(This article was originally published in South Bay Accent in June, 2008.)
There’s a new cadre of passionate chefs at work in the South Bay who have helped turn our region into a full-fledged foodie nirvana. However, these whisk artists are more likely to be whipping up an exotic new chutney or truffled ponzu sauce than a traditional French béchamel. Like our melting-pot population, the most beloved cuisines these days aren’t what they were 30 years ago.
Neither are the chefs. Nobody would have used “celebrity” as an adjective for “chef” back in the days when “Charlie’s Angels” and “Laverne & Shirley” ruled the tube. Times have changed along with the South Bay’s top chefs and the types of cuisine they produce. Today, diners who want a blow-your-socks-off dining experience are much more open to new food categories and more likely to share their experiences with others – in person or online. This has helped move dining trends into exciting new directions. For example, there has been an explosion of new Indian restaurants on the Peninsula scene in the last year or so that feature modern cooking and high-end ingredients.
Another of the most popular dining trends of the moment is an updated rendition of Asian fusion. Meanwhile, steak houses have reappeared on the hot list after a few decades of decline. Italian food has always been popular, but the big draw today features cooking that’s far beyond the pasta-and-meatballs, candle-in-the-Chianti-bottle genre. And finally, light, healthful eating is emerging – perhaps as an antidote to all the calories consumed in the other popular categories.
The most notable chefs in these categories are all culinary school grads who are highly skilled, driven and quotable, as befits the rock-star status of their profession in this food-obsessed era. So let’s hear what they have to say about their food, their restaurants and their industry.
Kirti Pant, executive chef of Junnoon, Palo Alto
This buzz-generating restaurant and bar has hip décor featuring spice-hued colors and shimmering, transparent silk panels. Also very up to date is the food from chef Pant, who previously worked in some of the best-known restaurants from London to New York that are delivering modern Indian cuisine. In fact, he gets input at Junnoon from consulting chef Floyd Cardoz of New York’s renowned Tabla, whose pioneering new Indian cooking style has been called “thrilling — a bit like a rollercoaster ride through the flavor spectrum.” At Junnoon, Pant is successfully marrying his classic training with our great local ingredients, presenting fresher, lighter food that still has Indian cuisine’s exciting spices.
Peninsula Eatz: How do you describe the “modern Indian food” that you are serving at Junnoon?
Kirti Pant: Our focus is to present Indian food in a more contemporary and more modern way without compromising on the authenticity or the flavors or the aromas. For example, the seafood that we do – the sea bass, the halibut, the mustard prawns – traditionally, they would be cut into chunks and fried and put into the sauce. But we are pan searing them and finishing them in the oven. And then we are plating them with the sauce as the base and the seafood on top of that. Our aim is to provide healthy food but at the same time, keep it interesting. We try to have healthy sauces, very light sauces — not too heavy or greasy.
PE: Are you dialing down the spice content in order to appeal to guests who are used to more bland Western food?
KP: We are courageous enough to use the exact amount of spice that is needed and not cut down on it. (He smiles.) We don’t want to lose any flavors. We’ve been open three months now and I’ve had just one feedback (from guests) that they found something very hot. But otherwise, they’ve really enjoyed all the flavors and aromas they’re getting.
PE: What are some of the biggest differences between your food and traditional Indian cuisine?
KP: Things like steak. You don’t do much steak in India. (He looks over his menu.) And shitake and oyster mushrooms. That is something I’m only able to get here. And things like Muscovy duck. We don’t do duck at all in Indian cuisine. And things like arugula. (Also,) the quality of meat that we get and the ingredients that we get — we usually don’t get that in India. We don’t get such a wide variety of seafood in India. In terms of produce (here), we are able to get very good microgreens and organic produce, which we are able to leverage.
PE: What are some of your most popular dishes?
KP: Our most popular dish is the rice-crusted sea bass with kokum sauce. Kokum is the skin of a tropical berry. When you soak it, it gives off a purple color. It’s a souring agent. When I make a sauce (that also includes) coconut milk and onions and tomatoes, it comes out like a very sweet and sour kind of a sauce. People really like it.
Also, the tandoori halibut with coconut ginger sauce. That dish, actually, won me the first prize in a competition in 2004 (put on by) J. Moreau & Fils, a Chablis producer in France. It was a pairing of seafood with wine competition.
PE: What do you like to eat when you’re at other restaurants or at home?
KP: I like to go to modern restaurants. I really like the food at Tamarine (a highly regarded Vietnamese fusion restaurant in Palo Alto). At home, we eat very simple home-style vegetarian food. My wife is vegetarian and she cooks.
Barney Brown, corporate executive chef of Sino, Santana Row, San Jose
A Honolulu native, Brown has three decades of cooking experience that includes stints at New York’s Le Cirque, the original Stars and Le Trianon in San Francisco. The low-key, twinkle-eyed half Korean has been called “the pioneer chef of Pan-Asian tapas food,” having run the kitchen at places like San Francisco’s acclaimed Betelnut and E&O Trading Company. Brown now oversees the kitchens at the Straits Café locations and Sino, which is a swanky, eye-popping Asian-fusion restaurant/bar.
