Tuesday, November 20, 2012

San Francisco: La Boulange

When I first went to San Francisco a couple of years ago, a stumbled upon a bakery in the Cole Valley area called La Boulange. I was mesmerized by the desserts on display: croissants, macarons, quiches, tarts, breads... Then I tried the Fantastic French Toast and I knew I'd be eating at La Boulange again!

Skip to the present, and I have been to San Francisco two more times and I have eaten at La Boulange several more times. It turns out La Boulange is a local chain with stores all over the city. This past month I was staying only a block away from a location on Sutter Street in downtown. It was hard to resist its pull, so I went there several times over three weeks. The first time I had the French toast that I love so much. It's not a simple French toast! It somehow has a layer of custard on the bottom, and then the custard-soaked toast. It tastes like eating creme brulee in a cake form. How can you not love that? :) The toast itself is fluffy inside, but crispy on the outside. And it's served with fresh fruit. If I was ever on that show "Best Thing I Ever Ate," I would talk about this French toast :)

This year I decided to branch out and try some of the non-dessert things at La Boulange. They also make sandwiches using bread made in-house. I've had the hummus sandwich and the smoked salmon sandwich, both with a side of quinoa salad. Both of them were delicious. The hummus sandwich was topped with avocados and cucumbers, so overall it had a very refreshing taste. It would have been perfect for a warm summer day, but it tasted just as great on a cool fall morning :) The sprouts were too bitter for my taste, but I pushed them off the sandwich and ate them with the quinoa to cancel out the bitterness. As to the quinoa salad, it was too salty both times I had it :( Well, at least I got a good amount of fiber and protein from it...

The salmon sandwich came with cucumbers, creme fraiche and capers. The capers were well-washed and weren't too briny. I need to wash my capers when I cook with them that well, haha ;) Other than that, it was a solid sandwich with nothing too special about it, but I enjoyed every single bite.

My last time at La Boulange I ordered half of the goat cheese sandwich and a cup of French onion soup. The sandwich was very disappointing. It barely had any cheese on it. And it was toasted to the point where the bread was burned and the cheese was completely dried out. I hope this mispreparation is not the norm for this sandwich. Even the portobello and the roasted red peppers couldn't rescue the sandwich. The soup, on the other hand, saved the meal. This was actually my very first time having French onion soup, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I liked the one at La Boulange. The onions were caramelized well and sweet. And there was a crouton in the cup that nicely mopped up all the flavors.

I've had so many good experiences at La Boulange that I'm willing to overlook this last negative one. At the end I want to mention that all of the prepackaged desserts are also amazing. I've tried pretty much all types of shortbread cookies. Surprisingly, I'm not a huge fan of the chocolate ones, but love all the others. La Boulange is also known for their French-style macarons. They are always fresh and have the perfect texture. Now they even have a delicious pumpkin macaron :) They also sell so-call San Francisco-style macarons, which are single cookies of almond-hazelnut flour; these might be my favorites so far. Finally, the almond-chocolate croissants are a must-have. Honestly, I wish I could have every single meal at La Boulange, I love it that much!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

San Francisco: Cafe Tiramisu

I'm in San Francisco again, for yet another extended stay. This time I'm staying right in between Union Square and Chinatown. Even though I can't afford to buy anything right now, this is a great location :) Hey, window shopping is free :) But the other reason I like this area is the many dining options. There are several restaurants on every single street for the few blocks around me. Honestly, it's quite overwhelming! I wish I could try them all...

One place that I did try is Cafe Tiramisu. It's an Italian restaurant that specializes in seafood, which combines two things I love. I went there with several people from IBM who are here for training. Some of them are staying at the same hotel as me and invited me to go with them :) So we ended up being a big group. This worked out great because the menu looked amazing and there were sooo many things I wanted to try. But being in a big group, we ordered everything family-style :)

We started by sharing the grilled calamari and the mussels in spicy chile sauce for appetizers. The mussels were pretty similar to what you can get at any good restaurant. Don't get me wrong, though, they were delicious, just nothing too special. However, I loooved the calamari. I have to admit that this was the first time I had grilled calamari; I've always had them battered and fried or poached in soups/stews. The grilling preserved their real taste and softened the texture just a little bit. Plus, they looked so pretty with their tentacles still on :) I think that was my favorite thing abut the dish...

For entrees we ordered the pumpkin and ricotta gnocchi, Dungenese crab tortellini, pappardelle with Bolognese sauce, and the oricciette with pork ragout. Again, all the dishes were delicious. All the pastas were hand-made and fresh. The tortellini contained huge chunks of crabmeat and came in a nice creamy sauce. I'm usually not a fan of Bolognese-style meat sauces, but I loved the one here. The pork ragout was also amazing. But my favorite dish were the pumpkin gnocchi. Honestly, I didn't expect to detect much pumpkin flavor, but I was very pleasantly surprised. And even better, the gnocchi were still savory and not sweet. I guess the addition of ricotta was able to cancel out the sweetness of the pumpkin. I definitely had several helpings from that plate :)

And we couldn't go to a place called Cafe Tiramisu without ordering tiramisu! It was delicious, but again similar to most other tiramisus I've had. We also got the bomboloni, Tuscan-style donuts. I can't believe I spent a whole week in Tuscany and never heard about them! They were really delicious. They were filled with cream inside and came with a chocolate sauce for dipping. They reminded me of beignets in terms of texture, of Boston Creme donuts because of the sauce, and of churros because of the chocolate sauce. Well, combine all of these goodies and you have a great finish to a great meal :)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Taste test: Flavored yogurt

As promised, I did a taste test with flavored yogurt as well. Oh, the sacrifices I have to make for this blog... And this in not fully sarcastic. I do not like purchased flavored yogurt because it tends to have too much sugar and be too sweet. I eat plain yogurt with jam, but I add just a little bit of jams I like.

