Thursday, December 6, 2007

Shan Dong

Listen, we need to talk. There’s something that I need to tell you. I think its better that you find out now rather than later and I want to be the one to tell you…. I’m a noodle whore.

The cat’s out of the bag. Be it Hong Kong style wonton noodle soup, Taiwanese spicy beef noodle soup, or my coveted Vietnamese pho, I love them all. Noodles are dear to my heart and hold a special place in my stomach. Most aptly described as the cavern, it is reserved for only the tastiest of foods and can store an un-Godly amount of sustenance, something my waiter was quick to notice on my first trip to Shan Dong. After watching four of us polish off enough food for 10, he turned ghostly white when I asked for the menu a second time and began insisting that the kitchen was cached. Having given them a few weeks to restock, it was high time for another visit.

I came with four accomplices, Laura, Gabe, Chester, Ariane and the burden of ordering fell upon myself. I’m not sure how I obtained such responsibility but it may have been my drunken Cantonese performance on a previous noodle excursion in San Francisco. Alcohol does wonders for second languages and balance alike. Anyway, the same waiter from our first trip came around to take the order. I decided to practice moderation and only asked ordered seven dishes to begin with for our group of five. After jotting down the order, he asked if anyone else in the group would like anything. I couldn’t decide whether to give it to him for his audacity or applaud him for his consideration – he was obviously unaware that my friends were there simply to watch me eat.

I decided to start the meal off with a cold cut beef appetizer. It’s a dish that I don’t often have but enjoy quite a bit. This version was pretty good but I felt that it lacked a bit of flavor and umph that would have made it really good.

Laura requested pea sprout leaves or dow mew, of which I am a huge fan. They are probably my favorite vegetable. Sautéed with garlic, I could eat them every day of the week. While I usually prefer the larger, leafier kind, the little ones here were delicious.

Waiting for our table I spied a family enjoying this dish. Fish fillets stir-fried in a garlicky white wine sauce with vegetables and wood ear mushrooms. Mild enough to enjoy the fish while still bringing plenty of flavor to the table.

Nearly every table had an order of these string beans and for good reason. We had ours dry-fried with a bit of shredded pork. After one bite I realized how seldom I order these beans and how great a shame that is. That will have to change.

What we’d all been waiting for, the infamous hand cut noodles! We ordered this batch combination style and it came with shrimp, chicken, beef and choy sum. As they came from the kitchen Chester commented that “Noodles are all about mouth feel.” I couldn’t have said it better. With a smooth outside, healthy thickness and chewy al-dente bite, these noodles are right up my alley. We enjoyed them so much we ordered another batch later on.

These were the house special cold noodles. I was a bit disappointed at first to find the more common chow mein like noodles being used. I had expected the hand cut noodles. However the dish proved to be quite good. Slightly sweet and salty with a hint of mild vinegar, these noodles were gone in no time.

Mid-meal we placed an order for Dan Dan Mein at Ariane’s request. Anticipating spicy, garlicky noodles with sesame undertones we were underwhelmed with this dish. There seemed to be a lot of sesame paste and not much else. To be fair I’m not sure that Dan Dan Mein was on their menu. After all, it is a dish hailing from Sichuan and we were in a restaurant claiming the Shandong province. This last dish was only a slight hitch in a meal that had otherwise been right on the money.

Shan Dong dishes up incredible northern style noodles and dumplings and is one of my Oakland Chinatown hole-in-the-wall favorites. Aside from the food, there’s something to be said about the service as well. It’s not often that you find a waiter who’s quick, attentive and has a sense of humor and control of the English language enough to make you laugh and want to tip extra. Nearly all of the items on the menu that I have tried have been well above average but it’s the delicious noodles and dumplings that keep me coming back for more. Be sure to order extra when you go, you wont be disappointed.

PS - Please pardon the half eaten photographs. I usually try to restrain myself long enough to take a few quick snapshots but we were really hungry and the food was really good...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


For my good friend Laura's birthday we decided to try out the Berkeley sushi landmark that is Kirala. I'm not sure why we hadn't tried this place out earlier but we were finally able to check it off on the list of things to-do before graduation in spring '08.

Before I continue i should let the reader know that I am by no means a sushi expert. Novice would be an apt description of my case when it comes to Japanese style cuisine, and plenty of other topics to be honest. Alcohol also falls in the amateur category. Yet while I may not have a great deal of experience in these arenas, I still think I have good taste. But that's probably just my arrogance and the sake speaking.

