Summer Reads: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Summer isn’t over yet! (Really, it’s just beginning here in San Francisco). For anyone looking for some good summer food reading – look no further!  There is still time to hit the beaches and don your sunhat with a good book! Here is the official Omnivore Books Summer Reading List – for those of you who haven’t seen the newsletter – here is the list (I have in fact, read every single one of these books, and enjoyed them myself):


By far, one of my favorite books on this list is Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China‘. Perhaps I’m biased because one of my oldest childhood friends lives in Shanghai, and I feel a kinship to those who write about China, and perhaps my bias extends from my love of Chinese food instilled from my father’s very good Chinese cooking skills (he learned from an Asian grandmother whom he exchanged grocery shopping for her for cooking lessons), but nevertheless there is something visceral that comes up every time I get to recommend this book to someone.

When people come into Omnivore asking for their next good read, I usually direct them towards this book and start waxing poetic and verging on desperation. You MUST read this book. I’m not sure how I would even describe this woman without babbling about how cool she is and how much I admire her tenacity and how much I want to be like her. Here I am doing it again.

Above all, I love reading books by smart, motivated, strong women. There, I said it. Some of my biggest role models are writers such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Judith Jones. These women inspire me every day. In brief, Fuchsia Dunlop is certainly one of these women I admire: a witty and persistent Englishwoman, who rather than taking the safe and comfortable route, decided to study abroad in China during her University years. People just didn’t do that in the 90’s. Her brief stint led to a lifelong passion – she went back to live there, and ultimately managed to stumble her way into becoming the first westerner ever to attend the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.

Ultimately she went on to write two cookbooks, ‘Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking‘ and the ‘Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province‘ which are both excellent resources for Sichuan and Hunanese cooking. Beyond the cookbooks, it was a good thing she went ahead and wrote her memoir. Her voice on the page is clearly one of a woman I’d love to go gallivanting off to the ends of the earth with.

Throughout the book, Dunlop has this wonderful way of describing the tastes and the essence of food, and ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China‘ is full of amazing, bizarre, and sometimes even shocking tales. I found myself reading through this book – giggling, getting hungry, and experiencing her remarkable journey as a vicarious travel partner.

The Bottom Line: I highly recommend this book.

And then, of course, once you read it, you too can join the ‘Fuchsia Dunlop Admiration Society’ (OK, so I made that up) and can follow her on twitter! Now if only we could get her to come on vacation and speak at Omnivore! We’ll have a party!

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And now, while we are on the topic, here are a few photos from a dinner I had with fellow food bloggers quite some time ago at Sichuan restaurant Z+Y in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Totally Authentic? Not quite, but it was delicious nonetheless.

I’ve had a soft spot for Sichuan since I was a child, mostly because one of the better Chinese restaurants in our slightly sleepy corner of New Hampshire was called Szechuan Taste. There was one in Portsmouth, and then they opened another one in Exeter conveniently located blocks away from my high school. I can’t really vouch for the authenticity of the food, as they became very Americanized over the years, but I loved the place and have fond memories that guided my pursuit of knowledge into Chinese cooking, so I have to give them credit where credit is due.

At Z+ Y, we ate (somewhat gluttonously, between eight of us): Scallion Pancakes, Spicy Numbing Beef Tendon, Yunnan Style Steamed Chicken Soup in Clay Pot, Peking Duck, Pea Sprouts with Garlic, Special Pork Belly (not on the menu), Chicken with Explosive Chili Peppers and Hot Braised Sea Bass, Cured Beef Wrapped In Scallion Pancake, and Red Bean Buns for dessert.

There is something really reassuring about eating dinner with food bloggers. For one, you don’t have to feel any embarrassment about taking photos of the food, and really the phrase “WAIT – let me just snap a few photos please!” even remains unsaid. Although, to be fair, Devon is very good about waiting patiently for me to take my photos at dinner.

Bloggers in attendance: @cookingwithamy @chefjen, @urbanstomach@summertomato@alphaprep (yep that’s me), @divinacucina@heatherhal and @Jeters.

Another thing about eating with food bloggers is that you can order half of the menu and not skip over the bits and pieces of the animal for fear that your dining partners will not be so keen on your choice. And so here, a dish that we all (or mostly all) enjoyed: Tendon. It’s not just for pho! I can’t get over the fact that it looks like I’m being served food on an easel. I really got a kick out of this dish. The beef tendon was shaved thinly, and served with a tingly numbing sauce.