So, I found a way to cheat in this flavored yogurt test :P Instead of buying the popular Chobani, I tried the flavors of Fage. The Fage 0% plain yogurt is my favorite anyway. And what's really amazing is that the "flavored" varieties come in special divided containers that keep the flavoring and the yogurt separated. This way you can mix in as much as you want. What confuses me, though, is why the container says not to mix them... Are we supposed to take a bit of jam and then a bit of yogurt with each spoonful? Anyway, I mixed them because that's how I like it :)

I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of flavors available, probably around ten in total. I picked only six of them for this taste test. I think the flavors I picked are representative of what Fage offers. And many of the flavors I didn't try are single-ingredient jams that I have in one of the combination below. In order of preference, here are the reviews:

Honey: surprisingly, this was my least favorite. After all, honey and (Greek) yogurt is such a classic combination! Well, it all depends on the quality on the honey, and the one in the Fage yogurt didn't cut it. It was so think that I couldn't mix it at all into the yogurt. At least it tasted ok.

Blueberry/acai: classic example of what I consider "too sweet." I probably added only half of the jam, but it was still sweet. Plus, there were only a few whole berries in the sugary blueberry syrup.

Cherry/pomegranate: not as sweet as the blueberry/acai, but just as syrupy. Again, I wish there was more whole fruit. Plus, it had a little bit of an artificial cherry flavor (think, cough syrup) even though Fage doesn't use any artificial ingredients. I couldn't detect any pomegranate taste.

Raspberry: the jam has the right sweetness and consistency, but no chunks of fruit. I actually like the seeds in raspberries, so I missed them. But I'm sure the majority of the people would prefer the seedless version that Fage used.

Peach: I was pleasantly surprised with this one. Peaches can be very bland if not ripe enough or too sweet in some desserts. I didn't know which one I would get. But the jam in this case was perfect. It wasn't too sweet, but with intense peach flavor and lots of peach pieces.

Strawberry/goji: Goji? What's that? According to Wikipedia, it's a type of berry common in Asia. The strawberry/goji jam did have a pronounced strawberry flavor, but also hints of something new and unique that I haven't tried before. I can't even explain what it tastes like. The reason I loved this flavor the most is because it made me want to try goji berries. Does anyone know where I can find them?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

IP restaurant week pt 4: Parish

Parish is one of those restaurants that elevates comfort food to make it fancy without sacrificing the taste. Ever since Ems and I went there a long time ago, I had wanted to go back to try that mushroom cheesecake. Unlike the spring edition of Inman Park restaurant week, the menu at Parish looked amazing this time. Well, the cheesecake wasn't on the restaurant week menu, but I still wanted to try everything!

All three appetizers sounded interesting: parsnip soup, chicken hearts, and octopus and sausage. I was even considering getting two appetizers instead of an appetizer and an entree. Snooki got the parsnip soup, which was creamy and delicious. I finally decided to get the sauteed chicken hearts because I know that it's very easy to overcook octopus and make it chewy. My biggest surprise about the meal was the portion size! It was bigger than many entrees and included three huge half-slices of brioche bread. Well, at least the bread was toasted, coated in a creamy sauce, and tasted well. However, I couldn't eat more than a couple of bites knowing that I had two more meals coming up. The hearts themselves were perfect. I even liked how they were cut in bite-size pieces. Plus, they were sauteed in butter, and you can't go wrong with that ;) Unfortunately, the carrot puree was a huge disappointment. The texture was somehow gritty and it didn't even taste like carrots...

I wish I could try all entrees as well: fried chicken, fried mussels, and Israeli couscous. I settled on the mussels. Honestly, I've had much better mussels before, even at gastro pubs. The ones at Parish were sauteed in a butter sauce, but the butter just didn't seem to go well with the mussels. I wish they were cooked in a wine sauce with some fresh herbs and citrus. On the bright side, the fries were really great :) I probably ate more fries than mussels. Anyway, the entree made me wish I had finished all of my chicken hearts and skipped the second course.

At least the dinner ended well. I ordered the banana bread pudding for dessert, and Snooki got the chocolate tart. Both of them came with ice cream on the side. The crust on the tart was a little hard, but it was still delicious. And my banana bread pudding was AMAZING. The banana flavor was very prominent, the pudding was soft without being soggy, and the caramel sauce on the bottom of the plate went great with it. Plus, it was a pretty big potion, too :) Just what I needed after the light entree.

I thought Parish was supposed to serve a mixture of Southern, Louisiana-style food with emphasis on seafood. However, this meal didn't really fit into any of these categories well. There was a lot of seafood, but it didn't seem to be the strength of the restaurant. The chef is definitely creative, but it's hard to attract customers if you can't even describe what kind of food you serve. But if you're looking for a charming place with a unique menu, it's definitely worth a try.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

IPRW Part 3: Wisteria

It's the beginning of fall, which means it's time for Inman Park restaurant week again! I love that they have it twice a year: in the spring and in the fall. Last time I went to Sotto Sotto and Wisteria. And guess what? I couldn't resist going to Wisteria yet again this week :)

The menu for restaurant week this time was pretty much the same as it was in the spring. However, there were multiple choices for both appetizers and entrees, so I had a hard time choosing something even after having tried several of the things. Actually, I went there with three friends, and we all got different dishes and we all loved what we had. I guess I'll first summarize what the others had before describing my meal.

