Thursday, August 14, 2008

La Farine

Berkeley is blessed with no shortage of artisan food stores and markets. We have boutique wine shops on every corner of the city (not that we're winos mind you, we just happen to enjoy the stuff) which provide excellent drink to go with cheeses stocked by stores like cheeseboard and of course wine and cheese go excellent with meat from the neighborhood butcher shop, but for a proper meal we would need vegetables which is where our farmers markets, held three times weekly, come in handy. Yet even with all of this we would be forgetting something that would be a sin to forget; bread. No need to fret however, all we have to do is pop over to the bakery and pick up a baguette or two. Although this often proves more difficult than it seems given the plethora of delicious local bakeries: Semifreddi's, the Bread Garden, Cheeseboard, Nabolom, Masse's not to mention Acme which can be found in any grocery store in the area. With all of these quality bakeries how does one choose?

For me, I find that a rotation works well. This is especially true when it comes to baguettes because I generally choose them based on mood and what kind of meal I'm planning, meaning that there is no one clear winner. However, this is not always the case. As diplomatic as I would like to be, when it comes to particular baked goods I often find myself favoring some bakeries over others. In the case of morning buns, La Farine takes the cake.

Two morning buns up at the top by the bag, along with a bunch of other goodies.

If you've never had a morning bun then you are missing out! La Farine's own description of them is "Croissant dough rolled thin, spread with brown sugar and cinnamon, rolled into a log, then cut and baked in muffin pans...nothing short of decadent." Mine would simply be "Mmmmmm." They are truly one of the best ways to start your day. If you don't start your day with breakfast, no worries, they're equally good for lunch, brunch, a snack, before or after dinner or before bed with a warm glass of milk. If you can't sleep after that last one then be sure to buy two on your next visit because a morning bun snuck in the truly early hours of the morning is guaranteed to ensure a good nights rest.

La Farine
6323 College Ave.
Oakland, CA 94618-1331
Telephone: 510-654-0338
Fax: 510-654-1025

3411 Fruitvale Ave.
Oakland, CA 94602
Telephone: 510-531-7750

Solano/Thousand Oaks
1820 Solano Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702
Telephone: 510-528-2208

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gone (are the days of) Fishin'

I finished Felten's How's Your Drink the other day and must say that it was thoroughly satisfying. A really fun read with delightfully tasty accompaniments. One of my personal favorites of the cocktails that I've tried so far is the Florodora. Though I won't spoil it's unique history I will divulge the recipe. That way if you find yourself bored while sipping away you can do a bit of research to keep you occupied.

1 1/2 oz gin
3/4 oz framboise (raspberry liquer)
1/2 oz lime juice
3-4 oz ginger ale

Build in a tall glass with plenty of ice. Garnish with a slice of lime and enjoy!

I finished Hows Your Drink thirsty for more foodie literature and have started reading a book dealing with a topic that I've been meaning to inform myself upon for a while now. The real push came after I heard that the salmon season in California would be closed this year due to record low numbers. Eating in a sustainable manner and still finding ways to enjoy foods that one loves can be tricky and seafood is a particularly difficult topic to navigate. In hopes of gaining a better understanding of the problems that exist on a topic that is dear to my heart and stomach I have turned to Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood. I'm only two chapters in so far but it's a terribly intriguing read. I promise to keep you all updated with any interesting insight that I glean along the way. If you want more information right away I suggest that you pick up your own copy of the book and for a great source of free information on the web you can visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.

Monday, July 21, 2008

I'm Back!

It's been forever but I am back. I don't have a good excuse for being MIA for so long except for the traveling/vacationing I've been up to over the past few months and the constant barrage of Spanish that I'm attempting to absorb at summer school. While neither are good enough to merit a pardon, I have managed to accumulate lots of new foodie material that I'm excited to share with all of you. I'm just going to start off with an aperitif for right now due in part to the fact that I don't have all of my photos uploaded and also because I just started reading How's Your Drink? by Eric Felton. So far it's been a delicious read chock full of interesting information and insight into the history of cocktails. If you are at all interested in cocktails I would highly recommend this book. And if you're not convinced, here's a little extra enticement.

