Friday, September 23, 2011

Brasserie Balzar

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If you didn't already know, you might surmise by this neon sign that brasseries have some connection with breweries. But they are also well known for their food in an upscale yet casual environment. While you may or may not find linens on the table in a bistro, you will always find them in a brasserie, and if Balzar is typical, the waiters will also be wearing linens in the form of freshly starched, white, ankle length aprons. Over the years there has also been a classic dress code for the waiters, a white, long sleeved shirt, black trousers, black vest and when I first started dining there, every waiter to the man wore a handle bar moustache.
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Most recently, that honor seems to have been reserved for the maitre d'. But moustache or not, our waiter was wonderful. That's him blurred in the first photo, because he never stood still. What better way to start a wonderful meal than with French bread, literally. It was rustic, sweet and had great texture. It was great all on its own, and good thing, because that's exactly how it was served.
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How can you pass on French onion soup, especially in France? The best answer for that is that you can't, and why should you? This classic of French cuisine is a must try menu item and Balzar is a good place to do that. It's murky beef and onion infused broth is a treat, but the caramelized onions themselves, the melted gruyere, and the crouton are the treasures. It would make a satisfying lunch all by itself, but makes an even better first course, especially when paired with a steak.
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I may have hit the jackpot when ordering the smoked salmon with blinis. I was thinking that 12 euro seemed a bit steep for a small first course, but we were celebrating, so I went ahead with the order. There was more salmon on the plate then I could ever hope to finish at one sitting and I'm still trying to determine the best way to find bagels in Paris on our next trip, because I fully intend to order it again and the next time I want bagels and cream cheese for the leftovers. The blini and creme fraiche proved to be a nice combination with the salmon, but I  will still want bagels.
Another French classic, steak tartare, was made with a premium grade of beef, egg yolk, mustard, capers and green onion. It was good, but did not quite measure up in either size or taste to the tartare we have ordered at Chez Paul. We were being tutored on the subject of steak tartare by a Norwegian couple sitting at the next table. Evidently they assumed we had not eaten it before. I think perhaps we could have given them a tutorial on manners, because when they were finished, they paid their 91.50 euro tab with 92 euro and left a measly 50 cents for the waiter! He walked over and said "ooo la la!"as he shook his head.
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The steak in green peppercorn sauce was executed as one might expect, cooked as ordered, enveloped in a velvety sauce, sprinkled with green peppercorns. What better to go with steak than potatoes and besides French fries, what could be more French than au gratin potatoes? Like everything else at this meal, the potatoes were up to snuff and none were left on the plate, even though it was a very generous portion. This main course could make a strictly steak and potatoes man very comfortable eating "foreign food".
Someone had to order the duck breast, and that person would be me. The duck was tender, the fat rendered beautifully allowing for a moist piece of poultry to be bathed in the sauce. The baked tomato with pistou was a nice little side, but finally, there was a misstep in the kitchen of Brasserie Balzar; the whipped squash that accompanied the duck had little flavor, although it did provide a nice color contrast on the plate. If it were merely a garnish I could overlook it, but this was the main vegetable on the plate. It really needed salt and butter could have made a favorable difference as well.
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When we were originally seated, the dessert tray was at eye level, and I had an interest in trying the fig tart, but by the time we had finished dinner I was too full to even think about dessert. My two dinner companions ended up splitting the French pastry cream filled napoleon. We were still discussing the couple who stiffed the waiter his tip and decided to be generous with our tip to help compensate for his loss. He was very gracious and when our nephew put his hand into his pocket and pulled out another five euro, our waiter clasped his face with both hands and kissed him on his forehead! We'll be talking about this dinner for  many years to come.
49 Rue de Ecoles
Paris 75005
+33 (0) 1 43 54 13 67
8:00am to 11:45pm daily

