Monday, August 31, 2015

Sacramento has a new Empress

In what must be the most anticipated restaurant opening in a decade, Empress Tavern is finally ready to open. After months and months of delays and waiting, we finally get to see what took so long. And boy is it worth it. 

Chef's Table
It may be named Empress Tavern, after the old Empress vaudeville theater it sits under (now the Crest), but pretty much everyone in town drops the "Tavern" and just calls it Empress. And it is a regal restaurant. You will see every dollar spent and every day spent waiting when you go down those stairs.

Prime rib bites
On Saturday I was one of the lucky ones to attend the VIP soft opening event. This is obviously not a review, but just my first impressions.

The exit to street level was where the emergency exits were, cut into the little inset to the right of the Crest box office and alongside the Mediterranean Cafe's patio. Now the glass doors are replaced with curved wooden doors akin to those that often open into wine caverns in Napa or France. They set the mood for what you will find inside.

I often went to movies in the downstairs Crest theaters, so I remember the configuration well. Two smaller theaters sat side by side and the floors were considerably sloped for seating that afforded good views over others' heads. Now you will find the host stand at the top of the stairs, descend the stairs to the landing where you can make a grand entrance - see everyone and be seen by everyone. You will take in a transformation that is almost unbelievable. Arched brickwork to look like wine caverns and underground cellars. It's pretty amazing.

When I saw Michael Thiemann later in the evening I had to ask about the bricks. I could not believe they would basically build a building underneath another. I thought it might have just been thin slice brick veneers, but Thiemann assured me that they had a team of brick masons in here and every brick in there is real. Anyone who remembers Greek history and the importance of the arch will be in awe.

Inside the bar occupies the center with 360 degree access. I liked that many of the tables have leaves on them to make them either square or circle in shape. The benches are similar to Mother in that they also act as storage bins. On the far wall are the most impressive tables. There are several arched alcoves with longer tables for parties of 6-8. Someone joked that they should place bar doors on them so it would look like prison cells.  At the farthest corner is the Chef's Table, long and beautiful.

Matt Masera at work
The open kitchen is in full view with the star being the large rotisserie. When I arrived it had two racks of chickens and a rack of porchetta. Yum!

The food will be familiar carvery selections. I'm glad they will be going truly nose-to-tail based on some of the offerings at the event. Offal selections that night included chicken hearts with chimichurri and lamb sweetbreads. But most folks will probably stick with the steaks, porchetta, chickens, and burgers. We asked to see a menu, but there were none to be found at the event. 

Thiemann passing bites
Some of the other bites that night included prime rib bites, cubes of super tender brisket, club sandwich sliders, the fabulous porchetta, chicken liver mousse with the rotisserie chicken on top, and crudit├ęs so as not to forget the veggies. A standout for novelty was the turducken, a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey. Matt Masera's dessert creativity shone through with watermelon cotton candy covered in powdered chicharrones.  Yep, pork skin on cotton candy for a salty sweet delight. It was great!

When you consider their success with vegetables at Mother, can there be any doubt about what they can do with meat?

You could definitely see how happy the team is to get the place open. Both Thiemann and Masera were seen passing out bites through the crowd themselves, even after just having flown back from the Los Angeles Food & Wine Show. They and Bill Ngo, Oliver Ridgeway, and Kelly McCown had just done Quest Love's After After Party the night before. That means they were up til at least 3 a.m. the night before.

Empress is definitely going to be the hot reservation in town for a while. I look forward to going again, but I'll probably wait til things settle down a bit. I'm thankful I got to go to the preview and can't wait to see what happens over the next few months.

Note to the social media addicted: There is no cell service down in the caverns. No word yet on whether they'll be offering free wifi or not, but I was carrying my own wifi and trying to Periscope and as soon as I hit the bottom of the stairs I lost signal.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Uber paradox and why you should tip

I wanted to do a follow-up article to the one I did in January (It's not worth it to drive Lyft and Uber in Sacramento) because this week Uber has been celebrating its One Millionth Ride in Sacramento. All week long they've been doing special things for Uber customers. On Tuesday there was Chando's deliveries, Wednesday a chance to win a trip to Hawaii, and Friday a chance to win a cruise. Yay. Great. But what about the drivers? Zip. Nothing.

What Uber SHOULD be doing is having two celebrations. One for the customers, but another for the drivers!  We are the ones doing all the work for miserable pay. Better yet, pay us more!

