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, April 24, 2013

Pok Pok, take me back to Chiang Mai via PDX

Located about 5 miles from Portland City Center in the Hawthorne District is Pok Pok. At the far edge of Portland's new dining scene, this is a must on your next trip to the Pacific Northwest. Andy Ricker, the much heralded chef, took home a James Beard Award in 2011 and his streetshop style eatery was recently named one of the top 20 most inflential restaurant in America by Bon Appetit magazine. You might have also seen it on The Food Network or Travel Channel or read about it in the New York Times. We actually took a bike from City Center, which certainly helped to work up our appetite, and within about 30 mins arrived at Pok Pok. This place doesn't have much curb presence, so if you weren't paying attention just look for the long line of patrons out front, it'll be a sure give away.

This decor looks like a Thai street side restaurant with it's open tables, steel grate roof, clear plastic tarp windows, stainless steel table tops, and chalk board menu. Of course, that's part of the charm to be transported back to Thailand. We arrived at 12:30pm and were seated within about 5 mins in the covered front area; there's also any upstairs outdoor deck, and counter stalls along the entrance corridor. Come early, else expect a wait because by the time we left at 1:30pm, the wait was a good 45 mins.

The menu is packed full of Thai street food classics with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, in additon to wonderful southeast Asian inspired cocktails with basils, limes, Thai chilis, mango, jackfruit, etc. We asked our waitress for recommendations since everything looked so appetizing. She suggested a salad, noodle soup, and dessert for us to share; it did not dissappoint.

Khao Soi - a Chiang Mai street food favorite of curry flat noodle soup with tofu, squash, cilantro, and fried chickpea noodles. It came our table piping hot in a large bowl with a serving ladle and two small eating bowls. The perfect dish for this overcast rainy Portland day. This Northern Thai dish had strong flavor influences from the Burmese and Chinese Muslims. The tofu was lightly stir-fried along with the squash, for a wonderful earthy balance. The noodles were cooked well and did not overpower the dish. This was a soup with noodles and not the other way around. But the real star was the lightly spiced soup made with a gentle mix of coconut milk and thai chili that was on par with anything we'd tasted in Thailand. In one sentence, Sheila and I felt this was the best single dish of food we've had in many years.

Yam Samun Phrai - a Northern Thai herbal salad of carrot, turmeric, parsnip, betal leaf, basil, lime leaf, cashews, ginger, fried shallots, and Thai chilis in a mild coconut milk dressing. This salad packed some heat but was actually a good counter balance to the warm soup. The flavors were a mix or both sour and sweet which you typically see in Thai cooking. My only suggestion would have been to have some more shallots and cashews for a bit more crunch. Nevertheless we had not issues finishing the dish.

Thai Ice Cream Sandwich - three small scoops of coconut jackfruit ice cream over sticky rice drizzles with chocolate sauce and shaved almonds served on top of a Chinese bun. As you could expect this was a heavy dessert, but oh so good. The ice cream tasted naturally sweetened, the shaved almonds proved a nice crunch, and the sticky rice was could perfectly. The bun, although airy to the taste, was cut a bit too thick for me. We ate about two-thirds and then succumb to food coma.

This place did live up to the hype, it's the most authentic Thai meal we've had outside of Thailand. The quality of ingredients, expertly prepared dishes, and authentic dining experience make Pok Pok a true hit. I give it a resounding 9 out of 10 overall.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

An unexpected surprise with Portobello Vegan Trattoria in Portland ...

Although we’re vegetarian, Sheila and I don’t often frequent vegan restaurants not necessarily by choice, it’s just there are very few in SF. Nevertheless, after having read reviews on Yelp and Eater PDX, we made reservations at Portobello Vegan Trattoria for our upcoming trip to Portland which is known for its eco-friendly, sustainable, vegetarian happy persona. Now you’re thinking how can there be a vegan Italian restaurant? How about cashew cheese, beet burgers, and seitan sausage? Don’t be shy about trying something new, because Portobello Vegan Trattoria was an unexpected surprise.

