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

Overheard on the New York Boards

"The cumin lamb is consistently a mind-blowing punch of delicious." - pitu

"The Brooklyn couple showed up with aprons, assuming that it was a cooking class, and the three Manhattan couples spent the evening taking calls on their Blackberries and discussing television the entire time. At one point, a guy actually raised his voice over Chef Ramirez's dish description to finish his point about some TV show." - EJC

"[A]round 9 or 10 pm they started playing Christmas songs very loudly, and not just any Christmas songs.... They were Christmas songs sung by dying/sick animals, complete with lots of sad barking and meowing. The worst part is the staff seemed to derive pleasure from watching customers' faces turn to horror." - Jess321

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia!

Thanks, Vegetarian Times magazine (print edition), for an interesting article on chia seeds. Yes, these are the seeds that sprout to make a Chia Pet. But they're also a superfood, used by the ancient Aztecs back in the day, with lots of Omega-3 fats and the ability to help digestion.

Mix them whole into yogurt, quick bread batters, muffins, or pancakes, says Vegetarian Times. Unlike flax, they don't  have to be ground up for your body to access the nutrients, and they have less of a pronounced flavor. And here's something trippy: After you eat them, they form a gel in your stomach, which makes you feel satiated. Just in time to try to ward off holiday gorging.

Image source: Flickr member srqpix under Creative Commons

How to Prepare a Winter Squash

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So that it's easy to peel, easy to cut. ... WATCH THE VIDEO

How to Transfer a Tart to a Plate

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Put it on a makeshift pedestal. ... WATCH THE VIDEO

Sorghum, the New Pancake Pour

Your grandpappy from the Deep South didn't pour maple syrup on his hotcakes: maples need freezing cold nights to start the flow of sap that becomes syrup. No, sorghum was what sweetened all manner of foodstuffs way back when in the South, and now the old-fashioned sugar substitute is getting hot again. Hungry Beast's Stacey Slate explains how sorghum is made:

"Sorghum syrup is actually a juice extract collected from a tall grass called sweet sorghum. Harvesters strip the leaves off the stalk and cut the seeds from the head of the plant. The stalks are then laid out to dry for a few days while the enzymes within the cane convert starches to sugar. When the stalk is dried out, it is crushed to extract its green juice (the liquid is green because of chlorophyll in the plant). It is then boiled down to eliminate moisture and skimmed to get rid of the green juice. The result is the amber syrup known as sweet sorghum."

Yum! How do you use it? On pancakes and biscuits, in sweet sauces like barbecue, even in baked goods, where it makes a dandy substitute for molasses. Find out more about sorghum's resurgence, including its impressive nutritional profile, and why it may someday be used for fuel, at the Hungry Beast.

Beignets Are In!

I guess the maple-bacon doughnut trend was too played out. The latest incarnation of the deep-fried doughball is the frittery, doughnut-y beignet, made famous in New Orleans. Spotted: with bacon as an appetizer at the new Frances restaurant in San Francisco; with maple and bacon at Abattoir in Atlanta; and in pumpkin flavor served with coconut curry ice cream at Boka in Chicago.

Image source: Flickr member clamhead under Creative Commons

Street Food Made Fancy

Chilango, the brainchild of a chef from Mexico DF (the name Chilango is slang for a resident of Mexico City, or Distrito Federal) has zoomed to the top of david kaplan's list of best new restaurants. The excellent handmade street fare made from sustainable ingredients ranges "from very good to best in class."

"Their carnitas are small pieces of moist, fatty pork, deep-fried so they are crispy on the outside yet unctuous within," he says. "Served with pickled onions, chunky guacamole, four salsas, and handmade tortillas, their carnitas may be the best bite I've had this year."

Second to the carnitas is the huarache, a thickish oval of griddled masa piled with carnitas-flecked refried beans, pulled braised short ribs, cheese, and herbs. Sopes, a slightly thicker masa concoction, have a wonderful toasted flavor and resilient bite. There are four options for toppings: cheese, picadillo (spiced ground beef), potato-chorizo, and poblano. Tamales are creamy and loose, with a spicy salsa; fish tacos are also very good. And the filet mignon tacos are delicious, says vulber, who agrees it's one of the year's great new spots.

Incidentally, Chilango's owner also owns Casa Mexicana, which vulber thinks definitely has the best burrito in the Lower Haight-Duboce Triangle area.

Chilango is pricey compared to your average taqueria, but a bargain for the quality, david kaplan says. And the half-pound of carnitas that you get for $12 stands as a meal for two. The lunch and dinner menu items are the same, although a lunch order gets you two sopes, tamales, or quesadillas, while at dinner you get three.

Chilango [Castro]
235 Church Street, San Francisco
415-552-5700

Discuss: Chilango: favorite new restaurant of 2009 (Church & Market, SF)

Sourdough on the Endangered List

Classic, artisanal San Francisco sourdough bread, "the stuff every supermarket used to have 25 varieties of, like Boudin still makes for old-school restaurants like Tadich and Sam's," has become endangered, says Robert Lauriston. "I knew this stuff was nearly extinct, but I didn't know things had gone this far."

