August 26, 2007

Taxi Brousse [Berkeley]

Though African food sounds as though it would be very exotic, it is more familiar to the Western palate than you would think. It's similar to Mediterranean cuisine in that the preparations are often light, though the spices and marinades are distinctive.

There's no shortage of Ethiopian food in Berkeley, but after I had one taste of the sour, spongy injera bread, I knew I wouldn't be coming back for more. My quest to explore the continent's cuisine first lead me to the meat-heavy Tropical Paradise on University (which was pretty decent) and then to Taxi Brousse when it recently opened last year.

My first brush with the restaurant was the Dibi Fish, served with a salad, plantains, and your choice of rice or couscous. The tilapia is simply grilled and marinated in a slightly pungent onion sauce that makes all the difference. Though it is traditionally prepared with lamb, the fish has been excellent on every occasion that I've had it. The plantains are great for playing down the robust onions.

The Yassa Fish is very similar, though it doesn't come with plantains. The onion-mustard sauce it is served with is slightly tangier and spicier than the Dibi, while the sauce actually makes an appearance on the plate instead of just in the marinade. Between the two, it's just a matter of preference on whether you're looking for a drier or wetter preparation.

Service was excruciatingly slow and flustered on this particular night that we went. The crowds at the restaurant are never steady and it has hard to predict capacity from one week to the next. However, the owner is very jovial and you can't help but smile when the Berkeleyans bust out their African drums and start jamming. Another reason why I loved going to school here.

I prefer Taxi Brousse to the original Bissap Baobab in the Mission. My experience is that the fish at the former tends to be fresher.

* I apologize for the less than appetizing photos

Taxi Brousse
1101 San Pablo Ave
Albany, CA 94706
(510) 558-0939

August 24, 2007

Crater Lake Lodge [Oregon]

Though we copped out on camping and slept in the car, we did save ourselves a hefty $18 campsite fee and an even heftier $170 reservation at the Crater Lake Lodge. And while we did not partake in the amenities of the historic hotel, we thought it appropriate to treat ourselves to a proper breakfast before embarking on our 3-hour hike.

We both opted for the Blue Lake Breakfast ($7.75), which is nothing more than your standard two eggs, bacon/sausage/or ham, grilled potatoes, and your choice of a biscuit or scone. One of us got bacon and the other, sausage. One had their eggs poached; the other, over-hard. He chose a biscuit and I chose the scone. It was a fairly basic affair, but incredibly gratifying after a week-long diet of peanut butter and jelly. I also made the mistake of paying for tea when it was readily available in the lobby “For Hotel Guests Only.”

We spent the rest of the morning enjoying the sweeping views afforded by the Lodge’s prime location on the caldera’s rim. We took photos, reclined in the outdoor rocking chairs, warmed up at the fireplace, and got our fill of the complimentary “For Guests Only” coffee and tea.

A note on the hotel services: If I were paying that much money to stay in the lodge, I’d expect a certain level of service from the front desk and concierge staff. However, most of the Lodge’s employees are temporary workers from abroad who have little service experience. When asked about local breweries and restaurants, we were only given blank stares and I-don’t-know shrugs*. It’s certainly not the Ritz-Carlton, but I suppose that you’re only paying for the view after all.

* If you’re looking for more helpful service, try the Steel Information Center where the Park Rangers will even look things up on the internet for you.

Crater Lake Lodge
Rim Village
Crater Lake, OR 97604
(541) 594-2255

August 23, 2007

The Slanted Door [San Francisco]

After a dozen visits at all hours and with all walks of people, I can now vouch for the consistently impeccable food sent out by the Slanted Door's kitchen.

My standards for Vietnamese food are high--I grew up in the largest Vietnamese diaspora community in SoCal. Although the Slanted Door doesn't do justice to some of my Vietnamese street food favorites (mostly appetizers), it does amazing small plates and entrees. The dishes remainauthentic, highlighting the flavor profiles and textures common to the region, while ad-libbing elements that are complimentary, though not necessarily traditional, to Vietnamese cuisine.

It’s tempting to make a meal of the classics. The lamb is always interesting, the shaking beef, solid, the dungeness crab glass noodles, subtle and the claypot catfish, a no-brainer. No more.

We started with the only two appetizers I haven’t had: the Kabocha Squash Rice Cakes ($8.5) and the Alaskan Black Cod Rolls ($12). I’ve never met a starchy sweet squash I didn’t like, so the flavors were a no-brainer on that one. However, the cakes were on the oily side and even left a ring of grease glistening on my plate. The ingredients of the rolls were muddled and each bite had to be drowned in diluted fish sauce before any flavor could be detected. Such has been my experience with appetizers at the Slanted Door—they’re too timid for my seasoned palate.

