[Advanced warning: this is an epic long post. Don’t look/read it on an empty stomach]
Once a year, there comes an event that is THE absolute best San Francisco Bay Area’s food & wine event of the year: The Meals on Wheels Star Chef’s & Vintner’s Gala. I’ve been going to the black tie event for the past seven or eight years, and each year it out does itself. With Nancy Oakes (Boulevard, Prospect) chairing the event yet again, the list of restaurants and wineries was truly fantastic. It’s funny, because I often don’t eat out that much in San Francisco, but I can say that I’ve had food from some of the top restaurants in the SF Bay Area, all because of this event. And, as always, it’s a total inspiration for me at home in the kitchen, where I created this strawberry chocolate tart with lemon caramel, inspired by a dessert sampled from the Ritz Carlton, San Francisco.
Meals on Wheels hosts their biggest fundraiser every May, the Meals on Wheels Star Chef’s and Vintner’s Gala, and this year, it broke their record by raising $1.4 million. That’s about 350,000 meals for homebound seniors! AJ and I get super excited to go and this year was no exception. The weekend was packed for me, as I was helping to organize the San Francisco Food Blogger’s Bake Sale, as well as attending the first San Francisco Food Swap. But I rallied as AJ and I weren’t missing this event.
The minute we walk into this event, in our swanky black tie tuxedos (that AJ and I own, no rentals for us) and take a glass of Domaine Chandon sparkling wine to sip on while we wait in line to register, we knew that were in for an amazing evening. The theme colors this year were shocking pink and eye popping chartreuse green, creating a festive and fun atmosphere from the get go.
The Gala is set up in three stages of
gluttony fine dining experience. Stage one occurs when you walk into the big tent, and see the vast array of restaurants and wineries who have set up stations to serve the fancy rich people who have come to the event. In the middle is a huge silent auction station, which I usually try to get AJ to avoid (unlimited wine tasting and silent auction do not make our bank account happy – but I guess that’s the point, after all it’s a fundraiser). You can wander aimlessly about sampling appetizers from different restaurants, but I always have a game plan. Hit as many restaurants and top notch wineries with a razor point precision, and do not dawdle or go back for seconds, lest you fill up too fast to try everything.
Of course, one of the first stations that we stopped at was La Mar Cebicheria Peruana which was offering three types of Peruvian ceviche, an ahi tuna, a hamachi yellowtail and a third one I didn’t get, for fear that if I did, I would just stay there all night eating them all. I love my ceviche. Thankfully, AJ rescued me from OD on ceviche by shoving an Italian salumi on buttermilk biscuit and pickled pepper jam sandwich in my mouth, from Americano. Revived from a ceviche stupor, I wandered over to TR Elliot where I snagged a lovely light 2007 Pinot Noir.
Then AJ and I turned around and found Greens in front of us, so we picked up their mushroom crostini (with four types of mushrooms) which was as fantastic as you would expect, and then Hana which were making sushi handrolls to order. Hello Hana, AJ and I could stay at your station forever. Hana, by the way, was where AJ first broke our rule of never going back for seconds until every station was sampled, because he ended up with two rolls. Dragging him away, lest he get a third roll, I spotted Chef Chad Newton serving up his housemade bacon tater tots with steak sauce (I love me a good tater tot) from his new fast casual concept “American Box” along with Chef Gracie Nguyen serving up fried chicken spring rolls with kimchi puree (yes they were as good as it sounds) from the sister concept “Asian Box.”
Taking a bit of a breather from the food, AJ and I wandered and talked to some of the vineyards, asking Three Sticks about their wine (it was small lot produce wine, with their Cabernet Sauvignon’s being full of berry and juicy fruit), discussing with Harvest Moon about their Zinfadel (blended from both old vine and new vine grapes) and wondering why Shafer Vineyard called their Cabernet Sauvignon One Point Five (one point five refers to the collaborative father and son working on the wine together, not a traditional second generation winemaker family).
After our wine break, we rolled ourselves over to Brick and Bottle, Scott Howard’s Marin restaurant where we sampled his killer mac and cheese with with duck confit and tomato jam. Updated comfort food at it’s best. Speaking of excellent updated comfort food, 15 Romolo had fried chicken on a biscuit with spiced honey. Thankfully Terzo, offering up a freshly made fava bean puree with marinated feta cheese on a pita chip, was there to give my palate a bit of a cleansing break with a bright green bite.
