Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve at Zen Toro

Agedashi tofu

Merry Christmas!  Last night, my parents and I had dinner with two family friends at Zen Toro, which I think is the best Japanese restaurant in Davis (especially when you take ambiance into account).  We started off with green tea and, for appetizers, edamame, agedashi tofu, and calamari.  The edamame was perfectly normal (do you really expect anything else from boiled soybeans?), but the tofu and calamari were really well-prepared - greaselessly crisp exteriors giving way to interiors that were tender and tender/chewy, respectively.


My parents and our friends all decided to go with the seafood shabu shabu, for which each two-person set consisted of a platter of vegetables, udon and vermicelli noodles, and a second platter of fish, shrimp, mussels, scallops and clams.  Each person also got a little dish of sunomono (cucumber salad) and a bowl of rice.  The servers brought gas ranges with a pot of water, in which you cook the ingredients to your liking, eat them dipped in sesame or ponzu sauce, and then finally enjoy what is now a savory broth.

Seafood shabu shabu

I decided to be an individualist and go with the "Momiji" plate, which consisted of 12 different types of sushi, sunomono, and miso soup.  The nigiri were salmon, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, yellowtail, egg, clam, octopus, and one more which I couldn't identify.  There were also little tuna and cucumber rolls, and a salmon roe sushi.  I'm far from being a sushi expert, but I do know that this fish was impeccably fresh; the shabu-shabu eaters said the same thing about their seafood.  Anyway, what matters more is that I definitely enjoyed this sushi (minus the octopus, which I've never been a fan of; I gave it to my dad).

"Momiji" plate

For dessert, my dad had a confection of thick red bean soup with little toasted rice cakes; the rest of us had ice cream (mango, green tea, and ginger).  Zen Toro serves ice cream with great creaminess and texture - it's almost like you have to pull off each spoonful, if that makes sense.  The ginger flavor, with lots of pieces of candied ginger, is especially good.

Our server took very good care of us, although service slowed down toward the end of the meal.  Fortunately, we were all happy and full enough and chatted for a while, so we didn't really mind.

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday!  I am going to be in China for a few weeks and most likely won't be posting during that time, but I will share plenty of pictures and descriptions of all the awesome food when I return.  See you in 2011!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiday speed round, part 2

Since getting home to Davis late on Saturday, I've been enjoying plenty of my mom's cooking, including some very comforting soups made with white radish and ham, rice noodles, steamed crabs, and my favorite potstickers.

Also, some eats from around Davis.  First, a singularly unsatisfactory food experience: the chocolate croissant from Nugget Market in South Davis.  Leaden and practically oozing with melted fat - exactly what a croissant should not be.  Nugget has plenty of great food, but this croissant is not in that category!

But moving on to happier eats, starting with the best pizza in Davis, which can be found at Village Bakery (a tiny little shop near the train station; there is also a sit-down restaurant version called Village Pizza & Grill across from the movie theatre on G Street).  $2.75 gets you a big slice of relatively thin-crusted, both chewy and crispy pizza.

Next, the whoopie pie from Ciocolat, available at the Farmer's Market and hopefully at the permanent store as well (which is right next to the the market).  This confection is composed of two cake-like chocolate cookies with homemade (i.e. Ciocolat-made) marshmallow filling, a chocolate glaze, and some toffee sprinkles.  Really well-made, but I think I would recommend splitting it, since it is on the large/rich side.  An accompanying coffee is a must.

With a cappuccino from Crepeville

Also, I checked out a relatively new (mid-2009) tea shop called Tea List.  It's quite charming and has a menu that is reasonably long and not too expensive.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Homemade cheesesteaks

On the evening after my last day of work in 2010, I went over to my friend Alex's house for homemade cheesesteaks (thanks, Alex!).  He first coated the thinly sliced beef in a mixture of lime, cumin, and coriander.  Quite a winning combination, and one that reminded me of the mojito skirt steak at Max's Opera Cafe.

The steak was then cooked, mixed with sauteed onions and grated carrots, spooned onto buttered and toasted buns, and served with some grated cheddar - yum!  We drank sparkling cranberry juice and finished with some chocolate and a marzipan pastry baked by the wife of one of my coworkers/mentors.

Holiday speed round, part 1

A summary of some recent dining experiences in Palo Alto, sadly without complete pictures:

1. Falafel roll at Cafe220: still one of the best meals $7 (plus tax) can buy.  Plenty of falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush and sauce, well-balanced with lettuce and tomato, served in toasty lavash.  In case it wasn't obvious, I totally disagree with the 3-star rating on Yelp.

