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d OstertagWhy it took so long for me to cross paths with one of the most dynamic indie/natural wine producers, I’ll never know, but in all my time between restaurant and retail gigs, pleading with Kermit Lynch reps to crack a bottle of Domaine Ostertag’s deep roster, in hopes of saving my billfold an extra flex, the moment never materialized. It was high on my list of things to try and I would read about the Alsatian producer frequently as if to sate my parched lips vicariously, stubbornly clinging to hope for a chance encounter. That all changed on my latest trip up north.

After tasting at Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, turned on by the prospect of natural wine, and close enough to the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant—the importer’s retail outpost and wine lover’s Candy Land—to hope that the stars would align, I thought about closing ceremonies of my San Francisco trips upon entering the iconic shop; shouldn’t a traditional late lunch at Mission Chinese be paired with a Domaine Ostertag Pinot Blanc, punctuating a sensational weekend spent eating through the Bay? To get there one had to first find the bottle.

General TsoStrewn with open cases of varied offerings from the importer’s reputable lot, I rummaged like a record collector in Pasadena to find the most fitting candidate. Striving for a modest introduction, not wanting to get ahead of myself, I purchased a basic Pinot Blanc “Barriques.” As I would learn, little was basic about that wine.

My friend and I stuck to the script, toting a chilled flûte d’Alsace into Mission Chinese as a fond farewell to San Francisco. Shellfish had been sidelined (taken off the menu), so we went heavier, ordering General Tso’s veal rib, egg-egg (sic) noodles and broccoli beef brisket, skirting what would have too easily paired with the wine, in order to challenge it.

egg egg noodlesChilling on the side, the Pinot Blanc exhibited buttoned-up traits, youthful notes of green apples, a squeeze of lemon and spice. The first sip followed the nose, but the medium-body had been graciously toned by the use of barrique (a 228 liter used barrel), rounding it out on the tongue—giving a textural omnipresence.

It was when the spicy food arrived that we saw what the Pinot Blanc wielded. A lot of fat and a hearty dose of capsaicin in General Tso’s veal rib was perfectly fit for the lush white wine to demonstrate its capacity. The medium-plus acidity inherent in the wine was able to squelch the heat while handling the fattiest elements of the entree. Interspersing veal tidbits with the mouth-coating egg-egg noodles, the Pinot Blanc squeegeed our taste buds clean, leaving a candied green apple, mineral and slightly herbaceous finish. It didn’t mesh too well with the broccoli brisket combo (the greener parts of a dinner [asparagus, artichoke, etc.] can prove difficult for most wines and it was no exception here), but that was no drawback, since by then we were already sold on the results.

Perpending our full bellies in Dolores Park, not quite sold on fate in our post-meal torpor, but not resisting it fully either, it seemed that these two things—an exalted producer in a far-off place at the side of a great meal—were meant to go together. Whatever the reason it took so long for me to cave and actually purchase a bottle of Domaine Ostertag, I’m grateful, because I couldn’t imagine that midday meal without it.

HopsNot an everyday addition to a hamburger, tongue could be thought of as a felicitous counterpart to a beef patty… if executed correctly. In Oakland there is such a place that incorporates this imaginative extension to the requisite burger components. Not forced or strange as Hopscotch showed me, it’s only natural.

A friend and I journeyed to the East Bay, traversing the Bay Bridge, and arrived on a sun-soaked San Pablo Avenue to lunch, alfresco, on a couple “First Base Burgers.” It’s difficult to change a winning formula, and the addition of tongue certainly might not be first on a list of necessary tweaks, but what came forth seemed a well put-together sandwich, halved and toothpicked, splitting the ceramic with duck fat chips.

FB BurgA sensory study revealed a coarse grind of chuck resting abed green leaves of lettuce, tomato, chopped and pickled onions and, of course, the griddled tongue. There was softness to every bite and a subtly sweet flavor that pervaded the sandwich. The tongue added texture most noticeably, while delicately changing the character of the beef. Grilled brioche imparted a smoky touch and the vegetables did their part in binding the First Base burger.

With the novelty of adding tongue to the burger, and the cute name aside, it showed that it was more than gimmicky, rather a thoughtfully constructed hamburger. Withholding cheese and an unnecessary chip upgrade, two chef sins at two-dollars apiece, quickly made Hopscotch’s interesting take a little less appealing (kind of irked me actually) as the bill leapt from $14 to $18, which is a lot for a hamburger. I wouldn’t call it a destination burger, but if I found myself in Oakland’s Uptown, looking for a smashing cocktail and good burger, then I would head to Hopscotch.

