March 31, 2006

Better than a run for the border

One of the neat things about this food blog thing is I realize I'm not alone (or crazy) in my strange cyclical relationship with various foods. Okay, the appearance of sushi (often of dubious origin) in every mega-mart from Safeway to Walmart convinces me I'm not the only one obsessed with raw fish (though I have standards). But Beth's recent revelation that she cooks in phases and lived on quesadillas for several weeks caused me to sigh in relief. I'm not weird. Really I'm not. See, other people obsess too!

So what edible's captured my culinary attention lately? Nachos!

better than a run for the border

Building on the basic chips and cheese, my version of nachos take inspiration from many of the friends who garnered guest appearances in Mo's sacred kitchen. Ida added green onions to her nachos. Henri added olives. Maria cut up roasted peppers. My nachos also use up whatever leftovers I happen to have on hand. Homemade mango/jalepeno salsa. Sour cream. Crumbled bacon. Some leftover avocado. I've even occasionally added chopped wild mushrooms to the meat source. Anything goes. Except beans. Not without an epi pen handy.

The primary meat source these days is well-rendered chorizo, which serves as both a protein and a delightfully spicy seasoning.

But nachos for dinner? You bet. They're cheap. They're quick. They're easy. Though they're not health-food, they're a fairly simple conduit for passing some vegetation into the diet. They satisfy the cravings for salty, crunchy and spicy. And they're great for those nights when we want to nosh in front of the food network. With a cold beer or a nice glass of Lizard Rock Sauvignon Blanc cuddling with someone you love while Alton Brown busts food myths, they're a great way to slide into the weekend...

March 29, 2006

Adventuring through the Amazon (

It's tax refund time.

I've spent the last couple of days pondering my cookbook collection

It's raining. Again.

I've got some time to kill, an internet connection, a web browser and some 'found' money. Time to wander through the Amazon…

Half an hour later, I've stuffed my virtual cart with goodies to keep me occupied in the kitchen, come rain or come shine...

The first thing to capture my attention is the latest add-on to my trusty Kitchen Aid. Hmm. Freeze the bowl for 15 hours. Add the batter, let the mixer run for 30 minutes and produce 2 quarts of soft serve ice cream. I'm thinking my 7-year old nephew could handle that. Click. Add to Cart.

What to do with an ice cream maker attachment when the Bay Area refuses to let go of winter and slide into spring? Beth's divine looking Girl Scout Cookie Ice Cream, is first on my list. Followed quickly by this interesting Pine Nut Honey Ice Cream that I found in the Traveler's Lunchbox and Miss Tenacity's Banana-Mango Ice Cream It can rain until July... I'm letting go with love and marching on toward summer!

But I digress. Returning to Amazon, we move to the book section. Just a couple of things to curl up with under a blanket with a nice glass of wine (or a bowl of homemade ice cream)...

I've been eyeing the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook since I saw a teaser ad in the fall. Peach Bruchetta with Blue Cheese
and Arugula Salad with Shaved Aged Gouda and Satsumas are just two of many recipes causing me to drool all over my keyboard. And I love the way the book is organized -- alphabetically within each season, with selection, storage and preparation tips preceding the recipes. Yum. Click. Add to Cart

Chef, Interrupted has intrigued me since I saw it on Chika's blog in February. Take recipes from renowned chefs all over the country. Pare them down so that they're readable and executable by the food-obsessed home chef. If Chika's photographs are any indication, we're going to have fun with this one. Click. Add to Cart.

With an intro written by Alton Brown and commentary from Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and David Rosengarten, I knew Ted Allen's The Food You Want to Eat was going to contain recipes I wanted to make presented in a format I want to read. Maybe this rain thing's not so bad... Click. Add to Cart.

The Barefoot Contessa and The Best Recipe: Restaurant Favorites are two titles oft-recommended by foodie friends, and welcome additions to my kitchen bookshelves. Click. Click. Add to Cart.

Now... armed with months worth of culinary inspiration... off to the kitchen...