We decided to try a tasting of three of their sakes. My favorite was the one on the left. It tasted very clean and fresh, with floral fruit flavors. Kind of like spring. The one in the middle I found to be rather bland. Not bad, but just not very interesting. I'm not really sure how to classify it but I just attributed it with what I guess to be a "sake" taste. The third one on the right was fun. It had sweet autumn tones that reminded me of pears and persimmons. Of the limited sampling of alcohols that I had tried up till that point in my post 21 career, I found sake to be one of my favorites. It just tasted crisp and clean and I liked how a variety of flavors shined through.

The meal began with the seemingly obligatory miso soup and spinach salad which was swimming in some sort of (perhaps soy? I don't really remember) vinaigrette. I have nothing against starting the meal like this, in fact I'm rather fond of the drinking soup without a spoon ritual, I just didn't really like drinking the salad too.

Next up came a round of appetizeresque selections starting with Shishito. While the description of grilled Japanese bell peppers topped with bonito flakes sounded tasty, the dish itself proved otherwise. I didn't find the bell peppers to be particularly yummy and thought they were actually a bit too charred. The super salty bonito flakes and minced ginger doused in soy sauce didn't help any either. Take it easy on the sodium, guys!

Grilled mushrooms were nothing fancy but quite good.

Here's where the meal began to gain a little momentum. The grilled scallops were topped with a creamy buerre blanc type sauce that had mild garlicky tones. The topiko added a nice splash of color, taste and texture variation. Overall this was one of my favorites of the evening and a definite must order in my book.

The sashimi was gorgeous. Thick, succulent slices of albacore and red tuna were delectable. The only fault one might be able to find with the dish if they were super nitpicky is that the cuts on a few of the pieces were a little jagged. Other than that, delicious.

We ordered some unagi as well since we are all big fans. It was good but the flesh seemed a little mushy and watery. But again, i don't eat Japanese food often enough to make a sound comparison to other times that I have had unagi and its texture.

This dish, the hamachi kama or yellowtail collar, was by far the star of the evening. It took a good 25 or 30 minutes to grill until the skin was perfectly crisp on the outside and the meat was moist and delicious. In an ideal world I would probably eat this at least once a day. Then again, in my ideal world I would have a voracious appetite, eat around 10 meals a day and manage not to become obese.

Having polished off the hamachi kama in half the time it took to make we decided we wanted more! We also sadly decided that unless they could prepare another one in about the same amount of time it took us to devour the first then we would probably have to go with something else. Alas we settled for the two dishes above. The first was a boring and unattractive spicy tuna and the second was a spicy octopus appetizer. The tuna was poor. There was hardly any fish in the roll and even if there had been it would have been impossible to taste due to the aggressiveness of the cayenne pepper. The octopus suffered from a similar problem. Although I am generally a big fan of spicy food, I thought they should have chosen a milder approach with both dishes. The heat was too much for the seafood to handle well.

We ended the meal properly with dessert. We had the mango pudding and the sweet potato pie. Both were very good. One bite of the mango pudding and you knew that it had to have been made with the real thing. It also lacked that eerie orange glow that's characteristic of out of the box mango puddings. The sweet potato pie was a lot of fun. It was like a pumpkin pie but denser and with a thinner crust. The spices were similar with cinnamon and possibly some nutmeg. I felt it was a perfect autumn dessert but I wouldn't be opposed in the least to having this pie in the spring or summer. I'm sure it would be a great way to end a summer evening BBQ.

The dinner at Kirala had its ups and downs. All things considered, including a price tag of around $130 for 3 (keep in mind that I'm a starving, err not so much after the meal I guess, college student) I felt that it was a good meal but nothing to rave about. Would I go again? Most likely yes. But I would be tempted to try other Japanese restaurants in the area before I made Kirala my go to. If you do go, consider sitting at the bar. You get to watch the chefs prepare the sushi and man the grill. Also definitely order the scallops, the hamachi kama and any of their sashimi.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Better late than never

If there is one thing that I'm good at it's putting things off. Sadly this blog has been no exception to the rule. The idea for starting this blog came about nearly two years ago. I started taking pictures of food that i cooked and ate at restaurants, critiquing meals and generally pretending to be Michael Bauer. Unfortunately, whereas Michael had the decency to document his adventures (To be fair he does get paid to eat free meals and write about them. Maybe all i need is that kind of incentive. Any takers?), mine have been set aside to collect dust in numerous photo albums on my computer. Fear not however, I've resolved to finally share my collection and opinions. The chronology of the site might be a bit haphazard for a while since I have so much backlogged material but eventually things should clear up. Anyway, without further ado welcome to Love at First Bite! I hope to see you back for seconds soon!