Monday, November 12, 2007

I Tapas, Palo Alto

I Tapas
Traditional and "new" small plates off University Ave. in Palo Alto

Emerson Street in Palo Alto, where it crosses University, is a great place for eateries. There's the Peninsula Fountain Creamery Diner and A.G. Ferrari on Hamilton and Emerson, and Gordon Biersch, Buca di Beppo, Mantra, and Empire Tap Room in the next block away from University. On the other side of University, there's Patxi's Chicago-Style Pizza (the most authentic on the Peninsula), Evvia (the best restaurant in Palo Alto), and a new place called I Tapas that sits in the former location of Left at Albuquerque, a favorite of ours for a little while, until the food started to decline and they closed.

I can't even remember now what was there in between that incarnation and this new one, but I hope I Tapas will stick around for a while. It's fairly modern inside, with nice artwork on the walls and a close, but not crowded, dining room. We were told it would be a forty-five minute wait, but we got called not ten minutes later to come back to the restaurant for an available table.

We've done a few tapas places lately: Solera and Cascal are high standards to live up to. But I Tapas holds its own, with a nice assortment of small plates for different palates. We really enjoyed the grilled asparagus with Manchego cheese and serrano ham, the Spanish olives with roasted nuts and cheese crackers, the pulled pork BBQ with lettuce cups, and the Pinchos Morunos (skewers of lamb). The asparagus had great flavor, with just enough cheese and ham to complement it without overwhelming it. The barbecue sauce for the pulled pork was nice and tangy, and we enjoyed the innovation of putting it in lettuce cups. It was satisfyingly messy. And the lamb skewers proved to be the good kind of lamb, with some lamb flavor (not too gamy) and a really nice mix of Mediterranean spices.

If you like tapas, this is one of the better places to get it. There are so many good places to eat in Palo Alto that it's hard to get on our list, but I think we'd definitely go to I Tapas again. It's worthy of being on Emerson Street, that's for sure!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Citrine, a new restaurant with diverse cuisine

Citrine is affiliated with Safeway, though at the moment that relationship's only effect is that they serve "O" brand organic products, and some particular combinations you might recognize from your Safeway shelves. Asked whether Citrine serves as a testing ground for future Safeway products, like packaged meals, the knowledgeable cashier said, "Not yet, but we're not ruling it out."

Everything about the interior is sparse and elegant, clean in line and surface. It's set up like a quick-serve cafe, where you order and pay at the cash register and then your food is brought out to you. They have an impressively diverse menu, innovatively cross-organized by type of cuisine and dinner course (appetizer, salad, etc.). Some of our group found this rather confusing (having to read across to see all the salads, for example), but overall we liked the layout and the selection.

The items we ordered came out as they were ready, so main dishes appeared before salads, in some cases; the attentive waitstaff don't really worry about whether everyone gets their dishes at once, nor whether you're done with one before bringing another. But that's what you expect in this kind of diner, and it didn't bother any of us.

So how is the food? Overall it got high marks. The flatbreads were particular favorites, but everything we shared around was good, and everyone cleaned his plate (with the exception of one friend who asked for no side salad and got it anyway--special orders are always tricky). The spicy pasta dishes actually had a good level of spice to them (to my bland palate), and everything had a nice, robust flavor.

If you're in the mood for a good, quick meal, check out Citrine. Chances are you'll find something you like there. Worth a return visit for sure.

Afton House Inn

Afton House Inn, little bed and breakfast in Afton, MN

During our tour of the midwest, we focused on two kinds of eateries: brew pubs for dinners, and brunch buffets on weekends. The Afton House Inn offers a delicious spread for Sunday brunch, so we talked our hosts into taking us down there (my stomach illness having run its course, apparently).

Reservations are recommended, and when you step into the dining room, it's clear why: it's very "cozy." Maybe fifty people could be seated around the central buffet island. The flip side of this is the excellent service: not only our server, but the host and another person in charge (the manager?) came over to ask how our meal was going. Along with the rustic charm of the building itself and the understated decor, simple dark woods and lightly patterned fabrics, that completed the hospitable feel of an old-style inn.

On to the food itself, where we certainly had no cause to complain. They were just swapping the pancakes out for more lunch-like items when we arrived, but we got the last of the breakfast and first of the lunch. The apple-stuffed pancakes were delicious, fluffy and thick, and they have a custom Belgian waffle station, which was very nice, but disappointing compared to the delightful mini-waffles at the Broadmoor. For the size, though, the selection of food was surprisingly large, and the quality excellent. In true midwestern style, they shone brightest in the pastry and dessert section. We loved all the cakes and cheesecakes we tried, the chocolate-dipped strawberries and the small tarts.

Fortunately, the inn is located near a lovely park for walking, because you're going to need to burn off a lot of carbs. Good food, but really the attraction here is the service and the feel of an old-style bed and breakfast in the crisp fall air. Definitely worth a trip from the Twin Cities for a nice brunch.

