Wednesday, December 23, 2009

THE BASIN (Saratoga) ~ Shelter from the Storm

It was freezing when we arrived at The Basin Restaurant in Saratoga, especially for a California native like myself. My companions and I were shivering in the blustering winds, having arrived before the restaurant was open for the dinner seating, but the host of the Basin Restaurant caught a glimpse of us and came to our rescue. He greeted us in the doorway, mercifully allowing us all to enter the restaurant before they were done setting up. Once we were seated and the feeling began to return to my fingers, I picked up a menu and began to peruse my options.

We had journeyed out of our comfort zone all the way down to Saratoga in search of a lovely meal before our evening's entertainment, which on this occasion was a Richard Thompson concert at the Montalvo Winery Carriage House. I do love me some RT. But I digress.

So, I am already feeling warmly towards the management for showing the class to rescue us from the storm outside, but nothing heightens a good mood better than a cocktail, so we ordered a round. I had something called a Key Lime Pie which was, at first sip, almost indistinguishable from the dessert itself. Frothy, fluffy top with a deep limey kick at the bottom.

My Better Half had something called a Spicoli, which was a rum drink that was neither daquiri nor pina colada, but better than either. Malibu Rum blended with pineapple, orange and banana, with a hint of creme de cassis, the "cherry on top" so to speak. Fruity and refreshing and well-blended. I have become a huge fan of mixology. Drinks used to be so uninteresting. One could order either some version of a sickly-sweet drink mix over-the-top fruity concoction or straight scotch/vodka/gin whatever over ice. I like that mixing a cocktail has become an art. It's definitely an improvement.

Having just had a magnificent Burrata at BellaNico restaurant in Oakland, and so I decided it would be nice to share the delights of this particular treat with my sister-in-law who shares my love of all things cheese. We ordered the burrata along with a platter of Jamon Serrano Iberico ham, the 'prosciutto of Spain.'

The burrata was good, a tiny bit drier than the one I'd just had previously at BellaNico, but nonetheless a treat. My companions who had not shared in the burrata of the previous week were extremely pleased with its selection and really enjoyed their first taste of the soft white cheesey treat that is burrata. The ham was delightful as well, and I should note that although pricy at $20, the serving presented us was beyond generous. I was raised on prosciutto, which is quite similar to an iberico. The differences are in the curing, the various amounts of fat in the meats and the spices used in it's preparation. I find I love almost all varieties of this particular charcuterie choice.

On any occasion, I find a slightly dried slice of salty goodness wrapped carefully around a similar slice of fresh sourdough bread, with or without a nice smear of soft burrata, can't be beaten for anything. It's just the perfect mouthful, although I must admit I have trouble stopping, too much childhood tangled in sensory memory I suppose.

As I looked up from a bite of ham, the waiter brought the next dish, which was their Spanish Rice. For some reason it was not what I anticipated at all, but instead was much better. At the center of the dish was what I would call a rice-cake, softer in the center and flavored with a delectable broth. At the edges it was crunchy and texture-filled, like the crust of a perfect paella. The shrimp itself was still moist, removed from heat during it's preparation in that just-perfect moment after pink turns to white without losing the juice within. Seasoned with paprika and saffron, the dish was an ecstasy of surprises, with tiny chunks of sweet, fatty bacon, crumbles of chorizo sausage, and other goodies colliding like some lyrical corps de ballet dancing in my mouth. At one moment it's a solo, seconds later the entire ensemble is leaping together, and all of it is bathed in this spicy, buttery sauce. This dish just rocked my world.

The soup special that night was a Butternut Squash. It was blended with cream, and --- I'm guessing here--- riced to perfection. Just enough texture to allow the flavors to come together in the eating. Splendid.

Our mains arrived shortly afterwards. One of us had the Handmade Daily Ravioli, the centers of which were a cheese and spinach filling with a blanket of lovely soft fava-bean pesto. Creamy and delicious.

My BH had the Dungeness Crab pasta, which was served perfectly al-dente, after having been flambeed with a cream & tomato sauce enhanced with pernot, shallots and garlic. My husband loved the delicate flavors all tumbled together with the seafood. Spot on.

I thought my own dish, which was the Duck Special was amazing. The duck meat was rich, without being gamey, and it came on a bed of wild rice with a captivating golden sauce of onions, herbs and some sort of sweet fruit blend covering it all. In my delight at the perfection of the dish's taste, I neglected to jot down the specific ingredients of the sauce in my notebook, so you'll just have to imagine that combination of sweet and savory that compliments the richer meats to perfection. It was just that good.

We topped off the evening with a dessert called a Chocolate Bomb, a version of the now popular molten chocolate cake (which is a cakey on the outside, melted brownie goodness on the inside delight). It had a lovely reduction of raspberry beneath it, to balance the extremely rich, dark chocolate of the cake itself. That dessert and our cappucinos and lattes were all a delightful topper to an all but perfect meal.