March 28, 2006

Tag - I'm it!

A meme! I got tagged!

I realize that there are those of you out there groaning... ANOTHER meme. But not me. Like many of the other relative newcomers, I've been watching memes circulate and thinking "I want to do that... that looks like fun." So now that I've been 'tagged', I feel like I'm now a member of the food blogging community (like Tea, I still can't say 'blogsphere' with a straight face). But thanks to Tea, I'm no longer a wall flower in this community, I'm one of the "cool kids". And even better, it's not just any meme... I get to wax poetic about... my cookbook collection!

How many cookbooks do you own?

In the scheme of things, I guess I have more than some, but clearly not as many as others among us. I haven't counted recently, but I think I'm still in double-digits. I've got a run of the Cooking Light Annuals, a reflection of my long term relationship with that publication and the lessons it's taught me that I don't have to sacrifice taste and complexity for a healthier lifestyle. I've got books from places I've visited (Chicago... New York...), restaurants I've eaten (Greens... Va de Vi...), cuisines & techniques I want to try at home (sushi... fondue...), chefs and other foodies I admire (Alton Brown... David Rosengarten... Ted Allen), gifts from friends and loved ones that reflect our shared passion for good food.

I have occasional guilt feelings (usually corresponding with hitting the 'add to cart' button on or pulling out my credit card at Barnes & Noble) that if I never buy another cookbook, I won't run out of recipes to try. But like any other good library, there are just titles that MUST be a part of a good cookbook collection. I address the 'must haves' in my personal collection in detail in question #5... but each book on my shelf holds a space in my heart... whether I've prepared one recipe from it or 100. So the next time I find myself conflicted over the purchase of a new cookbook, I'll find it fills a hole in my collection I didn't realize I had and I'll pull out my credit card. Addicted? Who's addicted?

Which is the cookbook you bought most recently??

I've probably been "into food" since I graduated from bottle to fork. My parents would certainly attest that I've always been "picky" about it. And some of my fondest childhood memories surround following my father and his friends around his kitchen. John brought out the food lover in me, and one of our most treasured activities became picking a new neighborhood and going 'menu browsing'. It was menu browsing that we discovered Kelly Degala.

Shortly after I moved to the east-er east bay, we found ourselves wandering downtown Walnut Creek in search of the ubiquitous "something different." We passed one Italian restaurant after another (some of which we later discovered were quite good) before stopping in front of the newly open Ono Maze. It was a turning point in our relationship -- with each other and absolutely with food. For the better part of two years, we found ourselves like Norm and Cliff of Cheers fame (though younger and better looking) returning to Ono Maze at least once a month for OUR version of comfort food. A native of Hawaii with genealogical and culinary roots in the Philippines, Kelly expanded our culinary horizons. He introduced us to his own unique "east meets west" cuisine, teaching me that among other things, that my aversion to seafood mixed with tomatoes is unfounded -- at least in some cases. He's the first man I wasn't pursuing romantically that got me to try something I otherwise might have dismissed as "not something I'd enjoy".

Time moves on, especially in the restaurant industry. Ono Maze is no more, but the east bay hasn't lost Kelly. For those of you locals who live under a rock, Kelly's now the busy Executive Chef at Va de Vi Bistro & Wine Bar, where he delights diners with collection of international small plates designed to encourage exploration and experimentation. The menu varies with the season and what's in and fresh, but we've found favorites in the grilled hawaiian mahi-mahi served with thai red curry sauce, the ahi tempura roll with wasabi-orange cream and ponzu, the seared miso marinated alaskan black cod, and the organic grass fed hanger steak. This isn't your father's "fusion cuisine".

And since the Va de Vi cookbook came out in December, I can ponder making these delights at home! I can proudly say this cookbook isn't JUST for show... John's already tried his hand at the thai curry sauce with much success. And this summer when we have more time in the kitchen, we've flagged several others for when we're feeling adventurous. We'll keep you posted...

Which is the cookbook you read most recently?

