Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Highlight #239: Neighborhood fun place - Restaurant: Apres Diem

A few years back, Apres Diem was our neighborhood Friday night hangout. Then the hangout group went through some people shifts and we stopped going there. That is until this past week, when I was invited to birthday dinner/drinks in the AD courtyard with a new group. A few hours under the stars reminded me of all the good times. The wine list is not long here, but very drinkable. The food is not too fancy, but tasty enough. most of all, the atmosphere is always vibrant, even on a weeknight. Who can resist a happy place, not me.

My salmon looked quite messy, but had a nice warm and pink center. The sauce had enough ginger to clear sinuses, which was oddly addictive.

Most importantly, the birthday girl liked it all very much.

Apres Diem
931 Monroe Dr NE # C103
Atlanta, GA 30308-1778
(404) 872-3333

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Highlight #238: Californian Italian by Chiarello - Restaurant: Bottega (Napa)

Many food people automatically assume that TV chefs can't cook. I am no hater. I have a healthy level of respect for anyone who can talk, smile, chop, and put together a pretty plate all in half an hour. But I agree that the level cooking skills on TV run the gamut. Recently, Michael Chiarello scored a big one for the group of real chefs turned TV personalities when he came in top three on Top Chef Master.

The day after a big party in Napa (which will be blogged when I can come up with the energy to narrate through all the courses and wines) our party of four slow movers congregated on the couch studded patio of Chiarello's Bottega in Napa. A few minutes of sitting under the cheerful orange shading of the patio did wonders to revive us from the previous night's haze. Soon we were hungry.

What arrived next were a bit of Italy and a lot of California. First up a house mozzarella and tomato salad. Beautiful California tomatoes paired superbly with the milky, almost runny, fresh mozzarella.

Grill octopus was lightly flavored atop fresh and lightly dressed arugula.

I couldn't resist the enormous short ribs I see going to other tables and had to claim one for myself. Lucky I did. Soft, meaty, and sticky, it was the perfect day after party food, much better than fries. Although I did steal some of that too from Jason's skirt steak.

V Marketplace
6525 Washington Street, A9
Yountville, CA 94599

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Highlight #237: Unexpected delight - Restaurant: Dosa (San Francisco)

Once upon a time, I was one of those travelers who plan out every meal on the road. Invariable, plans are frustrated and the frustration would take something away from the entire trip. After five years of traveling with Jason, the ultimate non-planner, I am a much happier person. I still plan, but only loosely. Mostly, it's just a list of where I'd like to eat if timing and location happen to work out. If I am feeling super ambitious, I'd make a reservation, but would be flexible enough to change or cancel. By being flexible, we have had some extremely delicious experiences that would never have happened if we insisted on sticking to plans.

On this trip, I initially plotted to celebrate a birthday at Foreign Cinema, but then realized the foolishness of that plan (they have a very new baby and it's a weeknight). So we proposed to visit at their home after a quick dinner on our own. We found parking near Valencia St. when the SF heavy wind picked up, forcing us to duck inside Dosa, a modern Indian restaurant.

It smelled wonderful inside, spicy and yeasty. The dramatic yet modern chandeliers drew the high ceilings closer and cast a cozy glow on the space. We took a banquette two top, my favorite kind. Ordering was simple. I ignored all the curries and went straight for the name sake dosa. A spinach and green onion one to be exact. The neatly wrapped and stacked dosa rolls are less dramatic than the usual too large for the plate whole ones, but the neat bundles were easy to attack. Faintly crunchy on the outside, the inside was of a tenderness only fermented rice can achieve (think mochi, but slightly sour). The sourness was tempered by both the warm spinach filling and the tongue tingling potato curry for dipping. After finishing the whole plate, I felt light yet satiated and ready to step out into the wind.

995 Valencia St
(between Liberty St & 21st St)
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 642-3672

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Highlight #236: The perfect lunch crawl - San Francisco

I don't get to do this often because it requires a couple of hours in the middle of a workday, but when I can, there is nothing more appealing. What I am talking about is a lunch crawl along 18th st. in the mission district of San Francisco.