We food bloggers also really appreciate highly photogenic foods, such as this Chicken with Explosive Chili Peppers. Massive piles of fiery peppers in contrasting red and green! I’m fairly sure this had more peppers than would be needed or wanted in the home, but it made for an exciting presentation.

And then there was the duck. Apologies to @jeters for the “in the moment eating shot”, but I had to put this in as it was the only shot of the duck I managed to take. I’ve been a devotee of duck since my childhood where my favorite memories of Chinatown were the ducks hanging in the windows. I’m sure my parents were slightly concerned about my excitement – I was at that point fully aware of the live happy farm duck being the same, in theory, as the dessicated hanging duck in the window – and I still would ask to eat it pleadingly.

A great part about the food blogging community is that you can eat with people that you greatly respect and admire, and even if their work is heralded across the globe, perhaps in bookstores, or written about in famous magazines, even the best food writers will gather to share a meal – food is something we all have in common. The lovely and talented Divina Cucina in the background (for whom this dinner was in honor of), and quick pickled cucumbers in the foreground.

Food bloggers also have gumption and forethought to order in advance, and throw their hands into the air and say feed me the best you can! The Japanese have a word Omakase, or Chef’s Tasting Menu, that is in the spirit that I like to eat – allowing the chef to choose the best, the freshest, the most interesting foods, and as a rule, I always defer to their suggestions for which I’m often highly rewarded.  The pork belly – not on the menu, but at the recommendation of the chef was delightful – a current food trend, pork belly has been a delicacy for hundreds, if not thousands? of years, and prepared simply, this was one of the better experiences with pork belly I have had to date.

And then there is that moment in many a meal, where sometimes, even seasoned food bloggers are slightly perplexed. In this case, the moment  was when we were served the cured meat wrapped in scallion pancake – Chinese-Jewish fusion food? I wasn’t able to grasp the influence, but I liked it!

Finally, we ended with red bean buns, and slices of orange, which, although I do have some fabulous photos of friends making awkward orange smiles, I’ve held back at posting them, perhaps though, they’ll serve as future blackmail.

For more perspective, check out Alex’s write-up (same dinner, lens across the table). And for even more convincing, Marcia (The Tablehopper) also had a great writeup of her dinner a month ago.

Z&Y Restaurant, 655 Jackson St, between Grant & Kearny


Monday-Sunday 11 AM-10 PM
Pre-Ordered Nine Course Meal For Eight: $200 after tax and tip (sans beverage)

The Marvelous Biscoff: Biscoff Coffee Corner Opens at Pier 39

Over the past few nights I’ve been going to bed with a spoonful of Biscoff Spread. I know, I know, you dentists out there are cringing. I sit there, savoring it for minutes. Devon has joked that it is my crack spoon. Here is the back story:

Almost a decade ago, I was traveling internationally on Delta Airlines when I was first introduced to Lotus Bakeries’ Biscoff cookies. Biscoff are Belgian spice cookies, known in Europe as Speculoos, traditionally a holiday cookie. Now ubiquitous year round, they are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of afternoon coffee.

At first bite, I marveled at these crunchy caramelized spice cookies, which tasted similar to a gingersnap. I was so smitten in fact, that on our return trip, I begged the stewards to give me an extra supply as I exited the aircraft. For years I hoarded these cookies, requesting all traveling friends to bring them back for me.

The Biscoff was originally developed by the Boone family in Belgium in 1932, and sold as Lotus Speculoos. In 1984, Lotus partnered with The Gourmet Center in San Francisco, and  introduced the cookie to the United States as “Biscoff”, an amalgamation of the words ‘Biscuit + Coffee’. Delta began serving Biscoff cookies on their flights in the 1980’s, and since then they have been sold to a growing fan base through mail order catalogue, on their website, and just recently popping up in retailers across the country.

In addition to their cookies, the new Biscoff Spread is a food revelation. A few months ago, David Lebovitz raved about it on his blog, and I knew I had to get my hands on some. A similar consistency to peanut butter, it is a smooth spread made of blended Biscoff cookies. (Think Nutella, except tasting like Biscoff). The spread is perfect on toast, stirred into oatmeal, warmed and drizzled over vanilla ice cream, or, as I do most frequently, eaten directly from the jar.

I’ve been ordering the spread from the internet, but for the first time, it is available for purchase in San Francisco. Lotus Bakeries, and the Simmons Family, owners of Simco Restaurants’ PIER 39 establishments on Fisherman’s Wharf have partnered to open the Biscoff Coffee Corner and Coffee Cart, the first retail store of Biscoff products in the United States.