Does my "to read" pile count? In an effort to eat healthier and try new fruits and vegetables, I recently subscribed to a regional community supported agriculture program and now find myself with the aforementioned interesting fruits and vegetables to add to my menus. I'm now on a constant search for recipes and storage tips. Enter my most recent acquisition: The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook, which also promises to show me how to choose the best of the best from our bevy of local farmer's markets. It will surely quit raining SOMEDAY and we'll be making that weekly pilgrimage again. Amazon delivers Friday so this is in the queue as weekend reading. Again, we'll report back...

Name and describe 5 cookbooks that mean the most to you.

The first four are relative no-brainers. Ms. Madison, Misters Bittman and Brown, and the team at Cooking Light each deliver their own encyclopedic take on all things edible. Regardless of my mood, I know I can find a winning recipe in any of these volumes.

Madison's simple Shredded Salad of Many Greens has converted many vegetable phobes, including John's "I don't eat anything green" brother in law. And I know I can turn to her for a delicious fruit-based dessert using whatever I found irresistible at the farmer's market last weekend.

We've brined Thanksgiving turkey, prepared the Christmas roast beast and served up Easter shrimp cocktail appetizers "the AB way", and his 6 pantry ingredient Haste Makes Paste is the rub of choice for just about every cut of meat we throw on the grill in the summer.

While I've never prepared one of Bittman's recipes, I use his book as my first stop food encyclopedia. How do I trim artichokes? What are my options for the fish I just found at Whole Foods? I use his recipes as the foundation upon which I add my own creative flair.

And the Complete Cooking Light offers me healthy-but-tasty options for those everyday meals where I don't want to sacrifice flavor for the sake of heart-health.

My final indispensable reference in the kitchen has no name at all... it's known in my family as "the blue binder". The blue binder was my father's creation... a discarded classroom binder into which he added recipes passed on from family and friends. Many of them handwritten. The blue binder was a sacred resident of my father's kitchen. I begged, pleaded and cajoled, but I couldn't get more than photocopies out of it in my initial forays out of the nest into "foreign kitchens." A year after dad's death, knee deep in a remodel project to create the kitchen of my dreams, mom decided I was a worthy custodian of the blue binder. My next project is to get its contents digitized, so my grandmother's handwritten notes on the perfect pie crust survive into future generations. Until I get that done I rarely refer to the actual binder; I've converted most of the recipes I use to MasterCook. But it's comforting to know that as I make Aunt Phyllis' penuche, Grandma Kate's parker house rolls, Aunt Lena's touthlach, or Mo's persimmon bread, I've got their thoughts, in their handwriting... their legacies live on in my 21st century kitchen.

Now, for who to tag... I understand there is a lot of spirited debate about whether memes are cool or the blog version of a chain letter. But -- with the understanding that this is an invitation to share their thoughts and not a command performance, I plan to tag Sarah and her Delicious Life, Tzi at Amuse Bouche Musings and Beth with her Zen approach to foodism. To the extent they're interested in participating, I'm looking forward to learning where they find inspiration.

March 25, 2006

And for dessert our heroine will have...

Not the fried cheesecake this time, despite it's devilish divinity. Not the Kahlua fondue with seasonal fruit, though we know it rocks. Not even the tempting trio of sorbets. Nope, nope, not me. On this trip to Nibblers, I chose to end my meal with a second serving of the salmon sashimi. Oh. My. Gawd.

On the menu, Daniel calls it Sashimi of Pacific salmon with lemon, black sesame, scallions & ginger soy glaze. Uh huh. Yeahsurerightfine. Ginger soy glaze indeed.

Five slices of beautifully striped, buttery salmon (pork fat my ass... fish fat rules!).

Bathed in the most sublime sweet & tangy sauce -- maple with hints of vanilla, nutmeg and yes... ginger. Karmic-ly balanced...the salmon sets off the sauce, which sets off the salmon... a Zen moment.

Yeah, I'll have some more of that.

