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.