As a local, I don’t often find myself down by Pier 39, but it’s only a quick walk away from the Embarcadero, and well worth the trip in order to get yourself some Biscoff.

The Biscoff Coffee Corner opened last Thursday with free samples of Biscoff cookies, Biscoff cookie jugglers on stilts, a ribbon cutting ceremony with the Boone family, trivia, and giveaways. One hundred percent of sales were donated to The Marine Mammal Center, which rehabilitates seals and sea lions. In the future, 1% percent of all cookie sales will be donated to The Marine Mammal Center.

The Biscoff Coffee corner gives a free Biscoff cookie with the sale of each cup of coffee. The shop retails Biscoff cookies, Biscoff spread, as well as features menu items such as toasted bagels with cream cheese and Biscoff spread, and coffee with Biscoff flavoring and Biscoff crumbles (probably my entire calories for the day, but it was delicious!!). Additionally, Simco Restaurants will be featuring Biscoff cookies in dessert creations in their restaurants. Next time I head down there, I think I’m going to get some more Biscoff to make into ice cream.

Biscoff Spread is available at the Biscoff Coffee Corner for $5.50 for a 14 ounce jar. Biscoff Cookies are $3.50 for an 8.8 ounce loose package. Coffee with Biscoff flavoring and Biscoff crumbles is also on the menu at the Biscoff Coffee Corner. I highly recommend the trip out there.

Pizzeria Picco

To be honest, I’m not sure why I’ve become so obsessed with pizza. It has recently replaced sushi as food that I crave practically all the time. Perhaps it’s nostalgia hitting at the very same time that the food has become a city wide trend here in San Francisco. Seriously, everywhere you look here there is pizza – Flour + Water was nominated for a James Beard, Gialina is practically around the corner, Delfina is less than a mile from my house, and apparently my neighborhood is about to get a new Deep Dish Chicago style joint. In the city Piccino in Dogpatch is one of my favorites, but I still find myself going back to Cheeseboard in Berkeley on a regular basis. It is consistently the best.

Now, I have another pie under my belt.


A few weeks ago I went to Larkspur to try Pizzeria Picco. I had never been to Larkspur (or really heard anything about it), and after strolling through the neighborhood, determined it to be a haven of nature, small shops and restaurants: what could be called “quaint”, although really it’s more of a composed environment. At 6 pm in the evening the town was filled with older parents and kids on bicycles, extended families, mid-twenties kids with their visiting parents, and what appeared to be the Palm Beach crowd of the Bay Area – the only time I’ve seen Lilly Pulitzer on more than one person in one place. The houses were beautiful, and I doubt that I’d mind living out there.


To be honest, it wasn’t a true quest – we landed at Pizzeria Picco fairly accidentally. I pulled out my Tablehopper guide after several hours of aimless wandering landed us in Larkspur. Pizzeria Picco was right there on the list, and after I recalled Peter Reinhart waxing poetically about it, we decided to park and wait in line for some good eats. It was about a 15 minute wait, but glorious weather. We glanced in at the bar around the pizza ovens, but ultimately waited for an outside table. Above, my dining partner, making a funny face.


The first course we ordered was a special – little toasts topped with bright green chickpea puree, hidden in the photo by the sopressata and a little salad of crisp arugula and aged balsamic. ($3.50 each) It was a pleasant first bite – a combination of textures – crunchy, soft, creamy, chewy, and tastes – sweet, salty, and a little bit of bitter. I could have easily polished off a few of these, the caveat being that they were slightly difficult to eat.


We then split the green garlic – potato soup with red currants and country ham (cup $4.00, bowl, $6.95). It was possibly my favorite dish of the evening – the soup was nicely seasoned, and the currants and slightly crunchy ham bits offered just the right amount of excitement.

And then finally the pizza:

Look at that crust!

picco pizza

After browsing the menu and debating pizzas such as the marin (roasted garlic, young organic potato, mozzarella, parmesan, and rosemary oil – $11.95), and the surly (hog island clams, tomato sauce, garlic, sopressata, pecorino, parsley, calabrian chile – $15.95), eventually we decided on a cannondale (house made sausage, roasted peppers, roasted onion, mozzarella and basil – $13.50). I think I just liked that my pizza was named after a bicycle.

The portion was fairly good to split between two people, although hungrier folks might prefer ordering one pizza per person and taking home any leftovers. The pizza was good example of this type of woodfired neapolitan style, but my personal preference is a little bit of a thicker crust ala Cheeseboard. I’d say that ultimately I liked it, but didn’t love it.


