Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Field, San Diego

The Field
Irish pub in San Diego's Gaslamp district

The Irish pub near our house, in downtown Mountain View, has terrific food, and has perhaps spoiled our expectations for all other Irish pubs. After all, the point of going to an Irish pub is mainly to drink Guinness. That didn't stop us from trying out The Field, on Fifth Street in San Diego's Gaslamp district, during this year's Comic-Con.

Raucous music? Check. (It's live every night except the one we chose, it seems.) Wooden construction and crowded tables? Check. Guinness? Check. Friendly, Irish-accented waitstaff? Check. The Field has everything you could want in an Irish pub, in addition to which the menu offers a tantalizing-sounding dish called the boxty, essentially a wrap made with a potato pancake instead of a tortilla.

As with any pub, the appetizers were great. Though this pub doesn't have the curry chicken we love at our regular pub, it does offer curry fries, and if you like curry, you should order a double portion, because these will disappear fast. The potato skins and onion rings were good, crispy and hot, as were the regular fries, but the curry fries were something special.

Alas, not so the main dishes. We split a chicken sage boxty, and while the potato pancake was good, the chicken was sadly bland, the sage almost entirely unnoticeable. The dishes our friends got (a Guinness beef stew and the fish and chips) were similarly described as "good, but not great." If they would just put some of that curry sauce into the chicken boxty, I think they'd have a real hit on their hands. We can't fault the size of the portions, nor the service--the staff were terrific, comping us a meal after spilling beer on our friend (pictured above in his stylish "LOL Trekkies" shirt) and being attentive throughout the meal. And the atmosphere and Guinness were top-notch. If you're going to The Field, our recommendation is to order a couple helpings of curry fries and some drinks, and while away a pleasant couple of hours in a very Irish atmosphere. But for dinner, there are too many great places in the Gaslamp for us to go back here.

Basic Kitchen and Bar, San Diego

Basic Kitchen and Bar
Flatbread pizza and salad in an artsy, urban setting

During San Diego Comic-Con, we enjoy going to all the different restaurants in the beautiful downtown Gaslamp district. When we were in the mood for pizza, though, we couldn't think of a standout place, so we asked a friend for a recommendation. "Basic Kitchen has been getting great reviews," he said, so off we went, to the other side of the ballpark at 10th and J Streets, to a place that looks like an art gallery/bar but has wonderful food as well.

Inside, even in the restaurant area, the feel persists. There's very little standing on ceremony; you seat yourself, and eventually a waiter in t-shirt and ripped jeans comes over to take care of you. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the music and the industrial interior, looking as if someone ripped the innards out of an old brick studio and threw a bunch of tables and chairs into it.

The menu is simplicity itself: choose a red or white sauce for your pizza, small or large, cheese or no, and then pick from toppings like sun-dried tomato, black olive, mushroom, fresh basil, bacon...broccoli...mashed potatoes... (those last couple recommended for white pizzas, it is noted). You can also have a salad if you want. One size, one salad.

We recommend, well, everything. The salad is delicious, with a tangy fruit vinaigrette and the right balance of candied walnut, gorgonzola, pear, and greens. The pizzas have a crispy thin crust, but even our friend who loves Chicago-style pizza liked it because it's not greasy and dripping as New York pizza should be and thin-crust traditionally is. The toppings are all fresh--on our sausage, olive, fresh basil, and mushroom pizza, it was the sausage that got lost in the other flavors.

If not prompt, the service was at least extremely friendly and helpful. We all felt comfortable and resolved to make this stop one of our Comic-Con traditions. Take a little detour and make sure to visit when you're in the area.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Gordon Biersch, Palo Alto

Gordon Biersch
Brew pub food (famous garlic fries) and good beer

If you've attended a Giants game at Pac Bell SBC that ballpark where they play now, you have more than likely caught the heavenly scent of garlic and fried potatoes. Gordon Biersch has stands doing a brisk business in garlic fries throughout the stadium, but you may not have known that the now-nationwide restaurant/brewery chain started in Palo Alto, on the site of the old
("once historic"?) Bijou Theater.

