Monday, September 8, 2008

Goldenen Hecht

Goldenen Hecht, Heidelberg, Germany

Restaurant attached to a small hotel by the historic bridge in Heidelberg.

Most of central Heidelberg seems to exist as a tourist destination. Several of the streets are restricted access for cars, allowing pedestrians to walk and shop freely along them. Although there are German necessities stores, small markets and the like, the majority of the shops sell souvenirs of one sort or another.

By a happy chance, we visited Heidelberg on a weekend when there was scheduled to be a large fireworks show. This was a happy chance in more ways than one. It not only allowed us to see the show, it indirectly resulted in our discovering the Goldenen Hecht, because every other restaurant appeared to be full, and in Germany, or at least in Heidelberg, there was no concept of a waiting list.

So we happened upon this little restaurant and, it appeared, got their last table. We enjoyed the casual atmosphere--the room we were in had all of four tables and the small bar, so it felt more like a cozy old-time lounge than a restaurant, the more so because the seating was on benches and mismatched chairs. The staff joked with us and each other, and the owner (or at least the Guy In Charge) wandered around the floor chatting with customers and his staff.

We started with small green salads, basically just lettuce, tomato, and cucumber, with a tasty light citrus dressing. The beer bread, as all German bread has been, was fresh, thick, and good enough to eat plain. But we couldn't resist using it to sop up the herb cream sauce that came with the mushrooms and bread dumplings (the first main dish). These were a seasonal kind of wild mushroom whose taste was lost in the sauce and parsley, but which had a good, firm texture reminiscent of an oyster mushroom.

The other main dish we got, the pork sausages, were excellent. The skin crackled, and the rich, almost smoky meat was tender and juicy. Hands down the best sausages we had in Germany this visit. The sides of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes were solid, if not spectacular, but the mustard provided was spicy and perfect to counteract the sweetness of the sausage meat.

The third dish was a steak topped with fried onions and accompanied by some really fabulous fried potato slices. They almost reminded us of home fries, but really good home fries.

For dessert, we opted for the Kaiserschmarr'n, which we'd heard about at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. Supposedly it was the favorite dish of one of the last Emperors (Franz Joseph, maybe?). It's basically shredded pancakes, with raisins soaked in rum. Here at Goldenen Hecht, they topped them with "sugared plums," which turned out to be a plum compote. It took half an hour to prepare, but the waiter assured us it was worth it.

How right he was. The "pancake" looked to have been baked, more like a Dutch pancake than a traditional American flapjack. It almost had the consistency and sweetness of bread pudding, only a little more custardy, and with the powdered sugar on it, it was just delightful. The plum compote was good, though honestly it didn't add a whole lot to it.

We had a good European dinner there, killing about two and a half hours until it was time to go see the fireworks. Mark's aunt, who had never been to this place before, now has a new addition to her list of restaurants to take people to when they visit Heidelberg, and Mark and Tim have a place to go back to.

Burgrestaurant at Thallichtenberg

Burgrestaurant at Thallichtenberg near Kesel, Germany

Traditional German restaurant on an old castle grounds

You can't really throw a stone without hitting an old castle in Germany. Mark's aunt took us to one near her house, a place called Thallichtenberg which has a lovely restaurant on the premises. It probably doesn't look much like the place where the castle residents dined in years past--the specials are listed on a large rolling mirror--but it's charming and the staff are extremely friendly and attentive.

We started with pumpkin soup, which didn't have a strong pumpkin flavor but did taste of creamy saffron. Unexpectedly light for pumpkin soup at a German restaurant. Next we moved on to salads, a simple combination of lettuce, shredded carrot, and shredded cabbage (white and red, only slightly sour). Mark and Tim both enjoyed the creamy dressing, tangy like ranch, but with a sweeter flavor.

The main courses were wild boar stew, and pork medallions with herbed cream sauce, both served with mushrooms and spatzle, traditional German noodles. Mark and Tim both loved the spatzle, like fresh pasta but with a softer texture and a creamy taste, almost of potatoes (though it is not, we believe, a potato noodle). The wild boar in the stew wasn't as gamey as boar we've had in the past--apparently Germany has quite the large population of wild boar (we would later see one dead on the road to the airport). The stew was a dark, winey stew that included mushrooms and a dark red berry called a johannesberry, whose tangy fruit flavor was fairly weak compared to the others. The boar and the stew really overpowered everything else, though we could tell the mushrooms tasted fresh.

The pork medallions, too, tasted mostly of the herbed cream sauce, which was a little salty but rich and tasty. Both the sauce and the stew were delicious with the spatzle, too.

We had room for a couple desserts, so we split the rotiger ritter (or "poor knight"): french bread dipped in milk, browned, and rolled in sugar and cinnamon; and a bowl of four small scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with hot raspberry compote. The rotiger ritter tasted like cinnamon French toast, but with a sweeter bread. The hot raspberry sauce melted the vanilla ice cream quickly, leaving a creamy vanilla-raspberry soup, which we found nothing to complain about.

It's easy to see why this place is kind of a "special event" restaurant for the nearby villages. It renewed our faith in German cooking, and would have been the best meal we had in Germany, save for the next day's visit to Heidelberg.


Ottakringer, Vienna

Pub just off the river bank in Central Vienna

There's a section of the riverbank that the locals call "the Bermuda Triangle," because it's so easy to get lost in the pubs there. We aren't sure, but we think we found it, and so we thought we'd stop for dinner at one of the local joints.

We're still not sure what the actual name of the place is. The sign said "Bermuda Brau - Ottakringer." That could just have been a beer sign, though. At any rate, we grabbed a table out on the narrow street and ordered our usual bread basket with the pork schnitzel and a perch with tomato sauce. Mark got a brown beer which he liked well enough, resembling a New Castle brown. Tim got a Pepsi Light for the first time in Europe.

The beer bread here, as everywhere, rated highly. One thing Germany and Austria can do is bake bread. We were slightly disappointed with the pork schnitzel, although it was good. It was pounded very flat and fried with a smooth breading, not a crumb breading as we so often get in the states. The meat was good and not too dry, and with lemon, the flavor was pretty good. It just wasn't the wonderful regional specialty we were anticipating. We did like the potato salad that came with it, though (Tim more than Mark): a very simple sweet-sour dressing, like the Pennsylvania Dutch's German Potato Salad, but without bacon or extra trimmings, and not heated.

The perch was good, a simple whitefish done well. It was overwhelmed by the tomato sauce, but that was okay as the tomato sauce was pretty good, thin but nicely salted and with good juicy tomato. The fish came with buttered and herbed potatoes; the herb was mostly parsley. Good potatoes, cooked just right, but again, the butter and parsley was nothing special.

Good location, out on a street table on a warm summer night, but other than the location, there wasn't much to recommend this place as opposed to any of the other pubs in the "Bermuda Triangle" of Vienna's riverside.

Haas & Haas

Haas & Haas, on Stephandomplatz in Vienna

International tea house associated with a tea shop

"A variety of international breakfasts," the guidebook said, and the menu at Haas & Haas didn't disappoint. We'd arrived in Vienna by train at 6 am, found ourselves a room and showered, and were hungry for a good Austrian breakfast. Haas & Haas offers not only that, but breakfasts from many other cultures, including Chinese (dim sum), Japanese (miso soup), and American (baked beans and a fried egg). Given the curious composition of the American one, one wonders how authentic the others are, but we were interested in an Austrian breakfast, and we assume they got that right.

Their tea menu reads like a wine list, and you can buy any of their teas from the shop next door (which we did, later on). Tim had a Marille-Pfirsich (apricot-peach) blend that was delicious; Mark thought highly of the coffee. We ordered a sweet pastry, scrambled eggs on toast, and an omelette with herbs.The herbs in the omelette were rather subtle but still good, and the scrambled eggs moist and creamy. The sweet pastry was nice: lightly sweetened dough sprinkled with nuts and a light dusting of powdered sugar.

The ambience was terrific, though. We were seated in a small interior courtyard, decorated with flowers and plants and very peaceful, just a few steps from one of the most popular tourist attractions in Vienna. We may have been there late, but the courtyard wasn't crowded, and the whole breakfast was very relaxing.

The tea shop is worth mentioning too. They have hundreds of tea varieties that all sound delicious, not to mention the shelves full of tiny travel-friendly jams and jellies. We also picked up some jellied fruit candy to snack on, which had very rich flavors. The staff all spoke English and were glad to help us decide among their many products. If you're at Stephansdomplatz around breakfast time, whether you're feeling international or not, this is a great place to unwind before resuming your touristy day.

Staromestska Restaurace

Staromestska Restaurace, Prague

Traditional Czech cuisine on the Old Town Square

(Note: I'm terrible at diacritical marks--will try to edit to add them later.)

If you're going to be a tourist in Prague, you might as well eat out on the sidewalk at the Old Town Square. You'll pay a premium for food you could get cheaper a couple blocks away, but it's worth it to see the twilight descend over the ancient buildings, the lights go on, and the other tourists go walking by. And, as it turns out, the food is pretty good.

There were a few Czech dishes that we'd been reading up on and wanted to try. We didn't get the fried pork knuckle, sadly, but Staromestska did offer roast pork loin with red and white cabbage, and bread and potato dumplings, as well as a roast chicken with pear, fries, curry sauce, and cheese sauce. So we sat on their patio, where the prices are about 40% higher than inside the restaurant--again, you're paying a premium for the location and the view.

The waiter waved us to our choice of table, and understood enough English to help us with our order and inform us that they did not accept credit cards. They did, however, take Euros, which we had enough of. So we sat right on the edge of the square, the last row of tables, as the sun was setting, and sipped our beer and Coke Light (same price), and reflected on how lucky we were to be in Prague.

In Prague, as in much of Europe, you have to request bread; it doesn't come free with meals. So we did, and got a basket with some slices of beer bread--good and sour, like the bread at Allegro--and rodlicky, the traditional Czech banana-shaped roll. The rodlicky was slightly disappointing, almost like a pretzel with its solid but not crispy crust and firm interior. But maybe that's what it's supposed to be like.

