Considering that Adam took over 130 pictures of London restaurants we ate at, it was only natural that we start chronicling our thoughts and opinions about the food we eat. We've totally become accidental foodies. It all started out when Sheila started calling Adam "the human trash compactor"; since he eats almost anything. But somewhere along the way we started having discussions about food and seeking out culinary adventures when on travel. We bring a unique perspective to this arena as we're both vegetarians (no meat, poultry, or fish). I suspect we will both have varying opinions on the food, and hope to not only have a record for posterity, but provide some fun, useful if not amateur insight.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What's the big fuss with Nopa?

Nopa is located at the corner on Divisadero and Hayes, north of the Panhandle. According to their website, they serve urban rustic food and specialize in organic wood-fired cuisine. As you would expect in SF, they source all ingredients from local purveyors. I wonder, do SF restaurants even need to say that anymore? I mean, is that the norm? I digress, the fact is that Nopa serves as the late night locale of choice for SF master chefs. It's ambiance is noisy upscale casual with a large ground floor dining area, expansive bar, and small mezzanine dining space. The clientele range from young professionals, to old money, to hipsters. Reservations can be made one month in advance; I would recommend making one because it's a tough ticket even with all the other dining options in SF.

We arrived a few mins before our 7:45pm reservation and decided to wait by the bar. The drinks are stiff - specializing in gins, bourbons, and rums - so order wisely. Our table was up on the mezzanine level, with a great view of the downstairs dining space. We informed our waitress that we were vegetarian and she promptly recommended several options to choose from. Overall, service was mediocre, I almost felt like the wait staff was just going through the motions rather than being attentive of the patrons. In any event, let's get to the food.

A few mins after being seated, we were given an amouse bouche of two apple slices with mint herbed yogurt. Simple but sumptuous, the apples were fresh and crispy, the yogurt earthy and slightly salty. A nice touch and a great way to start, it changes nightly as well.

First off, we ordered the fried brussels sprouts with lemon and pecorino. They arrived piping hot to the table and looked very appealing. However, I felt that they were way too salty - perhaps it was the natural qualities of the brussels sprouts, or the lemon juice, or the pecorino cheese - but I could only stomach a few bites. Sheila on the other hand loved this dish and felt there was a great balance of acidity from the lemon, saltiness from the cheese, earthiness from the sprouts. We agreed to differ in views and she went on to finish the dish.

Second, we ordered the warm goat's cheese, crostini, arugula, and shaved persimmons. the cheese was served in a small ramekin and the greens and fruit made up a side salad. Now this was a well balanced dish - spread the warm goat's cheese on the warm crostini, top of off with a shaved persimmon and arugula. It was different from all angles - warm yet cold, savory yet sweet, cream yet crunchy, fresh yet cooked. Okay now I understand why the big fuss about Nopa. The food is darn good, and more importantly...darn interesting.

Next, we decided to share the Moroccan vegetable tagine with almonds and lemon yogurt. The kitchen was kind enough to serve the dishes separately, which was another nice touch. The vegetables included eggplant, tomatoes, squash, and carrots - cooked perfectly Moroccan style in a tagine and in Nopa wood-fired oven. The spices were not overpowering so you could actually taste each vegetable, but hints of garlic, rosemary, oregano, and chili did come through. The cool yogurt was a perfect agent to quell those brief instances of heat. The almond gave an added element of texture and crunch, but I felt that there weren't enough of them in the dish. Portion size was just enough to share given that we ordered two starters.

Last, we ordered two desserts. Sheila opted for the sopaipillas with spiced hot chocolate. Basically fried dough covered in cinnamon and sugar. Each piece was light and fluffy and tasted quite good when dipped in the spicy bittersweet chocolate. However on it's own, Sheila noted that the sopaipillas tasted like they were fried in the same oil as the brussels sprouts. I didn't initially notice it, but after she made the comment I couldn't get passed it.

I opted for the pumpkin souffle cake with sage caramel and buttermilk sherbet. Like many of the dishes, this dessert had great balance and could have almost passed for a savory meal. The buttermilk sherbet was creamy but not overly sweet. The sage-infused caramel brought rustic element to the dish. The cake itself was a bit dense for my liking, but it's warm spicy undertones made up from the lake of airiness.

Our bill, including drinks was around $80, not bad considering the level of cuisine. Final verdict....I would come back for the atmosphere, drinks, and appetizers. Note that the pickings are slim for vegetarian entrees. However, the bar scene is happening and there's more room to graze than at Beretta or Wayfare Tavern. Let me know what YOU think?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

ice creamy overload at mr & mrs misc...

Now there's another boutique ice cream shop in town. It's call Mr & Mrs Miscellaneous and it's located in of all places, the Dogpatch. Co-owners Anabelle Topacio and Ian Flores have been churning out classic American flavors with several twists. They have been open for 1+ years and the recent features on both Food Network and Cooking Channel have taken this unassuming spot to the next level of popularity.

