Archive for the ‘restaurant food’ Category

Marvelous Mushrooms

February 17, 2010

Regular readers may recall that every so often I get a bee in my bonnet about a particular kind of produce.

Persimmons come to mind. Brussels sprouts too. No surprise that a blog named Lettuce Eat Kale showcases a certain dark, leafy green, whether roasted or dehydrated.

Today, mushrooms get their due. Recently, I’ve become a tad obsessed with these forest favorites as they show themselves, post-rainy season, in my neck of the woods.

First, I felt compelled to make Mushroom Risotto. Compelled. So at a farmer’s market I stocked up on a big, brown bag full of crimini, shiitake, and oyster mushies. And I made a big, brown batch of risotto, its inherent creaminess offset by the earthy flavors of the three fungi.

My recipe is similar to this one, sans cream, from Simply Recipes. But I have nothing against cream, cream and I are firm friends, so I’ll definitely give Elise Bauer’s version a go. And I encourage you to, as well.

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver’s love poem to the mighty morel in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her lyrical account of a year living off the land.  This exotic edible, which defies attempts at domestication, sells for a small fortune during its short season.

With a little local help, Kingsolver uncovers the mystery of where Molly Mooches (morels to the rest of us) pop up on her very own property and her family set out to hunt and gather this prized wild delight.  She finds a perfectly good home for them in Asparagus and Morel Bread Pudding, from Deborah Madison‘s Local Flavors (downloadable here).

Next up, the forageSF Wild Kitchen Chinese New Year dinner, where fungi was featured in not one but two of the seven courses, made up of mostly sustainable, foraged, local, wild ingredients, natch.

The communal dinner kicked off with the smoky subtlety of Black Trumpet Mushroom and Wild Radish Dumplings and ended on a high note with Ginger Candy Cap Ice Cream. The candy cap mushrooms offered a deep, rich, maple-syrup like sweetness to this delish dessert.

I know, mushroom-infused ice cream. Who knew it could be so good?

Then just last week, I was wowed by the dreamy creaminess of Scott Howard’s reinvented macaroni & cheese, at his restaurant Five, in downtown Berkeley. This mac&cheese only marginally resembles the American classic mama used to make. And that’s a good thing.

Little ramekins of loveliness ooze with orzo, cream, and smoked gouda, topped with sliced, braised morels, a dollop of tomato jam, and a smattering of bread crumbs. A decadently divine dish.

Ready for a recipe?

Today’s offering, Chanterelle Pate, comes courtesy of chef Mary Kuntz, whom I met while reporting on the Sprouts Cooking Club.  Kuntz has worked in many acclaimed local restaurants and taught cooking to teens in Richmond public schools for about a dozen years.

She recently ran a four-week cooking class for Sprouts attended by Kaiser Permanente employees and their families at the Westside Cafe in Berkeley.  The mushroom pate was a big hit with her students.

For a primer on choosing, caring & cleaning mushies, whether wild or cultivated, start here.

Enjoy experimenting with these woodsy wonders.

Mary Kuntz’s Chanterelle Pate


1 lb. cleaned, sliced chanterelle mushrooms

1 stick butter

3-4  finely chopped shallots

2 cloves minced garlic

½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh thyme (or lemon thyme)

1-2 cups dry white wine

2 cups peeled almonds (blanch & slip skins off)

salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper


1. Sauté the sliced mushrooms, shallots, garlic, parsley and thyme in the butter in a large frying pan.

2. When tender, pour over the wine, add almonds, and simmer till most liquid is absorbed.

3. Pureé in a processor in batches, add salt and pepper to taste, and some more soft butter to make richer, if desired.

4. Place in serving terrine and sprinkle with a little more minced parsley.

5. Cover and refrigerate for at least a few hours (or overnight) to allow flavors to develop.

6. Serve with toasted baguette, dark rye bread, or wheat crackers.


Valentine’s Day Dining Out: Just Say No

February 12, 2010

Allegedly, this coming weekend is a good one for amore.

