Thursday, April 28, 2011

Notes from Tel Aviv: A not-so-happy-meal haiku

A couple days ago, Middle East Bureau Chief Andrew sent me the following "Twitter-sized review": "McDonalds in Israel. Still forgets to give you the sweet and sour sauce, but now the food is expensive."

A few keystrokes later, and I had the following:

McDonalds Israel
Still can't get the sauce I want
Moreover, pricey

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Palo Alto: Late night at the Creamery

After seeing 'Your Highness" yesterday evening in Redwood City, Elyse, Christina and I journeyed back down El Camino to the Palo Alto Creamery.  They close at 10pm, and we got there just in time to order brioche French toast, hash browns, a grilled cheese sandwich, an ice cream sundae, and because we deemed all that insufficient, a piece of blueberry pie.  Given how over-the-top the movie was (to put it diplomatically), such a parade of comfort food was absolutely necessary.

The sundae was first to arrive: cookies-and-cream on the bottom, hot fudge and peppermint in the middle, and a cheery hat of whipped cream, nuts, and overly preserved cherry.  As silly as it sounds, I swear the old-fashioned sundae glass and long-handled ice cream spoons make this already-satisfying confection even better.

The French toast, grilled cheese and hash browns arrived soon after and were all quite good, especially considering that the kitchen was probably annoyed by our closing-time order.  The toast is served with real maple syrup, a nice touch.  With the grilled cheese came a token green salad, the few-and-proud vegetables present on our table:

And, finally, some more dessert to end the meal.  This blueberry pie had a surprisingly thick crust, but the filling was enjoyably sweet-tart and reminded me of the mixed berry pie that Ricker used to serve on some Sunday evenings (to near-universal positive response).  Yes, I just waxed slightly nostalgic for Ricker.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Dark chocolate ganache layer cake

During the weekend, I baked the layer cake that I had donated to the Hunger and Homelessness Auction.  The buyer and I decided on chocolate layers with chocolate filling and whipped cream frosting.  For the layers, I used the ever-reliable Chocolate Dump-It Cake recipe from Amanda Hesser, multiplied by 1.5, with some extra dark chocolate (7 oz instead of 6 oz) and, as usual, slightly reduced sugar.  For the filling, I made a dark chocolate ganache (3.5 oz chocolate and 0.25 cup cream) with some raspberry jam whisked in, plus some gelatin for more thickness.  My chocolates of choice: German dark chocolate bars of between 70 and 80% cacao.

Base layer, with ganache filling

Frosting in progress

I had enough ganache to fill in between the two layers and also spread across the top, before covering the entire outside with freshly whipped cream (lightly sweetened, flavored with vanilla, and also stabilized with a little dissolved gelatin).  Toasted almonds were the finishing touch.  I handed the cake off to the buyer on Sunday afternoon; hopefully it made a delicious finish for her Easter dinner!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Notes from Tel Aviv: Cafe Ma

(Ed.: Over the past few weeks, Middle East Bureau Chief Andrew has enjoyed delights such as life-altering hummus, shakshouka, and a full Passover seder, and he even went on an almost-successful quest for hamantashen at Lehamim Bakery.  Today, however, in his second report, he describes an idiosyncratically comforting "American" meal at Cafe Ma on Herzl Street in Rehovot.)

It would be easy to miss Cafe Ma without a local or experienced foreigner to introduce you—this restaurant and bar is nestled in between two car dealerships on the second floor of a hardware store (first floor by the European and Israeli convention). Upon ascending the stairs and entering the restaurant, the atmosphere is surprisingly warmer than one might expect from the surroundings, and it would appear to be at home in any other Western country. In addition to indoor seating, a small room on an enclosed balcony with windows provides room for a few more tables.

This restaurant is notable for being one of the minority secular establishments in religious Rehovot. Normally, I don't even think about whether a restaurant is kosher or not, because the food may be delicious regardless. However, being secular enables them to serve a cheeseburger, as well as actual bread during Passover. Until finding Cafe Ma I had considered observing a moment of silence for the absence of the cheeseburger, but then realized that one person observing a moment of silence does not really make a point.