I highly recommend The Basin, and can't wait to see another show in Saratoga as an excuse to visit it again. In the interim, I intend to hit the Plumed Horse for my birthday in a week's time, and will certainly report on that trip as well. Check it out, and Bon Appetit!

The Basin Restaurant
14572 Big Basin Way
Saratoga, CA 95070

Cost: Moderately expensive
Table size: adequate
Noise Level: perfect for easy conversation
Dining time: somewhat leisurely, had to hustle to make the show, but did make it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

BELLANICO ~ Chow Bella!

In search of a new food adventure, I found myself perusing the web a few days ago for any mention of new eateries in the Oakland area. I found a few places that sounded good, but many only served dinners. I am only in the city during the lunch hour most days so that wasn't going to work. A few more minutes perusing various articles brought me across Bellanico, a newish place I had not yet heard of or tried. It is in the Glenview District of Oakland. That's close enough to my office to make an hour of it, so we headed out to test the waters.

We got there, found parking pretty easily around the corner, and since it was late in the lunch hour, the place was already full, so we were seated at the bar. Our partner in food crimes loves to be seated at the bar, he feels it gives you a connection to the establishement and its management that you can't get any other way, and on this occasion he was right. The proprietor, Elizabeth, was extremely helpful in assisting us in selecting a wine, as well as our food choices. Elizabeth was interactive and very attuned to the comfort of her customers, without being at all intrustive. I love Malbec, and on her recommendation we chose a Tiza from Argentina. She has worked with wines for over a decade and she definitely knows her stuff. The Tiza had a ripe, lush aroma, leading into a tangle of rich berry and spice -- complex and sexy, just the way I like it. The three of us shared a bottle between us.

The wine was the perfect beverage to set off the food, which is primarily Italian. The menu here is done with amazing care and inventiveness in presentation. I am second-generation Italian, and I was raised on cuisine from Northern Italy. I know good Italian food when I taste it. This food was both beautiful and perfectly executed.

We began with one of the house specialties, Fried Mondeghili, or meatballs, with Salsa Verde. The dish comes with three large meatballs, encrusted with breadcrumbs and fried to a perfect golden brown. They have a soft, herby center underneath the hot crusty surface and the sauce keeps them from being too dry. I thought they were delicious, and I believe between mouthfuls, my companions did as well.

We also had the Burrata appetizer. It was served with lovely sides of toasted foccacia bread, fresh pomegranate seeds, taggiasca olives, grilled chard and toasted hazelnuts. Burrata, in case you don't know, is a fresh mozzarella that has been filled with a whipped center of cream and more fresh mozzarella. It's the Italian equivalent of a cheese jelly doughnut. The burrata served at Bellanico was as fresh as anything I've had in Italy. One of the best things that has happened to food these days is the emphasis on freshness. Fresh mozzarella that has been spun and cut that day or the day before, is a completely different animal from the chewy dense cheese they sold in the supermarket to put on pizza when I was a kid. They bear almost no resemblance to one another. Anyway, this burrata was not only fresh, but the center was so creamy that the cheese could be easily spread on the toasted foccacia that came with it. The PFC loved it with the pomegranate seeds, I found mixtures of various toppings to my liking. All were delectable. I couldn't get enough of the explosions of complex flavors that were singing in my mouth.

No sooner had we polished off the apps than we were served the first of our lunch mains. We'd let Elizabeth know that we wanted to share everything. Sitting at the bar makes it easy. So she suggested bringing share plates to make it even easier to sample a bit of each dish selected. The first of these next dishes to arrive was the Proscuitto, Onion and Fontina Frittata. I should say that a good frittata is one of my HUGE weaknesses. I grew up with my grandfather's which was a pan-fried variety with a great deal of vegetables as its base and which, once cooked was a heavy (in a good way), rich almost quiche like dish. But, there are many ways to approach a frittata. Bellanico's was a yummy concoction of egg and cheese that was as light and fluffy as a towel pulled straight out of the dryer. The flavors were well-balanced between the cheeses and the proscuitto. They worked together rather than competing with one another. It was delicious.

Next they brought us the Tagliolini Pepati. This is a lovely smoky hot pasta with one of my favorite combinations: tomatos, bacon and heat. The bacon was this magnificent pancetta-style meat that added so much to the pasta. I get weak in the knees over that sweet chewy texture of the bacon when it's coupled with the heat of a good hot pepper (in this case just the right amount of fresh jalapeno). When these ingredients blend into the roasted tomato sauce, there is for me the perfect marriage of flavor. Top it off with a nice grating of grana padano (a lovely aged cheese similar to parmesan) and you have the perfect dish of pasta. Our PFC agreed that this dish was spectacular, but we have very similar tastes in food. We both love heat.

