Monday, August 31, 2009

Le Croissant Cafe

Butter and almond croissants with coffee al fresco at Le Croissant Cafe.

Not too far from San Francisco Airport is the neat little town of Burlingame. I just happened upon the town while trying to make my way to In-N-Out Burger last week when I was in town and stumbled upon the little Le Croissant Cafe.

Even though I lived in both Manila and Honolulu, I'm still rather shocked to see so many Asian people in California. Asian people doing the same things that people do elsewhere: live. In my neck of America, Asians are still far between and even a bit of a novelty. At least, that is, Asians who are native English speakers living American lives. Yes, that sounds mighty narrow of me, but I live in Baltimore, so go figure.

While the croissants are decent enough, they nowhere near rival those I can get in Baltimore and certainly pale to those I buy in Paris, but they are decent. The coffee is good enough that I'll drink it but nothing special and yet I felt compelled to visit a second time and will probably visit again on subsequent visits to the Bay Area while staying around SFO.

If the croissants aren't amazing and the coffee isn't stellar, just what is it that holds my interest? It's the people. The friendly couple who run the place - I presume they're either "together" or married. I find it fun that the guy prepares his sandwiches and food with straight seriousness while wearing a chefs jacket and the woman handles the orders and prepares the beverages. There's a romanticism to Le Croissant Cafe that I imagine I might have taken if my life had gone in a different direction. Man and woman. Mom and Pop. On the quintessential American Main Street. Just Lovely.

In fact, I imagined that if my brother Al and Polly started their own little cafe that this is what it would be like, complete with little nieces and nephews running around.

I wish I could be a regular there.

Le Croissant Cafe
1151 Broadway Avenue
Burlingame, CA 94010

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Eating Emcee

Midday meal for the hungry emcee.

When you're stuck in a hall all day long, speaking incessantly into a microphone trying to entertain hundreds (okay, maybe just seven) of people, you get a bit hungry. And what better way to stave off that hunger than by bringing along a bag lunch of goodies from Choux Choux Charcuterie and Fol Epi?

I don't know what it is but the girls at Choux Choux are typical French. Or should I say, typical French outside of France? The people I met in Paris were actually quite nice, which is quite unlike the French outside of France. Maybe they're just angry that they're stuck in what they consider to be a world filled with mediocre food (and they wouldn't be far from right), or maybe they just don't like being outside of France, or maybe it's all just an act to keep interlopers like me away from the saucisson sec.

Whatever the case, I'm waiting. And it doesn't matter that they're there, I'm standing there, or that it's ten minutes past their opening time. They're French. I'm not. They're unhappy they're not in France and, therefore, I must suffer and wait.

Meanwhile, I spot a meter maid starting to write me a ticket and quickly deposit money into the meter. She's unhappy (maybe she too is French) and challenges me if I only put money in the meter because I saw her coming - what am I going to tell her? The truth??? Silly Lapin, parking tickets are for kids (and suckers who say "yes" to that question). Needless to say, she wasn't too happy with the answer.

Finally, after a bottle of wine and four cigarettes, the ladies of Choux Choux decide that I've paid my penance and they allow me into their hallowed halls.

Now, I may poke fun at them, but their charcuterie looks very serious. There's a third of a saucisson sec remaining in the case and I take it all. Just give me the hunk and another entire link. What's that? That's it? No more saucisson??? Sacrebleu! Well, how about a recommendation? Csabai? Okay, 100 grams of that, a round of La Tur cheese, some dijon and a nice slice of pate maison.

Add to that a fresh baguette from Fol Epi and suddenly you've got a meal for champions to fuel your day!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

Rushing towards San Francisco at a not so high velocity.

For by visit to the Bay Area, Hertz gave me a new Nissan Altima. They originally offered me a minivan but a proper bachelor in San Francisco says "no" to a minivan - only a true 1978 Chevy "Love" van with tinted oval windows and shag carpeting will do.

The Altima is pretty slick. Smooth, compact and powerful. Tiptronic transmission and I'm thinking I too could drive like Dale Earnhardt Jr (sans wall, please). Stomp on the gas and the power comes on nicely. Before you know it, you're pushing 95mph and wondering if that helicopter shadowing you is D.E.A. or the California Highway Patrol.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Altima rests before prowling in Burlingame.

In-N-Out On The Fry

Double Double, Fries and a Coke.

I'm rolling out ot San Francisco today and risking missing my flight to Victoria because I've diverted to In-N-Out Burger in Millbrae. I know all about the "secret" menu but I can't get anough of the simple Double Double burger with pickles, lettuce, tomato, onions and good ole' Amerkun cheese.