I of course had the cheeseburger, preceded by some kind of eggplant appetizer and followed by the pictured dessert. The eggplant was a little overcooked, which generally tends to happen in restaurants, for reasons unknown to me. The cheeseburger had goat cheese and steak fries, with extremely generous portion sizes. If I did my mental metric conversion properly, you can get a burger up to a pound in size, and the smallest size is still quite formidable. The beef was high quality in contrast to other restaurants I've been to in this country. The dessert was as decadent as it looks, with extremely smooth and rich vanilla ice cream, light cookies, and raspberry sauce. It is perhaps best to attack the dessert with the help of one or two others, and it seems bringing a large group of people will lead to a free round of vodka anyway. It's a win-win situation.

One cannot really complain about Cafe Ma, other than perhaps for the second-hand smoke—although this is more of a general problem with going out in Israel, and so I can't place the blame entirely on the restaurant itself. The inspiration for their name is also a little bizarre, coming from the Japanese for "gap," with the napkins giving some story about Japanese Noh flutes and general "what is the sound of no hand clapping?"-type nonsense. Apparently, peculiar misinterpretations of Japanese culture know no geographical bounds. All in all, for what you pay, it is easy to leave feeling satisfied, and occasionally it is pleasant to find food that is familiar to my American palate.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

LA: Sunnin Lebanese and Saffron & Rose Ice Cream

On Saturday night, I walked the few blocks from UCLA's Tiverton House to the Wilshire side of the Hammer Museum, where I met up with Jane.  From there we walked down Westwood for about 10 or 15 minutes until we reached Sunnin Lebanese Cafe; Jane had actually eaten here the night before, but was enthusiastic about returning with me.  This restaurant really doesn't look like much on the outside, but the one big room inside is quite comfortable and airy, with lots of dark wood tables and a semi-open kitchen area.

After checking out the menu, I decided to go straight down the middle with the beef kefta kabab, described as "finely ground beef with chopped onions and parsley, seasoned with a blend of spices, grilled on a skewer served with hommos, rice, Lebanese salad and pita bread."  The kabab reminded me a lot of Persian koobideh, in a good way; the accompanying rice was also somewhat seasoned.  Sunnin's hummus is on the lemony/tangy side and, along with the salad and the radish slices, provided a much-needed contrast to the rich meat.

Jane decided to get one of the specials, ouzi, which is a rice dish served with baked lamb tenderloin and thick yogurt.  I'm not really a fan of lamb, but I definitely liked the rice, which - though kind of oily - was deliciously spiced with cinnamon and pistachios.  Jane managed about half the plate, which was quite admirable considering how enormous the portion was.

After dinner, we walked back along Westwood and stopped in briefly to check out a bakery called Paris Bakery, which has a very pretty display case and will be worth coming back to.  Instead of getting pastries, though, we continued through the stretch of Middle Eastern restaurants and shops and ended up at Saffron & Rose, a very popular Persian ice cream shop.

The owners are more than happy to give a taste tour of their best flavors, which include saffron pistachio, white rose, coconut, and cucumber, and also made a point of telling us that all their ingredients are organic.

I got a small scoop ($3) of saffron pistachio and white rose, and Jane went with saffron pistachio and coconut.  These ice creams are some of the best I've ever had, thanks to the flavors being so intense and fragrant.  Thanks for introducing me to both this ice cream and to Sunnin, Jane!

After visiting two ice cream shops during this LA trip, my verdict is that Diddy Riese's is a great place to spend $1.50 and satisfy a sugar/dairy/baked-goods craving, very close to UCLA's campus, while Saffron & Rose is a great place to spend $3.00 in exchange for some transcendence, if you walk a little farther.  Different solutions for different needs!  I have a feeling I'll be returning to both shops quite often over the next eight years, since I am in fact moving to LA for med/grad school.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

LA: Tanino Ristorante

Friday evening's dinner with the other prospectives and some current students took place at Tanino Ristorante, a beautiful and rather romantic establishment in Westwood.  (Judging by the number of couples who were seated in the main restaurant area by the time my group headed out, Tanino is one of the date-night restaurants of choice in this neighborhood).  Our large group took up two big tables in the private dining area, which is upstairs.

