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Today’s the big day

04.30.19 Posted in Food by

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

It’s your last chance to indulge in Lucca’s (full name Lucca’s Ravioli Company) traditional Italian deli because they’re closing today at 6PM. I’ve paid my respects a few times since the announcement but it’s still a sad occasion because resources like this never come back. New shops mean new visions and that old time idea is just too highly curated by both economic and aesthetic imperatives to make a difference.

Six blocks down Valencia you can check out one of the new breed, Foodhall, which stocks many of the incredibly high quality and highly priced spirits, wines, coffees, and packaged foods that you’d expect to find in a freshly launched culinary boutique. And, yes, that certainly seems to be in demand. I’ve bought a few things there and have admired their mezcal selection, for a place that small, it’s ambitious but it also represents the complete antitheses to Lucca’s. Foodhall is serves the affluent with food trends.

As I’m constantly reminded, cities are living things and Lucca is a product of that organic transformation as well. Italians moved to the Mission after the Irish. Central Americans followed. Now it’s ground zero for gentrification. It’s actually pretty remarkable that so many of those things that made it such a vibrant and fun spot still exist.

And, it’s not like all is lost. The city continues to acquire culinary resources at a breakneck pace. My own little stretch of the city in Potrero has blossomed tremendously in just a few months. Last month a Japanese butcher opened on the traffic circle next door to a newly opened udon restaurant, both the products of local serial restauranteurs. If you order right, not the aged Wagyu beef but the pork shoulder, prices are completely reasonable and the quality is much higher than the major organic grocer in a tailspin since it’s recent purchase, aka Whole Foods up the street. Over in Dogpatch the best bagel I’ve had in years is about to appear on the shelves of Daily Driver. I could go on – I’d just like more balance to this whole urban transformation project.

 

 


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My how times change

04.29.19 Posted in Food by

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

Things have been changing so much in SF lately that the old laments are just getting boring. Tomorrow Lucca’s closes. Jardiniere just closed. God knows how many other places have done the same in recent months. And then there are the changes within institutions.

This past week we dropped into Cotogna partially because they made their name on great food and a $40 a bottle list. Of course that had changed in the interim. Now it’s well curated but the wine prices match everyone else’s in the city.

The idea that their prices were really strong dates back at least eight years, here’s the most recent SF Chronicle article from 2011 discussing that well priced list, so it’s not yesterday but recent enough. That time period coincides with the epoch where everything has gone sideways. It’s all about what the market will bear and all the crazy costs we keep hearing about. Quince isn’t exactly a stranger to dramatic transformations, they did it before with their move from Pac Heights to North Beach and then by splitting Quince into the high end place it continues to be with a casual place next door named Cotogna. They continued just recently when they opened Verjus which is not shy about pricing. And, hey!, everyone else is doing it as well so it shouldn’t exactly be surprising but still, it’s another indicator of where we are.


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The languages of cooking

04.24.19 Posted in Food, Italy by

It’s spring so my garden plot is overflowing with leafy greens. The nettles are making it dangerous for anyone in shorts, the favas are bursting to the sky, and it’s been difficult to keep up with the arugula. And that’s just half of it.

Given the bounty I’ve been searching high and low for recipes but I’ve been hitting a wall: There are relatively few recipes for these sorts of spring greens on the English language Internet. It’s not a huge surprise, years ago Steve Upstill and I created RecipePower exactly for this reason, there’s tons of junk and – even better! – lots of duplicated junk that obscures all the high quality recipes out there. Sure, if you use really precise search terms you might be successful in discovering  creative and well crafted recipes. It’s just that the pool of recipes for an ingredient like nettles and many other ingredients is incredibly shallow.

I’m fortunate enough to speak Italian pretty fluently so I always search for recipes either directly through Google in Italian or head to one of the big Italian language recipe sites like Giallo Zafferano for guidance. And, boy, when it comes to do they have the type of inspiration and variety of recipes that I’ve been looking for. Just for nettles, ortica or ortiche in Italian, they have a really robust list of ideas that would be difficult or impossible to find on the English language Internet.

It’s a great example of what’s out there but culture is so embedded in language that even with all those translation tools, you have to think to look and use the language to get there. And that’s just one example, I just started poking around the French, German, and Spanish recipe sites which are islands unto themselves. I only wish I knew Greek and Serbo-Croatian so that I could start researching what’s available in those languages as well.


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A hint of positivity in the book world?