Nothing disappointed about the rest of the meal. The chicken and pork both came out tender and juicy. Good fries, firm and crunchy, and good cabbages. You could tell the difference between the more sour white cabbage, which was almost sauerkraut, and the sweeter purple variety, though both were marinated and cooked. The dumplings took the place of our mashed potatoes, thick, bready, and moist. The potato dumplings almost had the consistency of the gnocchi from Allegro, while the bread dumplings tasted like slaps of unsweetened bread pudding. Both good for sopping up gravy or softening the bite of the cabbage.

We sat and ate our Czech meal, watched them fold up the shade umbrellas, and watched the buildings shine under the glow of the lights. Wonderful way to conclude our too-brief visit to Prague. We toasted the city with a promise to come back.


Allegro, in the Four Seasons Hotel in Prague

Italian cuisine in a luxurious four-star setting.


In all our research on Prague restaurants, the Four Seasons' Allegro kept coming up. Not as authentic Czech cuisine, just as one of the best restaurants in the city. So we figured we had one full night in Prague, we'd give it a shot.

Walking in, you get the impression of elegance immediately. It's quiet and dim without being dark. Windows give a lovely view of the river and, if you're in the right seat, the Charles Bridge. Otherwise, you might be "stuck" with a backdrop of wood paneling, floral arrangements, and simple colorful art.

Service was generally excellent. We were never presented with one course before another was finished, and all of our instructions about splitting dishes were followed to the letter. The only problem was that the portions were somewhat larger than we'd been expecting, but more on that later.

The first course, or zeroth course, perhaps, was an amuse-bouche of duck with bacon, marscapone cheese, and glazed fig. We enjoyed it: the duck didn't overpower the other flavors, melding well with the salty bacon and sweet fig.

We particularly love bread, as you may have gathered. The bread basket was outstanding here. Besides the standard white country bread we'd been given to dip in olive oil at the beginning of the meal, we also had a thick black bread, sour and seedy, but not as thick and sour as some of the ones we've had in California, so it was to both of our tastes. There was also a light beer bread with a lighter sour taste, almost like a softer sourdough, crispy breadsticks, a potato bread with onion topping that was as light as focaccia, and a fruit bread which, sadly, we did not get to try. The only disappointment was a bland flatbread.

We didn't want to fill up on bread, but we couldn't help ourselves--until the appetizer arrived. "Variations on tuna" was the official name, presented as three small dishes on a plate: tuna tartare with a refreshing cucumber jelly and a slightly sweet green tomato foam; seared tuna over "panzerella" (?), a seasoned diced tomato mixture that also included some dried mango on top; and a variation on a nicoise salad, with cooked tuna over greens, potato, cucumber, and tomato with a balsamic reduction. The tartare had a very summery taste, between the cucumber jelly and the celery and bell pepper mixed in with the tuna. We didn't like the mango on the seared tuna, but the rest of it went together well, the creamy tuna with the sharp tomatoes. And the nicoise was very nice, proving to have egg, green bean, and olive in addition to the potato, cucumber, and tomato--quite a lot to fit into one small sampling, but an excellent combination, also rather summery and light.

For the middle course, we'd selected the homemade gnocchi, and this might have been the highlight of the meal. It was served with morels, tiger prawns, chopped langoustine, and walnuts in a zucchini sauce with carrot foam. The gnocchi was terrific, not doughy nor as heavy as we're used to, with a great potato flavor that the sweet zucchini sauce combined with to make it hard not to shovel the whole plate down. The morels and shellfish were fresh, good earth and sea flavors to go with the potato and veggie. We like European walnuts, thicker and meatier than their American counterparts. The carrot foam we weren't sure was necessary, but it was a nice visual touch to an overall yellow-orange dish.

While we were recovering from that, they brought out the duck to show us the cuts they were going to cook so we could approve of it. The skin was brushed with a sweet glaze, and we each got a small leg portion and a larger breast portion. Interesting difference between the two: the texture of the breast meat was thicker but the flavor less rich than the leg meat, which overall we both preferred. We couldn't finish that course, much as we wanted to, because we'd run out of room. It turned out to be lucky that we didn't try.

We attempted to decline dessert, but the waiter talked us into a lemon sorbet by telling us that it aided in digestion. All right, we said, one to share. Unfortunately, that opened the door to a pre-dessert offered by the chef, a plum tart topped with plum sorbet, which was really good, but by the time our individual lemon sorbets arrived--one each--we were groaning. Digestion, we said. We need help with that. So we ate the (very good, very lemony) lemon sorbet--and the attached little wafer cookie--and sat back, thinking, fools that we were, that the meal was over.

When the waiter brought the bill, he also brought along a small tray of petits-fours. Upon seeing our expressions, though, he asked if we wanted them added to the box we'd requested for our duck (and the remains of the bread basket). Please, please, we said. He was good enough to box up another set, but even though he left the original eight on our table, we resisted the urge to eat them.

And then, on our way out, they gave us macaroon cookies! We'll tell you how they are when we finally get around to eating them. But we have to recommend Allegro for anyone seeking fine dining in Prague. It's pricey--dinner was as much as our hotel room for the night, almost--but it's truly an experience to cherish and remember if you want to be pampered for one night, and feel like the royalty that once lived here.

Cafe Savoy

Cafe Savoy, Prague

Cafe serving full meals and wine as well as French pastries and coffee

This Parisian-style cafe was founded in 1893 in an old apartment building. It's been continuously in operation since then, through Communist Party rule, when officials met there to consider new memberships, and the current Czech Republic, where it's now a historical destination with a great kitchen and wine list. The interior is very modern, with some nice touches: when you walk downstairs to the bathrooms, you pass the wine cellar and can continue down to overlook the bakery.

The ornate ceiling dates from the early days of the cafe, was covered up, and recently rediscovered. Its colorful, floral designs, almost Middle Eastern, give the cafe a distinctive character that shows in the menu offerings, the modern furnishings, and the service. Our helpful waiter recommended the Savoy Cake when we were lost in the dazzling array of pastry choices, and offered to bring a fresh coffee when Mark's cup spilled out into the saucer.

We wanted to get the traditional European (more German/Austrian) "Kaffee und Kachen." Mark got cafe au lait, and Tim got fresh ginger tea. Really fresh ginger tea, basically just ginger root steeped in hot water. The Savoy Cake we shared had an outer layer of marzipan enrobing layered chocolate cake and cherry.

It was a great place to sit and enjoy the late afternoon sunlight on the cobblestone streets of Prague. It's easy to let yourself drift back there to the early 20th century, with the nearby bridge over the Vaclav and the palace and St. Vitus's Cathedral looking down from the hill. Or you could be in the seventies, discussing Party politics with your fellow officers. It's not even bad to imagine it's a late summer afternoon in the twenty-first century, and you have nothing better to do than while away an hour with a friend over Kaffee und Kachen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hash House A Go-Go

Hash House A Go-Go, San Diego
Farmer's breakfasts from the midwest (Indiana, specifically)--good food and lots of it

It was the name that attracted us to the Hash House A Go-Go, for (we hope) obvious reasons. Not just a Hash House--a Hash House A GO-GO. We love that. But you know, despite the name, it could still be just a Waffle House in hot pants. Looking at the menu actually drove us to visit.

The first thing we noticed, walking in, was how enormous the plates of food are. They were serving platters, for cryin' out loud, full of eggs and hash and fruit and biscuits and all kinds of other good stuff. We saw two immense people devouring two Brobdingnagian plates of waffles and pancakes. Intimidated, we decided to split a plate of hash--you can't go to the Hash House A Go-Go and not get the hash. They had a special hash with wild boar and roasted red pepper, plus the usual cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, and two eggs any style. Plus a biscuit approximately the size of my head. In addition to that, Mark ordered a pancake--"it's just one pancake?" he asked the waiter, who affirmed that yes, indeed, it was.

The place looks like a midwestern diner with a bar on one side. There are pictures of tractors and farms all around, and a strange whiplike rope artistically arranged over an archway in the center of the dining room (one can only imagine the owner saying "we have to put something there). The people, too, seem very midwestern--San Diego may be home to the most sexy people in the country, but those people generally don't eat at the Hash House A Go-Go.

Our one pancake arrived first. It was, we kid you not, the size of a car tire. We've had pizzas that were smaller than this pancake. In its center it was nearly an inch thick, and its diameter was clearly over a foot. It was four pancakes that had banded together to form one Super Pancake. It was a pan-sheet-cake. With it, amusingly, they gave us a tiny little jug of syrup. We had to ask for seconds.

The hash, when it came, was restrained by comparison. A big mound of boar, peppers, potatoes, eggs, cheese, and mushrooms, it was all very tasty. Mark didn't like the boar--somewhat gamey, he said--but Tim liked it all. The potatoes were big, nice and crispy, the cheese wasn't overwhelming, the peppers were well done, and the eggs a nice complement. We enjoyed the biscuit, too, though it was more cakey than flaky.

Not a place to go if you're watching your weight, but what breakfast place is? We regard this as the Buca di Beppo of breakfast places, a midwestern diner in the land of the skinny. Go with a group and share around. We do need to drag some people back there.

South Street Cheesesteaks

South Street Cheesesteaks, L.A.
Closest thing to Philly on the West Coast

There are a lot of places in California now that purport to offer "authentic Philadelphia cheesesteaks." We've tried most of the ones in the Bay Area, but some web browsing turned up an interesting place in West L.A., a shop called South Street Cheesesteaks that imports Amoroso Rolls from Philadelphia.

Amoroso are the rolls used by Jim's Steaks on South Street, one of Tim's favorite places. Unfortunately, they don't do chicken steaks--they're strictly old-school. South Street Cheesesteaks, being a California eatery, does chicken steaks, mushroom steaks, and so on. But we had to plan our trip out to hit them on the way to San Diego this last year, because we're not often in L.A. anymore.

