Monday, March 17, 2014

Starting 2014 in Silicon Valley

When Anna came to visit during Winter Break, I wanted to share with her a laundry list of culinary hot spots that I had encountered during my previous three months in the Silicon Valley. But I also hoped to use the New Year as an opportunity to break new ground in my own repertoire of dining experiences. Fortunately, we were able to do a bit of both through a combination of good planning and well-timed spontaneity that produced a very successful dining tour of the South Bay area. For this post, we'll cover our dining experiences geographically instead of chronologically.

San Francisco

Tacolicious: kale salad and roasted butternut squash tacos 

After Anna arrived on New Year's Eve, we decided to begin our culinary expedition in the beautiful City by the Bay. Our first stop was Tacolicious, one of the many Mexican restaurants dotting Valencia and Mission streets that I had enjoyed since moving to the Bay Area. The energy inside the restaurant was palpable on NYE, generated by a stellar soundtrack (Andrew Bird, The Strokes, etc.) and young clientele. Through this experience, Anna discovered that she did not like the taste of kale unless it was juiced.


Tong Dumpling & Ten Ren Tea
Tong Dumpling and Ten Ren Tea

The next day, it was my turn to try something new. Writing this blog post two months late, though, it's hard to believe I had never previously been to the Cupertino Village shopping center which features Tong Dumpling, Ten Ren Tea, and Sheng Kee Bakery. These places have all become such staples of my weekly dining routine that I now divide my time in the Bay Area into two eras: Before Cupertino Village and After Cupertino Village.

Sheng Kee Bakery
Sheng Kee Bakery

Tong Dumpling was the first establishment we visited, and it was a fantastic, no-frills operation specializing in delicious steamed and pan-fried dumplings with vegetarian options. We then moved on to bubble tea at Ten Ren, which is perhaps the best of the three or four bubble tea shops in Cupertino Village. Finally, we picked up Chinese pastries at Sheng Kee so we could have them for breakfast the next day.

I've completed this pilgrimage many times since Anna first showed me around, but unfortunately the experience may prove to be fleeting — the City of Cupertino recently revived a plan to construct yet another Silicon Valley shopping center-cum-parking garage in the lot currently occupied by Cupertino Village. The shopping center will no doubt cater to the thousands of Apple employees soon to be working across the street at the new Spaceship HQ, but it won't satisfy those of us craving authentic Chinese dumplings or pastries.

Mountain View

Ramen House Ryowa
Ramen House Ryowa

Our culinary quest took us to Mountain View, where we lunched at the Ramen House Ryowa. Anna and I had previously dined at Ramen Shalala in Mountain View, but we both wanted to try something new and gain a frame of reference for judging the popular Japanese dish. Ryowa proved to be a worthy competitor of Shalala, with more vegetables and a better-cooked egg gracing their ramen bowl. Unlike Shalala, Ryowa broadcasted Japanese TV shows as well.

Vaso Azzurro & Tied House
Tied House Brewery + Vaso Azzurro

We also explored a few other classic Mountain View establishments while we were in the area. First, we stopped by the Tied House Brewery for a happy hour at what's generally recognized as the oldest microbrewery in Silicon Valley. Anna and I were not overly impressed with our brews — a hefeweizen and sadly watered-down porter — but my subsequent trips to the bar have left a better taste in my mouth. Afterward, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant called Vaso Azzurro. From the outside, it appeared to be just another of the fancy, overpriced restaurants that are far too common on Castro Street. But inside we were lavished with attention from none other than the owner herself, a sweet old lady who expressed a genuine gratitude for our patronage that is rare at such upscale restaurants.

Olympus Caffe & Bakery
Olympus Cafe + Bakery

After dinner, we rounded off our Mountain View dining experience with dessert at Olympus Cafe + Bakery. Olympus has a little bit of everything — from wine to coffee to breakfast food — but we focused on the pastry options. Anna and I enjoyed the macaroons and cannoli, but the real show-stopper was an artfully designed dish with chocolate creme inside of a colorful chocolate shell.

San Jose

Pasta Pomodoro
Pasta Pomodoro

On one of the nights, we made our way further south in the Valley to Santana Row, San Jose's glamorous mixed-use development. The area's layout reminded Anna and me of the upscale town centers dotting Northern Virginia, so perhaps it is appropriate we ended up at a restaurant (Pasta Pomodoro) with a name that is very similar to one of our favorite eateries in Fairfax. The service was a bit spotty — it seemed like they had forgotten to schedule enough waiters — but the food was at least as good as what we had at Vaso Azzurro. My spicy penne was the perfect complement to Anna's buttery sweet butternut squash ravioli, and the half-off Bollini Pinot Grigio would have been a worthy pairing even at full price.

