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Thursday, September 27, 2007

I Left My Stomach in San Francisco

I had a whole list of eats in mind when I arrived in San Francisco, pondering that eternal question of whether to go for the excitement of possibly discovering a new gem or go to an old standard with the comfort of knowing I'll have a good meal.

Here I share the gems, since I've already reviewed the old favorites (Shabu-sen, etc).

I was fortunate enough to have a very nice dinner at Fringale, a tiny restaurant serving "Basque-inspired" cuisine. Having a large group gave us the advantage of trying many things on the menu.

We shared appetizers, including beef carpaccio with a Szechuan pepper mayonnaise and crispy horseradish (pictured), which looked beautiful but lacked punch in its flavor as I couldn't taste the Szechuan pepper or the horseradish; spicy monterey calamari "a la plancha" with jalapeños and chorizo, which was the clear favorite of mine and the group, with its perfectly-cooked squid that was soft and chewy enhanced with the kick of both the pepper and chorizo (what's not to like?); and butter lettuce with sweet anchovies served with mustard vinaigrette, which was nothing special.

The roast rack of lamb with pesto and Emmental potato gratin I ordered was the most expensive item on the menu at $25, and at least the meat was worth it. The lamb was cooked medium-rare as requested and melted in my mouth like buttah (red wine helped). The pesto seemed almost superfluous given the freshness of the meat that could hold its own flavor. I'm a huge fan of both Emmental (Swiss cheese) and potato gratin, and thought the combination of the two would be a no-brainer. The melted cheese on top, however, was hard by the time the dish made it to the table and the gratin was a bit too mild.

The steak was decent but not anything spectacular. Desserts were good but we were too full to enjoy them. They were creme brulee, hazelnut and roasted almond mousse cake and warm chocolate gourmand, which were rich, dense and a bit too sweet for my taste.

Overall a good experience with attentive service by a waiter with a French accent so thick that he made me wonder whether he was really from the Midwest.

I also liked Flytrap, where I had very good French bread and a prawn salad that was very refreshing but the service was slow, in part due to our large party.

The next stop was Out The Door, the casual sibling of the much-hyped and beloved Slanted Door in the Westfield mall located within walking distance from the hotel. It was very convenient and I vowed to explore that food court more next time.

Out The Door serves Vietnamese food, or rather, Americanized versions of the venerated cuisine. Don't get me wrong. I liked my chicken thigh curry with tiny grains of rice. It hit the spot after days of consuming bland and heavy soups and sauces. The dark meat was juicy and the spices made me sweat but I was happy.

We also had the vegetarian fresh rolls made with tofu, shiitakes, cabbage, mint and peanut sauce, which were bland. My companions had the grilled lemongrass pork over rice noodles with imperial rolls, cucumber and mint, which was meant to be bun with BBQ pork, but turned out to be a watered down version of the real deal with dry, overly sweet meat. Another had the lemongrass chicken with red onions, jalapeños, roasted chili paste and peanuts with rice. The red onion was the star of this dish -- crispy and slightly sweet with a hint of spice. A vegetarian ordered baby spinach sauteed with garlic and caramelized shallots, which reminded me of spinach namul, a Korean side-dish of steamed spinach seasoned with garlic, salt and green onions. It was good but not substantial enough to base an entire meal around.

I've had good food at Slanted Door, but am turned off by the way it charges $24 for its shaking beef, or bo luc lac. Maybe Slanted Door uses extra-good quality free-range beef and adds a modern twist to it, but it tastes similar to (but not as good as) the bo luc lac I've had in Little Saigon -- that splendid Vietnamese dish of stir-fried filet mignon cubes accompanied by watercress and a lemony dipping sauce. Maybe Slanted Door made Vietnamese food more accessible to the masses but I look forward to exploring Little Saigon more than I do going to SD. I have nothing against it, but am convinced I could find so much better for so much less in Westminster where the largest population of Vietnamese Americans live.