As it turned out, I didn't actually end my meal with the sashimi. Tracy would have none of that. She and Daniel had conspired on a new dessert, and she wanted our honest opinions about it. Well okay. Far be it from me to turn down sugar. Urp.

There in front of us sat Strocolo di pomi with Fuji apples, golden sultanas, pine nuts, cinnamon & a caramel balsamic gelato.

Before we get to Tracy's creation, let me reiterate: Caramel Balsamic Gelato. I've never tried a gelato from Fiorello that didn't wow me, but this was beyond amazing. Delightful for licking off someone you love. But I digress...

The Strocolo was phenomenal. With the apples, the sultanas, the nuts, and everything else, it had a whole lot going on. What amazed and delighted me was that not a single component dominated this dish - you could easily taste each of the ingredients. And what I adore about almost every dish Nibblers puts before us... the whole is so very much more than a sum of the parts. Food just doesn't GET any better than that.

March 24, 2006

A mind-bending look at a holiday tradition... Peeps!

Bored on a rare Friday afternoon when I'm not stuffed in a refrigerated conference room with four to ten of my closest coworkers, I surf the net in search of what else? Food stuff! One of the few categories of websites to which my employer has not yet blocked access...

One of the most delightful aspects of the internet is the ability for someone with a combined case of boredom and ADD to get lost in a tangent and just like that, 30 minutes flies by. (This feature can come back to bite you in the ass when you're web surfing rather than writing that report that was due yesterday, but I generally have a bit more self control than that.) This afternoon, an Epicurious sidebar on the evolution of an Easter icon was precisely the distraction I needed.

It wasn't some groundhog in the midwest on February 2, but Peeps appearing on the grocery store shelves that indicated spring was on its way when I was a child. I'm pretty sure I've never actually eaten one... I think the same package of four yellow chicks appeared atop every Easter basket from the day I was born well into junior high school... but spring hadn't sprung until the Peeps appeared.

A quick Google search reveals that there's a lot of interest in peeps (and a lot of sick and twisted people out there, but more on that in a moment). I learned that Peeps are made by the Just Born Company who also make classics like Mike & Ike (which I've also never tasted). That peeps debuted in 1953 and took 27 hours to make. Now they crank them out at a rate of 2 million a day (score one for the dental industry... at 160 calories a serving they pack 36 grams of sugar). Satisfied with my newfound academic understanding of the peep, I moved on to some of the more... colorful Google offerings.

One industrious scientist studied the effects of cigarettes and alcohol on peeps. Complete with pictures. Fascinating.

Then there's Lord of the Peeps. Prefer Shakespeare? Check out Romeo and Juliet as you've never seen it before. Can anyone say "obsession"?

Peep Poetry? An exercise in double-nostalgia...Peep video games?

Apparently not everyone loves peeps while others get far more than I ever have out of the experience!

Oddly (or perhaps not) I couldn't find very many recipes for peeps... most employed the microwave, blender?!? or (gasp) deep fryer?!?!? The one true recipe I did find won't likely make my Easter brunch lineup, but I thought I'd include it here for your amusement.

Confident that I'd killed a half hour with mindless but fun entertainment (and that I'll never look at peeps the same way again), I closed my browser and headed to my last meeting of the day...

March 23, 2006

There's no place like home (or getting reacquainted with my kitchen)

Lazy, hazy Thursday meeting-filled afternoons present the perfect opportunity fantasizing about food. Uninspired by my out-of-town experiences with chain restaurants and dysentery on a paper plate, I was itching to get creative in the kitchen. So I swung by Whole Foods and rather than scanning the deli for soup and a salad or some pre-packages sushi, I found inspiration in the seafood section.

With an assortment of ueber-fresh mussels, scallops and jumbo shrimp from my shopping spree, shiitakes, asparagus and scallions from this week's CSA bounty, some soba noodles and a bottle of commercial "Lemon Goddess Tahini Marinade and Noodle Sauce" from the pantry, I was ready to create.