Moments later, if not simultaneously (when I'm eating this well, all is a blur) we had been served another dish. The menu called it a Swiss Chard Malfati, and they arrived looking like little green goose eggs. They are accompanied by a glaze of brown butter & sage and are also topped off with the grated grana padano. (sorry we did not get a good picture, we ate them too readily I'm afraid!) Oddly enough, this dish was eerily evocative of my grandfather's frittata. Much more so than the previous dish that was actually called a frittata. I believe this is because the primary flavors of the Malfati were the spinach and cheese, rather than the egg, which serves as more of a binding agent than the main ingredient. Needless to say I found them sensational as well. I don't know if it was that they were so much like Grandpa Gianni's frittata, which is heaven, or if they were just that good on their own. I suspect is was a little of both.

Since everything up to this point was amazing, we couldn't leave without trying their desserts. We ordered the Bombolini and the Goat Cheese Cheesecake. The Bombolini were a lovely fried doughnut "hole" of sorts, rich and sugary. They were deep fried, but not overly greasy and the spicy dipping sauce, described as an "espresso custard" was a nice sugary taste with the fried doughnut.

The Goat Cheese Cheesecake sounded unusual, but Elizabeth assured us that we would enjoy this dessert. She had not steered us wrong yet, so we told her to bring it on. What we were served may very well have been the best cheesecake I have ever tasted. It was an airy puff-pillow of cheese, gently rolled in pistachio brittle, and served with a nice side of quince, huckleberries and pomegranate. The song of flavor experience while consuming the burrata now became an aria of absolute delight.

Two of us polished these off with perfectly-foamed cappucinos, while the BH enjoyed a lovely milky latte.

This restaurant was amazing. We all left trying to figure out how, with the busy holiday season ahead, we would ever return fast enough. Bellisimo! I say definitely check it out and Bon Appetit!!!!

Bellanico Restaurant
4238 Park Boulevard
Oakland, CA 94602

Dining time: leisurely (but could be done in an hour)
Noise Level: boisterous, might be difficult for some to hear
Cost: moderately expensive (really depends on how many plates, we ordered a lot)
Table size: can't comment, ate at the bar.

Monday, December 7, 2009

CAFE CLAUDE - Mais Oui ...please have another drink?

Black Friday. Shopping day from hell. But such great sales, right? So how does one get the hubby to come with? Ahhh-hah. Offer him lunch at Cafe Claude. So my grad student and I did, as part of our evil plan to get him (and thus, his wallet) into the City with us.

Seriously, the Grad Student and I both love Cafe Claude so we thought it would be a fun family outing. I must admit that the Better Half loves it there too, so it was the perfect place to top off our day-after-Turkey festivities. Food was definitely going to be the highlight of the day, particularly given the fairly obnoxious crowds slugging about the city streets making walking around enjoyably near to impossible. (But the sales!) People are sooo rude these days. We made reservations for 1pm ish and arrived at the restaurant right on time, and starving.

The restaurant itself seems worth a note here. It is a charming, intimate, very authentic European-style little bistro in an alley in San Francisco that transports its clientele, in spirit at least, right to the heart of Paris. The bar is rich wood, the interior long and dark and intimate. It's tiny, but with such an abundance of genuine charm that one doesn't feel packed in like a sardine. I love the place.

Started with a cheeseboard featuring (from what I can remember) a Chevre goat, a soft brie and a lovely French cow's milk. They change out their cheeses constantly and I didn't write much of the cheese course down what with the cocktail in one hand. I remember only that they were delicious and we enjoyed them with cocktails. There's a story about the cocktails, but more about that later. I ordered the Mousse D'Amerique, a lilting combination of rum, lime juice, pineapple and sugar cane. Foamy on top. Yum! The BH had the French 75, a fruity mix of gin and sparkling wine, Double Yum! Our grad student had one as well.

It was about this time that we noticed the bartender was tall, dark and French. As an aside, I should mention that the wait staff at Cafe Claude is often French and almost always pretty. Male & female alike. Young, attractive people abound here. I think I notice because I used to sit on a casting panel for theatrical productions and I can't help but evaluate people a little bit for their stage-worthiness. I think my 24-year-old daughter notices because she is 24 and single. So anyway, the Grad Student and I both commented to one another that our bartender could give Gilles Marini a run for his money, and there might be flirting. Fun Times!

Back at the meal, the BH and Grad Student both love a good French Onion Soup and Cafe Claude's is one of the best. At least as good as Absinthe over in Hayes Valley. A lovely hot mess of golden-kissed cheese over an oniony puddle of perfect broth. Nothing heartier to warm the bones from an outdoor chill.

While I continued to consume my own drink with more cheese, I let the soup divert the attention of both my dining companions. The family was enjoying our environment and the food at Claude quite a bit, so we lingered over these prefatory courses.
When our mains arrived, we ordered a second round of cocktails. My lunch was a lovely special, described as a Veal Stew but which arrived in the form of a rich and creamy (ivory colored,
almost stroganoff-looking) dish. I had anticipated something more traditional --- perhaps a thick brown sauce with a wine reduction --- but this was a nice twist. It had mushrooms and garlic and veal, all tumbled together beneath this aromatic but delicate blanket of cream, au jus and herbs.
My better half and our daughter had their steak and fries. The steak arrived perfectly cooked, rare, as requested. The fries, are well, Cafe Claude's. They are among the best fries ever, anywhere. I have a few places I go just for the fries and this is one of them. The others are Cesar's on Piedmont Avenue (Cesar's may still be absolute number one, but it's close) and Luka's on Grand Avenue. When they are done to perfection, fries can be a real treat. Here they are light, thin and well-seasoned. Hints of garlic. Salted well. Ahhhh. yes!

