Restaurant Review: AL’s Place


Chef Aaron London’s AL’s Place is a vegetable-focused restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District that was named Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant in 2015 and has also received one Michelin star.  The menu is divided into snacks (they call them “snackles” on the menu), cold and hot dishes, and meat add-ons, that are all meant to be shared.  One can order a la carte or choose the chef’s tasting menu for $60 (2016) that includes 4 snacks, 3 cold dishes, 2 hot dishes, and 1 dessert.  One can see that a lot of care was put into the conception and execution of each dish, even the “snacks” where I had some amazing figs.  There is a ton of layered flavor, and with the focus on vegetables, meat is really not missed or probably necessary if one orders the 10-course tasting menu.  I went in August, when a tomato and green bean salad showcased these vegetables at their peak flavor.  The style I might describe as new American but there are Southeast Asian (a delicious stone fruit and fish curry) and Latin American (salsa) influences.  Dessert was a very satisfying warm brownie with a gooey caramel-peanut filling, topped with ice cream.  Located in a quieter part of the Mission, the atmosphere is very casual and relaxed.  Highly recommended.

Link to AL’s Place here.

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Breakfast in LA: Sqirl, Huckleberry, Eggslut, The Larder


LA has a number of great breakfast spots.  My favorite is Sqirl, run by Chef Jennifer Koslow.  At Sqirl they serve unique grain bowls that are savory, brightly acidic, herbaceous, and deliciously well-balanced.  I really liked their signature dish, the sorrel pesto rice, which comes with tangy goat cheese, pickled radishes and a runny egg.  Another delicious grain bowl is their crispy rice with herbs (add an egg and sausage).  Here in the Bay Area we have $4 toast, and at Sqirl they make an incredible avocado toast with creme fraiche and pickled carrots, and a brioche toast with homemade jam and ricotta.  They also make some specials, salads and sandwiches for lunch, and baked goods (cakes, cookies).  As in LA, one must drive there (on Virgil near Silver Lake), and I have always been able to find neighborhood parking.  There is seating both inside and out, and usually a line (get there early). Several of Chef Koslow’s recipes have been published in a feature in Bon Appetit, and a cookbook will be published Fall 2016.

Another of my favorites is HuckleberryI have been baking regularly from Chef Zoe Nathan’s beautiful cookbook before I tried the actual restaurant, which is a bright and cheerful place in Santa Monica.  They have a display case with all of their delicious baked goods, and one can also order breakfast dishes, salads, and sandwiches.

Eggslut is located in the bustling downtown LA food hall Grand Central Market.  They make egg sandwiches and their signature coddled egg on top of potatoes that is poached in a small glass jar.  Delicious.

I am a big fan of Chef Suzanne Goin and her collection of restaurants in LA.  The Larder, in Hollywood, serves up delicious breakfast fare and baked goods in a casual atmosphere.

 

 

 

 

Food options in Whistler, BC, Canada


Whistler Village

Whistler Village

Whistler is a great ski resort area in British Colombia, Canada, just two hours from Vancouver.  However, there are limited budget food options.  Here are some places I tried.

Purebread – a good pop-up bakery near Whistler Village Marketplace.  They have a wide selection of breads and pastries.  The apple blondie bar was OK, and the caramelized banana brownie was very good.  The best was the Crack bar, Purebread’s excellent version of Momofuku Milk Bar’s Crack Pie.

Zog’s Dogs – an outdoor hot dog and poutine stand at the base of Whistler Mountain.  Decent, not sure if the gravy on the poutine was home-made or pre-packaged.  Outdoor seating and cash only.

Peaked Pies – Australian meat pies.  Flaky pastry stuffed with various fillings.  The “peaked” version is topped with mashed potatoes, mushy peas, and gravy.

Harajuku Izakaya – bar, restaurant, take-out, and mini Japanese food mart, a block away from the Whistler Conference Center.  Decent, reasonably-priced Japanese food.  I had the udon, which was good, and the chicken karaage, which could have been crispier.

Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory – a wide selection of candied apples, chocolates, and other sweets

There are some higher end places in Whistler, which I didn’t try.  My advice – ski in Whistler, eat in Vancouver!