And as much as I enjoy In-N-Out, I have to be honest: the fries suck. They cut the fries fresh and then finish fry them in oil, resulting in a fry that never gets quite crips and always turns soggy. For such a great burger, the fries have always been an utter disappointment. Luckily, I was customer number three today and the girl had plenty of time to fry my fries a little extra crisp. Turns out these were the best fries I've ever eaten at In-N-Out. I just wish they would blanch the fries first. Then nothing could assail In-N-Out.

Oh well, on to Victoria...

Proportional Goodness.

Another Double Double and Fries for the flight to Victoria.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


The Maestro Himself prepares TruBru coffee.

After an early morning hanging out with the Ecco Caffe crew in Santa Rosa, I've found my way over to the little hamlet of Sebastopol, which seems to be Ground Zero for the local and sustainable movement in Northern California and perhaps The World.

I've come to visit Mark Inman of Taylor Maid Farms whose "what was once old is again new and revolutionary" concept of a bean store has been on my mind since we discussed the concept back in June. I'll leave the details for Mark to share with you but the basic concept is nothing new in the coffee industry but certainly unexplored in this barista "Third Wave." Beans, beans, glorious beans. With 58% of Americans drinking their coffee at home, it makes for a compelling argument.

What I expected to be a two hour max visit turned into an all-day excursion of coffee, food, fresh fruit and artistry. Luckily, I don't plan much in terms of a schedule which allows me to enjoy these spontaneous bursts of learning and education.

Sweet Corn and Mushroom Risotto at K&L Bistro.

T-Rex at Patrick and Brigitte's house.

Fresh pears on the kitchen floor.

A gift for Jack Woltz...

Brigitte entertains the crew while Robin eats a pear.

Real customers featured in Taylor Maid's new campaign.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


A glass of Greco di Tufo Loggia della Serra 2007, Terrdora.

A selection of breads and a very tasty olive tapenade.

House-marinated Olives.

Each glass of wine receives a tag - clever!

Marinated Local Sardines, Celery & Radish.

Lamb Fries Piccata & Bacon.

Spaghettini, Sardinian Cured Tuna Heart, Egg York & Parsley.

Pork Belly, Watermelon & Purslane.

"Milk & Cookies" - Chocolate Chip Cookies & Vanilla Egg Cream.

On the Way to SFO

Ready For Takeoff

Dell Mini 9 Hackintosh and the Apple iBook G4 it replaces.

I never seem to learn that I need to vet new technologies before I go on trips. Without fail, there's a mad rush at the last minute to get everything loaded and into place.

My new Dell Mini 9 netbook with Mac OSX Leopard is now ready for it's maiden voyage on my trip this weekend to San Francisco and Victoria, Canada. Weight has always been the concern and now I'm shaving off pounds from my baggage. Needless to say, I'm very excited.

I'll report back as the travels develop.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Tri-Cities Tribe

Faith checks out the scallops.

Since his territory was transferred to New York City, Daryn Berlin of Counter Culture Coffee brought the Tri-Cities Coffee Tribe together for one last "Huzzah!" at Woodberry Kitchen. Attending the very delicious dinner filled with large, family-style helpings of Springfield Farm ribeye steak and dayboat sea scallops (no rain or disasters this time TRue...) were the people from Peregrine Espresso (Washington DC), Tryst (Washington DC), Ultimo Coffee (Philadelphia), Spruce Street Espresso (Philadelphia), Lovers and Madmen (Philadelphia) and, of course, yours truly (who devoured more scallops than logical).

Ultimo enjoys (sort of) his first oyster - ever.

The Tri-Cities Coffee Tribe gathers.

ph: Bouncing The Banquette

Our new Church Pew takes a ride.

In spite of the fact that I only operate one espresso bar, I've actually designed a surprising number of coffeeshops, at a rate of about one per year. Of course, these designs were all for projects that never materialized or fell apart at the eleventh hour, which makes it kind of odd that this project has gone past the eleventh hour into actual build out. Guess there's still more opportunity for it to fall apart...

It seems that I've come to love the banquette. It's appeared in three of my last designs and I can't seem to get enough. For Project Pantalon Rouge, I thought of hot read leather banquettes on oak floors and gleaming white walls. Very hot. In the designs for project hampden, the banquette took a more reserved tone. Natural wood casing with rich, supple dark blue fabric. Tre chic, que no?

