Friday, March 12, 2010


Today's blog is about a single item on a menu.  The Fried Rice Ball Salad at Champa Garden in Oakland.

 Fried Rice Ball Salad, or Nom Khao, is a dish I found through one of my eating buddies.  It sounded weird.  Not particularly appetizing really.  I mean fried rice is okay, but...

Boy was I wrong.  Nom Khao is this amazing concoction of crunchy fried rice, coated in herbs and chock full of some special kind of salty pork bits.  It is served hot out of the fryer and is accompanied with whole leaves of freshly chlled lettuce and stalks of fresh mint. 

When the dish arrives, it is meant to be ladled onto the lettuce and rolled up.  One can add mint or not, and I like to crumble some of the flaky red peppers over the whole mess before rolling it up. Red peppers on top are optional.  I highly recommend them if you like heat on your food.  Once you've made the lettuce wrap, you roll it up tight and dig in.  The cold lettuce with the hot rice, the light springy crunch of the fried insides against the chilly crunch of the lettuce... it's an experience in eating that is difficult to adequately describe. 

The entire dish is a constant study in contrasts, hot & cold, spicy and herby, all mingling with textures aplenty.
This stuff is enormously addictive. When I start eating it, it's one of the few foods I cannot stop eating.  Until it's gone.  And then I shake out the plate.  It's crunchy, moist, full of flavor and always fresh.   I have never had it anywhere but Champa, and wonder if any other establishment makes the dish anywhere near as well.

So here is my interactive challenge to my readers: "What is your favorite fried food here in Oakland?"  It should be regularly on the menu and be something that you find positively unforgettable.  Share with me something really delicious and I'll go check it out and write about it here. I'm talking about a food you can't stop eating it's so good.  You dream about it at night.  Just mentioning it starts you to salivating.  You need to eat it, it is that good.  I've told you mine, now what is yours?

Champa Garden
2102 8th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94606-2008
(510) 238-8819

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

SEA SALT - Sail Away....

For months now, Fridays have been dedicated when possible to luncheon exploration. They have become a moon launch, of sorts. New Frontiers and Distant Horizons. On any given Friday we might venture just a little further away from the office than the usual two to three blocks radius, in search of new locations to dine in the hope of finding something wild, something new. On this occasion, a cloudy afternoon in late February, we journeyed to Berkeley. To Sea Salt.

There many ways to begin a meal. I like to begin mine these days with a cocktail. After a quick perusal of their menu, I found something called the Williams Margarita. I’m discovering a love of Tequila as I discover it’s many faces. The new silvers and golds of the liquor have charmed me just a bit with their variety of flavor in various mixed cocktails. It’s a trend I like, this ‘mixology.’ Other than the Tequila in my drink there was a subtle hint of pear and lime to bring the spice of the Tequila to a nice balance. The drink was strong, the flavors were bold and crisp.

My Better Half had another of his infamous “girly” drinks, entitled ironically enough "Aphrodite."  He’s discovered that anything fruity or flavored to his liking is uniformly named to attract a female customer, so he’s accepted his inner lush is a chick and moved on. The Aphrodite was a refreshing glass of Prosecco and Orange Blossom with a hearty shot of Smirnoff. It didn’t taste overly of liquor, which pleased the BH, but I thought it was delicious — it tasted like a giggle in a glass.

As we imbibed our drinks, we began to enjoy the first dishes we had ordered. The menu contains so many tempting seafood dishes that we probably over-ordered, but fortunately we managed to eat almost everything set down before us. Gotta say the BH is a master of consumption, and he loves my new-found avocation of food blogging allows him so many opportunities.

First up was the lovely Clam Chowder, a rich buttery bowl of clams, cream, bacon and cream. While there was cream present in the dish, it was poured with a subtle hand, masking nothing. All the flavors came together in a really masterful way, the bacon in the dish marrying with the clams and potatoes into a velvety ambrosia that tasted of heaven. The potatoes in the soup were cooked to perfection, not soft or mushy -- they released their flavor into the broth when bitten, and their bite gave the soup an enjoyable texture. I am a big fan of a chewy potato. In addition to these flavors, the payoff to every bite was the promise of a burst of bacony goodness as the occasional chunk of crispy, salty bacon found its way into every other spoonful or so. Simply one of the best chowders I have ever eaten.