I was craving a salad at the end of the meal, and I should have listened to my gut and gotten their picco caesar (romaine hearts with farm egg, anchovy, lemon and parmesan – $9.50) rather than ordering dessert. I had seen several go past during dinner, and they looked absolutely delicious.

The Straus chocolate soft serve – they only had chocolate when we were there- with caramel sauce was a little bit disappointing. They do however serve vanilla soft serve with olive oil and sea salt, which is a combination that I like. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Straus products in every shape and form, but I think I prefer ice cream rather than soft serve. After trying the Straus soft serve at Bi-rite this week, I have to say I came to the same conclusion.

Bottom Line: Tasty affordable pizza with fresh local ingredients in an idyllic setting. Not the best I’ve ever eaten, but exciting enough that I’ll be back.

Pizzeria Picco

316 Magnolia Avenue
Larkspur, CA 94939
(415) 945-8900

Open Mon-Thu 5pm-9:30pm; Fri 5pm-10:30pm; Sat 12pm-10:30pm; Sun 12pm-9:30pm

San Francisco International Chocolate Salon 2010

fort mason(Photo: Historic Fort Mason)

This weekend I headed out to Fort Mason to attend the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon. Located at the top of San Francisco right near the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Mason is a former army post that is a great example of repurposing historic buildings for modern use . The old dock warehouses have been taken over by the Fort Mason Center, an organization devoted to the culture of San Francisco. Each year the center puts on thousands of events in the spaces, and the area also houses a variety of arts organizations, and the long standing Greens Restaurant: the upscale vegetarian dining establishment where one of my favorite cookbook authors Deborah Madison once reigned in the kitchen.

Having never been to Fort Mason before (shame on me!), all I knew from my peers was that this was an old army warehouse sized room devoted to chocolate… chocolate everywhere… samples of chocolate… everywhere. And I missed this last year? So this time I made sure to register early.

What I found out after walking through the fair: International Salon is more like… “International” in the baseball “world” series type of connotation. Most of the chocolates that I tried were west coast confections, with a few national companies. Overall I was a little disappointed at the lack of creativity – sure there was salt and chocolate everywhere, and bacon also made it’s appearance, but a lot of the chocolate was over sugary, and the flavorings overpowering.  Nevertheless, there were some redeeming standouts.

celia and elizabeth

My first responsibility at the fair was a work errand – I had to run back to see Celia at the Omnivore Books table, and hand her off some more bookmarks and calendars from the bookstore, as she had run out (Always a good thing!) Celia was in charge of author signings from some of the choco-celebs doing talks at the fair. When I got back to the booth, there was Elizabeth Falkner, of Citizen Cake, Orson, and Top Chef fame, just hanging out. I made sure to get a requisite silly picture of her and Celia.

Highlights of the salon:

Clarine’s Florentines: The florentine is an italian cookie made of nuts and caramel, which can be dipped into chocolate. These are one of my favorite cookies, but I hesitate to bake them because I have no restraint- once I make a batch, they find themselves quickly down the hatch. My hatch, only mine, because I’m greedy. (Like that? I rhyme and I’m ridiculous…)

Clarine makes her florentines out of Berkeley with almonds mixed in a caramel of butter, sugar, honey and cream, and are dipped in Guittard bittersweet chocolate. They were the first product I sampled at the fair, and the last (I went for a second go.)

Clarines Florentines

Lavender Chocolate Gelato: Ali’i Kula Lavender, a lavender farm on the island of Maui. I didn’t actually know that Hawaii grew lavender, but apparently the do all year round. Their delicious gelato is unfortunately only available in Hawaii, but I’m looking forward to recreating this combination at home this summer.

lavendar chocolate ice cream

Marti Chocolates: I headed over to the Marti booth on the recommendation of Elizabeth Falkner, and was impressed with the chocolates they had to offer. Marti, based in LA had some of the more creative flavors showcased at the salon, including Goat CheeseZesty Philipine Lime in Dark Chocolate, and Durian, which I dutifully sampled and actually enjoyed. I thought that the flavors of the fillings and the chocolate both came through clearly. They were quite delicious.

marti durian

Poco Dolce Chocolate – it’s not a secret, I’m in love with these chocolate squares ever since I had my first one last year conveyed in this moment: “Deep, dark chocolate. Spicy chile pepper with hints of cinnamon. Crunchy little toasted pumpkin seeds nestled in between. And flecks of salt that make the chocolate sing! You experience each individual layer and then they mix together and… I can’t come close to giving them justice, you really have to just try one.”


