Sunday, January 27, 2008

O Chame

Over the years I have come full circle about my feelings on Berkeley. I must admit that I wasn't particularly pleased with the city during my first two years. However, in these past two years I've grown to truly appreciate Berkeley and all that it has to offer. My latest reason to be thankful for living in this eclectic and eccentric corner of the world was my recent visit to O Chame.

I had talked about going to this 4th street restaurant for over a year. I had read the excellent reviews and seen its place on Michael Bauer's Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants. Yet it took fate in the form of a class paper to finally get me there. Chef and owner David Vardy was kind enough to allow me an interview on himself and the history of O Chame. I found it incredibly insightful and intriguing. For instance, did you know that he uses a mixed form of Chinese and Japanese martial arts for all the knife work in his kitchen? Alright, I may extrapolating a bit there but the man is an accomplished martial artist, having trained for extensive periods in both Taiwan and Japan. How cool is that?

After hearing his story I simply had to try his food. So the next Friday my girlfriend and I set out on our quest. And what a journey it was.

The grilled eel was firm and fatty, contrasted well by the slightly bitter endive which, if I remember correctly, was splashed with a "citrusy" vinaigrette.

Luxurious slices of slightly seared tuna were accented with a creamy-spicy horseradish sauce and laid upon a bed of braised leeks.

My weakness for noodles appears once again and what a wonderful weakness it is. While I had planned to try the roasted pork tenderloin noodles which I had read so much about, I was torn by the roasted oysters with soba. When our server informed me that the oysters were on the menu for a limited time, the deal was sealed. Briny and delicious, the oysters paired with the fish broth evoked both comfort and an essence of the sea.

My girlfriend chose the grilled skirt steak with spinach, portobella mushroom and edammame for her entree. Having the portobella and the skirt steak together was like enjoying steak two different ways or twice altogether. Cooked to medium rare and served along with the spinach, edammame and broth, the steak managed to be substantial but not to the point where one feels a glutton after. Indeed it was a dish that I could eat everyday and not feel guilty about it. Come to think about it however, I would probably say the same for all of the dishes we had. I have a serious and urgent need to learn how to cook Japanese food.

We finished our evening of excess with a trio of desserts. On the left are poached bosc pears with huckleberries. Yes yes, now you all know where the inspiration for my last post came from. Although the poaching liquid here was much lighter than my red wine and I really enjoyed the addition of the huckleberries. On the right are two divine scoops of caramel balsamic gelato. I couldn't be sure at the time and but I have a sneaking suspicion that there's cream cheese in the gelato. Whatever it was, I loved it. By the time I tasted the pears and the gelato my eyes had glazed over and I had a permanent silly grin affixed on my face. I was in an awesome place, fully enjoying my food high. The third dish on the top was a sherry custard. It was light and fragile but it's flavor was bold, exuding sherry aroma.

We didn't speak much on our drive home. We mostly just sat there staring cockeyed and grinning idiotically with delight. I can remember my girlfriend saying one thing, "That was the best meal I've had in a long time." All I could do was nod in agreement.

O Chame
1830 Fourth St. (at Hearst)
Berkeley, CA

Friday, January 25, 2008

Poached Pears

When it comes to desserts I'm a big fan of fruit. Not that I am not otherwise a fan of fruit, on the contrary, friends often find me raving for days about my latest exotic fruit discovery from Berkeley Bowl Market (the latest being a pomelo). It's just that I find fruit focused desserts to be much more satisfying than say pastries or cakes.

On one of my last evenings in Washington with the family I made this simple and satisfying dessert. The spiced wine and warm pears go great with vanilla ice cream. There's a nice hot/cold temperature contrast in the dessert but it's sure to leave you feeling cozy after your finished.

