Saturday, November 26, 2011

Zuma, n-th take

I love living next to the Toco Hill location of Zuma. I've been there many more times than my posts indicate. Almost everything I've had there is great. The only thing I haven't liked so far is the Volcano Roll, mostly because of the copious amounts of sauce.

The last time Cashew and I went there though we decided to change things a little bit and get the bento box combos. We both had the spareribs. I also got teriyaki shrimp, unagi roll, and seaweed salad. Cashew's box contained fried seabass, tuna avocado roll, and kimchee. The short ribs were amazing. Even better, there were several large pieces, not just a couple of sad looking bones. The ribs themselves were actually enough for an entree by themselves. I also enjoyed my shrimp which seemed to have some spices on it in addition to the teriyaki glaze. Both sushi rolls were good too. I actually liked Cashew's tuna roll better than mine. The boxes also included sticky rice, but both Cashew and I were too stuffed with all the other goodies to eat too much of it. Overall, it was yet another satisfying meal at Zuma that made me feel really grateful for living close to it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

DC food scene

I recently went to a long conference in Washington, DC, and was really lucky to stay at Dupont Circle, one of the better neighborhoods for food and going out. When I was walking through the area, it felt like I was in heaven: several blocks of restaurants, cafes and bars that covered a range of prices and types of cuisine. I think I did a pretty good job in experiencing the variety that I was presented with :)

Representative of this diversity was the first place I tried: Russia House. I'm coming from Eastern Europe and always knew Russian people, but I had never been to a Russian restaurant before. One of the things I had always wanted to try was a traditional soup called borsch. The other thing I ordered was the pierogis plate. I don't know whether the borsch is supposed to be a hot or a cold soup, but it failed on both fronts; it was served just lukewarm. The taste wasn't too bad, but it wasn't as rich as I expected it to be. I imagined something similar to pot pie, but got a light tart soup instead. It didn't taste bad, but it wasn't satisfying to me. The pierogis were slightly better, but the temperature was again an issue. It seemed like they had been made earlier in the day and just warmed up a little bit in the oven. They supposedly had duck meat inside them, but all I noticed was the potato filling. Thankfully, they came with a good dipping sauce that finally gave some flavor to the meal.

My next foray into the Dupont Circle food scene was a place called Thai Chef. Like so many Thai places, it also served sushi, which is what I ordered. One of the main reasons was the fact that the sushi was included in the happy hour menu for ridiculously low prices. That did make me a little nervous about the sushi quality, but I went for it. I was boring with my first choice and got a spicy tuna roll. To make the meal a little more exciting, I also ordered a piece of smoked octopus nigiri. Well, I was glad I got the tuna because it was exceptionally good! It was some of the spiciest spicy tuna I've had. The fish itself was fresh too. I liked the octopus nigiri as well, but I didn't love it. The smokiness was well-pronounced, and I guess I wish I had gotten more of the pure octopus taste. I have only myself to blame, though...

Moving back to the Old Continent, my next meal was at an Italian restaurant called Cafe Odeon. I was in the mood for something light, so all I got was the Scampi Fra Diavlo, or Spicy Shrimp. The dish did have an adequate number of shrimp, but it came way short on the spiciness level. Plus, all of the side vegetables were too overcooked. At least I had a Scoutmob deal so I didn't have to pay too much for a very disappointing meal.

Finally, I gave Italian food another chance with an outing to Sette Osteria with my labmate Mrs. LSU, and I am so glad we went there! I occasionally think whether something I've had is good enough to be referred as the best thing I ever ate, and the Scialatielli pasta I got at Sette is definitely the best pasta I've ever had! What made it so special? The real basil leaves incorporated in the fettuccine dough. I need to learn how to make this! It made the pasta taste so fresh and light! And that's something you don't often think about pasta. The tomato-based sauce contained eggplants, mozzarella and bell peppers, and also tasted great. Mrs. LSU got pumpkin-stuffed ravioli. She said that they were a bit too sweet for her, but that the quality of the ingredients made up for the strange taste. We also got dessert, with me ordering the tiramisu and Mrs. LSU getting the Italian-style cheesecake. The cheesecake was dense and delicious. My tiramisu was surprisingly light and with a strong coffee flavor. I did like it, even though the powdered cacao made me choke on the very fist bite I had.

That's pretty much what I had for dinner in DC. There was a stop for beers and pizzas one night, but the pizza wasn't anything out of the ordinary and the beers were too overpriced. $10 for a glass? Come on! Still, I had a great dining experience in DC, and I hope I can try a few more places at some point in the future.

Chinese bistro?

When I hear the word "bistro," I imagine a streetside cafe in France or somewhere along the Mediterranean coast. Using "bistro" to refer to a Chinese restaurant is almost an oxymoron. With that said, I was pretty skeptical about Gu's Bistro. But the many good things I had heard and read about this Buford Highway restaurant was enough to convince me to try it.