Sheila and I have been meaning to try this place for a few months and on a Indian Summer afternoon this past October we made the trip over to the Dogpatch via Muni from the Mission. The shop is a converted warehouse storefront with large glass roll up doors and an open space plan. We we arrived, the line was about 10 deep, but by the time we sat down to eat our ice cream, the line had swelled to 25 plus! Mr & Mrs Miscellaneous makes their ice cream daily in one batch; once they're out, the shop closes. Very SF-esque, think an ice cream version of Una Pizza Napoletana!

The flavors on tap on that Sunday were exciting - we tasted the salted mango, lemon verbena before settling on jasmine green tea and rosemary pistachio. The portions were very large - Sheila's junior at $3.25 and my single at $4.25 - easily could have been shared and several others in the shop were doing. Starting with the jasmine green tea - Sheila described it as creamy and aromatic. Typically green tea can be bitter, but this was delicate. It reminded her of an ice cream version of bubble tea from Fantasia, Sheila's favorite pearl tea shop in Santa Clara. She gave it two thumbs up.

The rosemary pistachio was equally earthy and aromatic like the jasmine green tea. The rosemary provided the a great element of surprise - like smelling a nicely balanced Pottery Barn candle. There were pistachio were toasted and provide a nice chunky element throughout the scoop. However the cream, and by virtue the sugar content, was overpowering at times which made it pretty hard to finish. I enjoy ice cream like most people, but I wish the cream was lighter. In hindsight, I should have gone for the salted mango.

Mr & Mrs Miscellaneous is an inventive shop! The quirky flavor combinations will keep the patrols coming to this gentrified neighborhood. In Sheila's mind, when compared with Humphry Slocombe in the Mission, Mr & Mrs easily is superior because the flavors are delicate and the ice cream is lighter. I would tend to agree, despite the my lukewarm review of the rosemary pistachio.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

is pizzeria delfina the best in sf?

Arguably yes, if you asked Sheila and I. Pizzeria Delfina is the uber-trendy casual establishment of Craig and Anne Stoll (of Delfina and Locand0) that opened in 1995. It serves Neapolitan style pizzas using local and seasonal ingredients. There are six staple pizzas and two or more daily-changing specials. There are two locations -one in Pacific Heights off Fillmore; and the other on 18th St sandwiched between Tartine and Bi-Rite. Over the past 2-1/2 years, we've probably been the both an equal number of times - maybe 8 times in all, but who's counting!

The place is tiny with around 25 total seats inside and a dozen outside and an open plan kitchen. The environment is casual (more so that Flour + Water and Berreta); and the ambiance is simple and functional. It doesn't take reservations, there's a chalkboard as you enter when names can be added, so be prepared to wait around 30-45 mins any day of the week. We've had some luck during odd hours - post lunch rush around 2pm and pre-dinner rush around 5pm. The place to sit is at the sidewalk tables, especially when the weather is cooperative. More often than not we opt for two pizzas instead of sharing a salad and pizza, but to be honest it's that good! The pizzas remain a constant as well - Panna and Margherita.

The panna is a mouth watering take on a pie with tomato sauce, fresh basil, shaved parmesan, and cream. The tomato sauce is fresh, slightly chunky, and a bit sweet. The fresh basil give the dish an aromatic punch; the shaved parmesan (thin strips) provide the salty element; and lastly the cream (sorta like a creme fraise) provides the silky buttery aftertaste. Oh wait, don't forget about the crust - thin, crispy, and always slightly burnt - it's cooked in a wood fire oven at about 700 degrees. The one word that comes to mind with this crust is consistent. You always know what you’re going to get – it’s not paper thin like a cracker and not overly chewy like some other California-style crusts. The perfect blend of crunchy and chewy, we feel this crust is the best in the City. And at $10, this is one of best bargains for high end hipster pizza.

The margherita is a simply prepared with the freshest of ingredients. The tomato sauce and fresh basil (same as the panna pie) are juicy and bursting with flavors. The fior di latte mozzarella is soft, silky, and. This is pie best eaten piping hot from the even – when the sauce is still bubbling, the crust still steaming, and the melted mozzarella falling off the slices. The pizza just doesn’t have the same character after getting cold – of course the same can be said for most others. It’s been a while since I’ve had the margherita pies at Gialina, Zero Zero, and Beretta; but for my money, Pizzeria Delfina takes the prize. The perfect crust, with fresh ingredients, cooked in a wood fired oven, served steaming hot! It is $12.50; which is a reasonably priced when compared to its competitors.

So to conclude, Pizzeria Delfina is the real deal. Sheila and I would recommend this place hands down. The Mission location has the ambiance, but the Pacific Heights location is larger and easier to find parking. Again, the food quality is great at both and the wait may like be the same. Service can be hit or miss (hipster status quo); we’ve had many more positive experiences than negative. Skip the appetizers and dessert (Tartine and Bi-Rite are next door) and order one pie per person. If there are left0vers; don’t fret I’d be glad to help out. Happy eating, from the pizza monster!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Expected more from Brassica in St Helena...

