in the kitchen with noon

in the kitchen with noon

Because a visit to the local market did nothing but whet my appetite for Thai food, I press-ganged Chef Noon into a brief cooking lesson in the show kitchen at Paresa. Three courses plus dessert sounded a little daunting at first but with lots of room to spread out, ingredients at the ready, and the guiding hand of Chef Noon leading me step by step, it was enlightening. Nothing too fancy; just a beginners excursion into Rattanakosin, the modern era of Thai cooking, which happens to feature a strong Chinese influence: woks, deep-frying, noodles. Goong Sarong would be our starter, a simple yet visually impressive prawn marinated in pepper, salt, and coriander root, wrapped in vermicelli noodles and deep-fried. Next, we moved on to a red curry. The secret, I learned, is to first cook the curry paste in a little oil, add your meat – we used duck breast – then coconut milk and bring it to a boil. Take it off the heat and stir in eggplant, grapes, pineapple, to allow the flavors to be drawn into the soup. Bring it to a boil a second time, adding chilis, basil, and a soupcon of ever-present fish sauce and remove from heat again. The whole process takes about five minutes. Letting the curry rest infuses the broth with the fruits and herbs, giving it a heady smell and marvelously rich taste. (And in so short a period of time – I was amazed.) Chicken stir-fry was the most easily accessible of the courses: deep fry lightly breaded chicken pieces until golden brown and allow them to drain on a paper towel. Heat a little oil in a wok, quickly frying peppers, onion, chili, and cashews. Season with oyster sauce and soy before mixing in the cooked chicken and voila, dinner is done. The results were more impressive than I had imagined, but dessert is where things really got creative. Tiny sweet Thai bananas battered in rice flour and coconut, deep-fried and served with a scoop of ice cream. There was enough batter left over that I thought I might show the chef a few tricks of my own. Thickening the batter with a bit more coconut I tossed spoonfuls into boiling oil, rolling the resulting pillows in a mix of white sugar and coconut. Beignets, I told her: fried dough balls. A bit frightened at first, Chef Noon and Fern, the curious Sales Manager who stopped in to watch us, soon gobbled them up, proving that in the kitchen we’ve all got something to learn.

mise en place

curry, soy sauce, spices, sugar

vermicelli wrapped shrimp

thai red curry with duck

chicken stir fry with cashew

deep fried banana

my beignets

fern with chef noon

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jasper’s tap and corner kitchen

Appearances are deceiving in San Francisco: the distance between two points on a map, for instance; or that funny looking nun with a mustache. It’s true of restaurants as well. Elegant facades can belie inferior eats. And gritty basement boîtes often bubble up with tantalizing flavors. File Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen under the latter. In the harsh light of day the restaurant’s visual charms are all but washed out - like one of those Tenderloin tender traps I’d normally studiously avoid. Yet I’d heard there were interesting experiments going on behind the bar – as well as in the kitchen – and felt it my duty to check things out. I’m glad I did because Jasper’s – despite an anodyne sense of design – is no ordinary “corner kitchen,” but the latest in a wave of cocktail bars and speakeasies that are marking the City by the Bay as a town that takes its tipple seriously. I start with a classic, the Negroni, which Jasper’s happens to keep on tap. You read that right: gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in an ideal 1:1:1 ratio on tap. Frisco apparently has a penchant for lip-smacking aperitifs; the Negroni proved so popular that a second herbaceous cocktail recently joined the tap: a mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and fernet dubbed The Hanky Panky. Mixologist Kevin Diedrich is the mastermind behind the clever idea, as well as a dozen-plus seasonal cocktails, like Rhubarb Mule (a mix of bourbon, orgeat, rhubarb syrup, ginger ale and bitters) and a Wiessen Sour (bourbon, lemonade, orange marmalade, house-made bitters, and white beer). Plus, there’s also what might very well be the perfect summer concoction: house-bottled carbonated Pimm’s cup, muddled with strawberries and mint. Even better, there’s the kitchen in Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen, which under chef Adam Carpenter has it’s own seasonal sensibility. If this weren’t laid-back San Francisco, you might even call it a gastro-pub. (But it is, so you won’t) Even so, the constantly evolving menu has been crafted to complement the strongest stout to the most subtle ale. I order a handful of small plates to see if works with various cocktails: salty Shishito peppers, a trio of deviled eggs, briny brussel sprout slaw and house-made sausage bites, and a warm soft pretzel with smoked gouda fondue. It does. Then I squirrel away the fondue, knowing it will be heaven for dipping with French fries. If you want to go “full gastro” The J Burger is a monument to the humble pub burger of yore; griddled Lucky Dog Ranch beef, English blue cheese, bacon onion marmalade, and frisee salad on a baguette bun. You won’t finish it, but apparently few people do. A lighter alternative is an equally flavorful filet of Scotch salmon atop a bed of organic black lentils. Sated, sedated, and just a little bit intoxicated, I’ve no room for coffee, let alone dessert. Before I head to the door GM Matthew Meidinger makes a point to tell me how at first people came to Jasper’s for Diedrich’s drinks. Then I finish the thought for him: now they stay for the food, too.

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bookshelf: the sorcerer’s apprentices

When The Sorcerer’s Apprentices was first published last year the book was heaped with praise on all sides. The New York Times and The Huffington Post both declared it one of the best food books fo the year. Now available in paperback, I finally got around to reading Lisa Abend’s peek into the kitchen at el Bulli. Named best restaurant in the world an amazing five times by Restaurant magazine before it caused international headlines by closing in 2011, el Bulli was the hugely popular, site of Chef Ferran Adria’s innovative culinary creations, which have now entered the popular lexicon as “molecular gastronomy.” Yet few people know that behind each of the thirty or more courses that comprised a meal at el Bulli, an army of stagiares or apprentice chefs labored at the precise, exhausting work of executing Adria’s vision. Abend’s behind-the-scenes look into el Bulli’s kitchen explores the remarkable system that Adria used to run his restaurant and, in the process, train the next generation of culinary stars. And there’s the rub: Abend’s book details the quotidian grunt work when it should  be investigating the mysteriously creative mind of one the world’s most influential chefs. Focused strictly on what’s tangible, the writer leaves no room to ponder what’s unobservable. That’s not to say the book is unenjoyable. Au contraire, it’s as dishy as they come. Abend brings to life the stagiares’ stories, following them over the course of a season at el Bulli as they struggle to master the long hours, cutting-edge techniques, and interpersonal tensions that come from working at the most famous restaurant on the planet. Taken together, the stories form a portrait of the international team that helped to make a meal at el Bulli so unforgettable. But Abend is no food writer. Her descriptions of the gastronomic efforts are so remarkably antiseptic that I have the sneaking suspicion she doesn’t really care for food at all. This could have just as easily been a book about a season in the offices of Norman Foster. Or the studio of Jeff Koons. It’s about teamwork – the men and women behind the genius but not about the mad rush of genius itself.  That book remains to be written.

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