My prior post goes into all the reasons it sucks to be a driver now. I've actually stopped driving. I'm not interested in making money for greedy Uber and losing money myself. 

The Kum-ba-ya of Uber is gone

I find it interesting that at first it seemed the whole idea of ride sharing was that people could sign up and drive Uber on their spare time and make some money. A kumbaya, sense of community, communal idea. And at first the money was good. 

Now the only way to make money driving is to go full-time. I truly think that for part-time drivers they are losing money, not making it. It's the working of full-time+ hours that helps the drivers to average out their dollars/hour earnings. 

So think about it. Uber has become as taxi as any taxi company. Full-timers are sticking with it, but part-timers are giving up. New drivers sign up, become quickly disillusioned and quit. So much for kumbaya.

So this is why you should take pity and tip your Uber driver

Uber saying that tipping is included is bullshit. If you tip a server at the restaurant or the manicurist at the salon, do they give a cut of their tip to the house? No! It's a thank you to the person who performed the service.  So why would a tip, included in the fare, be cut by 20% and given to Uber? What did they do to earn it? Nothing.

The idea that a tip is included in the fare is ludicrous because the fares are so goddamn low. 

This is an example of why I don't drive anymore:  Turn on the app. Get first ride. It's within midtown so the fare is $5, that means I get $4.  Sit around for an hour. Get another ride. Another $4.  Woohoo!  

That's not even worth my pulling out of the driveway. Remember, my expenses includes gas, car maintenance, car washes, and insurance.  

Here's the thing you probably didn't know about insurance

Let's say we get in a huge collision so that my car is totaled and you and I are both injured. Lucky you. Uber is going to pay for your medical expenses, etc.  They aren't paying a thing for me and my car. That's supposed to be covered by my insurance. But let's say I have regular car insurance just like you do. My insurance company gets the accident report, sees that I was ridesharing, and immediately cancels and voids my insurance. I was not covered. So now I've lost my car and I've got huge medical bills to pay for on my own.

As of July 1 rideshare drivers in California are required to have additional ridesharing insurance. It's a new law, but I will tell you that at least half, if not more, of the drivers driving you around do not carry it. Why? Because it is expensive! And has Uber increased rates to help drivers with this new expense? No. In fact, in the middle of July they lowered rates in the last good rate area of Northern California - the Bay area. There's a higher rate in San Francisco proper, but anywhere in the East bay or lower than SFO has had a rate reduction equivalent to Sacramento's crappy low rates.

So be kind and tip

Yes, tipping means you would have to have cash on you. Yes, we drivers understand that the beauty of the app is that you don't have to pay with cash. But IF you happen to have even $2 on you, tip the driver.  And just so you know, many drivers, including myself, will only give 5 star ratings to tipping customers. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Cochon Heritage BBQ in SF 9/13

If you have seen my numerous posts over the years of Cochon's events, then you know they are among my favorite foodie events ever. These are paleo, meat eating fests where there are pounds of flesh up for consumption. Now I suppose that doesn't sound super attractive, but let me tell you, these events are worth the price.

This is the first Heritage BBQ in San Francisco and it basically sounds like a combination of Cochon and Heritage Fire.  Like Cochon which features 5 chefs cooking 5 pigs and Heritage Fire which features roasting every kind of beast over open flame, Heritage Fire mixes the two: 5 chefs, 5 pigs, lots of barbecue styles from around the world. 

The event takes place on Sunday, September 13th at the Magnolia Brewery location in the Dogpatch neighborhood. This year’s competing chefs include Dennis Lee of Smokestack/Namu Gaji, Geoff Davis of The Dock, Michael Rafidi of RN74, Nicolai Lipscomb of The Battery, and John Madriaga of Spruce.

The BBQ styles represented will be Hibachi, Korean BBQ, Asador, Braai from Africa, Char Siu, Caja China, Churrasco, Barbacoa, as well as regional American BBQ styles from Texas to Kansas City.

Heritage Fire
The all-inclusive stand up tasting event features 1,400+ pounds of heritage pig, “pop-up” culinary experiences, premium wines, artisan cheeses, sustainable seafood, hand-crafted spirits, fine cocktails, and a very impressive selection of whiskies, ryes and bourbon. The stunning lineup of sponsors behind this celebration of heritage species include Williams-Sonoma’s local butcher demo, WilsonArt’s “Perfect Manhattan Experience” featuring Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Breckenridge Bourbon, Hirsch and Luxardo cherries, Magnolia Brewing Co, Common Cider, Creekstone Farms, Krave Jerky, Creminelli Fine Meats, California Olive Ranch and La Brea Bakery. A portion of the proceeds always benefit the local culinary school while building opportunities for local food producers. All tickets include endless drinks and tons of food and are limited to only 250 tickets per event.