First off, no one ever said that eating in a chic dining room with floor-to-ceiling views of the bay would be cheap. What is considered a small plate at the Slanted Door is often the size entrée portion anywhere else with the difference being that you order more plates than there are people to compensate for family-style sharing. On the upside, you get a reasonable amount of food for what you pay for. On the downside, you order more food than necessary and you don’t feel like you’re getting a deal at $30 for a tapas plate.

The Grilled Niman Ranch Rib Eye ($29.5) was a fan of eight succulent slices of brand-name beef plated with a tangle of mushrooms and onions. The flavor was reminiscent of the soy sauce-marinated steaks my parents grill, though the fatty rib eye absorbs the flavors much better than the lean cuts of steak we eat at home. The garlic-soy dipping sauce was a welcomed departure from the butters and creams often ladled on steaks, though it was completely on brand with the savories of Vietnamese cuisine. The Caramelized Prawns overflowed with fleshy shrimp and were distinct without being overpowering.

Over the last four years, I've found the service at the Slanted Door to be consistently brusque. Hipster waiters wearing all black are colder than ice, though always polite. There is an air of pretension even in the bathrooms, which are cleaned and presented after every use.

Most high-end Vietnamese restaurants sell tame versions of the traditionals at inflated prices--others plate ingredients and preparations that may be Pan-Asian, but certainly not Vietnamese. The Slanted Door manages to balance the inventiveness and integrity that it takes to bring a regional cuisine to the next level.

The Slanted Door
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-8032

August 22, 2007

New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro [Oregon]

New Sammy's is one of those destination restaurants that you put on your itinerary if you just so happen to be in the area. Located off a strip of highway between Medford and Ashland in Oregon, its one of the few, if not only reasons, you'd have for stopping in the little town of Talent.

We arrived 10 minutes early for our reservation and took that opportunity to explore the gardens (that grew in leaps and bounds around the restaurant) that propagated the grounds surrounding the restaurant. I don't know when the remodel kicked in, but New Sammy's is no longer the shack in the middle of nowhere that even your GPS couldn't be able to locate. It's new terra cotta pink exterior with a hard-to-miss sign is only matched by warm dining room that's still a work in progress.

We were served two different amuses along with our bowl of olives and hearty cowboy bread. The white gazpacho with creme fraiche was delicate and everything an amuse should be: delicious, intriguing, while leaving you begging for more. The smoked sturgeon was successful in wholly-built mouthfuls (with a little melon, fig, and farro), but mediocre in and of itself.

Soft-cooked eggs are always a welcome surprise, so when I saw it featured on the nightly prix-fixe dinner menu ($42), I decided to be in the mood for salad, trout, and dessert. However, I chose to swap appetizers with my SO who ordered the Corn Custard on my behalf. Bitter lettuces and crunchy endive created the backdrop for the corn, which was made sweeter, creamier, and colder by its foils. While the salad was also accented by prosciutto and hazelnuts, the real stunner were the fresh blueberries that studded my every bite.

I never thought of the blueberry as a sensual fruit, but these little tarts were plump, juicy, and ripe for the picking. They gleamed like bright sapphires, quivered at my bite, and awakened taste buds in my mouth that made me blush. This is garden cuisine at its finest.

My fillet of trout was butterflied and set atop a bed of vegetables and mushrooms. The combination of oyster mushrooms, lobster mushrooms, and shitake was mature and while subtly earthy, did not make up for the lack of salt in the dish. The contrast of the Meyer lemon-fennel sauce would have really made the flavors pop, but had I not consulted the menu, I wouldn't have even realized it was there. There were pillows of gnocchi so fluffy that I mistook them for unsweetened marshmallows--interesting texturally, but bland on all other counts.

The Niman Ranch NY Strip ($38) was a good quality steak on fragrant smoked potatoes, though the squash was too mushy.

Desserts were most tempting of all, with a menu skewed towards seasonal fruits and berries. We settled on a frozen tayberry sherbert and almond torte accompanied by a blackberry sherbert. The sharp tartness of the berries were amplified by the dish's coldness. It was one of the best desserts I've had in a long while and there was plenty to go around.

Charlene and Vernon Rollins are the power couple behind the kitchen and wine list and hail from Northern California's own Boonville. Charlene works her magic with the food, while Vernon acts as the sommelier. After we ordered, he made a personal appearance at our table to recommend pairings. I hear that the restaurant carries rare vintages and unique blends, but my alcohol tolerance rarely allows me to finish a glass, let a lone a bottle.