We had a prix fixe menu and began with a salad of greens, roasted tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette, and shaved parmesan.  This salad was evenly dressed, with a moderate amount of cheese, and thus made for a comfortable starter.

For entrees, we had a choice of a pasta combination, salmon, or chicken.  I chose the pasta, which consisted of three different preparations: mushroom risotto, gnocchi in tomato-basil sauce, and pumpkin ravioli in a sage cream sauce.  The pumpkin ravioli were the clear winner, with wonderfully tender spinach pasta, a precise balance between the pumpkin's sweetness and the cream sauce, and a very pretty appearance.  Risotto has never been among my favorite Italian dishes (unfortunately, it reminds me of porridge), though I am a fan of mushroom flavors.  I liked the acidity of the gnocchi's tomato basil sauce, but thought the gnocchi themselves were a little too chewy.  The overall portion size was just right.

The prospectives on either side of me ordered the chicken marsala and seemed to enjoy it very much.

Dessert was a vanilla bean panna cotta, neither too soft nor too Jello-like, served with some mixed berries.  There was plenty of wine (to accompany), both red and white.  We had a very charismatic server who, apart from being charmingly old-fashioned in purposefully serving all the women first, also struck me as the Italian version of Coach from Coach Sushi; twice, I had to put my hand over my wine glass to prevent a refill. 

Dinner was followed by pomegranate margaritas at Palomino, which serves an all-evening happy hour menu of reasonably good drinks for the pleasant price of $5, in a relatively classy (albeit loud) lounge environment.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Guest post by E: Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay

(Ed.: Today E returns with her second guest post, which I think provides a scintillating intermission and geographical contrast to my in-progress LA entries.)

M and I were overdue for a date day, so on Saturday we headed to Half Moon Bay for some foggy hiking and a nice dinner.  We decided to check out a local Italian place (there are a lot of them, actually) called Pasta Moon, even though from the outside it looked a little casual.

This restaurant was a reminder not to be deceived by appearances - the funky rusted metal exterior gives way to an airy, classy interior, with hardwood floors, big windows looking on to a garden, a wood fired oven, white tablecloths...

We were still a little full from our picnic lunch....and an afternoon visit to a cafe... so we decided to share.  First up was an appetizer, the "Spring Asparagus" - large asparagus stalks lightly battered in tempura, and served with a lemon aioli.

The asparagus was light and perfectly cooked, and even without the aioli it was delicious - with the light lemon flavor addition, it was amazing.  For our entree, we got the special for the evening, a cannelloni filled with ricotta, spinach, and wood fired smoked chicken, topped with a sauce of tomato, cream, amaretto, and hazelnuts.

It was very good - the pasta was clearly made in-house, and the sauce was delicious, but the smoky flavor from the chicken was a little overly strong without any type of fresh vegetable to balance it out.

This was really a find - I've been wanting to try Pasta Moon for years.  It's a little on the pricey side, but the food is excellent to match.

Monday, April 18, 2011

LA: Jerry's Famous Deli

On Thursday, I met fellow former FroSoCoan Trevor for dinner.  Trevor is also quite a foodie, and the two options he had in mind for dinner in Westwood were Angelino's and Jerry's Famous Deli.  Since I had eaten at Angelino's during my interview visit, and also since Passover is coming up, we decided to go to Jerry's.  (Note: Neither one of us is Jewish, and we were both quite aware that going to a Jewish deli is far from, say, participating in an actual seder.  Speaking of seders, I think my Middle East Bureau Chief actually just attended one a couple of hours ago.)

Anyway, back to Jerry's.  We felt some moral imperative to order the Reuben, and since I was feeling both amenable to corned beef and also intimidated by the very extensive menu, two Reubens it was.  I had the "LA size," which has 4-oz of corned beef, while Trevor went with the "NY size" of 7-oz.  Yes, the menu actually labels the options in that manner.

