Friday, August 14, 2009

COACH SUSHI - Grand Avenue

Coach Sushi is a small Japanese Restaurant on Grand Avenue, just past the intersection of Grand and Staten in Oakland, across from one end of Lake Merritt. Sushi is a staple of mine, something I eat a lot of, because I love it, so there will probably be quite a few places listed here before I'm done. Sushi restaurants now seem to be as plentiful as Chinese take-out was when I was a kid.

This restaurant is a clean, fresh place to get simple Sushi. The menu is not overly long, and the choices they have encompass most of the standard Sushi choices. Best of all, the prices are very reasonable. On this visit, my BH and I ordered the combination Bento Boxes. Mine was tuna sashimi (Maguro) and California Roll, and his was Chicken Teriyaki and tuna sashimi. We also ordered a sushi "Rainbow" roll, which included salmon, avocado, sashimi and shrimp.

The best thing about this place is the perfect miso soup. Sometimes miso is too salty, other times it's not hot, but they do a perfect broth, well-seasoned and they don't skimp on those little soy bits. The Bento boxes are served with a plentiful accompaniment of all the traditional garnishes (wasabe and ginger). I hate having to ask some places for sufficient ginger for my sushi.

The thing I like least about it is their salad. I am not really a fan of the dressing. It seems to be made of minced carrot or some other moderately vegetably-substance that doesn't really have enough flavor to make iceberg lettuce tasty. It's okay, just nothing I much care for.
But the fish is fresh, owner is extremely pleasant (it has the vibe of a family establishment, but I've never asked). All in all, a nice place to eat if you like sushi, you only have an hour for lunch and you are in Oakland. They are open Tuesday - Friday for lunch.

Bon Appetit!

Coach Sushi
Japanese Cuisine
532 Grand Avenue
Oakland, CA 94610


Price: Inexpensive
Dining time: easily done in an hour
Table size: Adequate

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

CHAMPA GARDEN - Shhh! (It's a Secret!)

I've been running the gamut of my personal favorites in town so that there will be a record of these places in case I'm hit by a bus. I wouldn't want them to go out of business just because I've gone to the Great Restaurant in the Sky, although something tells me my BH would find a way to get on with his life, probably by eating his way straight to my side, so perhaps I worry for no reason. Nevertheless, I'm making a record just in case.
The next gem on my list is an inexpensive and well-hidden little Laotian Restaurant (officially it calls itself a mix of Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese) tucked into the middle of nowhere off Park Boulevard in Oakland. It's name is Champa Garden. Ok, there, I said it. Out Loud. Now try and find it! It's harder than finding the entrance to Shangri-La!
However, if you are successful in your quest, and you actually find and enter the tiny, unnassuming one story structure on the corner of 8th and E. 21st, I will tell you what to order. If you know what to order in advance, one can have the meal of a lifetime here for relatively little money. We brought along our partner in food crimes, a young associate who has excellent taste in food, and loves spice (his companionship opens up a world of possibilities for me, since BH does not do the 'spicy' at all), so we were able to order a lot of items on the menu. From here on, he shall be known as PFC.

Start with the Rice Ball Salad (pictured above) which is described on the menu as crispy fried rice, preserved pork and lime juice. It has to have something else in it, like chopped up wonderful, or a dash of fantastic. This stuff is memorable. It is this indescribably combination of cruncy goodness that is intended to be spread onto a lettuce leaf and (with the addition of a bit of mint) rolled into a cigar-like concoction and chowed down on. I like to crumble a dried red pepper over it and wrap up the hot, spicy bits with the rest. Warning: Don't try this at home! Seriously, if you like crumbled red peppers, I suggest you wash your hands immediately after crumbling them and don't say, rub your eyes. Not good.

Rice Ball Salad is so yummy it has to be bad for you. Perhaps the fried rice part was what tipped me off. If I die early from eating this stuff, it will have been a life well worth living. My two accomplices and I were all so desperate for a taste of rice ball salad, that we ordered the trio of appetizers because it contained an extra serving.
This trio of appetizers/"sampler" (contains Lao Sausages, Fried Spring Rolls and Nam Khao, or rice ball salad). I tried the Spring Rolls first. I found them flavorful, but a little greasy. Just okay. They were a bit better when dipped in the sauce that was served with them, which was really good. A well balanced version of the tangy, peanut-ty sauces typical of cuisine from this part of Asia. This appetizer sampler also contained a sampling of one of the pork sausage that Champa Garden is well-known for. We had not tried it before. For me sausage is really hit and miss, but I liked these. They did not overwhelm me, but the meat was a good consistency and the spices chosen to flavor the filler were solidly balanced. Nothing was fighting with anything else. I'd give them 3 tastebuds out of 5.

