Bro. Do you even bake?

The recipe for the famous Tartine country loaf is less helpful than advertising for the bakery and new age woo woo. Pretentious garbage, really. Here is my consolidating upon a practical, clear recipe for sourdough bread. The only ingredients should be flour, water, and salt. The bread should be a crusty, rustic, (mostly) whole grain.

Grow a Starter

In the morning, add 100g of unsifted, all-purpose (AP) flour and 100g of water to a tall, lidded, glass jar. Stir with a spatula, and leave it sit, covered in a warm place all day. The environment should be distinctly warm, and so this often means turning on the oven at its lowest setting for a few hours (e.g. bake at 170°F).

Every morning, pour off all but about 125g of the starter. Use this poured-off batter to make a fry bread with sesame oil & scallions & five spice, or do something fancier. Add 50g of unsifted AP flour & 50g of water to the starter, stir with a spatula, and scrape down the insides of the jar. As usual, the environment should be warm.

Your starter is ready for bread when it is frothy & bubbly, and doubles in size by the afternoon. This will probably take a week-or-so of daily feedings.

Make a Leaven

The night before you want to bake bread, spoon a heaping tablespoon of starter into a large glass bowl. Add 75g of warm (80°F) water, and 75g of AP flour, and stir with a spatula. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, poke a few holes, and leave it to sit overnight.

After making the leaven, tuck your starter into the refrigerator and stop feeding. When you want to bake bread again, remove the starter from the refrigerator in the evening, and feed it in the morning as usual for a few days.

The next morning, confirm that a teaspoon of your leaven spooned off the top can float in a bowl of water. Your leaven may need more time or warmth. If so try again at lunchtime.

Mixing

Dissolve 20g of salt in 50g of water, and set aside. Use a salt with lots of minerals, like sea salt or even plain ‘ole iodized.

Add ??? 650g of warm (80°F) water to your leaven, and stir it until only a few clumps remain. Add 325g of unsifted AP flour and 700g of unsifted whole wheat flour to the bowl. Work the dough until all the flour is wet. Let this rest covered for 45 minutes, for the autolyse.

Pour the salt water over the dough, and repeatedly pinch to incorporate. The dough will be very wet.

This dough is about 71% hydrated, ignoring that first tablespoon of starter.

To-do: Meant to try with even less, but actually a little more.

Fermentation

Leave the dough covered in a warm place. Every 30 minutes, with your hands wet from washing, pull up & fold the dough from the side of the bowl. Do this 4 times with a quarter turn of the bowl between each folding. So that’s 4 folds every 30 minutes for 3 hours. After 3 hours, the dough should be larger and puffy. Put 6 counters next to the bowl as a physical mnemonic, removing one each folding.

First Shaping

Generously flour the counter with unsifted AP flour. Scrape the fermented dough out of the bowl and onto the counter. Cut the dough in half with a floured dough knife. Half of the dough will be about 955 grams. Roughly shape the two halves into boules by turning the floured plastic dough knife around the under edge of the dough. “Shape them into rounds by slipping your pastry scraper under the edge of the dough and then scraping it around curve of the dough, like turning left when driving. Do this a few times to build the surface tension in the dough…”

Flour the tops of the boules generously, cover them with plastic wrap, and let them rest for 30 minutes.

Second Shaping

Flip each boule over onto the countertop with the plastic dough scraper. This puts the floured side downward. Using a metal dough scraper, pull the boule of dough along the sticky countertop, to develop surface tension. Turn the football shape and pull again. Do this just until a bit of tearing occurs on the surface.

Line two bowls with clean towels. Generously flour the towels with a 50/50% blend of rice flour and unsifted AP flour. Flip a boule into each bowl, leaving the seamed side facing upward. Tip the boules in the bowls and flour the edges of the towels.

This time: Proofing in the baking containers.

