Monday, September 5, 2011

Gourmand quick tour of Los Angeles

Returned from a Los Angeles movable feast fatter, but content. Here are the elements of my contentment... Our first meal after arrival was Langer's, at 7th and Alvarado, where we groveled at the altar of the great pastrami god. Thick-sliced meat so tender and flavorful piled high (but not too high) on thick double-baked rye. Many people order it with cole slaw on the sandwich, but we are purists and the cole slaw has bell pepper in it, shame, shame. Had a refreshing egg cream with extra soda water for a fully traditional experience. BTW, the rye comes from Fred's Bakery on Robertson. I called before we left and brought home a couple of excellent loaves. A sick friend changed our plans some for the evening, but we still had an excellent meal at Yujean Kang in Pasadena. It's kind of a fusion Chinese and yet it's not! Make sense? They create variations on classic Chinese dishes but very Chinese. Highlights were the veal with matchstick yams, the Chinese polenta with shrimp and mushrooms, and silk squash Beijing style. Combination of flavors and texture were great and unusual. The tiny dumplings were nothing special. They're famous for their beef tenderloin but amazingly they were out of beef on a Thursday evening.

The next day allowed us to explore Italian headliners. Lunch at Pizzeria Mozza could not have been better. Fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta, arugula salad, pizza margherita (simple is best) and butterscotch budino left us plenty satisfied but able to have a great dinner that night at Campanile. Friday nights is wine pairing night, where 3 tapas-sized dishes are paired with 3 glasses of wine for $38. Grilled shrimp and sweet potato was paired with a Sancerre, Grilled pork belly paired with a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, and lobster mushroom with bigoli pasta and kale was paired with a really wonderful 2001 Barbaresco. We had another glass of that. We finished with an excellent cheese cake and a highly recommended but not ethereal peach tarte tatin. Campanile does not rest on its laurels and has different theme nights during the week so one can always try something new.

Saturday was international day. Breakfast was at Nickel Diner, a perfect new downtown LA institution. Pulled pork hash was meaty, nicely spicy, mixed with perfectly cooked potatoes and topped with 2 perfect eggs. I had my Zocor the night before. Two eggs baked on polenta with spinach and garlic topped with parmesan made a defining breakfast, everything cooked to perfection and balanced. A shared maple bacon doughnut, housemade with brioche dough put the diner on our must return list. Food friends picked us up at our hotel to share a few favorites. We began with great Peruvian ceviches and causa (potato salad) from Mo-chica and added interesting panuchos (a Yucatan papusa) from Chichen-Itza. I prefer papusas, but the ceviches were first-rate. A driving tour of the San Gabriel Valley Chinese cornucopia made a stop at 101 Noodle Express, a totally nondescript place in a mini-mall in Alhambra, for perfect dumplings and an incredible beef roll, kind of like a Chinese quesadilla with thinly sliced beef, hoisin suace, ciliantro, and onion. No description equals the eating pleasure of it. Wow. And then onto dinner at Park's BBQ in Koreatown, where we could not quite finish exquisite marinated galbi (short ribs), prime ribeye, and assorted mushrooms accompanied by classic renderings of Korean banchan. Go with the marinade. The servers stay in charge of the BBQ, but got a little sidetracked and did some overcooking, but still very tasty. And valet parking in another mini-mall lets you know it's an in-spot. By this point, even I had had enough and my Zocor was calling me back to the hotel.

Before our plane left the next morning we stopped at an old favorite, the Apple Pan, with its excellent hickory burger and apple pie. Thinking of what I ate the day before, I passed on the fries. The place is so wonderfully consistent and charming and you feel you're in on great insider information eating there. An excellent wrap up to good LA eats.

Below are a few of my favorites for your dining pleasure.

Sancho's, 491 Lytton Ave. Sancho's has the best fish taco and their other food is good too. The fish taco is $3.95 which seems like a lot but one taco with the free chips is enough for lunch. They will soon open another location in Midtown next to CVS.

Whole Foods Market-I've been able to do the salad/hot dish bar for $5-6. I go for heavier food that by itself would cost more than the $7.99 lb, so salad toppings like salmon, teriyaki chicken. I don't add plain salad or if I do I get it from the fresh veggies area where it's $6/lb. I'm cheap but thoughtful.

Paxti's-441 Emerson --Chicago style pizza, deep-dish. One piece for $4.99 is quite filling. Takes a while as it's made fresh, so order, do a task, and come back.

China Delight--461 Emerson-generous lunch plates with soup are $5.50-$6.00 and quite decent with a nice selection.

Rangoon--565 Bryant Street-Burmese and Chinese food with lunch specials from $5.95. Nice variety including a few Burmese specials like the coconut chicken noodle soup add an exotic touch.

