Monday, July 31, 2006

Neotte Teabar, Palo Alto

Jon and I first took notice of Neotte months and months ago -- back when the weather was cold enough to make a hot cup of tea sound like a sensational idea. Then the temperatures began to rise and we sort of forgot about going there. But last Friday, while sitting at my chilly, air-conditioned workstation trying to think of a good place to meet up with a friend in downtown Palo Alto, Neotte popped into my head.

Of course, once I parked my car and stepped out onto the sidewalk, it was blazing hot (okay, probably in the 80s -- not the 100s or anything crazy like that). And just when I was starting to regret my meet-up location, I saw that Neotte offers any of their teas iced. I opted for an iced Hong Kong milk tea, and my pal Evelyn ordered an iced white tea. Both were absolutely refreshing. No added sugar required.

Neotte also carries a few snacks (cakes, Chinese treats), and most of their teas are available for purchase in well-designed metal canisters. You'll also find some very cute teacups and pots for sale. The space is modern and simple, with a dozen or so tables and a few armchairs to relax in. Quite a few people were there with their laptops, so I'm guessing there's free wi-fi here.

So if you think -- like I previously did -- that Neotte is only a good place to go when it's rainy or cold, think again. With its friendly service, calm ambiance and delicious cold or hot teas, this is a solid year-round hang-out.

Neotte Teabar
429 University Avenue
Palo Alto, CA
(650) 330-1738

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Flea St. Cafe, Menlo Park

So it's got a strange name (Pulgas = fleas in Spanish). And it doesn't look like much from the outside. But Flea St. Cafe is one of the most charming restaurants I've experienced in the Peninsula.

Jon and I went with his parents to Flea St. on a recent Friday night. Our waiter was over-the-top enthusiastic about all of the items on the menu. He reminded me of that character Alec Baldwin played on "Friends" -- the one who is so in love with EVERYTHING. "The Chef is a genius!" "This is magnificent!" "That is exquisite!" (But the waiter managed to be entertaining/endearing instead of annoying.)

To start, Jon's dad and I both had the heirloom tomato soup with a puffed pastry crown.* It was delicious! I loved the cilantro in the soup, and it wasn't too creamy or rich. And the pastry was light and flaky. Jon had the blue corn almond vegetable fritto misto. I had just a bite of his and it was very good; the blue corn made for a nice crust on the veggies. Jon's mom went with the red beet goat cheese ravioli, which is not actually pasta. The ravioli's shell is made of thin shavings of beet, making for a gorgeous presentation.

For our main courses, it went down like this: I ordered the lamb special (served two ways -- osso bucco and thinly sliced tenderloin); Jon had the pork chop; his mom had the halibut cartoccio; and his dad had the grilled bavette. It was all so very good. I didn't finish my lamb, however, because I was saving room for dessert! (Jon's dad ate the leftovers the next day and the dish was still terrific.)

While Jon's dad abstained from dessert, Jon ordered the vanilla gelato served with a Russian tea cake cookie (the cookie was good, the gelato was -- eh -- vanilla gelato, not my favorite dessert). His mom chose wisely, ordering the bread pudding with rum sauce. And I enjoyed the rose petal lavender angel food cake served with strawberries and lemon mousse. Yum!

Since Jon's parents only visit us a couple of times a year, we try to take them to restaurants we really like. This was a little risky because neither of us had previously dined at Flea St. Cafe. But the place did not disappoint, and we all walked out at the end of the meal with full bellies and big smiles.

Flea St. Cafe
3607 Alameda de las Pulgas
Menlo Park, CA
(650) 854-1226

* By the way, the BEST tomato soup in puff pastry I have ever had was at Bistro Jeanty in Napa. I believe it's also on the menu at Jeanty at Jack's in San Francisco.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Eating Elsewhere: Pismo Beach

Prior to receiving an invitation to a wedding in Pismo Beach, I didn't really know where the place was. And for those of you who also need a little geography lesson here, it's basically halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, along the coast. We stayed at a hotel overlooking the ocean (pretty! and not ridiculously hot!), but Jon and I still managed to venture into town a couple of times during our short stay in Pismo.