Proofing

Spray two sheets of plastic wrap and place those sheets face-down to cover the bowls holding the boules. The spray will prevent sticking if the boule rises to the level of the bowl’s lip. Poke a few holes in the plastic wrap. Leave the bowls to proof for 4 hours, in the usual warm environment.

Baking

Preheat the oven to 500°F with a dutch oven inside. Pull the hot dutch oven out of the… oven, and tip a boule into its bottom. Score the top of the boule with an oiled, sharp knife. Cover the dutch oven, and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 450°F, and bake covered for another 10 minutes. Remove the lid of the dutch oven, and continue to bake uncovered for 25 minutes. Cool the boule.

Going Out While Social Distancing

Wanna go to that kaiseki in The Mission? They have a 7 address, so our whole crew will be there.

My ‘rents just moved into the 123 High Street building. Now we can meet at the pub on the corner.

He does not stand a chance of a getting a star in Fam Three. The empty storefront next door is in Fam Five, though.

I expect us to be playing whack-a-mole with this pandemic for a few years, and am worried some indulgences of modern life will never come back. For example, fine dining is damn-near-impossible to do virtually. I have a background in the hospitality industry, and have had the privilege to eat some amazing meals in my life. So this is personal.

Now by fine dining, I mean the by-definition pretentious, wasteful, and amazing conversation between diner and chef via the medium of tiny bites on giant white plates. A prix fixe or à la carte menu enjoyed with wine & company over a few luxurious hours. Including the dreaded communal table thing too, I guess. But how are we going to eat at fancy restaurants while we continue to socially distance? And how are restaurant employees going to get back to making a (modest) living? Take-out fried chicken & cocktails from a Michelin star place desperate for cash flow just ain’t financially sustainable. Crenn is doing fancy comfort food like it’s October of 2001, but how is she going to pay rent in Russian Hill on $55 per head?

Lately a lot of my research is connecting a company’s stock price with the digital exhaust left when we interact with the world. A challenging part of the job is controlling for the bias in a cohort of people. When is a group actually representative of a population, or actually random? So while I am nothing close to a computational epidemiologist, and while every machine learning & data scientist is pretending to be a virus expert this week, I have one idea that might help with fine dining while we are in social isolation.

Take a Number for Going Out

Imagine getting your driver’s license or passport checked at the entrance of a restaurant, where they confirm one simple fact: What is the last, right-most, least-significant digit of your mailing address? (Ignore fractions.) This digit is your membership in an slightly-different, in-real-life family — in which of ten virtual neighborhoods do you arbitrarily belong? And importantly, does your number match the last digit of the restaurant’s address? If the two IRL Fam numbers do not match, the restaurant would be mandated to refuse service. That’s it. Think through some implications of this simple restriction:

Maintains Social Isolation

When you go out to eat according to IRL Fam number, you are only ever physically near a fraction of the people in the world. And importantly, these people are always a semi-random subset of the same fraction of the population. The only people who are eating at the restaurant tonight are those who have the same number, those who are in the same IRL Fam. You might even get to know each other.

This is different from just going to local restaurants in the your zipcode, where a rando might jump a cab from across town for the restaurant’s particular charm. (This is especially relevant for experimental or avant garde places that have never relied on walk-ins.) The IRL Fam system is also fundamentally different from going to a different, random restaurant every weekend, because in this case you would still be exposed to a random set of people. And this is very different from restricting the number of people in a particular restaurant, simultaneously. A recent study from Cornell showed how even very small classes still would leave the student community highly connected. This would also thrash most restaurant’s finances.

What’s an address in 2020?

We could theoretically assign a random number, or use your mobile phone number, or even (shudder) use a Social Security number. However, there are additional benefits to using a physical, mailing address for layering our virtual spatial separation atop the existing physical world. Using your mailing address defaults a specific set of people into breaking your social distancing rules: Your roommates, family members, and those in your apartment building. Assuming you still like your kids & spouses after shelter-in-place eases, these are exactly the people you usually want to go out with. And these are the people from whom you are de facto not social distancing from, anyway! You share the same space, breath the same air, push the same elevators buttons, and so on.