By now the grad student and I are getting a little liquored up. We've noticed that the very smokin' bartender has taken to deliver her drinks (oh, to be young again) and it's amusing. So she has another. He brings it, but refuses a tip. Politely. Hmm.

We decide that the meal won't be complete without dessert. GS thinks the Tarte Tatin sounds appetizing, so we go for it. What's not to love about upside down apple tart with caramel sauce and whipped cream? I know, right? As we gently drape our bites of hot gooey caramel and apple with fluffy tongues of whipped cream we continue to ogle the hot bartender. My daughter decides she needs him to come back, so she orders, yes, another drink. By the time we leave there is chatting, marginal flirting. He tells her it is his birthday. She says "Happy Birthday" instead of what she is thinking, which is, bien sur, way more Sex & the City. Quel dommage, it was time for us to leave.

It was a lovely afternoon, and as we step out into the brisk post-Thanksgiving crowds once again, we are full, slightly drunk and alive. It's a beautiful world.

I cannot recommend Cafe Claude enough for this sort of an afternoon, or any sort at all. Check it out, and Bon Appetit!

Cafe Claude
7 Claude Lane
San Francisco, CA 94108

Dining Time: leisurely
Table size: small, cramped, European-style
Noise level: It's noisy but intimate enough that I don't have trouble hearing.
Price: moderately expensive

Friday, December 4, 2009

SOMERSET - An afternoon at the Manse

Though the name might conjure up an image of a stuffy English Manor with miles of lawns and butlers and mysteriously-shuttered windows, this restaurant is neither pretentious nor off-putting. Though it's decor is subdued and warmly elegant, there is nothing stuffy about Somerset Restaurant on College. It's another one of those places one can stumble into and feel immediately at home. And the food is a happy adventure in tastes and textures so good it gave me dreams... sweet, wonderful, dreams.

We were there just about a week ago. A friend recommended it and our daughter was looking to get us to buy her some good free chow, so there you have it.

We began by ordering drinks from the deliciously enticing specialty cocktail menu. I have become a fan of the Sazerac and there it was at the top of the menu. It called to me and I answered. It was a wonderful licoricy-concoction of rye whisky, with just a hint of bitters. My husband ordered the Pineapple coconut agua fresca, which he found to his liking, and the little one (though she is indeed over 21) had the same. Studying. Law School.

We began this meal with their bread. Warm Rosemary foccacia and buttermilk biscuits. Wow. One was herby and aromatic, the other was the simplest, most perfectly flaky buttermilk biscuit --- both were hot out of the oven. The waiter next brought my salad. It was a Roasted Corn Salad with peppers, tomatoes and onions. The description sounded very much like a traditional mexican take on the dish, but it was lighter in flavor and the "salsa" was so fresh that the tomato flavor wasn't fighting the corn. It was all sweet, and smoky with just a hint of heat. The flavors in that salad fell together as easily, as a slightly tipsy coed falls into bed.

Then came our entrees. I had the pizza special, which was a delightful flatbread sized concoction of warm flaky dough and strips of ham on a blanket of cheese and tomato sauce. Their pizza is billed as a thin crust, which it would be if I'd never had a pizza at Dopo on Piedmont Avenue, where they have mastered that art to perfection. That said, the sauce was flavorful and tasted home made, which is a huge plus. Nothing ruins a pizza quicker than heavy tomato. My grandmother once told me tomato is a heavy fruit, with the kind of flavor that can bury everything else in a dish if not balanced properly. I believe she was right.

The BH ordered the Crab Melt, which you can see in the picture is a lovely open face of fresh crab and avocado. He raved about that sandwich for the rest of the day, so it must have been good. The law student had the Barbeque Pork Sandwich, which was a sweetly spicy blend of shredded moist pork on a lovely fluffly bun. The side of sliced baby tomatoes with a subtle oil and vinegar dressing was heavenly. I couldn't stop stealing bites off her plate.

When a place is this good, I will often allow the BH and little one to talk me into a dessert. In this case I will be forever glad I did. We ordered an Apple Crisp for the little one who is ever so fond of her apples, and a coconut cake for the "grownups." The crisp arrived still warm, the scent of cinnamon wafting off it's inviting brown and crunchy surface causing an immediate response of mouth-watering goodness. The vanilla bean ice cream melting into the apple filling was as basic a flavor as one can get. That familiar taste that sends you back to grandma's kitchen and simpler times. The Coconut Cake was something else altogether. It too, was simple perfection, but in an airy ephemeral way that set my mouth to quivering. Both desserts were delicious.