Navio Restaurant at the The Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay always has some interesting vegetable based appetizers, and this year was no different, as they served up an English pea and Dungeness Crab “Panna Cotta” with Spring morels and lemon confit relish. Waterbar was there serving up pastrami style steelhead with sauerkraut which sounded novel, but actually made sense when you tasted it (think cured trout, but with pastrami seasonings). Around the corner, Paragon had pork shoulder with Kansas City style BBQ sauce and apple jicama ginger slaw on egg brioche. And the Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room was serving up a chilled asparagus “vichyssoise” soup with Espellette pepper and truffle salt which almost sounded healthy, if you scooped out the crispy pancetta that they served it with. I did not do any such thing.
Des Amis Café had some green garlic griddle cakes served with shaved lamb’s tongue, which had me wondering how large a lamb tongue really was (not a great mental image, but still I’m curious) and Hecho was serving up triple dipped chicken yakitori which had AJ immediately reaching for a second one. He loves meat on a stick (you should see him at a street fair, he gets all excited). Scala’s Bistro had ricotta gnudi with rabbit which had both of use excited, as we love rabbit. Gnudi, in case you didn’t know (I didn’t and had to ask), is basically a gnocchi dumpling, made with ricotta cheese. Fancy! Brown Sugar Kitchen was keeping it real with their BBQ Shrimp and Grits, which were rock solid (though they did fancy it up a bit by serving it with an andouille gougeres). I keep on meaning to go over to Oakland for a bite there, but I’m so lazy about leaving the San Francisco city limits (what, I have to travel over a bridge? Forget it) that I haven’t made it yet.
AJ and I were getting pretty exhausted by all the food (I mean, are you?), so we stopped by Parallel Wineries and snagged a glass of their 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Apparently the grapes were from the St. Helena hillside vineyard and aged in new French Oak barrels for two years. AJ was impressed with how smooth it was, while, a design geek liked their label, though I questioned the fact that the lines weren’t, in fact, parallel at all. Speaking of pretty bottles, Brigitte and Courtesan wines were there as well, and both AJ and I loved their lacy lingerie inspired labels. The wine itself was very approachable. Of course, I can’t talk about beautiful labels without design geeking out over Gargiulo Vineyards type driven wine labels. Their Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon was one of AJ’s faves, a bold dark fruity wine that was a great match to all the rich food we were eating.
After our wine excursion, time was running out before stage two of our food orgy experience so I hurried AJ along to taste more things. Vin Antico had a beef tartare that had me questioning why I didn’t order beef tartare more often, while Plate Shop had foie gras with strawberry consumme with pickled green strawberries (better eat up on the foie gras before it’s illegal here in California next year) that had a wonderful balance of rich fattiness and shocking sweetness. Barbacco had stracciatella (inside burrata cheese – how did they do that?) with wild mushroom and artichoke ragout crostini (stracciatella is an Italian cheesy egg drop soup dish – yeah, I had to Wikipedia that one too). Incanto was there with a lamb tartare with anchovy and mint that had me wondering why people don’t make lamb tartare more often. But it was the suckling pig with spicy mayo on the white roll from Prospect that had AJ contemplating going back for seconds, even though we were stuffed beyond belief. I mean, come on, suckling pig! AJ was in heaven. Heck I was too.
Are you overwhelmed yet? Yeah, AJ and I were too. But we suffered on, sampling as much as we could, because I know you readers wanted me to (I’m a giver that way). Bocadillos had braised oxtail that was delightful as only braised oxtail can be, while étoile Restaurant at Domaine Chandon was serving up a gorgeous yellowtail tuna with fiddlehead fern and white soy sauce. Lark Creek Steak had an excellent Devil’s Gulch Ranch Rabbit Terrine with pistachios and Apricot Compote and E & O Trading Restaurant had more meat on a stick, this time sake braised pork with pickled Fuji apples.
More wine was in order if we were to actually last any longer at this event, so we stopped at Saddleback Cellars where we sampled their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon which was nice and juicy and full of berry flavor but not too jammy. Rombauer Vineyards was offering a nice 2007 Merlot that was smooth and soft. I think AJ’s favorite of the evening though, was the Pride Mountain Vineyards which is located between Napa and Sonoma. AJ and I loved their Cabernet Franc, which they normally don’t pour (it was luscious) and their flagship merlot is not to be missed either.