That’s debatable, of course, depending on how your love life is looking.

What’s indisputable: It’s a great weekend for restaurants. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on Sunday, so presumably there’s a wider window (tonight might be a tad early, but tomorrow or Sunday works) of possibilities for the coupled to express their devotion over dinner.

If you’re not part of a dining dead duo (have nothing to say to each other, for those unfamiliar with the term, illustrated above) or go solo while you sup, then the thought of taking your main man (or woman) out for a bite to eat this weekend has probably crossed your mind.

I have three words for you: Don’t do it.

Here’s why:

  • High-expectation holiday  = Recipe for disappointment. No restaurant, no matter how fabo, can live up to this kind of pressure.
  • Restaurant kitchens and wait staff tend to be stretched thin on Big Night Out nights. Too much tension in the air. Who needs it?
  • Chances are you’ll wind up spending more than you would on a regular night out. You just will. Trust me on this one.
  • Food served up on a major holiday night tends not to taste as good as on a garden-variety evening. Little time for that careful attention to detail.
  • Lingering over a meal may not be possible if an eating establishment is trying to squeeze in two or three seatings for the night.
  • Tables tightly crammed into a small space to accommodate more people can preclude intimate conversation.
  • Other diners may engage in behaviors you’d rather not witness, be they proposals or displays of passion.

So stay home. Cook. If you can’t cook, serve an awesome cheese platter and a stellar bottle of vino, spread a blanket on the floor and call it a picnic. Or find inspiration for special dishes for the day by entering the words “Valentine’s Day recipes” into the Food Blog Search directory.

Spontaneous. Private. Mood managed. What could be sexier? And what says I (heart) you more than taking the time to plan a celebratory meal for the person you (heart)?

Don’t take my word for it. Restaurant industry insider and food service professional Food Woolf says V Day dining out is a really bad idea.

Canada’s Globe and Mail reports that restaurant wait staff consider V Day one of the least romantic evenings of the year with more bickering, hostility, awkwardness, and tension on table 2 than on other nights. Not to mention the fact that some fellow diners perform sex acts others would rather not see. So sez the paper. I kid you not.

Are you a lover or a hater of dining out on Valentine’s Day? Got a V Day eating out story — good, bad, or ugly that you care to share? Bring it on.

Sprouts Cooking Club: Growing the Next Generation of Chefs

February 1, 2010

It took a teenager from Wyomissing, PA who had never heard of Alice Waters to figure out what was missing on the culinary scene in Berkeley.

When Karen Rogers landed at UC Berkeley in 2005 she couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a cooking club on campus.  So she started one.

But the Cal Cooking Club wasn’t just about student potlucks, recipe exchanges, and cook outs. Drawing on her success in high school with a similar program she spearheaded, Karen made it her mission to forge relationships with local chefs. (Presumably she learned who Alice was pretty quickly.)  She invited culinary professionals on campus to teach cooking classes and took club members into local kitchen restaurants.

She even arranged a “Big Cook-off” between Cal and Stanford, tapping into the simmering rivalry between the schools. (Cal prevailed at the pots.)

Today, the culinary arts club has some 600 members, making it one of the largest clubs on campus, according to Karen, who graduated last year and resigned from presiding over the group in 2007 to focus on launching a local food-oriented business.

And what a thriving biz it is. While still in school, the international business major kicked off Culinary Kids (which has since morphed into Sprouts Cooking Club) for the next generation of chefs in Berkeley and beyond.

The organization allows Karen, 23, to pursue her passion for good food and fills another void in the Gourmet Ghetto’s food chain by offering young children the opportunity to cook real food with real chefs in real kitchens. “I enjoy working with kids because of their raw enthusiasm, open-mindedness, and fascination with food,” she says.

