The Truth About Verjus
On the menu at Pastis, Gerald Hirigoyen's new restaurant near Levi Strauss Plaza, is sautŽed foie gras with grapes and verjus. The last ingredient -- a sweet-tart grape juice that's essentially unfermented wine -- is as yet little known and little used in this country (as was true of balsamic vinegar 15 years ago). But while it bears some resemblance to its harsher cousin vinegar, according to Pastis chef Isabelle Alexandre, it's lighter and milder, without the sweetness of balsamic. "It's got kick," she says.
Alexandre uses verjus in her foie gras dish as a kind of fulcrum between the fattiness of the meat and the sweetness of the grapes. "It's just a little sour and acidic, and it cuts the oiliness of the foie gras," she says. "It adds something to the dish without taking anything away. It's sweet and sour and mild at the same time." Vinegar would also bring tartness, but "it's way too strong" for such a delicately flavored dish, she says.
So far the foie gras is the only Pastis preparation in which Alexandre uses verjus, but for Dish's edification she described a sauce -- of verjus reduced with shallots and some veal stock -- that would work well with whitefish. (Chefs like to leave something out when they publish their recipes, but even if she's omitted some ingredient, this sauce is too simple not to be good.)
Pastis uses verjus from Fusion Foods, in Napa. The company uses vinifera grapes to make the liquid; the grapes are crushed at midsummer (unlike wine grapes, which are crushed in the autumn), when acid levels are high and sugar levels low. Alexandre thinks that the product is "comparable" to its French competitors. "There are great products in California," she says, "and we try to use them when they're making the same thing as in France."
In a city of espresso bars comes now Tea & Company, which claims to be America's first "tea market." The shop opened (on Fillmore at Sacramento) last week, and from that outpost it sells more than 80 types of tea for home brewing.
One selling point for the health-crazed: Brewed tea has less -- a lot less -- caffeine than a comparable amount of coffee. You take in 200 milligrams for every 5-ounce cup of coffee you drink, but only 100 milligrams for the same amount of black tea, and even less for green and oolong. (And, for the absolutists, none at all from herbal tea.)
Then again, is caffeine bad for you? Lots of people think so, but it has never been established. It's also irrelevant, because tea isn't a substitute for coffee: It's a joy and tradition of its own. As Tea & Company will tell you.