Saturday, October 31, 2009

A breakfast to remember

Whenever I have a really great breakfast, I want to immediately move to where that restaurant is. I want to be a regular so the staff know me and what I like and I know them. I just ate at Linda's Seabreeze Cafe on Seabright in Santa Cruz and I definitely want to move close to it. I had a perfect breakfast, the Scrambler for $7.50: 2 eggs scrambled with green onions, mushrooms, and cheese, served with home fries and a cinnamon roll (I chose that over a muffin). The eggs were done just right, ingredients balanced, not runny but a little soft. The potatoes, by which I always judge a breakfast place, were red potatoes cooked through and nicely crispy with lots of onion. I gobbled them up with the scramble and left the roll for dessert. It was filled with chopped pecans, very cinnamony but not over the top, layered and buttery and so satisfying. I also had a large glass of Odwalla orange juice for $2.50, pretty good these days. After this great breakfast I walked 2 blocks to the ocean where it was clear, sunny, but not too hot. Oh what a beautiful morning!

Monday, October 26, 2009

A few recent eatings

I'm always looking for a place to shine in the Palo Alto-Mountain View area where mediocrity rules. Often the tops are Mexican places and I recently had a couple of excellent tacos at Mercado Marlen Taqueria, attached to a Mexican grocery on California near Showers. I only had $3 with me, but was able to get one tongue and one chili verde taco for $1.39 each. Both had lots of lean, tender, flavorful meat in 2 small corn tortillas with good texture. The place appears to be run by a mother and her 2 daughters and they keep everything clean and efficient. They have a fairly large menu for a small place. Burritos are $5. 50 and I'll have to come and try more. I did notice they have a breakfast burrito for $8.50 which seems pretty pricey.
I also recently stopped in at Dittmer's on San Antonio. I adore their paprika sausage and also like to get a couple of turkey, chicken, and/or duck legs which are nice to have around for a quick lunch or snack. Everything is of very high quality, it's family-run, and a food highlight of the mid-Peninsula.
Xanh's in Mountain View is a beautiful neo-Vietnamese restaurant on Castro that now has only a buffet at lunch, but it's one of the best deals around at $12. Almost all of the favorites from the dinner menu are there. Things are refreshed regularly and everything is good, some great, and it feels like healthy dining. Highlights were the fried chicken wings, 2 soups, short ribs, papaya salad, brown rice, catfish, and different rolls. Their excellent shaking beef and eggplant are not on the lunch buffet so it's worth coming back for dinner.
We met friends in San Francisco for a walk through the Presidio to take advantage of a beautiful day and see the Andy Goldsworthy tree tower. It and the view were really beautiful and the Presidio is a great place to explore. We wanted to stay near there for dinner and found a great Burmese/Chinese restaurant, Mandalay, on California. I had never been there but it's been around since 1984 and says it's the first Burmese restaurant in San Francisco. It's 2 blocks away from the wildly popular Burma Superstar, but service was friendlier and we found parking close by (maybe just lucky). Service was so friendly we felt like longtime patrons. We had excellent fish chowder, tea leaf salad, chicken with pumpkin (actually kambucha), eggplant in basil sauce and seafood in a basket. The last 2 were more Chinese than Burmese, but everything was fresh and delicious. For me a new discovery I'll go back to.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

