Who Am I?
no, i'm not coming out of the closet.
i ate some cheese (not mozzarella) saturday night...it was me, two close friends, some sangria, serrano ham, some good bread, roasted peppers...and manchego at a tapas bar on 22nd st in the mission. admittedly, manchego is a mild cheese, but it's a giant step for me in terms of accepting cheese as anything but rat poison.
those of you who don't know: it is a long-standing tradition of mine to by and large HATE CHEESE. I just have never been much a fan of it. I make exceptions: mozzarella on pizza, fresh mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes and basil, & a judicious sprinkling of fruity olive oil, sea salt and coarse ground black pepper, ricotta-filled canolli, and tiramisu. but never have i just bitten a slice of cheese and not wanted to retch.
am i still myself?
a change in format
i have a job that does not afford me the time to take a nice lunch break, so the feasibility of having a series of Friday lunches borders on nil.
Gentle Readers, i have decided to resume posting here, but with shorter rants, raves, stories and reviews which may or may not take place on Fridays. More likely, I will give accounts of Friday happy hours.
You can't get it here
Gentle Reader, although life in the Bay Area affords me access to some of the finest meats, vegetables, artisanal breads, the cuisines of nearly every ethnicity as well as fine chocolates in both conventional and organic forms, there remain numerous things yet unattainable here.
This is a partial list:
1) Wings--Aka "Buffalo wings" (with a capital 'B' for the city), these are often imitated. They usually disappoint for various reasons.
2) Pumpernickel bread--everything here is either sourdough, multi-grain with seeds, French or Italian. No Kaiser rolls either.
3) Sponge Candy--Scharffenberger may be leading the chocolate revolution from Berkeley, but they don't make sponge candy.
and the list goes on...
Gentle Reader, are you tired of your mundane, cookie-cutter, American surroundings? On Friday, 4/21/05, I was fortunate enough to be "magically transported" from dirty ol' Berkeley to the South of France and then to the Middle East.
Restaurants that focus on the cuisine of a particular country, city or region tend to appropriate the decor of that country, city or region to match the food. Some diners serve up nostalgia for the 1950s not only in the greasy food but with jukeboxes and posters of Elvis, neither of which were abundantly found in diners back then. Chinese restaurants in the US have traditionally hidden bottles of soy sauce behind faux-lacquer crimson dragons, which, Gentle Reader, if you have never been to China, really do function as guardians soy sauce bottles.
La Note is not a Chinese restaurant; rather, it offers "Authentic Provencal [sic] Southern France Cooking" mainly in the form of breakfast and lunch to Berkeley's francophile population. There are certainly many French touches to La Note's decor--wooden tables and chairs, specials written out in chalk on a small blackboard in that floppy French handwriting, and a courtyard in back for outdoor dining. In an another bold move, La Note provides unwrapped lumps of turbinado sugar (which people pick up and put back with their dirty, unwashed hands) in sugar caddies for coffee sweetening purposes. Compare this to most other restaurants, where the sugar is kept safe and hygenic in factory-sealed paper packets.
Arriving shortly after Gloria Kim, editor emerita of hardboiled, we took advantage of the oddly rare sunshine by taking our seats in the courtyard. Menus came promptly, but our decisions on what to eat did not. In the mood for something with tuna, I considered getting the salade Niçoise before settling on the pan bagnat. This particular pan bagnat consisted of tuna salad, roasted tomato, sliced hard boiled egg, one niçoise olive placed neatly on each egg yolk, an anchovy fillet and aïoli on a crusty roll. Basically, I got the salade niçoise on a roll with lettuce, which the French call salade, on the side. It tasted balanced between the salty richness of the fish and aïoli and the bracing taste of the roasted tomatoes and neatly dressed greens.
Gloria ordered a "Côté Ouest," one of La Note's combination breakfasts. This particular one was a 3-egg omelette filled with ratatouille, next to a side of home fries with toast. While I have typically enjoyed this combination, Gloria found off flavors in it that particular day. As they say in France, "Quel dommage!"