"Town" is filled with plenty of shops and restaurants. Nearly every place had a long line on Saturday night, so we opted for the one that seemed to have the shortest wait of them all: Mo's. Now, usually, if a restaurant is the only one that isn't packed, you have to wonder about the quality, right? But in this case, because I think most people come to Pismo for the excellent seafood and Mo's is a barbecue joint, I figured that was the reason it wasn't backed up around the corner. The food itself was quite good. Jon had the Shredded Chicken Sandwich, while I opted for the Rib Combo (1/2 slab of Philthy Phil's Pork Ribs and Sweet Carolina's Pork Ribs). Of the two sauces, I preferred the Phil's -- which was spicier and less sweet than the Carolina's. The meat itself was tender and just fell off of the bone. Jon liked the potato salad more than I did, but we both agreed that the corn muffins served with honey butter were delish.

splash cafeOn Sunday, we went back into town for lunch with six others. We decided on Splash Cafe, which we had read good things about... But apparently, everyone else had also read about the place, because by 11:30am the line already stretched around the corner. (It wasn't nearly as bad as what we witnessed the previous night though.) It took us about half an hour to get to the register to place our order. Then you get to the hard part: Finding a table. It was obvious that we weren't going to nab a table for eight, so we had to split up into three groups to enjoy our meal. But that was the only downside of the place. The food was awesome. Splash Cafe claims to have the best clam chowder and Jon's dad seemed ready to accept that after he took one bite of the creamy concoction. I went with the oysters and chips. The fried oysters were plump and juicy, while the fries were served crispy and hot. No complaints here. Jon and his mom both ordered the ahi tacos, which were piled high with fish. At $4.50 for a pair, they were a great deal.

So there you have it. If you ever find yourself in Pismo Beach, you've got at least two good dining options. Oh, and don't miss the place on the corner of Pomeroy and Dolliver that has all sorts of yummy fudge, and you can watch saltwater taffy being made!

Mo's SmokeHouse BBQ
221 Pomeroy Street
Pismo Beach, CA
(805) 773-6193

Splash Cafe
197 Pomeroy Street
Pismo Beach, CA
(805) 773-4653

Friday, July 21, 2006

Canton Delights, Cupertino

Once upon a time, I worked in San Francisco. I took public transportation to and from work. Within a one-block radius of the office, I could get my morning coffee from Peet's or Starbucks or Tully's. The lunch possiblities seemed endless -- and this was even before the Ferry Plaza really became a culinary scene.

Now I work in the suburbs. And one of the things I hate the most about my job location is that you have to drive most days in order to get a decent lunch. So when a co-worker suggested we try this Cantonese dim sum place within walking distance, I was all for it.

During lunch, Canton Delights offers a choice of dim sum (which is wheeled to your table) or lunch entrees that you order from a menu. We went with the former, deciding that we should try a lot of them to really get a feel for whether this place would warrant repeat visits. Of the three of us, I was the only one who had no knowledge of the Chinese language; one dining companion spoke Mandarin, while another spoke both Mandarin and Cantonese. Basically, I just had to sit back and let them do all of the food-selecting.

Here's what we ended up ordering:
  • Cha Siu Bau (steamed barbecue pork buns)
  • Fung Jao (steamed chicken feet in spicy sauce)
  • Naai Wong Bau (steamed egg custard creme buns)
  • Ha Gau (steamed shrimp dumplings)
  • Siu Mai (steamed minced pork dumplings)
  • Siu Lun Bau (steamed Shanghai minced meat dumplings)
  • Fun Gwoh (steamed veggie dumplings)
  • Daan Tart (baked mini egg custards)
  • Ha Cheun (rice-noodle rolls with shrimp)
  • Loh Mai Gai (steamed rice with meat, wrapped in a lotus leaf)
If you're thinking that this was a lot of food for three people, you would be absolutely right. But most of the dishes, unfortunately, were just slightly above average. My favorite of the bunch was the steamed pork bun, which had a good ratio of bun to sweet pork filling. We initially ordered the baked mini egg custards as our dessert, but they weren't very satisfying; the crust was a bit gummy, and not flaky. The steamed egg custard creme buns were a better way to end the meal.

So, while there is definitely better dim sum to be had in the South Bay, we may still find ourselves back at Canton Delights some day... When we're craving dumplings and no one wants to drive to Joy Luck or HC Dumpling House.

Canton Delights
10125 Bandley Drive
Cupertino, CA
(408) 777-9888

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Kitsho Sushi, Cupertino

I could eat Japanese food every day. Really, I could. So I'm always on the lookout for new Japanese restaurants to try. Yesterday, the co-workers and I popped into Kitsho -- just off Stevens Creek Boulevard, across from Sears -- for an inaugural visit.