04.20.19 Posted in Books by

Recently I couldn’t find two books in local book stores because they had sold out and they couldn’t back order them through their warehouses. Of course Amazon had copies but in chats with the bookstores I got a funny picture of publishing today that makes me wonder if the industry is actually doing well. Ottolenghi’s Simple was the first book, obviously he’s been hugely successful so I would have thought that they’d print tons of copies. The second is Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ The Circuit, a blow by blow look at the 2017 men’s tennis season. Written by a poet, published by FSG, based on a topic that doesn’t exactly scream mass interest – here’s an example of something that I could understand being difficult to find.

When I asked book people about it they said the same thing. Publishers aren’t printing as many copies as they watch their bottom lines more closely. In Simple’s case that’s confounding exactly because it’s so successful and feels like one of those evergreen books that should always be on every shelf, maybe they’re really getting good at inventory management or maybe they’re just being penny wise. For the Circuit it makes complete sense because, apparently, it was a sleeper success. Either way, I hope this means that publishers are finally resolving the structural issues of the digital economy and getting back to working on great books because these two books have been really fun additions.


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Pastiche cinema

04.19.19 Posted in Movies by

I only managed to catch one movie at the San Francisco Film Festival this year and it was a doozy. Project Gutenberg sounded like a great way to dip back into Hong Kong cinema – all the crazy action and concepts that I used to spend hours watching at the Great Star Theater on Jackson in the 90’s. But this is no Infernal Affairs, it’s the definition of pastiche, you can count the movies that it borrows from as the plot unravels even if the wrap around concept comes courtesy of To Live and Die in LA. Where’s the line between homage and rip off?


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Dinosaur restaurants or nostalgia for those old time spreads

04.17.19 Posted in Food by

If you wander north of the Golden Gate through Western Marin and Sonoma you’ll run across the culinary remains of the immigrants who settled there from the late 19th and well into the 20th centuries. Dotting many of the small towns are classic Italian dining rooms that feature set ups, hearty pastas, and meats. Some have adapted to the times by adding kale salads and pizza but at heart they’re the equivalent of culinary holdovers from another era. And that’s a good thing, we need reminders of how it used to be that are also earnest restaurants.

And it’s not just the north bay, these restaurants still mark the spaces where immigrants roamed from Bakersfield, to western Nevada, and god knows where else. Make no mistake: The only reason these places are still around is family ownership. They’re hold overs because they haven’t been forced aside by economics or death which is why they mostly continue on in rural areas. The urban transformations long made it too expensive in those spaces. Take Negris which is the dominant building in tiny Occidental. The web site says that it was founded in 1943 but the last time I was in there the menu had a testament to the pair of Italian immigrants who founded it in the 1920’s.

The bar

A good chunk of the place is the bar which runs the depth of the building off to the left. Like many a road house this is the place for that mid-morning shot and a beer to make the day run smoothly or the business discussion that really needed to escape the confines of the office. These days the drinking side of things seems to occupy less space, the families and big groups out in the main dining room really make Negris hum.

That’s the way things used to go, you’d have a bar on one side of the house for the people who might be just passing through for a drink, waiting for a table, or who made a lifestyle of living in bars. Thankfully these places still exist and still have native populations of drinkers and socializers. And they’ve maintained much of their decor which usually includes the classic wood bar, mirrored back, dusty bottles of cordials which are now just decorations. If you need to know what’s going on in town, these are a medium unto themselves.

The set up

Once you’re seated in front of a red checked tablecloth and order you’ll meet the iconic set up, a set of plates that are part of every meal generally served family style for every table. This is usually a soup, salad, bread, and some cured meat. Occasionally, olives and other cured vegetables or cultural specialties make anyone feel like a king and sate the huge hungers of the manual workers that used to flock to these places. They were also the budget oriented dollar meals for everyone concerned because restaurants could treat them like prix fixes and have everything planned out ahead while diners got healthy and filling meals around common tables that encouraged a great social coming together. Consider it a type of class consciousness or family, both are true.

The meal

You’re here for filling food so be prepared for protein and carb heavy dishes that cover the bases, usually steaks and pastas, but specialties depend on cultural roots. The Italian places in west Sonoma and Marin are heavy on the tomato culture. Basque places love lamb because a lot of their workers herded sheep but they also have a good sideline in frog legs. And, since most of these places are doing their dance with the times, lighter seafoods and 80’s innovations like vodka penne make plenty of appearances.

The variations

I have no authoritative grasp on this genre of restaurant. I don’t even know what to call them other than my loose mental short hand of places with ‘set ups’ but they used to span our fair state. San Francisco’s dear departed Basque Hotel currently occupied by 15 Romolo just off Broadway in North Beach was a real down low sort of place which, per my father’s memories, used to be quite the scene. Thankfully 15 Romolo still preserves the ambiance but I’d love to have those shared tables back. The only living example in SF that I know of (tell me if I’m missing one!) is the Basque Cultural Center in South City. It’s quite a scene for families and trenchermen dinners.