My roommate Snooki had the mixed greens salad and the pork tenderloin. The pork was lightly seared on the outside and literally melted in your mouth! Definitely the best pork tenderloin/chop I have ever had anywhere! This is not an over-exaggeration. It's so easy to overcook the pork to the point where it's too dry. This one was the opposite of dry. It reminded me more of seared tuna steak than any other pork dish. My friend Els ordered the black eyed peas hummus and shrimp and grits, which is exactly what I had last time. She liked both of them. Finally, Els's boyfriend got the deviled eggs and fried chicken. His favorite piece of food was the sweet cornbread. He even wanted to get the recipe :)

The appetizer I decided on was the tomato soup with arugula pesto. The soup was really delicious by itself, with sweet tomato notes. I'm glad that there wasn't anything spicy in it. The pesto, when mixed with the soup, added some herbal freshness to the dish, but I didn't like how oily it made the soup. The soup came with a really incredible toast covered in Parmesan cheese. The toast was very simple, but the crunch and the cheese made it irresistible.

For my entree I ordered the Southern-fried catfish. The portion size was surprisingly large because each plate came with two rather large pieces of fish. I ate only one of them and saved the other one for lunch the next day :) The breading was a little soggy, but it didn't overpower the fish. And the tartar sauce on the side was pretty good, too. I also liked the stewed roasted peppers, green tomatoes, okra and crawfish that accompanied the fish. I'm not a fan of okra, but the one here wasn't that slimy so I could eat it. Overall, I liked my entree, but wasn't wowed by it.

Just like last time, the dessert was a trio of traditional Southern desserts: carrot cake, brownie, and lemon pecan bar. Unlike my last visit to Wisteria when I didn't like the carrot cake, it was my favorite this time, haha. It was just so moist and the perfect sweetness. I was also impressed with the lemon pecan bar. There were pockets of tartness that mixed well with the sweet dough. The brownie and spicy ice cream were delicious as well, but not as novel as the last time... But the general consensus at the end was that we all wanted a second serving of dessert :)

Well, that was my visit to Wisteria. Stay tuned for a dinner at Parish, also as part of Inman Park restaurant week.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Everyone who's ever stopped in front of the yogurt display in a grocery store must have seen the large variety of yogurt flavors available. Some have fruit in them, some just the flavor, some have mousse-like texture, and so on, and so on, and so on. Eating Greek yogurt is the few fad, so it isn't surprising that many different flavors have popped up as well. Well, variety is good, right? Yes, but I often find myself spending a looong time choosing a type of yogurt to buy. And that's true even though I usually stay away from the flavored varieties because they can be too sweet for me.

I'm a huge fan of plain yogurt, but even there the options are amazing. Over the years, I've done unofficial taste tests to find brands I like. I judge yogurt based on the following criteria:

  1. Whey (the liquid in yogurt) - as little as possible
  2. Taste - more tart is better
  3. Texture - needs to be creamy

So here are my favorites in several categories:

Plain non-fat yogurt - Dannon. It has very little whey and good, firm texture. The tartness is good for a plain yogurt. Publix-brand yogurts are also good.

Flavored yogurt - I like the Yoplait Whips for their mousse-like texture. They can be as indulgent as desserts, but hey, they still have some health benefits

Plain non-fat Greek yogurt - Fage. I love everything about it. It's pretty tart, firm, and creamy. Chobani is actually creamier, but I prefer Fage for its tartness.

Because of the popularity of Greek yogurt, some more exotic types of yogurt have also appeared. For now they are primarily found in organic food stores like Whole Foods, but I can see some of them jumping to the mass market. Today I decided to do an official tasting of some plain yogurt varieties I saw at Whole foods: Greek (Eros), Icelandic (Siggi's), New Zealand (Dreaming Cow), soy milk (WholeSoy & Co.) and coconut milk (So Delicious). So here are my reviews:

  1. The Eros Greek-style yogurt wasn't as good as my favorite Fage. The taste was a little milder, but it was similar in texture. I think it represented the Greek yogurt category very well. And for people who care about this, the milk comes from cows certified to be raised and handled in a humane way...
  2. The Siggi's Icelandic-style yogurt (also called skyr) was amazing! It was incredibly creamy and thick. Like Greek yogurt, it's strained. I'm guessing it's strained for longer to achieve this texture. It wasn't as tart as Fage, but I'm still a huge fan. And the best part is that it is surprisingly low in calories for such creaminess (80 calories for a 150 g container). And just like Greek yogurt, it has a whooping 15 g of protein.
  3. I have mixed feelings about the Dreaming Cow New Zealand-style yogurt. My initial reaction was that I hated the cream layer on top. It is just that: maybe 1 mm-thick layer of cream. I'm not sure of it forms naturally on top of the yogurt (it probably does in New Zealand), or if it's artificially added to the commercial product. Well, after you get past the cream, the yogurt is actually pretty good. It's tart and firm, probably from straining. It resembles Greek yogurt, but with only 1/3 of the protein. And as an added bonus, the milk comes from free-range cows here in Georgia. (The Wallaby brand of Australian yogurt didn't come in plain variety, but maybe it tastes similar to New Zealand-style yogurt without the cream top layer?)
  4. The WholeSoy soy milk yogurt is dairy-free, thus vegan friendly and good for people with lactose intolerance. I do drink soy milk on a daily basis, but I wasn't a huge fan of the yogurt. It did taste just like soy milk, but also came with the grittiness/starchiness of bad soy milks. I might have liked it if the starting milk was better quality. Btw, it's surprisingly high in calories and low in protein (150 calories in 170 g, 8 g protein).
  5. The So Delicious Coconut milk yogurt is targeted to the same user as the soy yogurt - vegans or people with allergies. The coconut taste was very very mild, and I actually wish it was stronger. It wasn't as starchy as the almond yogurt, but the texture was just off for me. It looked like apple butter, but a light brown color. Or non-strained ricotta. The only reason I finished it is because I don't like throwing away food. 
Btw, in my numerous hours in front of the yogurt sections, I've noticed that Chobani has a pretty good variety of flavored Greek-style yogurts. Maybe for my next taste test I need to try them all?