I have granted another exception to the Friday Lunch Series being about lunch on Fridays because on this particular occasion, it was my friend Iris Yuan's 24th birthday. But it still was on a Friday!
Kan Zaman, located in San Francisco near the western end of Haight Street, tries to immerse diners in an intimate Middle Eastern setting complete with low tables, dim lights and the flags of Arab League nations hanging from the ceiling. Kan Zaman's fame lies not with their food (pretty good but not special) but with their hookahs (water pipes for flavored tobacco) and their notoriously surly staff. Though they have an à la carte menu, we got a set combination dinner, which lends itself nicely to large groups (such as ours of around 12).
Sitting on cushions that may or may not have been dirty (we could not tell due to the dim light), started out with carafes of spiced wine. Made of red wine and spiked with citrus, cinnamon and clove, the spiced wine proved to be an aromatic alpha and omega to the meal. It wasn't supposed to be the opener; it just took the kitchen and waitstaff that long to bring out pita bread and the cold mezze. We passed around pretty good hummous and tangy cucumbers in yoghurt. These were followed by falafel, then chicken and vegetable kebabs over rice pilaf. While the food was tasty enough, the clear winner was the spiced wine.
Even though it was Iris's birthday, the waitstaff refused to bring the celebratory hookah to the table, making Iris & Co stand at a small table in next to the bar, where they were constantly shoved by angry waitresses. The ill-tempered staff complained when we said that our party was going to have another person arriving late. Additionally, they left it ambiguous as to whether or not the gratuity was included in the bill. Because of that and other confusing bits, dinner guest Edgar Quesada ended up with a $90 chargef on his credit card. And they didn't even say thanks!
If that's what Middle Eastern hospitality is like, then I'm glad that they saved me the trip out there.
A real update is forthcoming
Gentle Reader, I will soon make up for my long absence with a two-meal post covering the food-related events of Friday April, 22, 2005.
Until then, please revel in the pummeling of "Iron Chef" Bobby Flay at the hands of Ming Tsai in Iron Chef America's recent "Battle Duck." Perhaps the judges are now seeing through Flay's limited bag of tricks. Or maybe they've had enough [theme ingredient] tacos/tamales/blue corn & huitlacoche crepes with a trio of sauces. Flay is a gimmick chef and deserved to be beaten!
I bid you good appetite.
The humorously large plate of chicken. It probably could have fed all four of us. The plate is about 10 to 12 inches across. In the top left is the cubed beef.
Clockwise from back-left: sour chicken soup, imperial roll, grilled pork kebab, chicken with Vietnamese herbs (the small serving that was replaced by the large serving)
"Sour" Chicken soup.
Combination salad: beef, chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts, carrots, rau ram, cilantro, peanuts.
Tu Lan: Too Much
Tu Lan, a long time Vietnamese restaurant has staked out its spot just south of the gritty corner of Sixth Street and Market. Stepping in the narrow storefront, one quickly realizes that Tu Lan's main concern is to rapidly turn out tasty Vietnamese meals. The smoky, rich smell of grilled meat, garlic, green onions and fish sauce coming from the open kitchen the left hits the nose like a welterweight's jab once entering. The decor is simple and utlitarian--replete with chipped, brown Formica tables packed tightly together.
The numbered menu features 77 items, all standard Vietnamese fare. Various imperial rolls and grilled, stirfried, curried meats, seafood and vegetables served with rice noodles or rice.
Iris Yuan, Jackie (her co-worker), and Dave (a friend of a coworker's), and I stepped in just before 1pm on Friday. Although it was crowded, we were seated promptly. In part of town where "bang for the buck" isn't just what the numerous junkies do for their next fix, Iris and Dave knew that despite the promising variety of the normal menu, the way to go was with the Family Dinner. For us four, the menu promised steamed rice (check); tea (nope); cookies (nope); sour chicken soup (check); shrimp, beef and chicken salad (check); pork shish kebab & imperial roll (check & check); chicken with Vietnamese herbs (check); and beef cubes Vietnamese style (check). The dishes came nearly immediately, one after the other. It was as if Tu Lan was brashly taunting us, daring us to keep up. As we were tiring out, as a final affront on our appetites, the waiter plopped another giant plate of food on our table. For some reason, they gave us additional stir-fried vegetables and tofu in a noodle bird's nest.