First step: evaluate the bottled sauce. Needs some assistance. Back to the pantry for a couple cloves of garlic, some ginger, and a drop or two each of rice vinegar and sesame oil. Much better. Peel and de-tail shrimp, toss shrimp and scallops in bag with half-cup of kicked up marinade. Wrap mussels in damp paper towels to ensure they live until I'm ready to...well... kill them.

Step two: prep veggies for stir-fry. Blanch asparagus tips. Cook soba according to package directions, drain and set aside.

Step three: saute shrimp and scallops while John steams the mussels. Remove seafood from saute pan and add veggies. Saute until asparagus is tender-crisp. Hmmm...notice browned bits of marinade and mushroom at the bottom of the saute pan. Reach for wine glass and toss in 1/4 cup of... Lizard Rock Sauvignon Blanc/Roussanne blend with veggies to deglaze pan. Remove from heat and add remaining 1/2 cup of kicked up marinade and seafood. Toss to combine. Add soba noodles. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Step four: realize step -1 should have been add batteries to my new digital camera... this dish will not live in photographic infamy in my chronicles of culinary curiosity. A shame, because it plated very nicely. Alas, text will have to do for now... I'm new at this blog thing.

Step five: enjoy. And ponder that when I'm in the right creative space, 15 minutes in the grocery store and 30 minutes in the kitchen produces a hearty, healthy, soul-satisfying dinner (and yummy leftovers for lunch tomorrow). No tedious menu-planning necessary. I need to find this creative space more often...

March 21, 2006

Circle left for skin care, or square dancing meets a Mary Kay convention in Bakersfield

Stop #2 in our whistle stop tour of California square dance festivals finds us sharing a Best Western in Bakersfield with 300 or so Mary Kay consultants and (thanks to a late winter storm) no internet connection. Amused that whoever plans these grand events scheduled the annual gun show for NEXT weekend (octogenarians & estrogen-laden cosmetics saleswomen with guns...oh my!) So what did our heroine learn on her most recent central California adventure? First, the Sirloin Steak Baguette at Baker's Square is far tastier than the picture would indicate. Second, we'll be making dinner reservations with our room reservations next year.

We had every intention of celebrating Saturday night in the Basque tradition, with a group of friends at Wool Grower's Restaurant. Apparently most of Bakersfield also thought this was a good idea as well... we arrived for an early dinner to discover the earliest they could seat us was 9:30.

Plan B? Having had our fill of Mexican food in Los Banos, we decided to caravan around the immediate area and see what we could find. Given the culinary preferences and limitations of our group, finding something we thought we all could agree on was no easy task. In the end, we opted for Baker's Square 'cause we had to eat something. And while something was better than nothing, except for the company of good friends, it wasn't terribly soul-satisfying.

I'm glad we're home next weekend...

March 15, 2006

Food find - Flatout Bread

Wandering aimlessly around the grocery store deli searching for inspiration, I spy with my little eye an intriguing new product. Flatout... Better than Sliced Bread. hmmm. Flavors like chipotle-lime, Italian herb, and sundried tomato. Whole grain ingredients. 2 grams of fat per serving, 3-9 grams of fiber. Discovering and falling in love with a new "food find" is a guilty pleasure. When I can remove the guilt factor - 'cause I love it AND it's healthy, that's even better.

March 13, 2006

Street food favorites...

If it's a weekend in March, John and I are on the road promoting our upcoming square dance festival and searching for interesting food on the go. This weekend found us in beautiful if not-so-sunny Los Banos in California's central valley. A quick scan of the local yellow pages indicated the nearest sushi was 50-some miles away. "Best sushi! - chinese! - thai! - teriaki! - korean! food," screamed the ad in 72 point type. Hmmm. Fifty miles and they specialize in "Asian". Plan B? There seems to be a mom and pop taco stand every fifty feet. When in Mexico City... Saturday's lunch break found us driving up and down Pacheco Blvd in search of the dive-iest, most authentic north-of-the-border taco stand we could find. Dysentery on a plate is what John was looking for. And several blocks from our motel at Taqueria el Rodeo, we found it. I had a carne asada burito, sans beans. The meat was a little (okay a lot) overcooked for me, but the flavor was awesome. And the chips on the side were the real, fried-in-lard thing, no tex-mex chipotle lime baked chips here. John had chiorizo and eggs -- and found himself in pork-fat-and-heat heaven.