Specifically, we're talking about bread that's "more assertive/sour, denser (not an airy bread) and the crust can literally cut your mouth, it's tough and chewy," says ML8000.

The consensus seems to be that the best old-school sourdough loaves found in the city these days originate at Bordenave's Bakery in San Rafael. Bordenave's extra-sour dark-bake loaves can be found at Spenger's fish market, where they're delivered fresh daily. But, although the batards and rounds sold there are both supposed to be sour, it's only the rounds that are true to the old-fashioned ideal.

"Bread Garden has the absolute best sourdough I've had in a long, long time," says rworange. "Opening the bag I was overcome with the wonderful sour tangy aroma. The crust nicely chewy, the crumb classic." It goes great with the crab salad from Sea Breeze Market (a little sweet-talkin' is needed to get the counterpeople to sell it apart from a green salad or a sandwich). Unfortunately, Bread Garden is considering closing its doors sometime in 2010.

"When I think of this type of bread it brings to mind an almost black very sharp crust with a pronounced sour taste," says cakebaker. While Tartine's sourdough has the right crust, Acme's Italian loaf tastes closest to what SF sourdough should be, cakebaker says.

Thorough Bread, a retail outlet of the San Francisco Baking Institute, makes a sourdough that's a great loaf of bread, but different from its ancestors, says Mick Ruthven. He loves the crust, but it's thinner and not as hard as the real thing; the interior isn't as dense; and, while it has a nice sour flavor, it's not quite sour enough.

Wedemeyer's loaf, available at the Grocery Outlets in Berkeley and Oakland at least, looks and smells right, Robert Lauriston says, down to those little bumps on the bottom. "Still not totally it, but probably my favorite of the old companies still producing bread," says sugartoof.

Bordenave's Bakery [Marin County]
1512 Fourth Street, San Rafael
415-453-2957

Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto [East Bay]
1919 Fourth Street, Berkeley
510-845-7771

Bread Garden [East Bay]
2912 Domingo Avenue, Berkeley
510-548-3122

Sea Breeze Market & Deli [East Bay]
598 University Avenue, Berkeley
510-486-0802

Tartine Bakery [Mission]
600 Guerrero Street, San Francisco
415-487-2600

Acme Bread [Embarcadero]
Ferry Slip, San Francisco
415-288-2978

Tadich Grill
240 California Street, San Francisco
415-391-1849

Thorough Bread and Pastry [Duboce Triangle]
248 Church Street, San Francisco
415-558-0690

Grocery Outlet [East Bay]
2001 Fourth Street, Berkeley
510-666-0670

Grocery Outlet [East Bay]
2900 Broadway, Oakland
510-465-5649

Discuss: Old-school sourdough bread?

Baltic Soothes the Schnitzel-Starved

The Baltic has opened after much delay, bringing high-quality German and American food to the schnitzel-starved residents of Point Richmond, reports AntarcticWidow.

Sautéed pork loin with mushroom sauce is solidly delicious comfort food, with a fantastic sauce and tender, chewy housemade spätzle. A German-style beef stew is all "beefy, stewy goodness," ladled over even more of that spätzle. The lunch menu includes vegetarian dishes, soups, salads, burgers, and "serious sounding sandwiches," the Widow says.

rworange says a special of pork tenderloin with red cabbage and apples was "lovely," the thick pork slices tender and tasty, the red cabbage very good. She notes that the Baltic also has a buffalo burger that's pretty popular.

Portions are generous even at lunch, when prices are $12 to $23. The owners are still in the process of getting a liquor license.

The Baltic [East Bay]
135 Park Place, Point Richmond
510-237-1000

Discuss: Point Richmond. At last … German food at The Baltic!

Old Standby Now a Local Gem

Although Florio is an old reliable in CarrieWas218's neighborhood restaurant rotation, she's always found it not that interesting, just solid home cooking. But on a recent visit, it seemed the kitchen had upped its game.

A salad of shaved fennel, anchovies, and pomelos is "fresh and innovative," while squash soup with wild mushrooms is creamy, rich and engaging. Then there's the Berkshire pork Milanese. "Pounded thin like a veal cutlet, for $19 this dish was astonishingly good; tender, moist, and with a great crust, possibly made with the addition of panko for extra crunchiness. I was a bit jealous I hadn't ordered the dish myself," Carrie says. It comes with mustard sauce, housemade sauerkraut, and fingerling potatoes.

Carrie's Totten Inlet mussels, though, were more than satisfying, huge and richly flavored. The broth is white-wine based, but the addition of a garlicky aioli takes it over the top. "I have a new fondness and respect for Florio," Carrie says. "And a last word on service: Exemplary."

But it seems that consistency, or maybe large groups, is not Florio's forte. PulledPork briefly details a recent disappointing meal for 10: "Boring flavors, overcooked meats, and pastas that fell far short of those offered all over SF these days."

Florio Bar & Cafe [Pacific Heights]
1915 Fillmore Street, San Francisco
415-775-4300

Discuss: [SF] Florio