Tickets for general admission start at $100, and VIP tickets for early admission are $200. To purchase tickets, visit the website

Where:                  Magnolia Brewery 
                             2505 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94107

Disclosure: I was given a free pass for this post.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hidden Sichuan

Click to add a blog post for Hidden Sichuan on Zomato

Hidden Sichuan has been getting good reviews lately and so I headed out with my Chinese friends again to get their judgment. I'll be referring to my 2013 review of Sichuan Spice House in Orangevale because we had many of the same dishes to compare and I was with the same Chinese friends. 

Hidden Sichuan is located in a shopping complex at Hwy 99 and Bond Rd. behind the In n Out Burger.  It's nicely decorated with a wallpaper mural depicting ancient China along one wall and nice shelving and art on the others.  There were tables and booths and everything was quite comfortable.

The menu was quite large. This time there were only three of us, so we ordered only four dishes. In the end we were pretty happy with three of the four but with noticeable differences from the same items we had at Sichuan Spice House. If you like, open the review link above so you can compare the pictures of the items as well.

spicy boiled fish
The first dish out was the spicy boiled fish. Just like the other time, this one was swimming in chili peppers which gave me a bit of concern.  No worries, though.  It was spicy but not killer spicy.  Very flavorful and a favorite with my friends and I.  They were comparing it to Yang's Noodles, where they often eat, and found this one was better. We had no leftovers of this one.

dan dan noodles
At Spice House they call their Tan Tan noodles.  The one their is a drier version to this soupy version.  I liked this one very much, but my friend said the other was more authentic and my other friend found this one too salty. Also keep in mind that the starchy noodles really fill you up. I think I overdid it with that one, but it was so good!  Even so, I prefer the Spice House version.

dry cooked shredded pork
We all loved this dry cooked shredded pork.  This version was exceptionally crunchy/crispy and more authentic according to my friend. The other had too much cumin to my liking and it wasn't near as crispy as this one. We pretty much ate every bit of this one.

pork knuckle
The final dish is the disappointment of the four. A hefty pork knuckle in a soy sauce based broth. It was meaty and tender, but unexciting next to the other three.  We didn't eat too much of this one.

Overall my friends were quite happy with our outing. The only drawback, the same with Sichuan Spice House, is how far away it was. It's a definite excursion to reach either one if you don't live in those particular neighborhoods. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Simple Poke at Lunch

Sacramento might be on a poke binge right now with the opening of Fish Face. (See my post: Fish Face) I love the options that they offer, being able to make different combinations of poke each time you visit. Then I recently discovered that Costco has ready-made poke in four varieties available for grab n go! I tried two last week and they were great and about the same price as Fish Face's.

Thing is, I make poke a lot myself. It's easy and super healthy. There are only a few clean, whole ingredients and it's low in calories while high in nutrients. 

While I often make my poke with raw fish, I have a quick version that I often take to work. I thought it was no big deal, but my friend Suzanne asked me to post it anyway, so here it is.

The key ingredient to make it "safe" to take to work and not worry about spoilage or contamination is to buy cold cured salmon or lox style salmon. Here's my secret  - I go to Ikea and buy their frozen lox.  Go to their grocery section and in the freezer section you will find single portion, individually vacuum sealed pieces of salmon in packages of four. 

For the seasoning, I prefer ponzu sauce over soy sauce. Ponzu has citrus added to make it a bit fruity. I recently found a chili ponzu (pictured) that has some spice to it. Add that with the takarashi, which is a hot pepper powder, and it gives it a nice kick.

So my bowl consists of:

1 package of Ikea lox
1 avocado
1 sheet of nori (seaweed)
Ponzu sauce

Cut up the avocado and salmon and toss in a bowl. Tear up the nori into small pieces and add to bowl. Add Ponzu sauce and takarashi to taste. Toss and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Have an Offal Day 3 on August 16th

Often my best ideas come in the early morning. Every day I get up and search the internet for food stories and it's usually during this time that my mind starts churning. That's when I first thought about creating the Sacramento Food Film Festival two years ago. It's also when I thought about creating Have an Offal Day back in March.