Next the waitress brought us a dish of their French fries, which were arrived with what the chef titled a spicy “thai curry katsup.” The katsup didn’t look any different than ordinary katsup, so one of my companions was a bit taken aback at its subtly spicy, almost barbeque flavor. After the surprise it grew on him. Having read the menu a bit more carefully, I was not surprised and found it a spicy enhancement to the hot fries, and I enjoyed its’ nice subtle bit of heat as it worked on my tastebuds. The fries were thick-ish and hot. Yummy.

Our next appetizer arrived. The menu called it a Mini Maine Lobster Roll which I had imagined as something other than what arrived, which doesn’t make much sense, because it really was just what they titled it. Whatever I had in my head, their version was way better.  The dish consisted of these two perfect little sweet hot dog rolls laden with lobster meat and butter. Simple. Simple. Simple. There was a lovely herbed slaw next to these mini vehicles for perfect pink lobster meat that had been poached in butter. This method of cooking lobster was new to me, but I intend to be its new best friend. This preparation left the lobster meat fluffy and light, and when served atop these puff pastries masquerading as mini hot dog rolls, I believe they mastered the art of simple perfect food preparation. Each bite was soft and chewy ---- light and simply delicious. The house made chips were also pretty good. Not as good as those lobster rolls, but they had a nice texture to them, chewy while remaining crisp. The PFC didn’t like the slaw with the lobster meat, he said it competed with the simplicity. I don’t usually mix the slaw into the sandwich, but he likes to. I think it’s a Banh Mi hang over. In this case I’m fairly sure the two were intended to be eaten separately and I preferred it that way. That lobster was just too too too perfect on its own. Moist, buttery bitelets of (yes, again) heaven.

They served the Dungeness Crab Cakes shortly after they brought the lobster rolls. It did seem that food was brought just as it came out of the kitchen, which is always a plus. The plate they set in front of me this time contained two, fat delicious mounds of crab meat and herbs atop a rich, rewarding aioli. So pretty we dived into it before I took a picture, so in the photo here, there is a cake missing (sorry ‘bout that). The aioli seemed almost to be oozing out of the cake, in this perfect marriage of the crunch and the moisture of the meat against the fattiness in the aoili. These cakes were out of this world. Crabcakes number among my all-time favorite dishes. Sea Salt’s version had dates, satsuma oranges and almonds. The patties themselves were awash in many subtle seasonings, I tasted a hint of mint, among others, but nothing overwhelmed the crabmeat. My next bite was a mixture of the crunchy crab patty with a bit of frisee, aioli and nut — the combination made for a symphony of textures and flavors. Another bite contained a bit of date, a little more aioli, and a mouthful of the sweet crab — again working together for perfection.

Along with the Crab Cakes we received our Hawaiian Tombo Tuna Sliders — delightful little mini-burgers, full of herbs & tuna — they were stupendous. The black pepper aioli cut the slight fattiness of the rich fish and really brought this dish up a notch. Each dish had aioli, but no two were really alike. The flavorings were always suited to each dish, like the chef had prepared an aioli “pairing.” This was our last dish before dessert. We’d pretty much just eaten our way through the menu, and loved every morsel. But on Fridays... we eat dessert!

We ordered the Almond Croissant Bread Pudding and a single scoop of the Blood Orange Mascarpone Cheese Sorbet. We’d had a chocolate croissant pudding elsewhere and so I was pushing to try someone else’s variation of the dessert. Sometimes I can be persuasive. Our companion felt that it should have been served warm, but we all agreed it was delicious. We thought the sorbet was a bit icy where it should have been creamy, but the flavors were good. All in all a very successful adventure.

We wrapped up the meal with coffees. They were also really good, but they took so long the house bought them for us. That would be my one note. There was a big party there when we were, and the waitress was completely overwhelmed, and it showed. She was frustrated and cranky and ignored us, a lot. I know it isn’t her fault if they understaffed, or if there was a surprise table full of guests that required too much of her attention, but neither was it mine. Small note. Great restaurant. You should check it out for yourself, and as always ~ Bon Appetit.
Sea Salt
2512 San Pablo Avenue

Berkeley, CA 94702-2013
(510) 883-1720

Table size: adequate
Noise Level: ONE BELL
Service: Iffy
Dining Time: It took quite awhile with the big party and the inattentive server, so I'm not sure what it would be under normal circumstances.