Mi Pueblo--1731 East Bayshore, EPA-a great Mexican grocery with the best tortilla chips. Always some free samples. Sometimes on Fridays (I'm not sure when else), they have fresh or BBQed oysters for $1 each. 3-4 of those with a fresh tamale ($1.49) is a great $5 meal. They also have a very large prepared food counter and large burritos and tortas.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

SF, Berkeley, and San Jose misc.

I always enjoy returning to a favorite restaurant or cuisine and finding it as memorable as I remember. We recently had lunch at Kabul in Burlingame and the joys of Afghan food were happily made apparent. I love aushak, the Afghan leek ravioli with a meat mint and yogurt sauce; these were cooked like in a fine Italian restaurant, just enough give in the texture, each bite better then the last. We also had a vegetable sampler, featuring the fantastic pumpkin ( kadu) sweetly contrasting with fresh yogurt, sabsi (fresh spinach with onons, garlic, and assorted spices) and bodenjan, soft eggplant with onions, tomatoes, and herbs. All were served with challow, perfectly cooked rice, each grain independently clustered together. A combination kabab platter, with perfectly cooked chicken and lamb with an herbed pallow (browned rice) rounded out a perfect meal for Lisa who had just finished a half-marathon and craved meat. Salad with a very nice dressing and freshly made, yeasty Afghan bread accompanied.
Have the glory days of Chez Panisse passed? I'd say no. We celebrated our 32nd anniversary with lunch at the cafe of this 40 year old icon, and although not everything was perfect, some things were spectacular. We toasted each other with glasses of Agrapart et Fils Blans de Blanc Champagne and ate our first courses. The little gems salad was just OK, but the heirloom tomatoes tonnato salad was wonderful-- an herby mayonnaise whipped with tuna proved a perfect foil for tomatoes at their peak with Thai basil leaves. A main course pizza with bresaola and grilled squid with beans and Gypsy peppers was amazing and I'm not a big pepper fan, or I didn't use to be. we shared a lovely chocolate mousse for dessert, leaving Berkeleyized and content. Then we got to buy some cheese rolls and baguettes from the Cheese Board, always a treat. I remember walking by Chez Panisse in 1974 and reading the menu and drooling and thinking I'd never be able to afford the $6.95 meals, so lucky me to not pass out paying $160 for a lunch for 2.
Another notch in my fried chicken belt was made at Criolla Kitchen at 2295 Market. The 3 piece chicken wirh red beans and rice and salad for $13.95 was tasty, crispy, and cooked just right. A touch salty. A daily special of BBQed pulled pork po-boy was delicious as were the BBQed oysters to start. Very nice service, a good amount of noise, a simple well-selected wine list with all bottles I think being $27. Speaking of noise, we had a marvelous dinner at Serpentine on 3rd and 22nd in Dogpatch. It's loud but the cocktails are terrific (the best Manhattan I've had) and the food is fresh and well-executed. A beautiful little gem salad with sliced nectarines and spectacular chickpea flour-coated calamari combined with a bean stew got us off to a great start. We followed with a terrific burger and fries and a perfectly cooked and tender pork chop.
A couple of good San Jose downtown lunch spots have opened since I retired in 2009, although several others have closed. Punjab Cafe at 322 E. Santa Clara near 7th has an excellent Indian buffet for $8.95. There are about 8 choices served with a fabulous wheaty naan. All meats are very tender and each item has its own integrity, with delicious sauces good by themselves. The place is very small and sometimes you have to wait. Punjab is 2 doors from A & K Noodle House, on Santa Clara and 7th and was I excited to find it. It's run by the nephew of China Chen, my favorite downtown soup place and is just as good. Their shrimp won ton soup is spectacular, just a simple broth with beautiful whole slightly spiced prawn won tons for $5.75. It's nicer looking than its mother ship too.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Acquerello and other fine eats