Not surprisingly, her classes fill quickly. For the past three summers, Karen has corralled young campers, ages 7 to 13, in and out of some of the fanciest restaurant kitchens in the Bay Area, including Chez Panisse, Boulevard, and Slanted Door. And these kids aren’t just baking cookies. They’ve made butternut squash ravioli with chef Cindy Deetz at Venezia, whipped up hummus at La Mediterranee, and learned how to “cook” raw at Cafe Gratitude, where they made an unbaked avocado chocolate cake.

You can read about the culinary adventures of one of her students, Sam Siegel, in an earlier post.

Prior to graduation, Karen spent time abroad, living in France and Japan; she also found time to squeeze in an internship at Chez Panisse.  In all three locations she worked in restaurant kitchens where the emphasis was on eating locally-sourced food cooked from scratch. She’s also volunteered on a farm in Ecuador, taken cooking classes in Peru, and toured coffee farms in Costa Rica to learn about fair trade and organic farming. These experiences, coupled with her family background — at one time her mom ground her own wheat and made bread for the family of 9 — informs the slow-food, sustainable, authentic cooking sensibilities she hopes to pass on to her young charges.

Sprouts receives sponsorship from Whole Foods, Strauss Creamery, and Alter Eco Fair Trade.  The group also partners with Kaiser Permanente, offering healthy meals cooking series targeting employees and their families. As a non-profit, Karen reaches out to a diverse group of kids in the community; she offers scholarships to families in need for camps and series classes, teaches cooking in Oakland schools and at the Senaca Center, a live-in treatment facility for emotionally-challenged children in Concord.

This spring, Sprouts will take its first international culinary tour, to Parisian Cyril Guignard’s country estate and historic chateau for seven days of cooking classes, authentic French cuisine, and provincial living. (Um, can I come?)

The trip to France is intended to give children and their parents first-hand experience in the culinary and cultural mores of another corner of the globe. “People in France don’t have big refrigerators or large supermarkets,” Karen notes. “Instead, they regularly visit their patisserie, charcuterie, and market and have relationships with the people who grow or make their food. It’s a completely different approach to the culinary arts that I want to expose the kids to.”

Accompanying her on this culinary tour is Jed Cote, sous chef of Pizzaiolo, and former line cook at Chez Panisse, who is very familiar with Provencale French cooking and rustic Italian fare but has never left the country. Armed with his recently acquired passport, Jed, 32, is keen to convey to the kids the pleasure of cooking, along with teaching them knife skills and how to make the perfect crepe.

Jed, who has a degree in criminology, planned on becoming an FBI agent, until every single person he interviewed who chose that line of work told him they regretted their decision. “So many people hate what they do. I think it’s important for children to see an adult who loves what he does,” he says. “I get up every day and go to a job that I love. I think that’s a really important message for children to learn.”

At a benefit brunch for Sprouts’ scholarship fund yesterday at Pizzaiolo, parent Czarina Good explained why she was taking her three children to France. “I see it as part of their education,” says Czarina, originally from the Philippines, whose children attend Chinese school. “I want my children to grow up knowing about all the different people and places of the world and food is a wonderful way to do that.”

For upcoming class series and information on summer camps (heads up: these fill fast), visit the Sprouts Cooking Club website.

Photo of Karen Rogers: Graham Bradley

Photo of Karen with kids: Courtesy Karen Rogers

Book Giveaway: My Nepenthe

November 13, 2009

It’s always tricky to write about a pal’s book, you don’t want to come off sounding like a fawning friend, frankly.

So, in the case of My Nepenthe by Romney “Nani” Steele, I’m going to let others hand out the praise. Sunset describes Nani’s cookbook-cum-memoir as “a valentine to one of the most beautiful places to eat in the world.” Michael Pollan calls it “a very special book about a very special place.” And epicurious just named it the best American regional cookbook of 2009.

If you know Big Sur, home to the iconic Nepenthe restaurant, the area and the eatery need no introduction. If you’re not familiar with this small, rural California Central Coast enclave perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean then you should add it to your list of places to visit before you die. Really.

For 60 years Nepenthe has served comfort food with a view to locals, travelers, and tourists. And so much more: for the artists, nature lovers, spiritual seekers, writers, and wanderers who stop by, this magical spot transcends what comes out of the kitchen.