Jack Stack BBQ

Jack Stack BBQ, just what it sounds like, behind Union Station in Kansas City

When you go to Kansas City, you kind of have to get either barbecue or steak. Mark has relatives in Kansas City, by marriage on his sister's side, and when we asked her to recommend a place near Union Station (which we were visiting to fill out our list of the AIA's 150 most popular buildings in the United States), she and her husband came up with Jack Stack.
It's got a real "barbecue" feel to it, brick walls and high wooden beams, with wrought-iron ceiling fixtures from which lanterns dangle. The service is very hospitable and friendly, too, on which more in a moment.
Since Tim doesn't eat beef, we were careful to order pork ribs, salad, and the turkey/ham sliced lunch. The waitress talked us into the baked beans ("they're famous") and out of the "cheesy corn casserole," which we'd misheard her talking about at the next table as "cheesy cornbread," which sounded much better. Alas, it was not to be.
Well, we got our salads, and then waited for the rest of the meal. Our waitress came by to check on us a couple times, and when the meal still didn't show up, she got very exasperated, and finally found out that because we'd arrived late during the lunch/dinner changeover, our order had not made it back to the computers in the kitchen. Because of this, she not only brought us cheesy corn casserole, but told us that our whole meal would be comped. Try finding a place in California that will comp you for a late meal!
The turkey and ham slices were fine, the barbecue sauce on them pretty good. Tim was wary of the shreds of meat floating in the baked beans, with good reason, it turned out. He and Mark were less wary of the enormous ribs Mark was served, having just had a conversation with a friend who had said that the distinguishing feature of Kansas City barbecue was not so much the sauce as the cuts of the meat. The taste was mostly just barbecue, so it wasn't until the waitress came back and confirmed that there was beef in the baked beans that we found out that they had also mistakenly given Mark beef ribs rather than pork. (The funny thing was that the pork ribs were HER recommendation.)
Our waitress was very concerned about whether Tim was going to "flip out" at having mistakenly eaten beef. He assured her he wouldn't. She brought a pork rib over to try, and we found it vastly superior to the beef. If only they'd actually brought those in the first place!
The baked beans were very good, the cheesy corn casserole slightly disappointing. The salads, it must be said, were quite tasty, with a nice raspberry vinaigrette that was sweet, but not too sweet. Overall, we'd certainly go back there again, practicing a little more vigilance. Those of you who don't avoid beef should try the beef burnt ends--supposedly those are terrific. Burnt ends are something I've never seen at another barbecue place, and if we do find ourselves at Jack Stack again, we'd probably order the pork ones. Though knowing our luck, they'd probably bring us beef.


Solera, Spanish tapas in downtown Minneapolis

One of our favorite local restaurants is Cascal, a Mediterranean tapas place in downtown Mountain View, which deserves its own entry (or two) one of these days. Our Minneapolis friends, who also enjoyed Cascal, told us that Solera compares favorably to it, so when we visited Minneapolis, that was at the top of their list of places to take us.

It's a beautiful interior, dominated by red-brown brick and wood, the dining room semi-partitioned into several smaller spaces so you don't feel lost in a huge room. The tables are natural wood, polished smooth. It took a little while for us to get our server to come by, but we used that time to peruse their extensive tapas menu and decide on some options. We got the dish of olives in cava vinegar, an order of the cumin-toasted pumpkin seeds, and were told that the Chorizo-stuffed dates with smoked bacon were de rigeur. They were delicious indeed! We've become enamored of dates recently, having found nice fresh ones at our local market, and these were great ones, their sweetness meshing with the spicy sausage and smoky meat flavor of the bacon. The pumpkin seeds were good, too, the cumin adding a nice spice to the crunchy nut flavor.

For the second round, we got deviled eggs with blue crab and cumin, scallops "a la plancha" with serrano ham and saffron, kikos with Moorish spices (which turned out to be corn nuts, though the server insisted we call them "toasted corn"--they were still good), and sobrasada (a soft sausage) with quince honey and sheep's milk cheese. All of these were just as good as the first round: the eggs and scallops particularly stood out. I thought the crab and cumin went very well with the deviled eggs, enhancing the flavor without overpowering it, and the scallops were just tender and cooked perfectly.

The wine and margarita were quite good, and Solera actually has some interesting non-alcoholic drinks, including a "Pom-Pom" (pomegranate puree mixed with another fruit juice that, regrettably, slips my mind for the moment) that was pretty good. We left Solera very happy, agreeing that it compares favorably to our favorite Mountain View tapas place. Score one for Minneapolis!

Raccoon River Brewery

Raccoon River Brewery, brew pub in Des Moines

Going through the midwest, we were reluctant to try any ethnic cuisines without a local guide, for the obvious reasons. Brew pubs, however, were pretty midwestern (second only to steak houses, perhaps), and so we found ourselves in one after the other, from Colorado to Iowa to South Dakota to Davis, California.