The front windows are removable for those warm summer nights, and the high theater ceilings give the restaurant an airy, open feel. There aren't many tables in the restaurant area, so if you go on a busy weeknight, you may be better off sitting in the raucous sports bar area in the back. Full menu is available there, so you won't miss out on any of the great dishes to be had.

We started going here after class once a week during our screenwriting classes at Stanford, and though we're not taking the classes now, the current students have continued the tradition and are nice enough to invite us along, so we find ourselves there more Thursday nights than not. Sometimes we tried other restaurants, because the one drawback of Gordon Biersch is that it can be pretty loud, but we keep coming back.

You could dine for three or four nights on the appetizers alone. The tapas plate, the southwestern egg rolls, the calamari, and of course, the garlic fries, are particular favorites, but you can't go wrong here. The salads are large and fresh, though we usually end up getting just a Caesar or wedge salad (get it with the vinaigrette dressing--it comes with loads of cheese as it is) along with our order.

No main dish has ever disappointed. The sandwiches are big, often hard to finish, which is a shame because they also come with a portion of the garlic fries. Good bread and good meat--what more could you want? The BBQ is good, though compared to other places around here, it's nothing to get excited about. All of their sauces carry lots of flavor, and the ones that say they're spicy really are, at least to my delicate palate. I suspect hardier souls would be somewhat disappointed in the heat, though not the flavor. They do stir-fry and meatloaf, pecan-crusted chicken and seared ahi tuna, steak and jambalaya all well. Pizzas are good too, with nice traditional crust and good sauce, and they'll happily bring you a side of marinara to dip the crusts into (though the pizza dough is good, it's a little bland).

We rarely have room to try the desserts, but I can heartily recommend the carrot cake and the key lime cheesecake from sampling other plates. One of these weeks, we'll eat light enough to be able to fit one of those in, or else we'll just take it home and have it later.

It's moderately priced--entrees can range up to $24 for a good fish or steak, but you can also get a good pizza or sandwich for $10-15. The beers are about average, $5 or so, and they make a good Arnold Palmer if you're on the wagon. It's not the cheapest place in Palo Alto, but it's certainly far from the most expensive, and it's a great place to take a group of people who are in the mood for different things. Nobody will leave unhappy--that's why we keep going back.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Empire Tap Room, Palo Alto

Empire Grill & Tap Room
California cuisine, moderately priced

Two of the places we visit most often in Palo Alto are Buca di Beppo and Gordon Biersch, across from each other on Emerson between Hamilton and Forest. Next to Buca's is a little place called the Empire Tap Room, which we'd often said "we should try" and never did. A while ago, we tried it and liked it, so when we had a friend in town, we went again and were not disappointed.

Inside, it looks like an upscale bar. The patio was crowded, so we opted for the table inside right away rather than the 20-30 minute wait to sit outside. I've since read glowing reviews of the patio--will have to give it a try for next time. But the inside itself is not too bad, though our table seemed to be a favored stopping point for some gnats, maybe residents of the large plant next to us. The staff were all friendly and helpful, and the tables neat and clean.

The food, overall, was excellent. They brought some fresh bread, with oil and balsamic vinegar upon request. Service was a little slow, probably because the outside patio was so crowded, but it was nothing that bothered us much. Our companion ordered the New York steak (sorry, I'm awful about remembering steak types--it was flank or strip) and we split the halibut special (accepting the $2 split plate charge), topped with red pepper puree and accompanied by roasted potatoes. Both dishes included assorted vegetables julienne, and we ordered the parmesan roasted asparagus on the side.