It starts at the corner of 18th and Guerrero at a place that has no big sign outside except for the small lettering right about the door handle. It says Tartine. You can't miss it because of the constant crowd in line and at the sidewalk tables. Inside, the bakery cases are loaded with lots of pastries and cakes and the yeasty smell of bread permeates the air. Order a sandwich, any sandwich. You won't be disappointed.

This time it was goat cheese pressed on walnut bread for me. Sounds simple, but it is divine, because the bread here is unparalleled by any other. I swear it took the hands of god to achieve that perfect crust on the outside and impossibly elastic bread flesh within. The locals agree. The breads consistently sell out within half an hour out of the oven. Being California, there is also a short but nice little wine list. Get a glass, because you'll want to linger a bit.

I often dine alone and this is a fun place to do it. I take my glass of wine to join the long communal table near the window. When the sandwich comes, everyone at the table looks up to admire the gorgeous and HUGE mound of deliciousness. The surest way to make some fast friends is to offer some to share. I've had some very interesting conversations here. Unfortunately, this time the conversations invariable turned to the impact of the economy on the California way of life. We all felt lucky to still be eating at Tartine. :)

After the massive sandwich. I'd waddle down the street a couple of blocks to Bi-Rite creamery, my very favorite in the US. I sometimes taste another flavor or get a combination of flavors when I am feeling greedy, but I never fail to get the all-time palate pleaser, the salted caramel.

On a sunny day, I'd sit outside on one of the wooden benches with my little cup of heaven. There is nothing like licking salty, creamy, and caramely goodness off the little wooden spoon while watching the amazing way sunlight filters through the leaves above. The rest of the world can wait.

Tartine bakery & cafe
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
415 487 2600

Bi-Rite Creamery
3692 18th Street
(@ Dolores)
San Francisco CA

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Highlight #235: Another bakery in Napa - Bakery: Sweetie Pies

Bouchon is no double the most mentioned Napa bakery in food publications. But ask the locals and they will tell you that it's far from being the only or the best in town. One that is said to be superior is Sweetie Pies located in the middle of a section of charming renewed downtown shops on Main st.

I arrived at 8am seeking coffee and starch. While the cake display looked mighty tempting, I decided it was still a bit too early for so much sugar.

Instead, I took to the outdoor table a lemon poppy seed scone, a warm mug of cafe au lait, and a free copy of SF Chronicle. The slightly glazed scone lived up to all my expectations. A harder icing crusted shell was sweet but not too sweet and gave way to moist and soft crumb in the middle. Despite the large softball size, the scone went down with far less heft than one might have imagined. I shall be back for the cakes another time.

Sweetie Pie
520 Main St
Napa, CA 94559-3353
(707) 257-7280

Friday, September 18, 2009

Highlight #234: Off to SFO today and looking forward to some ice cream

Salted caramel ice cream at bi-rate, here I come. :) Also on the list Foreign Cinema, Ubuntu, Harvest Ball at V. Sattui with a Michelin chef, and eats in Monterey/Carmel. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Highlight #233: bakery part is still best - Parish market

Finally I got around to order some savory stuff at Parish Market. Did I pick the wrong thing? I think I did. This roast beef sandwich had plenty of beef, but was rather bland, tough to chew, and even harder to eat with the large onion rings and sliced meat sliding all over the place. The brioche, however, was as lovely as all of the other bakery items I've had at Parish, all buttery and pillowy.

Parish Market
240 N Highland Ave
Atlanta, GA 30307
(404) 681-4434

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Highlight #232: homemade bak kut teh

Bak kut teh, meaning tea bone soup, actually contains no tea, but is rather consumed with tea. Because of its intense savory taste, high nutrition value, and medicinal properties, it has become the post drinking comfort food of choice in Singapore. I didn't get to drink much in Singapore, but got bak kut teh as a homemade treat at Jason's aunt's. The basic recipe is so easy, I decided to DIY. Again, I don't measure much and simply do by feel.