San Diego and Los Angeles remembrances and new roots

The Hungry book tour took us to my hometown of San Diego and my school town of Los Angeles. Sampled old favorite haunts and new food discoveries. I love returning to Balboa Park and walking across the Spruce Street suspension bridge west of the park. We ate deep dish pizza slices from Lefty's Chicago Pizzeria in North Park. It's nice to be able to get slices of deep dish pizza and the sausage slice was very good. The spinach/mushroom less so, but 2 slices and a drink for $6 easily feeds 2. I've been hearing great things about Point Loma Seafoods for a long time and finally got there to enjoy a fresh fish sandwich, a delicious crab sandwich, and a soft-shell crab sandwich. The bun had too much bread for the soft-shell crab and I don't like red bell pepper in my cole slaw. It was a nice day so it's great to sit and watch the boats and enjoy fresh food. They have a great selection of smoked fish which we took to go. The other downside is they only take cash or checks.
We were going to go there one evening but they close at 6:30 and did not think we would make it, so we ended up at Cafe Athena in Pacific Beach with no regrets. Excellent Greek food in a pleasant setting with good service. Prices are very reasonable and portions are large. The fried calamari was excellent, the Greek salad fresh and satisfying with lovely pita (must be homemade). The moussaka's eggplant was well-cooked and the Bechamel sauce perfect. The Cretan Salmon was broiled just right and served with 2 incredible sides, spanaki lemonato (cold spinach) and skordalia (garlic with mashed potatoes). The Shrimp Scorpio, broiled large shrimp in a tomato-herb sauce, was delicious. For dessert we shared a perfect galacto-boureko, rolls of filo filled with custard and orange zest.
We had a good lunch at DZ Akins, a real delicatessan, which seems to expand each time I go. It's no Carnegie Deli, but it has very decent corned beef and brisket sandwiches and each table had a great bowl of pickles at different ripenesses. They have a huge menu so there's something for everybody. It's also fun to see the photos of what passes for celebrities in SD.
Before the book talk in La Jolla, we had an always delightful meal at George's Ocean Terrace. One feels on top of the world looking out over beautiful La Jolla Cove. We stick with appetizers and end up with a reasonably-priced, delicious meal. The chicken and bean soup has great depth of flavor, the roasted mussles are superb, the fish tacos are OK, and the salads are fresh and lovely. The cocktail and wine lists are good and service is pleasant,
The other fine meal we had was at Kensington Grill. It's in a part of town where I had several relatives living and always seemed dull, but now it's a great neighborhood. Their hamburger is about the best I've ever had and really puts the one at DB Bistro Moderne (see NY restaurants) to shame. Their macaroni and cheese is superb with just a hint of truffle oil, but richly cheesy wirh orchiette which provide the perfect vessel. Their bruschetta appetizer is a great idea-- your choice of 3 different global types served on baguettes, such as fresh mozzarella with tomatoes, smoked salmon, or pancetta and fava beans. The ribeye steak is perfect and all accompaniments are really good. Very nice wine list with an especially pleasant Vouvray by the glass.
We hit LA in time to have lunch at Tito's Tacos in Culver City, truly one of my all-time favorites. It has been the same since I first went there in like 1976 even though they moved 30 years ago. Always a line and most get tacos ($1.70 without cheese, which I prefer). They are fried and then filled with lettuce and yoou get a cup of this incredible salsa that just makes it come alive. I also love the meat only burrito with large chunks of tender meat in a rich chili sauce. They always give you lots of chips to dip in the salsa, but their guacamole is substandard.
After the booktalk in West Hollywood, a group of us went to Angeli Caffe on Melrose, owned by Evan Kleiman. We have her coobook, Mare. Their pizzas and pasta were great, especially the gnocchi. They serve an amazing pizza bread. That plus a salad would be a nice meal and I suspect their sandwiches must be great. We also had eggplant croquettes and aggplant rotinis, both excellent.
We cannot leave LA without stopping at Beverlywood Bakery on Pico. I adore their chocolate chip Danish, mandel brot, and corn rye. Their bagels, however, are awful, bready and dull. Sheila's gone there since childhood. We miss the old Jewish ladies who used to work there and always say, "What else? no matter how much you ordered.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Orleans-- pig meets pig

