Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Special Dinner at Carlitos Gardel - The Cuisine of Argentina in LA

On Friday we flew down to LA to spend the weekend celebrating the marriage last month of our oldest son, Andrew, to Connie Sung. Andrew and Connie had arranged a dinner for us with Connie’s family at Carlitos Gardel, a restaurant on Melrose featuring Argentine cuisine – a most appropriate choice since Andrew and Connie had spent the week following their marriage in Buenos Aries!

From a bit of research before dinner I learned that the restaurant was named after Carlos Gardel (“Carlitos” in the affectionate diminutive form), one of the most well-known figures in the history of tango, who wrote and performed many classic tangos prior to his tragic death in an airplane crash in 1935. Those include “Mi Buenos Aires querido” (“My Beloved Buenos Aires”) written the year before his death, which is the music that greets one on the restaurant’s website. Gardel also appeared in several movies – see clips of Gardel singing “Cuesta abajo” in the movie of the same name, and the well-known “Por una cabeza” in Tango Bar.

Carlitos Gardel is owned and operated by the Bozoghlian family who purchased the restaurant in 1996 a few years after they moved to the United States from Buenos Aires. We were greeted at the door by the matriarch of the family, Azniv Bozoghlian, who is also the restaurant’s executive chef. When I told her that in addition to Argentine cuisine, we were very interested in learning more about Argentine wines, she assured me we had come to the right place and introduced us immediately to her son, Carlos Maximiliano (“Max”), who is the restaurant’s sommelier.

Many of the pictures on the wall of the restaurant celebrate Gardel, but there was a beautiful painting on the wall above Connie and Andrew of a woman setting a table that I was enjoyed for the entire evening.

I asked Azniv about it and she said it had had been painted by a well-known artist named Aldo Luongo who had himself been born in Argentina before coming to the United States. The painting - entitled “Getting Ready at Gardel’s” – was a scene taken from the daily preparation at the restaurant.

Our dinner was fantastic. Marco, our waiter, who I learned is from Torino in the Piemonte, helped us with our selections which were all right on. We started with two appetizers:

~ Hongos Rellenos - mushroom caps stuffed with chicken, vegetables, garlic and parmesan cheese, and served in a red wine sauce; and

~ Papas Fritas Provenzal – Gardel’s signature dish of french fries lightly flavored with garlic and parsley.

Our party’s main course selections covered a wide range of the beef, lamb and fish dishes offered on the menu. At Marco’s suggestion I stuck with a traditional Argentine dish:

~ Ojo de Costilla a La Criolla – a grilled rib-eye steak, marinated in chimichurri sauce.

It was perfectly prepared. I am afraid I did not get any photos of our dishes at dinner, although I did find shots of the papas and ojo de costilla on a recent post on
Spastic Synapse’s blog.

Max was very attentive to us throughout the evening and helped us to select two wonderful wines from an incredible wine list. We started with a white to accompany our appetizers:

~ 2008 Torrontés from the
Domingo Molina winery in the Province of Salta in the northeastern corner of Argentina,

I had only tried a Torrontés wine (the Susana Balbo “Crios” label from Dominio del Plata) for the first time a couple of weeks ago and had really enjoyed its aromatic flavor which reminded me of lychees. I read a review that suggested that Torrontés “recalls the aromatic flamboyance of Muscat combined with the light crispness of Pinot Grigio” which I thought was a good comparison. The Domingo Molina was even better than the Susana Balbo – the same aromatic and clean quality, but a bit more restrained.

Then, with our main course we enjoyed an excellent Malbec:

~ 2005
Malbec Riserva, Lujan de Cuyo Single Vineyard, from Luigi Bosca, one of Mendoza’s oldest producers.

The Luigi Bosca was also one of Andrew and Connie’s favorites, having been the wine they had at dinner on their first night in Buenos Aries. It was very concentrated with a full body and a long finish. I also learned that Luigi Bosca is a producer that Max Bozoghlian has featured at a past tasting at Gardel.

Since I had enjoyed the Torrontés so, Marco suggested a glass of a Torrontés late harvest (“tardio”) with our desserts. I did not get the name of the producer, but it was a very nice still dessert wine, similar to a Moscato.

