amazing, but I think James thought it was a bit much.  In any event, the recipe is here, maybe I'll give it a try around the holidays.  If James doesn't eat it, it'll just make more for the rest of us.
Lunch at St. John
Finally, we capped off the savory portion of our meal with the braised rabbit with borlotti beans and aioli.  This was nice, but after the flavor punch of the rarebit it seemed a bit wan.  We also considered the Plaice and the Kid Chop, so maybe we chose poorly.  I wasn't interested in the "faggots" or the pigeon.  The restaurant specializes in offal - Fergus Henderson, the chef, is basically the originator of "nose to tail" eating - so you can expect to see it all on the menu.  
Lunch at St. John
Things took an upswing with dessert. The Eton Mess was a delightful jumble of fresh strawberries, strawberry coulis, meringue and whipped cream.  James had the Eccles cake with cheese - which was very similar to mince meat pie - almost as savory as the rest of our meal.  A word about the wines.  We asked for a white burgundy, and wound up with a Pouilly Fuisse.  It was ok, but we should have done better in that price range (49-50 pounds) given their focus on wine. James had a dessert wine with his eccles cake - it cried out for dessert wine for sure - but I seem to recall he wasn't too crazy about it.  Overall I just thought it should have been more of a positive.
Lunch at St. John
Our feasting neighbors also had the Eton Mess for dessert - the groom poured the strawberry coulis over the wedding cake style dessert himself.
Lunch at St. John
After dessert, we ordered the "madeleines" since they are a specialty of the house and were highly recommended in several comments and reviews I read.  All I can say is, they weren't madeleines. They looked like madeleines, with the humps and everything, but they had more of a scone or biscuit flavor instead of the tender texture and buttery flavor of a madeleine.
Lunch at St. John
Overall I enjoyed St. John and I'm glad we went - but there are a few drawbacks that gave me pause.  The service was perfectly acceptable but just the slightest bit "sniffy" and I never quite settled into that warm, jovial feeling you want to have during a great meal.  I think you have to enjoy a certain level of adventurous eating and be willing to give some deference to the restaurant in order to enjoy the experience.  There's a smidge of that "lucky to be there" factor that many find offputting.  Altogether with that and the fact that (most of) the food we ate was good but not phenomenal, I'm hard pressed to say whether I'd rush back there if I found myself in London again tomorrow.  Unless of course, the invitation is for feasting with platters heaped with whole crab and mounds of Eton Mess.  In that case, sign me up.


Thursday, August 07, 2014

Notting Hill - London

Portobello Road
Our neighborhood for our week in London was Notting Hill.  I chose it because it was a place I had always wanted to visit but never had the chance, and it seemed like a likely place to find a good Air BnB rental. Our flat was a small studio with a fold out couch, but there was a stand of Barclay's Bikes within spitting distance, a bus stop right out front, and a tube stop a block away, and the $140. per night price would have made up for any shortcomings in any case.  (I really wanted this one, but someone booked it before I could get to it.)
Our building in London
We were within walking distance of Notting Hill's trendy business district Westbourne Grove, and Kensington Palace with it's beautiful gardens and the Orangerie tea room.  The building was an old art deco style building that had recently been refurbished, on Palace Garden Terrace, just off Notting Hill Gate.  There was a Paul Rhodes bakery just at the end of the street (that's the bus stop in front of the building out the window below).  I wasn't familiar with this chain but they are numerous in London.  Don't go out of your way, it's nothing extra. We popped in for our morning coffee and a bite several times during the week and I was sort of fascinated by this stack of scones.  It stayed there, for several days. I couldn't tell if they were selling them all every day or if it was the same stack.  They must have been new ones, but it was a little strange that they never moved.
Scones at Paul Rhodes Bakery
After grabbing emergency coffee at Paul Rhodes on the first morning, we walked over to Granger & Co. in Westbourne Grove, a popular breakfast spot owned by Australian chef Bill Granger. It had a surprisingly West Coast vibe to it with a boho chic crowd to match.
Granger & Co.
At breakfast they specialize in these velvety looking scrambled eggs.  I didn't try them but they do look interesting don't they?  Ben said they were good.
Granger & Co.
I chose the chili fried egg and bacon brioche roll with spiced mango chutney and rocket. It tasted just as good as it looks - in other words, damn near perfect.  (And I mean, who could resist a chili fried egg??)
Breakfast at Granger & Co.
James had the avocado toast (he was a leetle hung over.)  The last time I spent time in London, I don't think I even saw an avocado, but good news travels fast I guess.  This was lovely with huge creamy chunks and cilantro - definitely a taste of home.
Granger & Co.
They have a beautiful display of pastries and cakes piled on the counter near the entrance - this was a popular thing there, often accompanied by a beautiful oversized flower arrangement.  We saw it in lots of cafes and at the festival - it reminded me of the desserts displayed at Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley.
Granger & Co.
The Ottolenghi cafe around the corner from Granger & Co.has theirs right in the window, and it looks over the top amazing.  The fact that we didn't get a chance to eat here (or at any of the other Ottolenghi restaurants) was one of the (few) disappointments of the trip.  Next time, for sure.
Ottolenghi in Notting Hill
Westbourne Grove is a trendy district of shops and cafes - it reminded me a lot of the West Village in NYC, in terms of the vibe and jewel box shops showcasing the best of everything - like Daylesford Organics - where the picture below was taken.
Daylesford Organic in Notting Hill
And Nicki Tibbles' Wild at Heart florist shop....
Nicki Tibbles Wild at Heart in Notting Hill
And of course, Ottolenghi.
Ottolenghi in Notting Hill
One of the reasons I picked Notting Hill was to check out the Portobello Road Saturday morning antique market.  I was warned that it was "touristy" - but I figured that was kind of a given. I was completely unprepared for the onslaught of humanity that descended on the place at 8 AM.  It was so overwhelming and unpleasant that we didn't make it very far - and the few stalls and shops I saw didn't seem to be offering anything very exciting.  We were running a few minutes late, so we bailed out of there and headed on up to Cambridge, where I spent the summer of 1990 drinking beer and Bailey's on the rocks and trying to smoke cigarettes. (Eeewww!)  More on that, plus dining at St. John and the Clove Club - coming up.  :)