In My Nepenthe Nani, 44, a writer, chef, and food stylist, reveals the colorful back story to this family restaurant, founded by her grandparents Bill and Lolly Fassett, including the unorthodox life they lived, the eclectic boho community they cultivated, and Nani’s own foray into running Cafe Kevah as a European-style eatery with slow food sensibilities located on the same site as the “House of No Sorrow.”

romney.steele.2If you’re curious to find out more, read my Q&A with the author over at the hyper-local site Berkeleyside.

To win a copy of this visually lush book, filled with 85 restaurant recipes tweaked for the tastes of today’s home cooks, leave a comment about a special place  — and a local eatery that adds to the area’s charm. Submit your entry by 10 p.m. PST on Friday, November 20 and I’ll pick a winner from the suggestions shared below.

Update: Thanks to all who entered — you guys made me hungry for places both near and far. So many great suggestions I couldn’t decide, so I put your names into a pot (my desk is next to my kitchen) and the winner, chosen at random is: Christine, for her suggestion of the worldly Vagabond in San Diego. Congrats. an autographed copy of My Nepenthe is on its way to you. Look for another book giveaway in December.

To whet your appetite, a few recipes from the pages of My Nepenthe follow.

Pappardelle with Chanterelles

Serves 4

½ pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms
1½ tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1 large shallot or small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme, stemmed
²⁄³ cup vegetable stock or water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 to 12 ounces dried pappardelle pasta or other wide pasta
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for passing

Considered gold by the culinary world, found chanterelles were a regular part of my grandmother’s Sunday night dinners and were
often featured in the Thanksgiving meal.

Gently clean the mushrooms with a dry brush. Avoid soaking in water. Trim any dry stems. Slice the mushrooms into ½-inch pieces.

Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the shallot and cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the mushrooms, garlic, and thyme and sauté until the mushrooms are browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

Ladle in the stock, season with salt and pepper, and simmer for 3 minutes, until the mushrooms are just tender. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water and then drain the pasta in a colander.

Add the pasta to the mushrooms in the skillet along with the remaining 2 tablespoons of the butter.

Cook over moderately high heat, tossing the pasta to coat and adding pasta water to moisten if needed, until thoroughly coated.

Stir in the parsley and lemon zest.

Divide the pasta among 4 warm plates and sprinkle with the Parmesan. Pass additional Parmesan separately.

Chopped Salad with Roquefort Dressing

Serves 4 to 6

Roquefort Dressing

2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried mustard
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 to 6 ounces Roquefort cheese
2/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup canola or safflower oil

Chopped Salad

2 heads romaine lettuce
1 head green leaf lettuce
4 to 6 cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper

For the dressing:

Combine the garlic, basil, oregano, mustard, pepper, sugar, and salt in a clean glass jar.

Crumble the cheese and add to the jar. Add the vinegar and oils.

Cover and shake vigorously until thoroughly combined. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

You will have more than enough dressing; refrigerate any extra.

For the salad:

Wash and thoroughly dry the lettuces, trimming the ends and discarding any bruised leaves.

Tear into bite-size pieces and place in individual chilled bowls. Top with the desired amount of dressing, making sure each salad has
plenty of blue cheese chunks. Add the cherry tomatoes and grind black pepper over the tops.


Pumpkin Spice Cake (Bohemian Wedding Cake)

Makes 1 (9-inch) cake, serving 10 to 12

1 cup whole-wheat flour (not pastry flour)
1 cup unbleached white flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch salt
1 cup vegetable oil
1½ cups brown sugar, firmly packed
2 eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree (about 1¾ cups)
¼ cup molasses
¾ cup raisins
½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Sour Cream Frosting:

½ cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened
½ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
About 2 cups confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan, knocking out any excess flour.

For the cake:

Combine the whole-wheat flour, white flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl: stir together the oil and brown sugar, mixing well. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla. Mix in the pumpkin puree and then the molasses.