Peninsula Eatz: How do you describe the food at Sino?
Barney Brown: We do Chinese fusion, basically. We have some classical, traditional dishes but we try to keep the integrity of the original dish, the flavors, but with a different look and presentation. Originally, we stuck with more traditional (food), but then we saw that’s not what people wanted. You walk in here (motioning toward the sleek, modern décor), you’re expecting something different (grins).
PE: What are some of the signature dishes?
BB: Rather than doing traditional pot stickers, we do lobster pot stickers. That’s a big seller. Char siu-style smoked seabass is good. It’s taking the red pork that you see in Chinese markets – the same marinade but doing it with fish. Then we lightly smoke it over hickory sawdust. It comes out really good. I love the charred edges and then it’s red, but you open it and it’s still white.
PE: What are some bad cooking trends of the past?
BB: There was some really bad fusion. Back in the old days, I used to call it “con-fusion” because the young chefs would just throw things together. (Such as) coconut pesto, which is, like, so wrong! There was so much of that. Generally, because the chefs were young and had no experience with the flavors.
(He talks about his first trip to a new Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant years ago.) That really intrigued me because I’m so into food. I remember having ceasar salad, but instead of olive oil, they used sesame oil. Parmesan and sesame really don’t work. And there were big chunks of raw ginger, with sun-dried tomatoes. I’ll never forget that. My god, what are you doing?! (As if admonishing the chef:) It was horrendous!
PE: What are some emerging food trends?
BB: A big thing right now is European desserts in Asia, particularly Korea. A lot of pastry chefs are moving to Korea now because there are so many opportunities.
E: Why did you become a chef?
BB: I started late. I was a graphic illustrator. I was freelancing, spending a lot of time at home, (but) I didn’t know how to cook. I remember buying a skinny Sunset cookbook in the supermarket: Cooking for Two or Just You. That became my bible. I think I made every recipe in that book. Then I started watching Julia Child on t.v. I bought a Bon Appétit. And from that point, I was hooked.
Alessandro Cartumini, executive chef of Quattro in the Four Seasons, East Palo Alto.
The curly-haired, rosy-cheeked blond is a third-generation cook in his family, whose home is on Lago Maggiore in Piedmont. Cooking from the age of 15, he worked in Four Seasons properties in Milan, London, San Diego and Scottsdale before opening the new East PaloAlto location. He oversees a cooking staff of 37 that prepares all the food consumed in the ritzy new hotel. Gorgeous Quattro serves a Cal-Ital menu that focuses on seasonal, local ingredients.
Peninsula Eatz: What’s your cooking concept at Quattro?
Alessandro Cartumini: The trend coming up now is simple food. More humble food. Take perfect ingredients and cook (them) and present them well. Clean. In a nice “container” (meaning customized plates for specific items). Risotto and gnocchi are things, obviously, I do best. I’m from risotto country (in) Northwest Italy, that’s where all the rice is grown. (It’s) about 40 miles from the Swiss border.
PE: What are some of your favorite menu items?
AC: We have a rosemary pappardelle that I really like. We use wild boar shoulder, which is lighter. It’s braised, with fresh peas, some fresh ricotta and a little bit of lemon. One of my main courses is Veal Milanese, which is a thick veal chop, breaded and served with braised banana fingerling potatoes with a little bit of caramelized onion on it. With a fresh salad of spinach and toybox cherry tomatoes. I surround with a balsamic and red wine reduction sauce.
PE: What are diners like here compared to other places you’ve worked?
AC: In Northern California, people just like to eat! They like the lighter food but they (still) like to taste the food. In San Diego and LA, people want very little seasoning. What I notice here is that I can use the seasoning. I want the food (to be seasoned) so it fills your mouth. I don’t want you to walk away thinking “I’m missing just a little bit.”
PE: What are some up-and-coming ingredients you’d like to use more?
AC: All the fresh beans. Like canellini beans, butter beans. (I like to) use them fresh. I used to use them when I was a kid. My grandmother used to have bean plants. When you cook those beans fresh, you can use them (in so many ways). Cardoni (Italian for cardoon) is another one. They’re really fibrous. You need to cook them right. All the earthy vegetables are coming back, like kale.
PE: What are some of your favorite things to eat?
AC: I like pizza! I like a good steak. I love fresh tuna. I like, I like…I like all good food!
Jeffrey Stout, executive chef of Alexander’s Steakhouse, Cupertino
A compact, baby-faced Bay Area native, Stout has been strongly influenced by his Japanese mother, who cooked ravioli one day and broiled fish with rice in the Japanese style the next. He has cooked all over the Bay Area, including early stints at Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon, La Folie in San Francisco and California Café. While classy Alexander’s is best known for its second-to-none steaks, Stout offers some fantastic, Japanese-fusion-themed small plates and main courses that have drawn their own following.