P.S. Start reading the names of the bacterial cultures that the yogurts are made from. The different brands differ somewhat, but they ALL contain L. bulgaricus, a bacterial strain originally isolated from Bulgarian yogurt :) I can't wait for the time when Bulgarian-style yogurt will become available in the US :)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Breakfast Paradise

I recently realized that I haven't written yet about one of my most favorite places in Atlanta: The Original Pancake House. I live only a couple of miles from it on Lavista Rd. and I have been there probably around 10 times. If I was an early riser, I could probably go there every day. However, it seems that everyone loves this place so forget about getting a table in a timely manner if you go after 9 am! Even for only 2 people, you'll probably need to wait at least 30 min. One tip I can offer is waiting close by the "bar." Those spots are first-come, first-served, and it's usually possible to get a spot there pretty quickly. Plus, the whole menu is available at the bar, and the person who works there is very friendly :)

The Original Pancake House has a multi-page, diner-like menu that I would scoff at if I saw it at most other places. They offer probably 30 different types of pancakes, 10 types of waffles, many omelets and typical breakfast specialties with eggs and meats. I'll start with what I haven't tried: any of the waffles, the French toast, and the huge, intimidating Dutch baby. An order of a Dutch baby, a baked custard with berries, is literally the whole pan. I've seen it on other people's tables, but I haven't been brave enough to order it.

Now the things I've had, starting with pancakes. The banana pancakes are amazing! They are light and fluffy, not too salty or too sweet, with real bananas inside the pancakes and on top of the pancakes. Plus, they come with their own special tropical sauce instead of syrup. The sauce reminds me a lot of diluted orange juice, but it's surprisingly good. I've also had the plain buttermilk pancakes and the buckwheat pancakes as part of a breakfast dish. The meat dishes come with a side of buttermilk pancakes, but you can sub the buckwheat pancakes if you ask nicely. However, the buckwheat variety is a little too dense for me, so I prefer the plain buttermilk.

In the pancake section you can also find Swedish pancakes. Well, I expected an American pancake-style dish with lingonberry sauce instead of syrup. However, what I got are HUGE crepe-like pancakes. The Swedish pancakes were oblong, the size of two large crepes put side-to-side, and each order came with three of them. The pancakes were even lighter than crepes, having a more lacy appearance. After my initial surprise with the order, I really enjoyed them and ate 2.5 of those enormous pancakes.

Talking about crepes, I've tried the cherry crepes and the banana crepes. I was a little disappointed with the cherry crepes mostly because of the quality of the cherries. They tasted very artificial, as if they came from a jar. Plus, they lacked the tartness I expected. On the bright side, the banana crepes were perfect. It was obvious they were made with real bananas :) By the way, the crepes have whipped creme as a base for their fruit stuffing, and the amount and sweetness of the cream are just right.

On the more savory side, I've had the Southwestern omelet. It comes with red and green bell peppers, onions, and typical Tex-Mex flavors. It comes with a special spicy sauce that I really loved and a side of pancakes. The omelet at Original Pancake House is one of the fluffiest I have ever seen. It looks more like a souffle than an omelet. It was cooked well, and wasn't greasy or soggy. Some omelets I've had at many other places become soggy when the liquids from the veggies separate from the eggs - not a nice sight.

On mornings when I'm not too hungry, I just order two scrambled eggs. I've had both the plain version and eggs scrambled with cheese. I like the plain version a lot more. The cheesy eggs had way too much cheese. I don't even know how that's possible considering that I LOVE cheese, but the eggs with cheese just don't taste right to me. Well, two scrambled eggs is not a big enough breakfast even if I'm not hungry, so I have to order the mixed berries fruit bowl. You have to try it!!!! It's a large bowl of fresh, ripe, juicy, sweet berries - blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, bananas. And yes, bananas are actually berries. But what makes this dish so amazing is the small bowl of whipped cream to dip the berries in. I don't even know how to describe the whipped cream, but it's simply heavenly. It's thicker than, say, Miracle Whip, but it's just as light in taste. It's just a tad sweet. But the combination of the texture and flavor make it the best whipped cream I've had. I can definitely eat it by itself, but I also use it for the berries. Everyone who's tried it has loved it. Oh, the fruit bowl also comes in a melon version, but I have never ordered it. As long as it has the same cream, it must be good :) By the way, the restaurant uses the same cream for the crepes, but the hot temperature of the crepes starts melting the cream and it loses some of its appeal.

Finally, I haven't ordered any of the meat dishes, but I've been told that the bacon and the hash browns are also delicious. But what I'm dying to try next are the coconut pancakes or waffles. Maybe it's time for my first waffle?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Hot Dog Cravings

Over the last few weeks I got this weird craving about hot dogs. And it wasn't just any plain old hot dog, but specifically a chili dog. I just kept picturing a hot dog with chili and cheese dripping from its sides. But me being me, I couldn't get any fast food hot dog. Instead, I met up Cashew at HD1 in Atlanta, with "HD" standing for "Haute Doggery."