1 cube of sugar
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
2 oz rye whiskey or cognac
Herbsaint or Ricard Liquer

Dissolve sugar in bitters and a splash of water. Stir with whiskey or cognac and ice. Strain into an Herbsaint-coated glass. Lemon twist.

As Felton explains, the Sazerac took it's name from a brand of cognac popular in New Orleans in the 19th century. Though that particular brand of cognac no longer exists, the Sazerac remains today as a shining example, according to Felton, of "a cocktail according to the original specifications." So cheers to good cocktails, an overdue return, new beginnings and of course to you dear reader!

PS - In June of this year New Orleans christened the Sazerac the official drink of the city.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Le Poulet Deli

I'd passed Le Poulet often on my way to my northside Cheeseboard trips. In fact, in my one track mindset of "I want pizza", I pass most shops without thinking twice. It's a bad thing and I had known it for some time so on my last trip to northside I managed to restrain myself from driving the extra 2 blocks and instead stop at Le Poulet for lunch.

Upon walking into the store you are greeted with a deli counter displaying a wide variety of salads and sides to go along with their roast chicken. They offer several varieties, including rosemary and lemon, teriyaki and adobo on the day that I visited. They also had roasted cornish game hens that looked very tasty and their selection of sandwiches all sounded good. However, being my first trip and given their name I thought it only right that I try their chicken.

I ordered a half chicken, opting for the adobo roasted breast and the rosemary and lemon thigh. I decided to buy my sides individually instead of going with a set meal price and I think it worked out to be a bit cheaper. I had the pesto pasta salad and some macaroni and cheese.

My buddy Tim, whom you may remember from our taco outing, ordered the same when it came to the chicken but went with a beet salad for his side. Of the three sides on hand I liked Tim's beet salad the most but we both agreed that it didn't deserve the relatively high $4 price for the few bites that you get, especially since both of my sides were purchased for the same price. I must admit that my sides weren't as good though. The pesto salad was fine but nothing out of the ordinary but I found macaroni to be just passing. There was too much bechamel and not enough cheese.

Their roast chicken was OK but not as good as I'd hoped. Served on the colder side of room temperature the thigh remained moist but the breast was a bit dry. It should be noted that the breast was cooked without the skin while the thigh still had the skin on which probably helped in retaining the juices. Tim and I agreed that the rosemary and lemon seasoning was much better than the adobo which was kinda bland and flat. Both could have used more salt and pepper though.

For the price and convenience that Le Poulet offers it isn't bad at all. I have a hunch that there is better roast chicken to be found in the area though. I've heard rumors of a shop along Solano Ave. which I've been meaning to search out. I will let you know what I find and will also keep you posted on a likely revisit to Le Poulet but this time for their sandwiches.

Le Poulet
1685 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley CA, 94709

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Great Dim Sum Hunt

First off, apologies are in order for my prolonged absence. A combination of weekend-long volleyball tournaments and midterms claimed my life for the past few weeks but with those things out of the way I should have plenty of time to post on a much more regular basis. Sorry to keep you waiting for so long.

Though I mentioned a hunt for the best taco shops in town a few posts ago, I’ve decided to take on a different endeavor. Rather than scour Fruitvale in a search of the most delicious taqueria in the area, I’ve decided to sift through Oakland Chinatown in order to find the best dim sum house. While I know that there are plenty of incredible taquerias in Fruitvale, I’m a bit more skeptical about finding excellent quality dim sum in Oakland. I know, I know, call me a pessimist but I’ve generally been underwhelmed by the majority of restaurants I’ve tried in Oakland when it comes to dim sum. Nevertheless, I have faith that there must be at least one restaurant that’s worthy of the “go to” label. Let’s hope so at least.

With the help of some friends I began my quest at the popular Peony Restaurant. It was the weekend and we arrived a little before noon thus the thirty minute wait was no big surprise, even for the restaurants large space.