I also liked the caramels dipped in chocolate with salt from Posh Chocolates – I’m love the combination of chocolate and salt, and this company had some particularly creative salts that they were using, including White Truffle Oil Caramel with Cyprus Flaked Sea Salt, Coconut-Pineapple Caramel with Hawaiian Pink Sea Salt, and Bacon Caramel with Apple wood Smoked Sea Salt. I thought the flavors were good, but in some cases the salt seemed to overwhelm the chocolate.


After gorging myself with chocolate, my camera became lazy- so not pictured, but enjoyed:

Fentiman’s Botanically Brewed beverages: After tasting these at both the Green Fest, at Il Cane Rosso, and now at the chocolate salon, I’m hooked. My particular favorite is the Shandy soda – a mixture of beer and lemonade (their version has less than .5% alcohol). Fentiman’s soda is also the center of food scandal, after the state of Maine decided to outlaw their products to minors (even though it has less alcohol than…bread…yes, bread.) Sometimes I’m just so befuddled by people that I want to leave and start my own country somewhere.

Marin French Cheese Company (also known as the Cheese Factory and Rouge et Noir): I recently learned from reading Gordon Edgar’s ‘Cheesemonger – A Life on the Wedge’ that this is the oldest cheese manufacturer in the country. I haven’t yet gone to visit, but I think it’s on my to-do list for this spring. Cheese tour anyone?

And finally, what would a chocolate salon be without makeovers??? (Yeah, I was a little perplexed about that too.) But, I do admit that I waited an absurdly long time in line to get my girly beauty fix at Bare Escentuals, maker of the Bare Minerals line of cosmetics. While my date sat patiently for 40 minutes playing scrabble on my ipod, (*he was very, very patient), I sat getting dolled up and left with a handful of free samples.

The lipgloss they put on was the final touch, and as I was already completely full from chocolate samples, it was the natural conclusion to our time at the fair. Will I go next year? Perhaps. The $25 price tag for the chocolate salon is a little steep, but for those willing to be gluttonous, this isn’t too bad of a deal.

If anything, I should set up a booth selling milk and water. I think I’d make a killing.

Ad Hoc!

Tonight I got whisked away on a romantic date….. to AD HOC!!! (Yet again, an Ad Hoc trip…. yes… we decided at 6:45 that we were going to drive to Yountville to dinner.)

Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller’s casual eatery, is one of my absolute favorite restaurants, ever since I had my first blissful meal there, and a subsequent wonderful meal there on Christmas (Chicken and Waffles!). There are many wonderful things about Ad Hoc, but the things that come to mind are:

a) delicious food

b) cozy relaxed atmosphere, jovial staff


c) oh wait… more delicious food.

After meeting Thomas Keller and his head chef at Ad Hoc David Cruz, the food tastes even better knowing how gracious and wonderful these people are.

ad hoc menu.JPG

Tonight we had:

Salad of Escarole Hearts, and romaine lettuce with shaved radish, candied walnuts, kalamata olives, asian pears, utterly crispy and buttery garlic croutons, and white anchovy dressing. (The dressing was so good that I was offered a little dish of it after the waiter noticed me desperately wiping the plate clean with bread… I politely declined slightly shamed, because asking for more dressing after you’ve finished your salad is the true sign of a glutton.)

Devon was quite fond of the candied walnuts, which I plan on making in the near future.


Herb Crusted Colorado Lamb Sirloin, with broccoli rabe from the French Laundry garden, roasted cauliflower, the creamiest polenta topped with a golden raisin and caper relish. [The broccoli rabe was crisped like kale chips, and the lamb was painfully delicious and absolutely beautifully cooked.]

To be honest, it was so rich that I neither one of us could finish – so it got packaged up for tomorrows breakfast – I’m planning on lamb hash.


The cheese course was one of my favorites: Tumalo Farm’s Pondhopper, from Bend, Oregon, with roasted peppers, arugula and a sweet onion soffrito.

The cheese reminds me a little bit of Turkish Kaser, and these red peppers were stellar. I ended up eating the second half of Devon’s cheese, because he understands moderation, and I, well, sometimes I just can’t help myself. We make a good team.

cheese course.JPG

And for dessert:

Some blissful Tiramisu with homemade lady fingers, and this lovely and light mascarpone cream. It was mighty tasty, although I must admit not nearly as boozy as if I were to make it myself…. Then again, I don’t have very much restraint, so this is a more refined version.


I finished with a cup of french press coffee, and a permanent smile on my face that might not go away for the next two weeks.

french press.JPG

A perfect evening.

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