Without Reservations

Still Waters

Tracing the rise of Alice Waters
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If you come away from Thomas McNamee's riveting new book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (Penguin Press, $27.95), not sure whether you've just read the story of a woman or a restaurant, do not panic. You have read both, the twist being that the two tales are so embraided as to become one. Read more »

It's the chalk

Soil makes the wine
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When we think of white wine, we think of many things — Brie, student-faculty mixers, summer picnics sur l'herbe, grilled fish — but chalk is generally not among them. Chalk would not seem to have much to do with food and drink at all, except as a means to write the day's specials on those little blackboards restaurants sometimes hang on the wall or prop up outside the front door. Read more »

On grappka

Grape vodka?
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A small peeve of mine is grappa served at or near room temperature, as if it's cough syrup. Perhaps I am churlish to complain about tepid grappa when having the chance to order grappa at all is a rare treat; even many Italian restaurants don't offer it. On the other hand, ice-cold grappa is simply sublime — at least for those of us who find it so — and keeping the bottle stashed in the freezer under the bar doesn't seem like a terrible burden. Read more »

Currant affairs

The nether reaches of the pantry
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The backs and bin bottoms of refrigerators are known hazmat zones: difficult-to-reach, easy-to-ignore regions where spontaneous composting occurs. Most of us, I suspect, have at one time or another fished a plastic bag from these sepulchral depths and wondered what once fresh but long neglected foodstuff could have produced the black-green goo inside.

The far reaches of kitchen cabinetry don't generally host this sort of putrefaction, but they are venues for the forgotten bottle of this and overlooked box of that all the same. Read more »

Up on the roof

Duelling White House chefs
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During these past six lovely years of Bush and Cheney, one has become almost nostalgic about duels — the calling out of adversaries to settle matters of honor with pistols — even if one or both adversaries should hold high office. Read more »

Death drove a cliche

Please, no more!
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With the mayor's race opening up rather unexpectedly, the power-involved now have a little something extra to think about: should I or shouldn't I, come autumn? I shouldn't and won't — though I love autumn — but if I did, my platform would include some provision to the effect that writers who use clichés should be put in prison. Well, not really. As a society, our fetish for putting people in prison is matched (and perhaps exceeded) only by our fetish for objects and acts military. Read more »

A gourmet ghetto

Noe Valley ups its taste quotient
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Although Noe Valley has become quite tony in the past decade, the neighborhood's commercial district seems to be developing a slight case of schizophrenia, at least in the matter of comestibles. On one hand, chic little food shops abound, selling fancy cheeses, coffee, gelato, baked goods, and wine — but on the other, there is an area of darkness at the center of things, on the main drag between Noe and Sanchez streets.

On the south side of 24th Street, we find the corpse of the Real Food Company, which unceremoniously shut down in August 2003. Read more »

When the lights go down

Why are menus so hard to read?
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Now that our winter festivals have ended, taking their candle-lighting rituals with them, we are left with winter's deep and early darkness. We are left with it even in restaurants, many of which seem to be increasingly dim and shadowy, and how are you supposed to read a menu in such brown-out conditions? If you're lucky, your table is set with a votive candle, which you can pass back and forth, like boys in a tree house sharing a flashlight to ogle purloined porn. Read more »

Behold, a pale port

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While sipping my way through a barrel tasting last week, I came across something of a novelty: a California chardonnay port. White port isn't that unusual, of course; the Portuguese have been making fortified wines from white grapes and from red fermented off-skin for a long time. Still, when most of us think of port, we think of a ruby-colored, almost syrupy elixir, a few sips of which makes a lovely after-dinner drink and, with its sweetness, a good substitute for dessert.

The maker of the chardonnay port is VJB Vineyards, in Kenwood. Read more »

Hot Green

The kale's the thing
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Kale: what is to be done? Yes, kale has its virtues: it's good for us (as indicated by its dark green color), it presents a variety of interesting textures, it isn't too expensive, and it turns up in winter, when our farmers markets are desolate. Still, kale is among the trickier leafy greens to handle. Read more »