Poggio: when Michael Bauer is wrong

Michael Bauer is a legend in the Bay Area. The restaurant critic for The Chronicle (for over 28 years now), Bauer annually publishes his list of the Top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area. Prior to this month, I had dined at sixteen of them (not great– but for someone who lives outside of the city, with three kids and a full-time job, not awful, either). Part of my mission in February was to knock a few more of these off the list.

Lazy Bear: check. Worthy of the Top 100, as well as a top 10 and even a top 5 if such a list existed.

Next up: Poggio. I chose this restaurant because it was one of the few Marin restaurants to make the list, and because it’s Italian food (something I almost never eat at a restaurant, because restaurants get it wrong so often– but in the spirit of My Year of 40, I thought I’d do so), and because I was able to secure reservations for a pre-Valentine’s Day dinner. Excellent.

Sadly, our revered food critic got this one wrong. The food was fine; we were “whelmed” (as in: not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed; just whelmed). The non-food experience was pretty awful.

We arrived to a packed restaurant but were shown to our table with not much delay. The waitress was curt and exuded a “couldn’t be bothered” kind of attitude. I asked her about a cocktail (vodka, amaretto, and cherry purée)– was it sweet, or not too sweet? (Cocktails used to be my business, and the sweetness of that drink would all depend on the ratios of the ingredients.) She told me that no, it wasn’t sweet at all; “Perfect,” I said, “I’ll have that one.” When the drinks arrived, my cocktail was almost undrinkable for how sweet it was. Strike one.

We were offered bread and sparkling water when we sat down. Fifteen minutes later, neither had arrived. Finally, we tagged a bus boy, who was able to help us. Strike two.

The food, meanwhile: good. B or B+. We started with pastas: I had the gnudi (delightful spinach & ricotta “pillows”), while Graham had the bucatini with guanciale. Both were tasty, but not particularly memorable or original. IMG_5847Next we split the polpettone, described as one of their signature dishes. It arrived, and it was meatloaf; good, yes, but meatloaf.  Brussels sprouts to accompany were mushy and bland. Are we sure this restaurant belongs on the same list as Lazy Bear?

To top it off, we were neglected for most of our meal (ran out of water; ready to order more beverages but nobody around, etc). When we were ready to pay, our waitress was nowhere to be found, so again we had to ask a different server to help us. That always feels awkward, but when you’re ready to go (and your babysitter is on the clock)– you’re ready to go. Strike three.

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(Here we are, the happy but impatient couple.)

Admittedly, this all could have been a case of one bad waitress. But the food wasn’t good enough to justify giving Poggio another shot.

Lazy Bear, you spoiled us! Next up… Ad Hoc.

The fanciest dinner party you’ve ever been to

For the second, shortest month of the year, I wanted to try something that didn’t require a daily commitment (unlike my month of veganism). Something that would be memorable, and not require too much advance planning or too much time to execute. Because, frankly: demanding work + three kids (one of whom is still physically dependent on me) = not a ton of time for new things. Later in the year I’ll embark on some challenges that will require more of a time commitment, but for this month, eating out sounded about the right speed.

Also: I promise not all of “my year of 40” will be about food — merely the first two months.

In this month of “landmark Bay Area restaurants,” my hope is that one or more reaches the bar of indelibly memorable. Do you have a mental list of those dining experiences? Those five or ten best meals of all time? For me, they have been not just about the quality of the food (although that’s obviously a requirement), but also about the atmosphere, the sensory experience, the presentation- the complete package.

It’s a high bar, but our first restaurant just may have been up to the task. LazyBear is one of the hottest tickets in town, which normally means I wouldn’t manage to get reservations, not being particularly savvy about these things. But this one sort of fell into my lap: I was at my computer right when tickets went on sale, and I acted quickly.¹

So it was that Graham and I found ourselves last Thursday at an understated venue in the Mission. We were ushered upstairs to enjoy wine, cocktails, or a glass of punch. We were served “snacks” (brought around like hors d’oeuvres, but in presentation, more like a series of amuse-bouches) that hinted at the fanciness and creativity of what was to come. (Below: Shigoku oysters with kiwi and chickweed)IMG_5819After cocktail hour, we were led down the stairs to the main room, a lodge-like space that had two long, communal tables running down the middle, with a busy kitchen at one end. We were instructed where to sit (fourth from the end, on opposite sides of the table). LazyBear really wants you to make friends over dinner.² They call the experience “the modern American dinner party,” and say on their website that they “hope Lazy Bear is the best dinner party you’ve ever attended.” Well, to one side of us was a couple that spoke in Mandarin to each other the whole time. To our other side was a party of four who could barely bring themselves to tell us their names, so wrapped up were they in their own quartet. New friends? Not so much. (Sorry to have failed you, LazyBear.)