During a day trip up to Napa Valley, Sheila and I decided to try Cindy Pawlcyn's re-invented Brassica in St Helena. It used to be a seafood joint and is now a Mediterranean Kitchen. Inspired by the flavors of Northern Africa, Morocco, and Turkey, Brassica serves a healthy selection of mezzes, small plates, entrees, and a hugh variety of Napa Valley wines.

Located in the heart of St Helena, Brassica is warm and inviting with several distinct eating areas. The decor is French country, shabby chic with a subtle wine country references. The host and wait service was rather friendly and efficient; a pleasant surprise given that Sheila and I often get the "minority" treatment. This evening, we opted for sampling of mezzes, rather than a large meal - baba ghanoush, sheared haloumi, eggplant fries, and the dessert sampler ("five easy pieces").

The baba ghanoush (oven roasted pureed eggplant) was served cold with crispy pita chips and sesame seeds. It was a standard dish, but nothing spectacular. The eggplant was fresh and earthy, the sesame seeds added a nice crunch, and the pita chips were drizzled with sea salt and spice powder. I preferred to eat it with the table bread, which was a soft and warm than the chips, which tasted over-crisped.

The seared haloumi (salty goat and sheep's milk cheese from Cyprus) was served sizzling hot in small skillet. It was seasoned with red chili flakes, oregano, and garlic - and in our estimation over seasoned. All you could taste were the spices - which was a shame because haloumi has such a salty flavor and distinctive layered texture - it could have been mozzarella for all we knew.

The eggplant fries were served with a zatar yoghurt, which was underwhelming. The fries were under-seasoned, needed both salt and pepper to wake it up. Sheila felt like the zatar yoghurt tasted like pine sol, perhaps because of the added mint and spices. The fries themselves did not hold up their crispiness and basically tasted liked lightly breaded eggplant sticks.

The dessert sampler was by far the best dish of the evening. The five small taster included chocolate pot de creme, baklava, honey fig ice cream, hard nougat candy, and ricotta tart. Each bite had distinct taste - the baklava had a traditional earthy flavor (the most Middle Eastern tasting bite of the evening); the pot de creme was cool and bittersweet (a great French influenced bite); the ice cream was sweet and super creamy (a California fresh figs and honey definitely came through); the tart had a crunchy crust and soft (not overly sweet but surprisingly light) custard; and the nougat candy (chunky walnuts gave a depth of textures).

Neither Sheila and I were fond of the meal. This is of course because of high water mark for Mediterranean food is Gem Restaurant in Islington, North London. Perhaps because this was a Middle Eastern inspired California restaurant and not a traditional one. However more so than that each dish was an extreme; some were under-seasoned and others were over-seasoned. If in the area again, unfortunately I would pass on Brassica.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

delfina...ten years later

Delfina is great and has been for over a decade, but it is still hip and does it still have star power? My answer is...YES. There's a large wood entry door like there should be a bouncer out front, the dining room is cramped, the bar area is small, the ambient noise carries throughout, and reservations are tough to come by. Why would anyone want to go there? Of course, for the FOOD!

Delfina launched the Mission gourmet ghetto scene in 1998 with homestyle cooking, freshly prepared pastas, locally sourced ingredients, and a daily changing menu based on the season. Owner and chef Craig Stoll appeared on the cover of Food & Wine Magazine in 2001 as one of the top ten new chefs in the US. Seven years later he received the James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific. That says it all, right?

Sheila and I went to Defina over ten years ago on one of our early dates. I can recall how difficult it was to get a reservation, hence the reason it wasn't our first date. We were seated in the back corner of the dark dining area surrounded by an SF foodie crowd. It was a great night for certain, however neither of us truly comprehended how great the food was back then until we visited Delfina recently. So on an Indian Summer Friday night in Sept, we made the trip back to this much heralded Italian-inspired California trattoria.

The space appeared much larger then we first remember with approx 70 seats and a small bar area. There are locally created art piece hanging throughout the space and dimly light pendant lights over each table. The space is warm and inviting, which is exactly what they're going for. The waiter warmed greeted a few mins after we were seated and after letting him know that we were vegetarian, he jumped right in to explain the entire menu, dish by dish. This was great touch because it allowed us to hear the best dishes from both his and the kitchen's perspective since the menu changes every night based on the ingredients in season. After ordered a couple of glasses of recommended wine (Barbera and Timorasso), we decided on our dishes.