Stir in the dry ingredients, mixing until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in the raisins and walnuts.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake about 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted  in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then invert and cool completely.

For the frosting:

Mix the cream cheese, sour cream, and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth.

Sift in the confectioners’ sugar and mix well. It should be thinner than a typical cream cheese frosting.

Place the cake on a cake plate. Spread a thin layer of frosting on top and all over the side. Freeze any leftover frosting, or reserve for muffins or cupcakes.

— All Recipes From My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur by Romney Steele/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Photo of Romney Steele by Doug McKechnie

Six Reasons to Eat in Sydney and Beyond

October 20, 2009

Indulge me, if you will, just one more vacation/holiday post before it’s back to regularly scheduled programming.

Well, as any of you who head home for the holidays know, spending time with your family and friends in your hometown is technically not a vacation. In my mind it’s a visit, a way to keep connected with the clan and long-time friends who knew you way back when. Does that make sense? Probably the subject of another post…

But in the spirit of the old adage, a change is as good as a holiday, six things to love about the food scene in Sydney and beyond. Print and save for when awesome airline deals fly by again — these day $600 round trip  SFO to SYD is not unheard of — and the Southern Hemisphere sunshine beckons during the rainy winter months just around the corner for those of us in the Northern climes. (Well, California hardly counts as a place with difficult winter weather and the two weeks I just spent in Sydney this spring were cool and wet, but you get the general idea.)

Even if the skies didn’t cooperate, the food didn’t disappoint.

My picks from the trip:

1. Seafood

Where to begin? It’s fresh, local, and tastes like it was plucked straight out of the sea. Prawns that actually exude a prawn-like flavor. Fleshy white fish that flakes off the fork and the tongue. Calamari with just the right chew factor. I found myself devouring barramundi in a lovely bush setting at Echo on the Marina, enjoying the inventiveness of kingfish sashimi, Spencer Gulf prawns with wasabi, and jewfish in XO sauce at the fancy-pants glass brasserie run by Sydney celeb chef Luke Mangan, and chowing down on some decent street eats — salt and pepper squid  — (what my niece used to call crunchy seahorse) at the Night Noodle Markets in Hyde Park. I’d be a full-fledged pescatarian (rather than a somewhat-lapsed vegetarian) if I lived in my hometown.

Cafe Culture

The cafe scene Down Under is simply marvelous, you get a real sense of a place’s unique personality the minute you walk through the door. I miss the Sydney cafe scene madly, hardly surprising since I dwell in the land of generic coffee shops such as Starbucks and Gloria Jeans, and chain eateries like Pasta Pomodoro and P.F. Chang’s (and these restaurants offer solid dishes compared with the ubiquitous U.S. fast food joints found the world over).

Sydney’s cafe culture runs the gamut from fine dining to cheap eats, and includes at least three distinct scenes, details follow.

2. Upscale Cafes

cafe.sopra.sardinesMy last lunch in town was spent noshing with my long-time friend and her two hungry kids at a high-end (but not exxy) cafe in an artsy and industrial neighborhood. Cafe Sopra in Waterloo, is housed in a warehouse-like location above Fratelli Fresh, one of this town’s  more interesting fruit&veg providores. The cafe boasts a blackboard menu and elegantly simple (mostly) Italian-inspired dishes with a few hearty English overtures here and there. The menu also includes an emphasis on top-notch produce (natch) and the service is pitch perfect, warm and professional, still something of a rarity in this otherwise sophisticated city.

Plus, I watched an eight-year-old plough through a plate of pan-fried sardine fillets perched on grilled bruschetta with braised tomato and a dollop of pesto like there was no tomorrow. If that’s not a ringing endorsement of this cafe’s gussied up home-style cooking I don’t know what else is. Oh, it was voted best cafe by TimeOut Sydney last year. Loved the antipasto plate with pickled beetroot and gorgonzola, along with roasted pumpkin salad and green beans with pesto. Not for the carb adverse, my galpal and I tucked into a bowl of tagliatelle brightened successfully with just lemon, chili, garlic, and broccolini.