I love the idea of eating food straight from the source--like the dinner that your mom prepares using the tomatoes from your backyard. With the remodel underway, I only hope that the homey stop doesn't lose its soul. Eat local--eating is believing.

New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro
2210 South Pacific Highway
Talent, OR 97520
(541) 535-2779

August 21, 2007

Ashland Bakery [Oregon]

A stroll down Main Street led us to the busy Ashland Bakery brimming with pre-theater diners on their way to the Shakespeare Festival. After a week of dining out, I was more than relieved to spot homey portions of spaghetti and meatballs and dinner salads from my vantage point on the street. We were sold and joined our fellow Romeo & Juliet playgoers at the only remaining table in the house.

My grapefruit juice was freshly squeezed, as evidenced by the pulp straining through my teeth with each gulp--just the way I like it. While the start to our meal was promising, it only intensified the foil of a disappointment that followed.

After a long wait and an only okay Vegetable Soup to start, our entrees finally arrived. My Seared Scallop Salad ($13) looked sickly and tasted worse. The ghastly pale scallops barely showed signs of being cooked let alone the tan of a sear. As if looking raw weren't crime enough, the scallops lacked any seasoning whatsoever, while the chardonnay vinaigrette on the salad was a poor pairing. I hate to waste food, but anymore than two bites would have sent me retching.

The Salmon ($18) fared a bit better and was the homey preparation I had been craving. Healthfully grilled and served with a mango-papaya salsa, broccolini, and rice pilaf, the salmon quickly became our shared entree for the night.

To compensate for my dinner failure, I ordered a Blackbottom Cupcake to-go. The moist, gooey, chocolate cupcake was dense and sent me reeling in waves of nostalgia. Remember those chocolate muffins they used to sell at recess in grade school? Those muffins used to be part of my daily repertoire and I was glad to find something grown up for my evolved palate.

Judging from my limited experience, I would bet they do a better job at breakfast and lunch.

Ashland Bakery

38 E Main St
Ashland, OR 97520
(541) 482-2117

August 20, 2007

Beckie's [Oregon]

Nodding in unison if often a good sign when it comes to a restaurant recommendation. Such was the reaction of three park rangers at the Crater Lake Information Center when asked for a mom&pop lunch stop on our way out.

Located along a tiny stretch of town called Union Creek, Beckie's was exactly my cup of tea--a gem in the rough for the locals. At first I got stares and attributed it to my exotic Asian-ness, but quickly spotted my brethren and realized that I was just as strange as the Caucasian city folk sitting one booth over. I'm sure it didn't help that I kept whipping out my camera to snap photos of the "authentic" bikers sitting at the bar.

Anyways, Beckie's is a hybrid of rustic charm and the hoarse reality of a waitress' raspy smoker voice. The menu is comprised of mostly sandwiches and burgers and after a 3-hour hike, I was ready to indulge.

-- Is the chicken sandwich fried?
-- The patty is deep fried.

-- Good. I'll take one of those.

My chicken was patiently drained of its excess grease and did the job of satiating my appetite. My boyfriend's patty melt was drowned by the grease of its grilled onions and while neither were extraordinary, they were within our expectations for a middle-of-nowhere break.

While we caught wind of the legendary pies, we missed the ball when it came to ordering. Apparently, marionberries and huckleberries grow in the fields outside the restaurant and are picked fresh and baked into pies every morning. Instead, we opted for a slice of peach pie that fell flat of our expectations. The pie crust while thin, wasn't cooked through and the gelatin that suspended out peaches, while functional, had no flavor. On the other hand, the peaches were abundant, ripe, and ready for the eatin'.

Beckie's Cafe
56484 Highway 62
Prospect, Oregon 97536

August 19, 2007

Krazy Eddie's [Laguna Hills]

Everyone is quick to champion their local neighborhood coffee shop and Krazy Eddie's is truly worth the rave.

There's no doubt that the bagels here are good--thin and browned to a crisp, not to doughy, and slathered with a lean coat of cream cheese. As Goldilocks would say, "It's just right."

While a touch sugary, the Strawberry Cream Cheese is the best I've tasted yet. Made with fresh strawberries, honey, and brown sugar, its simple yet vibrant flavor is enough to brighten any bagel. And while the bagels hold their own , they wouldn't be stellar without the greetings that are chirped as regulars walk in from their morning commute.