Thankfully, I had Cashew with me to guide me through the large menu with unfamiliar dishes. After some discussion, we narrowed down our choices to the Husband & Wife appetizer (on top of the plate pictured to the right), the cumin lamb (on the right side of the plate), and shrimp-stuffed tofu (see below). The first dish, according to Cashew, is an authentic Chinese dish that is found only in authentic restaurants. It contained sliced beef and beef tendon in a spicy cold sauce with scallions. Honestly, I couldn't distinguish between the beef meat and tendon; they were both cooked to the same tenderness. The sauce was also amazing, and made the whole dish very flavorful.

We ordered the cumin lamb knowing that it would be spicy, but boy was it hot! I tend to order spicy items, but I had a little trouble eating this one. The key was making sure that I didn't have any chile peppers in my bite. On the bright side, cumin had a strong enough taste to stand out from all the heat. Just a suggestion, though: if you take any spicy dish to go, make sure you don't pack any chiles. Their taste will only concentrate and intensify because most of the meat is gone. This dish was HOT in the restaurant and barely edible the next day! My eyes were seriously watering, and my mouth was burning for a long time after that lunch...

Finally, Cashew wanted a tofu dish, so we got the stuffed tofu. We didn't really know what it would look like, but I guess neither of us was prepared for what we got: strips of tofu wrapped around minced shrimp, deep fried, and served in a syrupy-looking sauce. Well, the sauce wasn't as sweet as it looked, but it was completely flavorless. The tofu didn't pack much taste either. The only redeeming characteristic of the dish was the bok choy, which I love.

Despite our not-so-great experience, I do believe in the quality of food at Gu's Bistro. I wouldn't mind going back and trying something less spicy and that I'm more familiar with :)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Authentic Greek

There are a number of Greek restaurants and diners in Atlanta, but I hadn't found a place that I loved unconditionally. I like Taverna Plaka, but even that seems Americanized. Well, all of this changed after going to Cafe Agora.

But before I go into my ravings for the place, I want to mention Nick's to Go. Richie Bear took me there for lunch once. It's literally a shack on the side of the road in a bad part of town. But oh how great the food is! I never liked gyro meat before I tried it there. Who would have thought gyro meat can be moist without being greasy? That's pretty much all they sell, but it's well worth going there.

I was lucky enough to discover Cafe Agora from a list of 38 places in Atlanta worth trying. I was a little suspicious how authentic it could be if it was located in the very heart of Buckhead, but this all changed once we tried the food. I've already been there twice in a week: once with Cashew and once with Richie Bear. We got the same things both times: the mixed maza and the mixed grill platters. That's the best way to try all of the awesomeness that Cafe Agora offers. The maza platter contains hummus, baba ganush, tabuleh, a ground carrot salad, a bean salad, grilled eggplant salad, and tsatsiki sauce. It is served with pita pieces to soak up every last piece of each salad and clear the plate! And while you're working on these appetizers, the grilled platter is being prepared and comes out right on time. It contains chicken, kufti (ground beef), and lamb gyro meat with a side salad, rice, and spiced pita strips. The lamb here is almost as good as the one at Nick's to Go. And how authentic are the chicken and beef? They had the same flavor as grilled meats my parents used to prepare in Bulgaria! Yes, Bulgaria is not Greece, so I can't take this as a sign of authenticity, but that's the flavors I love :) The meat here is much better than anything they serve at the Greek Festival...

And if you go to Cafe Agora for lunch, they'll even give you complementary pilaf, or Greek-style rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon on top. I didn't like it as much as the other things we had mostly because it was too sweet for me. It seemed like it was made with evaporated milk rather than the real milk which I'm used to. But despite this, I again believe in Greek food in Atlanta!

Flats, and more flats

Everyone loves pizza. Even the very cheesy types that might give you a heart attack... Thankfully, pizzas have recently gotten a healthier look. Flatbread pizzas now have a perfectly crispy crust and greens-based toppings.

A new place at Linbergh called Urban Flats recently had a Scoutmob deal, so Cashew and I decided to try it. It was cute, and had a very urban, industrial look. I ordered a fig, prosciutto and blue cheese pizza, and Cashew got the curried chicken pizza. Of course, I expected some cheese, but I was disappointed to see that the whole crust was covered in it. It wasn't even all blue cheese but probably white cheddar. If it wasn't for the toppings, I would have called this a regular pizza. It was tasty, but not what you'd expect from a flatbread pizza. Cashew's pie was similar to mine in terms of cheese. However, her chicken did have a very strong curry flavor, which ameliorated the presence of too much cheese.

So, if you're looking for something fresher, don't go to Urban Flats. Go to MetroFresh or Piola instead. I'll mention MetroFresh only briefly because I didn't take any pictures there. I went there with Richie Bear and also ordered the fig and prosciutto pizza, but this time it wasn't smothered in cheese. On a side note, their turkey chilli, veggie soup, arugula salad, and Brussels sprouts are also amazing!