3. Neighborhood Cafes

Sydney is also chock full of fabo spots to duck in for a quick bite for brekkie or lunch or a well-brewed coffee, especially in the inner-city suburbs (this oxymoron makes sense when you’re on the ground). I’ve always especially liked the cafes found in and around the inner west. This trip I was pleasantly surprised by what was dished up at Piccolo Padre in Rozelle; loved the salad of pan-fried haloumi with generous chunks of roasted pumpkin that I ate before taking a long walk with my screenwriter friend, who heads to the Piccolo for a post-school drop off coffee most mornings.

4. Beachside Cafes

See a theme emerging here? There’s nothing quite like drinking a freshly squeezed orange-carrot-ginger juice and eating Turkish toast smothered with rhubarb jam while you watch the waves and observe the locals at play on the sand. I’m partial to the cafes with ample outdoor seating at Bronte, Bondi, Coogee, or Clovelly in Sydney’s eastern beach suburbs. Die-hard northern beaches fans will no doubt weigh in with their own surf-side nosheries. And, of course, the perfect way to preface such a breakfast or lunch is to begin with a brisk walk. Last day in Sydney I hoofed it from Coogee to North Bondi to work up a decent appetite before I took a well-earned pit stop at Jenny’s cafe in Bronte.

5. Ethnic enclaves

turkish.golemeA trip home isn’t complete without some local Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese take-away. I’m also a big fan of the cheese and spinach Turkish Gozleme, a type of savory crepe sold at several urban markets. And for a sweet treat with a cuppa tea, a Portuguese tart does the trick, with its flacky pastry base and light custard filling. Local food blogger Helen Yee, at Grab Your Fork does a stellar job summing up the range of ethnic eats in and around Sydney. The city also boasts chic modern Asian restaurants with a sustainable food focus like Billy Kwong; along with two more recent standouts, Red Lantern and Spice Temple, that, alas, I ran out of evenings to try. Next time.

6. Regional cuisine

Regional cuisine is on the rise around Australia. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d be hard pressed to find something edible in a small country town or seaside community. That’s no longer a worry. Case in point: A small, unpretentious seaside restaurant in Port Macquarie, on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, fusion 7 serves Mod Oz cuisine worthy of inclusion in the Good Food Guide. Along with a gaggle of gals from high school, this out-of-towner was delighted to dig into some Aussie-inspired offerings such as rocket, parmesan, and macadamia nut salad, soft-shell crab with shitake-ginger sambal and peanut aoli on a bean sprout and coriander salad, barramundi with soba noddles and chilies, and passionfruit brulee.

Are you about ready to book a flight? If you live in Sydney, or will be there between now and October 31, enjoy the last week or so of the crave sydney event, which showcases local food at its best.

As for me, I’m back to hiking the hills around Berkeley in an effort to ward off any collatoral damage from my recent trip.

Friendship by the Numbers

October 9, 2009

5 gals

2 become firm friends at age 8

12 the age we all get together and become great mates

4 years tanning our legs along the C block wall

7 countries, 4 continents

5 marriages

4 partners from overseas

3 exes

1 20-year union

10 babies, ranging in age from 3 to 18

1 parent gone

15 years since our last weekend away as a fivesome

10 months since we were reunited in sydney

26 years since we’ve all lived in the one country

33 years as the fab 5, together again for

1 wedding


1 celebratory feast at fusion 7 (more on that later), punctuated by

1 passing, 1 proposal, and 1 silly pink Akubra hat for the hen among us who refers to herself as a boiler

countless hours spent laughing, crying, listening, and talking together over plunger coffee, a good red, or a fine dining experience

here’s to many more…

What Kind of Diner Are You?

