June 29, 2006

Square Thru Four - June Recipe Roundup

I have enough obscure square dance references to get me through several years worth of these monthly roundups. But let's dispense with the literary license for now and get to the list. The following are recipes I've marked as "must tries" during the month of June:

Orangette's dedication to Brandon: Nutmeg Donut Muffins.
Chocolate & Zucchini's Pesto Fraise Basilic.
An intriguing interpretation of salmon and a tangy quinoa salad created by Amanda of What We're Eating.
Just about every recipe posted at Creampuffs in Venice.
Rachel's Zucchini with Dill.
Delicious Sarah's Birthday Bulgogi Burgers.
Rice & Noodles' Crab Vermicelli with Ginger, Garlic & Coriander
Tea's take on Singapore Ice Cream.
Crab Cakes & Guacamole courtesy of Weekly Dish.

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June 21, 2006

A food stylist I am not...

Anyone else out there obsess about a finished recipe looking like it's photograph?

Yeah, me neither.

But if I WAS an obsessive-compulsive nutcase in the kitchen, dinner tonight would have disappointed me.

Desipte the fact that it TASTED just fine.

June 20, 2006

A perfect... three - C. B. Hannigans (Los Gatos)

You know it's going to be an interesting evening when the most photograph-worthy item on the table is the cocktail napkin...

CB Hannigans is one of those neighborhood haunts that seeks to be all things to all people. Family fare after the soccer game. Bar food and beer during whatever playoff game is droning on the big screens (in our case, Miami trouncing Dallas). A venue for signing multi-million dollar startup ventures during the dot.com boom. And if the napkin's any indication, an opportunity to connect with Mr. or Ms. 'Right Now.'

We were there seeking a snack after bocce (since the food at Campo is overpriced and inconsistent).

To be completely fair, Hannigans is a fairly regular 'after-bocce' venue (our other venue - a gelateria - just doesn't say "dinner") and the food's generally good enough (or at least consistent enough) that we go back. But if tonight had been my initial experience, I'm not sure I'd have given it a second chance.

I know the bar food is passable -- it's not the best calamari / nachos / quesadilla / hot wings I've ever had, but it's consistently well above average. But I'm trying to be better about eating junk -- especially late night junk. So I chose the Chinese Chicken Salad. I chose poorly.

The salad failed on practically every count. The only thing it had going for it was that the lettuce was VERY fresh. But it was iceberg. Which I consider a receptacle for more interesting salad ingredients and salad dressing. And this went downhill fast from fresh.

I'm not sure how a single chicken breast fillet can be both dry and rubbery. But somehow this succeeded. The rice noodles were clearly mass-produced and past their prime -- they were similar to the tasteless plastic noodles that topped prepackaged Chung King Chinese Food that brings back unpleasant memories from my earliest employment as a babysitter. And the salad dressing... the salad dressing tasted like a 50-50 mixture of rice wine vinegar and dishwater.

I really hate it when it feels like I'm punished for trying to behave. Next time (despite this failure, I know there'll be a nex time) I'll try a sandwich or a mini veggie pizza... or throw caution to the wind and head down the street for a double-chocolate gelato.

June 19, 2006

Sleek & Stylish if a bit Sterile - Kampai House (Sunnyvale)

Glossy magazine covers promising a new slimmer sexier you in under thirty days...

A wide selection of candy bars in bright and cheery attention-demanding packaging staged at kids-eye level...

Endcaps stocked floor-to-ceiling with potato chips, soda, and other popular junk food...

All designed to attract the shopper into an impulse buy.

Our experience at Kampai House was my OpenTable equivalent of an impulse buy.

There I was, making my standard Friday-at-eight reservation, when it captured my attention. Over there, in the Just Added Restaurants section. Kampai House. Sunnyvale. Click. Explore.

Four or five minutes later, I was back to make a reservation.

In that time I'd discovered that Kampai House was relatively new -- a converted Carrow's restaurant on the El Camino in Sunnyvale.

That chef Suzuki Jin studied art before he discovered a passion for food, spent years studying Japanese and French cuisine and has quite a decorated culinary history. That he lives in nearby Cupertino and is fluent in 5 languages. That he pursues his artistic and culinary passions through his unique interpretation of "Frapanese" -- or French-Japanese fusion.