Piola actually serves traditional pizza. Indeed, it is an international pizza chain that originated in Italy. I add it in the flatbreads category here because that's what it reminds me of. I went there with Cashew and her friend Amy. We shared a Mantova pizza (arugula, brie, and carpaccio) and a Rossa pizza (tomatoes and basil). They were both very light and fresh. My only complaint is that the brie flavor wasn't noticeable. It's kind of funny: I didn't like the too much cheese at Urban Flats, but wanted more at Piola. There is a fine balance that neither of these two places reached.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Southern Comfort

One random Tuesday night Richie Bear (new alias for Little Richie) and I were on Tech campus for a seminar. After it was over, we went to dinner at JCT Kitchen, a restaurant that Richie Bear loves and had told me a lot about. As far as I know, it's not a part of any restaurant group, but its atmosphere and decor remind me a lot of Abattoir, Two Urban Licks, Rathbun's, etc...

The menu offered a lot of Southern classics which I regret I don't have too much experience with. We started with deviled eggs as an appetizer (sorry, no pictures). Honestly, I have no idea what they do with the yolks, but they taste so light, you'll forget all about the cholesterol. For my main course, I went for the the most Southern of Southern dishes - fried chicken. The one at JCT Kitchen was supposed to be particularly good, and it completely surpassed my expectations. Actually, it is so popular that the restaurant was out of the breast-on-the-bone pieces. However, they were nice enough to fry a boneless piece of breast meat for me. It was very crispy on the outside and exceptionally moist on the inside - by far the best fried chicken and maybe even any chicken I've had. Keeping a chicken breast so moist is an art. Plus, it didn't feel greasy at all. In general, the bone makes meat even better, so I can imagine what the real fried chicken will taste like. Oh, I almost forgot. The chicken came with sauteed green beans and mac & cheese. The mac and cheese would have been amazing if it didn't have pieces of bacon in it. Even Richie Bear agreed with me on that one. The bacon taste was just too overpowering for the creaminess of the macaroni.

Richie Bear decided to try the lamb burger, something he hadn't had before. I might have mentioned it before, but I can be picky when it comes to lamb. Well, the one at JCT was the good kind. The burger was moist and tender, but I wasn't a huge fan overall. It came with goat cheese that overpowered everything else that was in between the buns. That's strange of me to say because I love goat cheese, but I just wish the flavors had been balanced a little better. 

I've had several exposures to Southern food so far, and I am slowly shedding my misconceptions about it. It's not always rich and greasy. Indeed, it can be very delicious and not-too-unhealthy when prepared properly.

Noche Night

I've been meaning to go to Noche for a looong time, and I finally went there with Cashew once they offered a Scoutmob deal. We went there on a surprisingly busy Sunday night, but were able to get a table right away.

Despite the large number of delicious-sounding options on the menu, we pretty quickly settled on an all-seafood dinner. Our choices for the night were Fried lobster tail, Salt and pepper calamari, Steamed mussels in a lobster chili broth, Pan seared crab cake and the Spanish fried potatoes as the lone non-seafood item.

We were both starving by the time the food arrived, as can be seen by the lack of actual food in the picture. The calamari also had battered and fried jalapenos in them, the crab cake did have visible pieces of real crab and the broth from the mussels tasted like a soup. All good things! It might sound weird, but the broth was my favorite thing for the night.

Once our hunger was somewhat satisfied, I actually had time to take a picture of the food before annihilating it. Hmm, that might also be the reason why I considered these two dishes not as good as the previous ones. The lobster had so much batter on it, I couldn't even taste the meat. And the fries potatoes weren't crispy and had a strange vinegar aftertaste. The aioli they came with was just horrible. It wasn't even spicy. It doesn't come even close to the tomato sauce that the fried potatoes at Loca Luna come with. On the bright side, the apricot sauce that came with the lobster tail was pretty good, so I ended up using it for the potatoes as well.

After reflecting on the meal a little bit, Cashew and I realized that everything was fried. Yes, fried food usually tastes great, but for me, the true sign of a good chef is the ability to infuse taste into fresh food. Despite all of this, the Noche menu did contain a lot of other interesting dishes that I wouldn't mind trying on a second visit.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Going to the Pacific

Soon after coming back to Atlanta from Minnesota, Cashew and I resumed our tradition of trying new Scoutmob restaurants. One night we ventured to Downtown Atlanta, an area we don't go to very often, to try Pacific Rim Bistro. The fact that it served sushi and a lot of other Asian dishes made it really appealing. Indeed, it was quite difficult to choose what to get.

After a lot of deliberations, I decided to try the Funky Buddha sushi roll. It had blue crab mix, tuna and avocado inside, and tuna, yellowtail and salmon on the outside. It also came with two different types of sauces: eel and red curry. I have to admit, the sushi tasted really good with the curry sauce. The freshness of the fish left me feeling happy about my meal as well.

