Monday, July 30, 2007

Straits looking to conquer world, cash out

Chris Yeo of Straits, who mints money out of his Santana Row and Westfield SF Center locations, is closing on a lease in Las Vegas and is in talks with Host Hotels about a hotel in Newport Beach, a deal that could potentially lead to a partnership or acquisition.

Yeo wants to get bought or go public in four years, so brought in nightlife and front-of-the-house restaurant guru Parnell Delchan, who, random trivia, at one point was Matthew McConaughey's boss at Kwanzaa in New York. [Can we play this up for our LA readers?? -ed.]

He's also looking at mall deals in the Midwest and some other deals in Vegas. Not bad for a former hairdresser.

More in the ...

Business Times: Straits owner brings on manager to grow chain (free link)

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Alan Richman drafted to re-stab Michael Bauer and defend vulnerable city of Los Angeles

Oh hey look! It's Alan Richman, the GQ food writer who touched hearts across the country with his loving advice to the restaurants and residents of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans to stop being so fat, narcissistic and lazy all the time and then maybe they wouldn't be so wet and smelly and poor right now!

And he's knifing Michael Bauer on a blog in Los Angeles!
Michael Bauer is a joke. He's not talented. The chefs know he's coming.
Richman either said or seconded those words at a May panel discussion in Las Vegas, according to Eater LA, which printed his comments at the time but put his name to them just last week before concluding, "Maybe not so far off the mark after all."

Richman apparently called Bauer a hack because Bauer meets his definition of the word: someone who turns down what became Frank Bruni's job at the New York Times and then says mean things about Alan Richman.

Like Ghandi, Richman glows in the light of egoless love for his fellow man, so his words come from a place of truth, not spite. And Los Angeles is an impoverished and oppressed city with few elite residents or friends to defend its honor -- precisely the sort of place that moves Richman's giant heart.

So Richman is indeed the perfect savior to turn to when San Francisco's dark lord of gluttony attempts to sully the unimpeachably pristine reputation of Tinseltown's fine restaurants, or to maybe-sort-of sully it, assuming you skimmed his article in traffic with your agent on speakerphone and a botox needle somewhere in your face while listening to KFI or whatever.

Now, Los Angeles, if you'll excuse us, we need to get back to whining about how Michelin doesn't "get" us and hating on our food critics the only way we can stomach: unilaterally.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thomas Keller backlash close to boiling over

To some, 'slipping' French Laundry is 'not the best,' 'disappointed' customers say other chefs 'within striking distance'
Is the mainstream media next?
It was exactly two years ago Monday when a well-established weblog called San Francisco Gourmet posted a surprising, reluctantly brutal review of Thomas Keller's iconic restaurant the French Laundry, saying that over three visits between 2003 and mid-2005 the restaurant "appears to be slipping," mixing up orders, fumbling dish descriptions and letting waiters regularly reach across diners to deliver food and wine.

Meanwhile, the review noted, French Laundry's prices had nearly doubled over five years, rocketing up much faster than those at other top-shelf restaurants in the area, even as those other restaurants gained ground against the French Laundry in food and service quality.

"The French Laundry has exhibited service that has consistently been below excellent," the review stated. "The menu itself seemed to be a notch below what it once was ... I suspect that The French Laundry will not be able to reclaim its past glory."

Reaction to the review was not encouraging. One commenter called it "blasphemous" and said it "lost all credibility" by comparing the French Laundry to a lesser restaurant, Gary Danko. Meanwhile, San Francisco Gourmet drew no concurring opinions from the torrent of French Laundry reviews gushing from the many new weblogs then emerging.

"I was starting to think that I would be the lone voice in the wilderness forever," the author of San Francisco Gourmet wrote earlier this year.

In retrospect, the review was a remarkable harbinger of things to come, probably because it was written by someone especially familiar with the restaurant, with at least six visits to the restaurant in five years.

In November 2006, almost a year and a half after San Francisco Gourmet's French Laundry piece, a blogger and self-described lifetime gourmand named Vedat Milor posted a review titled, "The French Laundry: Solid but imperfect." Milor, too, had visited the restaurant on numerous past occasions and felt it was slipping.

He said the restaurant "displays an automatic, slightly assembly line quality," with predictable food, weak examples of luxury ingredients like truffles and caviar and undisclosed add-on prices.

This description echoed Gary Danko, who called the French Laundry "the Laundromat" when I interviewed him shortly after the French Laundry took three debut Michelin stars to Danko's one.

This past May, a San Francisco-based freelance food writer named Catherine Nash chimed in with her own critical take on the Laundromat. She had visited four years prior, and the restaurant had exceeded her high expectations. This time?