2. Dinner at Nola, where I ordered and quite enjoyed the crab trio tasting: little crab cakes with meyer lemon aioli, crab tostaditas, and "crabamole" (guacamole with crabmeat).  This dish is on the appetizers section of the menu, but was a pretty good portion for a light dinner.  I'm a sucker for avocado and - after the past summer - know that I can eat it sans allergic reaction as long as it's in moderate quantities.

Dining companion ordered jambalaya, which was apparently comfort food-ish; my comment was that it is essentially Cajun fried rice.

3. The chocolate plate at Shokolaat: four types of chocolate, for which I picked two dark and two (gasp!) white, for variety's sake.  I think some of the flavors were a little too complicated to pin down upon tasting, but I won't deny that the chocolates were very well crafted and very pretty.
4. Vegetable soup and sponge cake at Chez J: a successful clean-out-the-fridge-before-going-home effort.  The soup had corn, beans, zucchini, potatoes, onions, and probably something else, with a tomato-based and vaguely Southwestern flavoring.  For the sponge cake we used this recipe from Diana's Desserts, but with slightly reduced sugar, seven eggs instead of six, and whole wheat flour in place of all-purpose flour.  The result was both tender and kind of nutty, due to the whole wheat.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Palo Alto: Monique's Chocolates

Dark hot chocolate and gingerbread truffle

On Friday afternoon, a friend and I visited Monique's Chocolates, a relatively new store on Bryant St. near University.  The glass display case was mostly empty when we walked in, due to the high volume of holiday orders, but we could see someone (the owner, maybe?) making new trays of truffles in the back - more specifically, running them under a sheet of melted chocolate.

Giandjua hot chocolate and SF truffle

At Monique's, the hot chocolate is made to order from solid chocolate, and so we had to try some.  My friend ordered the gianduja (milk chocolate hazelnut) hot chocolate and a "San Francisco" truffle, for which I don't remember more specifics beyond that it was a milk chocolate-based truffle and really good.  I ordered the Madagascar (65% dark) hot chocolate and the gingerbread truffle.  My truffle was both dark and full of spices, and a great complement to the hot chocolate, which was both rich and somehow light and frothy.  Definitely some of the best hot chocolate I've ever had.

Hot chocolate is $3.50 and individual truffles are $2, I think, so Monique's is a perfect place for a classy and tasty non-coffee coffee break or dessert if you're in the area.  I definitely plan to return in the near future and try their toasted s'more, which was sold out before I arrived after 4pm on both Friday and Saturday (when I picked up a Christmas present).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Weekday dinner: seared tofu

After Tuesday's big potluck lunch, I really needed a dinner that was on the lighter side.  I decided to use the firm Hodosoy tofu and carrots that I bought at the market on Sunday, along with a bell pepper and half and onion that were sitting in my fridge.  I sliced and marinated the tofu in a mixture of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, a little balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, and ginger powder.

The bell pepper and onion were thinly cut and then caramelized and sauteed, respectively, with a little of the marinade; the carrots were cut and steamed before a brief saute.  I seared the tofu pieces and served them and the vegetables with freshly steamed rice.  Simple and satisfying.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Palo Alto: Dinner at Darbar

On Saturday night, E, M, J and I had dinner at Darbar in downtown Palo Alto.   Darbar is a place where Stanford students are almost guaranteed to see people they know (three of them during our dinner, in J's case).  It's also a popular choice for group events like hall dinners, since - having been to a hall dinner and also having organized a birthday dinner there - the management is very good at arranging a long table.

Chicken tikka masala

Chicken sagwala

There were plenty of empty tables when we arrived around 6pm, and given that we were pretty hungry, we decided to share four dishes: chicken tikka masala, chicken sagwala (chicken in creamed spinach), mattar paneer (peas and farmer's cheese), and chana masala (chickpeas).  E and I had mango lassi, which arrived along with the complimentary appetizer of some fried potato slices with two chutneys.  Who doesn't like fried potatoes?  Anyway, our main dishes were served relatively quickly alongside individual ramekins of raita and dal.  After another minute or two, rice and naan were set down, and we dug in.

Mattar paneer

Chana masala

The food isn't as nuanced or as refined as that of Amber India, but it's still pretty good.  I think our four dishes were different enough to provide some contrasts within the meal.  We all ate heartily - borderline too heartily, as is a frequent tendency with Indian food - and still had some leftovers.  The total bill, including a generous tip, broke down to less than $20 per person.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chocolate raspberry holiday cake

Chocolate cake with raspberry filling/glaze and coconut garnish

Fortunately, my Sunday night cake nightmare was confined to REM.  For the cake layers I used Amanda Hesser's "Chocolate Dump-It Cake" recipe, multiplied by 1.5.  Instead of the prescribed 6 oz of chocolate, I used 7 oz (two Ghiradelli Twilight Delight bars).  I also used only 2 cups of sugar instead of 3, since my lab (for whom I made the cake) shares my preference for desserts that aren't too sweet.  In this recipe's case, these changes resulted in a cake that was only lightly sweet and very chocolately; if I were to serve the cake alone (without frosting or filling), I would probably only reduce the sugar by 20% or 25%.