Dining alfresco was the only option other than schlepping our food back to Best Western and it was more than a little chilly there on a park bench on the side of the highway. But it was good, hearty stick-to-your ribs food at a phenomenal price. Sometimes cheap eats ARE good eats.

March 08, 2006

Cheap Date Night - Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with "Wednesday Night" wines

In my twenties, my favorite "exotic cheese" was fresh mozarella. And I stayed away from wine -- on a budget, it was a dangerously expensive habit and cheap beer was a far safer buzz, at least financially. And then I met John. And my whole world changed.

In fairness, I can only blame John for my more recent cheese obsession (more on that in a moment). The wine thing wasn't his fault. The wine rack was a product of the kitchen remodel. It was an attractive display at the end of the island we built for pasta and pastry. I distinctly remember telling the contractor I would NEVER fill a 24-bottle wine rack. Ha! Five years and several regional wineries later, we've invested in another free-standing wine rack and we're seriously considering cold storage. These obsessions, they creep up on you. I'm keeping my head though. No three (four?? five?!?!?!) digit bottles of wine for me. Weeknight wine (when we indulge) is under $10. Weekends where we're more likely to put effort into dinner, $15-25. Fifty for a special occasion. I don't "get" wine over $50. And in the interest of maintaining a retirement fund, I'm quite happy that way.

Cheese is a newer fascination, and one I can blame more squarely on John. Before we met, I wouldn't touch stronger cheeses -- goat, sharp cheddar -- they just turned me off. John's taught me to appreciate their subtlety, especially when paired appropriately with other food and libation. I'm still picky about *really* strong cheeses -- blue, gorgonzola -- but a year or two ago I wouldn't have touched them. Now, with the right, full-bodied wine, I sometimes find myself going back for seconds of the cheese course. Which is progress in some direction.

So we've been together for ten years now... what has all this to do with cheap weeknight dates? Enter The Grapevine's Wednesday "Cheap Date Nights" -- wine and cheese (or pizza and beer) tasting events for the budget conscious foodie. For $20 you sample 4-5 wines and a handful of different grilled cheese sandwiches made with artisnal ingredients. In a word, yum.

Tonight's event did not disappoint.

The wine flight:
Lizard Rock, Sauvignon Blanc/Roussanne blend, 2004 (VDP, France) - This was the surprise hit of the night. A surprise for us because we're really picky about white wine. And apparently a surprise for many -- it seemed to be their top selling bottle of the evening. We left with four bottles of our own.

Bulletin Place, Merlot, 2003 (South Eastern Australia) - This was everything I love about Merlot -- smooth, rich, deep. Yummy.

Roudon Smith, “Claret”, Petite Syrah blend, 2003, (California Central Coast) - another one I was mildly surprised I enjoyed so much... smooth like the Merlot, but spicier.

Cordon Creek, “Pemberton Vny”, Zinfandel, 2000 (Amador County California)

The "grilled" cheese selection:

Urgelia, Tapenade and Roasted Bell Pepper on Sweet Baguette
Mixed Blue and Fig Paste on Baguette
Raclette and Salami on Herb Focaccia
Chevre, Tomato, Shallots, and Tarragon on Sliced Baguette
Taleggio, Rosemary and Grapes on Panini

We liked the Raclette/Salami, Blue/Fig a lot and the Taleggio, Rosemary and Grapes on Panini was my personal favorite:

Taleggio, Rosemary & Grapes
(Makes 50 1 inch pieces or 20 1/2 sandwiches)
Serves 10 people as a very filling meal
1 3/4 lb Taleggio - sliced
2 TBL fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1/4 c olive oil
3/4 lb red seedless (or other) sweet grapes - sliced in half
10 panini split lengthwise in half

George Forman Grill or other Hot Sandwich Maker

Mix rosemary and olive oil together and spread lightly over open sides of the sliced panini. Place the sliced Taleggio evenly on one half of the Panini. Top with sliced grapes, sliced side down. Cover with other half of the Panini place in the George Forman Grill. Toast until cheese melts (about 3 min). Slice crosswise into 1 inch pieces. Serve warm.