Until the day I stopped by The Loading Dock in Baltimore City. The Loading Dock is one of those reclamation kind of businesses where you can find all sorts of reclaimed and salvaged building materials. There they had row upon row of salvaged church pews. They had both painted white curved pews with upholstered cushions and curved dark walnut pews. I thought then that it would look good in project hampden's neutral colored environment, but the curved pew presented a bit of a dilemma in how much space the seating area would occupy - and space is at a bit of a premium in project hampden.

Then Chris Attenborough suggested I check out Second Chance by Ravens Stadium. Like The Loading Dock, Second Chance does reclamation as well as architectural salvage. Walking through Second Chances warehouse is tantalizing indeed. I wish I had an infinite budget and 10,000 square feet because there's some killer stuff in there. Luckily, they had the ten foot dark wood straight church pew I was looking for - at a killer price: $15 per linear foot.

A hundred and fifty bucks later (plus $75 for the Enterprise rent-a-van and $30 for lunch with Gerry - who I conscripted to carry the thing), we're chugging down the road with a church pew that's ten times less than the custom banquette I was planning.

A church pew may seem a bit too non-secular for some and maybe a bit disingenuous to others, but it helps reclaim materials and I'm all for that whenever possible. Troy Reynard has one in his living room. While his is more modern in design, mine is definitely more "old church" in design.

As I was pondering the possibility of using the church pew instead of a banquette, I remembered that most banquettes I've sat in were just uncomfortable. The seats were slightly too high so my feet were never fully on the ground. A church pew doesn't have that problem and they're designed so that parishioners can sit comfortably for hours on end (especially during Christmas High Mass).

Not that project hampden will be hosting a High Mass anytime soon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

ph: SamSeal

With photos like this, maybe SamSeal will sponsor project hampden and save me eighteen bucks!

I've never refinished a floor before. I certainly have thought about it, but never have I actually done it. Until now. With a little guidance, it was surprisingly easy and for a few moments, I thought that I might change vocations - going door-to-door, bringing a little happy-happy joy-joy to peoples' lives by refinishing their hardwood floors.

ph: Morning Coffee

The first cup of coffee in project hampden.

This morning I'm back in project hampden, to the first nice summer day we've had in a month, with coffee in hand fretting about my upcoming trip on Wednesday, will I have everything done in time before I leave? Really, I'm starting to see how foolish it was of me to schedule trips in late August and September. So much to do and time just runs out.

Most of the work we're doing in the space has been completed. Except, that is, for this one piece of floor trim that I've been mysteriously avoiding. Ever have those little tasks that you keep putting off? This piece of trim has been mine in project hampden. It's a gap in the floor trim that's needed to be filled in since we took out the knee wall and I've just been avoiding it and I guess I can avoid it no longer.

Otherwise, things are moving. Had an estimator come in for the plumbing and electrical work. The millwork quote is in and we're slowly rolling. I'm hoping for a 2009 opening - but no later than 2012...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Banana Banshee

The Banana Banshee Snowball from SnoAsis, our former nemesis.

I guess it's ironic that the owner of arguably the top shave ice place on the East Coast would find himself at a former competitor eating a snowball, but that's just what happened today. Nice, hot weather, paired with nothing in particular to do on my last summer Sunday afternoon in Baltimore and the sudden urge for a snowball led me to our former nemesis, SnoAsis.

These cats have been in the snowball business for 32 years and they're still going strong. When we started Jays Shave Ice, they were the dominant player in our area and they changed some of their practices because of us. From things like air conditioning for staff, to frequent buyer cards to 11pm closing times, their changes were acknowledgments of our encroaching on their territory.

In the end, when the lease for Jays Shave Ice ran out in 2006, I decided to move on and pursue coffee, leaving SnoAsis the dominant player once again.

Truth be told, my favorite flavor of theirs is the Banana Banshee. I don't know how I stumbled upon that flavor ten years ago (or more) but it's one flavor that I've kept to myself, and even though we had all the components to make the Banana Banshee at Jays, I never put an iteration of it on our menu - I think because I was keeping it to myself.

It's really quite simple. Take some evaporated milk, pour it over the ice then top with banana syrup, et voila! you have the Banana Banshee.

Of course, the ice isn't the same smooth silkiness that Jays was known for, but for a once a summer indulgence, it will suffice.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Soft Crabs, Scallops and Friday Night Tornadoes

Our raw ingredients: sea scallops, soft crabs, cornmeal, Italian salt and black pepper.

It's soft shell crab season here in Maryland, which means it's time to feast!

The very first time I learned how to clean a soft shell crab, I was unnerved. While necessary, it's rather unpleasant work if you're someone, like me, who doesn't relish killing creatures - and the dispatching of a soft shell crab, while not horrific, doesn't seem like a pleasant experience.