What about the service?

This might require that restaurant employees only work full-time, and only at a single establishment. Would employees also need to have a matching IRL Fam? I think that would be too extreme, but goes in the right direction. Maybe we finally abandon the bullshit labor arbitrage of the gig economy, and pass a law establishing full-time de facto employment (i.e. benefits) for anyone who is works 40 hours a week for the same legal entity. San Francisco is already doing this with Uber drivers.

When’s your birthday?

This is no more a violation of privacy than when nightclub security checks the ID of your date who is looking particularly baby-faced tonight… Let’s mandate zero record-keeping or data retention on the IDs themselves, once the IRL Fam number is confirmed. I suppose patrons would need to have an ID with a mailing address on hand, which is a admittedly a bit classist.

Do they have valet parking?

Here is a significant downside. If you are not allowed in 90% of the restaurants in town, you are more likely to drive further to find an interesting one in your IRL Fam.

Is this all a game?

Given the prevalence of mostly-empty nightclubs with long lines, there is a chance the artificial exclusivity of the IRL Fam system would be fun and dramatic. An apartment with an address matching The New Hotness restaurant would be more desirable. And ironically, this exclusivity would be arbitrary and therefore, relatively fair!

Scaling & the Resurgence

This system could start in a traditionally-quirky place like San Francisco, and expand to restaurants & clubs & bars in other cities. And when the next pandemic (resurgence?) inevitably pops up, when the next shelter-in-place mandate occurs, contact tracing via IRL Fam number would be easier.

Saison

Dinner at Saison was really solid. Spectacular service with attention to detail, an open kitchen with almost-haphazard arrangements of tables around the high-ceilinged, taxidermied space. The smell of the wood-fired stove filled the room. Our winter menu was from late December, 2019. My favorite beverage was a sake, Shirataki’s Jozen Mizunogotoshi (junmai ginjo).

  • We started with champagne and tea made from a bundle of herbs in water. This reminded me of putting a sachet of herbs de Provence in a broth.
  • Then tiny cuts of sea bream sashimi seared on charcoal, served with sea lettuces, orange yuzu, sesame seeds in an oil, and sriracha chili water.
  • Lovely “nose to tail” dish of dungeness crab, featuring every part of the animal including the tomalley. Served with a thick almond milk sauce, and grapefruit.
  • Seared scallop in an oily berbere-like sauce. My wife had a tofu dish with carrots & kimchi.
  • Then we had trout with its roe alongside fartichokes, higher quality than the aquacultured McFarland Springs trout that’s everywhere else now-a-days.
  • Tiny white bread poppy seed rolls, served warm in a little basket on the table.
  • Black cod served with a chestnut puree, and a punchy (miso?) broth.
  • One of our favorite items was uni served over a piece of grilled sourdough, looking a bit like nigiri. The texture was wet from a bread sauce being spooned over, presumably made from their house-fermented bread hanging above the kitchen.
  • Spectacularly-beautiful radish dish, with a variety of colorful radishes & radish greens & flowers presented on a high, white plate.
  • Venison loin sous vide with raw garlic inside, in a demi sauce with ribbons of pickled kohlrabi & grated horseradish, and chanterelles.
  • The standout of the meal was the roasted honey nut squash mashed with a crunchy breadcrumb & herb mixture that tasted like Israeli salad.
  • Weak cheese course that was a bland, soft buffalo cheese wrapped in banana leaves and served with a nice flatbread cracker. Given the high bar of Saison’s ingredients, I would have preferred an actual, editorial cheese course.
  • Then a persimmon and creme fraiche dish, less savory.
  • The first dessert was a disappointment. Something with candy cap mushrooms & chocolate & tea, but the mushroom just ate gimmicky. I would preferred something baked cake-y or tart-y with more crunch, acid, and texture.
  • The second dessert with huckleberry & yuzu was for my birthday, and was very nice.

