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!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Taylor's Refresher, St. Helena

Taylor's Refresher
Burgers and shakes--but what shakes they are!

It used to be a regular thing on our trips to Napa that we would get lunch at Taylor's Refresher. We make a practice of looking for the best milkshakes in the area (for the record, besides Taylor's, there's Mel's Diner in Kingston, a gelato place in Los Gatos I can never remember the name of, and Ghirardelli's in San Francisco, though we usually get the sundaes there instead. There's also Gelato Classico in Mountain View (among other places), but if we think about that too much we'd go there a lot more often, so we try not to). Taylor's was one of the first to hit our radar. They use Double Rainbow ice cream and have a limited variety of flavors, but they're good ones.

The black and white shake (vanilla with chocolate syrup) is a favorite, but it's also hard to beat plain ol' vanilla. They offer a white pistachio which is far better than any other pistachio ice cream I've ever had, a mint chocolate chip, and an espresso bean, besides the standard chocolate and strawberry(*).

(*) Strawberry ice cream has always been kind of a weird experience for me. I knew intellectually that it was related to the fruit, but they are such completely different tastes and experiences that emotionally I always struggle to put them together. This doesn't happen for, say, chocolate ice cream, or cherry ice cream; strawberry ice cream is just so much its own flavor that I think it sets itself apart. I think, though, it does happen for Mark with chocolate ice cream, because he likes chocolate but not chocolate ice cream. So go figure.

And if the rich, creamy shakes aren't reason enough to stop, you've got some pretty darn good burgers as well. For the beef-averse, there are chicken sandwiches, and there's a really good ahi tuna "burger" with ginger wasabi mayo. Oh, and sweet potato fries, garlic fries, and onion rings on the side.

Mark got a burger and I got a chicken sandwich that both were supposed to have barbecue sauce. One can't accuse them of going overboard. The sandwiches had good flavor--I had onions, mushrooms, and slaw on my chicken; Mark had blue cheese and bacon on his burger--but we'd expected a little more sauce. The fries are small and crispy, and the garlic fries are among the most garlicky I've had anywhere, including Gordon Biersch. The sweet potato fries come with a basil aioli (I think it was) and are thick and less crispy, but still really good. And it was the perfect day to eat outside: not too hot, still too cool for the bugs to come out, but warm in the sun.

The drawback is that since opening their restaurant in San Francisco's Ferry Building, the Taylor's in Napa is always mobbed. We got there at ten after two and stood in line for twenty minutes. To their credit, they move fast; our milkshakes were out in five minutes, our food in another ten. And by the time we left, around three, the line was finally starting to go down. But come by during peak season and you'll be waiting for a long time. It's kind of sad that when more people discover a good place, it becomes harder to eat there. I suspect that yesterday was the last time we'll eat at the Taylor's in St. Helena for a while. There are too many good restaurants around, and now that there's one in the Ferry Building, we don't have to go all the way up there to get the food.

Now, if it's three or four in the afternoon, and we just want a shake...

The Basin, Saratoga

The Basin
High-class American cuisine in the mountains of Saratoga

Big Basin Way, the stretch of highway 9 just entering the mountains above Saratoga is home to a number of excellent restaurants, among them favorites like La Fondue and Masu Sushi. There are down-to-earth places like the Blue Rock Shoot cafe, as well as high-end restaurants like the Plumed Horse and many others with good reputations but which we've never managed to visit. The Basin sits somewhere in the middle, with good quality food, but not the expensive reputation. Some years ago, looking for a nice place for a Valentine's dinner, we ate there and enjoyed it, and since then, it's been a semi-regular Valentine's Day tradition for us.

We went back again this Friday (Saratoga's a bit out of the way to do on a weeknight) and remembered why we liked it so much. The two dining rooms are cozy and friendly, the staff always cheerful and helpful, and the food excellent. We were seated in the rear dining room, away from the bar, this time, which is quieter, but also therefore less conducive to having your own conversation when the table next to you is talking about having lived longer than their parents, getting drunk on the porch, the mess in Iraq, and how they'd switched from the Republican party in '04 and their friends did too. Still, that didn't detract from the meal.

One of the unexpected and unremembered surprises was the variety of drink options for us teetotalers. Our waitress rattled off a list of juices and spritzers, which were just soda water with flavored syrup and lime, but still sounded prepared enough that you'd imagine they actually had a fair number of people come in who didn't want wine. We got a cherry spritzer and a mango spritzer; the cherry was good, but a little strong. The mango was just right.

For an opener, we shared the Exotic Mushroom Soup and the Basin Salad, spring mix with pecans, apples, cheese, and a light vinaigrette dressing. The salad greens were crisp and went well with the toppings, the dressing providing just enough flavor without overpowering it. The soup was a puree, so no actual mushrooms were floating in it. It had a bit of spice to it and a good taste, though if I'd not known what it was, I'm not sure I would've said "mushroom."

We split a seared ahi tuna entree, served over pistachio rice with greens on top and a white truffle/carrot puree surrounding it. (They are very into the mushrooms at The Basin.) The tuna was top-notch, tender and flavorful, with light pepper on the outer edges. I liked the pistachio rice, too--it had pistachios scattered through it, which flavored the rice nicely. And the white truffle was very light in the puree, the carrots adding a sweet flavor. Together it was quite good, and splitting it left us both just full enough to be satisfied.