The sandwiches come on toasted rye with a side of dressing that reminded me strongly of In-n-Out's Thousand Island-based dressing, a side of coleslaw, and your choice of regular fries, sweet potato fries, steak fries, or onion rings.  This sandwich was a drippy one because the corned beef was satisfyingly juicy way, and the dressing enhanced it by adding a tangy note.  By the time I got to the second half of the sandwich, the bottom piece of bread was nearly soaked through with meat juices, but it was still good.

Many thanks to Trevor for not just a foodie win, but more importantly for much generous insight into DGSOM!  Here's hoping for future culinary excursions and perhaps even joint dinner parties.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

LA: Diddy Riese Cookies

Instead of doing one big post on food from this LA visit, I'm going to split things into several entries, because I think each of these food experiences deserves its own post.  Here's the first!

After a fantastic faculty meeting / lab visit this afternoon, I decided to celebrate by going to Diddy Riese for an ice cream sandwich.  This place had been strongly recommended to me during my interview visit, but I didn't make it there even though Diddy's is located right across the street from where the post-interview-day dinner was held.  Today, however, I was determined to succeed, and succeed I did.  Here's the outside of the store; as you can see, there was a small line.

The inside of the store is quite cheery, and even more so because of the prices: $1.50 gets you an ice cream sandwich with two cookies of your choice (a pretty standard repertoire of chocolate chip permutations, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, snickerdoodle, etc, all baked in-house) and ice cream (Dreyer's).  You can also get just cookies (3 for $1, and more discounts for larger quantities) or brownies ($0.45 each).  Apparently I wasn't supposed to take pictures of the inside, which I found out as I was snapping away....Anyhow, I chose chocolate chip and chocolate chocolate chip with walnuts as my two cookies, with espresso chip ice cream in between.  The cookies are fresh and fantastic, and even better when paired with ice cream.  It's easy to see (and taste) why so much cash - and be aware that Diddy's has a cash-only policy - flows from the pockets of UCLA students to this fine establishment.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

St. Louis: Eclipse at the Moonrise and Bar Italia

I was planning to take the weekend off from food blogging, but as with my first visit to St. Louis, my second trip turned out to involve several satisfying meals.  Two were particularly blog-worthy:

1. Dinner on Thursday night was a buffet at the Moonrise Hotel, catered by the in-house Eclipse Restaurant.  Salad, herbed jasmine rice, vegetables I can't quite recall, pesto penne, and a baked chicken dish comprised a standard but very well-prepared spread.  Desserts were miniature lemon meringue pies, cheesecakes, chocolate whoopie pies, and some sort of cupcake.  Thanks to meringue tops that were both tender and chewy under the browned exteriors, those little pies were among the best I've ever had, which I definitely wasn't expecting given their small size and large production volume.  No pictures from this meal, since I was fully occupied with eating, meeting people, and trying to remember names.  Sidenote: we were in a room named "Apollo 11."  The hotel's theme and associated room-naming scheme made the geek in me quite happy.

2. Before visiting the very lovely Missouri Botanical Garden on Saturday afternoon, I ate at Bar Italia in the Central West End with a group of prospectives and current students.  It was a relatively warm and humid day, but fortunately sitting outdoors on the covered patio wasn't bad at all.

I started with a simple house salad, with large, uncut lettuce leaves and olives in a lemony vinaigrette.

Other people at the table ordered the beef carpaccio, bruschetta, caprese salad, and proscuitto with asparagus.  Everything seemed very fresh, and I recall that practically all the plates were enthusiastically cleared.

