June 05, 2002


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The weekend

AN EMPTY CITY is a happy city – at least for me – and that makes Memorial Day weekend one of the most joyous times of year. The streets are deserted, the air is still; it's the perfect environment in which to relax, or maybe learn a thing or three.

Over the Memorial Day weekend just past I learned, for instance, that the word about Chilean sea bass – you shouldn't order it or eat it or, if you're a restaurant, have it on your menu, since it's a species of fish that's been overharvested to the brink of extinction – has not yet reached every ear in town. The beleaguered fish turned up, to my surprise, on the bill of fare of the cool new restaurant we visited Saturday evening. That faux pas, incidentally, didn't seem to put much of a dent in business; even at an early, twilit hour the place was packed – one of the few sizable concentrations of people we came across for several days.

There were no such crowds at another cool new restaurant, Chez Spencer, which was supposed to – but did not – open in mid May. I went by late on Friday afternoon and found the entrance to the courtyard papered over, construction-site style; a friend deputed to call for information returned with the news that the restaurant would open at the end of the month. As for Chilean sea bass: let's hope not.

One has grown a bit weary of Gourmet executive editor John Willoughby's punny titles for his cookbooks – The Thrill of the Grill, License to Grill, and now, with coauthor Chris Schlesinger, Let the Flames Begin (Norton, $30) – but let it be said that Willoughby does know a thing or two about the old barbie. I found myself perusing the book on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, just hours before firing up my own trusty Weber, and gleaning quite a few bits of useful information from it. Briquettes, for instance: They work fine, and because they are a consistent shape and size, the fires they produce are easier to control. But ... they contain chemicals that can, at the very least, affect the flavor of any food cooked over them, and therefore it's necessary to make sure the coals are all covered with gray ash (a sign the chemicals have burned off) before starting to cook.

I didn't know that, though I'm not surprised, either. A better bet is hardwood charcoal – the irregularly shaped, blackened chunks you can get at the market or, if you're intrepid and price-conscious, at Lazzari, just south of Candlestick. There's plenty of time to stock up before next Memorial Day.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com