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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

The Weight of Water

We have oenophiles, tea experts, and coffee aficionados, so it was just a matter of time before someone started sniffing drinking fountains. After all, sometimes the water charge is the highest on your bill (especially if you thoughtlessly started drinking the beaded bottle of Pellegrino that was staring you down from the center of your restaurant table. At least in Vegas they post a big sign on the hotel bottles, telling you to your face how much they plan to rip you off!), so why shouldn’t you sip thoughtfully?

The last nine minutes of Evan Kleiman’s KCRW radio show, Good Food, on September 9, 2006, were devoted to talking to Dr. Michael Mascha, the water connoisseur. After being told by his doctor that he needed to lay off the wine, Dr. Mascha turned his thirst toward water.

On his website, FineWaters, Dr. Mascha profiles still and sparkling waters from all over the world, provides a water vocabulary to use when tasting and discussing water, and even does food pairings. When thinking of Thanksgiving, for example, FineWaters suggests:

Light designated waters have smaller bubble than those of the Bold sparkling waters. Heritage turkeys have a more subtle, cleaner flavor than commercial turkeys. So in order not to overpower the flavor and to match the mouthfeel of the side dishes a Light sparkling water is perfect.

Dr. Mascha’s thirst-quenching expertise is also heavily featured in Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s newest book, What to Drink with What You Eat.

While I might not yet be inclined to give up my reds, whites, and rosés, water is pretty important to me. I was so disgusted by the taste of San Diego municipal water when I briefly lived there that we spent an entire summer lugging plastic jugs of water back from the grocery store. I was ridiculously happy and comforted when we returned to San Francisco’s good old Hetch Hetchy water. Suddenly, life made sense again and my hair felt clean.

Is It Wrong to Play with Your Food?

Is It Wrong to Play with Your Food?

It's a matter of respect, for your food and your company. READ MORE

Eating, Bitching

Last week, An Obsession with Food discussed Michael Pollan’s latest post in his ongoing “open conversation” with John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods. (In case you haven’t followed the once-contentious, now – apparently civil debate, it all started this spring when Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he criticizes Whole Foods and other large players in the organic and natural-foods industry for hurting small-scale farmers and food purveyors. In response, Mackey wrote an “Open Letter to Michael Pollan” on his blog, and the public convo continued from there.)

For Derrick of OWF, the latest exchange helped change his feelings about the supermarket: “Even I might soften my anti–Whole Foods stance in light of the initiatives they’ve been putting into place,” he says. Those initiatives do sound extensive—including allocating $10 million per year for loans to local farmers, hosting weekly farmers’ markets on many Whole Foods parking lots, and instituting new “animal compassionate standards” that require all livestock to have access to pasture. Pollan is impressed with Mackey’s efforts, too: “You have demonstrated a commitment to a higher form of discourse than public relations,” he writes.

Mackey’s eagerness to engage in this kind of discourse with Pollan is understandable, given the writer’s clout among eco-minded foodies (Whole Foods’ target market); more interesting, perhaps, are the motivations behind this exchange between Sirio Maccioni, owner of New York City’s Le Cirque, and blogger Adam Roberts of the Amateur Gourmet. After Roberts blogged about a bad experience he and his family had at the restaurant, Maccioni sent Roberts’s parents a letter of apology and invited the whole clan to come back for a free meal.

Why the extreme effort to atone for the bad service and ho-hum food? As one commenter on AG theorizes, “It is not because you had a bad experience that they’re writing to you, it’s because you have a well-regarded blog.” True, but how interesting that a restaurant with a reputation for ostentatiousness and bald-faced snobbism, a place “filled with ruddy-cheeked titans of industry” and other high-society types, would so desperately court an unpretentious young blogger like Roberts. Maccioni didn’t even apologize to then–New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl for the shoddy treatment after her famous double review of Le Cirque in 1993; he was angry rather than contrite and boasted that business had only gotten better in the wake of the review.

What has changed since then? Have any other bloggers or Chowhounders out there had similar experiences with chefs after writing negative reviews?

Iron Chef: Battle Offal?

It’s Italy versus innards as San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino—an aficionado of whole beast cuisine—gets ready to do battle against Mario Batali on the Food Network’s Iron Chef. He’s hoping the secret ingredient will be offal.

As he announced on his blog, Offal Good, Cosentino will tape the show this week in New York. It’s set to air early in 2007. “This is straight up hard work,” Cosentino writes of the one-hour competition. “I am going to cook my ass off!!”

Iron Chef Batali might do well to watch out. Cosentino competes in 24-hour ultra-endurance mountain bike races and is bound to be in good shape. He will also be fast on his feet, courtesy of a pair of custom-designed Adidas that look like a red-and-white-checked tablecloth with cutlery images on the stripes. Batali, known for his trademark orange Crocs, is going to have some competition in the footwear department, if nothing else.

Soul Food

Take a walk around San Francisco’s glamorous Ferry Plaza Farmers Market or flip through the new Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook (sniffily subtitled “A Comprehensive Guide to Impeccable Produce”), and you might think Northern California’s small farms do nothing but cherish the perfect microgreens and heirloom peaches for fat-wallet Bay Area bohemians. Don’t get us wrong: Farming, especially on a small, organic scale, is tough work, and no one’s getting rich doing it, even if they do charge $5 a pop for that special tree-ripened peach. But nutrition shouldn’t come down to fancy fruit for the wealthy and empty-calorie bodega snacks—or drab government-surplus commodity cheese—for those lower down the economic ladder. Recent articles in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and The New York Times (requires registration) point up two programs that get fresh food and nutrition information where it’s needed most.