It wasn’t all snow cones and hamburgers during my time in San Francisco; no, there were varied eateries—acclaimed and under-the-radar—scattered about many different districts in the city. Also available was a surprising amount of shellfish, clams and mollusks,  a category of food I never fully embraced until my last trip (in December) to the Mission District.  A chance  to rekindle the flame arose with the very same indie Chinese eatery that was responsible for sparking my fancy for shellfish initially, by recreating a past meal. This isn’t meant to dwell on awesome Chinese food, or to revel in an unknown spot (Mission Chinese“[is] bonafide” and well-known), but to make my selections for food/wine of the month clear… because they were born together.

Under the auspices and awning of Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant, a formidable and inventive chef re-purposes Chinese flavors and recipes with regularity in his Mission District pop-up. Mission Chinese Food is the brainchild restaurant of Chef Danny Bowien. It would be hard to miss this eatery or at least escape the magnetism of the area because it is so stark, pitting seemingly out-of-place people against the boarded-up facades and less glamorous environs, waiting for their chance to eat the reinvented Chinese delights. The food is inspired but the prices are grounded, encouraging family-style ordering with a wealth of options to choose from, and escaping without hurting your finances.

We met up with a friend who had already waited her fair share for a table* before we entered the restaurant to a Pixies song. The tables were stuffed and the vapors from Sizzling Cumin Lamb enveloped my nostrils. I had brought a chilled and elongated green flute of Picpoul de Pinet (2010 La Croix Gratiot) for the sole purpose of pairing with the Tiger Clam dish that had me ensnared.

Our service was curt and bogged down by bad moods. Their funk was visceral and clearly the staff was having a tough time dealing with the heavy Sunday traffic. No matter how harried the service, all three of us were too excited about filling our bellies with spicy Chinese fare to be bothered by it.

We ordered rather expeditiously as we were prodded to do so, requesting the Tiger Clams, Sizzling Cumin Lamb, Broccoli Beef Cheek, Mongolian Long Beans and the Mai Po tofu. Between tunes from the Pixies and Dr. Dre, we chatted about professions and school to pass the time. From our vantage point we saw dishes carted quickly from kitchen to nearby tables, watching interestingly-coiffed patrons inhale plates piled-high with foods with mere chopsticks. Moments later we had our first two plates: the lamb and long beans. Our own chopsticks spun like pinwheels as we devoured everything but the crockery. We would take sips of Picpoul that tried very hard to marry the flavors of cumin and lamb belly but it was not meant to be. We deferred to our tea in the meantime. The broccoli beef cheek with poached oysters and smoked oyster sauce was next up, the flavors changed dramatically. The Gai Lan was perfectly prepared as were the fork-tender cheeks and the salinity in the foods made us reach for our glasses. Our penultimate dish (the tofu) landed shortly after, which is where the bright acid white wine from the Languedoc shined. The spicy tofu built momentum with each bite and the flavors meshed well with the citrus-tinged wine. We were content to this point but I was still waiting to be swooned by the Tiger Clams. There were musings amongst our table that they had forgot the order. Once we finished all the dishes and almost at an equal pace to the check, the Tiger Clams arrived, plated with aromatic Thai basil and lemongrass, stewing in a broth of Serrano peppers and garlic. We took a collective sigh—we were full—but we rolled up our sleeves and began separating the clams and soaking up the spices from the broth. I took one sip of wine, a couple clams in, and it was just as I imagined—perfection.

Despite the order of the dishes and the irked staff, the meal was an ideal end to the epicurean trip. The Tiger Clams and Picpoul de Pinet worked in concert and became the pinnacle closure to an already stellar meal as far as food was concerned. I thank Mission Chinese and the people I went with the first time for ordering the shellfish because without them I might have gone on missing what has clearly become one of my favorite plates. Xiè Xiè.

*No reservations—just have to stand ‘n wait.

We were definitely “those guys” when we stumbled into Slow Club on Oscar Sunday to grab lunch. Just fifteen minutes before they closed to prep for dinner, we walked in, much to the chagrin of many of the servers… and possibly the kitchen. It was inexcusable on our part but after an hour-long trek on BART it was warranted. There was a lot of research prior to arriving at 2501 Mariposa Street; the short list presented a mix of bay area classics and burgeoning kitchens that took serious time for my one chance at burger perfection. We elected to dine at an untested spot, after assuaging our doubts by reading countless blogs and reviews that twinkled brightly and nearly fawned over their burger.