Cashew's choice for the night was the Spicy Chirashi Sushi. It included salmon, yellowtail, tuna and white fish, all coated with a spicy sauce. Again, the fish was nice and fresh. It might have been a little better if it wasn't so covered in sauce, but it tasted great anyway. Mixing it with the rice on the bottom and the cucumber on the side made for a pretty big meal. However, the part that Cashew was most excited about was the quail eggs that were supposed to come with the dish. Well, they weren't delivered... We mentioned the omission to the waitress and she brought us a token raw quail egg on a new plate. We were told that most people add the egg on top of the dish and mix it in with all the other ingredients. Cashew wanted to taste it by itself, though, so she drank the egg contents. I wish I had a picture of her face at that moment; her surprise at the texture and taste of a raw egg was priceless.

We ended the night with a serving of mango sorbet. The sorbet definitely tasted like mango, but the flavor was so overpowering, it made us wonder if they used real mangoes or artificial ingredients.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Visiting Minnesota

Only a couple of weeks after Pumpkin was here in Atlanta, Cashew and I visited her in Minneapolis. It turned out to be a very nice city, with lots of green space and beautiful views of the Mississippi River. The food scene wasn't that bad either. Because of the big university there, there were many college students-oriented spots. In downtown, there were some nicer places as well. But overall, the food lacked the diversity of Atlanta, possibly because the Minneapolis population is not as willing to try different cuisines as the international inhabitants of Atlanta. Amid full days of sightseeing and fast eating, we enjoyed a couple of sit-down meals that I can write about.

As I've mentioned many many times, I love sushi, so the three of us had dinner at Obentu Ya, a Japanese bistro close to where Pumpkin lives. Cashew and I ordered bento boxes to best experience what the place had to offer. Mine contained a California roll and shrimp, tuna, yellowtail, and salmon sashimi. Cashew's just had many sashimi pieces. They both came with a salad, some pickled root, eggs, and a side that reminded me of mashed potatoes. The sushi and sashimi were good, but the sides weren't anything to talk about.

Pumpkin kept her meal simple and ordered grilled chicken skewers. The glaze was good, but the chicken itself was overcooked and really dry. I guess we got what was expected from a Japanese place in the Midwest run by Americans...

Our last day in Minneapolis was a gorgeous sunny day that we used for a river boat tour and then a walk next to the river. There is a cute area with big old trees that provide shade for several mostly American restaurants. We chose to eat at Aster, incited by both the food and the happy hour deals. Pumpkin went with a pork sandwich she had had before and liked. Cashew and I opted for the flatbread pizzas. Mine came with apples, bacon and blue cheese. Cashew chose the prosciutto, pear and chevre toppings. Both flatbreads were amazing and only $5 each! The good food, the sun, and lively patio, and the rumbling river nearby made this a wonderful end to our Minneapolis experience :)

Abattoir, take 2

Pumpkin came back to Atlanta at the end of the summer, so Cashew and I wanted to take her out somewhere to remind her how good the food in Atlanta was. Our plans conflicted with the family plans for having dinner at home, so Pumpkin, Cashew and I met up just for dessert. Remembering our recent experience with the dessert platter at Abattoir, we decided to go there again.

After looking at the menu, we realized that the desserts were different than the ones we had last time. That actually made me even more anxious to try them and to expect that they were great - seasonal foods tend to be better. The platter this time included cherry cheesecake with almond biscotti, maple creme caramel with brown sugar bacon cookies, churros with plum reduction and creme fraiche, and chocolate chess pie with pecan brittle. The chocolate pie was actually present on the platter last time as well, and was the item we all raved about. I don't know if this time was an off night for the chef, but the pie didn't taste as special as before. I had a more pedestrian texture, not the novel one I loved the first time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the desserts were also somewhat disappointing. The churros were too hard to cut with a fork, as if they were overcooked or too old. The creme caramel was smooth, but not special in any way. On the bright side, the brown sugar and bacon cookies, the biscotti and the pecan brittle were actually good, but these items were supposed to be accompaniments to the desserts, not the stars. Well, the cherry cheesecake tasted great, even though it wasn't what I expected of a cheesecake. It was runnier because it came in a glass cut rather than a slice, but the taste made up for the unexpected texture.

To be fair, everything we tried at Abattoir was good. I did like the desserts on the platter. I think I was overall disappointed by them because of my high expectations. After what Cashew and I had tried last time, we expected to once again get something out of this world and unforgettable. Instead, we just got well-executed desserts. I sounds like a whiny, haha. And to prove that the quality didn't suffer, Pumpkin said that she liked all of the options.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Neighborhood Eatery

The Brookhaven Village area of Atlanta (on Dresden Dr. close to the Brookhaven MARTA station) is slowly developing its character and is becoming another destination to go out and meet up with friends in town. While it has a long way to go until it becomes as established as favorite neighborhoods like Virginia Highlands, Inman Park, East Atlanta, etc., the presence of cute boutique shops, and the addition of more restaurants is a good beginning. The newest place to open was Kaleidoscope, which is an interesting mixture between a restaurant serving American food and a bar. The food is definitely better than the usual bar fare, but not fancy enough for a typical restaurant.