Now for the best part: Beard Papa cream puffs in not one but two shops within walking distance from the hotel. After lunching at Out The Door, I picked up a pumpkin cream puff, a flavor I had never had before, and saved it for my late afternoon snack. One could say I'm a fiercely loyal devotee of these puffs and am usually partial to vanilla but this puff's rich pumpkin flavor with a hint of cinnamon was strangely comforting as it reminded me of fall and mentally prepared me for a Thanksgiving feast.

I'd like to thank my new food stylist-cum-photographer, CC (you know who you are, but I'll call her Catherine the Great), for these amazing shots.

All restaurants reviewed here are within walking distance from the Powell St. Bart Station area with lots of hotels.

570 Fourth St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415) 543-0573

606 Folsom St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415) 243-0580

Out The Door
Concourse Level
Westfield Shopping Center
865 Market St.
San Francisco CA 94103
(415) 512-6776

Beard Papa
Multiple Locations
Concourse Level
Westfield Shopping Center
865 Market St.
San Francisco CA 94103
(415) 512-6776

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Canada Report: Afternoon Tea in Vancouver

I was fully ready to indulge in some serious dimsum and other Cantonese chow, armed with recommendations from an employee of the City of Vancouver. I am disappointed to report that I didn't have great Chinese food or any great food in Vancouver, but it's less a reflection on the quality of the restaurants than it is the restrictions and finicky tastes my travel mates had.

Besides the gelato place posted below, my only real recommendation would be the afternoon tea at the Dining Room inside the Butchart Gardens in Victoria. At $25 a pop, it's a bargain compared to the Fairmont Empress Hotel located on the waterfront, which charges a whopping $55. And the three-tiered spread is not bad, including hot, cold, sweet and savory goodies to munch on while sipping ultra-rich tea (I had the "Teaberry Blend," which I recommend for berry-lovers.)

The seasonal fruit cup with yogurt citrus dressing was nothing to write home about. The hot and savory things included a quiche with dried-up shrimp and Gruyère
and a sausage roll that could have come from a box. You can't miss those delicate little tea sandwiches, of course. We had smoked salmon with maple Dijon cream cheese, egg salad and watercress (standard), mango-curry chicken salad with toasted cashews (my personal favorite), smoked ham with sweet grainy mustard (blah) and cucumber with fresh ginger (could hardly taste the ginger) cream cheese.

Top it off with sweets like chocolate Grand Marnier truffle (too sweet for me), orange apricot loaf, chocolate brandy Napoleon slice, shortbread cookie, a fresh fruit tart (which was bad, bad, bad), candied ginger scone (rock-hard) and a traditional black currant scone with strawberry jam and whipped Devon-style cream.

You may be wondering why I bothered to review this place if I didn't think much of its food. Two words: the view.

I mean, how can you go wrong with such a killer view? This confirms my theory that all restaurants with a great view don't have good food. I usually avoid these like the plague but it's hard to pass up such a nice ambience and view from your window.

I should also add that the pasta one of my companions ordered from the lunch menu was superb. It was pappardelle pasta with grilled oyster mushrooms, pine nuts, roasted garlic, cherry tomatoes and watercress in an olive oil sauce.

Service was good but a tad slow, like in most fancy restaurants. Another reason to come here is that afternoon tea is a treat and seems to be the thing to do to experience the Commonwealth-ness of this country (and you get to nibble on a variety of things).

Yes, as pretty as the flowers were, the Gardens felt like Disneyland, so I appreciated a moment of peace from the throngs of tourists. Although the dining room was full of tourists like myself, it felt more mellow.

Here are a few restaurants to avoid: Seoul House Royal Korean Restaurant on Broadway near the airport unless you're absolutely desperate for Korean (don't ask why we went); Fish House in Stanley Park, which had great salt cod fritters but the day's special of three types of salmon was dry and the salmon didn't even taste very fresh. And it was very expensive.

