Slanted Door

There’s always that moment just before sitting down at The Slanted Door, that light feeling that rises like hunger in my chest, the floating excitement of knowing there’s nowhere else on the planet I’d rather be–and the thrilling relief of having arrived.

My first trip here was with my family–it was lunch and I remember the space more than anything, at the edge of the docks, wrapped in glass, filled with midday light. We had braised Japanese eggplant, and praised the Japanese eggplant.

Next trip was just before Thanksgiving, at dusk– with Sara and Grant, old swim teammates. After spending our childhoods mostly underwater together, then scattering ourselves across the country, we were all three at the water’s edge again, dry and warmly dressed.  We had shaking beef, and green papaya.

On my 23rd birthday I had a dinner at Slanted Door, courtesy of Mom and Dad. Friends swarmed from Palo Alto and Berkeley. Binbin ordered the cone of duck.

That spring, Smita came through for a visit.  We wandered in at lunch and got a seat at the bar, where they served us the green papaya–a familiar dish, a simple food, which at the tip of Charles Phan’s knife seemed to slip away from gravity and hover, in orbit, as a pure substance.  Peanuts, diced nearly to a flour; shallots,  fried crisp; “limber” strips of carrots, flexing gracefully to  touch their toes.

My most recent trip was with Sam; and the excitement set in as we stepped inside, into the somehow cool perfumes of lime, cilantro, hot white rice. We didn’t have a reservation or really even a plan to eat there, but after the exhausting Fisher show at MoMA we found our toes at the entrance to the Ferry Building and quickly said yes to a short wait for a table outside.  I didn’t know there were tables outside; these were in a narrow strip along the restaurant’s sea-facing wall sheltered by a glass partition and warmed by space heaters against the blustering bay winds. The partitions must have been strangely soundproof–there were some young women nibbling bao on a bench just on the other side but we were mostly unaware of their presence… until I became fixated on the bao, and something they had with a dipping sauce…

I zipped up my jacket and ordered. Daikon cakes and green papaya to start (two favorites for old times’ sake) and yuba with mushroom and glass noodles and a chicken claypot (for something new) to follow.

You might think this is a recipe for disappointment, ordering with such nostalgic and superlative-laden expectations of simple dishes–but everything was more exciting than ever. The daikon rice cakes married flat with flashy: snow-white and humble turnip within; crisp, cracking shell sizzling in a salty slick of vinegar+soy beneath.  Green papaya, brilliant and pleasing as always.

The yuba was a must-order, being the current star on 101cookbooks (in a green curry soup.) I had never eaten yuba, but somewhere on the interweb I saw it called “tofu sashimi,” which turned out to be an accurate description of this tofu byproduct the NYT called “sexy, sophisticated and elegant.” In a bed of glass noodles and mushrooms, it made good on its luxurious and seductive reputation.

(I was shocked and a little embarrassed to realize, after thinking harder and asking around, that yuba is essentially fu jook, bar none my worst childhood food memory. Maybe I have to give FJ a second chance; or maybe this is the chasm between fresh and dried, Japan and China, 2010 and 1988.)

Last, not least, the steaming claypot–served just as the afternoon took a turn for the chilly. Beautiful, nourishing, life-affirming.  Our lunch was a brisk sail through the harbor on that gleaming ship, in a stiff breeze that carried the scent of lime trees and wood-roasted clams up and over the cold grey sea.

Japanese Macrobiotic

I think it started with the grilled lotus root. What I remember: it was late, I had just gotten out of the ocean, and I let J. pick the place for dinner. He chose Hale, a new restaurant where an okonomi-yaki outfit had just shuttered. In its place was a Japanese restaurant… Japanese macrobiotic.

Our first course: crisp grilled root, plain and tall, festooned with a broken branch of parsley.  I probably pulled my usual trick of quick judgment and started looking for a route to the door–but then a very special dish arrived at our table.

Hale offers a tightly-edited menu of few choices–maybe five entrees and about as many salads and small plates–which, after you subtract obligatory standard fare to appease unadventurous diners, should leave little room for surprises.  But not at Hale.  Not where, in the middle of the short menu, a roasted half papaya awaits, stuffed with grilled onions and mushrooms in a mayonnaise sauce.