We'd tried back in April, the last time we drove down, but were thwarted by road construction. This time, all went smoothly, landing us at their doorstep with nearly an hour to spare. The shop has the usual decor for a California cheesesteak place: Philly sports memorabilia, including old baseball and football cards; Philly newspaper replicas (covering the tabletops), and this one had a wall of famous Philadelphians (Tim isn't on it yet). The ambiance was somewhat tainted by the chrome and red naugahyde chairs and the black and white checkerboard floor that looked like they'd raided a fifties diner, but overall they did a pretty good job with it.

The girl at the counter wasn't too thrilled to sell us the cheesesteaks, even when Tim told her he was from Philly and had come all this way for the bread. Her comment was, "hope you like it. Some people do and some don't. There's a real difference of opinion." Under duress, she recommended the spicy fries as a side, though she worried they'd be too spicy for Tim. He assured her he's been practicing.

The fries were the weakest part of the meal, but authentic Philly fries for all that (would've been better with cheese). The bread was sublime, perfectly soft, falling apart from the juices. The chicken and sauteed onions, suspended in a matrix of provolone and white American, gave your teeth something to bite into that they didn't want to let go of. We tried the pizza steak and the cherry pepper steak (medium spicy), and both were terrific. Pizza sauce just the way they do it in Philly, a good rich marinara, and peppers with enough zing to make your mouth tingle for the cold (root) beer. We have to get hold of those rolls somehow--they're exactly right for the sandwich. Other bread comes close, but there's no mistaking the real thing once you've tried it.

The most amusing part of the whole place was that the bathroom light wasn't working. It's a small one-person bathroom, and the switch turns on the fan but nothing else. The counter girl and her friend told us someone "went in and just took the light right out." So, as Kevin Smith would say, we had to piss in the dark.

For a cheesesteak like that, they could've taken out the lights of the whole restaurant. We'll definitely be going back, next time we have to drive through L.A.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Cascadia, Seattle
Upscale restaurant in Seattle's Belltown area

We were meeting a friend in Seattle for dinner. He had heard good things about Cascadia and the chef had just agreed to sell the restaurant and take over in the kitchen of the new Four Seasons this fall, so it was an obvious choice for a group of foodies.

Rather than eat in the dining room, we opted for the bar, with large windows onto the sidewalk for people- and weather-watching, and a nice view of the sound. The bar menu, more casual, is famous for their mini-burgers and snowball martinis. Mark tried the snowball martini, a vodka concoction with, yes, a small snowball in it. It comes with a small sprig of fir in it, giving the drink a real alpine flavor. Mark enjoyed it so much he had two.

Service was impeccable up until the food was ordered. As seemed to happen a couple times in Seattle, we weren't completely understood when we ordered the mini-burgers, and our waitress brought twice as many as we'd actually ordered. Fortunately, they were good enough that we finished most of them. Maybe it's our California accent.

The mini-burgers are indeed worth the trip. You can get beef, salmon, or veggie, all of which got high marks. The salmon is an actual ground salmon burger rather than a small fillet of salmon on a bun. Mark liked the beef, while Tim's favorite was the veggie, with a good curry flavor, especially with a fried onion topping. We also got dijon, cheddar cheese, bleu cheese, chipotle pepper dip, and a cone of French fries, which scored pretty high on our French fry scale: thin and crispy, good potato taste.

The only other thing we ordered was the artisan cheese plate, offering a good variety of cheeses: a bleu, a couple soft cheeses (including a cow cream cheese that we all liked), a white cheddar, and a Swiss. We had trouble picking a favorite from the plate, but the bleu was very popular: nice, creamy, and sharp. All the breads supplied with it were nice too, crispy flatbreads and crunchy breadsticks.

Even the lounge menu was rather pricey, but for location and ambiance, you won't be disappointed. We don't know what Cascadia will be like after it's sold, but if you can get there this summer, check out the mini-burgers and enjoy the view out the window.


Etta's, near Pike Place Market in Seattle
Another Tom Douglas restaurant, focused on seafood.

The one thing Etta's has that none of the other Tom Douglas restaurants do is a nice view of the waterfront and the foot traffic near the market. Most of the tables in the narrow dining area are close enough to the window to take advantage of the view. The view inside isn't bad either. Like the Dahlia Lounge, Etta's is decorated primarily with colorful blown glass; an assortment of ducks adorn the wall, and small hanging lights illuminate the tables when the sun sets.

The other constant across the Tom Douglas restaurants is outstanding service, and Etta's is no exception. Our attentive waiter had the kitchen split our plates for us, and no course arrived before we were done with the previous one. The plates were all very pretty, too, colorful and garnished with colored oils.

The menu is fairly simple, focused on seafood and divided into categories: Raw / Fried / Steamed / Soups & Salads / Main Courses.

The appetizers really shone. The clam chowder - becoming a staple of our meals - included a distinctive thick smoked bacon. It was mild but pretty good in general. Our favorite were the mini Dungeness crab cakes. Tom Douglas has published a book on crab cakes, and these were mostly crab, with seasoned breading that complemented the crab taste rather than overwhelming it. They were served with a green relish, with a vegetable consistency but a fruity taste.

We always check the bread, too, and they served us delicious olive bread. The light, crispy crust gave a satisfactory crunch to the bread, and there were plenty of ripe olives.

The spinach salad was interesting. We really liked the mustardy dressing, and the salad came with onions, curried cashews (unique and yummy), pears, grapes, radicchio. Overall there was more "stuff" than spinach, but still everything went together well. The different components provided a lot of different textures, with sweet fruit and sharp onions harmonizing under the dressing.

For the main course, the Troll Salmon with Etta's Rub With Love, asparagus, shitake relish, cornbread pudding. Good salmon, mild flavor. Mark was disappointed that the flavor wasn't stronger. A good rub should be a boost to the fish's natural flavor, but this one was just kind of there, not outstanding or distinctive. It was asparagus season, however, and it showed. Tom Douglas restaurants create their menus based on what's in season, and the asparagus here had a great crunch to it, just beautifully done. Shitakes added a nice flavor accent with good earthy mushroom flavor. Tim liked the cornbread pudding, which reminded us of quiche: the egg flavor was noticeable even over cornbread. Mark felt it was a little bland.

Etta's ended up being a good dinner in a great location. For a Tom Douglas restaurant, it fell a little shy of the others, but that's like being the worst Pixar movie. If you're down by Pike Place Market, and want a good sit-down dinner, you couldn't do much better.

Cafe Martorano

Cafe Martorano, in the Rio in Las Vegas
Restaurant/nightclub with an owner who's a personality and the best Italian food this side of south Philly. Seriously.

We really owe this discovery to Joe Posnanski, who wrote about the Fort Lauderdale location without mentioning it by name, and to the commenter on his blog who named the restaurant and mentioned the Vegas location. Once we got to Vegas, we saw signs for it all over the place, but as it's at the Rio, it's doubtful we would've made the trip or the reservation without the initial recommendation. But boy oh boy, are we glad we did.

We'd never been to the Rio before, even though Penn and Teller and the famed Voodoo Lounge are there. It's an interesting casino, very obviously directed at the mid-twenties crowd: things stay open a little later, it's got that trashy carnival atmosphere, and there's a lot of bustling activity, kind of like a younger TI or a more flashy Excalibur. Cafe Martorano is located on the second floor of the main concourse, facing onto the enormous floating head that is the centerpiece of a regular show (which we did not, alas, see).

We'd gotten there a little early (I built in an allowance for a late arrival by our flight, which miraculously did not happen), so we checked in at the hostess stand and browsed the pictures of the owner with various celebrities while waiting for our table. I should add that both the woman who took the reservation over the phone and the hostess, upon learning that it was our first time, made special note to tell us how good the food was. Restaurant employees don't often brag about that, in my experience, so it felt genuine to us.

In fact, the staff all around were not only extremely friendly and helpful, they were all very proud of their restaurant and their food. Our waiter, Ken, helped us settle on the "South Philly style" calamari for our appetizer, several times using the phrase "out of this world" to describe the dishes. He also told us about the owner, Steve Martorano, who has his image on t-shirts (one hanging right near our table) and his imprint on the simple menu with an instruction at the bottom: "No substitutions. This is how I cook. Please enjoy and don't break balls." It doesn't get more South Philly than that.

"Is he a nice guy?" our waiter asked us, rhetorically. "No. But he's a great guy and a great personality." He wasn't in attendance at the Rio location, but was expected back for the wrap-up of the WSOP. Our waiter was also very proud of the famous people who were dining there that night, among them a rap star/actor and a professional football player.

But the food was, believe it or not, the main attraction. For the rest of our dinner, we picked a side of spaghetti, because in a new Italian place you want to see how they handle the basics, and the special: sea bass with jumbo lump crab and shrimp, spring pea and cheese risotto, and sauteed spinach with chilis.

Spaghetti in the United States has become a comfort food, any old pasta with tomato sauce thrown over it, maybe with meatballs or sausage or (if you're in the midwest) chopped-up hot dogs added. I tell you, this spaghetti we had at Cafe Martorano was to regular American spaghetti what champagne is to Martinelli's Sparkling Apple Juice. You can see the relationship, but wow, this was just in another league entirely. Thick, rich spaghetti sauce made from olive oil and San Marzano tomatoes, pasta cooked perfectly al dente, with garlic and wine to season it. It was just spaghetti, but sometimes when you get a simple food done to perfection, it's better than anything fancy. A couple months after our meal there, the spaghetti is what I remember the most. It's the one dish I would say we have to get again.

Not to say the rest of the food was bad. The sea bass was marvelously light and flaky, the shrimp and crab topping a nice accent to it. The smooth, creamy risotto matched it well, and the sauteed spinach had good texture and taste (that is, not slimy), except when one bit into a chili by accident. We didn't think we'd be able to eat light at a traditional Italian place, but it worked well and we had room for...

Tiramisu. This was really just good, not terrific, not overwhelming. It was the perfect size portion, though. We enjoyed the thick, not-too-sweet cream and the strong coffee taste (yes, even Tim the non-coffee-drinker).