The best meal we've had recently was dinner at Acquerello, San Francisco's finest Italian restaurant, which I think is saying a lot in itself. The only unpleasantness is leaving a credit card for the reservation, but after that everything is perfect. The entry and dining room had been remodeled since I last was there (a few years ago) and it is a wonderful space. Filling a former chapel, it is elegant, quiet, and comfortable. Warmly welcomed, as we were seated we were offered a black napkin if we were worried about white lint. I noticed that some tables had little seats for women to put their purses on. We were given an orange juice, melon, and bitters refresher to help us settle in.
An incredible amuse gueule of a small arancino with a little dollop of truffled mousse was served after we ordered. It was perfection. We ordered a lovely Roero Arneis to begin and then followed with a beautiful Petrolo Sangiovese, the best I've ever had. They were 4 of us so that's just 1/2 bottle each! Both were around $80, which is high for me, but on the low-end here with an encyclopedic selection of the very best in Italian wines, and both were worth it. They have 2 wine rooms which one is welcome to enter.
Dinners can be ordered in 3, 4, or 5 courses as well as a chef's tasting menu. We all had the 4 courses at $78. Again, for the quality, prices are more than fair. Starters included a Parmesan budino on sauteed mushrooms, a perfect combination of taste and texture, smoked sturgeon over parsnip puree, just smoky and salty enough to honor, not overwhelm the fish, and grilled lambs tongue, deliciously chewy and flavored.
Second courses included a nicely stuffed ravioli of lamb shank, a baby squash risotto with squash blossoms, and a ridged pasta with a foie gras and truffle sauce. OMG, each was balanced and celebrated the ingredients. Main course highlights were a beautiful lamb tenderloin, a filet of dorade, and pancetta-wrapped scallops. Once again, the ingredients sparkled, the tastes exploded, happiness abounded.
The dessert that for me encapsulates the whole Acquerello experience is the house-made vanilla gelato with 25-year old Balsamic, and in season strawberries. It is very simple but each ingredient is perfect, and each bite ethereal. They also offer a beautiful cheese selection, which 2 of us took advantage of.
Service throughout the meal was perfect, replacing napkins if you got up, serving warm bread when needed, dishes coming at the same time but not French Laundry pretentiously. I had asked the sommelier to write down the names of the wines we had. An envelope was waiting for me as we left with an embossed card with the names. Acquerello is such a bastion of good taste and service, may it thrive forever. Multi grazie!

A few other recent great dining experiences include finally having food from the Chairman Bao food truck. Palo Alto now has a Monday night food truck gathering at Edgewood Plaza, which is fun to try. The greatest single item was the pork belly steamed bao, rich, flavor-packed, and sooo tender. Yummers. Another highlight was the bundt cake with strawberries from Butterscotch-on-the-Go. They had just run out of their famous-- and still untried-- butterscotch pudding, but this was a great substitute. We had dinner at Liaison in Berkeley before a great performance of Let Me Down gently by Anna Deveare Smith. Service was not great, but the weekday prix fixe of 3 courses and a glass of wine for $32 was quite nice. It started with a mixed green salad, followed with veal scallopine, and then ended with a fruit tart. Evrything was tasty and portions were pretty large, especially considering the price. Made it to ZeroZero on Folsom in San Francisco and I'd happily return. A happening place with a busy bar scene, the food is better than it has to be. Excellent thin pizzas, fresh salads, and wonderful appetizers like their albacore crudo with tomatoes and stone fruit and incredible stuffed squash blossoms, made for a reasonably-priced, high-quality, delicious dinner. We recently returned to A16 in the Marina after a long absence. The pizza there is also truly great and it would be a mistake to go there and not order at least the Margherita. Starters of roasted and raw figs, arugula and frisee salad were perfect while lovely burrata was slightly overwhelmed by the sea salt on top. A piccheri pasta was also too salty from the mullet bottarga on top, but the interesting fregula,a couscous-like grain, was delicious. Wine choices are excellent, but service was a little unresponsive. The server gladly agreed to things, like bringing bread, but didn't! Dinner was followed by an evening of improv at BATS, always a pleasure even when perfection is not reached.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Return to New York and some great eating