Cocola Bakery
Cocola Bakery

For dessert, we stopped at Cocola Bakery and had our second round of macaroons on the trip. The dessert in question wasn't any tastier that what we had at Olympus, but it was certainly pricier and therefore probably not worth a return trip.


Chevy's Saratoga

An unexpected stop (at least for me) on our dining tour was Chevy's, a Mexican chain restaurant located around the Sunnyvale/Saratoga border. I was initially confused when Anna directed me to the restaurant since I knew she doesn't like Mexican food. But then I realized there was something more to the experience — Anna had signed us up for Paint Nite, a gathering where an instructor walks through how to paint a masterful (or, in my case, passable) work of art. Having the event at a restaurant with a bar was a nice touch for novice artists such as myself who needed a few drinks to calm the nerves associated with painting in front of a large group.

Hobee's Sunnyvale

Finally, we patronized a few establishments in my home city of Sunnyvale for the remaining meals on our trip. We enjoyed brunch at Hobee's, a local chain known for essentially doubling the size of every entree with a heaping side of buttery blueberry coffeecake.

Dish N Dash
Dish Dash
We also visited Dishdash, the fine-dining cousin of the fast-food Middle Eastern establishment Dish N Dash. At Dishdash, we ordered a falafel sandwich and a sampler platter with hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, and other Middle Eastern favorites. Although it was a nice meal, the more efficient and affordable Dish N Dash is where I'll be going to lunch when I crave Middle Eastern food.

Chocolatier Desiree
Chocolatier Desiree

On our way back to the car after Dishdash, we had time for one more spontaneous and surprising food experience. Tucked into a small alley between a couple of restaurants, Chocolatier Desiree hardly cries out for attention. Instead, it seems to survive by converting people who stumble upon the store into repeat customers who are hooked on its wide array of high-quality chocolates. It was a new and delicious spot for both Anna and I, and it proved that there are still plenty of hidden gems that will keep us from being bored at mealtime in the Bay Area.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Seafood by the Sea

Anna and I have been strictly vegetarian for three years, but at various points we've discussed the possibility of eating seafood again. Both of us grew up loving seafood (Anna is a fan of mollusks, while I tend to prefer crustaceans), but since becoming vegetarian we've been wary of the ocean's bounty for health and environmental reasons.

A W Shucks Cocktail & Oyster Bar
A W Shucks Cocktail + Oyster Bar: clam chowder, bloody mary, vegetarian garden burger

But when we visited the Monterey Peninsula during Anna's Winter Break trip to California, we decided to take the plunge. Much of the seafood served in Monterey-area restaurants is locally sourced from some of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, alleviating our environmental worries. And we decided that occasionally eating seafood (even radioactive seafood) would not be a major drain on our health. So we dipped our toes into aquatic cuisine with a bowl of New England-style clam chowder at AW Shucks Cocktail and Oyster Bar in Carmel. The creamy soup was a nice antidote for the fiery Bloody Mary I enjoyed on the side, although the meal's best portion was actually the veggie burger we split as our other entree.

Crystal Fish
Crystal Fish: Sweet Potato Roll and Spider Roll with Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab with Cucumber and Avocado

After taking the 17-Mile Drive from Carmel to Monterey, Anna and I visited a very popular sushi restaurant called Crystal Fish for dinner. Although the sourcing of sushi is often very suspect, we did manage to find a roll made with softshell crab, which is generally sustainable. And, of course, we couldn't pass down an opportunity to enjoy another variety of our favorite sushi dish — the sweet potato roll. Both rolls were tasty, but we agreed the sweet potato rolls from our old Charlottesville haunt Tokyo Rose were undoubtedly better.

Jabberwock Inn
Jabberwock Inn

When planning our visit to Monterey, I decided it would also be fun to venture off the beaten path for food experiences. So when I found a B&B in the heart of Monterey called the Jabberwock Inn that offered bay view and complimentary hors d'oeuvres and wine — in addition to breakfast, of course — I knew that we had to stay there.

Jabberwock V
Jabberwock Inn breakfast

Not only did the Jabberwock's "Alice in Wonderland" theme emanate a wonderfully quaint charm, but the food served there was among the best we experienced during our whole trip. It began with sweet bread and brie in the evening when we arrived and continued with after-dinner cookies and a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, fresh juice (which was almost creamy enough to be a milkshake), and a sumptuous serving of bread pudding. Altogether, it was more than enough calories to prepare us for our subsequent kayaking excursion in the Monterey Bay.