I thought the asparagus was particularly nice to look at:

My entree was the Pasta alla Norma, i.e., fettuccini with a sauce of tomatoes, carrots, Italian sausage, and - I think - mushroom.  The pasta was cooked al dente, and there was a sufficient but not overpowering amount of sauce.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Palo Alto: Douce France

After returning to Palo Alto from a doctor's appointment last Monday afternoon, I decided to grab an early dinner at Douce France in Town & Country.  After perusing the extensive pastry and lunch options, I decided on a quiche and a dessert.  The quiche options are spinach, mushroom, and ham, and I chose the first; it was warmed in an oven before being brought over to my little cafe table.  I thought the balance of egg, spinach and cheese was pretty good, since quiches are rich enough (due to the flaky crust) that a ton of cheese is overkill.

For dessert, I went with the lemon tart (yes, the meal's color scheme was yellow), which was an excellent recommendation on the same server's part.  This was definitely one of the most intensely lemony desserts I've ever had, definitely on the tangy side.  The chocolate squiggle was a nice garnish but really quite unnecessary.  This tart is a must-order if you are a fan of fruit flavors.

Finally, I picked up an almond croissant to eat later in the evening.  This croissant is even smaller than its relative at Mayfield Bakery, and even better.  Douce France's preparation looks more like La Boulange's almond croissant, but has a delicate internal texture that Mayfield's preparation is based upon.  In short, it was probably the best almond croissant I've had in Palo Alto.

All three items came to under $10, and the ambience (mellow but unobtrusive music, lots of little tables and varied seating options) is quite pleasant as well.  Mayfield Bakery, you've got competition!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Notes from Tel Aviv: Sandwich at Sabroso

(Ed.: Andrew is currently in Rehovot, Israel, near Tel Aviv, having temporarily relocated there for the purpose of scientific advancement.  As my Middle East Bureau Chief for the next several months, he will hopefully be sharing some of the area's culinary delights.  Here is his first report, which I have taken the liberty of editing slightly.)

It seems the restaurants here are hit-or-miss, but there's a really nice one that is partially outdoors called The Strawberry Tree (in Hebrew, of course).  The only thing is, there are so many stray cats around here that you might meet a new friend while you eat.

Also, it turns out that food photography requires some skill when you have a terrible cell phone camera.  I had a delicious chorizo sandwich at a place called Sabroso for a little over 30 shekels ($8.65), and the restaurant was this great little hole in the wall, but as you can see, the resulting photo does not convey any sense of quality whatsoever.  Granted, this could be because I ate half the sandwich first. 

Service: free beer and orange soda in compensation for no English menu.  Not bad.

The restaurant had flat screens for watching soccer, and to the right of my plate was a goldfish bowl with two fish swimming around. The seating was half bar and half tables, plus a covered street patio. The bar managed to use plywood in an attractive way, which I was a little impressed by, given that plywood typically looks terrible.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Palo Alto: Calafia Cafe

On Sunday Justin flew back to the area "on business," so I met up with him and Max around 6:00pm, and we drove to Town & Country for dinner at Calafia Cafe.  The only three-top immediately available was outside, and given the glorious early evening weather, we chose that option over a 10-15 min wait.  Service was on the slow side - they seemed rather understaffed - but apart from being rather hungry, we weren't in much of a hurry.

Calafia was started by the former Head Chef at Google, and the emphasis is on fresh, organic and local ingredients, with plenty of vegetarian, vegan and low-carb options.  The menu is double-sided, with one side being entirely vegetarian/vegan and one side being omnivorous.  From the omnivorous side, I chose the burger, asking our server if I could replace the bacon with avocado.  His response was, "I'd love to accommodate you, but unfortunately we can't provide organic avocados."  I was going to respond that non-organic avocado was just fine with me, but it turns out that because organic avocados were unavailable, the substitution would not be possible at all.  After a few blinks, I requested that the bacon simply be omitted.  This request was noted, along with the rest of the orders, using a flurry of taps on a Palm Pilot-like device.  Justin ordered the salmon open face sandwich, and Max ordered the crispy chicken breast.

My burger, with cheddar and grilled onions, was a perfect way to satisfy my post-hellish-traffic-experience-on-the-Bay-Bridge meat cravings.  The accompaniments were a mountain of fries (unevenly cut but still evenly crisp), housemade pickles, and housemade ketchup that really tasted more like a tomato jam.  Justin's salmon was the most attractive entree of the evening, with salmon, arugula, and some apple layered over a very thin piece of crisp bread.  He thought the dish was excellent but simply not very filling, given that the only carbohydrate was - to paraphrase his words - "a big flat crouton." 