First, boil a little over a lb of ribs in enough cold water to cover. Remove the scum from the top and drain. Put the ribs back in the pot with about 5 cloves of garlic, 1 thumb sized portion of Chinese angelica (dong gui), about 2 tbsp of whole black peppercorn, a couple of tsp of sugar, about 5 whole star anise, about 1 tsp of salt, about 3 tbsp of dark soy sauce, and maybe 10 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer for an hour uncovered or until the ribs are tender. Skim again and season the soup with salt, sugar, and dark soy.

When serving, make a dipping source for the ribs from sweet soy sauce and fresh ground chilies.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Highlight #231: Favorite brunch - Restaurant: Canoe

It's good to be home, to be able to drive without fearing for my life, and to have wine whenever I want (okay, maybe not on Sundays, but still.) On Sundays, few places around town are as inviting as the garden of Canoe.

Let's not forget the food. These scones are not the dainty things found at a fancy afternoon tea. Each one is about the size of my whole hand and so tender and crumbly. My favorite of the four flavors (cheddar, raisin, ginger, and orange) is the ginger. Sweet, but not too sweet, it has a great little after bite from the ginger. The three kinds of spread that came with the scones were pretty great also. Of course, the honey butter stood out above both the quince and the fig.

Considering the richness of this brunch, it's wonderful that Canoe offers things in half portions. The half bowl of soup is just enough to satisfy, but not too much to kill the rest of the meal. After all, the stomach knows exactly how much cream is in that soup no matter what I try to tell it.

It's hard to believe what's in front of me is only a half portion of the signature pheasant and egg. It's very nice of Canoe to split this dish between Jenna and me. If you are not used to eating pheasant, you will love this as a first taste. The meat is off the bone and very tender. It could pass for any full flavored dark meat. The egg had a lovely runniness that made the whole mix even richer.

We ended the great meal with a chocolate caramel bomb. Our server told me to knock open the shell with the back of my spoon. My first attempt did nothing, so I went hard for the second try. As you can see, I was a little over zealous. It is quite a pleasure to watch the caramel ooze out though. Like everything else before it, it was very rich in the most satisfying way. We ate about a quarter of it and gave up. A wonderful wonderful brunch.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Highlight #230: Definitely the best view, but best food? - Restaurant: Laris (Shanghai)

What you see here is the view after "lights out" in Pudong, meaning this is what Pudong (the commercial area on the east bank of Shanghai) looks like when the majority of the lights are turned off or dimmed. Now imagine farmland covering all of this. That's what Pudoing looked like 15 years ago. The pace of progress in Shanghai is astounding.

I am viewing this from 3 on the Bund, one of the most happening buildings on the west bank. Like its neighbors, this Western style building, at the beginning of the last century, was a part of the foreign concession in Shanghai. It would look right at home next to any stately building or museum in DC or nyc. Most of these buildings on the Bund still house banks. But #3 has undergone massive internal renovation to become the home of Armani, Jean George, Whampoa Club, and Laris, where our belated anniversary dinner took place.

Laris is one of the top chef-driven western restaurants in Shanghai. Its Australian chef David Laris is on site almost daily and came to chat at the table this evening. The space on the 6th floor is large and decked out in white marbles, but felt warm under the soft lights.

Laris's beautiful plating is definitely on par with its class in the world and the view of Pudong outside the window is incomparable. Unfortunately, the taste department lags behind the two. Take these scallops. Despite their appetizing appearance were pretty bland and tasted deflated. The cauliflower puree did little to make up for the lack of flavor, although the popcorn looking fried cauliflower florets were interesting.

I think Jason ordered this soup purely for the fried frog legs. The base is a lime seasoned rice broth similar in idea to the Greek rice and lemon soup avgolemono. Perhaps because I grew up eating only savory congees, sourness and rice combinations never really appeal to me. With my bias, I found the lime not quite sharp enough to make a statement. The frog leg fritters, however, were super fabulous. Even coming out of the soup, they were impossibly crunchy. The meat was also tender and well-seasoned with salt and pepper.