I think I was watching some cooking show, probably something with Andrew Zimmern or Anthony Bourdain since they seem to eat the most offal. I suddenly wondered if there was such a thing as a good tasting haggis. I had haggis back when I was in Edinburgh when I was a teenager. I tried it and didn't care for it (I found it bland) and it wasn't until later that I was told it was sheep's stomach filled with intestines and other stuff. So here I am one morning wondering if it was possible to make a tasty haggis. Taking the thought a little further, why not have some event with a bunch of offal dishes? 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Localis - the hot new F2F restaurant

This octopus dish was the only thing not local and not on the tasting menu

I happen to pretty much know the foodie circle in town. The chefs, the restaurateurs, the bloggers, the general foodies. That's not to brag but to make a point. When these folk all rave about a restaurant then it's time to make note. They don't throw around kudos lightly.

The current restaurant with bragging rights for getting the most raves from all foodies in town would be Localis. Located in the space formerly occupied by Tuli Bistro and Trick Pony (21st & S), Localis has been getting the most buzz — all of it great.

It's actually easy to understand why for two reasons. First is that it's focusing on seasonal farm to fork dishes. More on this in a moment. The second and more important reason is that Chef Chris Barnum is in the kitchen. 

Prior to Localis Chris Barnum was at Cibo 7 in Roseville and that restaurant had also been getting rave reviews under his stewardship. It also got high marks from Sacramento Magazine and Sacramento News & Review. In fact, I have to think the owners are pretty bummed that he left. Roseville's loss is Sacramento's gain. 

I went Saturday with a friend and the server did a very good job of covering every detail of each dish. So detailed, in fact, that there's no way for me to do justice to describing the pictures below.  I asked them if they might email them to me, so I might add those later. 

The tasting menu is $77 and covers everything you see below except the octopus. For $30 more they upgrade it for two people.  My recommendation, get it for yourself. After three courses we knew we would want more, so we added the octopus. I like that they up it by just $30 for two, but we both left hungry, so just hog it all for yourself if your budget allows.

Someone joked on my tweet of the octopus that it was not local. True. It's imported from Spain because the Pacific octopus they were getting just didn't cut it.  I don't care. The octopus was fantastically tender and if it had to come from Spain, good for me!

So that brings us to the whole farm-to-fork local thing. Localis will be changing the menu daily depending on the seasonal items available. Now true, a lot of restaurants, especially here, are doing that already. Here's the thing. I would have to say this was the absolutely closest thing to farm fresh my taste buds have had lately in a restaurant. What do I mean by that?  Every  bite tasted fresh, clean, bright, earthy...everything your imagination thinks of farm to fork. There was creativity and uniqueness while letting the flavors of the ingredients shine through. Only one item didn't hit with us. (We thought it needed salt and some acidity). 

My two favorites were the octopus (best I've ever had) and the braised lamb belly.

So with that said... time to drool....

(Current descriptions are my own drab ones)

zucchini with poached quail egg

ceviche and pluots

squash 3 ways

bacon and eggs

blistered padron peppers

rabbit with blueberry risotto

braised lamb belly

sweet amuse bouche

panna cotta w/ brulee watermelon

Thursday, July 23, 2015

I'd like to be your friend, not just an acquaintance

Milestone birthdays tend to bring out a lot of emotion and thought. Some dread them, others embrace them, many ignore them.

For me, turning 50 was not a dreadful thing. I actually think turning 51 will be more difficult. What it did do was make me more contemplative of my life. One area I've been dwelling on a bit is Friendships.

Over the decades people have gotten more and more distant and a lot less civil to each other. One of my favorite movies is Gone With the Wind and I always think to the scene where Rhett and Scarlet are pushing Baby Blue's pram down the sidewalk. Each time they pass someone Rhett tips his hat and they all greet each other — "Good morning, Mrs. Meade." "Good morning, Captain Butler". Even into the 60s and a bit into the 70s people would greet each other at work every morning.

These days it's both a me-me-me society as well as being deeply immersed in technology. No more hand written letters when a short email or Facebook nudge will do. So much for cherishing long distance phone calls because they cost so much money. Now we carry our phones with us and can call anywhere in the world in an instant.