HD1 is a hip, modern place from Richard Blais, the owner of Flip Burger. The two restaurants share a similar concept: prepare American classics in a gourmet way and serve them in a modern space that's highlighted by a large bar and a separate community table. The menu at HD1 offers a large selections of hot dogs, from classic to completely unexpected. Several options even came close to dissuading me from the chili dog. Even here I had a few options: Red Haute dog with beef frank and brisket chili or a veggie chili dog. Well, I opted for the classic and got the Red Haute. Cashew got the Little Italy. It was the second time she had ordered it, so that shows you it must be great. As to my chili dog, I absolutely loved it. It all started from the toasted bun that provided the perfect amount of crunch for a soft hot dog bun. The beef was flavorful and juicy without being too greasy. The chili was spicy, but not uncomfortably so. Well, I didn't get the melted cheese on top as in my cravings. But they, the world is not perfect...

The hot dogs were a good size for a light dinner. It seems like a funny thing to say that a hot dog is good for a light dinner. But here I mean it in terms of the amount of food, not so much nutrition. It was filling without getting you completely stuffed. Still, Cashew and I shared an order of the plain waffle fries. Despite what the name suggests, they were lightly coated in cheese and herbs. They were also perfectly crispy and not soggy at all. In terms of fries I've had, they rival the fries at McDonald's, and they're definitely better than the waffle fries at Chick-fil-A :)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Barcelona, Ole!

My roommate Snooki,
Being a smart cookie,
Passed her qualifying exam last week
Continuing on her way to become a science geek.
To celebrate, we went to Barcelona,
A place fit for her fancy persona.

Alright, alright I got carried away with the rhyming. And to clarify, neither Snooki, nor Barcelona are fancy or snobbish. But of the two, Barcelona comes closer, haha. But it was a special occasion, so we could go overboard a little bit.

Barcelona is a wine and tapas bar in the Inman Park area of Atlanta. Snooki and I walked by it one afternoon when they were making paella outside in a huge fan and made the decision to try it one day. It turns out that they don't serve individual portions of paella, but offer it only in large batches meant for sharing. We opted out for sharing the smaller and less expensive tapas instead. The menu wasn't as extensive as the one at Pura Vida, but we still had plenty of options to choose from. Everything sounded really delicious, but at the end we got the Patatas Bravas, Herbed Goat Cheese and Mushrooms and the Wild Striped Bass Ceviche.

Snooki and I have something of a quest to try as many patatas bravas from different places as possible. This obsession started at Loca Luna where we always get patatas bravas for an annual school dinner. The dish is simply amazing there! The potatoes are perfectly crispy and spicy. The aioli that they are served with also contributes a little spiciness, but the smooth creamy texture helps to balance out the heat. I've tried to make my own patatas bravas once, but failed miserably :( We also ordered them at Iberian Pig once. They were better than mine, but nowhere close to the ones at Loca Luna. Considering these failures, I was starting to think that we won't be able to find a place that serves patatas bravas as good as the ones at Loca Luna. Well, I'm happy to say that this has changed! The patatas bravas at Barcelona come very very close to the ones at Loca Luna! The crispiness and spiciness are definitely there. The only difference is in the sauce. The potatoes at Barcelona are served with a spicy aioli and ketchup. The aioli was ok, but the ketchup (which wasn't changed in any way) had no place on a great dish like the patatas bravas.

The herbed goat cheese and mushrooms also had a lot to live up to. I had had a dish of mushrooms sauteed with garlic and butter at Pura Vida in which the mushrooms were just perfect. I expected something similar from the dish in Barcelona, but was a little disappointed. The mushrooms tasted ok, but I wish there was a little more depth of flavor, maybe some garlic or herbs in the mushrooms rather than simply butter. Also, I thought that there would be a ball of goat cheese on the side to almost sere as a dip for the mushrooms. Instead, there was an amorphous dollop on top that didn't provide as much tangy-ness to the dish as I was hoping for.

Finally, the ceviche was great. I don't have much to say about it except that it was exactly what a ceviche should be: fresh-tasting and with large chunks of seafood. The citrus flavor was refreshing, but not overpowering. My only complaint is that there wasn't more of it ;)

At one point during the dinner we were pleasantly surprised by a complimentary dish of beets with walnuts and pesto. We still don't know why we received it, but we didn't turn it down... Even though Snooki doesn't like beets, we kept the dish. Of course, I ended up eating most of it, but Snooki at least gave it a try. The verdict: she still doesn't like beets. Well, I enjoyed the dish. I actually like the slightly sour taste of beets, and it went great with the blue cheese-based pesto on top.

It being a celebration, we also ordered drinks and dessert. Snooki is a big fan of sangria, so she tried the white wine one. Well, I can assure you she liked it very much and only two drinks were enough for her for the night. I tried the caipirinha. I was a little anxious when I saw that it came in a pretty small size (maybe 6 oz), but my mood completely changed only after a few sips. Man, this drink was strong! After only half a drink, I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to drive home. Thankfully, the food and dessert soaked up the alcohol by the end of the night and we were able to get back home safely. By the way, even though the drink was strong, the caipirinha was easy to drink because of the refreshing lime taste.

As to the dessert, Snooki and I shared a chocolate hazelnut molten cake with coconut ice cream on top. The cake wasn't that great. I didn't taste much hazelnut in it either. However, the coconut ice cream was one of my favorite things. It reminded me a lot of coconut gelato I had had in Italy. I wish Barcelona sold it in cartons to take home ;)

By the way, Barcelona is also known for its wine list. Maybe we need to try some during a future visit :P

Friday, August 10, 2012

It's a Lunacy

It's a Lunacy! That's what I thought when Cashew said she wanted to go to a place called Lunacy Black Market. It could have been good, but I was more worried that it would be trying too hard to be unique but falling short. But hey, it was Cashew's birthday, so I had no say.