I initially wanted to order something more unique, but ended up getting the miso cod because it is the chef's signature. It turned out to be a great decision and was quite different from the other miso cods. Rather than the white miso normally used for this dish, the chef chose to work with red miso, which has a much more assertive fermented taste. He also took a step back with the sugar level to let the red miso shine without much competition. The end result was intense, but not overpowering. A great dish.

While at dinner, our server booked a table for us at the roof top bar, where one can enjoy some live music and the bright Pudong lights. Jason got his cigar, while I sip away at my cognac. Not bad, not bad at all. :)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Highlight #229: I am calling this the "best" - Restaurant: Ding Tai Feng (Shanghai)

It took me two years and more than ten visits to various famous xiao long bao (soup bun) restaurants in Shanghai to come to this conclusion. Ding Tai Feng has the best! Sure, it's not a native Shanghainese restaurant (the chain originated from Taiwan). Yes, it's not of the most classic style. But the taste does not lie! Of course, I can probably say this because I didn't grow up eating the thicker and puffier skinned native Shanghainese version. Seriously though, how can one not appreciate the art and skill exhibited by the ultra thin skin of the Ding Tai Feng variety.

Take a look at this close up. Even with the horrible lighting, you can see through the paper thin skin. Even more impressively, I have never seen anyone accidentally pierce the very thin yet resilient skin to spill the soup and I have eaten these with plenty of foreigners who hold their chopsticks like little kids.

Ding Tai Feng offers about eight varieties of steamed buns and dumplings. Besides the little soup filled ones, I also love the garlic chive dumplings. It's mesmerizing to watch the ladies in the open kitchen create the delicate folds with precision and at lighting speed. The garlic chive filling is hand cut to a very fine consistency, but is drained to maintain a non-mushy texture. I think there is a little bit of dried beancurd in the filling to provide some textural contrast.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Highlight #228: A different kind of spicy - Restaurant: Di Shui Dong (Shanghai)

Most people in the US equate only Sichuanese food with spiciness. In China, that honor belongs to both Sichuan and Hunan, although many Chinese also recognize that the two varieties of spiciness are distinct and quite different from each other.

In Sichuan, chili oil is king. Dried red peppers are fried in oil to create a red hot chili infusion that includes both a hot oil on top and plenty of pepper seeds at the bottom. The cook is free to choice the percentage of oil and seed paste to create the desired spicy dimension to a dish. For example, the "water boiled fish" dish from a few posts back is one that focuses on the use of a large quantity of chili oil. When only oil is used, the spiciness comes on more slowly in the mouth, but builds up and lingers for a very long time.

In Hunan, ripe red peppers stand alone in fresh form. Only when it's time to make a dish are the peppers cut and quickly fried in oil to release the fragrances. Therefore, in many instances, Hunan dishes actually look spicier than Sichuan dishes due to the large amount of visible red peppers. The spiciness in fact does come on stronger and quickly because of direct contact with fresh seeds. However, I find that the spiciness subsides much faster than the version imparted by the Sichuan chili oil.

Our meal at Di Shui Dong, a Hunan cuisine temple started off with a cold dish of beef jerky (top). The beef is actually not quite dried to the Slim Jim form, but still has some moisture. As you can see, the red fresh chili pieces that have been soaked in soy and other spices are quite easy to spot. This is one of my favorite dishes to start a meal. I find that the intensified chewing gets one's appetite going.

Our garlic and chili prawns came skewered individually. They have been fried very quickly in extremely hot oil and are crunchy on the outside and very tender on the inside. For those not in fear of the garlic and chili paste on top, eating the prawn in the whole, shell included, is recommended. Otherwise, one can go through the messy process of removing the shell.

Even vegetables can't escape the spicy treatment. Here eggplant slices are stir-fried with plenty of hot peppers and bits of onions. The super absorbent nature of eggplant make this dish irresistible to those who love spiciness, but pure punishment for those who can't take it.

Just like in Sichuanese cuisine, not all classic Hunan dishes are overly spicy. The focus of this rib dish is on the fragrance released by the large amounts of fennel and anise seeds that coat the meat. The ribs are very meaty and quite satisfying.

