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, February 23, 2013

Pass on Succulent Cafe in Solvang

A quick day trip from Santa Barbara is the town of Solvang, a Danish community first settled in 1911. It's turned into quite the tourist spot with a ton of local inns, Danish-inspired restaurants, and antique/souvenir shops all done in 19th century Scandinavian architecture. We decide on a quaint cafe called Succulent where the kitchen serves up artisanal salads and sandwiches using locally sourced ingredients from the Central Valley. It's an order at the counter establishment with a few indoors seat and a nice outdoor courtyard with several tables. A great spot to people watch along the main Solvang drag, but for us the food at Succulent lacked balance.

Sheila decided on a Thai salad with mixed greens, cashews, pickled cabbage, fried wonton strips in a citrus vinaigrette served with crostinis. Sheila thought it was good salad, it just wasn't a Thai salad. She was expecting Asian flavors, but didn't get any. Perhaps some sesame or soy dressing would have done the trick. However, the greens were all fresh and the fried wonton strips added a nice crunch. I had a few bites it lacked a depth of flavors, a bit one note, Nothing wrong with it, but yet nothing to write home about.

I ordered the arugula, mozzarella, and tomato sandwich with pesto aioli. Served on olive bread, this dish had a bit too much saltiness for my taste. I think it came down to uneven balance with pesto, olive bread, and mozzarella all being savory items. I would gone for a sweet jalapeño or peach spread to cut through the saltiness. Even a normal sourdough or French baguette would have helped.

I also ordered a prickly pear lemonade from the daily special menu. This was very sour drink on first sip that quick turned to overly sweet. I almost felt that too much sugar was added to batch to cut down the tartness. There a great intentions at Succulent Cafe, just not well executed. Perhaps eating a more Danish-inspired joint would have been better, but we wanted fresh and light. Unfortunately Succulent didn't cut it with a 3 out of 10 rating.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bubbledog in Fitzrovia, London

The name sounds odd and the concept even odder, but Bubbledog has buzz and it appears to have staying power. Located on Charlotte St near Goudge St tube station is a hidden gem of eateries only few block from busy Oxford St. Pick up Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, or Time Out and you're likely to read about Bubbledog. It's a sophisticated hot dog joint that serves inventive variations alongside glasses of champagne. Get it now?

People queue to get in, up to 90 mins. No reservations accepted. The place has original red brick walls, bar height communal tables, warmly light Edison bulbs, and dark wood plank floors. The architecture is quite amazing, but this is more a scene for the East Village or the Mission - queuing to eat upscale street food in a cozy stylish atmosphere? Sheila and I went there late on a blistering cold Thursday night and we still waited a good 30 mins in 30 degree temperature mind you! Is it worth it? For foodies, but only just once.

Once inside we sat intimately close to other patrons, don't expect to have a quiet conversation here. The menu is written on the chalkboard above the glass shelved bar - creative hot dog types like New Yorker, K-Dawg (Korean), and Buffalo (BBQ). The catch is that the dog can be beef, chicken, or veggie! Hence the reason for our visit. I opted for the Trishna Dog (Indian) with sweet mango relish, mint chutney, and sev (fried chickpea flour flakes). Sheila opted for the Naked Dog which was a hot dog with no fixings and a side of sweet potato fries. The hot dogs are served in plastic basket alongside squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard. Again the whole upscale street food concept.

The Trishna Dog was pretty tasty, a nice balance of sweetness from the mango relish, spiciness from the mint chutney, and crunchiness from the sev. The bun had been steamed and was light and airy. As for the dog, it was surprisingly flavorful and I'm not a big fan of faux meats. The consistency was a bit weird for me, but it tasted seasoned and was cooked well. A good concept that can certainly be made at home with the right ingredients. Portion size was a bit small, so you might want to go for two if famished.

The sweet potato fries were rather pedestrian, not a lot of flavor and slightly undercooked. They tasted fine when piping hot, but lost a bit of appeal when cold. The size and portion were fine, just lacked seasoning. We left about 1/3 in the basket. Definitely need some tips from In-n-Out.

The wait staff was pleasant, but as the place is so crowded and noisy it make take a few hand waves and eye contact to get their attention. Also at £7 per hot dog, this is not an everyday eatery. In fact, those that are hungry could probably eat two. Bottom line is that you're paying for the novelty and popularity. It's worth trying once, and then replicate the recipes and your next Super Bowl or 4th of July parties! I give Bubbledog a 5.5 out of 10.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Trishna, Michelin Starred Indian in Marylebone

Nowhere else can you find Michelin star Indian restaurants than in London, where curry is the official dish and Indian chefs reach celebrity status. Several years ago Sheila and I went to Tamarind in Mayfair for a tasting menu of 10 delectable dishes. One of the finest meals we've ever had. On this trip, we decided on Trishna in Marleybone, a chic neighborhood tucked between Regent Park and Hyde Park.

It's a relative newcomer to the Indian haute cuisine scene serving up Southern Indian coastal inspired dishes. The restaurant is unassuming but very charming - two adjacent walk ups converted into dining areas with painted white bricked walls, old Air India travel posters, and dimly lit chandeliers. As you can discern, this clientele catered to is not Indian.

First impressions, the food was good but not transcending; the service was spotty and often puzzling, the space was charming (wold love to buy a flat with the same bones), and the price was rather high (total bill with drinks was £82). Our recommendation, skip Trishna and try Tamarind or Amaya if you want elevated Indian fare.