I went to Kaleidoscope with Pumpkin and my parents on a nice summer night, so we were able to sit on the big patio on the side. Pumpkin and I wanted to get drinks, but it was hard to choose anything from their limited drinks menu. Their beer selection was particularly small and surprisingly expensive. I ended up choosing a $10 Belgian beer that didn't seem any more special than a Stella Artois. The appetizer menu offered better selection, though. We finally chose the hot wings with blue cheese. The wings were tasty, well cooked and moist, and with the right amount of heat. The cheese was starting to melt on top of the wings, and gave them a layer of additional flavor.

We also liked the options for entrees that Kaleidoscope offered. I had heard that the burger was really good, but none of us got it. Instead, both of my parents got salmon with tomato and cucumber salad. The salmon portion was huge! It was twice the size of the usual salmon filets that restaurants serve. It also paired great with the fresh salad that it came with, which reminded me of Greek salad, but executed well.

Pumpkin's choice was flank steak with fries and chimichurri. The only reason she got the dish was because she didn't realize how much garlic the chimichurri had, and that the fries would have garlic too. She doesn't like garlic, so she didn't like the dish. I, on the other hand, thought it was great. The steak was a little overcooked, but it had kept some of its moisture. I wish it came with a little runnier sauce to make eating it a little better. The fries were nice and crispy, though.

Finally, I got the seared tuna with Asian slaw. The tuna was good, but what I really liked was the slaw. I was impressed with the peanut sauce because it tasted just like peanut sauce in Asian restaurants. The sauce drizzled around the plate was a great addition to the plain steamed rice. Out of all the dishes we had that night, my dish was the only one that had a good mixture of starch, greens and protein that all worked together great :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dim Sum in San Francisco

San Francisco has a big Asian population and a correspondingly large number of Asian restaurants. Walking through Chinatown is like being in China itself. All you see in Chinese writings and all you hear is Chinese language. There must be many, many amazing places to eat authentic food. Unfortunately, I didn't know many of them :( This was also the case with the famed San Francisco dim sum. I finally resorted to listening what chefs on the Food Network liked, which led me to a place called Yang Sink.

Yang Sink is actually located on Mission St. close to the Embarcadero, and not in Chinatown. That should have been a warning sign to me. It looks more like an upscale restaurant than a good dim sum place. Yes, there are carts that go around, but they also offer menus that you can order from. The prices were exorbitant for dim sum, but I decided to try a few different things anyway. One of the items I was excited about were the Shanghai dumplings. They are stuffed with minced pork and broth, so you must eat them with a special technique. Thankfully, I knew how to eat them form an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. The dumplings were good and obviously very moist, but nothing to rave about. I like the vinegar-based dipping sauce, though.

The other item I was excited about was the Peking duck. I'm still not sure how exactly it's prepared, but it involves a lot of roasting. Unfortunately, it's also very expensive, and I could afford only a tiny piece. I tasted the meat itself, but it honestly didn't taste like anything... It was a little better with the steamed bun and the scallions, though.

Then, I had the Mandarin dumplings with pork. They were very similar to other pork dumplings I've had, which I love. The Mandarin dumplings were probably my favorite part of the meal.

Finally, I wanted to try the stuffed lotus leave because it sounded so interesting. Well, the real thing didn't come anything close to my expectations. I guess I can blame my ignorance for this, but the lotus leaf is actually really tough and inedible. The sticky rice inside was just that - rice with no flavor. The only way I could eat it was with lots of soy sauce.

The meal was overall very disappointing. It is true that I didn't get any of the item I usually love (steamed pork buns, pork and scallion dumplings), but I did get dishes that the restaurant is known for. All but the stuffed lotus leaf were "signature items." If that's what special items at Yang Sink taste like, I have no desire to try anything else.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Burma Superstar

The title of this post says it all: the food was Burmese, and it was super! It also happens to be a very popular restaurant in San Francisco. How popular? Popular enough to lead to a TWO-hour wait for a table for two people. On the bright side, the restaurant has complementary tea for those cold San Francisco night. If you want something even warmer, there's a coffeeshop called Blue Danube right across from the restaurant. The coffeeshop is quaint and cute, and provides a nice waiting spot.

If you survive the wait and eventually make it inside, everything will be worth it. The menu offers one enticing dish after the other. There were probably 10 different things I wanted to try. I eventually decided on the Rainbow Salad and the Traditional Burmese Noodles that the restaurant is famous for. The salad contained 22 different ingredients, including 4 types of noodles, green papaya, onions, peanuts, and many others. Despite the presence of the noodles, the Rainbow Salad reminded me of the Green Papaya Salad often seen in Vietnamese restaurants; they both had similar texture and lightness. I think the dressing is the same for both salads. I'm a huge fan of the Green Papaya Salad, so I loved the Rainbow Salad as well. One distinctive feature of the Rainbow Salad is that it's served with all ingredients separated, and they're mixed at the table. I'm sure this contributes to the freshness of the salad because the ingredients don't have any time to soak up and get heavy with oil.