All this leads to distance and lessens the number of deep, developed friendships in favor of acquaintances. While driving Uber in SF (which I started so I could socialize more on the weekends) I met a man from Rhodesia who had moved to London and was just finishing up an 18 month job in San Francisco. His next move was to Ireland and he was on his way to say goodbye to friends he had made while here. He commented that he felt that during his stay here he had really only made acquaintances. It seemed that in SF people were very friendly and happy to add another friend to their large keychain filled of friendships, but in actuality, it was very superficial acquaintances that they were making, not deep, developed friendships. People knew him, but none bothered to KNOW him.

That's how I've felt about my 'friends' in Sacramento. Sure I have a large circle of people I know now, but hardly any of them have gotten to know me better or me them.

I know it's a 2-way street. I can't put the blame completely on others because I have to make the effort too. I have to extend the invitations. I have to listen to them and ask questions to get to know them more deeply than what restaurants are their favorites right now.

That's why I've tried recently to reach out to some people and invite them to happy hour or to dinner so that I can get to know them more. And I'm hoping that if I extend the invitation to others, they will be willing to learn more about me as I learn more about them.

I'm terribly guilty of tuning out of conversations and I'm making a real effort to stay "in" the conversation instead of just glazing over. 

I could have another 30 to 50 years to go and they will go a lot faster than the last 50. Sadly, during these next 50 years many people will disappear just from the sad fact of dying. All the more reason to develop friendships that are meaningful and to cherish to the end. 

Social website for making friends (women only) is

More on this topic:

Why It's Hard To Make Friends As An Adult, According to Reddit

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Time to pig out at Heritage Fire 2015

Hey, gang. It's that wonderful time of year again! Heritage Fire is one of Northern California's premiere food events with a barrel load of the region's top chefs. From Sacramento to Napa to the Bay Area, the best love to congregate at Charles Krug winery for a day of paleo eating - all meat, all the time. 

For an overview of last year's event, check out my post highlighting the Sacramento chefs.

This year, so far, we have representation by Michael Thiemann who will soon be opening his meat-centric restaurant, Empress. The other chef I will note is one I consider to be an adopted to Sacramento chef, Matthew Accarrino of San Francisco's SPQR. The reason I say that is because he's become good friends with our Sac chefs and Michael Passmore of Passmore Ranch. And, by the way, he was a James Beard Award nominee this last year. 

During this meat fest you get to dine on all sorts of proteins: rabbit, lamb, pork, beef, sturgeon, chicken, and more! All done over outdoor fire pits.

There's plenty more to Heritage FireIn addition to the meat-laden feast, the event includes animal theatre cooking, butcher demonstrations, lawn games, live music and the opportunity to learn directly from the farmers and producers behind the great wines, brews and ciders of the event. Bring a cooler so that you can purchase some of the butchered meats to take home. Money raised from the butcher sales will benefit the students of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Come join me and our chefs and represent, Sacramento!

To purchase tickets, visit the Heritage Fire Napa ticket page.

Disclosure: I received a press pass for this post.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Comparing Fast Casual Pizzas

Ever since Chipotle's build-your-own fast casual concept became popular others have tried to copy the concept. Most popular has been the pizza version. Here in the Sacramento region I've now tried three different ones, Pieology, Blaze Pizza, and now Blast Pizza

The first out the gate was Pielogy, the only one that's managed to find a location in The Grid. Then Blaze launched in Gold River, Davis, and Roseville shortly after. Blast Pizza is out in Rocklin.  After having now tried all three, I'm ready to compare. 

Blast Pizza

Pieology's crust is made using a pressing machine to flatten out dough balls to make the crust. I found it a suitable crust for what the place is, fast processing of  customers' orders. Thing is, dough is tossed and stretched for a reason. Stretching pulls the gluten threads and makes the crust more tender. Rolling or pressing, then, obviously makes a tougher crust.

What I immediately thought about Blaze Pizza's crust was that it was like cardboard. My least favorite of the three. Both of these very thin crust versions made for quick cooking in the ovens. 

Blast Pizza's was the best. They use hand-stretched dough that is made daily and then set ready, much like Michael Johnson of The Pizza Company does for his mobile pizza oven. This crust is thicker, thus taking longer to cook in the oven than the other two. But it was definitely the best of the bunch because of its being thicker and stretched. 

All three do offer gluten-free crust, but none of them have "clean" situations to keep things away from the flour around the kitchen. Therefore, celiac disease sufferers probably shouldn't eat at any, while gluten intolerant people should be cautious.