This place I can most definitely recommend. But hey, if you take your time getting there, there's just gonna be that much more for me.

Check it out. Bon Appetit!

Somerset Restaurant
5912 College Avenue
Oakland, CA 94618

Noise level: muted, good for conversation
Table size: adequate
Price: Moderately expensive
Dining time: Took us an hour and a half for lunch, but might have been done a bit quicker. This is the sort of place one wants to linger in.

MILANO - There's a giant pothole in memory lane

Some things we can go home to, others we have once and never can find again. Everyone has them. That dish you can't get out of your head. For me, there were the szechwan green beans at what used to be the Maple Village on Grand Avenue. Those beans, with their perfect combination of pan-simmered green beans and peppery sweet sauce sustained me in my youth during many a hangover. Once the restaurant went out of business, they vanished into the great restaurant in the sky. I've ordered similar dishes since then, but so far nothing has managed to come even close to my memory of that perfect dish.

Another dish that rocked my world was the gnocchi at Milano, the restaurant that replaced my dad's old favorite, Mitch & Jim's. (Oddly enough, Mitch & Jim's had another dish I was wild about, the Beefsteak Tomato and Red Onion Salad).

So I went back to Milano recently, in search of the gnocchi. Unfortunately, the place has changed ownership and sad to say, the gnocchi are gone. Forever.

In it's place is uneven and fairly uninteresting Italian food. They still have the cheesy garlic bread, but other than that, any resemblance to the old Milano is long gone.

We didn't particularly love our meal, but the owners did make it an interesting visit. To make up for the lackluster food, we asked for an Irish Coffee. The sweet vacant-looking waitress looked as if we'd asked her to find us an extinct DoDo bird. We got a recipe off the internet via iPhone, and let her copy it down. She gave it to the bartender (who was actually not a bartender, but the owner who just happened to be behind the bar) and they tried. They really did. They brought us back glasses of black coffee with about a gallon of Irish whiskey. Two of us were fine, my poor Better Half was a little overwhelmed by the quantity of whiskey.

So some days you win, some days you lose. I guess I have to accept it, Milano as I knew it, is gone. Sorry to say, I can't recommend it, unless you want to get really drunk while eating only cheese bread.

3425 Grand Avenue
Oakland, CA

Saturday, November 28, 2009

ABSINTHE ~ Magic in the Pan & The Little Green Man!

Absinthe is a lovely little Brasserie on the corner of Hayes and Gough in San Francisco. It's within walking distance of the theater where Wicked is currently playing, so it was once again our choice for a pre-show dinner. It often has been so, ever since my eldest child was performing at the Marine's Memorial one holiday season. Absinthe was recommended by a good friend who knows food, we went, we fell in love, the rest is history.

The bar is always crowded at happy hour and there is absolutely nowhere to sit if you are waiting for a table; but we were seated at our table promptly, so it wasn't a problem. We arrived right at five-thirty for what we hoped would be a leisurely meal before our show, and wasted no time ordering from the specialty cocktail menu. On this trip we tried the Fool's Gold, which was a new twist on tequila. This particular drink is a lovely concoction of Benesin organic mezcal, Verveine du Velay Jaune (a delicious herbal liqueur), and a dash of orgeat and lemon juice. It was refreshing and tasted a bit like citrus-kissed sunlight. One of us had the Citron Lemonade, a nice combination of Hangar One vodka, ginger syrup, lemon juice and ginger ale with a splash of cranberry juice. It was delicious as well. Lastly the BH tried the Sacred Heart, consisting of La Pinta Pomegranate-Infused Tequila, a dash of Absinthe, Limoncello and a splash of lemon juice. It tasted like a margarita, but with a dash of licorice from the absinthe. We also had an order of their Spiced Chickpeas with our drinks. They are a specialty of the house, and I highly recommend you try them when you visit.

We also tried a variety of their cheeses. I am a sucker for a cheese plate these days, and this was no exception. We requested the three-cheese option, and our selections consisted of a Smokey Blue (Oregon), an Idiazabal (Spain), and a La Tur (Italy). The blue was good, not overpowering, with a subtle earthy tones of hazelnut and caramel. The Idiazabal was paired with a fig-cake and had a lovely texture and flavor. The La Tur was rich and creamy --- a treat as sexy and earthy as a young Sophia Loren cavorting barefoot in a thin cotton dress! I do love a good La Tur!

Next came the soup and salad courses. My husband had the French Onion Soup Gratinee. Absinthe's version is among the best I have ever tasted. The cheese is carefully melted over a wonderful slab of toasted sourdough, the underside of which is just beginning to dissolve into the hot, oniony broth. The cheese slithers down the throat on tiny rivers of liquid golden onion. It is a warm and hearty delight of texture, taste and chewy cheese coming together. Splendid. My daughter had a Chestnut Mushroom Soup, with walnut oil, crispy crimini mushrooms and micro celery in the broth. It was creamy, but not overly so, and the texture of the creamy mushrooms in the broth was a clever touch. My daughter loved it. My spoonful tasted lovely, with the mushroom melting into the walnut oil to make that great combination of flavor in the mouth, with the crunch of the crimini adding a surprise of texture. Well done.