"We were not blown away," Nash wrote on her weblog, Food Musings. " It was not nearly as exciting as we'd remembered or as wonderful as other meals we've had ... it was just not that interesting."

San Francisco PBS station KQED joined in the backlash in June, publishing on its "Bay Area Bites" website a French Laundry review from Michael Procopio, a waiter, former San Francisco Chronicle food section intern and 1997 graduate of the California Culinary Academy.

This story was the first faintly negative review of French Laundry I had seen, and the one that sparked the idea for this post, even before I heard backlash rumblings in the bigger, non-blog media world.

The review included some highly complimentary words for the food and servers. But Procopio found "something was not quite right," including the robotic staff, who insisted he order champagne rather than a still white wine; who recited dish descriptions while mispronouncing key words and who ultimately sent a chill up his spine. Procopio concluded the restaurant embodied "uniformity," "repetition" and "machinery well-oiled."

His unease reached its dramatic crescendo when an aggressively confused waiter read Procopio's $1277 bill aloud to Procopio, his dining companion and the rest of the restaurant.
We were pleased to know that everyone in the room knew how much we spent. Perhaps our waiter thought that a guest at one of the other tables might avail us of his or her superior math skills. We were, all of us, quietly horrified.
Three themes emerge repeatedly in the bad reviews.
  1. Speculation that the opening of Per Se in New York, to say nothing of Keller's three other expansion restaurants, movie consulting or books, has led to an inevitable muting of the culinary and service heights reached at the original French Laundry. San Francisco Gourmet and Milor both mentioned this issue, and Nash brought it up in a comment attached to someone else's review.

  2. That people are holding the French Laundry to very high standards because of its very high prices, which have shot up over five years. Keller was asked about pricing at a Commonwealth Club event in May and became defensive, arguing that he provides good value for the price and pointing to the much cheaper option ($45) at his Ad Hoc, also in Yountville.

  3. The identification of alternative top restaurants, in particular Manresa. San Francisco Gourmet, for example, wrote that Manresa's David Kinch is giving Keller "a run for his money" and, along with Danko and Ron Siegel, is "within striking distance." Milor said Manresa and one other restaurant offered "higher quality product" than French Laundry, "impeccably prepared."

    The blogger behind earlier this month ranked Manresa ahead of French Laundry in a review where he found the latter's food seemed to sympathize with critics who find at French Laundry "a perfection without blemish or character, sanitized, safe, and soulless."
I am agnostic on whether French Laundry is slipping. My one visit to French Laundry in 2003 was my all-time favorite restaurant meal; it also featured a tasting menu half as expensive as the one offered today.

But I will submit to you the following: Hand-wringing over quality at Thomas Keller's growing empire of restaurants in general and at French Laundry, in particular, is likely to continue to work its way up the media food chain, rightly or wrongly. Count on it, and watch for it.

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So sick and wrong: Mark Pastore cooks local kids. And serves them as a 'special' dish.

Can you awful San Francisco foodies ever stop pushing the envelope? Do you have no decency?

Smoke pot and launder drug money in your restaurants, fine. Launch a jihad against science and progress, whatever. Launch a satanic crop-circle cult and worship an Austrian eugenics guy, boring with bored sauce.

But the kids. The KIDS. Can't you leave them alone, terrorists?

Here's Mark Pastore, the chef-owner at Incanto -- and a SICKO -- in the summer Edible San Francisco:
He had a smile on his face when he answered ... "How do you think it's going to look if I have 'neighborhood kid' on the menu?"
Uh, awful?

But he did it. And did it again. And he would keep going, if he could get his hands on more kids.

The author of the article, Andy Griffin, is trying to help him. He thinks, if he can round up enough kids, he can also sell them to Palestinians, Moroccans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Jamaicans ...

Griffin has anticipated your outrage, and has an answer:

America's political culture has embraced multiculturalism, yet goat meat has yet to break into the mainstream. Why? ...

I call Mark Pastore ... Pastore means shepherd in Italian, so Mark is almost fated to serve goat. He had a smile on his face when he answered. "You want to sell me tender, young, locally-grown goats? How do you think it's going to look if I have 'neighborhood kid' on the menu?"

Mark was kidding. Incanto does serve goat sometimes, but the supply of high-quality goat isn't as consistent as it is for pork or lamb. Kid production can be problematic.

At this point, I decided Griffin was creeping me out on a whole other level and stopped reading. But you might want to pick up the magazine (story not online) and read this for yourself. It's almost unbelievable.

Especially the picture of a kid being roasted over a spit.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Shockingly bad deal at the St. Regis is an inconvenient truth

Al Gore's hotel, the San Francisco St. Regis, has been selling a standard room for $954 per night, a price so jaw-droppingly ridiculous that is using it to launch an entire section of the site called "Bad Rate."