The steak was (I understand) good. The halibut was delicious, tender but firm with good flavor. The red pepper puree was okay, but didn't really add much to the fish from my perspective. The potatoes were excellent, not too soft and really flavorful, and the roasted asparagus was really good, hot and crunchy and tasty. We also ordered their french fries, which were very good, crispy and well-seasoned, though the homemade ketchup tasted a bit too much like spaghetti sauce and the aioli, though tasty, was a little runny. We ate comfortably and weren't too full when the meal was done. For a place called a "tap room," the Empire has a good selection of wines, which were consumed without complaint and seemed to go well with the meal (I had a Diet Coke myself, which was also good).

It's a little pricey, but the food is good, the service is good, and if you want to sit outside, there are few places with as large a patio. If you just want good brew pub food, it's hard to beat Gordon Biersch across the street, and I think eight times out of ten we'd go back there rather than return to Empire.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Counter, Santana Row

The Counter
Do-it-yourself burgers in an urban diner setting.

We first heard about The Counter when they opened a store in Palo Alto on California (pictured)--alas, long after my office had moved from that area. Our friends on Santana Row whose condo overlooks the site of the new location had been watching it for months, so it was with great excitement that they announced to us that it would be opening on July 2. Better still, The Counter did a training day to which they invited Santana Row residents, and our friends invited us, so we got to go on June 30.

They didn't have all the decor up yet, but The Counter in Palo Alto has a modern-urban feel which this location says they're going to keep. The restaurant itself is all gleaming silver and white, brightly lit, with huge open windows and a counter that resembles an old soda fountain counter. A faux garage door hangs as if poised to close over the large front window. The whole place exudes a diner-like feel, updated to this decade or perhaps the last.

It might have been a training day, but the staff were very friendly and knowledgeable. The only strange thing was the instructions for ordering, making sure that we ordered a variety of dishes to give the kitchen practice (e.g., no more than 2/3 lb. of the same kind of meat per table). We had no problem as we liked a variety of the dishes anyway.

The appetizers, though all fried and unhealthy, must be tried. The sweet potato fries are delicious, as are the fried dill pickle chips, and they give you several sauces for dipping. Our waiter told us about an appetizer plate called "The Sampler," which wasn't on the menu, that featured those two plus their regular fries and their onion strings, so we ordered that, and all four were nicely warm and crisp.

The do-it-yourself burgers are the featured menu item, though they have pre-assembled burgers if you're not in an adventurous mood. You can order from 1/3 to 1 lb. of ground beef, ground turkey, veggie burger, or chicken breast; one cheese topping, four burger toppings (ranging from the standard tomato to shredded carrots, cranberries, or pineapple), and one sauce (you can get a roasted garlic aioli, for instance, or a dijon vinaigrette dressing, or apricot sauce, or sweet barbecue, or nine or ten others). Then you can pick your bun (regular, honey wheat, or english muffin) or choose to have it in a lettuce bowl.

The veggie burgers are really good. They're actual veggie burgers, not meatless patties trying to taste like beef. The chicken is good too, and I'm told the beef burgers are good. We were less impressed with the turkey burger than we've been in other places, though. Assembling your own toppings is definitely the way to go, though it can be daunting. We all erred on the side of too little spice to our toppings, and the veggie burger in particular needs something like the dijon or the barbecue. But the burgers are good, the toppings are fresh and plentiful, and the sauces are served on the side so you can dip or spread, as you like. Everything's tasty--the garlic aioli was less garlicky than I was expecting, but still good. And we got out of there for about $15 a person, which around here is not bad for lunch.

I have yet to try a dessert or milkshake there, but I'm told they too are worth trying. Perhaps that'll be the subject of a future post. In any case, if you're in Santana Row and looking for a good, cheap option, The Counter or the nearby Wahoo's Fish Tacos will serve admirably.

Friday, July 6, 2007

W.G. Grinders

W.G. Grinders, on Castro St. in Mountain View

The 100 block of Castro Street in Mountain View is attracting new restaurants with amazing speed, so you can expect to see a bunch of them appear in this space over the next few months: a Hawaiian barbecue, a taqueria, the Hong Kong bistro, and W.G. Grinders join relative newcomers Caffe Neto, Monsoon Indian Cuisine, Xanh Vietnamese, and the cook-your-own-beef Japanese place I can never remember the name of, just in the stretch between Villa and Evelyn at the CalTrain end of Castro, anchored by King of Krung Siam, Amarin Thai, Kapp's, Hunan Chili, and Vaso Azurro.