The soup was piping hot, with chicken, bean sprouts, pineapple. It was sour, salty, and a little sweet all at once. The salad, consisting of citrus-marinated slices of beef, chicken, shrimp, rau ram (Vietnamese mint), cabbage, bean sprouts and carrots was also tangy. They were just right to get the palate ready for everything else.
The flavorful pork kebabs had been rubbed in spices and then grilled over an open flame and served with a fish sauce-based dipping sauce. The ground pork-stuffed imperial rolls, much wider than I've seen, were fried to a golden crunch, cut into bite-sized pieces and served with the same sauce.
The chicken first arrived in a sanely sized oval platter. However, after a minute of us picking at it, the staff grabbed it off the table, mumbling something about it being the wrong one. Fifteen puzzling seconds later, they returned with a twice-as-big, circular platter of chicken. While quite tasty, the sauce was gloppy, as if thickened with too much cornstarch or arrowroot.
Caramelized garlic and onions accompanied the stirfried cubes of beef. Other places call this "shaking beef" from the shaking motion used to toss the ingredients in the wok. Although cubed beef at most places proves to be tough and stringy, this was exceptionally tender. It proved to be the clear winner out of all the dishes.
The vegetables and tofu in the bird's nest was barely touched, due to our already sated state. They were packed up Dave and brought back to a vegetarian coworker of his.
Survival on San Francisco's skid row depends on having a tough attitude. Tu Lan has survived on its hardscrabble corner, no doubt, for well over 20 years because of its good food in big portions served up without pretention. Tu Lan challenged us four with enough food to feed eight. I have never been so happy to lose.
Rubbing Our Heads and Eating Our Dim Sum. Yum, Yum.
Dim sum, the Southern-Chinese style teahouse lunch, has followed the Cantonese people from China and Hong Kong to Chinatowns and now even to ritzy suburbs like Walnut Creek, CA, which is home to the new location of Tin's Teahouse, one of Oakland Chinatown's venerable Dim sum specialists. The new Tin's, occupying one large wing of a strip mall, is cleaner and less cramped than most Dim sum restaurants I have seen. Because of this and the fact that the food is quite good, I am pleased to report that in this case Dim sum suburbanizes well.
Like its urban cousins, Tin's offers a vast selection of Dim sum. Their choices ranged from the standard ha gow (shrimp dumpling), and lotus leaf-wrapped packages of sticky rice to banal potstickers and spring rolls, to the authentic but less-seen chicken feet and tripe. As normal, these wares were served off of carts pushed through the dining rooms by waitresses who yell in Cantonese the names of what's to eat.
In my experience, suburban Dim sum houses, particularly those in the "whiter" suburbs, tend to offer less variety than their urban (and in particular Chinatown) counterparts. Tin's, to my surprise, sold perhaps the greatest variety of Dim sum I have seen in the same restaurant. My dining partner, Angelee Field, and I took advantage of that. We enjoyed shrimp in many ways--steamed in rice-flour dumplings as ha gow; steamed and wrapped in chow fun noodles; minced and stuffed into black mushrooms and stir-fried; minced and stuffed into tofu and deep-fried; and as the often-seen dinner dish, walnut prawns. The availability of walnut prawns as dim sum is probably a concession to suburban white folks because they are already familiar with them. Authentically dim sum or not, all the shrimp dishes featured beautifully pink, tender, high quality shrimp, deftly removed of their gritty intestines.
Angelee and I also enjoyed a few non-shrimp items. I was a big fan of the savory sticky rice, steamed in a lotus leaf and studded with lop cheong (Chinese Sausage), chicken, and (you guessed it!) more shrimp. Finely chopped garlic chives brightened pan-fried scallop dumplings. The only miss was a bland and plain, though not unpleasant dish of chow fun.