The site asks: "Are people who stay in luxury hotels really that dumb, or do the suits just think they are?"

Here's a bigger question: Is a lefty environmental activist Democrat like Gore really happy living next to people who could only afford be there by winning no-bid Iraq reconstruction contracts and suspiciously lucrative stock options?

Maybe. But he's almost certainly not happy living next to clueless people who pay $450 above the Regis' standard rate for $300 in "free" spa services, plus breakfast, a couple of robes and some skin care product. In fact, Gore is likely sighing audibly as we speak.

HotelChatter: $954 Spa Package at St. Regis San Francisco


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

SF food bloggers should grow spines, not hide behind keyboards, say (lame!) chefs. (Was that passive aggressive??)

Mix a bunch of a high end chefs together with some wine, radio tape recorders and a stuffy, older audience at the Commonwealth Club. Allow to simmer for half an hour or so. The inevitable result? Bashing on food bloggers!
Steffan Terje, Perbacco: It's a pradigm shift, a new generation is taking over. I guess we have to get used to this -- everybody's a critic. I don't know if I like it yet.

Michael Dellar, Lark Creek Restaurant Group, darkly: Think of the alternative ... (chuckles) [veiled Michael Bauer reference?? --ed.]

Pete Sittnick, Pat Kuleto's new restaurants: I would rather, if that person had a problem, just tell me that night. Don't put it on some blog I don't know how to access.

Steffan: We're in the people business, shaking hands, kissing babies [shurely againsht health code? -ed.] .... We thrive on this instant feedback.

Dellar: [Story about a customer recently in the restaurants who insisted there was a finger nail in his/her blended, frozen lemonade, when really it was a lemon peel, even when shown the peel. One hour later it was on the Internet.] It's everyone's right to do that.
Yup. They actually want you to be direct, and complain, with your vocal chords, in person, instead of scribbling in your little blogger notebook and angrily belting out your mad little screed on your blog or Yelp or whatever you kids are calling it these days. You know, since that is likely to be well received in the typical restaurant, a cauldron of mentally-imbalanced cooks armed with knives, bitter waiters with your credit card number and clueless, coke-addled hostesses who could not care less about your petty third degree burns or whatnot.

Just kidding! Actually if you use this thing called "tact," apparently you can stand up for yourself in situations like these. So it is rumored. And with these things called "Google Alerts," restaurant owners don't have to complain about not being able to "access" your blog or whatever, but that's beside the point.

Oh, also? Your precious Craig Stoll at Delfina? Who feeds Thomas Keller when Tommy comes to SF? He promises to burst your eardrums, underpay his cooks and raise your prices!

Stoll on prices: People will be getting used to higher price menus for everyubody,

You name the city, and restaurants on par with the people at this table are easily 4,5,6,7 dollars higher (per entree).

Stoll on noise: Our architects -- it's their fault! [Joke -- laughter.] If you have a booked place, it's going to be loud. You want your restaurant to be busy and exciting.

Honest to God, I want a certain level of noise.

On cooks: If we paid cooks what they were worth, people wouldn't be able to afford to eat in our restaurant.

Some additional details from Laura Froelich: 2nd Annual State of San Francisco Restaurants

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Please, Indians, come to San Francisco and bless us with your precious, sweet 'rupees'!

Fun historical tidbit: In ancient times, American wealth and tolerance attracted millions of immigrants from around the world. Our country grew rich as genius Indians like Vinod Khosla flocked to our shores and created everything precious and sweet about the Internet, including that 'OMG Shoes' video on YouTube, and were rewarded with barrels of the world's bulwark currency.

These days our profligate Treasury finances its record debt by selling trillions in IOUs to the Chinese government; we scare away as many immigrants as possible by treating them like terrorists; and we can't have nice things because we'll set them on fire or rot them right before a natural disaster or ignite them with looting and sectarian violence or corrupt them from the executive suite or just generally America them into a sad incompetent Enron-Katrina-Airport Security death spiral or whatever.

The effect on the dollar has been predictable, here it is against the Indian Rupee:

I interviewed an Indian guy last week. His company uses programmers in San Francisco to create Web software to deploy in the rich, Rupee-soaked Indian market, which is just so very wrong I don't know what else to say. Oh, except this: This Indian American entrepreneur told me the latest batch of smart Indians coming out of U.S. universities is moving back to India, since that is where the growth, smart people and oh ya valuable currency is.