At last, a use for the Foreman Grill I got in college!

I suspect some rendition of several of them will appear on our open house menu next fall.

March 06, 2006

Allez Cuisine! - a vicarious (for now) food fantasy

John and I haven't had a lot of luck on the Food Network celebrity chef circuit.

Morimoto's in Philadelphia was a complete bust -- way too much money for some of the smallest sushi I've ever seen, most of which was flown in from California. I know I set my expectations high, but even if I'd been reasonable, I would have been disappointed.

Emeril's was pretentious, overpriced, and they didn't even get my order right. Salad? Salad? I ordered the Salmon?!?! Lunch at 11:30 and dinner reservations after 9... I'm going to be gnawing on the hotel room furniture.

Except for an interesting appetizer, Border Grill was uninspired. It was good. It just wasn't great.

So when our friend Chris told us that one of the highlights of his recent visit to Japan was lunch at Chen's, I wasn't sure what to expect from his story...

Chris is a musician, a foodie, and a huge Iron Chef fan. He says he spent the flight to Japan watching old episodes on DVD. As his luck would have it, a friend of a dear friend of his works in Chen's restaurant. And they were able to get lunch reservations on a day Chen was actually there (which may have been our mistake at Morimoto's and Border Grill... I don't think Emeril sets foot in any of his restaurants). Chris's friend had billed him as this wonderful traveling musician from the US (which we think he is) and Chen pulled out all the stops for lunch. I'm hoping Chris stops by and comments on what he actually ate that day, because I spent so much time drooling as he described the soup that I can't remember much after that.

Chris & Chen smile for the camera

In even better news (for John and I, who've always wanted to see Japan), Mr. Excitement (that's Chris' stage name) will be spending the next year working in Tokyo. I immediately came home and started counting vacation days... and I think we can make this work. Fourth time's the charm, right?

March 05, 2006

Welcome to Bridges, would you like fries with that?

I've debated about whether to comment about our latest Bridges experience or just let it be. This is one of our all-time favorite restaurants. It's over there on the right, in my links. It's the first place we think of going when we're celebrating something big. We consider the owner, the chef and many of the staff among our friends...

But if the only time I post about a restaurant is to rave about how fabulous it is, I think I lose some credibility here. For those of you who remember the Life cereal ads of the 70's, I start to look like Mikey's optimistic cousin -- she loves EVERYTHING. (For those of you who don't, just humor me). So while I love Bridges, if our latest dinner there had been our first experience, I don't think we would go back...

First, the changes we made that contributed to a less than four-star experience:

We went with an early dinner reservation on a Sunday, due to time constraints. Normally we make the latest reservations we can, on a Friday or a Saturday night. But we're booked solid for the next several Friday and Saturday nights, and I wanted my Bridges fix. But Sunday at 5 meant that the executive chef wasn't there, the owner wasn't there, most of the 'regular' staff wasn't there. A disappointment, but not a travesty. But it went steadily downhill from there.