Dim sum origins can be traced to free nibbles given out at tea houses, a long time ago. Now, it is flipped around--the tea is free at Tin's, but they charge you for the food. This can lead some lesser dim sum houses to use bad tea in teabags. However, Tin's uses loose-leaf tea. Tea service is up to par as well. When I wanted a new pot of tea, all I had to do was flip up the teapot's top. Within seconds, a member of the waitstaff replaced my empty pot with a steamy full one.
Tin's should be proud to have transported the good parts of a Chinatown dim sum hall out to the happy (and well-fed) faces and open spaces of Walnut Creek.
Co-luncher Angelee Field (right) standing with Mr. Tin, owner of Tin's Teahouse. Those who have lived in Berkeley may notice a striking resemblance between Mr. Tin and the owner of the former Curry-in-Hurry (sic).
Remnants of a shrimp-laden lunch. (Clockwise from top left) Panfried scallop and chive dumpling, Walnut prawns, Chow Fun, Shrimp in rolled Chow Fun, Deep-fried tofu stuffed with shrimp, steamed black mushroom stuffed with minced shrimp, ha gow (shrimp dumpling).
To request more tea, simply flip up the teapot's lid. This time, it took only 10 seconds from flip to replenishment.
this column has been stewing for quite some time...
Gentle Readers, I take it upon myself to ask questions that you either would deem unimportant or not even come up with. One such question popped into my this afternoon head as I was gnawing on a tender but bland tandoori chicken leg at Kamal Palace, one of the first Indian restaurants that have emerged to the west of the UC-Berkeley campus. Why are most Indian restaurants buffets? Then the questions multiplied. Why are there so many Chinese buffets? Is there something inherent to these cuisines that make them particularly amenable to buffet-dom? These questions cannot be answered right here, right now, because I have not eaten enough Indian food outside of a buffet setting. I posed this question to Isabel Chon, this Friday's dining companion. She had no idea.
Most Indian curries that I have eaten have been stewed, and thus are particularly well-suited to sit in a steam tray for a while, where they may even improve with a little time. However, I wonder if they are supposed to be cooked with that much liquid. At Kabab & Curry and Naan 'n' Curry (I sense an article about repetitive Indian restaurant nomenclature), which are the two non-buffet Indian restaurants at which I have eaten, the curries were more saucy than soupy, and were decidedly fresher and more boldly seasoned. I could also more easily scoop up these made-to-order curries with naan. Buffet curries tend to run together on the plate and end up tasting like a generic mish-mash of Indian food.
While pondering these questions, tucked into the buffet. We both enjoyed the naan; it was soft and pillowy on the inside, but crisp on the outside. The tandoori chicken legs were juicy and tender, but I doubt they were actually made in a tandoor. They were barely charred on the outside and lacked the typical smokiness that typically draws me to them. I had a servng and a half of a rather anonymous and underseasoned lamb curry. I'm also pretty certain that some of the chunks of lamb were actually chunks of chicken. In any case, the lumps of mystery meat in this soupy creation tenderized because of its long stay in the steam tray.
Assorted Vegetable pakoras, which were mainly thickly battered onions, gave off the flavor of old, oily dough. When dipped in a ramekin of supposed tamarind chutney, they ended up tasting oddly like apple fritters, as the chutney, upon further examination looked and tasted to me like applesauce spiked until dark brown with cinnamon. The mint-based chutney yielded more normal-tasting results.
Also available (but avoided by me) at the buffet were a pan of thick, coagulating, day-glo orange chicken tikka masala, an insipid-looking lentil soup, a couple types of basmati rice, some salad, a few additional very watery vegetable and meat curries, and orange slices.
Though I may not know what good Indian food is, I'm pretty sure it doesn't often manifest itself in buffet form. I cannot be absolutely sure why the food was lacking in quality. Should I blame the chef or the chafing dish?