I passed on soup and instead had a salad of Frisee, a marvelous surprise comprised of fluffy frisee lettuce, baby leeks, all tossed gently with a lemon vinaigrette, some bacon and herbs and topped with a perfectly cooked duck egg and some caviar. The lettuce was coated with just the right amount of dressing and the egg broke nicely when nudged with a fork, letting the yolk drizzle into the lettuce and mingle with the caviar. It was magnificent.

For my main I tried the Sausage-&-Cornbread Stuffed Mary's Chicken, which was a delightful blend of roasted white chicken breast stuffed with a savory stuffing set off by a parsnip puree. The dish was moist, rich and tasty. Even the brussel sprouts were delicious. The BH stuck with his favorite, which is pretty much any version of scallops Jamie puts on the menu. Today it was Pan Seared Scallops, accompanied by bacon, wild mushrooms, braising greens and caramelized onions. Each scallop was perfectly seared to form a golden top, with the underside left moist and delicious. They really know how to cook a scallop at this restaurant. Really they do.

For dessert we shared a Cookie Plate and a Pumpkin Custard. The cookies were lovely and the pumpkin custard was light as air. My sister-in-law didn't think she liked pumpkin but rapidly became a convert. We were all stuffed at the end of dinner, having taken the meal a little too slow and had to dash to make our show. Another perfect visit to this wonderful establishment.

Absinthe's Executive Chef is Jamie Lauren of Top Chef "fame" but we have been coming here long before the show. This young woman can really turn out a magnificent menu. I've never made a trip here and come away disappointed by the food. It's been pretty much one successful dining experience after another. Check it out for yourself. Bon Appetit!

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar
398 Hayes Street at Gough
San Francisco, CA 94102

Table size: adequate
Noise Level: fine away from the bar. Dining near the bar, is very very loud.
Price: Expensive
Dining Time: They got us out in time for the show, but we did lose track of time and it was close.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

B - A Second Letter Can "Be" First Rate!

Last week the BH and I found ourselves on our usual "lunch block" - an intersection that offers a choice of many of our favorite haunts, where we can simply let the mood strike us as we walk and just pick one. Today we picked B. B was one of the earliest additions to this revitalized part of Old Oakland and in its original form it proffered soups, salads, sandwiches and roast chicken. The menu was reliable but not terribly inspiring.

We hadn't been in maybe ten months, and I have to say that on this return visit I was delightfully surprised to see the revamped menu. There were all sorts of new additions --- cheese plates, mixology, and wonders, oh my!

Drinks. Two, please. My husband's drink, the Paloma, of course, was a refreshing combination of Tequila and fresh grapefruit juice. The cocktail was well-blended and he loved it. Mine was called a "Love On" and it was this lovely combo of Skye vodka, pineapple juice and a fluffy cloud of Raspberry puree floating on top, with a lovely cherry-red heart staring up at you. It was sweet, almost a little too much, but overall I enjoyed it. And it was so so pretty!
We began with a Cheese Plate, choosing the Marin Triple Cream and the Manchego. We also had one of the charcuterie selections, a Sopressata from Fra Mani of Berkeley. I thought the portions were sufficiently generous, not as big as Franklin Square used to provide, but not the table scraps served up at some places. We both enjoyed the selections, finding them all mouth-watering good.

For lunch I ordered the Pear Salad with Chicken. As you can see from the picture, the slices of chicken were generous, basically a whole chicken breast sliced over fresh greens. The greens , pear and walnut of the salad itself was lightly dressed with a really tasty champagne vinaigrette and overall the dish was perfection. Just what I was looking for. The chicken meat was moist, but not underdone, and had a lovely savory taste to it that may have been from their wood ovens.

My better half had the Mussels with House Made Sausage, White Wine Sauce and Crostini. They looked delicious and he seemed to enjoy them. I tasted a bit of the sauce on some bread and it was balanced and seasoned well. Success!

We needed to get back to work, so we passed on dessert. Overall, we were thrilled to discover what felt like an entirely new restaurant. Attention to detail, variety of offerings, all of it up to date and well-executed.

Check it out and Bon Appetit!

B Restaurant
499 9th Street
Oakland, CA 94607

Table size: adequate
Dining time: Lunch hour do-able
Noise level: moderate to a bit loud, but didn't bother us. Sound levels never got "echoey" or unnerving.
Cost: moderately pricy

Thursday, November 19, 2009

BREADS OF INDIA - Garlic Naan & Beer

What is it about bread that makes me go weak in the knees? Bagels, English Muffins, Sourdough. All of these fantastical starches have been woven into my DNA since childhood. I used to dream of being locked into the Lakeshore Deli (an old-world delicatessen my grandfather used to frequent and on whose proscuitto and ravioli I was raised) and left to consume all the bread and cheese I could manage to swallow. That was my childish idea of heaven.

