Thursday, October 15, 2009

CASCAL - Colorful Tapas Treats

Cascal is an amazingly colorful place. My BH and I stumbled (quite literally) upon it a little over a year and a half ago, when cruising his old neighborhood haunts for a place to grab a bite before heading to see a show at Theaterworks. We saw the place was close to the theater and so we went for it, without a clue what we were in for. But we're adventurous that way.

The first thing one is served is usually bread. At Cascal that offering is a foccacia-style carb with a really nice herb-blended olive oil. That first time we ordered the watermelon salad, and it was really really sweet melon, drizzled with a perfectly seasoned dressing and accompanied with goat cheese. It was one of the best salads I have ever ordered. We ordered it again on this last occasion, and the unfortunately the melon was not quite as seasonal, or not quite as perfectly ripe, and so the salad itself was not quite as mind-bogglingly good. But it was still a dish worth ordering. The blending of cheese, melon and savory dressing will remain among my favorites, though I imagine it is best at the height of the summer melon season.

When my BH and I returned about a week or so ago, we brought along our favorite couple to hang with. We were all out to spend some quality time together before a planned minor surgery I had scheduled for the following week that was going to make going out difficult for the near future. My BH and I hoped to introduce them to some of our favorite dishes while experiencing some new ones as well. We began with drinks. My Better Half and I really enjoy their Caipirinhas, a sort of muddled fruit mai-tai-ish concoction that is thicker with fruit, heavier with liquor and fresher in taste than what comes to mind when one thinks mai tai. They are strong drinks, and the taste is only as sweet as the fruit within, rather than containing any additional sugar. Or at least that's the way they taste to me. I like 'em.

One of our party ordered the Cuban Black Bean Soup with Sherry. I had skipped the soup in favor of a second Caipirinha and some Watermelon Salad (with goat cheese, watermelon radishes and a citrus mint vinagrette). By now, I was definitely feeling no pain. I tasted the soup and it was really good. Not as 'beany' or thick as bean soup usually is, and more complex with flavor. My BH and I shared a dish called Sizzling Shrimp which consisted of shrimp sauteed like escargot in a small skillet of garlic and butter. They were moist, garlicky (the other flavors were subtle, and while they complimented the garlic well, I would definitely say garlic overpowers this dish) and delicious. But I love my garlic. We also shared an order of Serrano Ham. The Serrano comes drizzled with olive oil over several slices of sourdough bread. What can I say? We are a huge fan of appis and tapas small plates.

So as we enjoyed our appetizers, and our drinks dwindled, we each began to realize a lot of time had passed. Where was our dinner? We were a little drunk, and it had been almost a half an hour since the last dish had been served. Our waitress walked by, looked at our table in horror and walked off without speaking to us. When we were finally able to get her to stop, she apologized and said that the kitchen was slammed. This was obviously a lie, and really ticked us off. I am the first person to forgive an overworked server who forgot to put in an order, but when he or she just makes stuff up, it really kinda ruins their cred. There had been empty tables all around us when we arrived, as we usually dine on the very early side of the dinner crowd. So we could not have been among more than maybe four or five other tables in a very large restaurant when we had placed our original order. She said she would check with the kitchen and didn't return for another fifteen minutes or so, at that point saying that she was sorry for the delay, and scurrying off. She didn't ask if we wanted anything, say like another drink, to pass the additional time. Basically, she handled it badly.

Eventually our meals came, (with yet an additional delay on the paella ordered by the other couple, which is a dififcult and lengthy dish to prepare, and which she had obviously placed with the kitchen really late in the game). In spite of the delay, we tried to enjoy the rest of our meals. My BH had the Lamb Chops, which are grilled and come served with a side dish of fried potatoes with chimi churri.

Given the long, long, long break between the apps and dinner, my notes fail me here, because I had a third Caipirinha. I know, right? Wow. So at some point the waitress (who had to know we knew she was lying about our orders, for a variety of reasons) said she had spoken to the manager and arranged for our desserts to be on the house. Way to save her tip! Seriously, it was appropriate, given the almost one-hour lapse between appetizers and main course. Not sure if she told the manager it was her bad or the kitchen's but we were just happy she made it right.

We ordered the Tres Leche Cake (coconut infused "three milk" cake with fresh fruit salsa and meringue topping), a Warm Chocolate Souffle and I believe Fried Plantains with house made Ice Cream. The Tres Leche Cake was out of this world. It's one of my favorite desserts, something about the creamy, stiff-pudding texture and the sweet, subtlety of coconut -- it just gets me every time. The chocolate souffle was a good, solid pretty standard souffle, leaning in consistency towards the molten chocolat cake variety, meaning that it was cakey on the outside and liquid in the middle. The plantains were just okay. They weren't light enough to carry off the deep-fry and the batter itself was unremarkable. But the ice cream served on the side was delicious.