Portobello is located in an indistinct metal and glass shopping center approximately 2 miles southeast of Downtown Portland.  The space itself is warm and inviting, with sustainable and recycled would furniture, warmly lit chandeliers and a cozy banquet seating. The wait staff was friendly and extremely helpful in navigating through the interesting selection of options – all of which we wanted to try. After asking our waitress for some recommendations, we decided to each have our own entree and then split a dessert – the beet burger, spicy arrabbiata pizza, and bourbon vanilla & salted caramel ice cream.
Beet Burger – a house-made beet burger on fresh baked rosemary foccacia with carrot aioli, arugula, red onions and tomato confit. I was surprised that Sheila ordered this and up until it arrived she was a bit skeptical. But after the first bite, that all changed, this was a perfectly balanced and flavor packed burger. The beet patty was moist, the carrot aioli was creamy, the tomato confit slightly tart, and the arugula & red onions were fresh. The bun was a lightly toasted rosemary foccacia which had a wonderful herb and olive oil flavor. The portion size was quite large, so Sheila ended up cutting the burger in half so I could have some. I am often disappointed in veggie burgers because the patties are a dense block of flavorless wheat, corn, black bean, and carrots. This was not, the patty was light and airy, which I had the recipe!
Spicy Arrabbiata Pizza – a take on a neapolitan style pie with seitan-made Italian sausage, cherry peppers, garlic, basil, tomato marinara with chili, and cashew creme. I’ve never really been a fan of faux meat, until a few years ago. With all of our travels my culinary curiosity has broadened, but even seitan sausage was a stretch. Upon first bite, both Sheila and I uttered the words – that’s interesting. And as we kept eating slices our taste buds adapted to complex flavors of this dish. The sausage had a salty flavor, the cherry peppers packed the heat a la jalapenos, the marinara was plump and juicy, and the cashew crème was silky smooth. Of course, we’ve come to know great pie crust, and Portobello’s version was quite good, slight charred on the edges but with a nice chewy texture. We end up with three left over slices which I happily ate cold the next day. That should say it all from this pizza snob!   
Ice Cream – a scope each of bourbon vanilla and salted caramel. A wonderful mix of sweet and salty, Sheila and I found ourselves trading bites back and forth. The bourbon definitely came through as did the pure vanilla bean. The salted caramel was good balance to offset our other scoop as it start off salty upon first bite with a gooey aftertaste. We both thought this was a great palette cleanser to end our meal.  
Despite our initial apprehension, Portobello turned out to be a wonderful neighborhood restaurant and worth the trip outside of Portland touristy City Center. The dishes were inventive takes on Italian classics, although in a thoughtful sustainable manner. The original flavors preserved, this restaurant was able to transform each dish without us even missing the diary. With that, I rate Portobello a strong 8 out of 10.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

the surprising MANA food bar in chicago

With more frequent travels to Chicago, I've had the benefit of eating at some amazing establishments in the Windy City. This past Feb during a typical cold and snow-filled week, I persuaded close friends P & J to break from their busy doctor lives for a late dinner at MANA Food Bar in Wicker Park. Wicker Park is a trendy gentrified neighborhood in the Northwest Loop known for it's commercial and entertainment venues. MANA itself is a charming and creative vegetarian restaurant that serves inventive and eclectic sharing dishes. This is definitely a winner in my book so check it out.

The interior of MANA is charming with rustic wood tables and bar, clean lines, and Edison bulb fixtures. The interior was very reminiscent of places I've been to in Soho or the Mission - felt right at home! The menu has a selection of american and asian inspired plates that can be served as either small or large plates. In order to maximize a "tasting menu" experience P, J and I decided on nine small plates of cold and warm items, including dessert. This worked out to 3 plates per person, which is what our waiter recommended. For the three of us, it was on the cusp of too much food so keep that in mind. 