Fresh stretched mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes and basil oil - This was the kitchen's take on a caprese salad. The heirloom tomatoes were firm, juicy and sweet; felt like no other tomato I've eaten before. The dish was gently seasoned with some fresh ground pepper which grounded the dish. A handful of arugula added another layer of earthiness and texture. The mozzarella, made and stretched in house, was light, soft, and airy. And it was the mozzarella and tomatoes that were in perfect harmony - saltiness of the cheese balanced with the ripened sweetness of the tomatoes. They even split the portion for us before serving which was a great touch. The kitchen recommended this dish because this season's supply of tomatoes and basil have been the best they have seen in several years. Both of us agreed and we would order it again!

Spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, basil - Cooked al dente, this wasn't an overpowering dish of tomato sauce or pasta; both were mixed to perfection. The dish has a lot of sweet undertones due to the tomatoes. You could taste the slight flavors of garlic and evoo, but neither were meant to be the star of this dish. The plate was filling by not food coma status, like your run of the mill spaghetti dishes. In fact the table right next to us liked it so much that they order another one half-way through their meal. Sheila felt the same way and would order it again. Note this pasta dish takes 25 mins to cook because it's the only hard pasta they have on the menu; all others freshly made to order. It comes in two sizes - side dish or main course. Order the main course side at $13, it's actually just the right amount.

Pansotti stuffed with ricotta and dandelions served over a walnut cream sauce - A delightful walnut cream sauce that was infused with lemon. It gave the dish an overall citrus/acidic tone and also kept the cream sauce very light. The stuffed pastas with ricotta and dandelions was freshly made and you could tell. Soft and moist, each bite just melted in my mouth. I had a tough time tasting the dandelions, perhaps because the walnut and lemon were so prominent. Of course my palate is not as discerning so don't take my word for it. All in all there was good balance - saltiness from the ricotta, earthiness from the walnuts, zest from the lemon, and creaminess from the sauce. At $17, this was a good value selection. Although I have to say that the portion size was a bit smaller than expected. That just mean I had room for dessert!

Profiteroles with espresso gelato, warm chocolate sauce, and candied almonds - Three roles were served side by side on crisp white plate. Sheila's first bite was of the espresso gelato and almonds which were very strong. My first bite was the profiteroles with chocolate sauce and it was rather bitter. However eaten together the dish worked well - sweetness from the almonds, bitterness from the chocolate, creaminess from the gelato, and crunchiness from the profiteroles. I would have preferred a bit more warmed to balance out the ice cream, perhaps warming the profiteroles? After a while all you could taste was the ice cream and the dish ended up being pretty heavy; I struggled to finish the last one. There was a apples and honey dessert available for Rosh Hashanah. Alas I was swayed by the chocolate on the menu; Sheila would have preferred to order this; let's hope they have it next time.

Ten years later, Delfina remains the gourmet ghetto stalwart. All around it, there are liked minded restaurants popping up from Farina and Bar Tartine to Flour + Water and Frances. However, it continues to play to sold out crowds each night with a superb quality of food. We'll be back for sure, just not after 10 years again! Who wants to come with us the next time?!?!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

a culinary visit to saigon...sandwich...

In an indistinct storefront on Larkin St in the Tenderloin, sits Saigon Sandwich. Don't laugh when you see this place. In fact, you probably wouldn't even notice the shop if it wasn't for the line out front. There are no tables, credit cards, or plates. It won't be found in Frommers, Lonely Planet, of Foder's; but word on the street will get you there.

Saigon Sandwich is run by three middle-aged Vietnamese ladies who spoke but a little english. One runs the cash register; the other the bread; meats, and tofu; and the last the final fixings/assembly. Together they put out what are considered the best banh mi sandwiches in SF. The sandwiches come in pork, chicken, and tofu. We naturally went for two tofu banh mis.

Service was slow and the small store was crammed full. on the Saturday afternoon that we showed up, someone had a 200 sandwich party order that back up things further. After waiting about 20 mins, one of the ladies called out our order. At that very moment, the only two chair at the window counter opened up and we grabbed them.

The sandwich was served on a 6" French baguette that was crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. The juicy marinated tofu was glazed with sweet and sour sauce. The carrots and cilantro were freshly cut - tasted like they came from the Asian market up the street. However, it lacked the spiciness that typical of banh mi sandwiches. There were a few green peppers sprinkled in, but they were few and far between. With one collective bite, the sandwich tasted great - incorporating chewy bread, crispy carrots, citrusy cilantro, and juicy tofu. However the tofu and veggies were not evenly distributed which meant some bites were bread w/ tofu and others were bread w/ veggies. My advice - take it home; fix the fixings; slice it in half, eat it the right way.

All in all, a solid sandwich that I would go back to eat. But it's not a place I would take out of town visitors looking for the best of SF. I feel like hitting up the nom nom truck is a better "experience" than Saigon Sandwich. That's my take and I'm sticking to it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

pasta? in palo alto...

This is definitely our restaurant, Sheila has been going here for 9 years and she's been taking me there since I moved to the Bay Area in '02. We've celebrated many a birthday and anniversary here because it simply brings back great memories.