In progress

In lieu of frosting, which is also not on my lab's list of favorite things, I spread raspberry jam between the two layers and as the "glaze" on top.  Since the cake would have to sit overnight in the fridge, I also spread a little bit of jam-diluted-in-water around the bare sides of the cake as a moisturizer.  The two nine-inch cake pans I used are a tiny bit different in terms of shape - one has sloped sides - so I put some more raspberry jam in the small lip between the layers and pressed sweetened flaked coconut all around the cake as a garnish.  The result was quite festive and also tasted pretty good: the jam kept the cake nice and moist, and the jam's sweetness also created a nice balance of austerity and indulgence.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A cake nightmare

Last night I dreamed that I was baking a chocolate layer cake with fruit filling (gee, I wonder why that was on my mind...).  The first cake I produced was a weird whitish color, and after quite a bit of confusion, I realized (in my dream) that I had forgotten to add any chocolate or cocoa powder.  My second attempt was somehow also unsuccessful and resulted in even more frustration.  My alarm went off around the time that I was very begrudgingly preparing to bake cake #3.

I really hope tonight's real-life baking is a little more successful.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Back to basics

Zucchini omelette with pumpkin bolani

Now that it's winter and I frequently want to curl up with something warm, I am gravitating even more toward simple comfort food: omelets, french toast, pasta, pastry and hot drinks.

French toast and fruit

Simple pasta with tomato sauce

Plain croissant from La Boulange

Hot chocolate with a peppermint marshmallow

This morning's trip to the Farmer's Market yielded, in addition to that croissant (which was very good - probably comparable to Mayfield Bakery's?), a nice cache of goodies that I'll be making use of this week: carrots, apples, spinach bolani, hummus, ciabatta, and fresh tofu.

My lab is having a little holiday potluck this Tuesday, and so I'm planning to bring cake.  My current plan is chocolate with lemon curd.

Friday, December 10, 2010

LA: Angelino's and BJ's

After checking into UCLA's Tiverton House on Wednesday evening, I walked to Westwood Blvd - which strongly reminded me of University Ave here in Palo Alto - for some browsing and dinner.  The Yelp iPhone app pointed me in the direction of Angelino's Cafe, on Kinross Ave just off of Westwood.  Angelino's is a tiny red-brick restaurant and not very well-lit, with only three small tables inside and a couple more tables outside.  The owner, Archie (the man in white in the above picture), asked what I wanted to eat, so I asked him which pastas he recommended.  He suggested the gnocchi and ravioli, and when I picked the former, he asked "with pink sauce?"  Even though the menu says marinara or meat sauce, I decided to let Archie decide; if Yelp was any indication, I was in good hands.

I sat down and watched Archie prepare the gnocchi; given that I was the only person in the restaurant, my enormous plate of pasta and a few slices of lightly toasted baguette were ready very soon.  Simply put, the gnocchi were fantastic - tender and not doughy.  The tomato cream sauce was both flavorful and the perfect balance of richness and sharpness, and the sprinkled parmesan and basil chiffonade were a nice touch.  I really should have stopped after eating half, but just couldn't help eating until the plate was mostly empty.

My meal came to just over $10, including tax, and I obviously left a tip.  This was some of the best Italian I've ever eaten, and certainly the best value.  I'm far from being the only one who feels this way; during the time that I was eating there, quite a few regulars came in and chatted with Archie before and/or after ordering.  I also saw Archie and his one assistant handling what appeared to be sheets of fresh pasta, maybe for ravioli.  Long story short, if you are ever in Westwood or nearby, go to Angelino's!!

Dinner on Thursday night at BJ's Brewhouse wasn't as exceptional, but was memorable in other ways.  We started with shared appetizers, namely, the "Best Beginnings" plate of spinach-and-artichoke dip, mozzarella sticks, avocado egg rolls, and "Santa Fe spring rolls," of which I tried and enjoyed the avocado egg rolls most.  The table also had a few pitchers of berry-flavored cider and pale ale, enabling my first taste of cider.  I had the pulled pork sandwich (served with coleslaw and thick-cut fries).  Not amazing, but tasty.  Half of the table decided to share some deep-dish pizzas, including the cheeseburger pizza which, not surprisingly, they said tasted like a cheeseburger on top of pizza.