We'd go back to Cafe Martorano again just for the food. The atmosphere and stellar service was the crab on the sea bass, so to speak. We're already planning our next dinner for our next trip to Vegas.

Breckenridge Brewery

Breckenridge Brewery, Denver
Brew pub within a block of Coors Field (so you can guess who they cater to)

A good time to go to places near the ballpark is when there's no game going on. Even though it was prime dinner time, we got seated right away and had quick, attentive service. The interior is pretty standard sports bar/brew pub, all old wood and athletic memorabilia, mostly focused around Denver area teams. And the menu is pretty standard as well: sandwiches, some pasta, entrees cooked in beer-related sauces.

Of course we had to get the artichoke dip, and this one rated about a 6/10 for us. We liked the creamy/cheesy texture and flavor and the big chunks of artichoke, but it really could've used some spinach, and there wasn't nearly enough spice. The accompanying dippables were also a mixed bag. There was a good crispy flatbread, celery, carrots. Nothing as good as the pub bread at Wynkoop nearby, and the carrots didn't really work well with the dip (but were good on their own).

One of Tim's indulgences when going to Denver is buffalo meat. Because it isn't beef and doesn't qualify for most of the reasons he doesn't eat beef, he feels okay eating it. He's missed a good meatloaf, and Breckenridge Brewery has on its menu a buffalo meatloaf sandwich. It was a hit with both of us--good texture, perfect meatloaf flavor that was exactly what non-beef-eaters ("uncowtarians?") have been missing, lightly spiced and moist. The accompanying onions sauteed in oatmeal stout added just the right touch, rich and a little spicy. Mark liked the brown gravy that came with it; Tim opted for ketchup (as is traditional with all good meatloaf).

Our other choice was the pulled pork bbq sandwich, another staple of our brew pub dining. This one was a little better than average. The meat, while good and well cooked, could've been more tender. Mostly, though, we wish places wouldn't skimp on the rich, sweet sauce. I understand that for some people, barbecuing is all in the cooking, but we love us a good BBQ sauce, too.

The rest of the meal was fine. The salad and fries were good but not great, though the fries were big and dusted with spice--a nice variation. Overall, while this isn't a four-star brew pub, it's definitely a place where you can get a good meal and relax close by Coors Field. If you go on a game night, get there early (or late). And if you have more time, we preferred the Wynkoop, further from the field but with better food overall.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Rioja, Denver
Local Colorado cuisine with a Mexican-Mediterranean flair

We heard about Rioja because the co-owners were featured at the James Beard house on the Culinary Media Network. It sounded great, and we were in downtown Denver, so we thought we'd give it a try.

The interior is modern, with old brick construction and modern art on the walls to add a splash of color. We arrived early and were greeted promptly by the hostess, who had us wait just a few minutes for our table. She came out and got us, remembering us from that brief conversation. Our waiter, too, was prompt and friendly, allowing us to hang out and wait for our fourth person to arrive.

The kitchen, at the back, is separated from the restaurant by a traditional counter, but that doesn't, of course, block the smells. We were seated right next to it, so we got to see the dishes come over the counter and go out to the restaurant, which just made us hungry. So we asked for bread, and as it turns out, there is a guy with a basket who brings around a selection of delicious bread. There was a lavender sourdough that we liked a lot, a black olive baguette that I liked a lot, a garlic rosemary cheese biscuit that was the consensus favorite, and a wheat berry roll with salt.

The rest of the food, when we did order it, completely lived up to the bread. The house salad with gorgonzola and dates had just a light tossing of almond vinaigrette, an unusual flavor that went well with the sharp cheese and sweet dates. The saffron fetuccine--house-made--absolutely stole the show. Good fresh pasta, especially with the delicate taste of saffron, with roasted eggplant, sweet red peppers, a savory pork and fennel sausage, and a soft cream cheese made it really hard for us to split the dish, as we both wanted to keep all of it. The other dish, the lamb chorizo pizza, was less remarkable, though still really good. It came with mozzarella cheese and mint pesto, an unusual combination that worked even though you couldn't really tell that the sausage was lamb.

We weren't going to get desserts, but then we kept seeing the cheesecake come over the counter with a tower of strawberry slices stuck together, and we were so curious about how the slices were stuck that we had to order it for an excuse to ask the waiter. We also, while we were at it, got the beignets with the fig paste and sweet goat cheese, with port wine reduction, just because it sounded so strange we had to try it. The cheesecake, soft and creamy, also came with a strawberry-basil compote. The aromatic basil really went well with the sweet strawberry and cheesecake, as it turned out, just like the fig paste and sweet cheese inside the fried pastry worked with the sweet port wine reduction.

That was our experience through the whole dinner. The unusual menu items all went together very well, and exposed us to new tastes or new combinations of familiar tastes. We'd go back again in a heartbeat, if only for the pasta and to watch the towers of strawberries come over the counter, defying gravity. If you want to know how they do it, well, you'll have to go and ask.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

City Grille

City Grille, Denver
Burgers and beer in the shadow of Denver's Capitol building

"Best Burgers in Denver," shouts the sign out front in big, bold letters. That's what our friends had used to entice us to City Grille, a small burger joint on Colfax Ave. and Grant, just northeast of the Capitol building. Upon entering, we saw that City Grille also has the best green chili in Denver and the best fries in Denver. Some say they have the best burgers anywhere!

It's a true "bar and grill." All of the testimonials decorate the bar area, where you wait for a host to take you back into the restaurant section. Somewhat more brightly lit, but with the same cozy old-wood feel, the restaurant offers booths and tables, and four TVs for sports fans who don't want to sit at the bar.

The menu's pretty basic. There are pastas and salads, but why would you look at any area but the burgers? You can get some specialty burgers, like the elk burger, which comes with its own trimmings, but most of the burgers are just basic patties: you choose the cheese. For a dollar, you can add bacon or mushrooms; for a buck and a quarter, you can add guacamole. Mark and I split the turkey burger, a double-decker that comes with a yogurt-dill topping, and a buffalo burger, to which we added mushrooms. We also got a couple salads and a cup of the famous green chili, a dish which is surprisingly rare in California.

We had fun chatting with the server, who was casual and friendly and didn't hesitate to recommend the turkey burger over the elk burger. He was knowledgeable and patient with us, and kept an eye on our drinks as they dwindled.

The green chili came first. Not having sampled the rest of Denver's green chili offerings, we can't attest to the "best of Denver" label, but it was pretty darn good chili. The pork was nice and tender, and the spices lingered without being too hot for me. It was the consistency of a stew, creamy and thick enough to eat with a fork. We spooned some of it onto the provided tortilla (warm and soft, a tasty flour tortilla) and saved some to put on the buffalo burger. We vowed to track down the recipe so we could bring it back home.

The burgers arrived in plastic baskets with fries, except for my buffalo burger, which arrived with mixed greens on a plate. They were cooked as we'd ordered them, the meat fresh and the buns soft with a light egg glaze on them. The green chili went very well on the buffalo with the mushrooms, but then, so did ketchup and mustard (my favorite burger topping). We have a great experience of turkey burgers, and these were among the better ones we've had. Both of the thin patties had a good grilled flavor, with the yogurt-dill complementing them well. The fries, too, were delicious: thin and crispy and hot. Mark ate about half of his before even thinking to pick up his burger.

We'll have to eat many more meals in Denver to confirm the "best of" labels, but we feel comfortable calling them the "best so far." And we're in Denver so infrequently that it'll be hard not to just keep going back to City Grille.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Coupa Cafe

Coupa Cafe, Palo Alto
Mediterranean/Venezuelan cafe off University Ave.

For our weekly writing nights, we're always looking for good places where we can eat, and also sit and write for a while. Coupa Cafe, on Ramona Ave. across from the Old Pro, looked like a likely candidate when it opened recently, and we got the chance to try it out for sure not too long ago.

They highlight their Venezuelan coffee and meals, but the bulk of the offerings would probably be more familiar to people if described as Mediterranean: hummus, pita, olives, panini, etc. They do offer arepas, which are traditional Venezuelan cornmeal griddle cakes, and an appetizer version called arepitas, which we tried. The light, tasty cakes came with cotija cheese and nata (Venezuelan sour cream), with chives sprinkled over them. Simple, but very nice. A little too much for an appetizer for one, but perfect for two to split. The Mediterranean platter appetizer featured a good hummus with crispy, warm pita bread, and a decent salad that could've used a little more dressing.

We were in the mood for crepes, which are also on their menu, so we chose crepes for the main course. The smoked salmon and nata crepe was also pretty simple but quite good, with thick salmon and irregularly distributed cream cheese. The crepe itself wasn't quite on the level of Ti Couz, but was a fine savory crepe, firm and light with good wheat flavor. The turkey and asparagus crepe came crammed full of turkey, asparagus, and sun-dried tomato, which thankfully did not overwhelm the dish. The asparagus, nicely cooked but not overdone, provided a good complement. We also sampled a serrano ham panini, which had nice flavor but was tough to eat due to the stringy ham.

If you're in the back room, the ambiance is a little more relaxed than in the crowded, coffee-centric front. Service is slow, but it's that kind of relaxing place. The people are unfailingly nice and there's a fireplace in the back, amidst the plaster, wood beams, and middle eastern rugs and curtains. And when you're ready for coffee, they will be happy to show off their Venezuelan roasts. For Tim, the attraction is a couple varieties of chai that do one of the best mixes of spicy and sweet that we've found in the area. They offer sugar-free options, but the artificial sweetener intrudes on the chai taste, so go for the Tiger Spice or Flamingo Vanilla. If only for the chai, we'd be going back to Coupa--the food is good but nothing really jumps it ahead of a dozen other Palo Alto places.

Salish Lodge

Salish Lodge, Snoqualmie Falls, WA
Upscale dining at a fancy lodge overlooking a thundering waterfall

You can't really beat the view as you approach Salish Lodge. Overlooking Snoqualmie Falls in western Washington, it's got trees, a river gorge, and of course, the steady roar of thousands of gallons of water pouring over a rocky cliff every second. Waterfalls are strange things, constantly in motion yet so stable that they almost seem to become static, a fixed roar that might almost be a snapshot. They are mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, and form great backgrounds for a pleasant meal.