We moved on from the apps (stuffed from over-eating the rice ball salad) to a course of soup. Today's choice was the Tom Yum (I think). Word of warning. Ordering soup here is for some reason quite tricky. Previously we had ordered several of the choices on their soup menu, without ever actually getting the right soup. At first we just thought we might have ordered wrong, but it soon became clear that we were just getting something else entirely. For this reason, and the fact that we weren't overly fond of the soups we had sampled here, we stopped ordering soup. The last time we were in, we ordered the tom yum in the hopes that we might finally get it. We emphasized the pronunciation and repeated the order and surprise! We got a tom yum! This is a Thai hot and sour soup. It is far milder and not at all viscous like the more familiar sweet and sour soup one might find on a traditional Cantonese menu. I believe the hot is black pepper and the sour is a broth of stock and vinegar. The Thai use raw mushrooms in their soup and allow them to cook in the hot broth. The result is a slightly crunchy mushroom that is hot on the outside and sometimes still cool on the inside. I wonder if this practice came about because someone realized the soup was too hot so they cooled it with "ice" mushroom caps. However it came about, I am a fan. Soups are not their strong suit here, but this is a good one. I am not fond of the other soups on the menu. At all. So no soup --- or this soup --- is my advice.

Lastly, we needed something to wash down our sticky rice. We chose a standby: the Pineapple Shrimp Clay Pot. It is a sweet, red curry dish that is chock full of pineapple, shrimp and flavored with coconut milk. The sauce is a thick wonderful consistency, almost a gravy, that goes really well over sticky rice.

We also ordered a new dish to try. Champa Garden had a fried catfish special on the menu the very first time there that I loved. (My BH thought it too hot to try and our associate didn't like it much at all. But I loved it.) So in the hopes that this dish was finally on the menu, I ordered the Pad Ped Pla Dook (I know, right?), which is apparently Laotian or Thai for "hunks of fried catfish in some yummy peppery goo" -- the menu says it is "catfish battered and fried in Thai basil curry sauce." I love nothing better than a Thai basil curry sauce done correctly. This sauce was pretty good, although not exactly as I remembered. It had the classic combination of basil and sweet curry that they do so well, as well as a coconut base very similar to the pineapple chicken. Might be a little too similar, not sure. It was hotter, with a fairly peppery (black, not red) after-heat to it. I liked it but I can't say I loved it so much I would have to try it again. Catfish gets soggy fast, so it doesn't really keep as a leftover and it's a lot to eat with the other dishes.

We have not tried any of their desserts. Perhaps some day I will do an entire column of desserts missed at various restaurants. But not today.
So, like I said. Try and find it. If you do, you'll not be sorry. And you have to order the rice ball salad.

Champa Garden
Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese Cuisine
2102 8th Avenue (east 21st Street)
Oakland, CA 94606
Price: Inexpensive
Dining Time: without travel (not near anything) easily done in an hour.
Table Size: Cramped - adequate (each table has a very large condiment tray, that uses up almost half the dining space)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

LEVENDE EAST - Third time's the charm

So, this place has been the location for several restaurants I have enjoyed over the past ten plus years, including the Old Ratto's annex where sandwiches and spaghetti were served to piano music on Wednesdays. The ghosts of the old deli are visible nowhere, as the high ceilings and swanky decor have all but obliterated the antique sensibilities of a turn of the century delicatessen. Since being home to Ratto's, it became a restaurant I much liked, by the name of LMNO. Then it became a joint called "Rex" and lastly "Levende East." Levende West, located in SF has recently closed -- I can only assume it has fallen victim to the recession, like so many other establishments have recently.

Levende East is a really attractive space, open and with the high ceilings previously mentioned covered in large eye-catching artwork. The furniture is black, and the upholstery dark. It gives off an urban swank vibe that I rather like. The food here is good, although portions have been an issue of occasion. Their cheese plate was originally so stingy on the servings that I made a bit of a noise about it, which I rarely do. It was as though someone had accidentally left cheese shavings on an empty plate. I do believe they've addressed that issue at this point however.

My BH and I eat here frequently, although a bit less so since Oakland has opened so many new and inviting places to choose from at which to dine of a weekday. With so many options, it's hard to know which to pick for lunch! Friday it was Levende's turn, and we decided to return and sample whatever was current on the menu these days.

To our delight they had several new drinks on the menu, and since it was Friday, it seemed fitting to order one. I had something entitled the "Popcorn Shower" which apparently has nothing at all to do with popcorn. The name apparently comes from a story the bartender heard about a custom somewhere that entails giving people popcorn showers to make them laugh, or to cause them to be happy. He thought his new concoction delightful and thus the name. Attentuated, but amusing

enough. The drink itself was delicious, a refreshing blend of blackberry and citrus that I found enjoyable. My husband had a cocktail called the "Hemingway" (so many cocktails are named after Papa H these days) and it was very lemony. A bit dry, not overly sweet, but generally refreshing.

For our main course (no apps today) I chose the grilled cheese with tomato soup, and my husband had a cup of the tomato soup with a dish described as "Yucatan-style Prawns in Achiote Broth." Neither of us has a clue as to what achiote broth may be, but the prawns were really good. I found the sauce had a peppery tomato quality, and though it was peppery, he did not find it too hot to consume.