Stumbling away from the wine, we encountered Meritage at the Claremont, who had a pork belly on a spring pea salad, and Baker and Banker (I love their little breakfast bakery window but I still haven’t been to the restaurant proper) was offering Devil’s Gulch rabbit loin with faro, cherry and toasted walnut salad topped with a Kriek Beer Sauce. Come to mama! Picán had Fudge Farms Pork Ribs served “Reuben Style” which mean it was pastrami cured and served with pickled cabbage, mustard and Cajun cheddar aioli. Nearly full from all the sampling of appetizers, we nearly missed The Ritz Carlton, San Francisco if it were not for fellow bloggers Danielle Tsi and Ben Rhau where they said we had to try the foie gras lollipops being served up with three types of vanilla. I don’t know how they did it, but the foie gras actually tasted light and melty in my mouth.
Stage one was quickly coming to a close and so we met up with Ben and Danielle and a few others and walked back to the prepping area, where we witnessed some of the magic behind the scenes of the event. Stage two of Meals on Wheels Star Chefs and Vintners Gala included a three course meal created by the top chefs (and their assistance of course). AJ and I ran around taking photos and generally tried to stay out of everyone’s way as we zoomed in to capture the behind the scenes action.
After watching in astonishment at all the insane amount of work happening behind the scenes, AJ and went to our seats and found ourselves in stage two of the evening, a three course meal. Thankfully the courses were small, with the first one being from Terra & Ame restaurant, a Lebanese Tuna Mezze, tuna kibbeh neyeh, tuna tataki and grilled tuna with tahini. The first course was paired with a crisp Chardonnay from Breggo Cellars.
Course two was from The Farmhouse Inn, a restaurant that I’ve been wanting to get to forever, but just haven’t been. It’s up in Forestville, very close to my friend Peter and Grant’s cabin. One of these days I’ll make it up there, but in the meanwhile, I’ll have memories of the duo rabbit plate they made for us, a rabbit loin wrapped in applewood smoked bacon and a house made rabbit fennel sausage. I love rabbit and The Farmhouse Inn did an excellent job with it. The Pinot Noir from August West was probably my favorite wine of the meal.
Finally the third dish, was from Yoshi’s which I adore. A roasted hanger steak with honey soy garlic potato gratin and melted cabernet miso, I was in love. I love how yoshi is able to take a traditional American dish and infuse it with an Asian twist but still keep it classic. Brilliance on a plate. Hawkes Wine provided the Cabernet to go along with it, and it’s held up to the robust meatiness of the hanger steak.
While the three course meal was going on, the appetizer stations were being broken down and the dessert stations were being set up. That’s right, after all the food, there was still more food to go. Incredibly, it’s true, but I knew that some of the best food was yet to come. After all, didn’t I tell you that there was a stage three to this Gala?
AJ and I left the dining room area to go and explore the desserts and sweets that were available for us. William Werner was there with his magical Tell Tale Preserve Company serving up all sorts of crazy confections and sweets. I was partial to his Valrhona Manjari chocolate mousse with raspberry sphere (the sphere just explodes in your mouth with sweet berry flavor when you bite down) but others liked his sugar coated raspberry grapefruit marshmallows. The Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay’s Navio had sweet bracing Strawberry Pernod shots, along with Baba Au Rhum and Peach Melba. Café des Amis offered up a Strawberry Rhubarb Chevre tart while Cavallo Point Murray Circle restaurant offered up a chocolate malt Bavarian parfait with caramel foam and a strawberry cassis ice cream bar with lemon thyme shortbread.
Baker and Banker were serving up hot butterscotch with homemade marshmallows and an olive oil fleur de sel biscotti (I seriously could have downed three of those cups) and Sons & Daughters had a candy cap mushroom and red wine cake with some crazy, even for me, flavors like douglas fir Styrofoam. Somehow it all came together. Wayfare Tavern took the classic Carrot Cake and updated it with candied carrots, carrot paper, carrot syrup and micro celery. I was impressed. While AJ’s absolute favorite dessert was Mayfield Bakery & Café’s Espresso Caramel Pot de Crème with spun caramel on top. AJ is a sucker for pretty much anything caramel.