The Salish Lodge's brunch came recommended to us, and once we saw the location we were pretty excited at the prospect of eating there. Perhaps a little too excited: as it turned out, the food was good but not amazing, and our expectations weren't quite met. You could argue that they were too high to begin with, and there might be merit to that. You could also argue that dinner there is a different experience (and the menu would seem to bear that out). Brunch seemed more focused on delivering quantity of food, as evidenced by their four-course "country breakfast" (pastries, oatmeal, pancakes, and eggs, any one of which we would have happily shared between two of us).

The interior is about what you'd expect from a lodge: nice wood trim, well lit, big picture windows. On our linen napkins, river stones were placed, as well as a nice flower. Though we didn't have a view of the falls, we did have a black and white picture of them at our table.

We settled on the wild mushroom frittata and the cinnamon French toast. The fresh-squeezed orange juice was delicious and quite fresh, and the biscuit that came with the frittata was an exemplary biscuit, with a nice theatrical drizzle of honey over top of it from our server. But the frittata wasn't all that mushroomy, and the French toast wasn't very cinnamony. They were both good, but there wasn't anything really special about either of them. The bacon that came with the French toast, again, had a nice crunch and a good salty bacon flavor, but wasn't as distinctive as bacon we've had elsewhere; the potatoes that came with the frittata were good as well but also standard.

Our server was very friendly and willing to make recommendations. We felt well attended throughout the whole meal. There were some gaps in knowledge, though; when we asked what kind of honey was being drizzled over our biscuit, and whether it was local, she said it was "SYSCO Organic Honey," which is not really what you want to hear from an expensive lodge's brunch.

We'd definitely go back, at least for the location, and perhaps with tempered expectations this time. If we brought two more friends, we could order the country breakfast.

La Strada

La Strada, Palo Alto
Fine Italian cuisine on University Avenue's restaurant strip

We've tried a lot of the restaurants in Palo Alto, and walked past a lot more. At any given time, there are probably five or six on our "must try" list. La Strada had actually been recommended to us by some people we met at a party who were fellow foodies, so it rose on our list until we finally got the chance to go there.

It's a narrow space, confined and hard to navigate, at least for the customers. The staff weave their way through it with practiced ease, and they do seem to be constantly in motion. The kitchen is a long area to one side of the restaurant separated by a counter, so you can always see when food comes up and the kitchen smells fill the small area. The bar is a small section of the counter that bends around at the front of the restaurant, and on University Ave., there's a small patio of eight or nine tables.

We were seated inside, almost in the middle of the restaurant. Our server and the was not just attentive, but friendly, making suggestions and asking us what we liked, clearly interested in making our dinner better. When he came to ask how everything was, he really meant it (or else he really sold it). The atmosphere inside was very communal, bustling and well-lit. With the understated wood and plaster interior, it felt like a neighborhood joint.

We all tried different things, sampling the specials for that evening as well as some of the standard menu items. It was hard to decide, because everything looked so good, and the warm, fresh bread they brought out, almost ciabatta-like, made us hungry for more. We settled on...

The buffalo mozzarella salad. I like fresh mozzarella, but this stuff was amazing. I mean, it could've just rolled down the street from the Stanford pastures. I am not a fan of raw tomatoes (though learning to eat them now), but the ones included here were small and sweet, the kind I do like, and the fresh basil over thin cucumber slices complemented the light lemon-flavored dressing. You can always improve a salad with good bread, and the crisp, thin, salty flatbread went well with this salad. High marks for freshness and flavor out of such a simple dish.

Another appetizer, the terrina al forno, was more complicated: clams, mussels, and shrimp baked over red rice. The rice was almost undercooked, but we decided it went well with this dish; had it been softer and stickier, it would have really changed the consistency and not necessarily been better. It also might have soaked up more of the flavorful broth, which we enjoyed slurping. The shrimp, oddly, had heads but no tail shells. All in all, though, the seafood was all cooked well, the flavors blending together very nicely, almost like a "paella lite" (with red rice rather than saffron rice).

For main courses, we got a house-made black olive pasta with lamb cheeks, accompanied by spring peas and fava beans. The wine sauce, smooth and rich, didn't overwhelm the subtle olive flavor in the pasta, nor the flavor of the tender lamb cheeks. The peas and fava beans were similar to the veggies included with the other main course in the "veggie round," and were just as crisp and well-done.

The "veggie round" was a molded round pile of veggies that came with Mark's rib-eye steak. The broccoli and peppers accompanying the peas and beans had the same great flavor and crisp tenderness. The steak itself (I'm told) was a little tough, as would be expected from the cut, but was probably marinated in something like the balsamic vinegar that was drizzled over it, to rave reviews.

Although we were pretty full, we couldn't turn down the dessert that came with the special dinner menu: an apple tart in the European style, flat and round, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla bean gelato. In the gelato stood a flat, dried slice of apple, and to top it all off, candied walnuts and a rich, buttery caramel sauce that was better than it sounds. It wasn't too thick of a dessert, especially for three to share, but it was a perfect end to a wonderful meal.

We've tried a lot of the restaurants on and around University Ave. in Palo Alto. At any given time, there are a select few on our "must go back to list." That list now includes La Strada.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


We're not much for linking on this blog here, but there are a couple articles we ran into today that deserve a mention.

First, the New York Times sent several restaurant critics out to (gasp) chain restaurants. They reviewed Applebee's, The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's, Chili's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, and T.G.I. Friday's, and found them "surprisingly decent."

And second, the always-entertaining Joe Posnanski recounts his trip to a Miami Italian restaurant.

My favorite part of Joe's blog post:

Look: I’ve long thought that there are two kinds of people in this world: There are people who go to eat on vacation. And there are people who go on vacation to eat. I am very much the second guy.

Mark and I totally get that.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Serious Pie

Serious Pie
A Tom Douglas restaurant featuring pizza variations

The first time we saw "Serious Pie," we thought it was, y'know, pie. Blueberry, blackberry; blackberry, boysenberry; boysenberry, huckleberry; huckleberry, raspberry; raspberry, strawberry; strawberry, cranberry...peach. But no, these are pizza pies, baked with the same craft and enthusiasm we've come to expect from Tom Douglas's restaurants.

The space is tucked behind the Dahlia Lounge, up Virginia Street from 4th. It's a small, intimate setting, with high tables, stools, and dim lighting that give it a bar feel. The staff is friendly and casual, knowledgeable and attentive: perfect for an upscale pizza place. And the menu is simple: a few appetizers, pizza, desserts.

The appetizers have a few interesting items, but we opted to go right for the pizza. After all, it's a pizza place, and we love our pizza, so we preferred to share a couple pizzas than share one and get some other appetizer. The two we ordered were a margherita pizza (tomato, buffalo mozzarella, basil) and a wild mushroom pizza.

Now, we both prefer thin crust pizza, though we'll enjoy any kind of flat bread with sauce, cheese, and toppings. Serious Pie's pizza reminded us most of San Diego's Basic Kitchen: good, crisp, thin crust and fresh sauce and toppings. We were especially impressed with the tomatoes on the margherita pizza, and I'm not generally a fan of tomatoes (though I love tomato sauce). The wild mushroom pizza brought out the great earthy flavor of the mushrooms along with the crisp, chewy bread, the cheese adding a nice complement to the whole.

We were fortunate enough to interview Tom Douglas a little while back (we hope to post it soon), and we asked him specifically about Serious Pie. He told us that his favorite part of the restaurant was focusing in on pizza, really being able to dig in and figure out how each of the different parts worked: the bread, the sauce, the cheese. The way he puts it, they have a "theory of pizza" now. His joy and boundless interest in food really shows through in the fabulous results.

We thought we'd have some pieces of pizza to take home--usually we only split one. But the crust was thin, the pizza not too filling, and we each ate a whole one. The tables are so close together that as we were eating, we were eyeing the pizzas our neighbors had ordered and seriously contemplating whether to ask if they'd swap a slice to try one of ours. In the end, we decided to enjoy what we had and make sure we return to keep trying the pizza. Serious Pie has another benefit going for it: it's open 'til eleven most nights, making it a great place for a late-night snack.


Elysian Brewing Company
Upscale brew pub near Seattle's sports complex

Brew pubs being the new American restaurant, it's fitting that we find them close to baseball parks. There are a bunch in walking distance of Coors Field in Denver, up by Pac Bell SBC AT&T Park in San Francisco, and this one, Elysian, near Safeco Field in Seattle.

We stopped in for a quick bite before the Mariners game, which also happened to be just after the Dalai Lama's appearance at adjacent Qwest Field (home of the Seahawks). It was a hot day, seventy degrees in April (this was cause for much talk and celebration), so the place was jammed. Despite that, the staff stayed collected and friendly, and we found a bar table within ten minutes rather than waiting forty-five for a restaurant.

The interior, a converted warehouse, is a great open space, with exposed beams and girders and a real feel of openness. The bar sits at the center, with the restaurant tables around the sides separated only by screens (on one side) and waist-high railings (on the other). There are some TVs over the bar, but otherwise not many nods to the nearby sports fields, and the menu is a little more upscale than you'd expect from a sports bar.

Once we sat down, we ordered the "Oasis Plate," an assortment of hummus, baba ghanoush, cucumber salad, and pita bread. Our server disappeared for long stretches, probably due to the crowds, but we saw him running by often enough that we could have hailed him had we wanted to. After watching several of the Oasis Plates go by, we were surprised when he came back and told us they'd run out. "It happens around here," he said, adding, "more often than you'd think" as he left with our replacement order, the bruschetta. We appreciated his candor, but wondered whether the restaurant management should be more aware of what their most popular dishes were.