The meal ended up taking over three hours, but generally service is prompt and one could get out in time for a show if one had to. I know. I did it. In spite of the service failure, they did the right thing in the end, so I would not hold this one lapse against a restaurant that has always proven to be first rate in the past. Go check it out. And definitely do it when you can stay for a drink (or three)!
Bon appetit!
400 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Price: Moderate to Expensive
Dining time: ?? depends on your server! (seriously, every other time we were here, we could easily have gotten out in an hour if we'd wanted to)
Table size: Cramped to Adequate-ish. It's tapas! There's lots of plates. Note to owners everywhere: Spring for a little more table space so dining is more pleasant, People!

Monday, October 12, 2009

FLORA - An Upscale Fifties Diner in a revamped Old Oakland

It's been open awhile, so this isn't news to most of you, but this place is a wonderful addition to a thriving Oakland restaurant scene. Situated in the old Oakland FLORAl Depot (complete with revamped original sign) it is a tribute both to Oakland's past and its present. Inside the restaurant is tricked out with a slick and very Urban Chic decor. I'm a big fan of the giant Magic show poster on the righthand wall upon entering. Though the place is tiny, they make the most of the space they have.

If you're going to come, don't just bring an appetite. The bar is rocking and this is definitely the place to have a cocktail. Their mixologists are as good as any I've come across, and that includes the best in Vegas. The specialty cocktail menu includes quite a few treats, most imported from some of the best bars in the world. The Gin Daisy is my usual order, but today the BH and I ordered something call the Blackberry Cobbler, which is a fine concoction of Miller's gin, lemon, blackberry syrup, pineapple agave nectar, orange and curacao. It was basically a really good alcoholic slushie, but uber fresh and not as sugary. The addition of fresh ingredients and experimentation to the world of the mixed drink has been a delicious adventure. I generally don't drink much as a rule, but there are so many delightful concoctions available now that I've become a fan of the modern mixed drink. Never to excess (of course) but am always open to an experience of new tastes, whether alcoholic or merely gastronomical. Today's Blackberry Cobbler was no letdown. Fruity, fresh and fun.

We opted for their Beef Tataki as our appy, and when we ordered we were not quite sure what we would end up with. The description in the menu noted that the dish included garlic, ginger, scallions, and cucumber relish. When the dish arrived I found it a bit reminiscent of a beef carpaccio they serve at one of my favorite sushi restaurants. Lovely slices of mostly raw beef gently seared on the outside, accompanied with this gentle garlic-ginger sauce. The fresh-fried wonton chips were a nice accompaniment. All in all we found this dish really impressive.

BH had the Fried Chicken Fingers, which come with a side of potato salad and coleslaw. I believe they have a homemade Ranch dip as well. I tried the salads and thought they were both well done. He liked the fried chicken, said it was not greasy. I didn't try it myself.

I had the Scallop & Shrimp Louie which is a simple, light salad. They do it well, nothing spectacular, although I have to say they dress the lettuce perfectly. There is nothing I hate more than dry lettuce, or for that matter, soggy overdressed lettuce. The salads here must be hand-mixed, I imagine, because every leaf was coated in just the right amount of a light, airy blend of their champagne vinagrette. It provides a good moist layering on the lettuce which leaves it open to the flavors of the heavier Louie sauce on the seafood. Its a traditional basic done well. My daughter had their Burger & Fries, also a traditional, simple dish done very well.

For dessert we ordered the Apple Turnover with Huckleberry Jam, which was the flakiest, airiest concoction ever. This WAS something to write home about. I don't have a picture of it, because it was that good. By the time I returned from the restroom, my family had already dug in and while it was no longer pretty, it was still a "magically delicious" taste treat.

I've been to Flora maybe five or six times now. Every time the food was consistent, and every time there was at least one really standout dish. Today it was the Apple Turnover and the Beef Tataki. On a previous visit it was a wonderful rendering of Fois Gras over French Toast that was unbelievable. There were others, but then again, I did say I usually order a Gin Daisy (or two) so the names escape me. But it's a good thing.

Find the time to check it out, if you haven't already. You won't be disappointed. Bon Appetit.

1900 Telegraph Avenue
Oakland, CA 94651
(510) 286-0100

Price: Moderately Expensive - Expensive
Eating Time: Leisurely (not the place for a quick lunch break)
Table size: Cramped