For dessert, we shared giant pizookies, which are huge cookies baked in pizza pans and served with ice cream on top.  Ours had four cookie flavors - chocolate, chocolate chip, peanut butter, and white chocolate macadamia nut.  Straightforward and satisfying, and definitely something I could easily make at home.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

French onion soup, brownies and ice cream

Saturday dinner was a cozy affair with friends at Chez J.  Eight onions, a bottle of white wine, some broth and apple juice, and some seasonings turned into a very satisfying French Onion soup a la Alton Brown, which we ate with some grated gruyere, steamed broccoli, and a Trader Joe's baguette.  The wine we used was the Project Happiness chardonnay, which I picked because it was both very inexpensive and very, very cheery-looking.

For dessert we made brownies (and also confirmed that although two eggs were called for, if you only have one and throw in some yogurt instead of the second egg, it still works).  We also had some Trader Joe's Candy Cane Joe-Joes ice cream, which might be my new favorite ice cream because it combines peppermint and cookies-n-cream.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Davis: "Brunch" at Konditorei

Bouncing back to Thanksgiving break, now.  My parents, cousin and I went out to Konditorei for Saturday brunch, with the express purpose of sampling plenty of pastries and even some cake.  And oh, did we ever, because here's the run-down.  In the above picture, from the top right-hand corner: almond croissant, chocolate/vanilla krapfen (essentially a donut, cut in half and filled with lots of vanilla cream and some chocolate chips), warm apple strudel with vanilla sauce, and apple croissant.  All impeccably fresh, flaky, and not too sweet.  Our accompanying beverages were a cafe au lait, a cappuccino, a mocha, and a latte.

After that wholesome main course, it was time for dessert.  The four of us shared two slices of cake.  I firmly believe that Konditorei makes some of the most amazing cakes on the planet, and one in particular is my all-time favorite: the chocolate nougat (pictured).  Layers of chocolate cake and chocolate-hazelnut cream enrobed in dark chocolate = heaven.  We also tried the Manzana Verde cake (you can see a little in the background), which is a cookie crust with a fluffy layer of quark cheese and a top layer of apple cream studded with raspberries.

This kind of Konditorei feast makes one want to eat nothing but green vegetables for a few days, but it's totally worth it.

Palo Alto: Dinner at University Cafe

I'm a little behind on my blog posts.  My most recent dinner at University Cafe was a few weeks ago; it is is another one of my go-to places in downtown Palo Alto.  I do like the brunch menu, but weekend brunch hours are packed, whereas it's usually quite easy to get a table during dinnertime.  Plus, dinner involves unlimited (at least to my knowledge, 2 refills is not a problem) refills on crusty bread with fantastic tomato dip.  On two of the three occasions that I've had dinner here, I've ordered the University BLT with tomato soup (shown above).  This sandwich consists of bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado with garlic aioli on either brioche or a more substantial bread, toasted, and somehow manages to be both clean-tasting and decadent at the same time.

The accompanying tomato soup is practically reason enough to order a sandwich at University Cafe.  Sandwich portions are large, and since I always eat plenty of bread, I was content to eat half of my BLT and have the other half for lunch the next day.

Based on my and my dining companions' experiences over the past three dinners, pretty much everything University Cafe serves is tasty.  The chicken pot pie with puff-pastry top (above) is well-prepared and rich, and the club sandwich and salads are quite good if not particularly exciting.  Do be careful with the butternut squash ravioli, which is so rich as to be cloying - it could pass for dessert.  Don't order that dish if you actually want something dinner-like; alternatively, split it with at least one other person.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Winging it with an eggplant

This dish was going to be just baked eggplant, but then I started adding onto it, and the result was essentially a baba ghanoush.  It looked quite unattractive, but I thought it tasted great.  This dish works well alongside pasta.  Sorry for the lack of measurements in the recipe....

Tangerine-turkey baba ghanoush

1 large eggplant
1 tangerine or clementine
Some ground turkey
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Chop the eggplant into small pieces; in a baking dish, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.  Bake at 300degF until dry and starting to wrinkle, anywhere between 45 min and 1h.  Puree most of the eggplant along with some yogurt (I used just enough to make my blender blades turn).