The bruschetta came out quickly, balsamic vinegar over tomatoes and olives on buttered toast, and lo, it was quite yummy. The olives really added a nice sharp flavor that went well with the vinegar. We hadn't quite finished it when another server came up and deposited on our Oasis Plate. She told us cheerfully that they'd only run out of the cucumber salad, so they'd substituted a Greek salad instead. That was fine with us; to be honest, the cucumber salad wasn't why we'd ordered it. It was entertaining to see our waiter's reaction when he came back to ask if we needed anything else and saw the appetizer plate sitting there. He just stared at it for a moment and then said, "I'm looking for the candid camera that's on me."*

* It's funny how that show hasn't been on in years, barring the occasional attempt to revive it, but the phrase is solidly in the American culture still. The show really touched something or hit a nerve with us. Maybe it's the idea that lurks in the back of all of our heads that maybe someone, somewhere, is watching us without us knowing it.

As it turned out, the Oasis Plate was a disappointment. The hummus and baba ghanoush were bland and nearly indistinguishable. The pita was warm and soft with some spice, though, and the peppers that came with the spreads were great: sweet and a little spicy. The tomatoes in the Greek salad weren't very fresh, but the olives and parsley were good, and the feta wasn't too bad. We love hummus, though, and for that to fall short really set back the whole plate.

When the bill came, our server had left the Oasis Plate off it. He shrugged off our thanks, saying it wasn't a big deal: "My manager told me to do it, I did it, it came anyway." We took pity on his overworked day and left a nice tip--he wasn't rude or brusque, and he took care of us the best he could.

His demeanor was Elysian in a nutshell. If you go when it's less crowded, I bet you'd have a great experience. They don't seem to handle crowds as well as they could. But it's a lovely space, a terrific location, and definitely worth a visit.

Three Girls Bakery

Three Girls Bakery
Lunch counter and bakery in Pike Place Market in Seattle

There are a hundred places to get food in Pike Place Market. At least, it seems that way to us, walking through it. On a random recommendation, we selected the Three Girls Bakery, a bakery and sandwich counter, to stop at for lunch.

If you like the idea of the old lunch counter, you'll love this place. A harried counter-culture staff of four sporting chains, tattoos, and piercings somehow dances through the narrow area behind the L-shaped counter, everyone keeping track of customers and calling to each other when someone needs service. The meats are in one area, the sandwich fixings at a large station behind the counter, and the breads opposite the fixings, in a large cabinet facing the customers. All around are old signs and a simple menu offering a choice of the aforementioned meat, bread, and fixings. You might wait five minutes or ten after sitting down for someone to take your order, but the staff are unfailingly polite and friendly, apologizing for any delays and willing to take the time to help you out if you ask what they recommend.

We ordered the clam chowder (on our waitress's recommendation--she "just went vegetarian again" that morning, but she said when she's not she eats bowls full of the chowder) and a simple turkey pastrami on caraway rye sandwich. When we told her we were sharing, she tossed an extra pickle on there rather than making us split one.

The chowder got top marks for the thick chunks of potato and the fresh clams (one would expect that at a fish market), as well as the broth, which was perfectly balanced between creamy and soupy. The turkey pastrami was delicious, the bread unimpressive but good. Overall it was a solid sandwich, and we quite enjoyed the lunch counter experience.

We'll have to go back to try some of the delicious-looking pastries or cookies. There were so many restaurants that we had to move on to sample another place. But Three Girls was definitely worth a stop in the crowded market, for good food and good atmosphere.

Dahlia Lounge

Dahlia Lounge
One of the "Tom Douglas" family of restaurants in downtown Seattle

The Dahlia Lounge was recommended to us by several people, and was in fact the first Tom Douglas restaurant we heard of. We made reservations for dinner and were seated right when we showed up.

We liked the interior, decorated in red wallpaper and fish sculptures that gave the place an Asian feel, but with Mediterranean-style mosaics. The ceiling lamps weren't too bright, and we were seated by a window that let us watch the people on the street walk by. If we were so inclined, that is, but you would be surprised how boring people on the street can be, at least, when you're being served dinner.

We started with vegetable samosas, large, muffin-sized pastries of thick fried dough stuffed with lightly spiced veggies. We tend to like them a little crispier, but we later learned that the chef is Tibetan and so that's her style, rather than the Indian we're used to. She also cooked for the Dalai Lama, who happened to be in town on the weekend we ate there (and, we learned later, accompanied him to Vancouver as well, so he must have liked the samosas).

The next course, a Tuscan bread salad, mixed tasty greens with a hearty Italian dressing and big chunks of bread. We don't often get bread salads per se, though we do often enjoy bread with salad, so we weren't quite sure what to expect. In this case it worked quite well.

To complement the Tibetan appetizer and Mediterranean salad, we selected an Asian entree: Five-spice duck with sauteed pea vines and curry fried rice, accompanied by sweet and sour rhubarb jelly. This was the highlight of the meal. The duck was tender and not too fatty, with a slightly sweet Asian spice. We loved the fried rice with the curry, a light seasoning that brought lots of flavor, and the pea vines added nice crunch and texture. We liked the rhubarb jelly as well, a sweet complement to the rest of the dish.

For dessert, Dahlia offers a good selection, and they offer three small dishes that can be ordered separately or as a trio. We ordered the milk chocolate and banana bread pudding, but the waiter brought us the trio, so we were forced--oh, the torture--to sample the passion fruit, lemon, and grapefruit mochi, as well as several small chocolates: White chocolate carrot & ginger, mocha and chocolate, and a small dark chocolate. Of the chocolates, the carrot and ginger was the most remarkable, a really interesting blending of flavors with the white chocolate. You wouldn't necessarily think that a carrot and chocolate combination would work, but you'd be surprised.

The mochi were all cold, sweet, and surprisingly tart, a little too much so for Mark, though just to my taste. The banana and milk chocolate bread pudding was delicious, warm and full of banana flavor with pockets of milk chocolate scattered throughout. Good texture, not too sweet.

Overall, the Dahlia Lounge was a terrific dinner. The staff were unfailingly polite and friendly, though our waiter was a bit distracted (perhaps due to it being a Friday night). We loved the location and the decor, and wish we could go back more often to try some of the other delicious-sounding entrees.


One of the "Tom Douglas" family of restaurants in downtown Seattle

Downtown Seattle is bursting with lunch spots, but when we reached Lola, we didn't feel the need to go any further. Warm and inviting, the restaurant has a breezy Mediterranean feel to the decor, modern wood lit by wrought iron hanging lamps. Red neon over the bar gives the place a touch of "lounge" feel. When you walk in, you're greeted by a friendly hostess and taken to a pleasant table, clean and bright.

One of the appetizers is a choice of six spreads, served with warm pita bread. We chose the kalamata-fig spread and asked our server what would pair well with it. She suggested a mint-feta spread to go with it. They arrived quickly with a pile of fresh pita bread, which didn't have much seasoning of its own, the better to let the spread's flavors come through. We loved the kalamata-fig: the sweetness of the fig melded well with the sharp olive flavor. The mint-feta spread was good on its own: quality feta with a good bite and a nice undertone of mint, but it was best when paired with the fig spread, just as our waitress suggested.

For a main course, we split the lamb kebabs with Greek salad. The staff graciously split the plates for us, and in fact they were terrific all around, offering to bring us more pita bread, checking up to make sure we were okay. Lamb is one of those things that's tricky. It's easy to make it too tough, or gamey, but it should have some taste of lamb. The kebabs were perfectly tender, and the savory red wine sauce complemented it well. The Greek salad was the real surprise. There's a lot of flexibility with Greek salads, too. You can have soggy cucumbers and bland olives, underripe tomatoes and flavorless feta, and too often, restaurants will make up for that with overpowering dressing. Here, the cucumbers were crisp, the olives juicy and tangy, the tomatoes and feta perfectly ripe, and the dressing supportive without overpowering the other flavors.

It's a good place for a leisurely lunch. The food takes a little while to come out, and it's definitely worth it. If you want to enjoy your lunch, this is the place to go. And ask for a "Lorade" when you do--our server, Lori, makes a lemonade with a splash of cranberry that has been named for her now. It's that kind of friendly touch that puts Lola a cut above the other wonderful lunch destinations in downtown Seattle.


Gourmet Mexican food in Seattle's Capitol Hill district

Tim's new job gives us the opportunity to visit Seattle every now and then, so of course we have to explore the restaurants. Mark wandered up to the Capitol Hill area while Tim was in meetings and liked the look of Galerias, so we went up there for dinner and were not disappointed.

Galerias has the feel of an elegant parlor, with patterned tablecloths, purple satiny napkins, and billowy floor-to-ceiling curtains partitioning the room. The friendly staff occasionally sing along with the ambient Mexican music (Mexican pop, not mariachi music) when they aren't bringing your food out. As you enter, the main space of the dining area is to your left, set off by several beautiful display shelves featuring bottles of tequila and Day of the Dead ceramic figurines.

We didn't have much time before the meal to linger and look at them, though, as we were greeted almost immediately and shown to a table. The menus at Galerias win for heaviest menu ever: printed on large slabs of heavy cardboard or light wood with a metallic veneer, they feel as solid as the steel they resemble. Reading through them necessitated a lot of turning of pages back and forth, as all the dishes sounded delicious.

Our waiter was particularly friendly and eager to help us decide on menu choices. After bringing a basket of tortilla chips and wafer-thin slices of a firm wheat bread, he recommended the chicken stuffed with poblano chilies and onions as a main course, the "Ciel, Mar, y Tierra" for an appetizer, and the spinach salad. We accepted those choices and dipped our bread and chips into the fresh green salsa provided with them, which was tangy, but not too spicy for me.

The salad came promptly, baby spinach with mango and walnuts and a light hibiscus flower dressing. The fruity dressing had a touch of cinnamon as well, sweet but not overpoweringly so. The spinach and nuts were good, but the star of the salad was the mango. Soft and ripe, one of the best mangoes we've ever tasted, it almost literally melted in your mouth. The sweetness worked well with the dressing; in fact, our only complaint about the salad is that it could have used something sharp and crunchy to offset the sweet taste and texture. Perhaps candied nuts, or cinnamon-glazed with spice, and a sharp cheese.