Jabberwock Inn III
Jabberwock Inn breakfast

Before returning inland to Sunnyvale, we decided to enjoy one final seafood experience in Monterey. So we paid a visit to Sandbar & Grill, which is perched on a pier under which we had kayaked only an hour earlier.

Sandbar & Grill Crab
Sandbar & Grill: Eggs Benedict and crab cakes

Sandbar & Grill Salmon
Sandbar & Grill

Sandbar turned out to be exactly what we wanted from a rare seafood meal. The wild-caught salmon was predictably good, with soft and flaky flesh and a nice variety of seasonings, but the Eggs Benedict with Dungeness crab cakes was the show-stopper. The slightly chewy crab meat was a nice complement for the runny eggs and Hollandaise sauce that were heaped generously upon the crispy English muffins. Although the meal's richness reminded us why it's probably best that we not eat seafood all of the time, it also served as an example of the brilliant culinary experiences that can be had when one ventures just outside the bounds of strict vegetarianism.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

NorCal Noshing

With Anna visiting my new home (and her soon-to-be home) for the long weekend, we felt compelled to explore some of the Bay Area's culinary and scenic attractions that we missed during our stay here in January:

Falafel Stop
Falafel Stop

On a crystal clear Saturday, we ventured north to the Point Bonita Lighthouse and Marin Headlands. These two locations provide some of the best views of The City, which allowed Anna to reprise one of her early food photography triumphs from our trip to Brooklyn. The food itself in the above photo was courtesy of Falafel Stop, a small roadside restaurant in my Sunnyvale neighborhood that sells slightly smokey falafel and delicious eggplant nugget pitas for a mere $5.50 a piece.

Shalala & Tea Era
Ramen Shalala and Tea Era in Downtown Mountain View

After stopping to hike San Francisco's Twin Peaks at sunset, we headed south to return to Sunnyvale. Along the way, we paid a visit to Mountain View's charming downtown and ate at Ramen Shalala. The restaurant has a relatively small menu limited to a few types of gourmet ramen (apparently not an oxymoron!) and a handful of related appetizers. We enjoyed our bowls of Shoyu (soy sauce) vegetarian ramen and an appetizer of vegetable croquettes, which were very similar to hash browns.

Ca' Momi Enoteca
Ca'Momi: Funghi pizza with sautéed Wine Forest mushrooms

Our next adventure took us even further north to the heart of wine country: Sonoma and Napa Valley. Because it's never a good idea to go wine-tasting on an empty stomach, we first stopped in downtown Napa for a bit of lunch. Our destination, Ca' Momi, was an anomaly — an upscale restaurant housed within a food court that used a combination of local, organic, and Italian-sourced ingredients. When I noticed an IKEA logo on the bottom of my water glass, however, I should have known the restaurant might have been making a pretense of its quality. Although the pizza tasted fine, it was barely enough to feed two people. Moreover, the sparkling water we were casually offered at the meal's beginning somehow ended up on our bill.

Kara's Cupcakes
Kara's Cupcakes: Fleur de Sel and Peanut Butter Milk Chocolate Ganache

Fortunately, we found Kara's Cupcakes right across from Ca' Momi in the Oxbow Foodcourt. As you might guess, Anna got the Fleur de Sel (dark chocolate with sea salt) and I got the Peanut Butter Milk Chocolate Ganache.

Clos du Val
Clos du Val: 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon

While burning off the cupcakes with a bike ride along the Stags Leap trail, we stopped at one of Napa's most beautiful wineries: Clos du Val. The building's exterior is covered in ivy, and there are manicured gardens and fountains throughout the grounds. The real selling point, however, was the opportunity to try a sample from an $80 bottle of wine during our tasting (verdict: not worth the price).

Domaine Carneros
Domaine Carneros: 2010 Brut Rose, 2011 Estate Pinot Noir, and Sparkling Cheese Plate

On our return trip south, we made our final stop at Domaine Carneros, which is known for its elegant chateau on a hill that overlooks hundreds of rows of grape vines. We arrived in the late afternoon and were craving a snack after our 14-mile bike ride, so we paired a Sparkling Cheese Plate with glasses of 2010 Brut Rose and 2011 Estate Pinot Noir. The Rose was smooth and the slightest bit sweet, while the Pinot Noir was rich with berry notes. As for the cheeses: The Mt Tam Brie and Carmody were succulent as expected, but the show-stopper was the Midnight Moon Chevre. It was pleasantly dry and paired nicely with the accompanying apricots, providing a luxurious finish to a weekend of fine dining.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