My favorite part of the dinner, though, were the Burmese noodles. They were served cold, almost pasta salad-style. Consistent with the temperature difference, the noodles tasted like no other Asian noodles I have ever tried. They were light and refreshing instead of heavy and oily like things similar to Pad Thai, etc. Instead of smothered in oil, the noodles came with a salad dressing-like sauce with citrus flavors in it. If I didn't know it was served as a main dish, I would have called it a salad. Whatever it is, it is both the best noodle and best salad I have ever had. And yes, I like it more than the Green Papaya salad! Plus, it's filling enough for a main course :)

Princess Jasmine, who came with me to Burma Superstar, ordered vegetarian samusas and two types of noodle dishes. They were good, but nothing too extraordinary. I definitely made the better choices that night :)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

In Seafood Paradise

I love seafood, so what better place to be than on a bay? The problem is, how do I know which seafood restaurants are good and which ones overcook it so much that you can't even taste it? My solution, which is probably not the best one, was to go to a pretty expensive restaurant and hope for the best...

Last weekend I went to Sausalito, a small town on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. When it came time for lunch, I had plenty of options. Of course, most of them were Italian restaurants that served seafood items in creamy pasta dishes. However, I did find a place called Horizons that seemed different. First, the interior of the restaurant, which featured wood-paneled columns and arches, was very pretty and elegant. In addition, the restaurant was right on the bay, so it had glass walls on three sides for great views of the ocean. The tables were set on several different levels, so pretty much each table had a good view.

Apart from the atmosphere, the food menu also looked encouraging. Pretty much all of the dishes it offered contained some sort of seafood, so I was actually having a hard time deciding what I wanted to get. I followed the waiter's suggestion and ordered the Horizons Bouillabaisse. Knowing that this meal would be a treat, I also got the Cucumber Mellonball cocktail. The meal started with complementary French bread and butter, but there was nothing special about the bread. It wasn't even warm, which was a big disappointment for me :( The cocktail wasn't that great either. It was nice and strong, but it tasted a little like grapefruit, one of the few fruits I don't like at all. Well, I drank it anyway.

Thankfully, the bouillabaisse was amazing. It contained giant scallops, mussels, clams, tuna, salmon and humongous shrimp. Basically, all the types of seafood I love in one dish :D. They were all cooked well, and they were tender without being chewy. The broth was also very tasty. It reminded me a little of pho, but with tomatoes, onions and cilantro. Another good feature of the dish was the half lemon on the side that came with a little net to catch the seeds. How cute is that! Finally, the dish came with garlic herb toasted bread. Too bad I had filled up on the plain bread earlier because the garlic bread was incredible. I couldn't finish the bread, but I ate every last drop of the broth and the seafood! I knew that good seafood must exist in the San Francisco area, and I'm so glad that I found it :) Well, I ended up spending almost $40 on lunch, but it was totally worth it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Along the Pacific coast

California might be best known for its cities like LA and San Francisco, but the culture of the state is best experienced in the small towns dotting the coast. They can be located on either precariously steep hills or on quiet bays, but they all have the same atmosphere. Sea life and organic local food are everywhere. Even popular tourist attraction like Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea still manage to retain their original California style. However, finding a place to eat in places where tourists need a quick and rich meal can prove to be hard.

That was the case again in Monterey. If you stay in the downtown area (Canary Row), which I had to do, all of your options are Italian restaurants or places like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. So what should a person do when they want good seafood that's not slathered with Alfredo sause? The answer, surprisingly, is eat at the C Restaurant at the InterContinental hotel in downtown Monterey. It was located right at the bay, so I had a good view of the open ocean from my table. Plus, it was one of the few places where I didn't have to wait for a table. To start my meal, I was brought complementary warm rosemary bread and goat cheese butter. The bread was amazing. I love any type of warm bread, but the aroma from the rosemary made it so much better. I was also curious about the goat cheese butter. Was it supposed to taste like goat cheese? Sadly, it didn't. It tasted like regular butter to me.

For my brunch, I was trying to decide between two dishes with seafood: shrimp frittata and crab huevos rancheros. I finally decided to get the frittata, partly because it had that goat cheese that the butter made me crave. I was quite disappointed in the frittata. First, it didn't have as much shrimp as I was hoping it would. In addition, it came with a topping of chip strips. I assume they were house-made, but the strips tasted just like Lay's chips. On the bright side, the goat cheese had lemon zest in it and gave the whole dish a fresh citrus tang.

Later that day, we arrived in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Unlike Monterey, there was a large selection of restaurants that seemed nice in terms of both food and ambiance. My problem here, though, was that we didn't have much time. I ended up eating in a French bakery because the desserts at the counter looked too enticing to resist. I again was started off with warm bread, but this time it was simple white bread. The butter was not any different than butter you can get from a grocery store. Thankfully, I gad ordered the baked Brie with red onion and balsamic vinegar marinade which I used to pair with the good bread. The marinade was sweet and acidic at the same time. It had a unique taste that I really liked and that went great with the plain bread. The Brie was also good, but I think I prefer it fresh, not baked. As I mentioned, the desserts looked great, so I got a coconut creme pie to go (not pictured). It contained a thin custard layer, a much thicker meringue layer, and a top layer of toasted coconut. It was really rich tasting, and a great indulgence at the end of my tour of the California central coast.

