Fishermen’s Grotto (San Francisco): A Taste of The Old Wharf

It’s not every day that I look forward to eating at a cheeseball tourist trap.

The Fishermen’s Grotto in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, however, holds special meaning. Thirty years ago, when the sous chef was an undergrad at Stanford University, his father would breeze into town from their Iowa homestead and whisk him away to San Francisco.

There, the man would regale his son with stories of his own youth in 1950s San Francisco — and invariably, these trips would land the pair at a little place in the wharf.┬áThe old man would order a Shrimp Louis, remarking with prickly nostalgia that the pricey platter of creamy shrimp “used to cost just $3.50 back in the ’50s.” And over heaping plates of shrimp and fish, he would share the colorful stories of his bygone years.

So when the sous chef and I found ourselves in San Francisco last week, a visit to the old hangout became a must.

Battling sidewalks jammed with tourists and street artists offering to sketch our portraits, we wended our way along the breezy waterfront and found it: Fishermen’s Grotto, the very first restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf …

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Wordless Wednesday: Roasted Beet Risotto

Alright, so this is not quite a Wordless Wednesday — but I couldn’t very well have shown you this picture of risotto that looks like candy and not share the recipe now, could I?

There isn’t much of a story here — I had leftover roasted beets; I made risotto. Because it was tasty, I took a picture.

So here is the recipe below … buon appetito and enjoy!

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Vino Rosina: The New Italian On The Block


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Years ago, I found myself creeping along the quiet streets of a swath near Baltimore's Little Italy, squinting through the darkness as I tried to find Charleston, a restaurant that had been highly recommended.

Even though this roughly eight-block area was flanked by the perennially packed and fratty Fells Point on one side and the touristy Inner Harbor on the other at the time, its streets were still largely undeveloped in the late 1990s. Charleston, a Southern-inflected French restaurant, was an early adopter in the neighborhood and once we'd located it, we were glad we went. The meal was phenomenal and it was thrilling to be at a place that felt like it was on the cusp of something larger.

The husband and I recently returned to Baltimore for a short visit and decided to trek to Charleston to take a look at the place where we'd had one of the first romantic dinners of our courtship. The restaurant, helmed by the talented Cindy Wolf in the kitchen, is still there and hopping but the area around it has since become unrecognizable. Now named Harbor East, the area has sprouted gleaming condiminium, office and hotel buildings and has become as packed with restaurants, cafes and bars as its nearby neighborhoods. (You can check out a piece I wrote for the New York Times Travel section this past weekend on Harbor East here.)

Amid the current hubbub, a new little place caught our eye: Vino Rosina, a modern Italian restaurant in the Bagby Furniture Company Building, a historic red-brick structure that used to be a factory. Outside on the street, we could hear laughter wafting out along with the intoxicating smells of oven-roasted meats. So of course, we decided to step in and give the place a whirl …

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Lincoln: A Dazzler of A Show


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It's been hard to ignore only the Most Significant Restaurant Opening in New York so far this year.

Since Jonathan Benno announced he would be leaving Per Se for Lincoln, an upscale Italian restaurant the Patina Restaurant Group was opening at Lincoln Center, the stories and blog items have been unceasing. Weeks before the restaurant opened late last month, the city's food Web sites were already aflutter with anticipation. Just days after it opened, food blogs were filled with photos of its eggplant parmesans and breathless accounts of transcendent meals there.

It's difficult to live up to such hype, but Benno, his crew and the beautifully sculpted setting, complete with a modern glass-walled kitchen in the heart of it all, they do it in spades.

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Eataly (Il Pesce): A Mixed Bag Of Fish


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Eataly can be a hard place for the hungry.

For starters, chaos rules the moment you set foot in the door of this cavernous Whole Foods-meets-tony-food-court Italian emporium in New York City that opened at the end of summer. Believe me, you’ll need all the strength you can muster to bulldoze your way past the bodies before you can get at any food.

And while you’re pressed up, body against body, there are the displays of cheeses, desserts, milk and coffee you’ll be breezing past. You’ll want to stop, of course — but the mosh pit all around owns you. All you can do is cast longing glances, hoping for some private time with that fetching taleggio later in the evening perhaps, as the crowd carries you helplessly along.

Our destination on this particularly mobbed Saturday evening is Il Pesce, the fish restaurant within this 50,000 square foot-place that partner Mario Batali has famously billed as a “temple,” where “food is more sacred than commerce.”

Amid the sections where you can buy pasta, bread, cookbooks or stand around tall tables in a “tasting piazza” and nibble on cured meats, there are a few eateries devoted to specific categories — vegetables, pasta, fish, meat. Our dining companion for the evening, the insatiable Gael Greene, has already eaten her way through a few of those places. “I was curious to try the fish restaurant …” she says.