We walked in around 11:45, just before the lunch rush, and were immediately seated in the middle of the restaurant. One of the co-workers asked the sushi chef if we could move to a table by the window (he loves his natural light). We got approval, but the waitress still didn't seem too pleased. She was a bit cranky with us, but her mood/service improved by the time we finished eating.

I was too hungry to focus on what the others at the table ordered. I went with the Kitsho Bento Box, so for about $12, I got: miso soup; a small bowl of salad (I didn't eat it); several slices of fresh tuna sashimi (excellent, not too fishy); a rather generous portion of tempura (including two shrimps and a good variety of veggies); a few pieces of fried chicken; and a serving of broiled mackarel. Overall, that bento box earned a B+ in my book.

What else... I also ordered unagi, which had a bit more sauce on it than I like. The co-worker next to me ordered the sashimi appetizer with salmon and tuna, and she fully endorsed the raw fish here. On a future visit, I'll have to try the toro and hamachi. I have a feeling I'll be going back to Kitsho... a lot. (Don't be surprised if I make a repeat visit today even!)

19541 Richwood Drive
Cupertino, CA
(408) 873-1444

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Alpine Inn Beer Garden, Portola Valley

So here's the thing: Portola Valley scares me. Just a little. It's all woodsy and full of nature -- big trees, dirt roads, creeks, bugs, birds, etc. A couple of weeks ago, while driving to a friend's house in PV, we almost ran over a coyote. And there was a lady riding a horse alongside us on the road. Jon rather enjoys this type of environment. Me? Not so much. It feels too removed from civilization or something.

Yet I still agreed to go to the Alpine Inn Beer Garden the other night -- an eatery most locals refer to as "Zott's" (short for Rossotti's, one of its former names). This place is RUSTIC. Yes, worthy of all capital letters. Afterall, it is one of the oldest establishments on the Peninsula, dating back about 150 years. It's been a gambling house, a saloon, a "picnic park," and now, it's a restaurant/beer garden.

After parking in the dirt parking lot, we headed into the oversized shack to order our food. A bar immediately greets you when you enter the restaurant, with the grill towards the back of the room. This is where you actually do your food ordering. I went with a cheeseburger with a side of pickles and a large side of fries (there were three of us eating). After you've ordered and paid for your food, you head towards the bar area and order your drinks. Efficient? Maybe not. But I just did as I was told.

Then we went outside to secure a spot at one of the 2-3 dozen picnic tables in the beer garden. It's a massive space, with trees offering much-welcome shade and a creek adding to the feeling that you are indeed deep in this thing called nature. When our order was ready, our name was called on the outdoor speaker and we went inside to retrieve our food.

The burgers here are rectangular, served on a roll that's been put on the grill as well (nice!). The cheese in the cheeseburgers = cheddar. As good as the burger was, it was the crinkle-cut fries that really got me. They're crispy, and still managed to be tasty even after they had been on our table for over half an hour. (I saw Jon checking out another group's bag of peanuts; he likes that you can just throw the shells on the ground here.)

So I admit it: On a warm summer night, sitting in the garden at Zott's, is hard to beat. Even with the tree sap getting my arms all sticky. Even with the bugs landing on me and my food. Even with all that nature that freaks me out so much.

Alpine Inn Beer Garden
3915 Alpine Road
Portola Valley, CA
(650) 854-4004

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Upcoming Event: Connoisseurs' Marketplace

While driving to Draeger's in Menlo Park last night, I noticed a road closure sign along Santa Cruz Avenue. This weekend, part of the street will be shut down to cars for the 20th Connoisseurs' Marketplace. Here's a description, from the event's web site:

Summer festival season is in full swing. At the top of every festival lovers “must-do” list is Connoisseurs’ Marketplace, Menlo Park’s annual celebration of the Bay Area’s best in visual, performing and culinary arts. Every year on the third weekend in July, charming Santa Cruz Avenue is transformed into a moveable feast with big crowds and a colorful sea of tents. Presented by the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, this year’s 20th annual festival will be held on July 15-16 with thousands of visitors pouring onto the downtown streets for a vibrant celebration of art, music, food, and all-around family fun.

Connoisseurs' Marketplace
July 15-16, 10am-6pm
Santa Cruz Avenue, between El Camino Real and Johnson Street

After-hours concert featuring Double Funk Crunch, 5:30-8pm on July 15 in Fremont Park

Monday, July 10, 2006

Shalizaar, San Mateo

On Saturday night, Jon and I -- along with another couple -- paid a visit to Shalizaar in downtown San Mateo. It was my first Persian dining experience and, after reading rave reviews on Chowhound, I walked in with fairly high expectations of the place. Unfortunately, I walked out a couple of hours later slightly underwhelmed.