Because we were seated before the sunset, we were offered (and opted for) the early bird pre fixe menu. We selected almost exactly the same thing. For the salad course, I had the Caesar, John had the Mixed Baby Lettuce Salad (Wisconsin Buttermilk Blue cheese, garlic crostini and red wine-walnut vinaigrette). We both had the salmon entree and for dessert the Vanilla Creme Brulee (with cinnamon shortbread cookie). For two meals where we ordered the same thing, presumably prepared by the same chef, clearly in the same kitchen, we couldn't have had two more disparate experiences. With the entrees, John complained he couldn't taste the main component of the sauce (I've forgotten what it was now... if he remembers he'll post a comment). I DO remember thinking he was out of his mind, it came through loud and clear on MY plate. At least until I tasted his. It was like they'd left ingredients out. With the dessert, we had the same experience with the cookie -- mine tasted completely different from his. In defense of the restaurant, I should point out that I enjoyed the meal itself -- it was the disparity between two of the same thing that was... odd.

And here's where I risk pissing off the parents among you. About midway through our meal, the host seated a party of 11 at a nearby table. Since only four members of the party were over the age of 10, we had concerns about the adult-to-child ratio when they walked in. When three of these kids needed booster seats I was glad our dessert was forthcoming. To add insult to injury, the adults decided that in order to have any prayer of conversing together, they needed to seat all of the kids together at one end of the table.

I realize that children are children. That there are limits to their attention span. That they cannot be expected to act as mini-adults. I'm just asking that parents respect that, and not bring their kids into adult environments they're not ready for. If that bothers you, I suggest you stop reading here...

[ begin rant ]

If the only way you can enjoy an evening out is to sequester your kids at one end of the table, please stay home. Set up a kids table in the family room. Yes, I'm afraid that means that you're going to have to clean up if they throw food on the floor. But it's not fair to expect the restaurant staff to clean up after your kids. Or fellow restaurant patrons to endure a forty five minute food fight.

If Johnny and Joanie can't be in the same county without ripping each other's limbs off, please respect that. Don't seat them next to each other in a restaurant so you can hold hands with your spouse. We don't want to watch them dismember each other. Really. We don't. We may come dismember you.

If your child can't handle dinner out without diversions like handheld video games, your cell phone, or silverware to beat on the table, please choose your venue accordingly. When I dine at a kid-friendly establishment, I'm actually fairly tolerant of that kind of behavior. But when I'm paying $35 for my entree, I don't want to be serenaded by Johnny's game boy. Or subject to his skills with percussion instruments.

And a note to the restaurant... "fine dining" and "kids eat free" are mutually exclusive concepts. If I've paid $40 for my entree, I don't want to know that it's marked up so that Johnny can throw the vegetables at Joanie at no cost to their inconsiderate parents.

[ /end rant ]

March 04, 2006

Lenten Sacrifice?

Somewhere between the "Gorton's fisherman" Fridays of my childhood (complete with a commercial tartar sauce my brother euphemistically referred to as "pickles and puke") and my later discovery of (and ultimate obsession with) all things sushi, I think I lost touch with the whole Lenten sacrifice thing. Give up red meat on Fridays? But mouth watering, tear-evoking raw salmon and tuna over rice is sanctioned by the Church? Check. I'm in.

Since we still had Nicole & Kerry's Christmas gift -- a certificate for dinner at Blowfish - Sushi to Die For. The flashy website (more style than substance) and Santana Row's reputation for "sister restaurants" that don't live up to the reputations of their siblings, and I don't think either of us were expecting much. We were pleasantly surprised.

Standouts included Pyramid of Tartar - big eye tuna, atlantic king salmon and avocado with a light honey tartar sauce and a sweet ginger soy sauce, the Godzilla Roll - sweet shrimp, mango, avocado, caramelized cashews, roasted coconut and aonori, and some wonderful kanpachi nigiri. The portions were a little on the small side -- and pricey -- but again, that's a function of trendy Santana Row. And considering the trend-factor (read: I am not and have never been a member of the "beautiful people" club) the plastic factor among the staff and the chefs was remarkably low -- we got very good service despite the fact we clearly wouldn't have fit in with the "in" crowd. Because it's trendy, a bit expensive, loud, and we're really not into the stunt sushi thing, it won't be on our regular visit list. But it was an interesting experience, a memorable meal, and I'd certainly go back again. They serve 'til midnight, so it's a great resource for late-night sushi-snacking.