Yeah, fusion is overdone, and more often than not, poorly done. But the photography on their website is stunning. The menu holds promise. They're relatively close to Quads. And they accept early Sunday evening reservations.

Click. Table for two, 5:00.

The restaurant is flashy, in a sleek red/black/white kind of way. We expected that. The menu is best described as -- schizophrenic. We enjoy sushi. We've enjoyed a LOT of sushi over the years. It takes a bit to intimidate us. But it's easy to get lost in the half dozen sections of the menu. There's the Fusion menu, with starters, large (entree-sized) plates, salads, specialties and a handful of other options. The Sushi Bar menu, which includes some of the house special/fusion offerings in addition to the standard sushi/sashimi fare. The Drink menu, offering liquid fusion and repeating many of the items on the fusion and sushi menus at happy hour prices M-F from 5-7 PM. The Dessert Menu. And the Lunch Menu, a collection of items off the previous collection of menus. I'm still puzzling over why we got a lunch menu...

Sadly, while they're eager and they're clearly energized by Jin's creativity, the staff really isn't much help. We spoke to three different servers and a sushi chef (not *the* chef) over the course of our evening. They spent a significant portion of the evening tripping over each other to serve us -- and a nearly equal amount of time ignoring us altogether. We found it impossible to decipher the model.

The sushi is 'over the top'. Where 'over the top' can mean any combination of visually stunning, fascinating and unusual flavor/texture combinations, and expensive as hell.

In the latter category we have the Yellow Mellow, which the menu describes rather succinctly as seared hamachi, kiwi, scallion, goma miso dressing. Good, but not great. The whole was no more than a sum of its parts, and at $13 for seven slices of fish, less certainly cost more.

The fusion version of the standard Philly Roll also failed to deliver much more than an $8 addition to the bill. I had high hopes for the contrasting but complimentary flavors and textures described in the menu: smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber, deep fried. Again, good... very good... but just an inch or two shy of great.

Other selections delivered artistic flare on the plate and creative combinations on the palette. The chef's signature piece appears to be the Dragon Roll a whimsical combination of crab salad, cucumber, eel, avocado, spicy sauce and octopus "eyes." It was as much fun to photograph as it was to eat, and the spicy sauce left us breathing a little fire of our own.

And the selection of the night for me: the Buddha's Belly roll -- buttery soft toro combined with shallot and alfalfa sprouts and garnished with masago and garlic chips. There are just not words to describe the subtle complexities here. Y-U-M yum. I'll come back for Buddha's Belly alone.

And yes, in the end, we'll be back. The place has promise. They just need to work out some of the kinks. But we'll come back informed. And in the interest of maintaining the restaurant budget, we won't come back famished.

Kampai House

595 East El Camino Real, Sunnyvale

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June 08, 2006

A burger and a movie, or channeling my inner-teenager (Red Robin, San Jose)

Occasionally, I need a kick in the butt to remind me that the teenage years about which I often wax nostalgic are not *all* about high school girls with clear-skinned smiles.

In my world, that butt-kick comes in the form of playing Auntie Mame to a couple of the teens in our lives. Young ladies who remind me that beyond the hair that changes color and style more often than the seasons, under the pierced and perforated but not yet tattooed exterior, there's awe, wonder and more than a little bit of fear about the world around them and where and how they fit into it.

In return for the butt-kicking, I offer them the same escape/support mechanisms that worked for me at that age. A shoulder to cry on. An adult who'll listen to them without providing unwanted judgment or advice -- a sounding board off which they can bounce their thoughts and hopefully reach their own conclusions. And an honest acknowledgement that sometimes there are no answers -- easy or otherwise. That, and a burger and a movie.

This month's feature: Over the Hedge - A mis-matched family animated animals adjusting to the suburban sprawl that invaded their habitat during their hibernation. Some brilliant voice casting includes Bruce Willis as RJ the con-artist-raccoon and William Shatner as Ozzie the over-dramatic opossum. It's rare for a movie to live up to the description "family film" as well as this one does. There's a message about our interaction with the environment, but they don't beat you over the head with it. There's a simple but engaging plot. And it's hysterical -- with layers of humor appropriate for all ages.