Soon after we sat down, a server brought a complimentary plate of Sabzi -- fresh herbs, green onions, red radish, feta and walnuts -- and a basket of lavash bread. I followed the lead of others and placed a little of each item on a piece of bread, rolled it up and enjoyed.

We ordered two appetizers to start -- the Mast-o-Khiar (Persian yogurt with diced cucumber, dried mint, garlic) and the Tah Dig (crispy rice topped with stew). The Mast-o-Khiar, which we spread on the lavash, was delicious. I especially liked the crunch of the cucumber in the smooth, creamy mixture. The portion is generous, but we tried not to eat it all because we thought we had a second appetizer coming our way. However, a mix-up in the kitchen lead to our entrees arriving before the Tah Dig.

The four of us decided to split two main dishes, and I thought we had ordered the Soltani (filet mignon and ground beef skewers) and the Shishlik (rack of lamb). But we ended up with a huge oval platter that included filet mignon, ground beef, lamb and game hen. Hands-down, my favorite of the bunch was the ground beef, which had the best flavor (onions, saffron, garlic, spices). The lamb chops were also tender and juicy.

When we ordered the Tah Dig, the server told us he would top it with Shalizaar's two most popular stews. The rice was nice and crunchy, but I didn't care much for either of the stews. One consisted of mostly yellow split peas, while the other was a spinach-y sauce. Aside from sampling a little bit of this dish, we hardly touched the Tah Dig plate.

While service was always friendly, it wasn't always efficient. Aside from the appetizer confusion, it took us a while to flag down anyone to give us our check. When the bread plates were cleared, three of us had them removed, yet they inexplicably left one on the table.

So would I go back to Shalizaar? Hmmm... Those ground beef skewers were really tasty. But it's probably not enough to lure me back for a repeat visit.

120 W. 25th Avenue
San Mateo, CA
(650) 341-2600

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Jersey Joe's, San Carlos

jersey joe'sJust as my ex-New Yorker husband, Jon, is always searching for great bagels in the Bay Area, he is equally determined to find great cheese steaks around here. (He went to college in Philadelphia.) When you live in the suburbs, you learn that some of the best eateries are located in bland strip malls -- and Jersey Joe's is no exception.

On Friday night, we took El Camino Real north until we saw the Jersey Joe's sign by the road. There's not much to say about the exterior, except that there are a few tables set up on the "sidewalk." Inside, you order at the counter and take a seat until they call your number. The decor includes plenty of sports memorabilia and items invoking NY, NJ and Philadelphia (of course). There's a big-screen TV, as well as several smaller, ceiling-mounted sets.

Since the restaurant wasn't too busy when we walked in, it only took about ten minutes for our order to come up. We quickly got to work. Mmmm... tasty! After inhaling half of his cheese steak, Jon gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up, but did add that the bread is "different" -- and by that, I think he meant they aren't crusty rolls. Jersey Joe's uses "special rolls," and they are indeed special in that they are more like bread pockets. I love this idea -- even if it makes for a slightly less authentic East Coast-style cheese steak -- because you don't have any meat falling out of the bottom. And believe me, these cheese steaks are SO stuffed full of goodness (mine had thinly sliced steak, melted cheese, grilled onions and mushrooms) that it certainly would have spilled out into my basket if it weren't for the well-designed rolls. I only managed to finish half of my cheese steak, but Jon picked up the slack and ate his entire cheese steak plus my leftover.

Oh, and in case you like your cheese steaks with Cheez Wiz (a la Pat's in Philly), you can ask for that instead of American, which is Jersey Joe's default cheese.

If you're not in the mood for a cheese steak, there are lots of other options on the menu -- including hoagies, burgers and wings. In addition to our cheese steaks, Jon and I ordered a side of fries (eh, just okay) and a chocolate milkshake (very good). The shake, which was made with Breyer's ice cream, was not too thick (you could use a straw) and not too sweet (Jon and I split the entire thing and didn't feel sick later).

Another thing this place has going for it: tabletop arcade games! So you can eat, drink and face-off in Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga. Aside from a couple of Tastykakes, what more could you ask for?

