Saturday, April 18, 2009

Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero

Hole in the wall, blue collar bar, roadhouse, all of these could well describe Duarte's. The restaurant that started out as a bar with a barrel of whisky in 1894 has become a landmark with a James Beard honorary award. Today it has a reputation for cream of artichoke soup and is one of the few places that still has abalone on the menu. To call Pescadero a backwater, would be gilding the lily, however it is worth a drive down the coast on a cold winter's day for the bread alone, served piping hot right out of the oven. Before I paint too romantic a picture, they don't make it at the restaurant.

Bay Breads is the French owned, wholesale bakery that deserves credit for the taste of these loaves of outstanding bread. Duarte's receives credit for stocking it and heating it to its crusty, toasted completion, then serving it piping hot. Homemade bread couldn't be any better than this and if you care to, you can walk down to the town grocery store and buy a half baked loaf of this staff of life to bring home.

Onion rings haven't tasted this good since high school. Duarte's has them down pat with their crisp batter and sweet onion center, ready to dip into a small pool of catsup or to eat plain. Still the soup seems to be what draws me to this coastline institution. They make two of note, a green chile and cream of artichoke (they grow abundantly up and down the coast). Did it surprise and disappoint me that they are both made with cream of mushroom soup? Yes and no. It did surprise me, but the taste does not disappoint.

Being a seafood restaurant, it's nice to see a crab salad sandwich on the menu with a simple, not overly complicated recipe. Besides the crab there was mayonnaise and parsley; more would not be better in this case as it was just right. The fried calamari exemplified Duarte's ability to fry squid without making it rubbery and admittedly, it is nice to see large pieces on the plate, instead of previously frozen calamari "rings" that seem to dominate restaurant menus these days. "Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, please.", while you're at it leave the tentacles on my calamari, they're the best part.

My Portuguese genes came on strong when I noticed a linguica sandwich, so I gave it a try. Good, but they could have just served the sausage and I would have been satisfied. If you haven't ever tried linguica, it's a spicy, garlic laden treat that could cure a cold! Pie, could one leave Duarte's without a homemade fruit pie? Yes, and I may in the future because the crust lacked flavor. It was flaky, but lacked that something intangible that makes a perfect crust. On the other hand the ice cream with chocolate sauce is not worth the $6.50, at least the pie was home made.

On our last visit, we discovered that Duarte's had been honored with a special James Beard Award and had been serving Crab Cioppino for as long as it had been a restaurant, so we had to try it, being as it was crab season. The waiter/barman equipped us with cotton gingham bibs, seafood forks and nut crackers, so in we dove. By the way, the bar is our preferred room for dining.

I've eaten enough bad cioppino at Fisherman's Wharf in SF to know a good one when I taste it and this was a good cioppino with a sauce as sweet as the crabmeat, not overbearing like many of the Wharf restaurants serve. The menu listed the ingredients as crab, clams and prawns. There were exactly two prawns and two clams in my dish, but I was not disappointed that the rest was all crab. The sauce will thin, but filled with nice chunks of diced onion, tomato and celery and the flavor was excellent. With that great bread to sop it up, the sauce managed to be the right thickness after all.

The prawns were actually bigger than I had expected and the clams tender. My dining companion decided on the cracked crab and it was also a great treat for the $25 price. I've eaten the abalone sandwich for the same price and believe that the cioppino was a much better value at $31. But, honestly, I'd be happy to order any of them again.

202 Stage Road
Pescadero, CA 94060
(650) 879-0464

Open Daily 7am-9pm

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Abacus is one of those neighborhood restaurants that you wish were on the corner of your block, but since it isn't you're willing to work a few calories off by walking there. Upon inquiring on how the owner sees the menu, the response was "California Chinese". I prefer Pan Asian, since they offer items like sashimi, garlic noodles, and lamb chops as well as some familiar Chinese dishes. Fresh approaches to traditional recipes is what makes this California Does Asia restaurant worth repeat visits.

