Je ne suis pas un food blogger

Revelations can come at the most unexpected times. Last night, a friend of mine had been on a panel with a noted local chef who specializes in offal, and a few of them were going to head over to his restaurant afterwards for dinner. I initially declined an invitation, in fact, I had already paid my muni fare and was waiting on the platform when I realized, this could be a really awesome dinner. An in with the chef, the last seating, a large table full of adventurous, enthusiastic food people. I imagined us tasting our way through tastes and bites of the nasty bits, passing plates of tripe and savoring all the unsavory parts a whole host of animals. So I summoned up some spontaneity, resurfaced on Market street and went to join the group.

And to cut to it, the evening didn’t unfold the way I’d hoped. While the table was populated by all kinds of food people, it was half serious industry and half Food Bloggers, with me somewhere in the middle. Now, while I write about food sometimes, I’ve never really accepted the Food Blogger moniker, and until last night, I didn’t really understand why.

On the way over, one of the bloggers asked, admittedly awkwardly, if the meal was going to be comped. No, why would it be? It struck me as odd that she would even ask, but then it got even more worrisome. There was a lot of picture-taking at the table, tweeting and status updating. And I was really surprised by what people ate, and even more by what they didn’t eat. They weren’t eating the offal. I’d ordered a couple plates of ‘hoof and mouth terrine’ for the table, and hardly anyone took a bite. By and large, the blogger half ordered on the conservative side of the menu, and even when they did order something with an organ or two in it, they languished on the plate. I actually offered to finish the bits off for the woman sitting next to me- she herself admitted feeling embarrassed that she’d be sending back the exact bits this particular chef was is so passionate about.

And it left a strange taste in my mouth (the behavior, not the sweetbreads, hearts and livers I ate). Why show up to a place known for something you’re not into? And why would you spend that time documenting and note-taking instead of rolling up your sleeves and trying that could be an outstanding experience. So you can say you were there? So you can share the pictures of food and use words like “unctuous” and “yummy” to describe the “flavor profile”? To get it for free?

Yes, I write about food sometimes, but I’ve never asked for anything, never sought anything free. I also don’t expect anyone to care about anything I write. I tend to write about experiences, about those moments where food makes a memory, where it intersects with life in a beautiful, inextricable way, for better, for worse or for the simple pleasure of one wonderful bite. I write about time, I write about people. I write for me, and maybe for the handful or people who might read these words. When I have a meal or a moment that hits me, makes me feel something, I’m compelled to spend some time the next day thinking through why it made me feel that way. Like last night, even though the food wasn’t astoundingly noteworthy, the meal still was. It kept me up that night thinking, wondering, why had it bothered me (and the industry people I befriended) quite so much. And through writing and thought I have the benefit of a conclusion. Yes, I have a blog. Yes I write about food. But this doesn’t make me a food blogger. I think I can call myself a food writer, even if the only place my words end up are right here, on this blog.



It’s easy to get spoiled in this city. To have these amazing food days, where every meal is something you can’t get anywhere else. Pick up a maple-bacon apple fritter with your Four Barrel coffee on the way to work. Duck into the alley around the corner to grab a fried chicken po-boy from Little Skillet in Soma for lunch. If you can’t be bothered to cook some of the perfect produce delivered to your door for dinner, well, then call Mission Chinese Food and they’ll bring some sizzling cumin lamb ribs or slow-cooked char siu pork belly to you instead.

And that’s just three options among many. In San Francisco, every meal is an opportunity to have something incredible, something you’ve never had before. And it doesn’t even have to be high-end or high-priced. A slice from Arinell’s, Bahn Mi from Saigon Sandwich. Even an It’s-It can turn an average food day into something outstanding.

That’s why it’s even more shitty when you have a really bad meal. And even worse when it’s brunch.

Brunch is a venerable institution in this city, and for good reason. This being such an indulgent town, there’s no more of an indulgent meal than brunch. It starts late, it’s relaxed, it’s savory and it’s sweet and it’s anything you want. Just let Sunday linger on for a lot longer. The mimosas are bottomless and there’s always bacon for the taking. No one makes excuses for their orders. Have the hollandaise, get another bloody mary. Whatever it takes to shake off Saturday’s hangover and stave off Monday’s arrival. Enjoy yourself, it’s brunch.

It’s Greg’s last weekend in the city. He’s off to Chicago, and because I know I’m not going to see him for awhile, I suggest brunch. We made plans via text message at 2 in the morning. This is our exchange:

I get there on time and walk in to a different brunch scene than I’m used to. There were dreadlocks. There was an earnest DJ dropping phat beatz. There was tribal art. Maybe I’m in the wrong place. Maybe Greg knows something I don’t. It’s his last weekend in the city, his last brunch even. I suck it up and decide to play nice.