Boulevard had an amazing apricot cake with almond cream, macerated strawberries, almond confetti and strawberry tuile that I adored (but then I adore Boulevard) and Dynamo Donuts was there with their selection of donuts (I only sampled one – the cornmeal cherry rosemary with buttermilk glaze that clearly as fantastic as the name implies it would be). And Kara Cupcakes were there serving up their signature cupcakes (yes, I got to witness Ben Rhau, hater of cupcakes, actually partake of one).
Yigit Pura of Taste Catering and winner of Top Chef: Just Desserts was there as well, along with his friend (and my pastry idol) Sherry Yard. AJ and I politely asked Yigit for a photo of us together, so we could send it to someone we know. We told Yigit that he was actually the reason that we were back in touch with that particular someone, a hilarious story that involves, love, heartbreak, betrayal, forgiveness and shocking violent death, but unfortunately I can’t tell you all it. Perhaps one of these days I can. We never did tell Yigit the whole story (he was kinda busy) but the small part that he did hear, had him shocked and astonished.
If you’ve read my epic three post story on Pebble Beach, you’ll remember that I previously met Sherry Yard and was reduced to a fanboy. Well this time, when I met her again, I played it much cooler, and thankfully AJ was there to hold me back (I think the wine and food coma I was in also helped me from gushing). I reminded her that I met her a few weeks ago at Pebble Beach and she remembered me! We got to talking and she found out that AJ was doing the AIDS lifecycle in a few weeks. She insisted that we come to her restaurant when in town, and then proceeded to give me her cell phone number so I could text her when I was in town.
Yes. I now have my pastry idol’s cell phone number in my phone. Sherry and I are going to be BFFs now. Just you wait and see.
After all the pictures of food and more food (and even more food) you’re probably wondering, what dessert actually inspired my own dessert. The Ritz Carlton’s San Francisco was offering to all the fancy fancy drunk slightly tipsy event-goers a chocolate cherry tart with pastry cream as their dessert. I adored its seeming simplicity and contrasting colors of red fruit, black chocolate and white pastry cream. Even though shouldn’t have, I think I might have eaten three of them that night.
So, while in Los Angeles a few weeks after the event (to pick up AJ for the AIDS lifecycle) I went to the restaurant supply store Surfas at the urging of my friend Shauna. What do I find just hanging out on the shelf but Black Onyx Cocoa, something I’ve ALWAYS wanted to play with, but just haven’t gotten around to tracking down. I immediately snatched it up and made this tart. It’s fairly easy to make and the components can be made ahead of time for an event. And with each slice of it, I’ll be transported back to the Meals on Wheels Star Chefs and Vintner’s Gala event, where I became best friends with Sherry Yard.
Strawberry Chocolate Tart with Lemon Caramel
Inspired by a dessert from the Ritz Carlton, San Francisco
Black Onyx cocoa is a specialized Dutch processed cocoa that is extremely black. It’s what gives oreo cookies it’s signature black look and flavor, as well as the classic Brooklyn Blackout Cake. Black Onyx cocoa can be found online, or you can substitute Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Cocoa or another dutch processed cocoa in it’s place. Mesquite flour is also a specialty flour that can be found online, and adds an elusive depth to the tart shell. If you don’t have, you substitute 25 g (about 3 tablespoons) of all purpose flour in its place.
You can make the tart shell dough up to three days ahead. You can bake the shell, along with making the pastry cream and lemon caramel a day ahead of time as well. Just slice the strawberries the day of, warm the caramel in the microwave for 15-30 seconds to make it more fluid and assemble the tart right before dinner.
Black Chocolate Tart Shell
200 g (1 1/3 cup) all purpose flour
40 g (1/4 cup) black onyx cocoa powder
20 g (1/4 cup) natural cocoa powder (not dutch processed)
25 g (2 tablespoons) mesquite flour
226 g (2 sticks) unsalted butter
60 g (1/2 cup) confectioners’ sugar
1 large egg plus 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon (generous pinch) of salt
18 g (2 tablespoon) all purpose flour
50 g (1/4 cup) white granulated sugar, divided
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup strained lemon juice
2 tablespoon water
1” piece of cinnamon stick
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon white granulated sugar, divided
1 tablespoon invert sugar or corn syrup
Plus 1 lbs of strawberries, washed, dried, hulled and sliced
1. Place the flour, both cocoa powder, and mesquite flour in a medium bowl. Using a balloon whisk, vigorously stir the dry ingredients together until uniform in color.