First up were beets, sliced thin, with arugula and apple salad in a raspberry vinaigrette. A light, fresh, and crisp starter with a good balance of sweetness and tartness. The beets were understated given the abundance of arugula and apples; and the vinaigrette was slightly heavy handed. However those are just minor tweaks for an overall solid dish. The presentation was playful with delicately placed arugula leaves and shoestring apples across a long, thin white plate. 
Second up was baked goat cheese served with spicy tomato sauce and sourdough toast. I'm not a huge fan of strong cheeses, but this bake was remarkably muted although a bit too cheesy. The toast was slightly sweet but became cold quickly. The one thing I appreciated was the chunky tomato sauce spiked with chili peppers. Nonetheless, together the cheese, sauce, and slightly charred toast made for a hearty starter. Although a good dish, there seem to be many other better dishes on their menu, I'd most likely pass on this next time. 

Third up was the bi bim bop of hot pepper miso and vegetables served over brown rice and a sunny side up egg. This signature Korean dish was our favorite of the evening. A bold mix of cucumbers, zucchinis, mushrooms, spinach, and tofu stir-fried in sesame oil and red chili. The lightly fluffed brown rice and perfectly cooked egg gave this dish an unexpected earthy and creamy texture. The chili was not overpowering, but I felt it on the tip of my tongue. First time I've tried this dish and it won't be the last. 

Fourth up was the ma po tofu with spicy eggplant, chinese black beans, and red chili paste served over brown rice. A decent dish but compared against the bi bim bop, it lacked the same depth of flavors. Although the components were well prepared, the paste may have overpowered the eggplant and tofu. A slight refinement of component is all that's needed to make this spectacular. I've had ma po tofu at other restaurants and this was above average and pretty tasty.  

Fifth up was the mana sliders, a brown rice and mushroom patty served on small slider bun with spicy mayo, pickled cucumbers, and pickled onions. Okay I lied, the sliders were our favorite dish of the night. I'm typically skeptical of mushroom burgers because of how heavy they can be, but these were surprising. The brown rice and thinly grated mushrooms were bound together lightly and grilled to a slight char. The spicy mayo was nice kick and kept the dish moist and flavorful. I never would have thought to pickle cucumbers and onion for fear of the vinegar taking over, but that wasn't the case. This one that I'll be ordering again and again. 

Sixth up was artichoke filled ravioli with tomatoes, spicy kalamata tapenade, and shredded asiago cheese. Not sure that an italian inspired dish fits in with the overall food theme at MANA; and although the ingredients was fresh and nicely prepared, we weren't too thrilled with the overall dish. You couldn't quite taste the artichoke filling nor the tapenade due to the heaviness of the tomatoes and asiago cheese. And by now we were pretty stuffed. Nevertheless, my recommendation is to stick with the american and asian inspired dishes in lieu of the ravioli. 

Dishes seven and eight were our desserts, cinnamon creme brulee and double chocolate cheese cake. This was juxtaposition of delicate and decadent desserts. Neither of them were overly sweet. I enjoyed the creme brulee with its hint of cinnamon. The sugar burnt top was textured and flavorful; and the interior creme was light and airy. The cheesecake was dense and chewy; and the cookie base has a nice crunch. I appreciate the fact that it was made with bittersweet dark chocolate, however it was a bit too heavy for my taste. 

All in all, MANA Food Bar was a surprisingly charming restaurant. The creative and eclectic dish are perfect for sharing; and pack some amazing flavors. I didn't quite know what to expect from this neighborhood joint; for the most part we loved our dishes and even the ones that were mediocre only needed slight modifications to have been spectacular. This is not a tourist spot which made it all the more better and I can't leave out how great it was to catch up with my friends, P & J. MANA is worth the trip to Whicker Park and I give it an overall 8 out of 10 rating.