Since a late meeting at work meant we didn't have time to grab dinner before the movie, we ventured in a direction I typically avoid in a theater: the snack bar. Hmmm. Twenty bucks for a super-sized *and* refillable bucket of popcorn and two large sodas. I can feel my arteries hardening. We opted for a small bag of unbuttered popcorn and a couple of $3 bottles of water. It wasn't refillable, but since it tasted like stale styrofoam neither of us were anxious for more.

After the movie we hiked across the parking lot to one of my favorite high school haunts: Red Robin.

We threw caloric caution to the wind and ordered the Whiskey River BBQ Burger -- a jumbo cheeseburger smothered in BBQ sauce and topped with crispy onion straws in addition to the standard burger-veggies. Washed that down with a new item on the menu: Very Berry Raspberry Limeade. Despite the proliferation of fruit names in the title, I suspect there's not a whole-fruit in the ingredient list (and counting high fructose corn syrup as a veggie is a bit of a stretch).

We sat back and stretched our legs as my friend shared her story, the good and the bad, her happiness and sorrow, the things that excite her, the things that scare her.

The themes?


As she spoke I was surprised to hear a lot of my seventeen-year-old-self in her voice. Twenty years later and here I am, snacking on french fries pondering the world through teenage eyes. I sink a little deeper in my seat on my side of the table, grateful for the perspective and the life experience that comes over time.

I don't have any answers for her. And that's okay. What I provide as I share some of my story in return is the realization is that she will get through where she is, finding her own answers along the way. That twenty years from now, she'll be sitting at a table much like this, having spent $75 on movies and popcorn, listening to and learning from another young lady struggling to find her place in the world.

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June 07, 2006

Better. Stronger. Faster. and more Expensive...Michi Sushi (Campbell)

"Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him, we have the technology. We have the capability to make the worlds first Bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster."

The chefs at Michi are the sushi equivalent of the OSI. Building Bionic sushi. Often at astronomical prices, even by Bay Area standards.

In the plus column, they use top-quality fresh fish. And they're open relatively late (though depending on your chef, he may be more eager to get out the door than to feed you).

The "special roll" section of the menu is not for the weak-at-heart...

We ordered:

Raider Roll - ika sansai, wasabi sauce, unagi sauce, macadamia nuts. Please don't leave hate comments. I *know* it's not ethnically correct. But I love sushi with macadamia nuts. Hell, there's not much I *don't* love with macadamia nuts. This one's a little sweet, a little spicy with a satisfying crunch.

Shinchester Roll - maguro, green onion, white onion, and tokarashi pepper mixed with Michi salad dressing, tobiko, cucumber. The standout of the evening, this was everything I love about sushi. Interesting flavors and textures balanced brilliantly.

Dill Salmon Roll - dill salmon, green onion, fresh garlic, ginger, cucumber, tobiko We tried to order this but thye were out of it. We got some most excellent salmon nigiri in its stead.

Java Roll - smoked sake, unagi, cream cheese, cucumber, green onion, avocado, tobiko, unagi sauce, macadamia nuts This arrived promptly, but wasn't exactly what we'd ordered. Our version had tuna in the middle, smoked sake draped over the top when our chef realized his mistake. It was good, but difficult to handle. Macadamia nuts. Yum.

Ebi Tempura Roll - ebi tempura, avocado, cucumber, tobiko, unagi sauce, macadamia nuts - Here's the first party foul. We came in late in the dinner shift -- 30 minutes or so before the posted closing. They seated us, and the ever-present Mr. Shin assured us we were welcome to order as much as we wanted. Unfortunately our sushi chef was a little more eager to begin his after-work activities. When we requested the tempura, we were summarily told the kitchen was closed. When a couple seated after we arrived ordered a spider roll directly from Mr. Shin, it arrived. I guess all in who you ask.

For our entertainment, there was a group of fraternity-types seated at the other end of the bar. Loud. Sake bombs. Blonde jokes. Constant sexual innuendo. No mystery whatsoever why these guys are single.

In the end, the food was superior, the service iffy. Their loss. We tend to tip generously. For the quality of fish we were served, our sushi chef would have received a hearty 25% tip for no more than adequate service (since there's a lot of effort in the presentation. His eagerness to push us out the door dropped him to the standard 15%. And convinced us to explore other options for satisfying the late-night sushi jones.