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kantjil En De Tijger

We first ate at this restaurant in 2003 on the recommendation of friends. Having wanted to try another rijsttafel since my first trip to Amsterdam after college, Kantjil was the perfect place to order this Indonesian classic of fried rice and many small plates of meats, vegetables and condiments. Actually the meal isn’t purely Indonesian, but is a hold over from the days of Dutch colonization when colonials were offered tastes of dishes from many different islands. It became so popular in Holland that it’s a staple of the Dutch diet to this day. In 2003 we ordered the Nasi Rames a simplified version of the rijsttafel consisting of 8 dishes and found that several were not to our liking (hard boiled eggs in curry sauce and a vegetable dish in particular), but some were delicious and we went back a 2nd evening  to eat our favorites and try a few more dishes. On this visit, after reviewing my 2003 travel notes, we ordered the perfect meal.
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One always starts with Nasi Goreng (fried rice). This one was particularly simple with only rice and green onions. The first condiment we ordered was the Seroendeng consisting of fried coconut and whole peanuts, exceptionally good. I think I used it on just about everything we ate and then polished off the leftovers .
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To start with, we ordered fried won ton, called Pansit Goreng that had a pork and shrimp filling. Anything with goreng in its name is going to be fried. The sweet and sour sauce that came with it seemed to have a Chinese influence and in truth, it was Chinese immigrants who brought this dish with them to Java and introduced it to Indonesia. Oops, this photo on the right depicts the vegetable dish I hadn’t particularly liked. Pumpkin was in the description on the menu and I was thinking of the familiar deep orange colored vegetable. It seemed the most interesting vegetable dish being offered, so we ordered it and I wish there was a photo of my expression when the dish was presented at the table. I ate a token spoonful and can truthfully say I still don’t like it. While investigating the translation for Laboe Siam, I came upon a link that makes me believe that the squash referred to as pumpkin may actually have been chayote.
Let’s discuss the favorite dish of the evening, so I can get the taste of vegetables out of my psyche. On the menu Smoor Babi is described as sweet pork, braised in onions, clove, nutmeg and soy sauce. That it is, but the description fails to convey the depth of flavor of this sweet, salty dish. It was so satisfying in not only flavor but in texture. It was cooked to that “fall off the bone” perfection one seeks when ordering braised meats.
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Sate Babi is the pork satay while Sate Ajam is the chicken satay. I’m not certain which is which because I wasn’t paying attention as I placed them on my dish. What can be verified is that the peanut sauce was as good as I’ve ever eaten, and I’m no stranger to satay. The top right photo shows another of our small plate selections, Loempia Semarang. Yes, it’s  lumpia, or perhaps we should call it eggroll, since it was another import brought in by ethnic Chinese. Next to it on the plate is Katjang Goreng, a beautifully spiced fried nut dish usually made with peanuts, but including onion, garlic, coriander, peanut oil, salt and pepper; in this case it was cashews. Again, I could have eaten the entire bowl myself.
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As long as we’re enlarging photos, here’s another clear winner on the menu, Rendang. It was made with pork braised in a spicy coconut curry sauce. That did not deter any of us from adding more coconut and peanuts on top, in the form of the Seroendeng. The full size of the eggroll is revealed in the last photo. I believe there were five in the order for about $7.50 All the food was fairly priced. Each meat dish was about $9.75, the vegetables were a galling $8.25, but the big surprise was the cost of the chicken satay; it cost $11.25 and made me wonder if there was a chicken shortage.
Here you go, one last photo of this extraordinary meal. I highly recommend the restaurant and also the meat dishes and condiments of cashews and fried coconut. When we go back to Amsterdam we have every intention of going back to Kantjil En De Tijger for another meal.
Spuistratt 291-293
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Friday, September 9, 2011


Perbacco is a well established traditional, yet modern, Italian restaurant specializing primarily in the regional cuisine of Piemonte. It has definitely earned its fine reputation. We were really looking forward to having dinner there with a friend who is also committed to finding the best restaurants in our fair city. On our first visit we carefully went through the menu, hoping to find items we thought would distinguish this restaurant from other traditional  Northern Italian restaurants we have tried. 

To start each table is given an ample supply of grissini with a deep, grassy olive oil for dipping. When we ordered starters, it was difficult to pass on the veal tartar with truffled lardo crostino, so we didn't bother, but went ahead and ordered it. The lardo warmed by the toasted bread was silky and earthy, thanks to the truffle oil; it could easily have stood on its own, but was better in the smaller quantity because of its richness. The veal tartar was delicate in flavor, not only because it was veal, but because it was not overly enhanced with other ingredients. Perbacco's simplified version of a tartar was elegant and using mustard micro greens instead of mustard made the taste cleaner and less muddled. Even though beef tartar is a French classic, restraint  on the recipe made it purely Italian.


Restraint is not a word that could be used in discussing the raviolo. As a pasta lover, ordering just one piece was an entirely new experience and a bit disconcerting. After having heard about ravioli filled with raw egg yolks, this was my first opportunity to try one, but I instinctively knew one would not be enough. Looking at it on the plate gave me some comfort because it was large, but at $13 a pop, it seemed skimpy. After cutting it open with my fork and tasting the first bite, it occurred to me that it was worth even more than the current menu price. This filled pasta dish, composed of truffled ricotta, egg yolk, black chanterelle mushrooms and asparagus was enchanting and seductive. I'll go even further to say it was luxurious on the palate. Going back to Perbacco and not ordering it again would be impossible.


It cannot be said that after the raviolo, everything else paled by comparison, but my attention was still heavily on the raviolo, and letting its taste linger was weighing against trying my second course, while it remained hot. After it had significant table time, I finally cut open the blood sausage. It was selected because it was the very first time I have seen this sausage offered as a menu item in this country. I almost hesitated because of the braised radicchio that came with it, but the sweetness of the sausage made it a good pairing. It was so good, that I now buy boudin noir regularly. Our friend enjoyed his braised rabbit, saying it was tender, not dry. The portion was notable.

It can be safely said that Perbacco excels in pasta making and meat braising. Those qualities are perfectly exemplified in the Langaroli, their ravioli filled with braised short ribs, and porcini mushrooms in a red wine butter sauce. Excuisite is the word that comes to mind when I recall this pasta. It was flawless. Once more, it would be difficult to go back to this restaurant without ordering this pasta. It was an inspired way to use up any of their leftover beef short rib stracotto, another popular menu item. In fact, that will be my next main course selection, based entirely on the taste of this pasta.

Perbacco's Website  Dinner Menu

230 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94111 (map)
(415) 955-0663