We passed on the desserts, though they sounded good, and took a nice walk down the street to the car, enjoying the sights we hadn't seen for a while. Any excuse to come walk along Big Basin Way in Saratoga is worth it, and The Basin is a better excuse than many.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ti Couz, San Francisco

Ti Couz
Sweet and savory authentic French crêpes

We first ran across Ti Couz, at 16th and Valencia, when we were going to the Roxie Theater just across the street. There are actually a lot of good places to eat around that intersection--next to Ti Couz is a great tapas place, catty-corner is a New York pizza joint that Mark raved about, Mariachi's Taqueria is right down Valencia, and the falafel place next to the Roxie was good too.

Crêpes are not hard to find around here, but finding good crêpes, and ones that aren't just dessert, is a little more tricky. Ti Couz advertises authentic crêpes from Bretagne, and they deliver as promised.

The interior feels very rustic: untreated wood, some white paint and blue trim. It almost feels like a North African French restaurant, something from Tunisia or Algeria perhaps. I don't think we've ever been there when we didn't have to sign up on their self-service waiting board, but the tables turn over pretty quickly during the lunch and dinner rush, so it's usually not too bad. The service can be slow, especially during lunch when it's busy, but the waitstaff are very nice (unlike the French cafe where we did actually have a snooty server!).

This luncheon, we had their salade verte to start, with different fixings. Mark opted for the Parmesan and roasted pecan toppings, while I had mine plain. Both were good; the Parmesan was thick and sharp, so you could really taste it, and the dressing for the salad was good too.

We split a pair of savory crêpes, a mushroom and ratatouille (called "La Jardiniere," the Gardener), and the mushroom, gruyere cheese, and almond. The cheese was great, very sharp and tasty, and the mushrooms (and the mushroom sauce that both crêpes came with) were a great filling. I like the crêpe as a wrap; it feels like a more delicate, tasty tortilla (the corn tortillas I know have a great flavor; these are more eggy). There could've been more ratatouille in La Jardiniere, because what was there was being overwhelmed by mushrooms, but what I could taste was nice and stewy.

We didn't get dessert this time, but have in the past. I actually like the savory crêpes better than the sweet, though their dessert fillings are wonderful. I'm not sure what it is about the sweet crêpes--maybe they're a little too sweet, or maybe it's just that there are other places to get good dessert crêpes.

The little place is crowded, so there's a lot of edging past people. I can see where that would put some people off, but I like the crowded, busy feel--it reminds me of an actual Parisian place. Ti Couz has that European ambiance (our waitress was actually French, or at least a francophone speaker), and the crêpes are delicious, so it's well worth going out of your way for.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Los Altos Grill, Los Altos

Los Altos Grill
Wood-fired rotisserie grill with terrific steaks and chicken--and cornbread.
(image from www.lovetoeatandtravel.com)

Formerly Bandera's, this restaurant changed its name back in around 2004 to "Los Altos Grill." We'd liked Bandera's and were pleased to see that the menu remained pretty much the same.

The big drawback to this place is the crowds. If you try to go at any time when other people might be thinking about eating out, you'll wait for your table. There's not much waiting space inside, if the weather is chilly or wet; of course, this is California, so odds are you can just hang out near the entrance outside. The good news is that the interior is very nice, the restaurant quiet enough to permit conversation, and the waitstaff very helpful, once you are seated. The booths are nice and roomy, with nice views of the bar in the center of the restaurant (TVs if you're inclined to watch sports) and the kitchen in the back. There's a lot of stained and polished wood inside, and the wood-fired cooking is highlighted by flickering firelight from the ovens. When we went, they also had the pork chops roasting on a spit out front.

We always get the jalapeno cornbread here. It's a little dry, but ask for honey with it and it's perfect--maybe the second-best cornbread in the Bay Area (after Armadillo Willy's, strangely enough). It comes in a skillet and is about a four-person portion, though three of us managed to finish it off on this occasion.

Our waiter very enthusiastically talked us through the specials and the menu, answering all our questions happily and making recommendations whenever we asked. It's hard to go wrong with steak as a main course. They make it tender and tasty, and Mark's filet was served with a side of thick-cut tomatoes topped with basil and blue cheese that worked really well (even for someone unenthusiastic about tomatoes). We also sampled the pork chops, a special for that evening, which were amazingly tender and flavorful, one of the better chops I can remember having had. The side of red cabbage that came with them was a great complement. I had the halibut, the fresh fish of the day, which came "simply grilled" with little seasoning and a side of delicious brussels sprouts, lightly grilled themselves with compound butter. It was good, but I think I would have liked a little more seasoning.

We let the waiter talk us into a dessert of Oreo ice cream sandwiches, two large chocolate cookie sandwiches of cookies 'n' cream ice cream topped with whipped cream and surrounded with chocolate sauce and espresso shavings. Even though we were fairly full from dinner, the temptation was too much, and we ended up finishing it easily.

The Los Altos Grill, under whatever name, remains one of our standby restaurants, but we prefer to go on off-hours, when the experience of eating isn't preceded by half an hour to forty-five minutes of waiting.