San Francisco Days 3 - 8

In honor of my recent relocation to the SF Bay Area and Anna's impending return (stay tuned for more...), here is a recap of the final six days of our vacation to San Francisco earlier this year:

Day 3: Haight, Castro and Mission featuring Little Star Pizza, Hot Cookies, The Revolution Cafe, and Zaytoon Mediterranean Wrap

We spent most of Day 3 exploring San Francisco's central neighborhoods: Haight, the Castro, and the Mission. Along the way, we found some great eats. For lunch, we stopped at Haight's legendary Little Star Pizza and had a delicious Mediterranean pie with roasted garlic, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. Later, we paid a visit to Hot Cookie in Castro (rated R for those of you who haven't been) and got two of the tamer menu items. Finally, we ended the day with a Mediterranean meal at Mission's Zaytoon (if I recall from Arabic 3010, that this means "oil"), which was only a block or two from our apartment.

Day 4: Dinner at Little Italy

Day 4's highlight was dinner at Little Italy, where mushrooms featured heavily in our meal. Although the dishes themselves weren't that attractive, the street outside was quite picturesque and exhibited a quaint, European feel.

Day 5: Alcatraz Landing Cafe and pho dinner 

On Day 5, Anna and I made the obligatory trip to Alcatraz. This meant sacrificing on our meals — there is a dearth of good vegetarian restaurants around the port area where the Alcatraz Tours launch. At lunch, we had to settle for a veggie burger and sweet potato fries from the tour company's in-house restaurant. Fortunately, we did find some decent pho for dinner upon our return. All in all, the day's meals were better than the prison food we saw at Alcatraz, but nothing to write home about.

Day 6: Dinner at an Italian restaurant 

Day 6, however, was a delight from start to finish. You can see photos below from our breakfast at the neighborhood bakery, King's Bakery Cafe, which was an interesting fusion of Asian and Hispanic breakfast sweets. Dinner was at another Italian restaurant, where we enjoyed a crispy eggplant appetizer and some flatbread pizza.

Day 6: King's Bakery Cafe

On Day 7, we traveled to a true destination eatery: Chez Panisse. Alice Waters' Berkeley establishment was named the Best Restaurant in America in 2001, and it is the birthplace of the local food movement. The entire restaurant experience is designed so that diners will appreciate the ingredients in their food — menus spell out the components of each dish, and an open kitchen offers a window into the labor behind the meal.

Day 7: Chez Panisse

If Day 7 was the trip's culinary climax, Day 8 was a hard landing. After a stressful experience traveling to the airport for our flight home, we settled for just about the only vegetarian item on the airport Applebee's menu: a veggie burger. We capped it off with dessert because even Applebee's can't mess up chocolate cake.

Day 8: Airport dining

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

San Francisco Day 2: Ghirardelli Square + Chinatown

When Anna and I set out for day two of our San Francisco adventure, we had our hearts set on chocolate: Ghirardelli Square, to be exact. But we stumbled across something even better when we stopped at vegan chain restaurant Loving Hut for lunch.

Loving Hut sandwich
Loving Hut: sandwich with soy protein, pesto sauce, vegan mayo, tomato and lettuce.

Loving Hut is that rare breed of eatery that's both fast and healthy. Not surprisingly, it has succeeded in the health-food Mecca known as the Bay Area — there are three establishments in San Francisco, one in San Jose, and another in Palo Alto. I'm also happy to say there's one in Northern Virginia, where I'll be moving in June.

Loving Hut
Loving Hut: tofu, eggplant and fried rice.

The first dish you saw, a soy protein sandwich with vegan mayo, was one of the best meals we had in San Francisco. The texture of the soy protein was chewy but not tough, and the vegan mayo was zesty but not heavy like real mayo. The tofu with eggplant was nice too, although it didn't stand out from similar dishes we've had at other Asian restaurants.

Ghirardelli chocolate croissant
Ghirardelli: chocolate pastry.

In the afternoon, we got around to indulging ourselves with chocolate at San Francisco's original Ghirardelli store. Ordering a chocolate croissant got us a free coffee, which was a no-brainer on a cold, January day along the Bay.

Lucky Creation 2
Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant: imitation sweet and sour pork.

In the evening, we ventured into Chinatown to visit one of Yelp's highest-rated vegetarian restaurants: Lucky Creation. As it turns out, we were underwhelmed. The imitation sweet and sour pork was a bit too saucy, and the stuffed eggplant was dry and lacking in taste. Although it was a quaint and charming spot, the quality of the food was far below average.