It had been too long, almost 2 years, since my last trip to New York. As soon as I finished my interim director gig in Palo Alto, Sheila and I did the redeye, arriving in NYC at 7 AM. First stop on way to our friends' apartment in Brooklyn was La Bagel Delight, a mini-chain, with good plump, nicely chewy bagels, albeit an awful name. We had arrived! Trying to discover the best Brooklyn bagels became a quest. Our favorite bagels and the ones we brought home were from Bergen Bagels, on Bergen at Flatbush, just a few degrees better than La Bagel Delight. Great scallion cream cheese too. A smaller, crispier crust bagel can be found at Bagel Hole, which many think is the best, but they don't last as well. I also had a decent pumpernickel bagel from a new place on De Kalb, Brooklyn Bagel Works. I missed all my favorite Manhattan bagels, except for a stop at Kossar's Bialy, where I was horrified by a stale and bready plain bagel (no pumpernickels available of which I have fond memories), and a lousy bialy, both ending up in a trash can. Quel horreur and shame on them.
I did have an admirable pastrami sandwich from the great Katz's after disposing of the Kossar's travesties, which put me in a better Lower East Side frame of mind. But I was disappointed in the pickles, either too well-done or not done enough.
My other ever-vigilant NYC search besides bagels is pizza and we had some great ones. A dependable slice from Joe's in Greenwich Village paled compared to the Regina Margherita from Keste's Pizza and Vino on Bleecker Street. A truly incredible Neopolitan masterpiece crust with buffalo mozzarella, simple tomato sauce, peeled tomatoes, and basil. Heavenly. A pizza insalata, a pizza dough roll filled with arugula with proscuitto and artichoke heart slices, was an excellent companion. They have an interesting wine list and are open for lunch.
A very, very fine pizza lunch was also had at Motorino in Williamsburg. A $12 prix fixe lunch inlcudes a lovely mixed salad and a pizza of your choice. We had the Margherita (regular but excellent mozzarella), and the soppressata, both good-sized, crispy, but chewy crust, and defintley worth a visit. There's a branch in the East Village. We also had a great slice of pizza bianco from Grandaisy Bakery on Sullivan Street, a simple focaccia with salt and rosemary. The bakery makes incredible lemon-ginger cookies. We had to visit Eataly, the new Italian food emporium, where we had the excellent daily pizza special, 2 slices of speck and mozz. calzone, 2 slices of buffalo mozz, and 2 of arugula, and a beautiful mixed salad.
A favorite NYC avocation is eating at fine restaurants at lunch, when prices are much lower. We always eat at Gotham Bar and Grill and are always satisfied. 3 courses are $31 includng their sublime and wonderful chocolate cake. Their salads are always freshly beautiful, on this day a mesclun for me and beet for Sheila. I had the hangar steak with fingerling potatoes and Sheila had the Finnian haddock with a citrus foam. What a delighful hunk of meat mine was! Besides the cake, we had a very nice yuzu meringue tart. Both desserts had a piece of basil which added a nice flavor to both. For $29, we had amazing 3 course lunches at Del Posto. I paid a $10 supplement for Lydia's lobster salad as a first course and there was like a whole tail of lobster meat with tomato and celery in a light oil that emphasized the lobster. Sheila had tuna and raw veal "cubito", a tartare, with a caper mustard sauce. For entrees, I had beautiful orcchiette with lamb sausage, minted soybeans, and crispy morels, a really fine dish. Sheila had a nice skate with squashes in a broth. She was the adventurous one for dessert, ordering a sfera with celery and figs and celery sorbetto. I had the chocolate tortino with olive oil gelato and pistachios. The meal started with 3 amuse bouches, continued with 3 kinds of bread with butter or wonder of wonders, whipped lardo (like a sublime schmaltz), and ended with mini cookies and chocolates. The restaurant is very beautiful with tables far enough away from each other so it's pretty quiet, a nice jazz pianist, stools for ladies' purses, excellent service, and truffles when you leave. I'd go back.
The soft shell crabs at Oriental Garden in Chinatown came highly recommended so we had to try them. We always end up being disappointed in NY Chinese restaurants and it happened once again. The crabs were good, not great, in a "country" sauce that our neighboring table was raving about with their lobster. We then each had a giant oyster that was very good and the tofu with shrimp, good but not up to some we get here in the Bay Area at dim sum places. I also felt they were fried in not the freshest of oil.
I also usually avoid Mexican places here, but friends highly recommended Rosa Mexicano near Lincoln Center and we were not disappointed. Their guacamole is freshly made tableside and is delicious with fresh, crispy chips. At $14 it better be good. We had a daily special appetizer of smoked cauliflower with goat cheese and 3 types of mini corn tortillas and the tuna and shrimp ceviche. Their roasted poblano salsa is terrific. A very nice lunch.
I have always wanted to eat at an Alain Ducasse restaurant, but being so cheap, I was not sure I would, until I found Benoit, which has a $38 prix fixe dinner. This midtown restaurant was not very crowded and the reviews weren't overly positive, but we had a very good meal. I started with a twice-baked Comte souffle with a parmesan sauce. Yummers. And then followed with the skate in a caper sauce, which was excellent, and finished with a nice raspberry tart. Sheila opted away from the 3 courses and had a delicious lardon salad followed by a classic French onion soup. Everything was classically good in a beautful brasserie setting.
Another place I had always wanted to eat at was Keen's Steakhouse on W. 36th. St. and try the mutton chop. By myself, I ate in the bar and had a classic Manhattan while waiting for my bistro chop served with braised escarole and fresh rolls with perfect sweet butter. The chop was magnificent, toothy lamb with great texture and cooked perfectly. For dessert, I stopped at a Junior's and had their classic cheesecake to round a out a cholesterol-filled but tasty meal.
Lastly, a real Brooklyn treat was had at Abistro, a Senegalese restaurant in Fort Greene. It's BYOB so the check was an amazing $44 for a great meal for 2. We had the fried chicken, a breast beautifully cooked served over a sweet potato cake and collard greens with a deep, spicy, balanced sauce and the spicy salad with trout, a great balance to the chicken. Both were preceded by cod fritters with black-eyed peas served with salad. Nice to have new and wonderful food. Back at the apartment, we shared a piece of red velvet cake I bought at Cake Man Raven's on Fulton Street, a good balance of moist cake and fluffy frosting.
My love affair with New York remains strong.