Located on University Ave in Palo Alto, it often goes unnoticed amongst to eclectic mix of other restaurants. The funny thing is that storefronts have changed overnight given the economic downturn. However Pasta? has remained open for 10 years now. The reason is the food - Southern Italian fare prepared with authentic and simple recipes. There is mix of soups and salad; an array of tube and filled pastas; and decadent desserts. Having been to Italy, Pasta? is not that far off from it's roots. For this review, I'm going to focus on our last orders - ravioli della casa, chocolate souffle, and tiramisu.

The ravioli della casa consists of handmade fresh ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach in pink sauce. The ravioli is cooked al dente and the filling is melt in your mouth good! The flavors of both compliment each other with being overpowering. The pink sauce (blend of tomatoes, cream, red onion, and basil) provides a perfect, slightly sweet base for the bed of ravioli. Don't get me wrong it is smothering in pink sauce, but I have often found myself wiping the plate clean with their complementary sourdough bread. The portion is just right for allowing room for dessert. This is my favorite pasta dish and Italian restaurant outside of the original.

The chocolate souffle at Pasta? is a 3" diameter chocolate cake with molten chocolate center served alongside two small scoops of vanilla ice cream. Once you cut into the cake the wonderful dark chocolate oozes out. The cake is somewhat bitter, which is good because the ice cream provide the right amount of sweetness. Based on it's size, I would recommend sharing it. All in all, it's nice end cap this meal.

As noted on the menu, the tiramisu is made in house. The layers of marscapone, rum-infused ladyfinger cake, and coffee are perfectly balanced. It's not overly sweet or rummy, which allows for each ingredient to shine in it's own way. I have to say that the last time we went, the bottom layer had excess moisture, probably because of settling. There was a dollop of whipped cream, which was unnecessary, so we ended up taking it off. Along with the ravioli, this dessert is part of our normal staple of orders.
Over the years, Pasta? has gone through a couple of renovations and even expanded to include an adjacent bar area, which has meant a steady increase in prices. The interior has gone from a sleepy farmhouse to a pseudo lounge. However, one thing that hasn't changed is the quality of the food. Now at $15.45; inflation is out of control as this was $8.95 nine years ago. However its still a great by when compared to other Palo Alto joints. Forget the other fancy storefronts along University Ave and stop into Pasta? for some neighborhood Southern Italian food. Like us, I hope it will be memorable.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

arabic fusion at saha in sf...

After watching the glowing reviews about Saha on a recent episode of Check Please Bay Area we made sure to add it to our ongoing "restaurants to try" list. We decided that the most opportune time to try this Yemenese Arabic inspired joint was my upcoming bday dinner.

Being located in the Tenderloin is one thing, but this place resided in the indistinct Hotel Carlton on Sutter between Larkin and Hyde. Who would have thunk it for a place with a 26 rating for food by Zagat! Despite the immediate surroundings we walked in to the restaurant on a cold Friday evening with open minds and empty stomachs.

The ambiance is casual romantic - colorful light fixtures, red sheer drapes, dark wood tables, and Mediterranean music playing in the background. The crowd was a mix of couples and young families, definitely off the beaten path for tourists. The menu is chalked full of wonderful sounding mezes, salads, entrees, desserts. Even more, a majority of their dishes can be made vegan! After consulting with our waiter, we narrowed down the order to three mezes and one dessert. Note they also have a vegetarian pre-fix menu available for $35 per person (one meze, one entree, and one dessert).

Avocado tomato tabbouleh salad ($10) - I felt that too it was too tangy, but Sheila thought it had the perfect balance of flavors. I couldn't taste the actual tabbouleh and was hoping for some texture / crunch; perhaps some toasted pita chips. Sheila surprisingly was not bothered by the abundance of avocados, which she doesn’t typically enjoy. We both agreed that this surprisingly filling dish as a starter salad. Sheila would definitely order this dish again (it was the special of the evening), but I would probably try one of their other salads because they all sounded great.

Saha’s ravioli ($12) - Four large moons of ravioli stuffed with shitake mushrooms and mint in a sweet mango sauce. Although rather sweet, there was a distinct spiciness that came from the addition of red chili flakes. Dispite the size of each ravioli, this overall diss was actually light. The ravioli was well cooked (not al dente as you’d expect from an Italian version) and the stuffing well seasoned. A complete bit including the ravioli and sauce was a great ying and yang balance of savory and sweet. However, if you just had the sauce itself, it would have tasted like melted spicy mango ice cream. Interesting to say the least and worth a repeat order.

Malfufa ($12) – Baked phyllo stuffed with potatoes, sage, garlic, and olive oil. This was essentially a circular bake samosa; a good savory dish in flavor but with the thick wrapper and the potato quantity this came across as very starchy. There was also a leban and mustard sauce underneath the malfufa. It was quite tangy, but there just wasn’t enough of it. We both would not other this again since there are similar phyllo dishes that include more veggies.