Lucky Creation 1
Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant: stuff egg plant, bell pepper, bean cake with black bean sauce.

Seeking to end the evening on a high note, we combed through the surrounding blocks for an authentic Chinese bakery similar to what we found in Queens, NY last May. We were not disappointed: AA Bakery & Cafe featured an array of the light, flavorful dessert cakes we were seeking. Although San Francisco is a very different city than New York, the cakes offered at least one point of similarity between our two most recent vacation spots.

AA Bakery & Cafe
AA Bakery & Cafe: chocolate cake, expresso cake, and carrot cake.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

San Francisco Day 1: Mission + Financial District

When Anna and I touched down in Oakland last week, the first thing on our mind was food. So after navigating our way from the airport to San Francisco's Mission District, where we were staying for our vacation, we quickly surveyed the available eateries.

Chava's Restaurant - Burrito
Chava's Restaurant: vegetarian burrito.

Mission is an interesting area, because it is rapidly gentrifying yet also very much characterized by its Hispanic, working-class roots. That meant we had an array of Mexican and South American restaurants from which to choose as we sought a nearby meal.

After a near miss at La Taqueria — which suspiciously closed its doors just as we were about to walk in — we ended up at Chava's Restaurant. The food was the standard fare served at most of the neighborhood's eateries: tacos, burritos and quesadillas. We opted for the latter two, both vegetarian.

Chava's Restaurant - Quesadilla
Chava's Restaurant: quesadilla with rice and beans.

The burrito was a winner and helped explain why Chipotle wasn't to be found in Mission despite having a presence in almost every other district we visited. Our burrito was at least as good as any you could get at Chipotle, but also two or three dollars cheaper (especially when factoring in the complimentary tortilla chips). Chipotle simply couldn't compete in a neighborhood with this type of good, inexpensive food.

Our quesadilla, on the other hand, was slightly underwhelming. Nonetheless, it reminded us that whenever possible one should order a corn rather than wheat tortilla.

Peet's Coffee Pastry
Peet's Coffee & Tea: bear claw.

After wandering around downtown for a while and seeing a few noteworthy sites, we were ready for a snack. Since we were going to half-price night at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, we decided to stop at a Peet's Coffee & Tea located about a block away.

Peet's Coffee & Tea was an unexpected part of our trip to San Francisco. Previously, I'd bought Peet's coffee at the grocery store because of its reputation as one of the best ground coffees around. What I didn't know was that in San Francisco, Peet's has about as many stand-alone locations as Starbucks and has a pastry selection that rivals Panera's. Peet's prevalence was a pleasant surprise, and it's one of the things Anna and I will miss back East.

Super Duper Burger
Super Duper Burgers: vegetarian burger.

Once we'd browsed modern art for a few hours, it was time for dinner. Unfortunately, there weren't very many inexpensive, authentic ethnic restaurants nearby since we were in the Financial District. We stumbled across something just as good, however, in Super Duper Burgers. The restaurant is a Bay Area-native and features the same style of artisanal burgers found in establishments such as The Counter and Citizen Burger Bar (the latter local to Charlottesville, Va.). We were both happy with Super Duper's vegetarian burger, and it reminded us that art isn't only found on walls or pedestals. It can be on your plate, as well.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Home Sweet Home

Anna and I have spent the past few weekends at her apartment. We're so busy with our jobs during the week that the weekend is the only time we have to catch up on school work that needs to get done.

Candle: Slatkin Leaves
Leaves candle from Slatkin and Co.

To make our working weekends more enjoyable, we've tried to create as relaxed an environment as possible. One thing we've done is burn candles, which infuse the apartment with a pleasant, seasonal feel.

Spinach Noodles
Spinach noodles with five-spice tofu and enoki mushrooms.

When the smell of candles isn't filling the apartment, we can enjoy the scent of freshly cooked food. One of our favorite dishes is a noodle-tofu combo, which we've augmented with different sides including the enoki mushrooms shown above.

Pinot Grigio
Pinot grigio.

And what better way to unwind than with some wine? We've been pairing our meals with pinot grigio, which offers a delightful fruity accent to the flavors of noodles and tofu.

Noodles and falafel I
Spinach noodles and soba dashed with sesame seeds.

We've also tried to mix things up with some fusion meals. One example is the noodles and falafel combo we made last weekend.

Noodles and falafel II
Falafel and edamame to go with the noodles.

This turned out to be quite a success — the flavors and textures blended quite nicely, and provided the perfect dinner to cap a long day of work at home.


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