Poached Pears with Spiced Wine

5-6 Bosc pears
Bottle of inexpensive red wine
3 Tbs sugar, or more to taste
1 cinnamon stick, about 2"
6 cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns

Peel and core the pears. In a large sauce pan, bring the wine along with the spices and sugar to boil (you can place the spices in cheese cloth if you wish or simply strain after cooking). As soon as it begins to boil, add the pears and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes or until the pears are tender but not mushy. Remove the pears and continue to reduce the wine until it reaches a runny syrup consistency. Let the pears and wine cool and serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


I’ve been spending my winter vacation at home in Washington state visiting family. While the break has been good, the same can’t be said for the weather. It’s likely I’ve been spoiled by the Bay Area climate (although things aren’t that pretty in Northern California right now either) but I have a tough time dealing with the cold, the wind and the rain up here. The cold rain makes one want to stay inside while the wind can leave one in the dark as it did a few nights ago when it caused a power outage. With conditions like these I sometimes wish we had a different climate in the Pacific Northwest. After all, south and Southeast Asia gets similar wind and rain storms except theirs are usually warm. Couldn’t we trade for that?

It seems my wish has been granted. While it’s no storm, Monsoon in Seattle is providing a much safer and tastier method of staying out of the cold. Located in Capitol Hill, a Seattle neighborhood that reminds me a lot of Berkeley, Monsoon specializes in “tradition Vietnamese cuisine with Pacific Northwest innovation.” Their menu, a creation of owners Eric and Sophie Banh, blends Vietnamese, Chinese and French flavors with wonderful result. The menu changes monthly and is prepared with locally sourced and organic ingredients whenever possible. With this kind of mindset, I can’t help think that Monsoon would thrive in a nice spot like the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley but perhaps I’m asking for too much. I don’t want to steal Monsoon away from Seattle mind you, I could settle for a second location. So how about it Eric, Sophie, ever been to the Bay Area?

My first visit to Monsoon had been with my older brother. He promised me a bowl of pho unlike any that I had tried before. When I met him at the restaurant however, I must admit that I had my reservations. Frankly, the place was too nice. Restaurants that serve good pho can usually be found in the dodgier parts of town and generally boast an Asian greasy spoon allure (both literally and figuratively). This was neither. Furthermore, a quick glance around the dining room made it obvious that I was the only Asian, or, well, half-Asian customer in the house. The primarily Caucasian clientele made me fear the worst: General Tso’s Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork, Combination Chow Mein and Fortune Cookies or perhaps more accurately in this case, packaged MSG laden pho. My worries were immediately assuaged however when the food arrived.

We began the meal with an order of the braised berkshire pork belly. The slightly crispy, fried exterior gave way to the juicy, succulent interior, accentuated by the thin layers of fat between the meat. The richness of the pork was cut well by the subtle kick of the accompanying spicy mustard. This reminded me of the Chinese red-braised pork I ate as a kid and I would have loved to seen this pork belly paired with a similar sweet, dark sauce.

Next came a few of their dim sum delicacies. I found both the bbq pork bun and the steamed lotus leaf rice to be executed right on point. They were excellent representations of classic Chinese delights.

Finally came the piece de resistance. From the moment the bowl arrived at the table I knew it was unique. The wafts of steam drifted into my nose, bringing with them the highly aromatic smells of the soup. The broth was much darker than most restaurants’ due to the ox tails used in the making. The meat was also distinct. Unlike the regular paper-thin slices often resembling sandwich meat, this steak was cut thicker from high quality wagyu beef. I took my first sip of the broth and was amazed. It managed to be rich and hearty yet subtle and nuanced at the same time. It was like a heavy weight boxer: he’s light on his feet but packs a mean punch. I had hoped I might be able to go nine rounds but I was stuffed full by the relatively small bowl after the first.

My brother was right. This was one of the best bowls of pho I had ever had. Yet to be fair, Monsoon is simply in a different weight class. And rightfully so. Their attention to detail and the quality of ingredients sets them leagues apart from most Vietnamese restaurants. Their ability to meld varying cuisines harmoniously awards them further distinction. If this were not enough, Monsoon also boasts a wide selection of fine wines. Though I haven’t had the opportunity to sample them yet, I fully intend to soon. I guess I know where I’ll be the next time my power goes out. Actually, probably sooner than that.

615 19th Avenue E
Seattle, Washington 98112

PS - Drive slow on 19th as it's nestled location is easy to miss.