"W.G." is not some invented mascot's initials; it stands for "World's Greatest." The modest abbreviation--we think we're the greatest, but we don't want to make a big deal out of it--is as midwestern as the name "grinders" (which is what they call subs out in the midwest), but in this case, this little sub chain can make a persuasive argument to the title, at least as far as sub chains go.

Based in Ohio, the chain has spread to Indiana, Missouri, and Michigan, with single restaurants in Georgia, Utah, and California. We Mountain Viewians are lucky to have the only franchise within almost 800 miles in our backyard. If you like Quizno's, come by and give W.G. Grinders a try.

True, there's cheese on just about everything, but you can ask them to go light on it. And the bread and cheese and meats are good, really good, just packed with more flavor than your average Quizno's sub (and I'm a Quizno's fan). Oddly, this doesn't seem to translate into many more calories; a six-inch Grinders Italian sub is 570 calories, versus Quizno's small Italian at about 770. They have a turkey Reuben, which I love because I don't eat beef, so haven't had a real Reuben in years--and the turkey Reuben is really good (except that they use cole slaw instead of sauerkraut, but even the cole slaw is good). Ditto the chicken parmesan (ask for half the cheese), the chicken salad, the buffalo chicken, the meatball, the pastrami, the Italian... everything we or friends have ordered there has gotten the "this is SO good" rating.

But it doesn't stop there. They make several delicious side salads--Greek, pasta, deli, green--all of which are more than just an afterthought. And you'd better save room for their cookies. Nobody knows cookies like the midwest, and Grinders' cookies are terrific. For the summer they're offering ice cream specials as well, though we haven't tried them.

The only thing we were slightly disappointed with there was the pizza, and that might be because we ordered it takeout and it was down to room temp by the time we got to eat it. But that's okay; there are plenty of subs on the menu, and we've yet to be disappointed by one. Our notoriously picky roommate declared it his favorite lunch place of all time. We're not promising you'll be that excited, but give it a try and we can almost guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Three Seasons

Three Seasons Vietnamese restaurant, Palo Alto

The first time we walked into Three Seasons, months ago, it came across as a curious mix between a bar and a fancy Asian restaurant. Bamboo grows around the bar in the atrium, except where the widescreen TV shows sports in one corner. More traditional tables ring the atrium on the first and second floor, and spill out onto the patio on Century Walk.

Service is a little slow, especially when it's busy, but the food here is so good that it doesn't matter. We usually get a few small plates to share and are happy with that. The fried tofu is de rigeur: it's the best I've ever had. The consistency, the light coating, the sweet/spicy sauce, and even the fried onions and scallions on top are delicious every time. All the rolls are good, and if you ask, they'll leave out the cilantro for you. This time we opted for a sea scallop satay rather than a roll, and we weren't disappointed. Though satay is normally served with a peanut sauce, this was accompanied by a yellow curry, with a small side of rice noodles garnished with peanuts. The scallops themselves were large, tender, and delicious.

In the past, we've enjoyed the pea sprouts, though they might not be to everyone's taste. This time I suggested the Japanese eggplant with peppers and onions in a coconut sauce, and again we were not disappointed. The creamy soy-based sauce was sweet, but not overbearingly so, and the coconut was a nice complementary flavor rather than overwhelming everything. We enjoyed the textures of the soft but firm eggplant and the crunchy peppers with some jasmine steamed rice, and that made our meal.

Mark also enjoys their lychee martinis, and I'll let him talk about the drinks if he's so inclined. There's a reason the bar is the centerpiece of the restaurant, I think--besides the wonderful food, the cocktails are reputedly quite good as well. But even if, like me, you don't indulge in that particular vice, there's plenty of reasons to come back to Three Seasons over and over.