Max's chicken was also carefully presented, with arugula and fennel shavings mounded on top.  This dish apparently tasted good, though the chicken was slightly overcooked.

Max shared Justin's complaint of lingering hunger, which we all agreed could have been avoided had Calafia provided a bread basket.  The salmon and chicken entrees would have been perfect for lunch or a light dinner, and Calafia is lovely in that it's both classy and casual, but some of the meals they serve are definitely insufficient for hungry 20-something-year-olds.  Instead of ordering dessert, we took care of the check, picked up some groceries at Trader Joe's and then returned to E/M's apartment, where the boys had a second dinner of Max's homemade turkey meatballs and pasta.  We ended the evening with mango mochi ice cream and leftover baklava.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Davis: Afternoon tea at Tea List

On Saturday afternoon, my mom and I decided to go for afternoon tea at Tea List, a charming tea room/shop that I had happened upon back in December.  We chose one of the shady tables outside and were presented with a reasonably extensive tea menu.  My mom chose the organic Gyokuro tea (a Japanese green), while I went with an organic Darjeeling.  The teapots are presented with little timers to tell you when to stop steeping.

The tray of sandwiches, scones and desserts arrived a little while later (afternoon tea is not for those in a hurry!).  On the top layer was some assorted fresh fruit.  On the bottom layer, four kinds of sandwiches: chicken salad on wheat, turkey and pesto on wheat, cucumber and cream cheese on white bread, and roasted vegetables on baguette.

On the middle layer, fresh scones (there was Devonshire cream and jam to accompany), Napoleons, and little bites of chocolate apricot cake with pistachio bits.  The scones were definitely the best part of the tea service: fresh-baked, and the perfect balance of crusty and soft.  The Napoleons, with layers of vanilla custard between puff pastry, were a close second, even though the pastry had softened by the time we got to dessert.

This tea service is $18 per person, and when you take the tea, food, and the very lovely surroundings into account, I think it makes for a wonderful and reasonable afternoon excursion.  Thanks, Mom!

San Francisco: Osha Thai

On Friday night, I joined a moderately large group (~12 people) for dinner at Osha Thai in SOMA, celebrating Aman's birthday.  The scene is dark, loud, and trendy, with lounge-like seating on wide wooden benches between the tables, and funny prism-shaped pillows to delineate the boundaries between groups.  First, we started with some shared appetizers.  These were the crab rangoon, which I haven't had since some Americanized Chinese buffet when I was very young.  For some reason they tasted better than I remembered them, probably because memory had failed and I wasn't expecting cheese to gush out of the fried wrapper.

We also tried some samosas, which were very flavorful and had a more delicate texture than I expected:

Shawn and I decided to share two entrees, the first being the "Spicy Thai Noodles" with tofu.  Using a generous amount of oil is really the only way to prevent rice noodles from clumping, but fortunately the spicing here was excellent and stood up well to the grease.

Our second dish was a "new" pork-based curry called Hung Lay curry, served with fried rotis.  This supposedly Northwest Thai curry, with lots of ginger and garlic, was both incredibly good and incredibly rich.  The spiciness of the noodles sort of helped cut the richness, but just barely, and I was glad that we were sharing.

Across from me, Ed ordered the crab fried rice, which fortunately had a noticeable amount of crab chunks.  I tried some and thought it was pretty good (albeit a little salty), and he seemed to enjoy it as well.

The servers here do an admirable job of negotiating around large and often boisterous groups, as well as taking orders and serving dishes in a very noisy atmosphere.  For dessert, they brought Aman a warm chocolate cake (with candle), accompanied by the already low lights being turned [almost] completely off as we sang happy birthday :-).

Tomorrow I am headed back to St. Louis for a program revisit, though I have enough posts lined up to cover the gap while I'm traveling.