Hunan is the birthplace of Chairman Mao, so almost every Hunan restaurant serves his favorite dish, a non-spicy red roasted pork. It's similar in preparation to the famous Shanghainese version of red roasted pork, but it does not rely on sugar to create a final sticky coating. At a meal with mostly spicy food, I prefer it this way. Sugar somehow interferes with the spiciness of other dishes.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Highlight #227: Working lunch - Restaurant: Xiao Xi Xi (Shanghai)

One of the first waves of investors in Shanghai came from Taiwan, resulting in a whole area of the city catering to Taiwanese tastes. For our working lunch in that area, we chose a restaurant serving set lunches. You may notice that the set presentation looks Japanese. Indeed, the Taiwanese cuisine adopted many Japanese elements during the years of Japanese occupation. It is now accepted by my generation that the very unpleasant history at least gave the island some good eats.

The main dish in my set is a roasted pork tempura. The tempura part is definitely Japanese, but the unique batter is decidedly Taiwanese. It's made from fermented red rice leftover from rice wine making. The residue rice wine tenderizes the pork and imbues the meat with a faint rice wine taste. My companions were also quite impressed with the rice covered with a sauce made from bits of pork belly and preserved vegetables. Imagine rice drenched with hot butter and a savory gravy and you pretty much get the main idea. The meal ended with a simple dessert of chilled azuki bean drink, one of my favorite summer treats.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Highlight #226: First anniversary - Restaurant: South Beauty (Shanghai)

Busy with work, neither of us remembered our anniversary until emails arrived from friends with well wishes. To make up for our oversight, we celebrated with a bottle of aged Shao Xing wine given to Jason by one of his suppliers. Shao Xing wine is famous for pairing well with Shanghai's equally famous hair crabs. But we were too lazy after our long work days to go find some of that. The wine looks like cognac in the glass and has a very floral nose. The taste is light and reminiscent of a high quality mirin (Japanese cooking wine).

It's hard to eat just Shanghainese food in Shanghai. Like nyc, Shanghai is a commercial hub that has attracted some of the best chefs of various regional cuisines. One of the favorite cuisines in this city is from my native region of Sichuan.

South Beauty made its name serving Sichuan cuisine. In recent years, the mother and son team expanded the empire all over Shanghai and Beijing. Like many chain establishments in China, the standard remains very high. The truth is China is a country obsessed with food and eating. Mediocrity is easily identified by the public at every price level and rejected. Almost everyone I meet here in Shanghai qualifies as a foodie by the western definition. It's hard to find a Chinese person who can't talk at length about something good to eat.

We started our meal at South Beauty with its signature you mai cai. This slightly peppery vegetable is served raw in little bundles secured with a thin slice of summer cucumber. To eat, one dips a bundle into a dish of peanut/sesame sauce made from 18 different ingredients. The complexity of the sauce really enhances the refreshing quality of the vegetable. Simple, elegant, and tasty.

Here is a classic Sichuan dish (direct translation: water boiled fish) found at every restaurant of this genre, but rarely prepared with green Sichuan peppercorns, which cannot be exported. The difference due to the choice of peppercorn is subtle yet profound. While the more common mature peppercorn imparts the intense numbing sensation, the green version is gentler with a slight nuttiness and fragrance. As you can see, the water that is used for boiling is really a pot of hot chili oil. The fish slices are quickly dropped into the hot oil once the oil had released all the flavors and fragrances from the chilies and spices. When done right, as it is here, the fish slices are very tender and, once removed from the oil, rather light in taste with a lingering spiciness that builds as one eats on.

I ordered this dish to show my dinning companions that not all classic Sichuan dishes are spicy. This steamed pork patty looks solid but breaks off into impossibly soft morsels, a favorite of my dad's. The trick is to make the patty with pork and a mixture of roughly powdered plain and sticky rice grains. When the rice particles are of the perfect consistency, they hold the meat together but do not bind it into a solid mass. So when attacked with chopsticks, the patty easily separates into soft pieces. This patty is also seasoned very well with soy and lots of black pepper.