Review: Al’s Place

(1 out of 5 stars)

If you were to draw-up a list of the saddest fashions, affectations, ill-placed culinary passions, and grande cooking mistakes of the last few years, I think Al’s Place would solidly tick Every. Single. Box. This place is a living, breathing, performative satire of what fine dining should be.

First the place has no air conditioning and a single, beleaguered bathroom. I stood in line waiting to wash my hands, sweating from the warm San Francisco evening, and swapped places with a pregnant woman behind me who was certainly in more dire straits.

Clearly someone has pretenses of being a DJ, since they blare music so loudly that I could not hear anyone at my table a couple feet away. This was the recurring leitmotif of our dinner, and the main reason every one of us was hurrying through our mains and skipping dessert to just get out. Our first server was replaced by someone manager-ish, but they nonetheless misheard part of our order and just straight-up missed one of our wine requests. Each time we caught the attention of a new server, food runner, or host, we adulted and asked that the music be turned down. Call me crazy, but sometimes I go to a restaurant to get to know my companions better, as well as eat some neckbeard / topknot’s confusion cuisine. One of the servers eventually said the loud music was just the “vibe” of the restaurant, and we literally laughed out loud. At one point the woman at the table next to me leaned over, closely, to commiserate about the music. Most of the people in my row of table seats were physically leaning forward to yell. The place was so loud that when we asked for bowls for our shared soup, we were told they had heard us say we did not want them. And so on. The music itself? The usual quirky and dated garbage from the 90s, with a whiff of the post-ironic.

Their menu is a complete mess. First of all, they are too lazy to time the meal correctly and plate their dishes. Al’s Place calls this “family-style” or something, but its just cynical. Compounding this, neither of our two servers could actually tell us how much food to order for our party size, because there was no relationship between the section of the menu and the amount of food that ends up in front of you. There was some myth-making about “chef” wanting to treat proteins as a side, because they think this a comment on steak houses. But note that a real steak house can serve a plate of hot food umm, hot. Eventually we were able to map which lines on the menu were tastes, starters, mains, and sides, but to get this done meant literally taking out a piece of paper and a pen. I wish I was kidding: While negotiating with our servers about Lana Del Lame in background, we wrote our own translation of the Al’s Place menu, from hipsteraunt to English. After delivering an incorrect item with no explanation of what it was, they told us we should not have taken a bite before telling them it was wrong. How else were we supposed to find out what it was?!

The food is… fine. Their french fries were undercooked and soggy, but boy were they salty! Or should I say “brined.” The smoky mayonnaise alongside was too sweet and tasted like a dessert. Marlowe’s fries were better a decade ago. The Al’s Place lettuces were meant to be eaten by hand — see my queuing up for the bathroom sink, above — and for some reason had a bland avocado mousse streaked underneath. Can we please stop putting sauces under the food, to trick wraithy Instagrammers from LA into actually eating a sauce? The Progress does the reversed-salad-thing better. The chickpeas and harissa had some refrigerator burn to the legumes. The cold chickpea salad at Hey Day is better. The Al’s Place bean soup was overseasoned and was a bad seasonal choice to have on the menu during hot weather. But hey, they’ll put kimchee in it so you can think it’s exotic. Or something. The minestrone at any one of a dozen Italian joints in North Beach is better. The Al’s smoked brisket needed to have its fat better trimmed, and ended up tasting more lukewarm St. Patrick’s Day-corned-beef than cozy passover seder.

We only passed on one of our tastes of wine, so an actual professional was involved in their wine list at some point. They had no beers on draught, which is weak in a drinking town like SF. Also there is no hard liquor license, so your cocktails will be those sweet sherry & vermouth-heavy shims instead of a before-dinner classic like a Manhattan.

Al’s Place joins Hakkasan and The Progress as the two dinners that have me doubting the Michelin guide’s star ratings. The Michelin guide used to be insulated from silly trends and dopey culinary tricks, but they are clearly lowering their standards to appeal to teh youths. Al’s Place is also in that rarified competition of least bang for the buck, alongside the stunningly overrated and overpriced Hashiri.