Here are a couple of pictures of our gang (the first taken by me and the second by Cass) in front of the restaurant, followed by one of Connie and Andrew taken last month on the cobblestone streets in the barrio of San Telmo in Buenos Aires on the day they took their marriage vows, juxtaposed next to another of Aldo Luongo’s works entitled “Tango and Cobblestones.”

It was a most memorable evening at Carlitos Gardel!
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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Drawn by Lamb Necks - A Dinner at Sociale

At my “Butchery for Adults” class at Avedano’s last week, the instructor, Tia Harrison, who is also the chef at Sociale, mentioned that she was going to be adding braised lamb necks to the Sociale menu the very next day. I really enjoy a good lamb’s neck and it was not too hard to convince Nancy, Alex and Cass to join me for a dinner at Sociale last night.

Our friend, Cornelia, works at Sociale on the weekends and happily we were seated in her section on Saturday night. In addition to the things the four of us ordered, both Cornelia and Tia gave us a few additional things to sample (marked with a "#" below – which was a good thing since they ended up being some of our favorite dishes of the evening.


~ Olives, stuffed with Fontina cheese, breaded and fried #
~ Lamb meatballs with pancetta #


~ Ravioli stuffed with wild boar and cinnamon braised in brown sage butter
~ Papparedelle with braised duck, peas and porcini mushrooms with truffle oil
~ Pici with pork, veal and venison Bolognese ragú #


~ Nancy: Pan-seared petrale sole with creamed corn and wilted spinach
~ Alex & Cass: Pan-roasted Berkshire pork chop with apple and endive
~ Mike: Braised lamb neck with Anson Mills polenta and oyster mushrooms
~ Arugula with pine nuts and lemon


~ Goat cheese cheesecake with lemon curd
~ Mini-beignets with chocolate sauce #


~ Prosecco Col Vetoraz #
~ Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva – Fanetti - 2001
~ Moscato d’Asti “La Caudrina” – Dogliotti

My lamb neck was fantastic. I found a blog with a recipe for braised lamb necks which I hope to try sometime, especially since Tia allocated me the lamb neck (not to mention the pig's head) at our class at Avedano's (I think she has me figured out!).

However, in my view the most outstanding dish of the evening was the pici with the bolognese sauce. Pici are a rolled pasta which Nancy and I had last enjoyed during our trip to Italy in 2006 when we had them for the first and last time at a wonderful dinner at a small restaurant named Osteria La Porta in the small town of Monticchiello in central Toscana, between Montepulciano and Montalcino. We had been staying at Pamela Sheldon-Brown's Poggio Etrusco just outside of Montepulciano and she had highly recommended the restaurant.

Pici is a pasta similar to a fat spaghetti which is formed by rolling long strips of pasta dough. In the hand-rolled version the pasta is not uniform in size and has variations of thickness along its length which is part of its charm.

At our dinner at Osteria La Porta, Daria Cappelli, the owner, told us that an older woman came in to the restaurant every morning to make the pici for the day. I am not sure whether or not the pici we had at Sociale on Saturday night were hand-rolled, but they were certainly tasty and well cooked - just the right degree of chewy al dente-ness.

However, it was the sugo bolognese which was the real star of the dish at Sociale. It had a wonderful flavor as well as an excellent texture and maintained the integrity of each ingredient.

It was a great meal in a cozy spot with good company and surrounded by friends. We are already looking forward to our next visit.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Adults Only!

Our friend, Cornelia, works at both our favorite wine bar (Wellington’s in Sausalito) and one of our favorite restaurants (Sociale, in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco). A couple of months ago, while I was boring Cornelia with a description of the latest Head to Tail Dinner at Incanto, she said: “What you really need to do is take Tia Harrison’s ‘Butchery for Adults’ class at Avedano’s!”

I had heard of Tia Harrison and knew that she was the co-owner and chef at Sociale. What I did not know was that she was also a co-owner of Avedano’s Holly Park Market in Bernal Heights and taught a monthly class there designed “to teach you the specifics of the art of home butchery and grant you knife-wielding dominion over your kitchen.”