Jersey Joe's
21 El Camino Real
San Carlos, CA
(650) 592-7317

Note: Jersey Joe's is in the process of updating its web site. Some of the prices listed online are outdated.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Eating Elsewhere: Chicago

My recent four-day trip to Chicago was filled with so many gastronomical delights. I -- along with my two travel companions -- ate ridiculously well:

  • We landed in Chicago around 3:30pm and were famished because none of us had eaten breakfast before flying out that morning. And they served absolutely NO FOOD on the plane. Well, there were some muffins wrapped in plastic that you could buy. But those weren't the least bit appetizing. Where were the snack boxes?!

    Anyway. As soon as we checked in, we headed to the Lobby restaurant in The Peninsula to get our grub on. Afternoon Tea service was just winding down, but they were happy to seat us anyway. Apparently, the dining space is modeled after The Peninsula in Hong Kong -- which is famous for its Afternoon Tea, which I have also enjoyed. But I don't know if it was just the extreme hunger, but I thought the Chicago tea service was actually better than the one in Hong Kong. Everything we ate was so good.

  • I've had the pleasure of dining at Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Mexico. But with superchefs like Trotter, if possible, I think one should eat at their original establishment to really appreciate their genius. And that's exactly what we did Saturday night.

    There were three of us dining together, and we each opted for the Grand Menu:

    • Amuse Gueule
    • Japanese Hamachi with Roasted Bell Pepper, Kalamata Olive Sorbet, Spanish Paprika & Basil Oil
    • Hawaiian Escolar with Steamed Dungeness Crab, Chives & Crispy Pig's Feet
    • Whole Roasted Squab with Braised Sweet Onions, Chanterelle Mushroom &
      Szechwan Peppercorn Reduction
    • Four Story Hill Angus Strip Loin with Kohlrabi, White Runner Bean, Pickled Garlic & Spiced Date
    • Meyer Lemon & Olive Oil Sherbet with Candied Lemon Peel
    • Poached Rhubarb with Jasmine Semifreddo & Celery
    • Mignardises

    The flavors... The textures... Delicious. And we even saw the man himself (Charlie Trotter) pass through the dining room.

  • And just when you think NOTHING could top dinner at Charlie Trotter's, along comes Alinea. The Tour Menu consisted of 24 courses. They were small, but still! TWENTY-FOUR! And each plate was a masterpiece. Truly beautiful. I have never seen food presented so well in my entire life.

    potatoGrant Achatz' cuisine can best be described as avant garde. It is so completely different than anything you've ever seen or tasted. For example, the first course was called Hot Potato/Cold Potato. It consisted of a translucent bowl -- small enough that you could easily cup it in the palm of your hand -- filled with chilled potato soup. Suspended over the soup, from a needle, was a bit of parmesan, a bit of cold butter, a sliver of chive, a warm chunk of potato, and a slice of black truffle. The server instructed us to pull the needle away from the bowl, thereby letting all of the suspended items fall into the bowl. Then sip and enjoy. The flavors blended so harmoniously. It was gorgeous to look at, fun to eat, and -- best of all -- tasted divine. Subsequent courses were just as brilliant.

    It's hard to put the Alinea experience into words. You just have to go and appreciate it for yourself.

    (Image from Alinea's web site)

  • After Charlie Trotter's and Alinea two consecutive nights, on Monday, it was time to get back to "normal" food. We hit Grant Park for the Taste of Chicago festival. This is where I enjoyed two of my favorite foods: deep-fried dough (funnel cakes!) and deep-fried potatoes (a plate piled high with chips).

taste of chicago taste of chicago

  • We couldn't leave Chicago without sampling some cupcakes. So we made a visit to Sweet Mandy B's. Yummm! The cakes were so moist, and the frosting not overly sweet. The Red Velvet was my favorite.

And those were pretty much the food highlights from Chicago!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What's Cooking: Truffled Popcorn

The lack of posts this past week can be attributed to my Fourth of July long-weekend trip to Chicago. A lot of good eatin' was done in the Windy City, and I'll post about it all when I have more time. But for now, I'll share with you one of my favorite snacks from the weekend.

To go along with our movie-watching, we ordered some truffled popcorn from the room-service menu at The Peninsula. It was SO frickin' good. Here's how I'm guessing it was made: Heat/combine butter and truffle oil in a small saucepan. Pop the kernels (over the stove, in a pan with vegetable oil) and then pour them into a large bowl. Add the truffled butter and toss. Grate some parmigiano reggiano over the popcorn and toss again.