My goal for the day had been to get some great fresh seafood, hopefully caught close to where I was eating. At the end, I had just a few tiny shrimp in my frittata at lunch. I did enjoy what I ate, but my craving for seafood still remains to be sated.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Brunch the French way

French culture and cuisine seems to have a huge influence on San Francisco. There are countless of bakeries everywhere in town - from small neighborhood cafes to popular chains. Luckily, the majority of them serve delicious authentic food. The only bad thing is that I can't possibly try all the places I want to go to...

Well, the most obvious choice if you can go to only one bakery in San Francisco is La Boulange. It is a chain with several restaurants around the city, but the location I go to is the one in Cole Valley. This location offers typical bakery a-la-carte fare like croissants, quiches, turnovers and macarons, and it also has a made-to-order menu. I first tried La Boulange last year. On my last day there, I ordered the Fantastic French Toast. I was expecting a traditional French toast because nothing from the menu description suggests otherwise. But WOW! The French toast at La Boulange is seriously the best thing I have tasted in my life, at any restaurant, for any kind of meal. I couldn't go back there this year and taste it again.

So what makes the French toast so special? Well, it does comes in a round shape, but other than that it has a pretty much nondescript experience. But once you bite into it, you notice a flavor that's familiar, but yet it seems like it doesn't come from a traditional toast. After a little bit of thinking, you might realize that it tastes like creme brulee! Yes, that's right. And if you look carefully, you'll see that there is an egg custard layer beneath the toast itself. The combination of the creamy custard and the egg-soaked toast makes for a truly heavenly taste.

La Boulange is known for its macarons, which are supposedly the best macarons outside of France. I've tried several flavors so far, including chocolate, lemon, walnut, and raspberry mango (not pictured). They were fresh and did have just the perfect texture. However, the flavor wasn't as intense as I would have liked it to be. For example, I wish the lemon macarons were more lemony and that I could distinguish any kind of individual flavor rather than an overall fruity flavor in the mango raspberry macaron.

I'm a huge granola fan, so I also tried the granola at La Boulange (not pictured). I got mine with yogurt, which was the best part of the dish. It was very thick and sour, just like I like it. There are other items that I want to try, so I will definitely be going back there :)

Another French place that I had brunch at was La Terrasse at the Presidio park. The location of the restaurant was great. I had my brunch while looking at the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny, warm day. I ordered the Brie, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes omelet, which was great. The cheese was perfectly melted, but not overpowering. There was a lot more spinach than I have seen in any omelet before, so I was able to get my daily serving of veggies :) My only disappointment is that the sun-dried tomatoes didn't stand out too much and were hard to find in the omelet.

You always wonder whether an international place here is as good as it would be in its country of origin. There were French people sitting close to me at both La Boulange and La Terrasse, and that to me is the best stamp of approval for a place.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mexican in San Francisco

Wow, I've been on a roll recently with Latin American/Mexican food recently. After having some great meals in Atlanta, I came to San Francisco - one of the best places for Mexican.  Aside from quick meals I had my first few days here, my first real dinner was at Maya, a really nice place in SOMA. It had an upscale, yet non-pretentious interior and atmosphere. It was a great spot for both a date or a fun night with friends. Indeed, the table next to me and my roommate (Princess Jasmine) was taken by a small party who all wore the same shirt and carried a blow-up doll! I kept trying to read what their shirts said, but I didn't have any luck.

Princess Jasmine and I started the dinner by sharing Chiles Toreados guacamole and chips. It was served in a cute bowl that even featured a hummingbird that seemed like it wanted to eat the guacamole! The guacamole was supposed to have toasted pepita seeds. Well, it did have them, but I thought they would be incorporated into the dish a little better than simply sprinkling them on top... In addition, the guacamole was way too salty, even saltier than the chips. The chips, on the other hand, were perfect. They were very fresh and only lightly seasoned. I ended up eating most chips by themselves, without dipping them in the guacamole.

For her entree, Princess Jasmine got the beer-marinated filet mignon tacos (not pictured). I didn't try them, but she said they were amazing. I was craving some fresh seafood, so I ordered the salmon and camaron (shrimp) ceviche combo. The salmon ceviche included mango and cucumbers in a habanero broth. I think in ate a slight piece of habanero on my very first bite because my mouth started burning with the heat right away. I was afraid that the whole dish would be as spicy, but it thankfully it wasn't. I really liked it, especially the mango/cucumber combination. The shrimp ceviche contained jicama, an interesting root vegetable that's pretty popular in California. It has a fibrous texture, but very light taste. Overall, it reminds me of a sweeter (but not sweet) version of a Granny Smith apple. It's great both fresh and pickled. I loved it in the ceviche as well. I loved both types of ceviche I tried, but to me the salmon one was slightly better.