The "Ciel, Mar, y Tierra" (Sky, Sea, and Earth) appetizer came with the main course and actually consisted of more food. Perhaps the fact that the two of us were sharing everything confused him. This dish served chicken, chorizo sausage (pork), and tiny shrimp in different sauces over a masa corn cake, similar to the sopes you find in taquerias, all accompanied by fresh cotija cheese. The chicken was tender and moist, but fairly bland, and was our least favorite. The other two made up for it, though: good, savory chorizo, and abundant shrimp in a tomato sauce, neither of which were spicy at all. The corn cakes themselves were a solid base, chewy and fresh, a nice if inessential addition to the meat. Portion size is definitely not an issue: we were given six corn cakes in all, two with each topping, and it proved a little too much for us to finish completely (though we did eat all the toppings).

The main course, the stuffed chicken, came in a poblano chili sauce that was, again, not spicy at all, but had a wonderful flavor and a pea-green color. The chicken was drowned in the sauce, which would have been a crime had the sauce not tasted so good. As it was, we could probably have done with about half the portion. The chicken itself had been baked perhaps a little too long; it was somewhat tough, and we didn't taste much of the filling. But the side of rice had good flavor, and we enjoyed the sauce so much that overall the dish was a success. It would be nice to see what they could do with a tenderer chicken and a bit less sauce--that would push it from "good" to "great."

We had no room for dessert, but weren't rushed to finish our meal at all. Sitting by the window, we had a nice view out onto Broadway Street and enjoyed people-watching until we were ready to leave. Our waiter was very excited to hear our limited knowledge of Spanish, telling us in near-perfect English that he had only been in this country for six months and was still trying to learn the language.

Galerias is a friendly place to spend a couple hours over some very good food, if you're in the area. But Seattle in general doesn't do spicy food all that much, in our experience. So if you like your food spicy, be sure to tell them. We're sure they could accommodate you.


In Downtown Disney in Anaheim, upscale Mediterranean food.

Of all the places in Downtown Disney, Catal seemed most eager to seat a party of six on Saturday night, or at least they had the shortest wait time. They have a lovely upstairs balcony overlooking a square in the downtown where their associated Uva Bar serves drinks and appetizers.

We can't resist a selection of olives on the appetizer menu, and theirs were fresh and exotic, not just your standard kalamata. We didn't get all the names, but I remember the five of them as dark and rich; green and mellow; small, dark, and intense; small, maroon, and slightly bitter; and immense olives with a soft eggplant color and a smooth, oily flavor. Accompanying them on our appetizer plate was the "Tapas trio": a gazpacho shot, a crab cake, and two dates stuffed with ham and bleu cheese. I like gazpacho, but Mark doesn't, so I took the whole shot. It was really more like a cold V8 with finely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers in it, but there was an undertone of spice that was quite pleasant.

Dinner certainly lived up to the appetizers. We shared an olive oil and dill-poached salmon over red pepper couscous. The tzatziki sauce on the side had great spice, garlicky and tangy--it wasn't just yogurt with cucumbers in it. Salmon is one of those things that Mark finds variable, but Catal's salmon kept a nice flavor of salmon under the light dill seasoning. The red pepper couscous could've used a little more red pepper, but the couscous was done just right.

We also sampled one friend's paella. It didn't compare to Mark's homemade one, but it was still quite good, rich and savory. The shellfish was tender and fresh too, the veggies crisp, and the rice tender and sticky.

The dinner was light enough that we felt able to get a cheese plate: two mild cheeses and a sharper Italian type that was quite tasty. They included a side of quince confiture, toasted walnuts, and balsamic vinegar drizzle. We polished the plate clean even after the cheese was gone. Then it was time for dessert, a carrot cake with coconut sorbet and carrot creme anglaise. We have a great experience of carrot cake, too, and this one scored pretty high. The cake was good and firm, tending toward a carrot flavor rather than a spice cake flavor, with big chunks of walnut & raisin, and--the part that's always hard to find--perfect cream cheese frosting. It went pretty well with the light coconut sorbet, too.

The service was good, although on occasion we felt slightly neglected, but that might be because we were out on the patio, or because it was a Saturday night and they were busy. It wasn't a bad trade for the view, and our waitress was friendly and very helpful. Maybe all the places on Downtown Disney are this good, but on a night when we couldn't go anywhere else, Catal made us feel like we were special, not like we were settling.

Wolf Creek Restaurant and Brewery

Wolf Creek Restaurant and Brewery
Nice rustic brew pub in a strip mall in Valencia

We got held up on I-5 (it's not "the five" until you pass the Grapevine) at some construction traffic, delaying our arrival in L.A. by almost an hour. Since most eating places close at 11, we had to stop for dinner sooner than we'd planned--distance-wise, if not time-wise. Google Maps helpfully told us that there was a cluster of restaurants in Valencia, around Magic Mountain Parkway and McBean Parkway. And a little further north on McBean was an intriguingly named brew pub called "Wolf Creek."

It has the look of a mountain lodge, all wood and wrought-iron interior, though the owners are native Californians (according to the hostess). They were celebrating their tenth year, impressive for an independent restaurant, though the growth of the suburbs probably has something to do with that.

Right off the bat, they impressed us with the house bread: warm and fresh, with an unusual garlic-olive dip that we couldn't stop eating. As is our usual habit when at a brew pub, we ordered the spinach and artichoke dip as well. This one was a clear winner, very creamy with a sharp cheese, like an asiago. The spinach and artichokes balanced nicely, neither one getting lost or overwhelming the other. The multi-colored tortilla chips were unremarkable, but didn't need to be anything more than a conveyance for the dip.

Balsamic vinaigrettes have as much variation as spinach and artichoke dip, if not more. They can be oily, creamy, sweet, sharp, tangy, spicy, herby, garlicky, and so on. The salad we got was unremarkable--fresh spring greens and I remember little else--but the dressing had a great bite of mustard, which I love. We've just started attempting to make our own dressings, and I keep looking at the Dijon in the fridge and remembering the dressing at Wolf Creek when I do.

Compared to the starters, the main course was a slight letdown, though it was still quite good. We ordered a lightly breaded chicken breast with sun-dried tomato pesto, and we got two flat chicken breast fillets (as opposed to the thick full right-off-the-bone breast cuts), perfect for splitting. The problem with fillets is that they dry out so easily, and that was unfortunately the case here. Not too dry, but not as juicy as they should have been. And the pesto, while tasty, was a little on the bland side.

Still, all in all, the food was quite good, and the service was beyond reproach. We're clearly not the only ones who thought so, because several of the people at the bar were regulars. We did ask the waitstaff whether the owners were transplanted from Colorado or Wyoming, but as far as they knew, the owners were just Californians "who really liked the mountain country."

Hey, that's cool. So are we.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

H. Butler's Bar-B-Q, Sunnyvale

H. Butler's Bar-B-Q
Southern barbecue and, yes, pizza that's better than its strip mall location would indicate

Into the space vacated by Serious Sam's pizza has come H. Butler's, a little Louisiana barbecue place that brings some serious taste. For the Serious Sam's regulars, they have a sign out front that proclaims: "Yes, we have pizza!" and they do.

We went there looking for pizza, actually, and ended up with a barbecue chicken pizza, the best of both worlds. If the pizza is any indication, the barbecue sauce is terrific, good and tangy. We also tried the red beans and rice just to get some Louisiana flavor, and weren't disappointed in the simple dish.

The place gives you a great feel when you step up to the counter, with the handmade signs and cheery woman behind the counter who is only too willing to recommend items if you can't decide. On a counter to the side, they have the day's desserts laid out, including standards like red velvet cake and southern pecan pie alongside seasonal favorites like peach cobbler.

You order at the counter and the food is brought out to you. The pizza we got had a crisp crust with good, sweet dough, in addition to the sauce I already mentioned. The chicken was tender and moist--barbecue chicken on pizza can be dry, but H. Butler's didn't fall into that trap.

It's no Uncle Frank's, but we're certainly intrigued enough to go back and try their actual BBQ sometime. At the very least, it's not a bad substitute for Serious Sam's.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Poor House Bistro, San Jose

Poor House Bistro
New Orleans cuisine, inexpensive and authentic

A friend took us to the Poor House Bistro several months ago, and we loved the Cajun food and the atmosphere. It's actually in a converted house: you walk up wooden stairs to the porch, and then the front door. All the seating is in the small rooms on the first floor, two rooms of maybe a couple hundred square feet each, with little patio tables crammed together, but nobody cares about the cramped space. They're too busy chowing down. The third room on the first floor is where the kitchen, cash register, and soda machine are. So you walk past the happy diners into the room where you order your food. They have a one-page menu and a daily special, and the kitchen is right behind the serving counter. This room is full of hungry people waiting patiently for their number to be called, watching the food come out to the counter. There are plenty of napkins for drooling into.

It's on August Street just down from the HP Pavilion, so the best time to go is around 7:30 on the night of a Sharks game or other event at the arena. When we got there at about seven, the place was full and just starting to empty out. There's a small pavilion in the side yard where live music plays, and that was also full. As we ordered and then waited for our food, the Sharks fans all left. By the time we were ready to wander over to the game, the place was nearly empty.

Like many Cajun places (at least CreoLa, the subject of a future post), Poor House Bistro offers a sampler of Cajun dishes: red beans and rice, jambalaya, and gumbo. They also offer po-boy sandwiches--I recommend the "cochon au lait," the pork po' boy, but they're probably all just as good. They use a Cajun mustard and mayo, and they import the bread from New Orleans because the owner couldn't find anywhere local that made the bread the right way. But all the food is good: the red beans and rice and gumbo especially. The jambalaya is tasty, but on this last occasion seemed a little mild and tomato-y, almost more like Spanish rice than Cajun. Still, it's hard to go wrong no matter what you order.

But don't fill up, because you need to save room for either the beignets or the bread pudding, or maybe both. The bread pudding is amazing, and the beignets are only slightly less so, drowned in powdered sugar and soft and fried. So unhealthy, so, so good.