Knaffe ($8) - Shredded phyllo bake that was drizzled with honey and nuts. Sound great, right? However in the middle it had this melted salty Arabic cheese, which totally killed the dish. It’s the equivalent of using cheddar cheese in a cheesecake. A mascarpone or cream cheese of sorts would have been much better compliment for this baklava-esque dish. I have to admit that our server recommended it, so bottom line is go with your instinct when it comes to dessert!

All in all, Saha is a nice Mediterranean restaurant with a huge selection of vegetarian dishes. It’s one of those places that you could order something new each time, which is probably what will do next go around. Yes, there will be a next time as beside the awful dessert, Sheila and I have been craving a Gem replacement, and Saha might be it. For those who know of our London days, Gem was the local Kurdish spot that we frequented at least 20 times in two years! On that, check out Saha and be adventurous with your order.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

smitten ice cream, made to order from scratch!

Ice cream made from scratch to order; how's that possible? Robyn Sue Goldman spent a couple of years with her engineering friends creating a machine that would allow for the creation ice cream on the spot. She then sold it off her Smitten Ice Cream food cart before opening up a pop-up store in the heart of Hayes Valley. Running on liquid nitrogen, the "kelvin" as it's nicknamed, makes unusual flavor combinations in 60 seconds! Sheila and I have come to appreciate the distinct SF food culture that is personified by the few words - fresh, organic, locally sourced, made to order, underground hipster, inventive, and anti-culture! Smitten fits that notion very well.

On a surprisingly sunny Sunday afternoon in SF, Sheila and I decided to give Smitten a try. On this day, the line was about 10 deep, not too bad. Whilst waiting, we perused the exterior chalkboard menu for the flavors on tap that day - Vanilla w/ Almond Toffee, TCHO Dark Chocolate, Chai, and Plum Brown Sugar. All starting at $4.25 for a small. Yes I know not cheap, but this is SF after all; haven't you seen our house prices?

The line moved very quickly and after 5 mins it was time to order. I went for the plum brown sugar in a cup and Sheila decided on the chai in a pizzelle cone. These were not your oridinary Thrifty's flavors. We watched as a young lady poured the cream, then brown sugar, then plum puree in a stainless steel mixing canister. "Kelvin" was turned on, out came the liquid nitrogen, and less than a minute later the ice cream was ready. We made our way over the upside down milk crate seating area (those familiar with SF know this is common) to taste them.

First up the plum brown sugar; it was sweet with a kick of tang. The chunks of plum tasted ripe; the brown sugar added some earthiness, and the cream was super smooth. This was one of the creamiest ice creams I've every had; in fact so creamy that it overpowered the plum and brown sugar. I actually would have preferred more plum chunks and maybe even some spice to help balance out the scoop. Okay so I'm nitpicking as it took me a mere few minutes to polish off the ice cream. However, for $4.25 I was expecting memorable.

Second up the chai; creamy with the essence / flavor of chai. Meaning it was like an ice cream version of the Peets / Starbucks chai without the pop of cloves. Sheila really enjoyed the her scoop as it was not overly sweet, but commented that she'd opt for a more exotic flavor next time. However, her gripe was with the pizzelle cone. Expected to be a crunchy, crispy sugar cone, the pizzelle tasted like a thin soggy shortbread cookie; not the right consistency for her taste.
Is Smitten Ice Cream worth it, you ask? Yes to try once for their never before heard of exotic flavors. With Mr & Mrs Miscellaneous, Mitchell's, Bi-Rite, and Humphry Slocombe also around, it's tough to make a case to limit yourself to one ice cream purveyor!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

chicago’s girl & the goat - did it live up to the hype?

Located in the West Loop along Randolph’s restaurant corridor, Girl & the Goat is Stephanie Izard’s culinary heaven. Yes, she was the Season Four winner of Top Chef and her restaurant, open since 2010, has received several favorable local and national reviews. But would Sheila and I be impressed (remember our lukewarm reviews from SF’s Frances and NYC’s Devi)? YES!

Let’s just say Girl & the Goat is not easy to get in to. A couple of weeks before our trip to Chicago for a family weeding, I decided to try making reservations and was politely told that the next available table was in November! Instead we decided to walk in on a beautiful summer 85 degree Wednesday evening. Given its location, Girl & the Goat is quite a large space with a large bar and lounge area on one side and formal dining area on the other. The open plan kitchen sits at the back. In look and feel, the interior was very reminiscent of the Mission’s Beratta (upscale yet casual hipster) – dark distressed woods, Edison-inspired lamps, leather chairs, copper accents, and granite counters.

We walked up to the bar, ordered some drinks, and decided to stalk patrons seated at the counter hoping that seats would open up. You could tell the friendly mid-west attitude right away, as the bartender spotted me from afar and promptly took our order. Then 15 minutes later a young hostess came up to us and asked if we’d like to be seated. She was looking for a “nice” couple to sit at the bar counter that just opened up. I call it good omens during Sheila’s birthday week! Let the food experience begin. The menu is broken out in three sections – Veggies, Meats, and Fish. Each dish is served tapas style; our waitress noted that two dishes per patrons were about right. Being vegetarian we stuck to the left side of the menu and decided on five overall dishes, including dessert.