Step 1: Cut off the face.

First, you start off by holding the crab in your hand and using kitchen shears to literally cut off the face of the crab. That part always makes me cringe. Just a big SNIP and you're done. Evidently, it's a merciful killing but I can't help think that it's got to be painful for the crab.

Step 2: Cut off the gills.

Next, you pull the shell up by the points and snip out the inedible gills on both sides of the crab. Turn it over, pull back the apron and snip that off as well. Once those four snips have been completed, you're done and the crab is ready for cooking.

Step 3: Cut off the apron and you're ready to go!

During my trip to Atlanta last April, we visited the Dekalb Farmers Market where I picked up a bag of J.T. Pollard Medium Ground White Corn Meal. I've been meaning to try it out and coating the crab seemed like a good idea. Salt and pepper the crab on the inside and out, dredge in the cornmeal and it's off the saute pan.

Cooking Philosophy #1: No knob of butter is ever "too big."

Once the pan is nice and hot, a little oil plus a knob of butter (for good measure) and we're off the races. Lay the crabs in the butter and let them cook away. Just a few minutes on each side to cook through then let rest on some paper towels to dry out.

Saute the soft shell crabs.

Meanwhile, I've seasoned some more day boat sea scallops from the local fishmonger and started searing them. Sear both sides in a butter oil mixture and you're good to go. Serve both with some hot Japanese style steamed rice and that's a dinner perfect for a Friday night heavy thunderstorm with threats of tornadoes.

A little Friday night seafood extravaganza.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ph: Morning Resumes

Bacon omelette with chili and cheese at the Cafe Hon.

There's lots of pain in running your own business, but one the more painful aspects is hiring new staff. With the impending arrival of project hampden it's time to start hiring baristas. Young, old, experienced or novices - I'm looking for great people who are excited about the prospect of working with people and serving customers. The basic Order Of The Day at The Spro is: We want our guests to leave feeling stoked that they visited us today. It's the essence of what we do and what we're about.

Some people confuse this with a crazed obsession on coffee and coffee quality but it's much more than that. It's about serving customers and anticipating their desires. It's about delivering the absolute best quality product that we possibly can while accommodating their needs, desires and requests. It's not about the traditional barista Third Wave "we know coffee better than you" attitude - in fact, that kind of approach has no place amongst our ranks. It's about enthusiastic service and great quality products.

I've placed ads on Craigslist Baltimore and I've got a literal mound of resumes to review, attempting to find the gems in pile, while trying to ensure that I don't miss out and pass over someone who might not look terribly great on paper but could be the exact person we're looking for.

At the risk of tipping our hat, project hampden is about taking the coffee experience to a level that's not widely seen in the industry, and certainly not in our hamlet of Baltimore. The standards are high and so are the expectations. The task at hand is pouring through all the resumes that are flooding my email box to find the right people to make it happen.

ph: Flooring It

The lab floor ready for treatment.

I once told a good friend of mine, several years ago, that I was done with building shops myself. That I would, from then forward, always contract the work out. Well, sometimes I'm wrong.

I think I'm a control freak. From the standards and quality that our baristas perform under to the crazy little details of whether or not that little splotch on the wall will be noticed by customers - even though it's soaring nine feet above their heads and behind where they will be sitting. Fact is, I know that splotch is there and no matter how nice the rest of the details are, that little splotch will shout at me every time I walk into the space for the next ten years. It's maddening.

Now that most of the paint work has been completed, it's time to start working on the floors. Luckily, the early 20th Century hardwood floors are in good condition and only in need of a light screening and reapplication of oil-based polyurethane.

A little sand, a little urethane.

My problem is that I actually kinda enjoy the work and the labor. There's something oddly satisfying about seeing that gouge in the wall disappear under layers of spackle, sanding and paint. And seeing the floor glistening with new polyurethane gets my blood boiling (not to mention the slight high from the non-environmentally-friendly chemicals in the urethane).

Next up: laying down vinyl flooring in the food prep area.

Early 20th Century hardwood gets a refinish.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Balance Due: $100,121.99

"all accounts are in good standing."

Came across Bernie Madoff's American Express bill online today. The amount spent on the account was staggering. To be fair, there were 14 people on the account all charging to their hearts' desire because Bernie was paying the bill.

And while $100,121.99 is a lot of money to spend in one month, look at the previous months' balance: $160,283.45!

A world where your preset line of credit is two hundred thousand dollars and you can pay that off with one check. That would be something...

Monday, August 17, 2009

ph: Pondering Paints

The Wall quotes Chuck D Science.