Avoid Al’s Place like the plague. There are many San Francisco restaurants that do the quirky, opinionated, idiosyncratic faux-casual thing better.

Review: Moongate Lounge

(2 out of 5 stars)

Excellent dimsum with just enough cross-cultural elements of comfort food to be playful and interesting. That said, the entire front of the house at Moongate should be scrapped and re-hired.

First the godawful seating: We lucked-out and were able to insist on real chairs instead of the cheap, dopey, upholstered, 70s-garbage-couches in the center of the room. I felt sorry for another customer who was limited in mobility but was still expected to perch in these trainwrecks for her meal. I do not even want to think about fire safety in a place like this.

The cocktails were cloyingly sweet, under-diluted, and served too warm. They have the usual hipster quirky ingredients (e.g. celery), but the bartenders here need to go back to basics: A cocktail is not a sugar bomb to cover up the taste of liquor, but a by-definition spirit-forward balance between high-quality base liquors and a few complementary flavors. Any of a giant list of San Francisco bars do the cocktail thing right: Third Rail, Trick Dog, Cockscomb, Bix. If the techbro-ette wearing a fedora indoors sends back her martini because it is “too strong,” then you are doing it right. We also made the mistake of ordering a red by the glass, which was an overpriced mess, barely a five ounce pour and served too warm. It had no nose, no legs, no body, and no personality.

The service, oh good-God-the-service: Anonymous, underfed, morose hipsters slouching through the motions, in a poseur’s mid-century modern fever dream of an enjoyable night. The servers clearly want this place to feel like the space age 70s, but it just comes across as hilarious and desperate, like a Lana Del Rey video on xanax. Stop trying to be quirky and cute, and start paying attention to the details. What would make your customers enjoy themselves more? What would service from the actual 70s have been like?

Hot Hands

As someone who flirts with the hospitality industry, I actually find handwashing morbidly fascinating. The CDC has officially changed its stance on the temperature you should use for washing, saying cold water is similarly effective, while being more carbon friendly. The study that underlies this change is called “Handwashing Water Temperature Effects on the Reduction of Resident and Transient (Serratia marcescens) Flora when using Bland Soap,” published in 2001 by Barry Michaels et al. The study seemed flawed to me, so I asked someone I respect who is a practicing American MD with two specialties, internal medicine and interventional radiology. He knows about washing hands.

Four whole people were sampled! Dumb bad or good luck could bolster or refute this “study.” Having said this, I could believe it. But this did not account for the water temperature effects on soap, just bacteria. Soap work based on micelles [an aggregate of molecules in a colloidal solution]. And micelles have to contact a hydrophobic and hydrophilic item to work. Hard and soft water differences with soap and its temperature come to mind. I am a bottom line physiology thinker here: When molecules move faster, there is more effect from the movement. Why does the body innately increase its temperature when infected? And why serratia [a bacteria responsible for hospital infections] of all choices!?

I am going to stick with hot water hand washing, for now.

Anonymous Genetic Testing

My paranoia level on this project is about a seven out of ten, where one on the scale would be a trusting grandma and ten is well-informed tinhat.

Lately I have been wanting one of the genetic testing startups to process my spit, to confirm my profound, stunning whiteness. Though regardless of how many data sharing agreements and EULAs they sign, I do not trust any entity with my genetic details, government or private. An old friend who works in human genetics briefly tried to mellow my concerns, but after a cocktail-or-two revised his stance with “yeah, I guess they could do nasty things with your insurance premiums.” So I set out to get a genetic test done anonymously. This is far from easy, but very doable.

First start with the basics: Confirm the price of the test, including any tax or shipping of the spit-kit back & forth. Recently the 23andMe ancestry test was about $100, to which you might add $35 for extras. Go pull this money out of an ATM in cash. Then stop by your neighborhood pharmacy and buy a debit gift card. Just stating the obvious, but do not buy the gift card with a personal credit card, since you want no digital connection between your actual identity and the payment.