Not Campbell’s Bread – broccoli-cheese country loaf served with tomato soup oil and mushroom soup butter. Sounds like a weird combination, right? The warm loaf, infused with cheddar cheese, comes off a salty on first bite. However, that tapers off as soon as the fresh broccoli hits your palate. This was a wonderful and unique take on the normal table bread. The tomato soup oil (olive oil, red onions, garlic, white wine, parmesan cheese, and tomatoes) is used as a spread. Although decent, both of us felt that the olive oil and cheese added a bit too much richness for our taste. The mushroom soup butter (butter, shallots, garlic, thyme, cream, vinegar, and mushrooms) is also used as a spread. We preferred this spread over the tomato one, because the mushrooms and spices add another layer of earthiness. A perfect way to start our meal, we’d order this dish again.

Kohlrabi Salad – fennel, queso de mano, toasted almonds, blueberries, and ginger dressing. This was a wonderfully fresh dish bursting with savory and sweet elements. The fennel provided a clean base for the other ingredients, but it was not lost. The salty queso and ginger dressing were simply balanced by the sweet ripened blueberries and earthy textured almonds. I would have never thought to combine these elements into a dish. Light and crisp, this was a great palate cleanser before our more heavy dishes.

Roasted cauliflowers – pickled peppers, pine nuts, mint, and cauliflower. This was another savory dish that had a great kick of fresh mint. The pine nuts gave an added bite (crunchiness) to what could have been a soft textured dish. The vinegar-infused peppers were actually not overpowering and provided a nice tangy balance. I felt that the cauliflower took on the flavors of the other elements, meaning it was lost in the dish. All in all though, a solid vegetarian dish.

Chickpea Fritters – eggplant & tomato caponata, rich soft mozzarella, fresh chickpeas, and deep fried chickpea cubes. The chickpea cubes (a la thick cut fries) were very fluffy with a smooth texture. The caponata and mozzarella brought back flavors of Italy, while still holding true to the chickpea’s Mediterranean roots. Both the caponata and mozzarella were extremely fresh and seasoned perfectly. The fresh chickpeas, sprinkled on top, were unusual to see and added some solidness to the dish. In comparison to a similar dish we had a SF’s Frances, the Girl & the Goat version blows it away! The components the accompanied the actual fritters were the main stars, which was fine by us!

Chocolate cake with shitake gelato – bittersweet chocolate cake, shitake gelato, toffee, and crème fraiche. The dish had undertones of savory throughout; in fact it was more earthy than anything else. The crumbled bittersweet chocolate cake was placed on top of a layer of crème fraiche and toffee bits. Eaten separately these two ingredients would have been extremes, but together they were very balanced – yin and yang. The gelato was interesting, rich and creamy without being overly sweet.

Girl & the Goat definitely lived up to its hype. The food was fresh and inventive without being pretentious; the ambiance was warm and inviting; and the scene was SF-esque hipster. Sheila and I felt like this was one Chicago restaurant that we would not only recommend, but would come back to. If you can’t get a reservations, simply show up and wait for a seat at the bar counter. It’s worth it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

was the nom nom truck worth the wait?

Food Trucks are now mainstream, especially along the East and West coasts. From appearing on Food Network to holding court in parking lots on Fri and Sat nights, they are everywhere you turn. One of the most well know food truck events is Off the Grid, which rotates locations three evening each week in San Francisco; it has now spun off into East Bay and Peninsula versions. Heck, high-flying IT, social media, bio-pharma, college Greek houses, and wedding parties hire them out for private events!

A few weeks ago on a typical foggy and windy SF summer evening, we went to Off the Grid at Fort Mason with our good friends The Laffs. The scene was epic, 20 food trucks in a horseshoe configuration with a dozen or so food carts filling in the spaces in between. The lines ranged from a few patrons to 50+ deep. We were there to try Nom Nom, the Vietnamese banh mi truck that shot to fame on the Great Food truck Race. Started back in 2009 in Los Angeles by two UCLA grads Misa Chen and Jennifer Green, they recently expanded with a truck in SF.

The line for Nom Nom was the longest at this event, about 45 mins, which gate Sheila and JL time to walk around parking lot and pick up a few goodies to hold us over. As we near the front of the line, we mulled over the displayed menu – a simple mix of banh mi sandwiches and Vietnamese inspired tacos (pork, chicken, and tofu). Sheila and I decided on one tofu banh mi sandwich and two tofu tacos; currently the only two veggie items on the menu.