We took in the scenery while we waited: the traffic jam of dim sum carts, white people looking slightly out of place and dejected in corner tables (we had our fingers crossed that we wouldn't suffer the same fate since I was the only one of our party of a meager half Chinese descent), the three generation family spread with the amazingly energetic Asian grandmas, the aloof parents and the children running amuck or playing their Nintendos. We also noticed a number of awards the restaurant had recieved from local papers and the dubious AOL Cityguide award. We hoped this experience would live up to the standard these awards meant.

After our long wait we were ushered to a round table for our party of 6. The problem was the table still hadn't been cleared of the last parties dinnerware when we were seated. We waited for five minutes for new place settings as dim sum carts passed. One of them approached our table but we had to explain that we had yet to receive our own plates to eat off of. We were finally able to flag a waiter, of which Peony is obviously in short supply, and ask for new settings. He came back shortly and in an unceremonious rush, cleared our table and clanged down some new settings. We were quite hungry by now and it was time to get some food on the table.

Our first dish was essentially har gow, or steamed shrimp dumplings with bamboo shoots, topped with some roe. It was a good start since these were very good and had the sticky, freshly steamed quality to them, reflected by their resilient wrappings.

The stuffed tofu skins were disappointing. They had been cooked too long and were bland and soggy. There was no nuance to the flavors and it tasted only of ground pork and salty broth.

In attempting to order Shanghai soup dumplings or xiao lung bao, my buddy Tim ended up with a gwoon tong gow or shark's fin soup dumpling. It's actually easy to see how the mistake happened since he was just asking for a soup dumplings. Either way, the dish missed the mark. The only shark's fin to be found was in the name. Otherwise, this dish suffered a similar fate to the stuffed tofu skins above. The wrapping was overcooked and soggy and so was the filling, which again was bland in flavor and mushy in texture.

These were a mixed seafood dumpling containing shrimp, scallops and squid and they were surprisingly good. They were probably my second favorite after the first dish.

Since pea sprout leaves or dow mew, are one of my favorite vegetables, I was excited for this order of shrimp and pea sprout leaf dumplings. Sadly, they had been steamed too long, resulting in a soggy wrapping and leaves wilted to the point where there was no longer any crunch.

Pan fried shrimp and chive dumplings are one of my favorite dim sum items. These ones suffered a similar fate to many of the aforementioned dumplings. They were cold and no longer crispy and the filling was a bit soggy. Many of the dishes seemed to be holding too long from the kitchen to the front of the house.

I didn't expect to like these pork meat balls nearly as much as I did. They were surprisingly good and worth an order. It seemed like a trend was emerging where most of the items topped with fish balls were winners.

The other trend was that most dumpling items were being over-steamed while carted around. These shrimp dumplings managed to just barely escape that terrible fate and were actually quite good.

I always try to order lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice when I go to dim sum but this time they didn't have any accompanied by the lotus leaf. This version lacked the extra fragrance the leaves impart and was too dry.

The BBQ pork buns were average but again, they were sat too long in their cart and the bottoms were overly damp.

Steamed spareribs with black bean sauce were simple and good.

We finished the meal with an order of beef chow fun in black bean sauce. The dish was poor. It was much more oily than it needed to be and the sauce was mostly soy and hardly any black bean, the complete opposite of how it should have been.

Overall the food was mediocre on average. Some dishes were really pretty good but others were way off. Service throughout the meal, aside from the dim sum ladies, was practically nonexistent and rushed when it was there. I don't usually expect outstanding service from Chinese restaurants, a topic that deserves a post in it of itself, but I do expect the establishment to hire enough waiters to attend to the house properly. The wait staff on duty was clearly overworked and not too happy about it. Though service may or may not affect patrons opinion of the restaurant in this case, the lack of staff definitely affects the quality of the food which affects customer opinion for sure. I would highly suggest that Peony reevaluate its current system. Multiple dishes came out soggy since they had been sitting too long. Furthermore, the wait between carts was fairly long and we were fortunate enough to have good seating. I can imagine that people sitting in the corners of the restaurant may have only been passed a handful of times. My solution to the problem would be to ditch the carts altogether and move on to a ticket order system. That way each table checks off the items they want when the sit down and then they are prepared to order. Additional wait staff would likely need to be hired for this but that needs to be done regardless. The result would be fresher food and shorter wait times, offering the restaurant rewards in greater customer satisfaction as well as the opportunity to clear more covers for the price of the extra wages. If the owners of Peony are concerned about the long term well being of their restaurant, I think the switch is something they should seriously consider.