Seared ahi with a fresh mango salsa was a nice starter one evening along with pea shoot pot stickers with pork fillings. Both deserve their place on the permanent menu. The quirky combinations of flavors were delightful together.

Thai garlic noodles were as good if not better than any I've had at Thai restaurants and made a nice accompaniment to the Kung Pao chicken and Crispy Orange Beef entrees. I don't recall exactly, but on our first visit to Abacus the French cut lamb chops were cooked to a pink medium rare and the sauce was perfection and was a spicy mint concoction. I have to wonder if that may have been a Vietnamese influence on the menu. Every time we go to this restaurant is fills up quickly with locals but it's easy to get a table at 6 p.m. As you sit down to the modern decor you know you have found something different in Chinese cuisine.

(415) 387-2828
2078 Hayes St
San Francisco CA 94117

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco

My introduction to this restaurant was over 20 years ago. My main travel guide was a book devoted to shopping in Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome that listed hotels and restaurants almost as afterthoughts in each chapter. Now it graces the pages of most major travel guides, but you can always get a table at 6:30 p.m.

Whenever I travel to Florence, Italy I make a pilgrimage across the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno section of the city to dine at The White Boar. This charming, old world osteria never fails to deliver a satisfying meal of classic Tuscan recipes including wild boar stew and ribolita. No matter how the times change, Cinghiale Bianco allows you to step back into the Tuscany of old where you are welcomed and treated like extended family. I proudly display one of their ashtrays in my kitchen. It was a gift to me by the owner Massimo as I was singing the praises of his restaurant, just after the ban on indoor smoking took effect. While celebrating my birthday there one year, he also brought me a piece of cake on the house, a generosity I would have expected to be reserved for regular customers from the neighborhood who frequented the restaurant weekly. Only one time did I miss dinner here, when I came for a day trip on a Wednesday.

When first traveling to Italy, I found the salads disappointing since they were primarily made with chicory and lettuce. On the right you can see that they have become more varied and colorful. Most times I skip salad in Europe and go straight to the vegetable sides, but on those occasions when you just have to have something raw and fresh, it's nice to know that there are now more options. The prosciutto pictured above is a standard on the menu and is made from wild boar. Much dryer than Prosciutto di Parma, wild boar prosciutto is stronger in flavor and pairs well with the unsalted Tuscan bread. Its color is as deep and rich, as its taste and we seldom fail to order it.

The main advantage of traveling to Italy in October is that it's truffle season and most good restaurants showcase fresh "tartufo". One year I ordered pasta with freshly grated truffle over a cream sauce here. This year I chose the burrata with tartufata (a truffle sauce sometimes mixed with porcini mushrooms and/or black olives) and fresh black truffle, drizzled with olive oil that had also been spiked with truffle. It may sound like overkill, but you can never have too many tartufo!

Was wild boar stew mentioned? That's it on the right, served up with polenta. A heartier dinner for a cool Autumn evening cannot be found. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and the sauce is just begging to be sopped up by the polenta as it usually is. Strozzapreti al Burro is pictured on the right, photographed as the parmigiano cheese was drifting down towards the plate. Strozzapreti meaning "priest strangler" is used to describe many different dishes in Italy, perhaps as many dishes as there are regional cuisines. There is even a pasta shape called by that name, but for me it will always mean the ravioli nudi (ravioli filling sans pasta) of Osteria del Cinghale Bianco. This ricotta and spinach dumpling literally melts in your mouth. I insist that everyone I know try this at least once in their lives. There are now 4 strozzapreti in an order, but when I first started going there were only two, but they were the size of billiard balls and most certainly would have strangled anyone trying to eat them whole.
Borgo S. Jacopo, 43 r.
50125 Florence
Tel. Fax +39 055/21.57.06
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 18.30 - 22.30
Saturday, Sunday, 12.00 - 15.00 / 18.30 - 22.30
Closed on Wednesday