No 22: The Surprise Issue

To Beignet, or Begin

This issue of the renowned Fork Fest Review has taken a while, mostly because it has been looking for an ending, which really means it could not find a beginning until it magically began and ended in the same place.

Months ago (March 19th to be exact), Carmine and Hideo hosted most of us at their apartment, and as usual, I felt as though I was on a set of some finely staged and serious little film, or maybe the staging crew from Architectural Digest had just slipped out the back, leaving us all to luxuriate in the divine quiet and eclectic order that lives within their walls.

Until of course Mr. Oklahoma (that’d be Sam) shows up and the subdued lighting and dark corners are filled with his bits about far-away magical places that few will ever see, like Oklahoma… yes, Sam and Sandra made it, as well as, well… the hosts, no doubt and then Carole and the man behind the sloppy pen, him.

Karl and Karin, who have figured out the best way to get a paragraph all to themselves, is to not be able to make it to one of the dinners, and so they were, of course, not there and sadly (okay, okay, I was hoping that Uma would show up, but no…) missed.

It was a blustery night of wind and rain as I recall, but after stepping into the apartment and slipping out of our rain gear and into the kitchen, the warmth began—at least mine did, with a beer of some sort and then Carole with her Negroni.

For starters, as we gathered in the kitchen, corking things and checking things, we had roasted red peppers on French bread—which, in my notes, looks more like, “Frenl mead.”

And while I know that Carmine and Hideo can come up with a few things, I had serious doubts about this one—the other note, “olives,” was followed by “asparagus=bacon eggs”

I seem to recall something like this—it’s always easy to remember anything with bacon and speaking of which, sandwiched between “Risotto with—and mushroom, leaks, onions and saffron” in parenthesis is the name, Padma Lakshi.

 She’s tasty, but not in a bacon sort of way… maybe she had something to do with the Saffron… and I’m on a role, escarole and meatballs to be exact, I hope… the meatballs were composed of ham, veal, pine nuts and capers.

I remember everything about this meal being all about these morsels of taste, little explosions of texture and pairings—there wasn’t anything giant, like a big chunk of meat, but rather little things—little meanderings of savory and sweet and then a twist of tart, like the salad that followed.

“Halions, halions,” are they related to onions? Google says no, but “hellions, maybe?’ and no again, nothing disorderly or troublesome in this salad.

Unless of course you aren’t a fan of dill, and then finally, I figure it out as “Italian Parsley,” not Helion, where the Romans came down and parsley-ed up the scallions on their horses, or something like that, turning them all to blood oranges before heading off to the Salt Sea for… and this is where salad comes from?

And if that wasn’t enough, then the Greeks got into it with their Lebni pasteurized kefir cheese thing and we had it on a platter—a little Greek, some Roman and when you mix them all together, you get Italian spice cakes—little slivers of softly battling flavors, but more dazzle, less battle—think of all those gladiators fighting one another with feather dusters—Take that, you gladiator boy, oh boy!

… and where was I, battle weary by the end of all this, my taste buds sated with another triumph of the palette (sounds good) or at the palette, or maybe just the table, or sofa. Yes, I ended up on the Sofa or somewhere, as usual, glutton that I am, and then last night, months later, I found myself there again—this time, trying to stay awake at Carmine and Hideo’s kitchen table after a hard day of deception.

The Secret Keepers

Yes, it was another birthday dinner for Carole and while I enjoy good food, I think I just like foolin’ Carole more… but I’ll bet you that next year she’ll know all the tricks and not be such a sucker, right?

I know there was something else I was supposed to talk about in this issue, but I just can’t think what it must have been.

Her birthday being on May 30th, I decided to have a surprise party for her. I enlisted the help of our friends, Cass and Bob, and their two kids, Cal (nearly six) and Helene (three and a half).

The first thing you want to do when holding a surprise party or anything, is tell a child that it’s a surprise—that way you know your secret is safe and there’ll be no chance that anyone will catch on. So the idea was to show up at Bob and Cass’ place and have Karl, Karin and the delightful Uma show up as sort of the surprise guests.

Since they were coming all the way from Santa Cruz that day, I knew there’d be traffic complications, multiplied by pizza complications and then well, good intention complications and so on… it all made for a good surprise surprise party… why have just a surprise party.

As soon as Carole and I arrived at the little house on the windy hill, the surprise began to fall apart: the table was set for six adults (not just the four of us) and the lovely children’s table was decked out for three.

Of course, Carole noticed all this, but still had no idea who might be showing up until Cal, supreme keeper of the secret, blurted out that the table was set for three because Uma, was showing up.

And luckily, right about that time, Uma & Company did show up and so there was no time to let any of it sink in—it just was a happy time, had by all…

… But even then, with the happy banter and pizza, deviousness was working over-time.

 This Is It — Pizza?

The pizza party, which was great fun and a sweet time, was really just (a chance to hang with Uma) a ruse, to lull Carole into thinking, so this is it—I get birthday pizza?

 Next day, Carole goes off to work, into the hands of my other co-conspirator, Karin, and round about quitting time for her, it was commuting time for me and the question was, how will I get down there and why would I even show up?