To make the night even better, we paired the dinner with some great drinks. Princess Jasmine had a pomegranate mojito, while I had the lime margarita. The margarita was quite strong, not sweet at all, and with a nice refreshing taste. It was a perfect addition to the fresh seafood dinner.

My experience in Maya proved once again that not all Mexican food is heavy, and that you can enjoy it guilt-free. I wish there were more places like Maya in Atlanta...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gourmet Burgers

Little Richie and I met up for dinner on the 4th of July, my last night in Atlanta before leaving for San Francisco. He was smart enough to suggest celebrating the most American of holidays with the most American of foods - hamburgers. But we couldn't have any hamburgers on this nation's birthday, so we went to Flip Burger. I was really happy with the suggestion because I had wanted to try this place for a long time. It's owned by a former Top Chef contestant. I don't watch this show, but I know it's a big deal to even be selected to be on it.

While perusing the menu, I couldn't decide between two of the options: the local burger (traditional burger), and the raw tuna tartare burger. The solution was Little Richie getting the traditional burger and me getting the tuna burger. Not trying a real burger at Flip would have been like going to Rome and not seeing the Pope, as the saying goes. As expected, the burger was juicy and delicious. Plus, you knew it was a well crafted burger because all ingredients were well sized to fit on the bun. You could eat the burger without the patty or tomato or something else sliding out and the whole thing disintegrating. Little things like that make some burger places stand out. Well, creativity also helps. For example, the sweet potato tots that Little Richie got on the side seem like such an obvious thing to have at many places, but I don't think I've seen them anywhere else.

Being satisfied with the quality of traditional burgers at Flip, I can now talk about my tuna tartare creation. It contained four things I really love: tuna tartare, mango (in the form of mango spheres), avocado (as puree), and sesame (as sesame crispies). The whole thing was amazing. It was so fresh-tasting, I wouldn't have guessed I was eating at burger if I wasn't holding it. The tuna was really good, and Flip wasn't skimping on the amount they put on each burger. One minor complaint I have is that the tuna taste was overpowering the other ingredients, so I didn't even detect a hint of the mango or sesame crispies.

We ended dinner with another typically American food item - a milkshake. We shared the Nutella and burned marshmallows milkshake. It was sooo decadent and delicious. At one point I though there were real hazelnuts in the shake because the Nutella taste was so pronounced.

Well, that was a great way to say goodbye to Atlanta. Now I'm already in San Francisco, and will try to explore the food scene here. My little adventure today included more burgers. I walked 3.5 miles just to have In-N-Out burger. It was my first time there, so I couldn't wait to see what the hype was all about. I ordered a cheeseburger with onions and fries on the side (not pictured). I did love the burger, but my favorite things about it were the tomatoes and onions. The patty was delicious, but rather small, especially when compared to the amount of meat we got at Flip. Despite this, each bite that contained bun, veggies, and patty was amazing. It was really obvious that the veggies were fresh and that the burgers were assembled after ordering, which makes a huge difference. The fries were good as well, but nowhere as crispy as McDonald's fries. On the good side, they weren't as salty as McDonald's fries :)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sun in My Belly

This is yet another place with a unique name that deserves to be the name of a post. Plus, the name exemplifies how you feel after you eat there :)

Sun in My Belly is a brunch spot in Decatur that is far away from the square and other popular spots, thus it had escaped my attention until now. I went there recently with Little Richie after he found out about my obsession with brunch food. Their menu featured all the standard brunch items, plus a good number of sandwiches. I didn’t even look at the sandwich list this time, but maybe I’ll try them some other time. My attention this time was grabbed by the omelet special: sun-dry tomato and cheddar cheese omelet. I ordered it with a side of hashed potatoes. The omelet was really good. First, it was the right size, so I was actually able to finish it. Second, there was just the right amount of gooey cheese in it. Finally, I loved the homestyle potatoes that were prepared with red and green bell peppers and onions. Plus, the potatoes held their shape well, rather than become disintegrated from overcooking which I’ve seen with other home fries.

Little Richie’s breakfast was the Kirkwood Special which included scrambled eggs, ­­­­­­­­­­a biscuit, and bacon. The scrambled eggs were infused with onion/chives flavor without any discernible pieces of onions/chives. In addition, they were quite creamy without you seeing stretchy cheese when you got a piece. Overall, they were really tasty. The bacon was much thicker than any other bacon I’ve seen. (I must admit, though, I don’t usually order bacon and don’t have much experience with it.) On the negative side, it wasn’t as crispy as I like my bacon to be. I didn’t try the biscuit, but it looked delicious as well.

The food at Sun in My Belly definitely made my belly happy. But there were other little things that put my mind in a good mood as well. First of all, I already mentioned that I love the name. In addition, each table had a little vase with a live carnation in it. Having live flowers around me always makes me happy. Finally, I liked the laid-back atmosphere of the place and that it was away from the bustle of most other brunch spots. I will definitely be going back there.