September 17, 2009

eat.mrjoro.flickrI’d make a lousy restaurant reviewer. Here’s why: When I go out to eat I often choose the same dishes I know and love at a favorite eatery. If I’m trying a new (to me) joint, I’ll opt for recommendations from friends or scan reviews before hitting the dining spot to find the best picks off the menu.

Recent case in point: When I check out Burma Superstar in Oakland’s restaurant row in the Temescal neighborhood, a clone of its wildly popular cousins with the same name in San Francisco and Alameda, I simply follow the advice of my lunch companions, who both utter just three words: Tea Leaf Salad.

I’m not a complete sheep.  The menu notes that the Tea Leaf Salad is a customers’ favorite AND featured on the Food Network, no less. Hard to argue with such cred.

The salad promptly arrives and arranged aesthetically around the plate are little groupings of ingredients, including fried garlic, peanuts, sunflower seeds, dried chickpeas, tomato, romaine lettuce and dried shrimp (vegetarian option available). Smack dab in the middle is a wet mound of black and green Burmese tea. The obliging waiter tosses the salad tableside, finishing it with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

It doesn’t disappoint. As advertised, it’s an intriguing mix of salt, sweet, crunch, crisp, dried, fresh, all infused with the faint taste of steeped tea. I could eat nothing else and feel completely sated.

In the name of research I also sample the platha and dip appetizer. Platha is a multi-layered bread that’s almost like a pastry, with just the right amount of oil and flakiness to qualify as comfort food when dipped into a little bowl of coconut chicken curry sauce.

For the uninitiated, food from this southeast Asian country (now known as Myanmar) includes Thai, Indian, and Chinese influences; it’s neither too sweet nor too spicy for most palates. At the restaurant, sticklers for authenticity will immediately spot concessions to Cal cuisine to keep the locals happy (hello chopped romaine); most diners just dig in.

On subsequent visits to the busy, bustling spot, which doesn’t take reservations (insider tip: go early), I introduce a few new devotees to THE salad as well. It’s practically got a cult following.  Maybe even its own Facebook page. I venture out a little. Also good is the Rainbow Salad, which boasts 22 ingredients, including noodles, green papaya, tofu, and most notably, tamarind sauce. The Mango Salad with pickled mangos, cabbage, and cucumbers is refreshing and pairs nicely with the bar’s signature muddled and minty mojitos.

Forays into the hot dishes are less successful.  Chicken with Fresh Basil is serviceable but not stunning, Egg Curry with Okra simply doesn’t work. On one visit my fellow diners rave about Bun Tay Kauser (flour noodles, chicken curry coconut sauce, split yellow peas, eggs, and cabbage). I’m less wowed by the combo, though masala adds a welcome spicy undertone.  I know it sounds good but for me the different elements just don’t hang together. On the other hand, you can’t go wrong with the aromatic Coconut Rice.

I guess that makes me a somewhat unadventurous restaurant goer — and, thus, the gal least likely to get the reviewer gig. My standard order at Burma Superstar (no surprises here): Tea Leaf Salad. Platha & Dip. Coconut Rice. I’m reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, an amusing account of her days dining out in disguises for the New York Times, and like most epicureans she seems game to try anything. The book got me thinking about what kind of strategy people bring to the table when they go out for a meal.

So, dear readers, when you eat in a restaurant are you a play-it-safe diner or a go-for-it gourmand? Do tell.

Flickr photo by mrjoro used under the Creative Commons License

Simply Delicious

September 16, 2009

Dudley’s Rhythm & Motion dance class on Sunday. Yogurt, granola, and berries for breakfast — topped off with a fig, no less — from around the corner at the architecturally splendid Stable Cafe, once the site of the San Francisco mayor’s carriage house in the 1800s, now adding some sparkle to an otherwise scruffy stretch of Folsom Street.

It’s the simple pleasures — dancing with the same community of movers & shakers for more than two decades, sharing a healthy breakfast with a friend (Beth’s line of the day: “Don’t you just love it when you crave a food that’s good for you?”), and enjoying eating outside in some sunshine after stormy weather — that make life grand. Don’t you think?