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.

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!