My first impressions of the place were mixed. It had a very rustic, antique-y  feel. However, the tables. chairs and cupboards looked more old than antique. Some of the tables had couches instead of chairs, but the couches and tables were approximately the same height. I love eating at the coffee table at home, but I don't know how I feel about doing it in public. One really unique thing was the menu. It was handwritten on a piece of cardboard that was probably cut from a box. It seems like I'm complaining about all of those details. I understand that the restaurant is new and the people running it probably didn't have too much money. However, even very simple things can be designed to be inviting rather than make the space awkward. For example, the menus could have had a few hand-drawn items on them and included a mixture of colors rather than just a black Sharpie marker.

The menu wasn't extensive, but definitely interesting. It had combinations of ingredients you don't see too often. Because the dishes were tapas-style, we ordered a bunch of things: cabbage salad with Gorgonzola, braised beef with roasted peppers, ribs with two types of marinades, rice cakes, and garbanzo bean salad.

The cabbage salad reminded me a lot of cole slaw in the way it looked, but the dressing was really unique. It had some underlying flavor that I couldn't quite place. It was probably my favorite thing for the night!

The three beef dishes were pretty good. The menu made them sounds different from other beef dishes you might order somewhere else, but I didn't notice anything too special. We got ribs cooked in two different sauces, but I don't remember what the flavors were :( Sorry :( Well, that suggests that they weren't that memorable... I do remember that one of them had acidic undertones, which I love. The rice cakes were actually great. It was the first time I've had rice cakes. They're basically ball of rice that are flattened and fried to make them crispy. The contrast of the crispy coating and the soft rice inside was really good.

Finally, the garbanzo bean salad was a little heavier than expected, but definitely flavorful.

Overall, and despite all my complaining at the beginning, I did like the place a lot. The decor needs a little more work, but it has good character. I expected a lot more creativity of the dishes based on the menu descriptions, but they turned out to be pretty similar to other places. On the bright side, everything tasted well. However, the absolute best thing about this place was the prices! Most plates were under $5, and they could easily sell for twice as much elsewhere. That by itself would make me a fan :)

Korean BBQ

We often think of BBQ as a typical American food. Each region has its own preferred species and cut of meat, its sauce, and even its side dishes. However, with the popularization of Korean culture in the US, we can now taste Korean desserts, Korean tacos, and even Korean BBQ. Thankfully, it's as easy to get Korean BBQ in Atlanta as it is to get hamburgers. Btw, can someone try to make Korean hamburgers? Wouldn't that be great? ;)

On a night when I was craving Korean BBQ, I turned to Cashew as my resident expert in Asian food to help me navigate the places on Buford Highway. Of course, she had many suggestions. After driving past a few places while trying to decide where to go, we finally stopped at Cho Dang Tofu House. An order of short ribs came with several side dishes that included kimchi, steamed veggies, sausage, bok choy, and others. The meat was as juicy and as perfect as I needed it to be. It's amazing how they can make beef taste so tender and full of flavor. Korean shortribs are one of the few things that I can eat that make me lick the bones to get every one last bit of flavor. Compared to the meat, the sides weren't that impressive. The sausage even tasted like frozen sausage that had been quickly warmed in a skillet. But hey, the sides were not while we were at the restaurant.

To complete the meal, Cashew also ordered a bipimbap dish for us. It was full of flavor and variety of textures ranging from soft rice to crunchy carrots. Together with the ribs, it made for a great Korean meal!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sun in My Belly: Dinner Edition

Sun in My Belly is one of the hidden gems in Decatur. It's known for its brunch service, and I can attest to how good it is. Beginning in January, they started offering dinner as well. Cashew and I had a deal that allowed us to share an appetizer, two salads, two entrees and two desserts, so we finally made it there. Unfortunately, the live carnations at each table were gone since my last visit. There was no aroma of freshly baked goodies either. But despite the loss of some of the charm, the food was as good as expected.

The hardest decision of the night was probably deciding on an appetizer because all of the small plates looked so good. We finally went for the braised pork belly. The reason? It was something we couldn't easily make at home. I am still amazed at how some people can transform something as unappealing as fat into a delicious dish that makes you forget what you're eating. The balsamic drizzle cut the fat perfectly, making the pork belly taste light. The parsnip puree on the side was infused with rosemary, which also contributed to the overall light sensation of the dish.

For salads, Cashew chose the Hermes salad (arugula, pears, walnuts, blue cheese, champagne vinaigrette) and I had the Geisha salad (baby spinach, blueberries, almonds, ginger vinaigrette). I loved the fact that both dressings came on the side without us having to ask about it. All the other ingredients were good quality, so they made for good salads.

Our entrees were the wild mushroom ravioli for Cashew and shrimp tagliatelle (a special that day) for me. The ravioli were both stuffed with mushrooms, and had extra mushrooms on top. They came in a buttery cream sauce and a side of broccoli. However, the mushroom flavor was pretty subtle and even hard to notice, unlike the mushroom tagliatelle I had at Sotto Sotto. I liked the mushroom pasta at Sotto Sotto more... In addition to the shrimp, my tagliatelle here were served in a sage butter sauce. Thankfully, the sage taste was very pronounced, and I loved the dish. The shrimp was cooked just the right amount and wasn't rubbery at all. Also, despite the heavy sauces for both pasta dishes, they tasted light. Still, both Cashew and I packed half the dishes to take home. We had dessert to eat, after all!