I sit down and wait while the very, very nice waitress plies me with water and offers me a menu. I can’t stifle laughing anymore. And I know that if Greg was in fact out drinking last night, there’s no way his hangover is going to be cured with the “durty 30-pulled BBQ seitan” served with “kosha dill pickles” or the “fo sho-Korean pancakes with broccoli, scallions and Kim Chi. Served with vegetable tempura. fo real.” Fo real indeed.

All I can do it wait. Wait for him to get there and to blink first.

He arrives. With friends. Two of whom are genuinely enthusiastic about eating here AGAIN, and another who has just arrived from Brooklyn on Wednesday. This will be his first San Francisco brunch. I am embarrassed for the city.

But again, I’m trying really, really hard to play nice. To be affable and to go along with the crowd. Sure, I might agree too enthusiastically when someone suggests the music might be too loud and yes, I also noticed that there’s no soap in the bathroom but ok, sure, I will have the Jesus, Joseph and Mary “Shiitake and trumpet mushrooms with barley, butternut squash and garlic puree, garlic kale with caramelized shallots, and avocado on homemade flatbread. s’alright”

S’alright indeed.

My waiting for Greg and crew is compounded by more waiting for our food. We take in the crowd, and the crowd gives us a lot to look at. Beyond the expected dreadlocks, there are a whole host of burners and SF hippies in various stages of drapey undress. There’s a pair of jeans so tattered they’re a stiff breeze away from being turned into shorts. There are tribal-inspired turtle tattoos and layers on layers of faded tank tops. It’s not even fun to make fun of them. It’s like shooting tempeh in a barrel.

The waiting continues for almost an hour and a half. I consider running around the corner for a taco. I mean, I very seriously consider this. And then something else happened. I actually began craving the food I had ordered. I was there, wanting barley and yams. I wondered if this was an actual tactic of theirs.

It came. Finally, and as expected, it was as terrible as it sounded. It lacked butter and flavor and bacon and everything that makes brunch good. I assaulted my doughy flatbread for as long as I could until I just gave up, realizing it wasn’t going to make this hunger, the hunger I still had after eating 90% of my meal, go away.

All I wanted to do was not be in there anymore.

After three hours and ingesting no more than 250 calories, I finally escaped. It was odd, because the ostensible point of being all vegan and hippied out is to feel bliss and good all the time, but the only palpable thing I felt (besides hunger) was ire. I was mad I had squandered a good brunch, that Greg’s last one was so bad and his friend’s was such a poor, clichéd introduction to the city.

It was a beautiful San Francisco day, and all I had eyes for in the mission was every good treat it had to offer me. It was like the vegan experience had been a taste-depravation tank and all I wanted to taste was everything. We took off in the direction of Bi-Rite. Determined, focused and hungry.


random NYC recommendations

Last year I took a trip to NYC and I was more than a little lax in writing up the trip. It was 10 days of eating through just about everything the city had to offer, or at least as many meals as a person could (un)reasonably consume. I've finally put together an edited list of favorites, highlights and very strong recommendations.

Here they are, in no particular order or geographic organization.

Di Fara Pizza:
Ok, there is a reason this is first, because it's amazing. Out in Brooklyn, it's more than worth dedicating a little time for. Get there early. Get there just on the edge of hungry. Get an entire pizza. Write me a thank you card.

Motorino Pizza:
This isn't based on firsthand experience, but on rumor, blog buzz and the fact that their pizza makes the top of all those pizza lists. Brussel Sprout pizza is the thing, I think. And yes, it isn't NY pizza and yes, I know we're killing the artisan pizza thing in California, but it's supposed to be amazing so go and tell me about it.

Del Posto:
Mario Batali's place, go here for lunch. They have a $35 prix fixe that is made of ridiculous. More courses than you can count and some of the best italian food you'll find.

Russ & Daughters
How much do you like smoked salmon? Well, prepare to like it so much more after a trip to Russ and Daughters. This original appetizer store smokes incredible fish, makes the most astounding chopped liver (shut up, it's good) and will have you seriously considering moving to NY. No trip to the city is complete without it. There's a reason I have the t-shirt and why I dream in smoked salmon sometimes.

Katz Deli
Go if you must, but know that all this did for me was confirm that the best pastrami sandwich in the country is still at Langer's Deli in Los Angeles. Go back to Russ and Daughters and get another bagel.

Raines Law Room
You look thirsty. You should get a drink. A real drink. A cocktail made in the back with fresh ingredients and a whole lot of class. Go already.

City Bakery
What? Breakfast again? City Bakery started here, lived for a little while in LA, which is where i first enjoyed their goods. They have this thing called a pretzel croissant, which is made of butter and goodness.

I think it's the ssam bar I went to. The original one. The one that's so pork-infused I actually got burned out on pig. Get the ramen, the pork buns and to complete the excess, go to the milk bar and get a garbage cookie.