Michi Japanese Restaurant
2220 Winchester Blvd, Campbell

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June 06, 2006

Bay leaves? Tobacco? Berries? Oak? Wine 101 - A lesson in component tasting

I don't get it. The whole "component tasting" thing in the wine world. I've tried to get it. I'd like to get it. I was looking forward to this month's "girl's night" with Debbie -- hoping that something in this Wine 101 would cause a personal epiphany. But 5 wines and twenty glasses of flower, fruit, spice and earth later, I still don't get it.

Sure, I taste things in wine. I just don't taste what other people identify. I don't get "berry", I get varying degrees of sweetness. I don't get oak, I get tree bark. I don't get tobacco or mushrooms, I get smoke and earth. I *do* get tannins. I just don't like them much.

So I came out of the evening resigned to the fact that when other people talk about the vanilla, cinnamon or strawberry notes in a wine, I'll just nod and smile politely. And I'll let it go with love grateful that -- whether I can express my thoughts in "wine-speak" or not, I know what I like and don't like in wine. And that works for me.

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June 04, 2006

Tamales and gyros and cheesesteak... oh my!

Lemonade stands...

Grill supplies and patio furniture on sale...

Strawberries, cherries & asparagus...

Weekend food festivals...

Summer's a great time to fuel an obsession with food in the Bay Area.

Saturday found us splitting our time between two south bay events: San Jose's Story Road Tamale Festival in the morning and the Greek Festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the afternoon.

The tamale festival was a new experience for us -- an article in the local paper piqued our curiosity and we had to check it out. Sponsored by the Story Road Business Association as a family event celebrating the culture and history of the neighborhood, the festival "celebrates all things associated with tamales, [paying] homage to the rich heritage of civilizations like the Mayans, who revered the essence of tamales, corn as part of their culture." It sort of fit that the event took place in Emma Prusch Farm Park -- one of San Jose's last reminders of it's agricultural heritage. I enjoyed the feeling of community here -- missing from some of the bigger and more commercial wine/art/food festivals we attend. Kids playing with frisbees and foosballs on the lawn. Couples cuddling under shady trees. Families gathered around picnic table. All in celebration of the tamale.

After window shopping our way through the couple dozen stands, we opted for two tamales from the winner of the 2005 festival: Mex-Tamal. Pork with red sauce for John and a delightful cheese-with-spicy-diced-pepper-and-corn-kernel selection for me. Having skipped breakfast in anticipation of the indulgent day ahead, I dug in without hesitation.

From there we headed to the Greek Festival. I hesitate to over-criticize, since it was getting hot and I was getting cranky, but we've attended a fair number of Greek festivals in our summers together, and this one just didn't measure up. We chose gyros and calamari and were uniformly disappointed. The calamari was greasy and just short of rubbery. And the gyro just really didn't go anywhere. We both drew the line at loukoumades covered with canned Hershey's syrup. Cutting our losses, we headed to the car and put the Belmont festival on our calendar for Labor Day.

Sunday had us meeting Daniel, Tracy and Heather at the Walnut Creek Art & Wine Festival at Heather Farm Park. The antithesis of Saturday's tamale festival, the Art and Wine Festival is 20-some years old and boasts over 90,000 attendees. It's evolved over the years we've attended, and not necessarily for the better in all cases. We opted out of the $20 for a souvenir glass and four wine-tastes and wandered around in search of food. Past events have included food booths from some of our favorite restaurants. Not so this year -- we ended up splitting a rather unsatisfying Jersey cheesesteak sandwich. Not that the sandwich itself was bad -- but it certainly wasn't the stuff of which gourmet dreams are made. We wandered the art booths -- the usual mix of some really great stuff and 'what the hell??' for as long as John and Daniel could tolerate it before calling it a day and a weekend and heading for home.

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June 01, 2006

Local and loving it... Halibut Olympia

What to do with halibut caught locally in Half Moon Bay. A Google search yields hundreds of options. I chose a modified version of Halibut Olympia. Served it with a collection of local flavors -- red onions from Stockton, avocados from Capay, and rasberries from the Central Valley with a crisp, clean rasberry vinaigrette.

I'll keep this recipe, but I'll modify it. The onions that served as the base would have been better (to me) a little more caramelized than 20 minutes at 375 allows. I'd also kick up the seasoning in the mayonnaise a bit more. But it's a great basic, kitchen-staple recipe to showcase the freshest of fresh fish.

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