Peony Restaurant
388 9th St Ste 288
Oakland, CA, 94607

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cheeseboard & Simple Pleasures

I mentioned Cheeseboard briefly in my last post and decided that it deserves it's own. Cheeseboard is a Berkeley landmark and rightfully so. Their full history can be found on their website but suffice it to say that they've been making pizza for over 20 years now and in the business of bread and cheese 20 years before that although the pizza and the cheese/bread part of the store are two separate collectives now. They serve lunch and dinner five days a week (closed on Sundays and Mondays) and serve only one pizza a day. That one pizza is always vegetarian, always made with high quality cheese and other ingredients and always divine.

Cheeseboard is hands down one of my favorite reasons for living in Berkeley. It's always a pleasure going to Northside and walking along Shattuck, past the epicurean garden and Chez Panisse, seeing the people and the sights like the dog who carries a baguette around and then standing in line listening to live jazz and anticipating the hot, fresh pizza that you know is going to be oh so good.

Most of the time I enjoy the pizza in the store or immediately outside where they have tables and benches. From here I get to enjoy the music of the many jazz musicians who play there daily. When seating isn't available there the median divider in the middle of Shattuck is always popular. And on some special occasions, when the weather is nice enough and I have enough self control not to inhale my pizza and inflict cheese burns on the roof of my mouth, I will take my pizza and enjoy it from atop the Berkeley hills. The view is breathtaking on clear sunny days and it really makes you appreciate living in the Bay Area.

The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective
1512 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA. 94709

Taqueria San Jose

What's better than dining at a three star Michelin restaurant? Not a whole lot. But discoering a new favorite taco shop that'll satisfy your needs for 1/10 the price of the French Laundry isn't bad either.

Last week I had plans to visit the East Bay Restaurant Supply store to do some browsing and maybe pick up a few items with my roommate from freshmen year and long time buddy Tim. Before we went though there was an important matter that needed to be resolved. Where were we going to go for lunch? My stomach said it could go for pizza but Cheeseboard was closed and Zachary's was a bit heavy for my needs. Furthermore, I really felt like trying something new. I suggested Bay Wolf or Dopo but Tim shrugged them off. "Naw man, I got a better idea. Let's go to Fruitvale baby!" Awwww yeah.

I don't know why it took me so long to make my first trip out there, especially given the dismal Mexican food scene in the immediate Berkeley area. Anyway, I was very excited for my first Fruitvale taco. Tim promised that it would rival even those of SoCal. Standing in line I was confronted with a wonderful dilemma: I didn't know what to get because everything looked good.
I love it when this happens because quite often everything is good.

I decided to get three tacos, one of al pastor, one of carne asada and a third with carnitas. I also ordered a strawberry agua fresca to wash it all down. We snacked on the complimentary chips and salsa as we waited. Free chips and salsa are key in my book for a good taqueria.

The tacos arrived, dressed liberally with a red chili sauce and a sprinkling of cilantro and onion, along with limes and radishes on the side. I took my first bite and immediately experienced the fresh flavor explosion that for me characterizes good Mexican food.

All three of the tacos were absolutely delicious but I have to agree with Tim (pictured above as he devours his tacos) that the al pastor, or bbq pork taco, was the winner. I was thinking about my next visit to Taqueria San Jose even before we had left. I still haven't come to a conclusion as to what I will order though. The shrimp super burrito sounds really good but I'm tempted to try out their more adventurous tacos de cabeza or tacos de lengua. Normally I would be skeptical but with the quality of the three tacos I had and with the turnover rate at the restaurant I feel pretty safe ordering these out of the ordinary items. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes when I make it back as long as I don't get sidetracked by the many other taquerias in the area. That might not be a bad thing though. I've always considered hunting out the best taco shop in a given area to be a noble quest and applaud the foodies who have such stamina and determination.

Taqueria San Jose
3433 International Boulevard
Oakland, CA 94601