So it isn't a surprise that I might find a restaurant named "Breads" of anything intriguing. When Breads of India first opened, my food gang and I tried it within a week or two of it's unveiling. This most recent visit was a little over a week ago, early in the week. Thought it deserved a revisit for the blog.

Breads of India is one of those smallish family places you really want to be good. Everyone is very nice, and in this economy one never wants to see a place near empty. But it was, as so many eateries are these days. Unfortunate sign of the times. The restaurant's decor is extremely quaint. It looks like a 70s ideal of an Indian Restaurant in a film.

We ordered pretty safely. Beginning with drinks. Better half had a "Goan Dream" a cocktail of vanilla vodka, midori, orange and pineapple juices, while our Partner in Food Crimes had anIndian Beer, Kingfisher, which oddly enough has been outsourced to this country to be brewed & bottled. Irony that. We all shared a Lamb Shish ke Bob, which was nice. Large bite-sized rolls of lamb barbequed and meant to be dipped in a nice light herby mint sauce. I thought the meat was juicy and the smoky flavor very appealing.

Next I had a spicy Chicken Vindaloo, along with our PFC who is a fan of spice as well. The BH ordered the far less spicy Chicken Masala. I didn't taste the Masala, but I imagine it was fine. My vindaloo was not spicy enough, but it was appetizing. Not amazing, but appetizing.

Lastly there is the Bread. These breads are by far the best thing this place has to offer. Our naan was hot from the oven and smothered in garlic and butter. Each bread comes with a generous slatering of whatever topping or spice it is billed as featuring. We ordered plain and garlic naan, both of which went well with the meals. Nothing quite like fresh hot chewy starchy almost pizza dough to dip in a sauce. Still my idea of heaven. I did have 'garlic' replay for the balance of the afternoon, since it was doused in uncooked garlic which can play a bit of havoc on the digestion, but it was enjoyable in the eating at least.

The food here is decent, like good home cooked food. But it isn't great. Rice is just a little dry, salad is maybe the tiniest bit limp. The meals are just okay. But like I said, I really liked the bread.

Check it out, and Bon appetit!

Breads of India
948 Clay Street
Oakland, CA 94607

Table size: adequate
Noise level: low enough for conversation
Cost: moderate

Sunday, November 15, 2009

CITRON - a little Class on College

A week ago Thursday we met our youngest again for lunch on College near her school. On this occasion she had suggested we try Citron, an established white tablecloth joint between Taft and Lawton. It was as described. Very old-world looking, but light and airy at the same time. Personally, I found the retro style somewhat charming. While I love the new 'slick' wood and metallics of most of the newer places, I found this just as inviting as any other establishment.

Our daughter had been there once for a function as an intern at a big law firm and really enjoyed the food. She said some of her young friends found the place too "dated." I would disagree.

We began our meal with drinks. Hubby and I both ordered something called an Eloise Gin Blizzard, a lovely and complex blend of Hendrick's gin, fresh grapefruit juice, Diablo Elderflower Syrup all topped with a champagne float. It tasted like bubbles and light and had the nice bite of a grapefruit taste without the bitter. This was another really successful cocktail. I have had great success with fruit gin goodness and this was no exception. The BH and I both really enjoyed them. They came with a lovely little 'amuse bouche' of creamed humus and olive oil over toast. Delicious.

We began our lunch with a first course of cheeses. I have become a total cheese hound in recent years. The sampler boards one can order now offer such a variety of so many good blends and types of cheese that it's really opened my eyes to a world of flavor. We ordered a Petit Basque (menu described it as farmy - rich, semi-hard) and a Truffle (soft truffled goat). They came accompanied by a lovely nutty fruit bread toast (delicate, not overly chunky candied fruit or anything of that sort) and some fresh apple and jam.

While we munched on our cheeses, my BH also had a soup course. It was a splendid Maine Lobster Bisque, slathered in tarragon creme fraiche.

For our main, BH and the kid had the Grilled Hangar Steak and French Fries, which come with a lovely helping of romano beans, fresh carrots and beef jus. It also came with a healthy stack of some really tasty french fries. They were billed as the "best anywhere" and I have to say that though they were good, they were not as good as Cesar's garlic fries. There is definitely a war of good fries on around here, and so far Cesar is still King of the Kitchen in that respect.

I had the Spinach Gnocchi with wild mushrooms and white corn. It was perfection. The gnocchi were light as air and so was the sauce, a sage brown butter blended with heavy corn creme, toasted pinenuts and regianno cheese. The mushrooms were so meaty and flavorful, this was a delicious dish.

We finished the meal with a Pear Huckleberry Tarte. It had a light, flaky crust, and was filled with the softest ripest pears imaginable. Party in my mouth & dessert perfection. We were all in agreement on this one. It was so good in fact, that it was gone before I remembered to take a picture~!!

If you like a meal with a slight old world presentation, and by old I mean classy and clean, with a strong sense of leisure and comfort in dining, then this is your kind of place. I found the flavors and menu well thought out and the mixologist was first rate. Check it out!