The banh mi sandwich, served on a 12” Le Boulanger French baguette, was stuffed full of marinated tofu, chopped cilantro, marinated carrots & daikon radish, thinly sliced cucumbers, jalapenos, and mayo. Aside from the tofu, these ingredients are the hallmark of an authentic banh mi sandwich. This was the first time either of us had eaten a banh mi sandwich; was it worth the wait? Absolutely! The fresh veggies were bursting with flavor with the jalapenos providing a great spice level to the dish (unexpected). Carrots, cilantros, and radish are common with Asian cuisine, so the combination built within the sandwich felt very familiar. The tofu was well cooked and seasoned, however it quickly became cold because of the outside elements. Similar to my blog on the Curry Up Now truck, I’d venture to say that the tofu was store bought and not homemade. One minor flaw was the baguette – meant to be crackly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside; ours tasted a bit too chewy. Again, this may have been because of the weather. All in all a great dish that we would order again!

The tacos, served on a double layer corn tortilla, had the same elements as in the above sandwich (tofu, carrots, daikon radish, cilantro, and jalapenos). I have to say though that it tasted dry; realizing afterwards that both sriracha and soy sauce were meant to be added over (bottles were sitting on the truck counter. The double layer tortilla was also too thick for my liking; all I could taste was that. Irrespective of the above points, I understand the concept of making tacos and burritos out of any cuisines (like Indian and Korean BBQ), but that diminishes the authenticity and genuineness of the dish. Yes the dish has to remain eatable by hand, but I have to believe there are easier ways to achieve it then stuffing everything into a taco or burrito. Bottom line, I’d stick with the sandwich.

The Nom Nom Truck definitely filled a niche market back in 2009; I just can’t believe it took us 2+ years to actually try their food. Now with a truck in SF, we’re following them on twitter and look forward to tasting their banh mi sandwiches again soon! You should as well!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

teething pains at vapiano

My quest to try interesting restaurants brought me to Vapiano in Charlotte during a recent business trip. It’s a German chain that is trying to elevate the cafeteria concept to another level as lounge / bar / eatery. On the Wednesday night that I colleague and I walked in, it was packed with young banking types – half of which ordered take-out. Vapiano’s has several restaurants, so I’m sure the concept works otherwise they’d be out of business, right? Unfortunately we went 3 days after grand opening and there’s certainly room for improvement.

You walk in and the hostess hands you a swipe card to compile your tab. There are stations set up throughout the restaurant – pizza, pasta, salad, drinks, dessert – where your card is swiped based on the order. After eating at the pay station the cashier rings up your tab total. Kinda felt like I was back in Freshman year at Hedrick Hall! The food is prepared while you stand at the counter. I mean all made to order – pick your pasta, sauce, veggies, meat and the chef cooks it front of you. The problem is that we were waiting at every station and the previously picked up food got cold.

I started out at the antipasti line partially because there was no line. I decided on bruschetta three-ways (classic tomato & basil, pesto & parmesan, and sundried tomato & olive tapenade). Then over to the pasta line where the overall wait was 15 mins. I tried to order ricotta and spinach ravioli (had not been delivered), then penne (they ran out), and finally farfalle (score!). Sauce ordered was pesto and pine nuts. While that was being made, I walked over to the bar for a strawberry basil mojito (there were no cut strawberries and bartender needed to pluck basil from herb tree). I get the fresh from the garden made to order concept, but this was a joke! Alas after a total of 30 mins total wait time, we finally sat down to eat our meal.

Bruschetta – really fresh taste overall and an above average dish. The tomatoes were vine-ripped and slightly sweet; the pesto freshly prepared and not overly oily; and bread tasted fresh baked. Given the lag time between ordering and eating, both the pesto and tapenade versions started to get soggy. With that said, I preferred the classic. However, I can’t complain at the $3.50 price.

Pasta – again, fresh pasta cooked slight al dente just the way I like it. The basil pesto (blended on the spot) and parmesan cheese (grated on the spot) were above average. This pesto flavor was balanced with the right amount of olive oil, salt, and basil. However, the overall preparation was not balanced – I had to “re-toss” the dish to combine the pasta and sauce. After that work, I was pleased with the dish and portion size. But as my colleague pointed out, you can’t really screw up such a simple pasta dish. Dish was priced at $8.50 which is reasonable.

Strawberry Basil Mojito – took about 10 mins longer to prepare than it should have. While waiting, I comment to my colleague that the bartender probably needs the ingredients list – sure enough she did. The drink was way too sweet, watered down, and tasted like an Italian soda. Not the elegant cocktail I was envisioning.

Bottom line, the concept is great, the food is above average, but this place needs operational help. My take is to be more like a Food Network show – have everything chopped and ready to go…and then go! Few other ideas are as follows. Hand out buzzers to come back rather than having people wait at the counter. Don’t roll out the entire menu at once if you’re lacking all the ingredients – ever heard of a soft opening? Teething aside, this place will do well is Charlotte based on the young banking clientele, emerging diversity scene, and trendy concept. I may even go back a few months, but for now please avoid.