Blind Tiger
Do you miss SF yet? Do you want a beer? A really good beer in the right glass? Go here. It'll be like you're back at Toronado. Perfect after a long day of walking around Manhattan.

Jaques Torres Chocolate
There are a few locations around town, and he's doing very, very good things. Get some truffles while you're there, then bring me home some chocolate covered corn flakes please. Please?


Cake and Eggs

I’m somewhat impulsive by nature. If I get an idea in my head that at once seems like a good one and seems marginally feasible, odds are, I’ll act on it. By and large this serves me well. I find good jobs and good apartments, I’ll make impulse purchases that offer me a little bit of retail satisfaction and good food tends to come out of it too. An idea turns into a craving turns into me convincing anyone within earshot that we have to go get bahn mi/make a trip to the Korean taco truck/trek to soma for sandwiches.

Win win for everyone.

And lately, there’s been a new compulsion, a new impulse. Making cakes. Simple ones, ideally. Just a few ingredients, inspired by what’s in my fridge and what’s in my pantry. They’re satisfying to make, a perfect simple end to dinner, or, in my favorite application, a great way to have breakfast for the week.

Now, before you start thinking, “Cake for breakfast? What kind of a ridiculous indulgent life are you leading, Margo? Why not go all the way and have some ice cream too? Maybe stick a candle in it?”

Hold on there, partner. Remember when I said they were simple cakes? They are. Maybe a lemon olive-oil cake. Or a quick apple cake with cinnamon and brown sugar. A lightly sweetened cocoa cake. No frosting. No lemon curd. And cake for breakfast? Totally reasonable. I assure you, the calories and fat are far less than your typical coffee shop scone, let alone that flaky croissant. A little cake, a little coffee and a perfect little omelette all adds up to a perfect little breakfast.


A post without pictures

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, and remembered, “That’s right, I used to have a blog.”

It’s been awhile.

And I think this happens just about every year.

I become bored by the winter produce. I order the same things from my CSA, replenish the cupboard with the same staples. Pasta and quinoa, shallots and cauliflower, pesto and frozen peas.

It’s been a lot of pasta with scallops and peas. Still.
Quinoa with pesto and roasted cauliflower. Still
A huge bunch of chard with shallots and bacon. Still.

I’m as bored as you are.

But there have been changes since the last post.

I went to NY with Max and we ate far too much. Highlights included The Best Pizza I’ve Ever Had at Di Faro and The Best Lunch I’ve Ever Had at Del Posto. There was more. There were many courses. And there were too many moments of tension that ultimately had us going our own ways by the end of January.

It happens.

And now? Like the Great Grains Experiment of 2009, the East Bay Stint came to a successful end. I’m back in the city with what might be, the best apartment I’ve had.

It’s huge. A kitchen that’s bigger than is reasonable. A full living room. A nice bedroom. And a dining room. Almost reminds me of the place I had in Portland. I loved that place. It was where I found a love of entertaining and a great dinner party.

I already had my first dinner party at the new place. And there’s a housewarming tomorrow. The cooking will be modest, and I’m looking forward to the night.

More to come. A lot more.


Up and down Grand Avenue

Last night we had plans. Grand plans. We were off to my favorite place in the world. I go to the Alley for steaks and Manhattans, for the old men and the old songs, for the patina of a place that’s been around since 1938. I was excited to introduce Max to Bernice behind the bar and to see Paul and the other guys at the piano and to take my turn with a Cole Porter tune. We’d get the steaks and manhattans and make the mistake a nightcap we’d regret in the morning.

But no dice. We got to the Alley and it was shuttered until 1.11.

So we made other plans. Grand plans. From some blog or other, I’d heard of the Grand Tavern and cursory research and vetting on yelp seemed to support the idea. So we headed up Grand Ave.

But we got there, and something felt off. The open sign was oddly hand-made and inexplicably wrapped in saran wrap. The front steps of the craftsman-style house were a little dark. The only thing that indicated this was really a restaurant was the clamor coming from down the front hall. I thought, “We’ll check out the menu, and then we’ll see.” But soon we were sitting in something of a living room, surrounded by the cacophony that can only come from forty-odd people packed into a wood-paneled room with nothing but an area rug to dampen the sound. Plus, our server advised us, someone had just proposed, so everyone was feeling, well, festive. And loud.

Looking over the menu, our hesitation continued unabated. There was something off both in layout and content. There seemed to be a lot of “sour cream sauces” and they offered something called “social skin fries,” that sounded more like something you should see a dermatologist for than order as an appetizer. I ordered a Ward 8 from the cocktail list, M got a beer, and as our waiter walked away, I thought, “we still have time to cancel it. Where else can we go?”