I thought my tomato soup was perfection. I have to say I really really love the soups here. They are almost as good as Franklin Square at perfecting the liquid food format. The accompanying grilled cheese has morphed from my last visit, when it was a trendy, fancy-plated mini-sandwich in four tiny pieces, to what it is now --- a large sourdough encrusted, full-on manwich. It was good, but I could only eat half of it. I think I missed the tiny bite-wiches that one could dip daintily into the soup. But it was still excellent.

We passed on dessert today to head back to the office. I couldn't help but notice the place was pretty empty on a Friday, in spite of the large crowds outside at the weekly Farmer's Market. It's worrisome to see crowds down at good establishments. I'd hate to see Oakland lose one of it's strong offerings.

Levende East
827 Washington Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Price: Expensive
Dining time: Can do a lunch hour easily, but their drinks are worth a linger.
Table size: Adequate - expansive

Monday, August 10, 2009

TAMARINDO ANTOJERIA - Mexican Tapas in the heart of Old Oakland

Several years ago now, this little gem opened up deep in the heart of what we now call Old Oakland. I do not know the story of its inception firsthand, and so cannot attest to the truth of it, but it goes something like this --- the son or daughter of the cook set her up in this place so she could "do what she does best" and provide her home-cooked treats for the world at large.

To whatever degree that is true, whoever talked this woman into cooking for the world-at-large, did us all an enormous favor. Whether or not she is any one's mother (and I'm guessing she is), she cooks everything "con amor" with pronounced and incredible attention to detail of flavor.

I have been enjoying the rewards of this family's decision to open their restaurant in Oakland for years. I wholeheartedly recommend you do as well. On this particular occasion, my BH and I were starving , so we ordered a lot. The plates are small, and I actually prefer it that way, as it allows for a wider range of pleasures. I would prefer to share tapas-style mini-plates over large plates any day. The more I can sample at any one sitting, the better. If you prefer large plates, they do have those too.

We began with the guacamole. This is creamy, blended, fresh and subtly spiced. Nothing overwhelms the flavor of the avocado, yet it is neither bland nor too spicy. It is the perfect guacamole. Followed shortly by the daily ceviche. This dish changes daily (although it usually is a perfection of shrimpy goodness), as it must be made with the freshest of ingredients.

The shrimp version pictured here, is my favorite ceviche. It is, like everything here, in a word fresh. Fresh flavors, fresh ingredients. Consistently a perfect blend of dressing and fish that never has that fishy taste that has kept me off ceviche in the past. How far I've come since I scarfed down my first sushi plate of raw tuna.. but that's another story.

After we downed our ceviche we shared several plates of their one-of-a-kind mini dishes. The first we had was new. It is the Tostaditas de Tinga Poblana, which the menu describes as small tostadas with black beans, chipotle chicken, cabbage, fresh avocado and crema (cream). Being new to the menu, we hadn't tried these yet, but frankly, this place has yet to make a misstep.

This dish was no exception. The flavors were new too, with the smoky sensibilities of the chipotle complementing the light creamy barbeque sauce that the chicken was seated nicely atop. My BH was worried that it might be too spicy, but the owner is fairly careful about leaving the heat of the spice to the peppers. (One can order a delicious assortment of hot roasted peppers here, from jalapeno, serreno to habanero and they are very good about warning you about those habanero). If one likes the spice, on request they will provide a delicious assortment of home made salsa that will heat up any dish nicely.
The food is nothing if not consistent, and we have found that the dishes that we
love never fail to replicate the good memories we have of them. That which bears repeating is always repeated to perfection. Our repeats today were the mulita, and the Tacos de Cameron. The mulita is a beef and cheese tostada sandwich. It is simple and really good. Slices of steak broiled and sliced, served between two home-made corn tortillas and covered in melted cheese. A meat-lover's delight. After the mulita we had the tacos de cameron, which are a shrimp taco. Perfectly prepared, these are fresh and tasty as well.

The shrimp taco is pictured below. The shells are deep fried and filled with fresh shrimp cooked and dressed with a light shredded lettuce and tomato salad, topped off with grated cheese.

We didnt' have it today, but when it's on the menu, the corn soup here may be the best creamed corn soup in the world. (Although Pican's corn soup with chunks of bacon in it is a pretty strong contender). The Tamarindo corn soup is delicate and perfectly balanced. It is like eating a soft, yellow cloud.
One last mention, they serve a drink here, agua fresca. The drink changes flavors daily, usually they offer tamarindo (tamarind), pineapple, watermelon and cucumber. I have had all but the tamarind (though it is the restaurant's namesake, I'm just not a fan). My favorite is the pineapple, but all the agua fresca are really good. Agua fresca is mostly water, with the "essence" of the fruit or other ingredient blended in. Maybe a 10% mix? Hard to tell, but the muddled fruit addition to the water makes it incredibly refreshing, without being overly sweet or overwhelming.
Definitely a place worth checking out. They are open for lunch every day but Monday.
Bon Appetit!
Tamarindo Antojeria
468 8th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Price: Moderate to Expensive (tapas always depends on quantity ordered. Dishes range $10-12 approximate)
Dining Time: a bit lengthy for lunch, but not terribly so. Staff is responsive so if in a crunch, just let them know
Table size: cramped. Not enough space for dishes.