Now for details, we decided to order two starters, two side curries, the naan basket, and dessert - aubergine chaat; tandoori paneer; spinach and corn curry; hyderabadi split pea daal; garlic, fennel, and plain naans; and a trio of ice cream (rose and white chocolate, pistachio, and mango).

Aubergine Chaat - probably the best dish we had all evening. Lightly fried aubergine cubes served with sev, mint chutney, tamarind and date chutney, yogurt, garnished with cilantro. Sheila is not a fan of aubergines, but the flavors were subtle and the texture crunchy. I enjoyed the balance, but it could have been better with some citrus like oranges or pomegranates.

Tandoori Paneer - had a nice smoky rub flavor and coated really well in tandoori spices. However, we found the individual pieces to be too large, and would have preferred to see each split into two. The paneer was solid but not memorable. The side corn slaw was refreshing and slightly sweet, but the pairing with the paneer didn't quite work. A tasty overall dish that we would order again if we happen to come back.

Spinach and Corn Curry - a bit bland lacking in spice levels you would typically find in Indian dishes. It kinda tasted like puréed spinach with a few corn kernels thrown in. This could have been a great dish of there were some cooked tomatoes, cumin, fennel, and chili powder. We'd pass on this dish again.

Hyderabadi Daal - a nice seasoning level but didn't have much heat. The daal was cooked well, the consistency was nice, the flavors were balance; but similar to the tandoori paneer it was not memorable. We found ourselves combining the daal and curry; it tasted better that the individual dishes.

The naan and  ice cream were divine, funny how the complementary dishes stole the show. The naan was flavorful, chewy, and a bit smokey. It was a great vessel to scoop up our curry and daal. The ice creams were fresh and not too sweet. Each of the three types (rose and white chocolate, mango, and pistachio) could stand on its own. I really enjoyed the mango while Sheila enjoyed the rose and white chocolate. Both dishes we would order again.

Unfortunately, the service was not up to Michelin standards. In typical Indian fashion, three separate waiters came by to ask us the same questions - ready to order food, would you like a drink? Clearly we were trying to relax and order leisurely, that was not possible. There was this notion that we were not worthy patrons and no real explanations when the dishes came out. Our bill also was wrong, as the waiter incorrectly charged a service fee twice. All the other patrons seemed to have a bit better service level, but even such I heard several of them complain about the service as well. Perhaps if the food was better, we would have felt differently. I give Trishna a disappointing 4.5 out of 10.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Gate in Islington, our old London stomping grounds

We're taking our blog oversees - London to be precise - the place that started our foodie fascination. Sheila recently had a business trip and I decided to tag along. Why not eh? London is a food haven, with a vibrant ethnic and cultural scene that serves up extremes - hole in the wall up stalwarts to much heralded Michelin star establishments.

This review is of The Gate, an Islington vegetarian joint just south of Angel tube station on St John's St. The Gate is new to the N1, we'd never been nor had our old friends who we came to visit. It's an inviting dining hall with a large center drinking counter which has the bones of a converted pub only much more airy and bright. We were seated within a side mezzanine area, a bit more intimate but with a great perspective on all the action.

The menu is a dizzying array of inventive seasonal vegetarian dishes, I joked earlier that we should have ordered one of everything. In the end, we settled on a shared mezze sampler for the table and individual mains. The meal was great, but for us catching up with old friends made it amazing.

First was the mezze platter of falafels, corn fritters, Stilton cheese pate, roasted butternut squash, and herb feta croquettes. The falafels, corn fritters, and feta croquettes were seasoned well and lightly fried. Each had a nice crispy exterior, but retained their original chickpea, feta, and corn flavors, respectively. The squash was fresh with hints of smokiness and the drizzled aioli provided an unexpected kick of spice. The bed of cous-cous below was a great balance of savory and sweet. This was my favorite of the mezzes. Conversely, the pâté was my least favorite partially because I'm not a stinky cheese fan. Plus I couldn't get over the consistency. With that said, it's worth ordering as a shared starter for the table as the portion is plenty for four.

Second was my dish of aubergine schnitzels with horseradish sauce, roasted kale, mashed potatoes. The presentation was amazing - two lightly breaded and baked aubergine slices laying delicately over a bed of braised kale and horseradish sauce with herbed mashed potatoes formed into a cube. Each component on its own was okay, but together they were fantastic. The earthiness of the aubergines, the sourness of the horseradish, the saltiness from the kale, and starchiness of the potatoes all gave an unexpected flavor combination. The kale flavor was a bit lost in the horseradish sauce, but that was a very minor ding. I particularly enjoyed the aubergines which could have come off as a heavy oily eggplant parmesan, but turned out to be very light filling dish that actually healthy. What a concept, eh?

Lastly was Sheila's dish of root vegetable tagine with mint and pomegranate cous-cous. Upon arrival, the aroma of the tagine won her over. It was spiced just right, with a hint of heat and sweetness. It came piping hot which was perfect on e dreary day. With came with the same cous-cous we had earlier in the mezze. The cous-cous added some brightness too. The dish had a slight tartness with the pomegranates and fresh mint. It also came with a handful of greens which though unexpected, was a nice touch. Overall, the dish was filling yet light. A great introduction to the concept of a tagine and she'd recommend it as a great solid dish.

The Gate is a neighborhood restaurant with an inviting ambiance, cordial staff, and wonderful vegetarian dishes. It is far removed from the tourist hubs that dot London, The portion sizes are just right and the price pricing is comparable to other establishments in the area. Even though it might come off as a bit pricey, the quality of food makes it worth it. Cheers to our good friends for finding this great place, we will most certainly be back! I give The Gate an 8 out of 10.