Friday, September 4, 2009

PHNOM PENH HOUSE - Oakland's Cambodian Gem

We recently returned to one of the other of my favorite Asian cuisine options in Oakland. This place is phenomenal. The food here is authentic, fresh and delicious, as evidenced by the crowds and the lines out the door after twelve of a weekday.

On this occasion we brought along our PFC, so were able to order all our favorite dishes. It was hot out, so we began by ordering the Green Papaya Salad with Shrimp. This dish consists of shredded cabbage, carrot and papaya. It is this really light combination with just the right amount of acidity. The shrimp are moist and perfectly cooked. It's the perfect chilled dish to offset the oppression of summer heat. I imagine that since it gets hot in Southeast Asia as well, the folks who brought this cuisine over already know that, but it's still a treat for us Oakland natives on a sticky hot summer day.

Even when it is hot out, I am pretty much incapable of avoiding spicy, so we followed the lovely light salad with an order of their Skewered Beef sticks. The beef is pretty much a straightforward barbeque, cooked on the tiny bamboo skewers. They are accompanied by a light dipping sauch, tangy and perfectly seasoned to mesh with the smoky barbeque of the beef. It is really moist, and I love the smoky flavor. Not sure what is used to spice the meats, but I love it.

After the beef, we shared a platter of the Barbeque Chicken, which is lovely smoky chicken slices served crispy and moist with a bit of vegetables, also accompanied with the traditional light dipping sauce; the Shrimp with Green Curry a lovely carrot, greenbean, mushroom, curry and shrimp dish which is extremely spicy. I love it, but this dish is not for those of you who are faint of heart. To try something new, we ordered their Basil Fried Rice with Prawns. It seemed a good choice to accompany the other dishes and give us a bed for the magnificent curry sauce that the shrimp comes swimming in. We had not tried this before, and the gentle hint of basil that permeated the fried rice was really tasty and aromatic.

This restaurant is simple, unpretentious (although I love myself a pretentiously delicious meal on occasion) and it is decorated modestly in a fairly traditional scheme. The restaurant is open for lunch daily, although I believe it is closed Mondays. There is also a dinner menu, but I've never been for dinner, so cannot attest to the offerings.
One thing we did not have on this occasion, but which you should try at some point, is a sampling of their fried bananas with ice cream. Not sure what the official name of that dish is, but I have never, ever had anything quite as light as those fried bananas. They come in a batter that is flecked with something that might be poppy... who knows, who cares, they are delicious. Light banana-y balls of hot airy yum-tastic dessert. So good. Lightest tasting fried food I have ever had.
Prices are extremely reasonable, this is a great deal for a meal. Parking sucks, be prepared to drive around before finding a spot.
Bon Appetit!
Phnom Penh House
251-8th Street
Oakland, CA 94607

Price: Inexpensive
Dining Time: Can get out in an hour if needs be. If you arrive at noon, however, there can be a wait. If time is an issue, get there by 11:45am
Table size: Adequate, but can get cramped if all dishes arrive at once

Sunday, August 30, 2009

NINKIMONO - First class Sushi in a strip mall?

Well, apparently the answer is yes. Almost a year or so ago, the BH and I decided to finally try the little restaurant inside the strip mall very near our home. It used to be a Hof Brau and had been recently re-modeled into a Sushi joint. We saw the "Grand Opening" sign, but the BH was really intrigued by the "all-you-can-eat" flyer that had been sent to our home. Since limitless food is like a siren song for this man, I agreed to accompany him to the restaurant as an experiment in dining.

We found the interior of the restaurant, called Ninkimono, pleasantly surprising. Classy, sleek and black, it was more San Francisco than it was "strip mall Newark." The tables are all equipped with gas flames, that are used in the preparation of Shabu-shabu. We had never tried this before, but since at our first visit it was part of the "all you can eat" offer, we tried it on our first visit. Diners are brought large plates of vegetables and meats, intended to be cooked in a tub of boiling broth. It was tasty, but nothing that really rocked my boat. Next we tried a variety of the fancier sushis. We didn't come close to finishing any of it, of course.

On the next visit, they were no longer offering the carte blanche all you can eat meal. They had altered the menu to an extremely confusing set of choices for various fixed prices, some of which included the Shabu-shabu. The "all you can eat" menu seemed much too prone to abuse, and given the amount of food wasted on our first visit, an entirely understandable decision on the part of management on many levels. It had to be much to expensive to keep indefinitely. However, it did seem that they were still feeling their way as to what amounts to charge for what sort of meal. To date, I am never sure when we go if the menu / cost options will have changed, again.
At least for my darling BH and I, that initial all you can eat experience allowed us a really unique opportunity to sample types and preparations of sushi rolls and specialty dishes we would never have otherwise tried. Ever since, we've kept quite a few of them on our regular menu when we dine there.

The last time we went, we ordered several of the dishes we had learned to love on our first visit. We began with traditional salad and miso. The miso was okay. The salad had the dressing flavor just right, but the lettuce was drenched. Unfortunate beginning, but we just won't order either again.

Next we had one of our favorites, Beef Carpacchio (a platter of paper thin slices of barely cooked red meat and a lovely sort of "au jus" to dip it in). It is really a lovely blending of the flavor of good red meat, and the slight hint of juices that enhance that flavor. I really love this dish. Way more interesting than the Shabu-shabu and of course, I don't have to try to figure out how to cook it myself.

We next received our Snow Rolls (a lovely tempura covered mess of crab meat and tasty goodness), which are a solid sushi roll smothered in a crunchy and light fried tempura batter topping. At least that is what it appears to be, I haven't actually asked the sushi chef. The snow rolls were quickly followed by a tray of bacon wrapped scallops. These were good, the bacon was fresh and I love a good bacon wrapped anything, but they weren't extraordinary. But that sorta figures, since it's not a dish normally associated with sushi. We finished off the meal with an Orange Blossom Roll and a traditional Spicy Tuna Roll.

Since the BH doesn't really do the "spicy" thing, the latter was mostly for me. I have to say it was very well done. This guy is a solid sushi master. The tuna roll was nice and spicy, without overpowering the flavor of the tuna too much. But the Orange Blossom was a real delight. Presented as petals of an orange blossom (of course), the dish consists of several large pieces of salmon slabbed over rice with some tuna. The flavors were more subtle and unusual than any other sushi roll I have tried. There was a hint of orange peel, but it wasn't bitter it was sweet. It was extremely light and delicate, as though the dish were flavored with the "essence" of orange and not the juice itself. Outstanding dish.

Other dishes we love, but didn't have on this occasion are the Godzilla Roll, or the Raiders Roll. The latter is not a roll, but is scallops cooked hot in foil, wrapped in something delicious. I can't remember all the ingredients, so will update later, I just know I love it.

I think that if this restaurant ever figures out it's own marketing, it will be outstanding. I believe they have a first class sushi chef here, but maintaining a restaurant of this quality in the suburbs where people are used to eating a fast-food burger more often than not may be a challenge, particularly in this climate. I hope they make it.

5790 Jarvis Avenue
Newark, CA 94560
Price: Moderate - Expensive (as with tapas, depends on how much is ordered)
Dining time: Could easily get out in an hour
Table size: Adequate for food served