Inside and seated, our server was more than hospitable, giving us some time as we studied the menu to balance our pre-decided burger with a side and scan the surroundings. The most prominent observation was the fung shui of the place; the kitchen and bar had traded places, seeing the kitchen in animation once you set foot inside and the bar at the back of the house, otherwise the semi-industrial feel of the eatery was nothing too shocking. The menu is where the focus was, loaded with ambitious choices that befit the culinary scene and made choosing the second plate a laborious process. Our trusty accompaniment spoke to me after I spied the Banyuls dressing, piquing my interest when other choices sounded more promising than a salad.

To pair with lunch, I had a glass of Bordeaux while my buddy had expanded his beer knowledge by ordering a glass of Triple Voodoo’s Inception. We sipped casually, waiting about ten to fifteen minutes until the two plates arrived. Open-faced, with one half presenting a proudly charred patty stewing in its own juices and just opposite were the fresh arugula, balsamic onions and tomato. I assembled the sandwich and cut it down its center. One fatal flaw was exposed instantly. They overcooked our burger to medium well (instead of medium rare), showing a slight hint of pink. It was too bad too because the meat was high quality—sourced from Prather Ranch—and dry aged to lock in more flavor. Despite the overcooking, the grind and crusting on the burger were fantastic. Another small hiccup was the healthy smear of sharp Dijon mustard aioli that helped mask the prized meat. The flavors attacked the palate and with all those good ingredients, it was shame to bury them under a zingy mustard spread.

The salad lived up to the billing, an interesting vinaigrette helped spruce up the side dish. Everything was in balance; the components were there for a great burger, the portions were ample and the prices were even reasonable… we happened to run into an inconsistency issue that I am willing to excuse on account of our arriving late to the party. It might be a while until I have a follow-up, but I wouldn’t mind revisiting the Slow Club next time I hit the Bay.

Burgers were included when I initially drew up plans to do a winery tour in Sonoma last week. The plan was to have three different sandwiches in a four-day jaunt between Sonoma County and San Francisco. But it was apparent early on that what was possible would be as whimsical as the draw in a hand of five card poker—and a re-draw would be necessary. My stay was quick, like good trips often are, and it became exceedingly difficult to tailor plans around my beef-patty-dreams, though I did manage to sneak in a burger after a tasting appointment in West Sonoma. Thankful for the tasting room manager’s recommendation, my friend and I were able to discover a bistro burger in the otherwise easy-to-miss town of Graton before ultimately city-slicking down south in the city of the Golden Gate.

Not too far down the road from Red Car Winery’s tasting room, we were able to grab lunch at Underwood Bar & Bistro. The antique town was welcoming and parking was ample in the off-season. Seated immediately amongst locals, I trotted in with a camera bag and some bottles (so they would not cook in the car)—screaming inaudibly “out-of-towners.” Despite our wine-travelers appearance, service was nothing short of smiles and pleasantries (amiable) as we were seated facing the bar. It took us a few minutes of collaborating, but in the end we decided to indulge the cosmopolitan menu by ordering: mussels in Pernod, Chinese broccoli and the burger.

The items were staggered; the mussels hit the table first and the aromatics of the fennel liquor reached our noses before we began to separate the mollusks. We soaked up the saucy broth with pieces of baguette and savored our respective beverages as only shells were left in the wake. A brief respite and then the second wave of gai lan made the table. Glazed in hoisin and integrated with crunchy pieces of pork. The seasoning was perfect and the combinations of texture made a seven-dollar side a dark horse candidate for one of my favorite dishes of the weekend.

After a longer interval the final wave of the set—the plat principal—arrived. Its presentation was simple, showing a hefty burger with fries et fixings on the side. The sidepieces were onions a la Zuni Café (slightly pickled red onions), cornichons, ripe slices of tomato and tender romaine hearts to be compiled at our choosing.

We split it down the center, jus leaving freely from the evenly cooked burger as I knifed down its core. Slight crust on the patty’s edges encased a coarse grind of fresh beef. The execution flirted with perfection and those slightly sweet onions and crunch from the romaine heart balanced each bite with regards to texture and flavor. The only shortcoming was a slight lack of seasoning on the patty.

The whole time eating at Underwood I was really in awe of the community vibe, as parties flowed through the bistro/bar and were greeted on a first name basis. People here were really fortunate to have an outstanding and unassuming eatery within walking distance of their abode. The burger was just shy of awesome but definitely respectable and I wouldn’t skip it if I were in the mood for something other than a classic burger joint style.  In my experience everything was top shelf at Underwood and the burger offerings were only one-upped by that the unexpected choice of a Chinese broccoli appetizer that reigned supreme during the midday meal.

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Musical Accompaniment

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