Peninsula Eatz: What do you serve other than steak?
Jeffrey Stout: I’m almost more proud of our seafood than anything. We go through $1500 worth of seafood a day in cost. What we are allowed to do here in buying is just amazing. We buy the best of the best of everything. There’s like 20 types of seafood in this restaurant. Crab, alone, we have four different types of crab running around. There’s so much more you can do with the seafood and the small plates.
PE: What are your most popular dishes?
JS: One thing that we do here is what we call our signature steak. It’s a 28-day dry-aged bone-in filet. No other restaurant, I believe, can do this type of steak because in order to do so, you have to be able to dry-age your own meat and have a saw to cut it. You can buy bone-in filets from meat companies at around $30 a pound, cost, which at restaurants they’ll sell for around $60 or $70. But to find a dry-aged filet is incredibly hard. This is one thing we pride ourselves on. When we have these, probably once every 10 days, they’ll sell out within a half an hour. It truly is the most phenomenal steak because you get the tenderness from the tenderloin but you also get the incredible flavor from the dry aging.
PE: What are some annoying restaurant food trends?
JS: Restaurants that use the words “fresh” and ‘farm fresh.” Since the 1980s, we’ve been talking about this. Is there any real need to talk about it any more? If you’re telling people your cuisine is fresh – there should never be any question! I think the diner himself is sophisticated enough to not really go, “Oh, fresh salmon!” Why would there be anything else?
PE: What are some of your favorite new ingredients?
JS: This is the first restaurant where I’ve used a product called Tasmanian king salmon. The Japanese call it sake toro, which means “fatty salmon.” It has three times the amount of fat that normal salmon does. Consequently, it’s incredibly moist. The texture is completely different. It tastes like salmon but it’s so rich in your mouth that it’s fantastic.
Recently, I’ve started using fresh hearts of palm that are flown in from Hawaii. It’s so different from the canned product. It’s crunchy, sweet – almost reminiscent of coconut. It’s pretty exciting.
May Yong, owner-chef of Lure, San Mateo
Some of the other chefs interviewed for this article said that healthier, lighter food would be growing in popularity on the restaurant scene. Lean, intense, stylish May Yong has already perfected it, serving a very personal, seafood-focused menu in her little sliver of a restaurant that sometimes reflects her Malaysian heritage. Briefly a biochemist, she turned to cooking a decade ago and was chef de cuisine at Palo Alto’s beloved L’Ami Donia for several years in addition to working at a few well-regarded San Francisco restaurants. These days, she walks the walk at Lure, not just serving sustainable seafood but paying attention to where the creatures reside on the food chain.
Peninsula Eatz: What food trends do you forsee?
May Yong: I forsee a growth in restaurants that not only serve local and sustainable food but fresh – meaning live – food, right from the garden. Imagine a place where they’ve got live tomato plants. They don’t pick the tomato until you order it. It’s still warm from the sun. They slice it right there. For example, we’ve recently heard about (some restaurants in Japan) serving fish sashimi where the fish is still twitching. The nerves are still twitching. (But) not everyone would go for that; to have your plate moving. Flesh pulsing while you’re swallowing it!
PE: What are some of your favorite dishes on the menu?
MY: On our spring menu, I think there are some dishes that stand out. One of them is the shrimp and chickpea stew. I love that dish because it’s surpisingly light. The flavors explode on your tongue. The sunchoke really lightens it. It’s a stew with garbanzo beans, sunchoke and cashews. The flavors are south Asian.
PE: Are there some ingredients your guests aren’t ready for?
MY: There are ingredients I stay away from because, for many people, it’s much too pungent. I grew up eating belacan – dried, fermented shrimp bodies packed together in a hard brick. People in South Asia use it in small quantities. That’s a flavor I grew up with but I wouldn’t dare put that on the menu! I would love to serve more sea urchin – more uni — but I don’t have many customers right now who are crying for it.
PE: Besides freshness and sustainability, what other issues influence the seafood you serve?
MY: I ask myself, what’s a little lower on the food chain? I’m a firm believer in not supporting the farming of apex predators. For example, I won’t serve bluefin tuna in my restaurant. The way it’s farmed in the Mediterranean, I don’t agree with. It takes 22 pounds of sardines or feeder fish to create one pound of tuna. It’s very intensive farming. It’s eating very high on the food chain and it’s not necessary. Some of my favorite items are clams and mussels. They’re very low on the food chain. They’re sustainable. They’re all farmed in the United States. They create a cleaner environment around them instead of polluting it. That’s another factor I used in deciding what to serve on my menu. I serve whitebait on my menu. Who serves smelts but me?! And they’re absolutely delicious!
PE: How does your background influence the dishes you create?
MY: In my cooking, I’ve always been interested in that play of sweet and salt and sour and heat, too. So I like to incorporate that and explore those flavors. It’s something my taste buds have become accustomed to, growing up with those flavors, and I like to use that. I feel sometimes that traditional European dishes could benefit from a little injection of those tastes.