Roasted papaya.  Onions and mushrooms.  Mayonnaise?  J. had tried it before and had to have it again.  So it soon arrived (taking the stage to a lukewarm audience after the lotus’ tough first act).  Unfazed, luscious, warm, smoky, super-ripe, gorgeous, hysterical, unapologetic, it sang.  The carotene meat was soft and just sweet, savory insides were umami and still steaming.

The table continued to fill: a show-stopper teishoku with kuruma-fu (a seitan-like cutlet) and all kinds of little pickles and seaweeds and salads, and dabs of two house-made misos: one pounded from apples, the other, from kale stalks.  (I went home and looked up what miso-making involves; it’s a feat.)

My favorite thing that night that didn’t grow on a papaya tree was the sushi sampler of creative non-maguro nigiri, highlighted by a supple strip of well-balanced (mirin?) roasted bell pepper, draped over rice and anointed with a pesto.  The meal was sensational, and almost entirely vegetal: after feeding our faces for the better part of an hour, we stood again with none of the heaviness of a multi-course restaurant meal.  J., it should be mentioned, washed it down with something called “twig tea.” Not sure at all if that’s what it sounds like; I was on one of those radical no-bark/ no-wood diets at the time.

Went back for the lunch special just last week.  Lunch company was Magali, whose Ph.D. research at Stanford focuses on brand authenticity.  She studies how well businesses, including restaurants, align their products and services to clearly-focused and well-defined identities; unequivocal shops, she says, might be less likely to fold.  Didn’t work for the okonomi-yaki theme grill, but this newer kitchen is still going and was kind enough to let me order papaya off the menu at lunch; maybe next time I’ll ask if they’ll grill me a lotus.

Sweet potato ice cream

(Technically speaking not ice cream, but frozen yogurt.) As the picture above attests, this was a simple puree of frozen purple Okinawan sweet potatoes; plain yogurt; sugar; and a little coconut milk, and dash of vanilla. After purpling in the food processor, they went into the ice cream maker–and came out smooth, and rich, and completely deserving of the “cream” title.

I made this first for Mom’s birthday dinner, a month ago. In subsequent tests I’ve learned two things. First: without the fatty coconut milk, it’s still just as good. Second: it doesn’t keep well in the freezer (it freezes very hard) but the very easy and practical solution is to eat this all at once.

Sweet Potato Ice Cream

  • 1.5 cups plain nonfat yogurt, chilled
  • 1.5 cups purple sweet potato, cooked, peeled, cubed, frozen, and just thawed*
  • 0.5 cups coconut milk, chilled (optional)
  • 0.33 to 0.5 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  1. Combine all ingredients in the food processor or blender and process until smooth.
  2. Freeze the puree in an ice cream maker.

*Thaw the potatoes a little as a courtesy to your food processor or blender. A rock-solid frozen potato could, I imagine, take out a tooth when you hit “eviscerate.”

Humphry Slocombe

Earlier this year, the New York Times devoted 3,600 words to an ice cream shop in San Francisco.  (“Who Wants Prosciutto Ice Cream?” June 30, 2010.  A banana-bacon-peanut brittle flavor called “Elvis” headlined a selection of eight scoops that also included chocolate smoked sea salt and carrot mango ice creams and “Jesus Juice” sorbet.)

When I landed in San Francisco two months later, Sam asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to do. “Bacon ice cream?” I suggested, not knowing the way.

“Humphry Slocombe,” he said, and threw on some shoes.

The Muni propelled us to within steps of the shop, which on a Thursday afternoon in the bustling Mission was just almost quiet.  I stood in awe of the flavors: browned butter, bourbon-and-cornflakes, honey-thyme, malted chocolate milk, Tahitian vanilla.  I recognized Jesus Juice but failed to remember that the NYT identified bourbon/cornflake as the signature ice cream–and, without that knowledge, actually had to make a decision on my own.  It was easy: peanut butter curry  ice cream and Thai lime chili sorbet.

Sublime.

The two textures–velvet-smooth ice-cold sorbet and custardy ice cream–were as sensational in contrast as the two flavors were incredible in tandem.  It was not at all unlike the very Thai or Vietnamese trick of assembling multiple intact flavors–mint, onion, curry, lime, carrot–side by side in a bite, in such a way as to engineer an instantaneous collision on the palate.  Delicious, surprising, familiar, mysterious, and absolutely right.