The point is: Please, Indians, come to San Francisco and spend your highly sought-after rupees, which can buy you very many nice things on Union Square, not all of which were manufactured in China. Enjoy our land of opportunity and feel free to ignore the untouchable homeless person with an untreated medical problem when he asks you for a "spare five."

Business Times: S.F. opens tourism office to pull visitors from India

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Attention SF drunktards: An 80-proof shot is not good for your stomach, energy, emotions, walking or hangover!

Listen, new-money Web 2.0 Yelper yuppie dude, with your $15 fresh-fruit cocktails and your single-malt snobbery, throwing your Google stock option money across bars all over town: Jordan Mackay at 7X7 magazine has a message for you.

He knows you've read all about Italian bitters like Fernet Banca on the Web and maybe in a newspaper you accidentally read once, on a train or something.

It's cute you order a round of "amari" after dinner (small plates, probably), and before leaving the first bar, and before stumbling home.

But stop hoping it will brighten your mood, or give you energy, or digest your food, or make the evil hangover go away. Unlike your useless herbal supplements, which merely waste money, bitters contain alcohol and drinking more than one "is like taking the carpool lane to the Big Hurt," no matter what they tell you at R Bar.

Which, by the way, is kind of a retarded, Web 2.0 name for a bar, and needs an apostrophe. (OK, maybe Jordan didn't say that part.)

7X7: The Day After Amaro

(Photos courtesy thepartycow on Flickr and Adam j r on Flickr.)

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Committee to invent somehow more miserable, unfair SF taxi system

San Francisco has an ingenious system for getting much-needed taxis onto our streets:
  • strictly limit the number of taxis allowed,
  • require that city bureaucrats approve any transfer of permits,
  • have city bureaucrats monitor permit use and all the complicated rules to make sure everything is kosher, since they're legendary at that sort of thing,
  • put everything under the control of an obscure commission susceptible to pressure from various special interests to the detriment of taxi users at large!
The whole system works flawlessly and residents and tourists and conventioneers never have to wait for a cab, or search for one desperately, not that it matters because having your own car in SF is so easy.

You can see how great things are and how plentiful taxis have become by looking at the Taxicab Commission homepage photo above, showing a totally typical automobile lineup on your average San Francisco street.

Logically, the city has created yet another government committee to tweak this ingenuous system.

One way to fix everything might be to let drivers own their own medallions, as they do in New York after shelling out over half a million dollars per, so that drivers control their own livelihood, have an incentive to make maximum use of their cab and can even profit from the medallion sale.

Another solution is to transfer medallions from government bureaucrats to private taxicab companies, who can then dictate terms to their heavily immigrant workforce. Uhhh, hmmm. At least under this scheme there would be political pressure from taxicab companies to issue more medallions (as opposed to the New York system, where issuing more medallions means stealing medallion profits from heavily indebted immigrant drivers).

I never understood why we couldn't set up a program to bring in Oakland and Peninsula drivers during peak hours and seasons. The drivers could even be required to get a separate certification for SF.

Business Times update: Group charged with overhauling S.F.'s taxi business

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San Francisco tourism boss heals the lame, fills city with homosexuals, foreigners

In his first year running San Francisco's tourism office, Joe D'Alessandro has filled the city with fabulous travelers like gays and event planners, created consensus and peace at the Board of Supervisors, brought labor and management together in harmony, conjured tens of thousands of dollars out of thin air, bought you a pony, invented the iPhone and got the whole city a round of cocktails.

Someone please send me something negative about Joe D'Alessandro, because if I have to write another one of these stories where every single source, including friggin' Supervisors, for chrissake, has glowing things to say about Joe, I'm going to lose my journalism license.


Full glowing profile of Joe D'Alessandro, which believe it or not I was not in any way bribed to write: Selling the City / Convention and Visitors Bureau chief D'Alessandro says it's time to put some edge into S.F.'s marketing

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I got married and went on a honeymoon, without the Web's permission. She's a jealous obsessive lover, apparently.

At least you missed me.

It's flattering that I have been getting emails asking why I haven't posted, because at least it means some people want MORE, if only to kill a few minutes and a few thousand brain cells.

No, I have not updated it about a month. Yes, I should have told you what I was up to.

I got married and went on a honeymoon. I've been waiting until I assembled just the right photos, and somehow came up with a way to be at least a little snarky about my own marriage, but was swamped on returning to work Monday. And today. But after glancing at my email inbox tonight, I thought I should post.

Covers promises to return later this week!

But Covers is going to France in September for another honeymoon, so don't say I didn't warn you.

Confession: I drank some biodynamic wine. But I got the winery tasting guy to reveal that apparently the field workers make fun of it while they are carrying out the rituals. (See, this is the sort of crap scoopage I come up with after a long vacation.)