In Victoria, we went to Pagliacci's, which seems to be immensely popular with locals and tourists alike. It's a charming Italian place (right) with very warm service. Unfortunately, the food didn't quite measure up. We had smoked salmon salad with avocado, roasted red peppers, artichokes and greens, which was good, but when it came to the pastas, it flopped. My massive lasagna smelled like it had mixed ground beef with spicy Italian sausage, which I dislike, so couldn't eat it. I really wanted to like it, but the food didn't deliver. If you decide to go, however, make sure you get there at 5:30 p.m. sharp for dinner, as lines form even before the restaurant opens and only get longer as the evening progresses into peak dinner time.

I was amazed at how nice and efficient the wait staff managed to be at Pagliacci's. Despite the chaos of people lining up outside, tons of hungry eaters asking for things, our waitress never failed to check in on us and respond to our multiple requests for water, more bread, etc., with a friendly, "for sure," or "certainly." I quickly realized that Canadians say "that's for sure" a lot. Not sure what it is but Canadians were generally a lot nicer than people in any other English-speaking tourist hot-spot I've been to. Is it the water?

Besides sampling good Chinese food in Vancouver, one thing I wish I had done is eat at Granville Island's market, which boasts myriad of food stalls and fresh fruits and vegetables. Check out the varieties of Canadian bacon and salmon displayed below. Sheer pleasure. In case you can't tell, that is a real lemon meringue pie. Tell me about your fave Vancouver spots. Finally, a plug for Pacific Palisades Hotel, which was conveniently located on Robson Street, close to shops and restaurants, and mostly importantly for us, a Japanese market that had good green tea and red bean pancakes. My only complaint about the hotel is that it charges $25 a day for parking in its garage.

Dining Room
The Butchart Gardens
800 Benvenuto Avenue
Brentwood Bay, BC V8M 1J8
(866) 652-4422 (within North America)
(250) 652-4422 (outside of North America)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Canada Report: Molto Gelato

Some may suspect I have been rather lax with the postings, but alas, I have been doing my fair share of food hunting in Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies and I kick off my first update with something to cool off from the current heat wave in LA.

I could hardly contain myself when I ran into Mondo Gelato, my favorite gelato shop this side of the world (meaning not Italy), on Robson Street in Vancouver.

I had first run into a Mondo Gelato in Berkeley a few years ago and it was truly love at first bite. It helped that Mondo carried multiple variations of chocolate and hazelnut that I have a soft spot for, including gianduia (chocolate blended with hazelnut), gianduia riso (Gianduia with rice crispies) and Ferrero Rocher (yes, the delectable sphere-shaped chocolate in gelato form), to name a few. It has over 100 flavors.

Mondo beats Pazzo Gelato in Silver Lake hands down, not to mention Angelato Cafe in Santa Monica. I have yet to visit Scoops and other much-hyped gelaterias in LA, but who needs black sesame-flavored gelato when you can have Nutella in all its creamy gelato glory? Better yet, who needs Pinkberry or Red Mango when the more health-conscious have a choice of sorbetto, soy gelato or yogurt?

I relished every morsel of my gelato -- on this particularly serendipitous day, it was two scoops of gianduia in a cup. I happily sampled my companions' flavors, which included vanilla (tasted the wonderfully pure and deep flavor of real vanilla beans, no artificial flavors here), green tea (refreshing and just the right aftertaste that good quality green tea offers) and maple walnut (naturally, I had to try this since we were in Canada and it was perfectly sweet without being overpowering with the right crunchiness of walnut).

I had no idea Mondo's reach extended all the way to Beijing, Rome, Hawaii and three Canadian shops. The closest one to LA is in San Diego (In the historic Gas Lamp District: 435 10th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101), which I haven't yet visited. Maybe it's time for me to trek down to San Diego. How I wish Mondo would land in LA.

Mondo Gelato
1222 Robson Street
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada V6E 1C1