Ever since I had read Bill Buford’s “Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany” and made the requisite pilgrimage to Dario Cecchini’s Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano, south of Florence, I had been harboring an interest to learn more about butchery. This sounded like a great opportunity!

Initially our son Patrick, bound for vet school at Auburn in the Fall, was going to join me for the class (my thought was this would give him a head start on his anatomy lessons). However, unfortunately Pat ended up with a conflict so last Sunday afternoon I set out on my own for Avedano’s.

There were six of us in the class. Tia greeted us and then herded us into Avedano’s Udder Room where we suited up in butcher’s aprons. Tia passed out some basic instructions, including a description of some of the instruments we would be using – boning knife, hand saw, cleaver and bone scraper among them. It sounds like not too much has changed around the old butcher shop since the 16th century when Pieter Aertsen painted “The Meat Stall.”

First on the agenda for the afternoon was a pig and Tia went over the steps to “break down” a pig into its four “primals” – no euphemisms here. We then moved to the working area (I was pleased to see that Avedano’s did not stoop to asking us to sign insulting releases of the sort “I know that knives are dangerous....”). Tia went over to the meat locker and returned pulling a suckling pig dangling from a meat hook on an overhead trolley. I was in the first position so she turned to me and instructed me to lift it down off the hook, put it on the table and cut its head off. And away we went, each of us taking a turn to make a cut as Tia directed.

Although the two animals we worked on during the day had been completely gutted and were relatively blood-free, there is a very different feel about dismembering a relatively complete mammal. It certainly gets ones attention and gave me more respect for the animal and the task at hand.

After we had broken down the pig we took a break and returned to the Udder Room for some very tasty tacos. Then it was back to the work area and another trip to the meat locker to wheel out a sheep of about 80 pounds.

The sheep proved to be much harder work – obviously a bigger animal = bigger bones. Unlike modern slaughter houses which are constantly humming with electric band saws, Avedano’s does not use any electric cutting tools so everything was cut by hand using knives, cleavers and hand saws. We spent quite a bit of time breaking down the two forequarters of the animal.

Since our time was getting a bit short, Tia called in Dave Budworth, the resident expert butcher, who went to work on the hind quarters. It was a pleasure to watch Dave at work. I would not say that everything he did was completely effortless, but it was certainly considerably more so than the work of the students. This was butchery, but there was definitely a grace and elegance that Dave brought to the task – not to mention his cool metal knife holster dangling from a chain on his hip.

At the end of the day Tia divided up the cuts from the two animals among us and sent us on our ways. She had asked whether anyone wanted the pig’s head and when no one else jumped in I raised my hand. It seemed like a good idea at the time (I had been thinking about our recent Procededdu Arrustiu (roasted suckling pig) dinner at La Ciccia), but on the drive home I began to wonder. I decided that if I was going to do something with it at all I better do it that night since Nancy was coming home from her trip to Yellowstone on Tuesday.

After a bit of Googling I determined that 2 hours tented in tinfoil at 375° with an olive oil basting every 20 minutes would be my best shot. Luckily it turned out perfectly. When I took it out of the oven the sun was just setting and the late afternoon rays gave the roasted head some wonderful highlights on the dining room table.

As I settled in to dinner – just me and the head (use of knife and fork optional) – all I could think of was the scene from the Inferno of Dante’s encounter with Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri.

INFERNO (Canto XXXIII, ln. 70-73)

I saw two shades frozen in a single hole
packed so close, one head hooded the other one;
the way the starving devour their bread,
the soul above had clenched the other with his teeth,
where the brain meets the nape.

Butchery has been getting quite a bit of attention in the Bay Area in the recent past. A program – The Art of the Butcher – was presented at UC Berkeley in March at which Dave Budworth and Melanie Eisemann of Avedano’s participated, and MEATPAPER has done a couple of very interesting articles – "Pig Slaughter – Monterero Val Cocchiara" and "The Whole Animal Challenge." In addition to the Avedano’s classes, Ryan Farr, who participated in the Berkeley program, also gives butchery demonstrations as shown in this excellent set of photos.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Birthdays and Tiles – A San Francisco/Sicily Connection

This past weekend we celebrated Nancy’s birthday. Happily the entire clan was able to make it home, including the newlyweds, Andrew and Connie, fresh from their recent elopement to Buenos Aires.