2. Place the butter in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment and turn the mixer to medium, beating the butter until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula and sift over the whipped butter the confectioner’s sugar (the sifting may seem fussy, but confectioners’ sugar lumps up and you’ll never get the lumps out if don’t sift it first). Beat the sugar into the butter on medium until incorporated (about 15 to 20 seconds).
3. Scrape down the sides again and add the dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Gather the dough in a ball, and flatten it into a disk. Wrap with plastic wrap and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
4. Once the dough is properly chilled, preheat the oven to 350˚F. Generously dust a flat surface with some cocoa powder (it doesn’t matter what type, you just want to keep the dough from sticking to the surface). Roll the dough out to a 12” round circle (don’t worry if the dough cracks, just patch it up, this dough is very forgiving). Fit the dough crust into a 10” tart pan, making sure to patch up any holes or breaks.
5. Prick the bottom of the tart crust with a fork all over, and line with a piece of parchment paper. Fill the parchment paper with pie weights, dry rice or dry beans. Bake for 15 minutes and then remove the parchment paper with the weights. Bake an additional 6-8 minutes, or until the edges of the tart crust start to look dry. While the tart is baking the second time, beat the egg and water until it is an uniform yellow color, to create an egg wash. Once the tart looks done, pull it out and completely brush the tart with the egg wash to seal it. Then bake for an additional 2 minutes. Pull the tart out and let it cool to room temperature on a wire rack.
6. While the tart shell is cooling make the pastry cream by first placing the egg, egg yolk and salt in a medium sized bowl. Beat the eggs with a balloon whisk until uniform in color, then add the flour and 2 tablespoons (25 g) of the sugar to the eggs. Whisk the dry ingredients into the eggs, until fluffy about two minutes or so.
7. Put the eggs aside, and place the milk, remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, lemon zest and vanilla extract into a nonreactive (not aluminum) medium pot with a long handle. Heat until small bubble start to form on the side of the pot. Drizzle a small stream of milk (about 1/4 cup) into the egg mixture, while whisking the eggs briskly. Once the milk is incorporated into the egg, pour the egg mixture back into the pot with the hot milk (scraping with a spatula to make sure you have get all the egg) and heat on medium.
8. Immediately start whisking the custard, until it boils and begins to thicken. Continue to whisk until it thickens to the consistency of pudding. The pastry cream is done when you tilt the pan to one side and cream pulls away from the pan completely. Strain the pastry cream through a fine mesh sieve into a clean bowl and add the butter to the cream, stirring to melt and incorporate it. Press plastic wrap to the surface of the hot pastry cream, to prevent a skin from forming and let cool to room temperature before using (or you can refrigerate for up to 3 days).
9. To make the lemon caramel, place lemon juice, water, cinnamon stick and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a small pan and heat until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid boils. Immediately remove from heat, cover and set aside.
10. Place the 1/2 cup of the sugar (reserving the 1 tablespoon for later) and the invert sugar/corn syrup into a saucepan. Heat the sugar on medium heat until it starts to melt. Stir the sugar with a heatproof spatula or spoon to make sure all the sugar melts. Once it starts to caramelize and turn brown, turn the heat off and let the residual heat of the pan continue the caramelize sugar. You want the caramel to be a dark golden brown. If it doesn’t get there by the residual heat, turn the burner back on to low and give it a little nudge. Just keep in mind that the sugar will continue to caramelize and get darker after you take it off the heat.
11. Once the caramel has reached the right stage, pour the heated lemon juice over the caramel carefully (it will sputter and boil up so watch your hands) and then stir with whisk to dissolve the hard caramel pieces. If you need to, you can also turn the heat onto low, to help out.
12. Once all the hard pieces are cooled let the caramel cool for 20 minutes or so until it reaches room temperature, and then remove the cinnamon stick. The caramel glaze will keep for up to a month in the fridge in an airtight container.
13. To assemble the tart, take the empty shell and spread the pastry cream evenly on the bottom of it. Then arrange slices of strawberries tips facing outward, in a concentric circle, evenly layered over the pastry cream. Place two or three perfectly whole strawberries in the center of the tart. Then brush the strawberries with the caramel glaze carefully. Serve immediately.