On our return trip, I entered the store intent on building my two-scoop sundae around a topping: balsamic vinegar.  Humphry’s is 20 years old, and I wanted it very much on strawberry ice cream.  I nearly lost my patience standing in line hoping there would be strawberry-something at the counter.

As luck would have it, they had a strawberry szechwan–I took a taste and thought I found star anise in there.  Pass.  I opted instead for the highly-recommended (brilliant) salt-and-pepper, and olive oil ice cream.  (Olive oil ice cream is on just about every menu in San Francisco these days.  I was almost offended that the dim sum waitress in Chinatown didn’t unveil a little plate of it next to her shu mai.)

If you absolutely hate to lick a cone around highly-buzzed buzz and prefer your ice creams without hyphens, maybe this isn’t for you.  But in spite of all the Twittering hype, this little ice cream parlor is still unfalteringly focused on the basic elements of simple pleasures.  They are good, and kind, and reasonable, and imaginative.  Line out the door?  No matter.  Taste away.  (with real spoons).

$3.75 for two scoops and a cold shot of fun.  Keep your eyes out for a luau sundae on this blog… I’m thinking tomato/green onion sorbet; and coconut taro leaf ice cream… sprinkled with Hawaiian sea salt… :p

Birthday Girl

My mother was born on an August day of an undisclosed year in the 20th century, on Kauai–where she insists a plaque marks the occasion of her entry into this world.  Time spirited her far from Hanalei’s sandy shores–Europe, Africa, Asia–and has brought her nearly all the way back, to Honolulu, where we celebrated that great arc and historic birth, from the next isle over.

A familiar and favorite formula for family dinners: grilled fish; fresh vegetables; sushi instead of rice; cool breeze and sunshine. Two newcomers to this traditional pattern were grilled white peaches, and a “Davy Crockett” wine. I hate to call bottles “highly-rated” (let alone “somewhat highly-rated,” which is the case) but I will in this instance, just to lend some credence to a beverage styled after a man who wore a raccoon. (Davy, in his defense, is apparently mishpokhe.) His wine was zinfandelish (in spite of having no such grape–it’s a Syrah/Grenache/etc. blend) and really excellent for $9.99, but with a bouquet not far removed from a Western saloon’s spittoon.

And of course the sushi disappeared, and the salmon.  This intrepid reporter asked Fenny for her signature statement on the fish, which she confirmed: food, of gods.

To finish, Reine de Saba cake, much in the style of Orient Express, and sweet potato ice cream–see next post. Pretty packages wrapped in old paper, nice notes from family near and far, and a glow from the streets and lights of the jeweled city.

Happy birthday, Mom!

61 Candles

A candle for each year in six very good decades, and one for good luck. We celebrated Frank’s 60th at No. 1951 with maple-smoked salmon and nearest of kin.

It’s been nearly a month–my blogging was derailed by a series of things that somehow seemed more important than chronicling meals. Luckily I snapped pictures. Looks like we also had potatoes, and an irresistible colander.

We celebrated al fresco, the garden all but brushing our cheeks. There have been many changes outdoors: another rock wall, a 30-foot hedge of bamboo. New apple bananas, already bursting with flowers and small fruit.

There is some sort of story attached to these. No one would ever have expected this staid and slow-growing family to plant anything so impetuous or impatient as a banana. I think it may have been an impulse buy—or maybe a sale, or senility. But they have become a handsome and well-adapted addition, alongside the fan palm.

The lilikoi vines are inching back, after what seems like five years with no passionfruit. Another new sapling, and new fruit: Meyer lemons, in prolific numbers, like ornaments on a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

And the old-timers, the graceful reminders of Tutu’s hand in the garden: spider lilies, maiden’s hair fern.

When the light started to fade, a birthday cake (“Orient Express”) pulled into station. Again– a story for this cake— but I can’t remember. A train, a book, a PBS program? It’s been a month, and in a world too fast for slow trains (let alone books, or PBS) this has slipped through my sieve-like mind.

I remember something about a delicate crumb, and maybe almonds, or tea? A fine footing for 6+ candles, the weight of their wishes, and the brightly-burning best of our memories.

biography through recipe

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