While Occidental is fortunate to host two because the Union Hotel is just across the street from Negri’s, you don’t have to travel far for yet another just across the border in Valley Ford, Marin where Dinucci’s is still holding on. People have told me about places like this in western Nevada because of the Basque herding culture. And then there’s Bakersfield which boasts Benji’s and the Wool Growers as part of their Basque culture which has gone through the eye of the needle and established themselves as a certain sort of family friendly night out. Easy on the wallet, fun for all.

Back from the dead?

Bucca di Beppo was modeled on this idea but even they couldn’t thrive in the midst of a booming SF so my naive wonderings about why this sort of thing can’t continue to exist here are perhaps just that, completely naive. Still, I can’t help but think that in a world dominated by fast casual and comfort food that something like a Torrisi light wouldn’t be a huge hit. God knows I’d spend an inordinate amount of time there.


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The art of digital invisibility

04.15.19 Posted in Art, Books, Media by

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

In an age where everything seems available, we’re actually being steamrolled by new creations as some of our most valuable movies, books, and music (let alone high art) are disappearing from view – many times they’re not physically available – but the bigger challenge is just keeping the important things front of mind. Otherwise you get lost in this sea of mediocrity that’s increasingly sweeping through Netflix and every other source of contemporary entertainment.

Here’s my problem, and it’s not a huge life altering one but I do think it has insidious effects on our culture. Say I want to watch some of the quirkier movies or TV shows that I remember from my youth? Example A: Try to find 1984’s “Mike’s Murder” which I won’t even try to characterize because I saw it on VHS sometime in the 80’s. Or Wim Wenders’ epic “Until the End of the World” which was an Arthur C. Clarke grade prophecy of the digital era – replete with a new understanding of how pop music would change along with a soundtrack that featured many artists who would do the changing. Then there’s the strange case of Die Kinder, a cracker jack preview of what TV would become from PBS’ Mystery series from 1990 starring Natasha Richardson and Frederic Forrest.

Go look, you’re not going to find them streaming. You can find Mike’s Murder on an old DVD but Amazon punks you with their SEO pumping page for a streaming version of Until the End of the World while EBay has DVDs.  As for Die Kinder the digital traces are thin except for this nice synopsis. I did manage to finally get someone to burn me a DVD from their old VHS copy. Welcome to contemporary samizdat culture in San Francisco.

As far as I can tell these are all victims of the tangled web of media and digital rights as they intersect with commerce – who wants to spend the money doing a digital release if the rights are tough and the financial upside is ephemeral? Of course there’s nothing absolutely new here. In the era before VHS your only shot at older movies were repertory movie houses. Forget it if you wanted to catch that TV episode from last week. And even after the era of the VHS tape and the waves of recordable media that followed, it became almost more difficult to find older media just because it all felt so tantalizingly close, as if you could suddenly dig through every version of Stagger Lee on Napster and every movie on Pirate Bay. Alas, that expectation of easy access to all media is one major issue. A bigger problem may be that any media that doesn’t exist digitally now will just disappear absent some passion project because the torrent of the present is what matters today, so much so that you can barely even remember that something old may be forgotten.

 


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Getting my radio groove back on

04.12.19 Posted in Music by

I grew up on a diet rich in local radio stations spanning college stations like UCSC’s KZSC to Cupertino’s KKUP with some KPIG thrown in for sport so I’m always game for new ideas in radio and Radiooooo has it. Select a country from the map and an era and let it run. So far it’s been flat out amazing. Now I just have to figure out how to get it set up with Sonos.


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SF as a location

04.12.19 Posted in San Francisco, TV by

OA season 2Max Garrone | Max Garrone

Prairie takes in the bay.

We’ve been working our way through the first two episodes of season two of the OA and – outside of it continuing as the creepiest and one of the best filmed things on TV – it really manages to take advantage of the Bay Area as a location. It has some of the obvious but really inhabits the space in fresh ways.


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Putting your money where your maiz is

04.10.19 Posted in Food by

New native corn at El MulinoMax Garrone | Max Garrone

The poster explaining El Molino’s new native corn for their masa.

It’s great to see such a prominent local Mexican restaurant not only making their own masa but using Oaxacan corn. El Molino Central has been quite a project so it’s gratifying to see all those lines out the door. It’s even more gratifying to see them put their money into supporting native corn species in Mexico. As their poster notes, NAFTA was devastating to the practice and business of preserving these species. They’re only now coming back because so many people have been devoted to them – thanks to all the great people that are working on projects like this.