Choosing paints for project hampden has been like drilling my skull. Sure, the general idea of the colors is easy, it's the choosing of the exact hues and tones that drives me bonkers. I want to farm it out to someone else, but then I know I won't be happy - and I'm the one who has to live with these colors for the next 25 years (I hope).

Happily, the crew at the Timonium Sherwin-Williams store (and the one guy in the Home Depot paint department) have been my friends. They've put up with a barrage of questions on primer, paint, floor prep, wall prep, brushes, roller nap and general tips on how to paint. A twenty-two dollar brush? Really? Okay, I'll take it.

So many schemes, but only one seems close (it's the one labeled "contemporary."

Buying painting tools is like buying anything else, you get what you pay for and the nicer the tool, the greater the pleasure. Who knew that one could derive so much pleasure from a Purdy wood handled brush or quick-release roller holder? Then there's the screens. Amazing. Screen sand paper that doesn't clog, meaning you can sand to your hearts' content and never clog your paper - who knew? With my trusty 3M respirator, I can spackle and sand all day and all night.

Truth be told, I haven't painted a shop since the original Jays Shave Ice shack in Timonium. When we did the second Timonium location, I had a crew come in and do the work. And I was planning on having a crew do project hampden and then I decided that I might as well make myself useful and tackle the job myself. Good thing Dad has been on hand to handle the detailed trim work. It's the reason I was never a very good graphic artist, my hands aren't surgeon steady - and luckily, Dad trained as a surgeon.

The Baditude Basement is painted and ready for the DJ.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Elements of Mangalitsa

Allie and Amaya.

For the past two years or so, I've been following the Wooly Pigs Blog, the repository for all things Mangalitsa in the United States. Widely known for its' famous fat content, the Mangalitsa is a Hungarian breed of pig that has a lot of hair in addition to it's tasty fat and succulent meat. In the United States, there are something like 1,000 Mangalitsas and 60,000 worldwide (with 50,000 of them still in Hungary).

The problem is that the Mangalitsa is non-existent in the Mid-Atlantic, so I've spent the past two years merely reading about the wooly pig instead of eating them. Until now.

Happily, an intrepid farmer in Sussex County, New Jersey has taken on the raising of the Mangalitsa and when Alex and Aki announced on their Ideas In Food website that they were partnering with Scott Anderson to produce a multi-course Mangalitsa tasting dinner, I was immediately on the phone with Beth at Elements Restaurant in Princeton to secure myself a table.

Whatever the cost, whatever the distance, if the Mangalitsa was on the menu, I was going to be there. Last Monday, Spike, Isaiah, Allie and myself drove up to Princeton to see what all the fuss was about.

This time, I'm not going to go into too much verbage about the evening. Just know that the air conditioning wasn't running at optimal power, we were hot, the bathrooms' air was ice cold, cocktails were flowing and the Mangalitsa was hot, hot, hot. Some of the highlights of the evening were the headcheese, the uni, the lardo, the fat and the bacon & eggs dessert. Just an amazing dinner that you'll see below.

Fried Green Tomato

Smoked Mangalitsa Whiskey

Pulled Pork on Cracklings.

Fried Clams with a very tasty thousand island-ish dipping sauce.

Lardo stuffed radish.

Smoked Fat on Toast: Sin.

A Charcuterie Wet Dream: succulent headcheese, cured ham, pate, sausage and a pastrami-like preparation with pickles, mustard and breads. Served family style, everyone tore into this offering and were suddenly hit with the realization that there was still an evening of eating ahead of us. Some of us might not make it.

Sliced Melon for the Charcuterie.

The Bread Offerings.

All good creatures deserve large helpings of Lardo...

Sea Urchin and Peaches.

Mangalitsa Salad.

Pork Belly.

Chile Relleno Mangalitsa.

Pasta with Mangalitsa Bacon, cream sauce and sous vide egg yolk.

Salsa Verde and a Cucumber Shrimp Slaw.



Sweet Corn

Mangalitsa Loin and Mangalitsa Leg.

Bacon & Eggs

Playing Egg Jenga.

Towers will fall...

Honey Glazed Ham Ice Cream with compressed pineapple topped with maraschino cherry juice and a sugar glazed crackling. This dessert was way out there - and I mean waaaay out there. I liked it because it really pushed the limits of what we think dessert is all about. Extreme. While I liked the idea of pushing the limits, the flavors were beyond my own limits. While I'm excited by the execution and sheer audacity and daring of the dessert, it's not one that I would choose to order. But I did love being able to taste it and be challenged by the flavors.

Elements Restaurant
163 Bayard Lane
Princeton, New Jersey 08540