San Francisco restaurateur Larry Bains, whose Acme Chophouse was a pioneer in getting grass-fed, sustainably raised meat onto local menus, is in his second year running his Nextcourse program at the San Francisco County Jail. Teachers do side-by-side comparisons of farmers’ market and supermarket produce, showing how the locally grown food is almost always fresher and cheaper. Then, with a $5-per-person budget (and no knives), they work on preparing an entrée, a vegetable, and a salad, passing along information about marketing, nutrition, and budgeting. Says one program participant, “When I was in jail, I was thinking this was all bullshit. I can’t do that. It’s going to be too expensive. It’s just you white people blowing smoke up our ass. But I got out and now I’m going to the market every week and my kids love it.”

Up in Sonoma County, the Food for Thought pantry, established to support people living with HIV and AIDS, supplies more than 450 people in the area with lush organic produce grown in its own garden, built by gardeners from the nearby Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. Many recipients come in, not just to get their food boxes, but also to spend a few hours tending the heirloom tomatoes and rainbow chard. This is food as full-body sustenance, not just for the belly but the soul.

Sunday Morning at the Panaderia

On Sunday morning, La Victoria Mexican Bakery is a great place to be, says Dave MP. The pastries are tasty, especially with the good coffee, and the sweet tamales are delicious. All the tamales, including the sweet ones and also chicken and pork, are freshly made in the morning. They also serve gelato from Copa Loca. Small coffee is $1.25 and tamales are $2 to $3. Pan dulces cost about a dollar each.

Mari could not disagree more, vastly preferring Panaderia La Reyna down the street. On Sunday you can smell the fresh bread from outside on the sidewalk, and the bread and pan dulce is better and cheaper than La Victoria. The trade-off is, they don’t have tables like La Victoria. Try them both and see what you think.

La Victoria Mexican Bakery [Mission]
2937 24th St., San Francisco
415-642-7120
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La Reyna Panaderia [Mission]
3114 24th St., San Francisco
415-647-6502
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Sunday Morning at Panaderia La Victoria

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Sweet potato gnocchi, the signature dish at Da Flora, is simply amazing, says fnut. Seven of them are served in sage, pancetta, and cream sauce. echo theorizes that the prime number is on purpose–it’s impossible to divide evenly, and they’re so good that uneven division will result in fights, so everybody has to get their own order.

Black Mouth cake is also highly recommended, but Chowhounds are most impressed with the impeccably selected wine list put together by the knowledgeable, enthusiastic Flora herself.

Da Flora [North Beach]
701 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
415-981-4664
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Da Flora’s gnocchi

Tacos in a Tortilla Factory and Other Brooklyn Mexican Tips

You’ll find no fresher tortillas than the ones used for tacos at Los Tortilleria Mexicana. This tortilla factory in Bushwick’s bustling Mexican section has a taco stand right on the premises, turning out tasty $2 tacos and tostadas, reports anneyuki. Grab a table, settle in for lunch, and watch the crew pack tortillas by the case.

Some of those tortillas might be bound for nearby Tacos La Hacienda, which serves cheap, authentic Mexican food plus standard diner fare in a silver dining car. Look for specials like chicken in mole poblano and pork ribs in green sauce, advises guide boy.

Los Tortilleria Mexicana [Bushwick]
271 Starr St., between Wyckoff and St. Nicholas Aves., Brooklyn
718-456-3422
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Tacos La Hacienda [Bushwick]
96 Wyckoff Ave., near Hart St., Brooklyn
718-821-8816
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Tacos in NYC
Just moved to East Williamsburg/Bushwick–where should I eat?

A Surprising Sirloin Salad at Keens

The rarely mentioned steak salad at Keens is eminently houndworthy and probably not what you would expect. It’s a smallish piece of aged prime sirloin, maybe a ten-ouncer, with a salad on the side. The salad is nothing special, reports Paul Lukas, but the steak is fantastic. “Among the best small steaks I’ve had in the city,” he adds, “and I didn’t feel like I had to take a nap immediately afterward. Recommended.”

It’s $23 and available only for lunch or in the Pub Room.

Keens Steakhouse [Herald Square]
72 W. 36th St., between 6th and 5th Aves., Manhattan
212-947-3636
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“Steak Salad” at Keen’s

This May Be the Perfect Mooncakes

While most mooncakes are mass produced and packaged for international distribution, Taiwan Gourmet Deli’s are hand-made daily with freshly ground ingredients including dates, green beans, and red beans. They’re made with just the right amount of lard, and very few preservatives, ipsedixit says. Taiwan Gourmet Deli’s specialty are green pong moon cakes, white with a flakey crust.

Diamond Bakery in San Gabriel and Queen’s bakery in Chinatown both are both worthy mooncake makers with a large variety of flavor options. There are so many different fillings it’s hard to choose. Red bean, date/walnut, and mixed nut with ham are current favorites, says jenn. For the freshest mooncakes get them before October 6th, the official start of the Moon Festival.

Family Pastry’s sells a large variety of fresh moon cakes, says monku, who considers their plump, pork-filled, baked charsu bao the best around.

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You looking for good MOON CAKES? Read on …