The desserts we chose were the rice pudding and the creme brulee. Unfortunately, I don't remember the specific flavors that they were. I think the rice pudding was infused with star anise or another Asian flavor. The creme brulee definitely had blackberries, but I think the custard was supposed to be flavored too. I'm being very helpful, aren't I? In any case, I can assure you that both desserts were absolutely delicious and we finished them in no time! Maybe that's why the flavors didn't have time to imprint on my head...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

IP Restaurant Week Part 2: Wisteria

During Inman Park restaurant week, I took my parents to Wisteria to show them what Southern food is really like. When done right, like at JCT Kitchen, it can be as sophisticated as any other cuisine. And Wisteria definitely does it right in terms of food. I can't say the same about the service we got, but more about this later.

The choice of appetizers was really good, but I couldn't wait to try the black eyed peas hummus. It just sounded so interesting! That's what I call innovative thinking: take a well-known item, but make it with an unexpected ingredient. Too bad the result wasn't as amazing as the idea, but kudos for the effort. The texture of the hummus was too coarse, and it seemed to lack flavor. Plus, the sweet potato chips it came with were too soggy and oily. They tasted like burned oil rather than potatoes. Still, I believe that this dish has great potential if executed properly. My parents' appetizers, the mixed greens salad, were perfect, though. The dressing wasn't overwhelming, the goat cheese was fresh and creamy, and they came with toasted bread.

I think I've mentioned several times that I don't like grits, but I somehow ended up ordering the shrimp and grits for my entree. Hey, what could be more Southern than that! To be honest, I was pretty nervous about the dish. However, just like at JCT kitchen, the grits actually tasted really good! They didn't have the gritty texture I usually hate about them. That bad texture is still there even if the grits are mixed with cheese. But the grits at Wisteria, and the ones at JCT kitchen, were smooth and sweet. I have to say, I'm a convert. I'm willing to try more grits now :) Oh, by the way, the shrimp and veggies on the dish were also great. The shrimp was tender and cooked for just the right amount of time.

My mother had the fried chicken for dinner. She liked the chicken, but wasn't a fan of the cornbread. According to her, the cornbread was too sweet. My father liked his almond-crusted trout. He said that it was very well seasoned too.

One of the best things about the dinner was the dessert. At other places, you have to choose just one item. But at Wisteria, we got a mini sampling platter of THREE different things. And they weren't itsy bitsy desserts either. Each one of them could almost be a full course on its own. Anyway, the platter included a carrot cake, a brownie with spicy ice cream, and a sweet potato cheesecake. I absolutely loved the sweet potato cheesecake and the brownie. I love spicy food, but the ice cream was a little too hot for a dessert. The carrot cake was just ok. It kind of reminded me of grocery store carrot cake, which is not a good thing. Thankfully, I had two other things to eat :)

I was overall satisfied with the food, but the service really disappointed me. I understand that the restaurant was busy, but that's no excuse to ignore our table. Our server went to the table next to ours several times, but didn't stop by at all. All of our water glasses went completely empty and stood that way for a while before we could ask anyone for a refill. Getting the bill also took a while. On the bright side, our server asked us is we wanted a second basket of the complimentary bread before we were served dinner. But if I want good Southern food again, I'll probably go to JCT Kitchen or Murphy's rather than Wisteria.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

IP Restaurant Week Part 1: Sotto Sotto

Inman Park is one of my favorite areas, and the Restaurant Week they had recently gave me a perfect excuse to eat twice there in the course of 3 days. The first dinner was at Sotto Sotto, a restaurant I had been hoping to try for a long time.

The regular menu at Sotto Sotto offers an impressive options of authentic Italian dishes, and the Restaurant Week menu had a large number of these options. The restaurant had both a $25 menu and a $35 menu. It was hard enough to pick something from the $25 list, so I barely even glanced at the additional offerings. The fact that I'm not eating meat for Lent made my decision slightly harder, but I was happy with my final choice of Bietole e Ravanello, Tagliatelle ai Funghi, and Zuppa al Cioccolato.

The appetizer I selected, Bietole a Ravanello, was a refreshing salad of beets, radish and arugula. The slight citrus-y hints from the lemon balanced the processed (pickled) flavor from the beets well, and the hazelnuts added a nice crunch to the salad. Two of my friends ordered the Caesar salad and enjoyed it. Cashew had the Fave e Pecorino. It was delicious alright, but it looked really sad on her plate: a few fava beans and some cubes of cheese.

I was very satisfied with my main course as well, the mushroom tagliatelle. Let me tell you, there's a HUGE difference between fresh pasta and the dried pasta that we all buy in stores. The fresh past has a different texture and better absorbs the flavors of the sauce it's served with. In this case, every single bite had an earthy, mushroom taste even if there were no mushroom pieces in it. The sauce was cream-based, but the pasta wasn't drenched in it, so it was easy to eat. However, the portion was too large, but that turned out well for Cashew who was still hungry after her Tortelli di Michelangelo. Snooki's Tortelloni ai Carcio (tortelloni with artichokes and mascarpone) was also delicious. I wish I could have tasted the Strozzapreti alla Salsiccia and the sweet sausage ragu that it came with, but I was assured that it was great.

Finally, we all had the chocolate soup. I give the chef major props for creativity here, but I wish the soup was different in several different ways. First, it tasted like thick hot cocoa. I wish it looked more like melted chocolate than a drink. And second, the savory croutons were out of place and distracted from the sweetness of the dessert. A crouton made of some sweet bread would have been a better option. One ingredient that was perfect in the soup were the hazelnuts. You can't go wrong with chocolate and hazelnuts :)

Still, I was very happy with the meal overall, and I am starting to enjoy Italian cooking more and more.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tip: Inman Park Restaurant Week

In case you don't know already, Inman Park Restaurant week is coming up soon! Restaurants in one of the best food neighborhoods in Atlanta will be offering special tasting menus for $15, $25 or $35 for the week of March 26 - April 1. I'm planning on going, and so should you!