But we pressed on and every instinct I had to turn back was validated by the next step in the meal. We were going to start with the “fresh carrot mash,” the first thing on the menu, but were immediately advised by our server that it was “very sweet,” seemingly steering us away from it as an app option. Then why was it first on the menu? We skipped the course entirely and ordered mains. Steak for me, the Onion Lamb Shank for M. We hoped the entrée could overcome its name and deliver something better than it sounded.

It didn’t. My rib-eye was rife with sinew and the Onion Lamb Shank was confused by battling sauces and flavors. Two bites in, I was trying to figure out where we could head for dessert to rescue the evening. Adesso on Piedmont has dessert. We’d go there. As quickly as we could, we paid cash and left.

But heading down Grand we stopped short. There was something new, and just as those cues coming from the Grand Tavern told us to go away, this place was beckoning us to come in. Boot and Shoe service, was the name. From the votive-lit bar to the typewriter-reminiscent menu to the menu itself. Monterey bay sardines from the wood oven,mixed plate of cured meats, , margherita pizza, chocolate pot de crème. This is where we wanted to be.

My suggestion to go in was met with an enthusiastic yes, and soon we were in the back bar, and M came up with an even better suggestion. Let’s split a pizza, get a couple glasses of wine and save the truffles we picked up at Michael Micher for dessert. Done.

And where Grand Tavern had failed us at every turn , Boot and Shoe Service did us just right. From the service to the people, to the perfect pours of wine and the killer char on a marghertia pizza. This is where we wanted to be, and where we wanted to come back as soon as possible. They’d only been open a week, and from the crowd on a Thursday night, it’s clear they were doing something right.

So what did we learn? Trust your instincts over anything. When you’re right, you’re right, and by and large, well Yelp is very, very wrong.


the luxury of luxury.

Here’s the scene: it’s the mid-eighties, and I’m out to dinner with the family at 72 Market Street, where Gary and my mom were investors. We were regulars, and we knew just about everyone by name- from Steve the piano player to Julie the hostess, and of course, Leonard, the chef. The entire place was redundant muted shades of white with recessed lighting off-set by high ceilings and an infinitely dark floor. The entry was grand in that 80’s way, with a lot of slate stone and worn metal. There were oysters on the half shell (which I’m proud to say I enjoyed, even only being in elementary school), there were warm rolls with butter (though it being the 80’s, no one actually ate the butter), there was the first (and best) Caeser salad I ever had and there was ostensibly a lot of grilled chicken.

It was comfortable and it was luxurious at the same time, though I didn’t know how much it all cost at the time. We ate high-end often and I didn’t really know the difference. It was the 80’s. Everyone was flush, or seemed to be.

And no moment was this more true then when about halfway through entrees, Gary would ask for a bite of my food, and knowing that a so-called “Gary Bite” could easily consume a third of a serving at a time, I’d take a moment before reluctantly relinquishing my plate. “Come on,“ he’d say. “You can always order more.”

While yes, we could always order more, but no one ever did. It was the 80’s and while luxury was in, gastronomic indulgence was out, and no one would concede to a pat of butter, let alone a second plate.

Those times are long gone, in a lot of ways. Dietary restrictions were slowly replaced by financial ones, and even if 72 Market Street hadn’t closed, we wouldn’t be going much anymore.

Being on my own, it took a pretty long time to shake off the habits I’d grown up with, and detailing them here is nothing new. But while I discovered I could indulge in anything I wanted without the burden of guilt, being a college student and then a jr. copywriter, I couldn’t afford it. Caloric guilt was replaced by monetary guilt, and even though I was totally comfortable with ordering a second serving of whatever I wanted, my budget wasn’t.

But now, things are a little different. I’m a lot more responsible than I once was, which means, more than anything, I can be really irresponsible when I want to be.

A few weeks ago, Max and I were out at Alembic. We opted to keep things simple- an order of roasted peppers and just one pork belly slider, plus a salad. We thought we’d split the hangar steak entrée in the interest of underindulgence. But after a sazarac and a southern exposure, an old-fashioned and a pisco sour, we were well past the point of understated by the time the steak came. And two bites in, something happened. The taste was too good- perfectly cooked steak settled in a port chantrelle reduction, sweet balanced with savory and considering how much we were falling for the dish, not enough to go around.

Gary’s phrase rang in my ears, “You could always order more,” and finally, for the first time it was really true. And just as I suggested getting another round of steak, Max said, “I was just thinking the same thing. “ It felt insanely luxurious to off-handedly say to the waitress when she came back to check on us, “The hangar steak? Yeah, we want another one of those.”

And it was great. The second serving of steak was just as incredible as the first, and the pure indulgence of the whole thing made it taste even better. I can’t think of another time, another perfect storm where desire met possibility mixed with just the right co-conspirator. And the best thing about everything? There wasn’t a trace of guilt at the table