Our evening started with a round of drinks at
Wellingtons, our favorite Sausalito wine bar...

...then proceeded into San Francisco for a wonderful dinner at Boulevard, one of Nancy's favorite restaurants...

...and finally ended up with a tropical flair at the Tonga Room in the Fairmont atop Nob Hill!

During our trip to Sicily last year Nancy and I had seen a set of beautiful tiles ("piastrelle") at the Baglio Oneto Resort on the outskirts of Marsala depicting various animals.

After we got back to California I did some sleuthing around and finally, just a couple of weeks before Nancy's birthday, tracked down the maker of the tiles - a well-known Sicilian ceramicist named Giaccomo Alessi who lives in the town of Caltagirone in the middle of Sicily.

Through the assistance of Tiziana Manzetti, one of the founders of, a distributor of Italian art work, I was able to get the exact Alessi tiles we had seen in Sicily just in time for Nancy's birthday. Thanks again Tiziana!

Caltagirone is a beautiful city which has long been famous for the production of pottery, particularly maiolica and terra-cotta wares.

Like many of the towns in that area of Sicily – the Val di Noto – it is built on a hill. There is a long staircase - la Scala di Santa Maria del Monte –originally built in 1608, that links the lower city, where the Cathedral is located, to the upper city, where the government had its buildings. The steps were rebuilt in 1953 at which time each riser was decorated with majolica tiles to celebrate the city's ceramic heritage. Each year the steps are the centerpiece of both a Festival of Flowers and a Festival of Lights. Giacomo Alessi’s shop is at the bottom of the stairs.

In doing my research I also learned that San Francisco has its very own set of tiled stairs, located on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th Avenues, that were developed as a community project and dedicated in August 2005 at a ceremony attended by Professor Francesco Pignataro, the Mayor of Caltagirone (on the right below).

A close up of some of the tiles is at the very beginning of this post. The two tiled stairs are a very nice connection between San Francisco and Caltagirone.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Perfect Meal - Back at La Ciccia

THAT WAS A REALLY GREAT MEAL. How many times can you honestly say that? Every now and then you have a dinner where you take a bite of something and it stops you in your tracks, and makes you take a moment to reflect on just how good it is. Such was our dinner last week at La Ciccia.

The genesis of this event was
my last visit to La Ciccia at the end of January for one of their periodic Sardegnian suckling pig (procededdu arrustiu) dinners. A couple of weeks ago I found a message on my voicemail from my golf buddy Tom, who had joined me at that earlier dinner, and had obviously been impressed. It was quite simple – “when do we go back to La Ciccia?”

Our son, Alex, and his girlfriend, Cass, had not yet been to La Ciccia and wanted to go. In addition, I had been wanting to get together with two other friends studying at Berkeley – Ilaria from Milano and Takako from Nagoya. This was the perfect opportunity to bring everyone together.....

La Ciccia is located in Noe Valley in San Francisco where Church Street runs into 30th. Massimiliano ("Massimo") and Lorella are the owners and always take very good care of their guests.

I had done a bit of reading about the food and wine of Sardegna prior to earlier meals at La Ciccia, but for this one I decided to really explore La Ciccia’s menu and wine list in advance of our meal so we could focus in on the most authentic dishes. There is some good information about la cucina sarda on line, including here and here. I had originally promised Alex and Cass that I would embarrass them by bring a binder to dinner, but when one has so much research material....

Massimo and Lorella greeted us upon our arrival and showed us to our table. Our waiter for the evening was Antonio who comes from Caserta in Campania just north of Napoli. Since they did not have any Sardegnian sparkling wine, we ordered a bottle of Fabio Zardetto’s “Zeta” prosecco to kick off the evening and started straight in with a range of antipasti:


► Mixed Seafood Antipasto
► Octopus Stewed in Spicy Tomato Sauce (Prupisceddu in Umidu)
► Asparagus with Bottarga
► Salumi – Speck and Coppa
► Baked Flat Bread topped with Pecorino and Olive Oil (Pani Guttiau [Carasau])

Of the antipasti the most notable for me as representative of Sardegnian cuisine were the octopus stew (baby octopus in a very tasty sauce) and the Pani Guttiau, made with Carasau, the traditional Sardegnian flat bread sometimes also called “carta da musica” – music paper – due to its thinness.