What a great place for the Assn. of Food Journalists conference, so I had to accompany Sheila to New Orleans. Early October is supposed to have the best weather, but alas, it sucked. Hot, hot, humid, rainy, humid, hot. Thank goodness for air conditioning as I did a lot of walking finding what I hoped would be an ultimate fried chicken. And that I did. Willie Mae's Scotch House is justifiably famous for their perfect, thick-crusted, tender-meated chicken. They have other things on the menu like fried pork chops, but everyone I saw was eating the chicken. It's $10 for 3 pieces and a side. I had a very fresh and welcome romaine salad. Not a lot of green greens in NO. The place which really looks like nothing from the outside is cheery and clean inside with very nice service. My first fried chicken was a walk to McHardy's, which is basically a to go place with only a bench to sit on, which I did. 5 pieces of nice, thin-coated, peppery chicken was $3.80. Brought some back to the hotel and Sheila had some after being refrigerated and it was still good. And it was just fine until I tasted Willie Mae's. Our last meal in NO was at Dooky Chase, a classic Creole institution, also creepily not much on the outside but elegant and tasteful on the inside. They have a buffet lunch for $17 that includes fried chicken so I had to do that. Chicken was a nice midpoint between the other 2, nicely peppery and nicely crispy. Again not as earthshaking as Willie Mae's, but very decent. The catfish, potato salad, gumbo, and okra were all delicious too. Some pretty large folks take advantage of this stylish buffet.

Several people recommended Stanley, right on Jackson Square, where we had eggs benedict with and without fried oysters. Very good, but not awe-inspriing. We did partake of the famous beignets at Cafe du Monde and there really is something special about eating there. We were on our way to try Elizabeth's which many say is the best Creole place in town and a 2 mile walk from our hotel so Cafe du Monde was a good stopping place. Alas when we finally arrived, Elizabeth's does not open until 11 AM and we were there at 9:30. Check the hours at New Orleans restaurants!

Our first dinner, after an 11 hour flight from New York (don't ask!) was at NOLA's, an Emeril restaurant that I've eaten at each of my trips to New Orleans and it is consistently good. Locals seem to sneer a little but food combinations are great, portions are large, prices reasonable, and service strives to be excellent. We shared appetizers of barbequed shrimp, flatbread with duck confit, an arugula salad, and an entree of smoked duck over grits. We took home about 1/3 of the duck to leave a little room for a wonderful chocolate pecan tart, each bite better than the last. I had screwed up our reservation but they were very accommodating.

While Sheila gave a booktalk through the Garden District Book Shop, I took advantage of the conference's A Taste of New Orleans. Large tastes from some of the finest NO chefs, such as pickled shrimp from Susan Spicer's Bayona, Pork cheeks over dirty rice from Emeril (himself was there), pork belly with a mint sauce from Donald Link's Cochon, seared ahi from del Porto, Drago's BBQ'd oysters, and my 2 favorites, sweetbreads with bacon jus over truffled grits from MiLa and short rib over sunchoke/cauliflower puree from Patois. Famous cocktails like the Sazerac were also served. And a lovely pear cake from Milette was for dessert. I was so full that when Sheila got back from the book talk and we walked to the Roosevelt Hotel to have a drink and get her some food, I could only have a small portion of lovely fresh cold heirloom tomato soup, while Sheila had bresaola with arugula and octopus carpaccio at Domenica, John Besh's latest restaurant.

Speaking of Besh, the awards dinner was at his flaghsip restaurant, Restaurant August, in a beautiful banquet room on the 3rd floor. We started with fried oysters and caviar served in a spoon French Laundry-style, Fricos (a light pastry cup) with andouille mousse (the best), and rabbit boudin. First course was white shrimp carpaccio with a remoulade sauce and mache (what a ton of work thinly slicing the shrimp, but a great way to spread a few shrimp over many plates). The next course was my favorite, featuring pumpkin agnolotti served in a roasted quail pho with porcini-- elegant contrast of textures and flavors. Main dish was slow cooked venison over grits wth elderberries and graine de paradis ( a flavorful pepper-like spice). No thrill but pleasant. Dessert was a brown butter quince tarte. I'm a sucker whenever I see those words "brown butter" together. It was tasty but the crust was so hard it was almost impossible to cut with a fork. Each course was served with a matching wine; we ended with a reserve Muscat de Beaumes Venise, which always leaves me very happy.

