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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Flour & Water Chef Goes to Baker & Banker To Make Foam

Posted By on Thu, Aug 25, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Melon and speck with almond milk and Parmesan - PHOTOS AND VIDEO BY W. BLAKE GRAY
  • Photos and video by W. Blake Gray
  • Melon and speck with almond milk and Parmesan

Baker & Banker has been hosting monthly chef pop-up dinners. Normally popups are for chefs from other cities, pastry chefs who want to cook an entire dinner, or chefs between jobs.

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The guest chef last night was an unusual choice: Thomas McNaughton of Flour & Water. McNaughton is certainly one of San Francisco's hottest young chefs, but he has his own jam-packed restaurant a couple of miles away. So we wondered: why not just cook whatever it is he wanted to cook there?

We went to the dinner to find out, and got an immediate reminder of McNaughton's popularity. The woman sitting next to us was a self-described groupie of "Chef Tom," and had driven in from Pleasanton. She says she regularly sets her Blackberry for midnight so she can wake up to make reservations at Flour & Water for exactly two months and one day later.

McNaughton's menu at Flour & Water is Cal-Ital; the name denotes the essential ingredients for pasta and pizza. So part of his day away from the restaurant was that none of the six courses had any flour, though there was a whole grain -- farro -- in the dessert.

The highlight for me was the main course, with a lean goat loin wrapped in sausage and seared over shelling beans, served with goat belly immersion heated for 30 hours. The loin was salty but I loved that, while sufficiently cooked, it had a raw, meaty flavor with only a hint of gaminess, as if hours of prep had been spent to provide the suggestion of sashimi. Yet why not do that at Flour & Water? So I went back into the kitchen to ask McNaughton and Jeff Banker. Here's their response:

I thought the popup might give Banker an easy day, but Lori Baker told me, "Jeff is back there plating. He's been doing prep all day."

Go to the single restroom at Baker & Banker and you'll get a big hint as to why they do popups: signed menus from restaurants including The French Laundry and Momofuku decorate the wall. In addition to loving to cook, they're clearly fans of great chefs.

Baker said the point of popups is "just to mix things up; to have some fun. To let the line cooks try some food they wouldn't do otherwise. Some of the ingredients that Thomas brought in were things we hadn't seen before. He put fennel vinegar on some of the dishes. There's a lot of specialty ingredients, a kind of pepper we hadn't seen."

Ironically, the dish McNaughton discusses in the video, with the almond milk foam, might have been the least successful for me; the speck was too salty and strongly flavored for the mild melon, but that illicit foam was a nice balm.

I loved the unusually herbal intermezzo, a gelatin of Lillet, fennel and tarragon; and the light, refreshing opener of albacore, peach, cucumber and sea bean, well paired with a glass of fruity, floral Birichino Monterey Malvasia Bianca 2010. And there's no reason he couldn't do either of those at Flour & Water. Better set your Blackberry.

And set your calendar for this: the next guest chef at Baker & Banker is Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats, who makes the best hot dog in San Francisco and a candidate for the best cheeseburger. That dinner is scheduled for Sept. 14. Will he take his chicharrones upscale? Find out then.

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W. Blake Gray

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