I pondered the coffee thermoses and prepared to fill my cup when a member of the eager staff offered to make me latte. I couldn't deny his enthusiasm and was greeted by a "be happy" five minutes later. On the foam skimming my full-bodied roast was a smiley face reminding me to take my 6-hour traffic school in stride.

I never understood the allure of a daily coffee fix (I gave up the stuff after I realized that my annual thousand dollar habit was giving me the shakes), but when you spend everyday riding the elevator with the same nameless faces, it's nice to feel relevant to someone and some place.

If you're doing a drive-by and can't seem to find the place, look for a sign that says Donuts&Bagels in red and yellow type.

Krazy Eddie's Donuts
23052 Lake Forest Dr
Laguna Hills, CA 92637
(949) 454-0528

August 18, 2007

Lucille's BBQ [Tustin]

Lucille's BBQ - Your nonstop ticket to the 3rd circle of Hell

I typically take all steps to avoid chain restaurants (though I have a soft spot for Olive Garden), but I'll sometimes make an exception if warranted by the occasion. Today was such an occasion and Lucille's came to mind with a party of 10, a request for something fun, and a birthday in tow.

While there are locations throughout Orange County, we opted to try the Lucille's in the recently opened "The District" shopping center in Tustin. The chain doesn't take reservations, but we considered ourselves fortunate to arrive to only an hour's wait. With people shoved into every corner and lines just to get on the waiting list, we felt extra lucky when we only had to wait 45 minutes. A lesson in setting expectations.

We took a gander at the menu, but with our party size, the decision was pretty clear: Lucille's Super Feast--a behemoth of a meal that serves 10 people or more. As if that weren't enough, our greedy stomachs ached for a tease and we also ended up with strawberry lemonades for the table and a few appetizers for sharing.

I'm not sure if the description gives you an apt approximation of the amount of food, but let me show with pictures what words cannot describe.
Feed the whole family for less! Choice of three racks of baby back, St. Louis or beef ribs and four half BBQ chickens, with your choice of two of the following: two pounds of hot links, two pounds of tri tip, two pounds of pulled pork, two pounds of rib tips or two pounds of beef brisket, a large tossed green salad, plus your choice of six sides. Served with one dozen homemade biscuits with apple butter, and your choice of one bottle of Lucille's BBQ sauce.
We knew we were in for it when our order of Spinach Dip arrived, but only until we were completely done for by the Onion Straws. I was surprised to see the tortillas glistening with oil, as I didn't expect them to be fresh. While the spinach dip itself was a little watery, its flavor was well balanced without falling prey to the creamy cheese base. The Onion Straws were a little soggier than I would have liked, though I slurped up the tangy and smoky BBQ ranch sauce it was served with.

Our salad came with a choice of three dressings and wasn't anything out of the ordinary for a green salad. I can't say the same for the biscuits, which were the size of my fists and dusted with a sprinkling of sugar. The killer was the apple butter, which is not only a commendable attention to detail, but also delicious in its every conception--just a touch of salt and a hint of spiced apple cider.

They say ignorance is bliss and in the moments that we waited empty-handed, we were humble, modest, and free from the temptations of excess. It was not long before we were tempted by the forbidden fruit.

Our waitress graciously informed us that all of Lucille's meats are smoked for at least 24-hours in what they call the "Smokestack." I've had better pulled pork and the ribs were a bit fatty for my liking, but objectively, the meats as a whole were well dressed, smoky, tender, and juicy. Barbecue lends itself well to bulk cooking and Lucille's has got itself a formula that works.

I've never been a big fan of meat straight-up, so with a choice of six sides, I seized the opportunity to make a meal of it. The corn was grilled to its tipping point and the kernels almost burst on contact with our mouths. The mashed potatoes were flavorful without the help of gravy and the mac n' cheese, satisfying. As simple as they are, these comfort foods can easily go awry--too greasy, too sweet, too mushy,too salty, you get the idea. But while portions are heavy, seasonings are dealt with a deft hand in an execution of restraint that is delicious.

Don't get me wrong. I've had better barbecue at the Hitching Post and I've had better truffle mac n' cheese. But Lucille's tickles my nostalgia in all the right ways. It's simple home cooking done right.

The end of our feast was marked by the heavy sighs of bloating, the clang of unnotched belt buckles, and the markings of gluttony. The evening sky cloaked us in its darkness and begged for mayhem befitting of a weekend night, but after stuffing ourselves like fat turkeys, we could only think to absolve ourselves till the next reckoning.

Lucille's BBQ
The District at Tustin Legacy
2550 Park Avenue
Tustin, CA 92782
714.259.1BBQ (1227)