So, Il Pesce it is …

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Pane Siciliano: One Sexy Bread


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The same thing always happens when I’ve been on my weeks-long trips for book research in Singapore.

When I’m away, I find myself overcome with intense longing for something in my Brooklyn home. By the time I return, it’s all I can do to keep myself from running toward it (cue slow-motion romantic comedy music here) and getting it all hot and, well, hot.

My family home in Singapore doesn’t have an oven, you see — so when I’m away from my trusty hunk of stainless steel, a major itch to bake starts taking over.

When I returned this time, I was determined to jump back into the Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge, where bakers around the world are making a bread each week from Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.”

On the docket that week was pane Siciliano, a beautiful, golden Italian bread formed in a voluptuous “S” shape.

It seemed like just the thing to scratch my itch.

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Terzo Piano: Where Chicago Is The Art


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Terzo Piano is a restaurant that literally makes your heart skip a beat the moment you walk in.

With its high ceilings, crisp, white furniture, spare decor
and wall of glass windows providing a sweeping view of Chicago old and
new, it’s the embodiment and reflection of the city’s stunning Mies van der Rohe-infused skyline.

On a clear day, when light is pouring in, sending angular shadows shooting across the pristine, gleaming furniture, the space is just breath-taking. This restaurant, which just opened in the Art Institute of Chicago’s modern wing in May, truly does the city justice.

All of this, of course, combines to set some incredibly high expectations for the food itself.

But that, it turns out, is another story.

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Casatiello: A Marvel of Meat & Melted Cheese


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In my family’s Singapore kitchen this week, my mother carefully brought out a prized discovery from her fridge, nudging me to try it.

Inside the box was a lovingly swaddled loaf of bread, filled with slivers of ham and dappled with bits of melted and crusty cheese. A friend had given it to her and my mother had decided it was the best bread she’d ever tasted.

“Hey, I think I recently made something like this,” I said. 

“You DID?” came her incredulous response. 

Her disbelief was completely understandable — I rarely set foot in the kitchen as a child. And when I finally did start cooking in my 20s, I was initially more known for inedible cheesecakes than Julia Child creations.

As for baking bread, it’s something that seemed so difficult that I never considered trying it until I joined the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge in May. But baking a bread every week along with more than 200 bakers around the world has been a surprisingly empowering and therapeutic thing.

In a piece that I wrote for the Washington Post Food section about the proliferation of online cooking and baking groups, Jeff of Culinary Disasters talks about learning to be patient from baking bread for the challenge. Wendy of Pink Stripes says she’s become such a brave cook that she’s applied that confidence outside of the kitchen, too. (Wendy, who had always wanted to learn to scuba dive, took the plunge in December.)

As for me, I’ve learned gobs — about time management, the need for enough sleep, the importance of simply trying. Above all, through the exhilarating successes and occasional clouds of smoke, I’ve grown increasingly sure of one thing: If you set your mind to doing something — even if it seems impossible — you’re going to be able to do it. (And, if you’re lucky like I’ve been, you’ll have the fist-bumps of fellow bakers, pushing you along the way.)

And that’s intoxicating knowledge to have.

So, yes, Mum, I really did make casatiello, an Italian bread filled with cured meat and melted cheese that tastes just divine. And it was actually pretty simple …

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What Ciabatta Taught Me


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This moment, I had known it would come.

The one where I’m sitting on the floor of my smoke-filled apartment, staring at three rock-hard, blackened loaves and thinking, “I am a failure.”

Having never baked bread before, I’d known it was a little insane to sign up for the weekly Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge, where a group of more than 200 amateur bakers around the world bake a bread every week from a recipe in Peter Reinhart’s bread-making bible.

But then my first attempt — bagels — had gone well. And in the ensuing weeks, decent versions of brioche and challah followed.

I started to get cocky — I even promised chef Simpson that I would bring my first stab at ciabatta to his July 4 party. There would be two Italians there — who better to judge the quality of my first Italian bread?

Of course, this was all before the alarming amounts of smoke, the smell of burnt cornmeal seeping into every cranny of my apartment and, eventually, the surfacing of three dark lumps of what could pass for coal but were actually my “ciabatta.”

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A Tale of Six Meatballs


CIMG4598 It’s a little scary what can happen when a journalistic killer instinct is directed at something seemingly innocuous.

Like, meatballs. And the battle to be voted top meatball chef in a six-way competition.

There is the non-stop smack talk. There is the repeated invocation of maternal units. There is, even, the reflexive forming of menacing kung-fu gestures anytime the word “meatball” is mentioned.

And we haven’t even gotten to things that my fellow competitors did.

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