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Wednesday, Sep 22 2010

The Dorian Gray of Local Eateries

By Jonathan Kauffman

It's been 19 years since Erin Rooney's Slow Club opened, and when I visited recently, it seemed populated with the same customers — not the exact ones, of course, but their 2010 cognates. By the looks of them, they're architects and Web designers, the kind of people who spend the weekend traipsing from the farmers' market to a performance at the YBCA.

Perhaps because there were so many of the professionally stylish about — the sloppiest-dressed people in the room were the waiters — the Slow Club showed no sign of age. The mottled gray walls and exposed metal beams still felt au courant, and if there were scuffs and chips they were hidden by the dim lighting. Could be the restaurant is swabbed in Oil of Olay every night.

So: Great vibe. Good cocktails — bartender-approved classics like the aviation and the pisco sour. Good ingredients on the menu, as farm-focused and seasonal as the city requires. (There were enough heirloom tomatoes listed to make me wonder whether the chef owns a stake in a tomato farm.) My meal began with thumbnail-sized Padrón peppers, heat-blistered, shiny with oil, speckled with grains of salt that crackled between my teeth as I bit down. It continued with a salad of feathery arugula with fried hazelnuts and cubes of melon. All in step with the times.

The entrées came — and suddenly it was if a hot oven time machine had flung us back to the early 1990s. It took me a while to figure out what about the cooking reminded me so strongly of the years when the Slow Club was young. Was it the firmness of the grilled pork loin, a giant hunk of meat sliced in half to display it was cooked well past medium, or the fact that the pork was plopped, dry, onto polenta, with an incongruous, underseasoned stuffed tomato on the side? Was it the potato gnocchi drowning in an acidic tomato sauce (heirloom, of course)? Both the blocky, casual assembly of the entrées and the not-quite-together technique reminded me of the era when this city was delving into farm-to-table cooking but our wobbly culinary skills weren't always up to the challenge.

My tablemate and I seemed to be the only people bothered by the incongruity. The branding consultants and industrial designers around us leaned forward over their tables, flushed with cocktails and candlelight. It was a lovely scene, the Slow Club, just not as timeless as I initially hoped.

Slow Club: 2501 Mariposa (at Hampshire), 241-9390.

Lamb Belly Is the Meat of the Moment

By Jonathan Kauffman

I spotted it at Hog and Rocks. The next week, I ate it at Mission Chinese Food. And when I dined at Gather in Berkeley a few weeks afterward, the waiter recited a special of lamb belly.

Lamb belly, which used to be called lamb "breast" until pork belly went big and redeemed the word, is the variety meat of the moment. It made all the New York trend reports early last year, but seems to have made it big in the Bay Area this summer. Like pork belly, lamb belly is a flat slab of meat with long striations of lean and fat. Unlike pork fat, lamb fat concentrates all the meat's musky, farm-y qualities, which must be tempered in some way to make it palatable to the mainstream.

One of the first people to serve the cut here — actually, he started with goat belly and then switched over when his suppliers ran out — was Alex Ong at Betelnut, who served a turmeric-braised belly based on a goat stew that he grew up with in Malaysia. "We used turmeric, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, and onions, then braised the cut for three hours, so it was nice and really tender," he explained. Topped with fried shallots and lime juice, the meat — which I tasted early this spring — was faintly sweet and deeply spiced, as if someone had infused a saucepot's worth of curry into each tiny rectangle of flesh.

SPQR's Matthew Accarrino is currently serving lamb belly with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, purslane, and olives. He says the cut has been on and off the restaurant's menu for a while. He rubs the slab of meat with a paste of garlic, rosemary, and lemon zest, then rolls it into a cylinder, wraps that in plastic, and slow-braises it in an immersion circulator for 12 hours. Then he slices the roll crosswise and crisps the spiral in the pan to order.

Hog and Rocks, Gather, and Lafitte braise most of the fat out of the lamb and then grill or pan-fry the meat to finish it off. At Mission Chinese Food, Danny Bowien buys lamb belly for his lamb dishes because it's inexpensive, and he cooks it until it falls apart.

Part of the appeal for chefs of lamb belly is its price, but the other part, Accarrino says, is because it requires what he calls "the power of transformation." "Cooking a rack of lamb — well, not that it's easy, but it's a very trainable skill and doesn't require a lot of creativity," he says. "But when someone throws a box of lamb belly, pig ears, or coxcombs at you, they require a long cooking, and a lot of marinating to make it palatable."

EAT THIS: Al Fresco al Pastor from Tacos San Buena

By Jonathan Kauffman

The architects who designed Sidney Walton Park at Jackson and Front modeled it after an alpine meadow, ringed by tall buildings. They predicted, too, that on sunny days the park would attract a certain species of fauna, one that rolled up its sleeves a little higher and reclined with a book for a few gloriously selfish minutes of escape. They wouldn't have guessed that a half-century on, the park would become an ideal spot for a taco picnic, the provisions supplied by a truck parked two blocks west on Pacific.

It is one of the San Buena trucks, an established chain with a second downtown truck parked at Sansome and Sutter and two in the Mission. Ignore San Buena's watery chicken and mushy cabeza in favor of its pork — the carnitas, nutty and tender, and the al pastor. On the latter, red-on-red pork tacos ($2 each), the sweetish chile marinade rubs up against the vivid salsa napped overtop, the two sauces grinding together, throwing off sparks. Even if the day never tops 70 degrees, the double spicing and a few pickled jalapeño slices will have you sweating as if you've just hiked up rocky paths to your destination. Wear your lederhosen to work and you complete the look.

Tacos San Buena: 375 Pacific (at Sansome).

EAT THIS: Locanda da Eva's Kale and Lardo Pizza

By John Birdsall

Robert Lauriston — who once wrote monthly restaurant reviews for SF Weekly — told Jonathan Kauffman in July that his original notion was to open a place inspired by Una Pizza Napoletana, back when owner Anthony Mangieri spun pies in the East Village.

Locanda da Eva, Lauriston's 2-month-old restaurant in south Berkeley, skews more ambitious than that, on the strength of chef Huw Thornton's skills. Thornton (SPQR, A16) orchestrates a menu that tweaks the Cal-Ital formula in interesting ways, circling wide to scoop up ingredients well off the Oliveto-Delfina road map (see the loose hash of roasted corn and poblano chile served with pig's trotter croquettes). Still, pizza is an anchor here.

On a Saturday night a few weeks ago, the kitchen produced a specimen blistered and charred like the ones at Pizzaiolo. Toppings of kale, house-cured lardo, and smoked provolone yielded a pie ($13) that registered earthy and a little musky, thanks to the lardo, floating on a smoky ghost whisper you couldn't pinpoint to either cheese or the oven's breath. Only thing that gave pause: the size of the semitransparent lardo sheets, which had a way of slipping off the crust and sticking to your chin. My husband said it was like slurping moist condoms. Tastier, though.

Locanda da Eva: 2826 Telegraph (at Oregon), Berkeley, 510-665-9601.

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