 Right when I am trying to think this through, as well as decide on which shirt to wear, my old friend Patricia calls me; she’s in the neighborhood and wants a drink or company—needs to talk—so I bargain with her and she drives, she talks, all the way to Karin’s office.

She has a rotten story to relate about her husband getting injured, but it’s perfect for me, for various reasons, and when I tell Carole that Patricia is driving me down there so we can all go out for a consoling drink, my plan is further cemented—Carole has to believe this and be thrown totally off by it.

And it works, I show up all sincere and bummed about Patricia, who wants us to join her for a drink in the Castro, at the Twin Peaks bar, just a few blocks from my ultimate destination, Frances.

I’ve Heard of That Place

I got us a reservation for 7 p.m. and after convincing Carole that we were to meet Patricia at a restaurant on 17th Street called, El Polito—my spur of the moment, fictitious restaurant that a few people seemed to recall when asked—we walked down 17th, arriving at Frances.

I was even able to walk up to the door and almost inside without Carole really catching on and then… well, it was time to start scamming on next year’s birthday dinner surprise.

The few times I’ve scanned a review of Frances, the Beignets have always been mentioned, so as soon as I had the menu in hand, I decided that I would like to not bother with them. Odd logic perhaps, but I think they seem to overshadow whatever else might be noteworthy—and I don’t think we were disappointed.

Bouchées

 We ordered two items, to start—the grilled calamari and then the Panisse Frites, otherwise known as deep-fried chick peas which are otherwise known as garbanzo beans, which all boils down to something French, something middle-eastern, and/or something that comes in a can and ends up in a disgusting thing you find at bad pot-lucks, known as three bean salad.

Happily these chick peas, ended up getting the complete delicate deep-fry make-over, and came out looking like a small plate of fat, happy, French fries—golden brown and crispy in the outside, but almost creamy on the inside.

There was also a delicious side of lemon & black olive aioli, but even having forgotten to use it, neither of us had any complaints.

Then there was the Grilled Calamari in a salad of preserved meyer lemon, red carrot, fennel & chermoula sauce.

I like my calamari deep-fried and heapin’ on the plate, just like they used to serve it at U.S. Restaurant in North Beach back in the day (when it was on the corner, of you know where, or you don’t), so every time I see it on a menu, I have to wonder if it’s going to be a tiny portion of the little critters, or is it going to be smothered in tomato sauce.

I got neither, but instead a small portion of something resembling a warm delicious salad—I never thought a warm salad would have much appeal, but every subtle fork-full was delicious and undoubtedly aided by the mystery that is, chermoula spice.

 I don’t remember what the birthday girl had to drink, but I was ready to dive into a great porter, no matter the cost. I had a delicious time with a bottle of Pripp’s Carnegie Porter, Gothenburg, Sweden (500ml) which leveled me out at $15.00 a bottle.

Once I’d sunk that down, I went ahead and had a glass of Echigo Koshihikari, Niigata, Japan (500ml).

The porter was a delicious creamy meal—a “man soup”—while the Japanese brew was something along the lines of a PBR, in spite of its nine dollar price tag. Probably very good to the discerning beer geek, but I just wanted another porter after that.

Appetizers

 And after a few bouchée, why not get into a few appetizers… We didn’t really plan on it, but since my friend, Sarah, who worked there just happened to bring them to the table, why not.

The Little Gem Salad, was just that, owing to, I think, the zingy kumquats and mandarins, which overwhelmed in a good way, the beets, which are never my favorite.

Also dropped on the table was a delicious Trottoloni Pasta, composed of asparagus, meyer lemon, mascarpone, toasted walnuts and let’s not forget, the trottoloni, which looked something like a helical light (but without all the mercury) bulb.

Did I mention the Acme Bread? They didn’t leave me with an entire loaf of it, or a even a few slivers, like they do at Zuni, but it was easy enough to ask, as our waiter, Graham, hurried about.

Entrée

 Birthday girl had the Halibut—the Northern Halibut decked out with Morel Mushroom & English Pea Ragout, Bacon and Cippolini Onions, while I involved myself with your standard man meat—the Five Dot Ranch Bavette Steak, slabbed over a tasty helping of Olive Oil Potatoes, Artichoke, Basil & Spinach.

I wanted the chicken and secretly hoped that someone would order it, so that I could help her out, but this didn’t happen, so the Zuni bird still rules.

Dessert

Lastly, while I usually feel cheated by desserts—as in, I-am-a-pig-and-for-this-much-money-I-could-easily-buy-three-buckets-of-Ben-&-Jerry, I had to somehow make up for the atrocious “birthday cake,” I’d bought the day before.

And since we were pretty much in the Castro, we agreed on the hearty, ‘Lumberjack Cake’ with a dollop of Humphry Slocumb Maple-Walnut Ice Cream—no suspenders or plaid involved, and it did not disappoint.

What else did we like… pretty much everything, including the rolled towels in the bathrooms. So next time you’re trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes, make sure you end up at Frances and all your pranks will be forgiven.


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