Bottarga made a surprise first appearance of the evening as a topping for the asparagus that Massimo kindly added to our antipasti selection, just in case a vegetarian might have been lurking among us (he need not have been concerned!). The bottarga served at La Ciccia is made from the roe of mullet (muggine). The roe is extracted from the fish in the sack that holds them, then salted and pressed before being sun-dried for one to two months.

The most famous bottarga di muggine – the so-called Oro di Cabras (gold of Cabras) - comes from Cabras on the west coast of Sardegna.

Mixed Seafood Antipasto

Octopus in Tomato Sauce - One Making a Break

Asparagus with Bottarga

Speck and Coppa

Pani Guttiau - Baked Flatbread


Fregola with Squid in an Ink Sauce (Nero di Seppia)
► Spaghetti with Bottarga di Muggine (Spaghittusu cun Allu Ollu e Bottariga)
Malloreddus (Semolina Gnochetti) with Pork Sugo and Pecorino (Malloreddus a sa Campidanese)
► Raviolli Stuffed with Ricotta and Lemon Zest/ Meat Sugo

We were only going to order the first three pastas, but Antonio said we shouldn’t miss the fresh raviolli. He was right. Plus, it was a nice balance to have two seafood and two meat pastas!

I was excited to try the
fregola which I had never had before. They are a small, round, pearl-like pasta which went superbly with the nero di seppia.

If I could have only one pasta it would be the spaghetti with the bottarga. A very simple dish but with just the right balance of flavors.

The malloreddus pasta is a dish we have had every time I have ever been to La Ciccia, for very good reason. The malloreddus pasta – which is made with saffron, refecting the Arab influence in Sardegna – has a unique flavor which goes very well with the pork sauce.

When I remember the dinner at La Ciccia what stands out most was how perfectly prepared each of the pasta were. Each had the perfect “al dente” chewiness. This is something that is incredibly simple in theory but difficult to achieve in practice.

Fregola with Squid in an Ink Sauce

Spaghetti with Bottarga

Malloreddus (Semolina Gnochetti) with Pork Sugo


► Seared Lamb Tenderloin with Porcini Mushrooms and Chick Peas (Pezza de Angioni cun Tuvara)

Although we were beginning to fill up just a bit after the pastas the lamb dish was something special, and after all, notwithstanding our past suckling pig dinners, lamb is probably the most representative meat from Sardegna. The lamb was perfectly prepared – tender and moist - and who doesn’t like porcini mushrooms!

Lamb with Porcini Mushrooms and Chick Peas


► Ricotta and Saffron Cake with Honey and Almonds (Truta de Arriscottu)
► Selection of Sardegnian Cheeses and Honeys (Prattu de Casu Isolanu)

We shared a light torta and some Sardegnian cheeses for dessert.

Ricotta and Saffron Cake with Honey and Almonds

Sardegnian Cheeses and Honeys


► Al inizio: “Zeta” - Prosecco di Conegliano -
Fabio Zardetto
► Bianco: 2007 “Is Argiolas” – Argiolas (Selegas, Cagliari) - Vermentino di Sardegna
► Rosso: 2007 Rosso Superiore –
Mandrolisai (Sorgono, Nuoro) – Bovale/Cannonau
► Alla fine: "Tres Montes" - Moscato di Sorso Sennori - Cantina Romangia (Sorso, Sassari)

In addition to helping us with our food selection, Massimo also guided us with our wine selection – all Sardegnian with the exception of the Prosecco - and the Argiolas and Mandrolisai were wonderful choices. We also shared a glass of the Romangia “Tres Montes” with our dessert which was very nice – reminiscent of a Vin Santo but not quite as sweet.

Wine Selection

Our Gang: Tom, Mike, Ilaria, Takako, Cass and Alex

Massimo Surrounded by Belle Donne - Cass, Takako, Lorella and Ilaria

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