They have a great lunch special, but lunch or dinner, this is one of the few Cajun places in the Bay Area that's worth not just one return visit, but many.

Bombay Garden, Santa Clara

Bombay Garden
Indian cuisine in Santa Clara, most famous for its buffet

Recently, we've been quite turned on to the idea of Indian buffets. Passage To India is our nearest local one (not counting the place on Castro Street that I got stomach cramps from once, which has a new name and might be worth another try), but Bombay Garden is the king of Indian buffets in the area so far. Where Passage To India is only a weekend dinner buffet, Bombay Garden has a permanent lunch and dinner buffet. Though you don't have to eat at the buffet, we've never done anything else there.

We first went to the Bombay Garden over in Fremont, at the advice of a friend who said it was the best Indian buffet he knew. Soon after, this one opened at Lawrence and El Camino, so we tried it out. The service was better--it didn't take us twenty minutes to get a basket of nan--and the food was just as good.

Unlike Passage To India, they only serve one type of nan, but it's enough. It comes out hot and fresh in the baskets, and you should eat it while it's hot, because it's not as good once it cools. By the time you get back from your first buffet trip, the nan should be waiting.

Bombay Garden has a nice setup where one side of the buffet is vegetarian and the other has meat dishes. Everything is delicious, and it's a little spicy, but not too bad (except where noted). Don't neglect the southern Indian cuisine on the side table near the desserts (or maybe it's northern; I mix those up all the time). We love the malai kofta there, and the lamb sausage (cooked on skewers, so you can still see the small center hole). The sag paneer is always good, and this time around, the veggie masala was terrific as well. Everything has a good, distinct flavor, not too spicy, and it's popular enough that all the dishes remain fresh.

The gulab jamun are good, but nothing special, and in fact that describes all the desserts. But the rest of the food is good enough to make up for it.

The biggest problem with Bombay Garden is that you'll have trouble getting out of your chair at the end of the meal. But that's okay: they keep on a rotating cycle of Indian movies, so there's entertainment until you feel well enough to leave.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Sears Fine Food

Sears Fine Food
Famous breakfast in San Francisco near Union Square

Sears is famous for little pancakes and long lines. It's located on Powell Street just north of Union Square, open for breakfast at 6:30 am. Their signature dish is 18 little Swedish pancakes with maple syrup--real maple syrup, not the fake kind, and you can buy it in little souvenir bottles if you want. Supposedly residents and tourists line up along the sidewalk to get in for breakfast.

We got there at 8:30 and walked right up to get seated. Of course, we had to try the signature pancakes. Our usual breakfast strategy is to split an egg dish and a pancake dish, so we went that route with a Joanie's Special Omelet (chicken apple sausage, green onions, cheddar cheese) to complement the tiny pancakes, along with a side of bacon.

The pancakes are tiny, real silver dollar pancakes. They're pretty good, yeah, and the omelet was also quite good, as were the hash browned potatoes. The only real disappointment was the bacon, which was a little chewy for our tastes. Everything else was great, and the little pancakes were not just yummy, but fun.

The history of the diner is great to experience, too, even though it's been renovated since 1938. The staff are always busy during breakfast but are quite friendly as they dodge between the small tables. It's a great place to people-watch, too, as the tables are all so close together that you almost can't help but do it. We enjoyed the father and young daughter at the adjacent table, the pictures on the walls, and the story of the diner on the menu.

By the time we left, at 9:30, the line was out the door even in the light rain. So the lesson is, show up early, enjoy your meal, and get going with the rest of your day. The flip side is that there are a bunch of places to have breakfast around Union Square, so it's hard to say that Sears is a place we'll go back to. But great food, quick service, picturesque diner, landmark was definitely worth doing once.

McCormick and Kuleto's, San Francisco

McCormick and Kuleto's
Fine seafood at Ghirardelli Square on the shore of the Bay

In Los Angeles, I had the best clam chowder I'd ever had at a McCormick and Schmick restaurant. When I moved up to the Bay, I saw McCormick and Kuleto's at Ghirardelli Square, and my arrow-quick mind grasped immediately, a year or so later, that they were related. Yes, now when you go to the website, you'll see them listed together; they are part of the same restaurant chain. Besides, a year ago, Mark stopped in for clam chowder and raved about it. So we had to go back.

I don't get clam chowder often, but this one was worth it. Creamy but not too thick, full of clams and potatoes. I'm not sure it was quite as good as I remember it, and honestly, the clam chowder we made for the Super Bowl was pretty darn good too, but it's still a chowdah worth going out of your way for.

The main course was no less impressive: large sea scallops topped with greens, over a crab and potato cake. Scallops are easy to ruin, but these were nicely seared, not overwhelmed by the rest of the flavors, and in just the right portion (split) that they left us with room to walk over to Ghirardelli's and get a sundae.

It's not a cheap place, but for the quality of the food and the view, you can't beat it. Service was a bit slow, but overall we had a great dinner experience. It was worth walking from Union Square. And the cable car stops just a block away, so we were able to ride that all the way back.

It's in a beautiful location in Ghirardelli Square, overlooking the San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Bacar, San Francisco

Fine dining with jazz near Pac Bell AT&T Park in San Francisco

We haven't technically had dinner at Bacar yet. We attended a party there, where the superb appetizers brought it to our notice. We have ended up there twice looking for dessert, because they're open 'til midnight. The first time, we realized we were hungry for more than just dessert, got appetizers and bar pizza, and were too full after that to get dessert. This time, we went right for the good stuff.

They have a pastry chef onsite, so we opted for the "assortment of cookies and confections," and were not disappointed. Eleven little pastries were brought out for us to split, and though we had a few favorites, we weren't disappointed in any one of them. Our waitress confided that she found it hard to resist sneaking one or two of them from the back when the pastry chef wasn't looking, and we could understand that. If we had to pick just one, we'd be hard-pressed, but I think it would be between the ginger-lemon cookie, the chocolate chip walnut cookie, and the coconut rice pudding with caramel (served on a little spoon, also available as its own dish on the menu). We're suckers for ginger, and the cookie had just the right blend of spicy ginger with sweet, tart lemon. A good chocolate chip cookie is a joy forever, and this one was crunchy, sweet, and dark, the walnuts adding a nice depth to the flavor (and I usually don't like nuts in my chocolate confections). And the coconut rice pudding: creamy and sweet, the caramel setting it off, a caramelized banana on top. Lovely tropical blend of flavors, with the caramelization of the banana providing enough crunch to offset the softness of the other ingredients.

We took turns dividing up these and the others, choosing the easy-to-split (cookies) and trying to leave the hard ones for each other (like the pudding). Besides the three listed above, there were: a white chocolate almond haystack, a marshmallow, a chocolate tart with kumquat, a meringue layer cookie, a cigar with chocolate creme, a fruit jelly (like a Sunkist one, only softer, smoother, and with a gentler fruity taste), a dried apricot coated in white chocolate with pistachio, and an almond tea cookie.

After that, we had just enough room to try a cheese plate, and decided to sample the Testun Occelli al Barolo, a cow and goat's milk cheese aged in must of Nebbiolo Grapes. It's almost as sharp as a blue cheese, with a nice purple shading on the outside where it sat in the must. It came with small slices of bread, some quince jelly, and marcona almonds, which were perfect to go with the sharp flavor of the cheese.

Mark got a dessert wine flight, too: the one we both liked best was a Gróf Degenfeld 2000 "Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos" from Hungary (from the website, I'm guessing that "Tokaji Aszú" is the type of wine and "5 Puttonyos" is the specific label). It was a nice, sweet wine, not overpoweringly so, but sweet enough that I enjoyed it.

Someday we'll have to go to dinner at Bacar, but in the meantime, it's a great option for appetizers, cheese, or dessert. We'll keep going back and recommend it highly to anyone who might want a quick bite after a ballgame or a Moscone event.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Colibri Mexican Bistro, San Francisco

Colibri Mexican Bistro
Upscale Mexican bar and restaurant near Union Square

Here in California, we are still searching for our "favorite" Mexican place. I'm not sure why it continues to elude us. Perhaps it's that there are so many variations: authentic Mexican, "authentic" Mexican, Tex-Mex, taqueria, and everyone has their own spin on it. In Mountain View alone, we have a Taqueria (Los Charros), which does great simple burritos and quesadillas; a grill (El Grullense), which does terrific sopes, tacos, and so on; and two Fiesta Del Mars, which do more traditional Mexican dishes centered around seafood (and apparently cook everything in chicken broth). And of course, there's Chevy's, which is enjoyable in its own right.

Friday night, we were taking our friend John out for his last dinner in the Bay Area before moving to Florida, and he chose Mexican as his cuisine. In the book Mark bought me for Christmas, Colibri Mexican Bistro was highlighted as having good, fresh ingredients, and it was nearby, so off we went.

Even though they were busy when we called, we were seated right away, at a booth near the bar with a fine view of Mexican wrestling movies. We started with freshly-made guacamole, mild, which was nice and creamy with big chunks of avocado in it. I don't know if anyone else likes that, but I love it. One interesting wrinkle: rather than tortilla chips, they served the guacamole with small corn tortillas. They were warm and fresh and I didn't miss the chips one bit, to be honest. For appetizers, Mark and I also split a pair of small tamales with their "famous" mole sauce, which was sweet and tangy and complemented the corn flour tamales nicely. We used up another few tortillas sopping up the leftover mole sauce.

Our friend John had gotten the mole poblano chicken, and the mole sauce proved to be a hit all around. Don't miss it, when you go. Mark and I had carnitas, with a side of estofado (a seasoned mix of peppers, onions, and mushrooms). The carnitas wasn't the best I've had (the little Mexican place in Palo Alto whose name I can't remember is the best carnitas I can recall), but it was way up there: tender, with a rich, fresh blend of spices. And we enjoyed the estofado: the veggies were cooked, but not soft; the spice was light and complementary rather than overwhelming.

We passed on dessert, as we so often do, but Colibri is going on our short list of Mexican places to return to. It's just a shame there are so many other good places close to Union Square... which we're working on covering for you!