More info can be found here: http://www.inmanparkrestaurantweek.com/

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sunday Supper

Over the last 5 weeks the lab that I work in had a visiting student from Denmark. One night, Cashew, my roommate Snooks and I decided to take Mette to a traditional Southern restaurant to introduce her to the food here. While trying to find a place that's open on Sunday, we accidentally stumbled upon the Sunday Supper at JCT Kitchen. The name, by the way, stands for "Junction;" we did ask our server about it... Every Sunday, the restaurant offers a special menu in a family-style dinner setting. What makes it even more special is that the majority of items offered on Sunday are not available on the regular menu.

No Southern dinner will be complete without buttermilk biscuits. The ones at JCT Kitchen were served with butter and apple sauce. The biscuits were moist and flaky without being greasy. I really liked them. This was followed by another Southern favorite - deviled eggs. We each had one half egg, but I wish we were given a lot more than that. The filling was surprisingly light considering that it contains egg yolk and mayo. The eggs this time weren't topped with prosciutto, but that made me like them even better. I'm not eating meat for Lent, so I would have had to remove the prosciutto anyway. Finally, we were served an amazing salad made with field greens, beets, carrots, radishes, and even roasted new potatoes! The overabundance of ingredients made it great for every taste. I personally enjoyed everything that was in it, and liked the contrast in texture between, say, the crispy beets and soft potatoes.

Yes, we got all of this food before the main course! However, we were all excited about the only item that we could pick for ourselves for the night. My selection was the fish (cod) and grits. Cashew got the fried chicken that JCT Kitchen is known for, Snooks wanted to try the sausage and seafood gumbo, and Mette ordered the cider-braised pot roast. I really liked the spice rub on my fish, and I didn't even mind it being a little too salty for my taste. I even ate all of the grits! If you remember from previous posts, I'm not a grits fan... But the ones at JCT Kitchen were so different that I completely forgot what I was eating until the very end. They were made from very finely ground corn and were more liquidy than other grits I've had. I couldn't try the other dishes because of the meat components, but they looked great for all that's worth... Plus, my friends seemed to enjoy them.

The main course came with three sides that we could also choose. We selected the kale with citrus, the mashed potatoes, and the sweet potato puree with candied pecans. Yes, that's too types of potatoes but we wanted to try both of them. The sweet potato puree was out of this world! It was incredibly delicious. It tasted as decadent as dessert. I could have eaten the whole bowl just by myself. I bet they had a ton of butter to make them taste that good, but who cares :P The mashed potatoes and kale weren't bad either. The mashed potatoes were perfectly light and fluffy, and the kale wasn't bitter. Unfortunately, their taste paled in comparison to the sweet potatoes.

Of course, there was dessert at the end of the meal. This time it was a brownie topped with mascarpone cream. I don't know if I was too full by this point, but I didn't like the brownie too much. It seemed a little stale, and the crust was too hard to cut through. The cream was delicious, but couldn't quite rescue the shortcomings of the brownie.

And you know what was the BEST part of this FEAST? It was only $24 per person! It's an incredible deal for the amount and amazing quality of the food we got, and I'm sure I'll be taking advantage of these Sunday Suppers in the future.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Seafood Feast

Once in a while Restaurant.com will have a 90% off sale, and whenever I see this, I make sure I get a certificate for Fontaine's Oyster House. I'm always up for trying new foods, but this is one place where Cashew and I order the same thing over and over again: the steamed seafood platter. And because we need to order at least $45-worth of food to be able to use the certificate, we just end up getting a dozen of raw oysters in addition to the one on the platter. Mmmm, oysters! Can't get too many of them!

The platter comes with all the amazing goodies that the seas have to offer: mussels, clams, shrimp, crab legs, oysters. The only way to make it even more perfect would be to add calamari :P (Did you take the hint, Fontaine's?). Well, and to get the oysters raw rather than steamed.... But you can do that if you're nice to your servers and politely ask them to do it for you. Even though most of them say that they'll have to check whether it can be done, we've had 100% success rate, and I have yet to try steamed oysters. No complaints from me, though. I love them raw, with just a little bit of lemon squeezed on top of them. On the bright side, everything else on the platter is perfect as it is. The crab legs are fresh, not cooked in butter, and only with their natural saltiness. If you do want to ruin their taste, there's a container of melted butter to dunk them into. The shrimp are cooked in an herb broth that doesn't overpower them. I'm not quite sure what's in the broth, but I do suck out all the flavors from the shell before pealing it away... Finally, there's a good number of clams and mussels cooked in a simple broth to complete the seafood tasting trip.

The last time Cashew and I went to Fontaine's, we were feeling extra adventurous and ordered the chicken jambalaya instead of more raw oysters. Oooo, aren't we just crazy ;) It turned out that Cashew had meant to try the gumbo, but had the two mixed in her head. Well, I wasn't too upset about the mistake because the jambalaya was amazing! It wasn't dry like the jambalaya in New Orleans. Instead, it had a good amount of liquid in it that made eating it easier. Plus, all the flavors and spiciness were spot on. I think we have a new item to add to our "usual" order!

OK, now I need to do a brief aside because I just realized that I didn't post anything about my New Orleans trip last December. How could I forget to do that?!?!? Anyway, it was a few days of amazing food! I did try all the New Orleans staples: jambalaya, gumbo, muffaletta, etouffee, rice and red beans, shrimp po-boy, raw oysters, beignets, and hurricane and green alligator cocktails! My favorite was the gumbo, with the crawfish etouffee a close second... The beignets lived up to my expectations as well. I was pretty disappointed in the jambalaya because it was too dry, as if it had been overcooked. But I'm glad that I had the jambalaya at Fontaine's to see that it can taste great as well.