Given that we were going to be in Des Moines for dinner, and that there was a place there called "Raccoon River Brewery," well, we couldn't NOT stop. The Brewery is located at the corner of 10th and Mulberry, or perhaps 11th; the directions were vague and the street signs not much more help. Still, downtown Des Moines was more hopping than we expected, and we had to wait a bit for a table.

The interior space is very nice, a large two-level restaurant with the bar facing you as you enter and the main seating area behind it. Back and to the left, slightly raised from the first level, is an area whose wooden floor was reclaimed from a local historical gymnasium.

The beer (according to Mark) was good, not outstanding. The hot artichoke and asiago cheese dip was good, but the pub bread (as good as what we were given at the table, but with garlic!) was outstanding. Sadly, we were a little disappointed with the Mediterranean pasta. The sauce was rather bland and there were few of the veggies promised.

Overall, we liked the atmosphere and, of course, the name and logo. It's possible that some of their pizzas and burgers are better than the pastas, or that the rest of the pastas are good. Seems like a good place for atmosphere and drinks, and take your chances with the food.


Sudwerk, brew pub in Davis, CA

We stopped by Sudwerk on the way home from a long road trip during which we hit many brew pubs. There weren't many people there on a Tuesday night, and we arrived close to their closing time, but they were happy to stay open and serve us.

The ambiance is nice, with a big oval bar dominating the center of the room and the brewing apparatus off to the side, but visible. We sat at the bar and chatted with the friendly bartender, enjoying the bar chairs and the decor. There's nothing remarkable about it, but it does say "brew pub" very effectively.

We got the hot artichoke and spinach dip, which we got at every brew pub we tried, and it did not disappoint here. Less cheesy (hence, I suppose, why they left "parmesan" out of the name), but still good. I think I like these dips better when the spinach is included. Artichoke provides good texture but gets rather lost in the cheese. Spinach has a good contrasting flavor and color, plus the illusion of healthiness.

The entree, a salmon dish, was good but not outstanding, and Mark said the same of the beer he tried. All in all, we were very pleased with Sudwerk as a way to end our trip. We're not likely to make a special run to Davis to visit again, but if we were in the area, we'd sit down at the bar and order us up some spinach and artichoke dip, and chow down.

Kincaid's (Burlingame)

Kincaid's Fish, Chop, and Steakhouse in Burlingame
Great food, view, and service--worthy of the name of its southern counterpart

When I lived in Torrance, one of my favorite restaurants was Kincaid's on the Redondo Beach pier. We went there mostly for brunch, often enough at one point that we became semi-regulars. After I moved north, we went back for a delicious birthday dinner one year (the year Xoflow was formed), and have tried to go there whenever we're in the area.

Last year, someone told us there was one in Burlingame. We'd been avoiding going, first because we weren't convinced they were related, and second because we were worried it wouldn't live up to the lofty standards of the first. Finally, we put it on our list to try, and when American Express sent along a gift card for $20 off dinner there (out of nowhere), we decided that fate was speaking to us.

It's hard to get to. You need to get off 101 at Anza or Broadway and wind your way back to Airport Way, then snake along the bay shore for a mile before finding it tucked away behind the Sheraton. The location isn't quite as spectacular as the Redondo Beach pier (though, to be fair, little is), but it's lovely in its own right. The elegant dining room has a huge windowed wall looking out onto the water, where you can see San Francsico and Oakland (weather permitting), the Bay Bridge and planes on approach to SFO. It also has the same polished wood and sparkling chandeliers that the SoCal location has, and the same friendly service.

Our waiter was enthusiastic and amiable, very entertaining and attentive. He started us off with some warm garlic bread from the oven while we made up our minds on drinks and appetizers. Although we'd been trying artichoke dips across the country, we opted for the brie crusted with macadamia nuts. Between the three of us, we ordered two specials: the Petrale Sole Dore with roasted red pepper mashed potatoes, and the Swordfish steak with porcini mushrooms and acorn squash puree. We also each got one salad: a Caesar (with anchovies), a wedge, and a maple vinaigrette.

The maple vinaigrette at the SoCal Kincaid's is one of the things I remember best about the meal there, and the one here did not fall short. The salads were all fresh and light, with a good balance of ingredients and tasty dressings. The brie appetizer was terrific, too, warm but not too messy. The macadamia nuts provided a nice texture and subtle flavor to go with the cheese.

The main courses received high marks as well. The light, fluffy sole was perfect; the mashed potatoes with roasted red peppers blended the tastes of both very nicely, and the grilled asparagus that came with them were tender and crunchy. The mushrooms seemed an unusual pairing with the swordfish, but were perfectly cooked, their meaty texture and moderately strong flavor going well with the strong, firm steak.

We would love to have tried a dessert, but we were simply out of room by the time the menus arrived. Definitely need to go back again when it's light out, so we can appreciate the view. If you can find your way there, it's more than worth the trip.