Next find a public computer where you can browse the Internet. It has gotten more difficult to find traditional Internet cafes in big cities, since public wifi is everywhere… Dressing well and asking to use a fancy hotel’s business center is pretty easy. Do not use your computer at work or your machine at home. Not even with your browser in porn mode, nor using the awesome Brave project. A Tor setup might work, or a burner phone with a decent mobile browser. Though make sure you buy that burner phone with cash.

On your public computer, create a throwaway email account. Nowadays, Yandex is your best choice without requiring an SMS validation code. Obviously you want to use invented contact information on the email account.

Sign up for the genetic testing service with the new email account, and pay for the spit-kit with your gift card.

Next is the most delicate part of this whole process: You will need a mailing address to receive the package, but an address not tied directly to your identity. Maybe a doorman building, a large office where you know the people in the mail room, or the like. Find a mailing address shared by a bunch of people, and use this address “care of,” to ship the spit-kit.

If you want to spend any remaining credit on your gift card, make sure to drain exactly the remaining balance and do any top-up with cash. Do not top-up a gift card transaction with your personal credit or debit card.

Now after the package arrives, you may need to associate the kit with your particular genetic testing account. This typically means entering a barcode number into their website. Make sure to use that public computer (again) for doing this association. I believe genetic testing company fulfillment services do not automatically associate spit-kits, to leave the startup the option of quickly handing out a zillion kits, as conference swag.

Spit in your kit, and drop the package in a public mailbox.

In a month or two, your results should be ready. Stop by a public computer for a third time to download the reports and print them. Maybe scan those PDFs at home, and pitch the burner phone. Viola: Very nearly fully anonymous genetic testing!

Breaking this anonymity would probably require security video analysis, or a very compromised public computer. At that point, all bets are off since you are at the level of a three letter agency, and you have bigger concerns than which part of Europe your ancestors crawled on first.

Sons & Daughters

Menu notes from dinner at Sons & Daughters in San Francisco on October 20th, 2017.

  • Aperitif was a glass of Cava
  • Taste was a leek and beluga caviar tartlet (crunchy)
  • Glass sphere w/ celery broth, dehydrated okra seeds, chestnut puree, and hipster bacon
  • Salad of abalone & cabbage, w/ black garlic puree & mild pistachio butter
  • Broccoli rabe, radish, tomatillo salsa (very off, chemically flavor)
  • Delicata squash roasted & pureed, linguini of Granny Smith apples, shaved dehydrated foie gras
  • Very al dente purple barley w/ lobster mushrooms & dark roasted mushroom broth (barely there tarragon)
  • Bavette steak (yawn) stuffed w/ truffles & salsify a few ways
  • Set “Japanese cheesecake” of Big Rock Blue w/ quince (awful, sent it back)
  • Limequat ice cream, buckwheat honey, fennel meringue
  • Sous vide sesame cake w/ dehydrated buttermilk sprinkles, agastache greens, frozen carrot puree
  • Bookended meal w/ a chocolate & honey sphere tartlet

Dumpster Language

NLP analysis done on a dataset of about 8,000 transcripts of Dumpster (as in “Trump’s a Dumpster-fire”) back to 2007. Unfortunately there are no trends that obviously jump out. He has probably been keeping to book more closely than generally expected, at least in these prepared interviews.

Here are three early transcripts: “xx00133” from Showbiz Tonight (CNN in 2006), “xx00598” from Your World with Neil Cavuto (Fox in 2009), and “xx00911” from Nightline (ABC in 2009):

How has the implied grade-level and complexity of Dumpster’s speaking changed over time?

How has his information content changed over time (empirical bag-of-words entropy)?

If I assume the distant past is the benchmark for Dumpster authorship, does the recent speaker seems like the same person? (This is function word distribution.)