A last New Orleans treat was Angelo Borcato ice cream where I had a deliciously creamy panna cotta gelato. It's right off the Canal streetcar line and worth a little trek. One needs weeks to try all the great eating possibilities in this unique, recovering, and special city.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

New York New York, what a wonderful town

Sheila and I have had a whirlwind eating, walking, sightseeing tour of NYC including getting to know Brooklyn better. Our good friends M&R have moved there and there we mooched. We took a 2 1/2 respite in No. New Jersey to attend a wedding. Our kids' friends getting married; it's enough to make you weep. A fabulous wedding, altho NJ needs MANY more road sings. The rehearsal dinner was at Pourquoi Pas in Westwood. We took over the restaurant and the food was quite good and generously served. Nice to know there's a place in the wilds of NJ.
As far as New York, some great eating. We took a redeye and arrived early Wed. morning. After a nap, I took the subway to one of the holy grails of pizza, Di Faro's. One time I had a rental car and we went there but it was closed. This time it was open and not crowded. What luck! I had a square slice which is on a thicker base than the slice. Nice olive oil crust, a little crispy. Lovely tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh-cut basil, a little olive oil, some seasoning, all done by one guy who makes one pie at a time--no rushing. The more I ate the better it was, a great beginning to my days of NY repast. I can't say it's the best I've ever had, but worth the trip.
That night we went to see Hamlet with Jude Law, which was quite spectacular. He was great! Before the play, we and our friends went to db Bistro Moderne, a Daniel Boulud spinoff (I think the first). I had another of my "I have to try this before I die" dishes I've been reading about for years, their burger with foie gras and short rib. No socks knocked off, esp. for $32! The pommes souflees that came with the burger were a delight, crisp and puffy. Our party's favorite dishes were the coq au vin and the Moroccan tuna tartare. A very lovely room and good service, but not essential to return to.
But one that I did return to and would again is Jean-Georges, at least for lunch. Their $29 lunch is for any 2 courses. Each additional course is $14.50 and desserts are $8. The food and service are wonderful. Last time we went, I had the foie gras appetizer with roasted strawberries, one of the best dishes I have ever had anywhere. This time is had dried cherries and was delicious but not as spectacular as the strawberry. Sheila had their justly famous scallops with cauliflower in caper/raisin sauce, which I made once. Doesn't sound great, but it really shows what a great chef can do. It had a $8 supplement. Entrees were a spectacular rock cod crusted with nuts and seeds (made into a powder so it was light) in a broth with fresh vegetables and skate with Chalon sauce, marvelous. Desserts were fair, but they offer a lagniappe of fresh marshmallows and chocolates so I might skip dessert in future. The wine list has fantastic wines by the glass from $10-30. I'd go back.
Another New York lunch favorite is Gotham Bar and Grill, reliably excellent. They're celebrating their 25th anniversary and have a $25 3-course lunch special. The autumn squash soup was delicate and flavorful, watermelon and cherry tomato salad was refreshing, the Atlantic cod with chanterelles was perfectly cooked, as was the hangar steak. And for dessert, you can get their absolutely incredible chocolate cake. It's perfect, melt-in-your-mouth chocolateness. The sweet corn creme caramel was wonderful too, but I'll always take the cake.
And another NY favorite is Carnegie Deli. Their sandwiches are just so good and huge. Four of us ate 3 sandwiches and had lots of leftovers. I love their corn beef. Service is not great and I hate that they do not accept credit cards, but I still love it. We usually like to get a matza ball soup and sandwich and take to our hotel (no sharing charge!). Ate their before seeing Hair, which was also fantastic.
Besides Di Faro, the only pizza I tried was a slice from Sal and Carmine's which just got a great write-up on Feh, nothing great. Had a usually great lox and bagel from Ess-a-Bagel (although I prefer their 1st Ave. location), excellent bagels from Murray's, and very good bagels from La Bagel Delights and the Bagel Hole, the latter two in Brooklyn.
Our last dinner was at Scopello, a very good neighborhood place in Brooklyn. Excellent calamari salad and octopus appetizer, fresh pastas and a fine seafood risotto at reasonable prices.
Just a note on shows: Hair and Hamlet were both superb.