Peel the tangerine/clementine and pull off as much of the white spongy stuff as possible.  Cut each segment into at least two pieces.  Heat a little bit of olive oil over medium heat and then cook tangerine segments, smashing them with a spatula to release and the juice.  Once the juice has thickened to a syrup-like consistency, add the ground turkey and fully cook.  Finally, add the eggplant/yogurt puree and the rest of the eggplant pieces, mix thoroughly, and serve warm.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Serious Eats' chocolate gift guide

This list is both outrageous and awesome.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Davis: Shanghai Town

On Sunday evening, my family and I decided to order in dinner from Shanghai Town restaurant in West Davis; the menu is posted here.  My mom and I ate there once many years ago and remembered it as being mediocre, but a family friend told us recently that the dishes were really good now, and we took that recommendation.

Shen jian bao

We ordered thusly:  Shanghai gluten (kao fu), Shanghai soy sauce duck, Shanghai-style ham and pork clay pot soup (yian dun xian), pan-fried buns (shen jian bao), broccoli in garlic sauce, Shanghai-style chow mein, Shanghai-style braised pork ribs (technically Wuxi-style), some sort of fish, and walnut prawns.

Wuxi-style pork ribs

Whole fish

The gluten, soy sauce duck, soup, and Wuxi pork ribs were excellent - all reasonably authentic (as judged by my mom and second cousin, both of whom grew up in Shanghai).  I particularly liked the ribs, which were wonderfully tender.  The pan-fried buns, chow mein, and fish weren't fantastic, but still good.  Sadly, the broccoli in garlic sauce and walnut prawns were extremely disappointing; the former consisted of overcooked broccoli drowning in cloyingly sweet sauce, and the latter was doughy and heavy instead of delicately battered and fried.

The total was just over $70 - a great deal!  We would happily order some of these dishes again; no other restaurant in Davis serves Shanghai specialties.

Monday, November 29, 2010

NYTimes Thanksgiving reader photos - including mine!

The NYTimes asked readers to upload photos from Thanksgiving meals and then compiled them in an online feature.  My photo is around number 100 of the 748 photos total!  I don't think there was much screening or selection beyond a cursory content check, but this still makes me pretty happy.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chocolate pecan tart

I decided to try baking my first-ever tart for Thanksgiving this year.  Chocolate pecan was the goal because my mom likes pecan pie, but only for the pecans - my family's objection to pecan pie lies in that gooey brown stuff under the pecan layer: it's usually too sweet.  Given that we are also dark chocolate fans, a chocolate pecan tart sounded ideal.

In progress

 For the crust, I went with David Lebovitz's French tart dough recipe, and my starting point for the tart was a Food & Wine recipe.  I followed the tart dough recipe quite precisely, but given that the tart recipe was for an 11-in tart (and my pan is a 9-in pan) and that my goal was to increase chocolate and reduce cloying sweetness, some tinkering was in order.

Requisite beauty shot

I was very pleased with the final product: very nutty, very chocolatey, not too sweet, with a super flaky crust and just enough caramel to hold things together.  This tart was also very rich; after Thanksgiving dinner, a small slice was more than enough.

So, here is my actual recipe:

Chocolate pecan tart (9-in, serves ~10), adapted from Food & Wine

1. Make a tart crust and let it cool.  David Lebovitz's recipe works well and is pretty easy.

Ingredients for tart filling:
2 oz (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/8 cup honey
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed or unpacked
1.5 tbsp granulated sugar
A little less than 1 cup heavy cream (this will make sense later)
2 cups pecans, coarsely chopped
Some whole pecan halves
3.5 oz dark chocolate, broken into small pieces or roughly chopped (I used 1 bar of Valrhona 85%)

2. Preheat oven to 400deg.  (The recipe says to bake the filled tart at 350, so I'm sure that would work, too; I simply forgot to turn down the temperature, ha!)

3. In a small saucepan, bring 1/2 cup of heavy cream to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to very low, add the chocolate, and stir until melted.  Spread half of this ganache in the tart crust, covering the bottom.  Keep the rest warm and stir now and then, to maintain homogeneity.

4. Sprinkle most of the chopped pecans over the ganache layer, reserving a small handful.

5. In another small saucepan, melt the butter and honey together over high heat.  Add the brown and granulated sugars and stir until dissolved, then boil for 1 minute without stirring.  Add 1/4 cup (or a little less) of heavy cream and stir constantly until smooth.  Remove from heat and drizzle evenly over the layer of pecans, essentially gluing that layer together.  The tart crust should be mostly full at this point.

6. Bake the tart for about 20 min, until bubbling.  Simultaneously toast the remaining handful of chopped pecans, as well as the whole pecan halves; this toasting should take much less than 20 min.  Cool the tart on a rack (or burner, or something else that allows nominal circulation).

7. Once cool, decorate tart with remaining ganache and the toasted nuts.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!