Bon Appetit!

5484 College Avenue
Oakland, CA

Dining time: a bit leisurely, but probably possible without desssert or drinks
Noise level: well padded and not at all echo prone -LOW
Table size: adequate

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

BOCANOVA - Pan American on the Square

"Is that where the Old Spaghtetti Factory used to be?" the answer is yes. After the new Bocanova was recommended to us by friends who had recently dined there, we decided fairly promptly to check it out. We were told by some it was the Old Spaghetti Factory. Others said well, no, it's not. Different building. I can definitely say it takes up at least a large portion of the building that formerly housed the Old Spaghetti Factory at Oakland's Jack London Square.
Our little traveling lunch party of three dropped by last Tuesday. We try to bring a third for any place whose specialty is small plates, it helps with the ordering.
When we first entered, I was impressed by the beauty of the place. It is a thoughtfully furnished room, well appointed and welcoming. Kudos to the interior decorator.

We began with cocktails. Once a week or so we indulge ourselves at lunch, provided we have no thoughtful writing to do after the noon hour. It's the only way to accurately gauge a bartender's skill --- to actually have a drink. Not a big challenge, as we all have trouble passing on a well "mixologied" cocktail these days. I ordered a Red Passion Margarita which I found to be a welcoming blend of fresh & clean flavors, all swimming my my tequila. Fresh ingredients rarely carry the overly sweet or cloying attributes of say a traditional drink mix. The old-school mai-tais or rum punches made with a mix were just too too too. This drink was not. It was tasty and delish. My companions had a 1944 Mai Tai (a spicy crisp drink with a slight herbal aftertaste. I thought it was as good as mine) and a Cucumber Gimlet which was a simple concoction of vodka and cucumber with just a hint of citrus. Not as interesting to me as the others, more of a refreshing summer drink, but good nonetheless.

We followed our drink order with both ceviches on the menu, the Wild Shrimp Ceviche and the Halibut Ceviche. We all agree that the ceviche at Tamarindo is our favorite, but we are always searching for another variety that will make us feel it. That will challenge familiar perfection with a new brand of perfection -- a different spin on the dish -- giving us that special something. Bocanova's shrimp ceviche is a spicy one. It is made with jicama, red pepper and cilantro, and comes with fried won tons to dip it out. We all thought it was okay, but not a challenge to our favorite and certainly not impressive. We also sampled the halibut, which was not quite as good as the shrimp. This dish is seasoned with tomato, zucchini, cilantro and aji amarillo (a blend of fairly spicy Peruvian chiles). We found the halibut ceviche to be a little fishy-tasting. We were not sure if it was the ceviche's preparation or the fact that we ordered two different kinds together. It may just be that they don't compliment each other. Either way, they were just okay. Not bad, but not amazing.

Next up on the menu was the Prather Ranch Mini Burgers with Guasaca Sauce. We all agreed that these were perfection. Really really good. Rarely is meat done that perfectly in a burger. This was moist and tasty and the sauce (which is a mix of an avocado guacamole base and horseradish, I believe) was perfect. It didn't get in the way of the meat flavor, but complimented. Lighter than straight guacamole. They brought our Turkey Gumbo and it was not hot enough. It was good, but in my mind not as successful, being a bit oily for our taste, although with a nice rich flavor of sausage and turkey.

The salad I chose was a blend of Frisee, Grapefruit and Radish with a Mango Vinaigrette. The salad was light and tasty. I really enjoy a well dressed salad, and while this one had a lovely texture and good flavor, it was overdressed and there was no radish that I could distinguish.

We also ordered the "Huarache" which is a flatbread preparation of bufala mozzarella, peppers and an aji panca tomato sauce. I thought it was delicious. I think it also contained slices of meat, though none was listed on the menu. It was thin-crusted hot melty goodness. It was one of my favorite things they made here. The Peruvian olives were also delicious. We finished off the meal with the Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding. This dish was a lovely flaky buttery croissant melded with pudding-y goodness and topped off with a large serving of chocolate ice cream. Excellent and unusual. Everything anyone might want in a dessert.

Overall we really enjoyed our meal. It was not perfect but there were some really outstanding efforts in the mix. I would say that this is an establishment still finding its identity, with enormous potential. Among the best features, the mixology (superb) the huarache (or other flatbreads), the mini burgers and desserts. The other items needed work, but not so much as to say stay away. Another diner might find them just to his or her liking.

Head to the wharf and check it out!

Bon Appetit!

55 Webster Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Dining time: Tapas takes a bit, but if you told them to bring it all at once, you might be able to get out in an hour.
Noise: not a problem when we were there
Cost: Moderately expensive

PS: The restrooms while lovely, are not laid out well. I'm told the soap dispenser is really really low. I found the women's rooms lack of towels really annoying, especially after getting some of the red tomatoey sauce on my best dress (ceviche). I don't think a nice restaurant should ever expect its' patrons to make do with nothing but an air dryer. That's just too low rent for me.