The food and the rest of the experience more than made up for our lack of new friends. First, the food. Between the five “snacks” upstairs and the downstairs sit-down meal, we were served a total of 14 courses. All very small plates, all impeccably arranged for visual impact, all representing a harmony of flavors and textures that most humans would never dream up. And they worked, hands down, across the board. IMG_5829

As each course was presented, the chef described it to the whole room. Then we ate it (which, being a small plate, took about 30 seconds).IMG_5821

Between courses you’re encouraged to go watch the chefs in the kitchen and even ask them questions. This was dinner as theater, and it was a ton of fun. IMG_5823

And the food itself: really, extraordinarily good. It was playful, tasty, original, and fresh. Gastronomical whimsy writ large. IMG_5826

The night was an extremely strong start to my month of memorable dining. We walked away with a slew of new taste sensations, visual impressions, and if not any new friends, at least we had each other.

* * * * *

¹+1 for having a #foodies channel on my company’s Slack, and +1 for having a VP Engineering who’s dialed into LazyBear’s ticket release schedule.

²They provide little booklets with descriptions of each dish and room for you to make notes. At the end of the booklet, they write, “Did you sit next to anyone with whom you’d like to keep in touch? Write down their contact info here.” This is plenty cheeky, in the age of ubiquitous smartphones. Also- thanks for rubbing it in, LazyBear, that no, we won’t be keeping in touch with anyone from our table.

So long, veganism. Hello, February.

It’s February first! Time for a new adventure in My Year of 40. But first, some closing thoughts on my month of veganism.

  1. Bowls are my number one meal as a vegan. They’re an easy and satisfying vehicle for vegetables, and they’re quick to throw together. They’re also endlessly adaptable- toss anything you want in them. Roughly speaking, a bowl “recipe” would include a whole grain (or not), a legume (or not) and lots of veggies (cooked- otherwise we’re just making a salad). Add some enhancements- maybe some seeds, avocado, or nuts- and then flavorings- aminos (see below), sesame oil, vinegar- you get the picture- and you’re off to the races.
  2. Aminos make everything taste better. I first discovered Coconut Aminos two years ago: vegan, gluten- and soy-free, they’re your new best friend. I put this stuff on everything: grain bowls, salads, raw or cooked vegetables, veggie burgers. It’s the bomb. A little salty, a little umami, a lot delicious. More widely available, but not soy-free, is Bragg Aminos, which is nearly as good.
  3. Quinoa is a breakfast food. I need to start my day out with some protein, which has been more challenging as a vegan (gone are the eggs; gone is the Greek yogurt). Luckily, there’s quinoa. Besides being the only “grain” (actually a seed) that’s a complete protein, it plays well with both sweet and savory foods. While I eat it for lunch or dinner in one of my veggie bowls, at breakfast I pair it with apples, cinnamon, walnuts, a drizzle of maple syrup, and a bit of almond milk.
  4. Within limitation, there is freedom. Knowing that I had a narrower spectrum of foods to work with forced me to be more creative. Maybe this is no longer the case after many months, or years, of being vegan, but in a one-month timeframe, I felt forced to think outside my usual food norms to arrive at meals and snacks that were satisfying. And I enjoyed the challenge.

In the end, I’m not entirely parting with veganism. For me, right now, there seems to be no better way to stay motivated to eat so many vegetables, while also forcibly avoiding foods that aren’t good for me.¹ For now, I’m going to be “88% vegan.” Here’s how I came up with that:

(3 meals + 2 snacks per day) * 7 days per week = 35 eating occurrences per week. If I have 4 non-vegan meals per week, then I’ll be 31/35 = 88% vegan.

Which leads me to February, and my “try something new” for this month. In February, I’ll be trying:

Landmark Bay Area Restaurants²

Frankly, this is a compelling reason for me not to be 100% vegan in February.³

First up: a surprise restaurant for date night with Graham.  Stay tuned!

¹I’m talking to you, butter.

²That I haven’t already tried, or perhaps that goes without saying.

³With apologies to my vegan cheerleaders. 88% is still about 500% more vegan than I used to be.