Travel tips: Greyhound is an inexpensive way to get to Whistler; much less than some of the other bus services.  Buses depart from Pacific Central Station in Vancouver.  On the return trip, there is a stop downtown at the Fairmont Hotel, which is close to many other downtown hotels.  There is no luggage storage at Pacific Central Station.  A Greyhound agent referred me to the Ivanhoe hostel, a block away from the station, which has left luggage service for $5.  They don’t give out luggage receipts, which I was a little apprehensive about, but I got my luggage back!

Finding great food in Vancouver, part 2


Stanley Park, Vancouver

Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park, Vancouver

Reading through the Vancouver Chowhound message boards (search “itinerary”) led to a recommendation for Kingyo Izakaya. I had their bento box, a great value lunch at $16 with so many different components all beautifully presented. The tamago had shrimp and a delicious sauce. The tuna was excellent. Kingyo only makes ten bento boxes per day, but they can be reserved ahead of time by calling. The salted caramel tiramisu was really good. Kingyo is located on Denman St in the West End, near the entrance to Stanley Park. Tourist tip: Kingyo was a great place to go for lunch before a ~9 km bike ride along the sea wall of beautiful Stanley Park, where one can get amazing views of downtown Vancouver, the harbor, mountains, and Lion’s Gate Bridge.

I had fond memories of poutine ever since a trip to Canada as a kid. A search for “Vancouver poutine” led to many of the good reviews of Fritz European Fry House on Yelp. Poutine originated in Quebec and is traditionally French fries smothered in meat gravy and topped with squeaky cheese curds – a combination that will leave your stomach sated and your arteries clogged. Key components are fries prepared to order and a delicious gravy, both of which Fritz did really well. I liked the addition of Montreal smoked meat, which is similar to pastrami. Fritz is a bit more conveniently located on Davie St, south of the Granville entertainment district, than the Eater recommended La Belle Patate.

Yelp also led to breakfast at the Yolk’s food cart, which was solid. I had a duck confit sandwich with poached egg, spinach, and marmalade on a toasted English muffin. The truffle-lemon hash brown skewers were very good. I must say that trying to eat a hot breakfast from a food truck next to the Stadium-Chinatown Skytrain station on a cold, overcast morning in March in Vancouver is not ideal. Yolk’s has a sit-down establishment as well, but it is a bit further out from downtown Vancouver.

Yelp also led to Japadog, the curiously popular food cart with a stand-alone restaurant on Robson Street. I really like fusion (Momofuku, Mission Chinese), but here it seemed a little forced.   Japadog makes hot dogs with Japanese toppings, which sounded interesting and was something I had never had before. One of their popular items is the Terimayo, a hot dog with teriyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, and strips of nori. After one bite I realized I had made a mistake. Nori and hot dogs do not go together.

Overall, I really liked Vancouver and know that I had just a taste of what the city has to offer food-wise. Having done the research for Vancouver, my experience is that it takes some work to sift through all the noise and deciding which sources to trust. At the end of the day, a consensus usually emerges that leads to great food travel experiences and memories. So take my outsider’s experiences and recommendations with a grain of salt and happy eating!

Kingyo Izakaya – website here

Fritz European Fry House – website here

Yolk’s – website here

Japadog – website here

Finding great food in Vancouver, part 1


Vancouver waterfront

Vancouver waterfront

I recently had the opportunity to visit Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada (which might be the most beautiful city in North America.)  Whenever I visit a new city, I like to seek out food destinations that serve unique and delicious dishes.  Bonus if the place is affordable or offers something that one cannot get in the Bay Area.  For example, I won’t particularly seek out Chinese food, even though Vancouver is well known for good Chinese food.  But where to find the great places each city offers?  There are so many different resources online to research new destinations.  I like perusing the best of lists from Yelp, Eater, and TripAdvisor, reading the message boards on Chowhound, the “36 Hours in…” articles in the New York Times, and finding local food blogs.  From there it’s on to individual restaurant websites and even Google Images.  While some sources and reviews are spot on, others can lead one astray.

I found Bestie on the Vancouver Eater hot restaurant list and was very glad that I did.  Bestie specializes in currywurst, a German invention where fries are topped with sausage and curry ketchup/tomato sauce.  I first tried currywurst in Cologne, Germany but had never seen it in N. America, so I was excited to visit Bestie.  They make a delicious version with everything produced in-house, including the sausages.  In addition to the traditional Thuringer pork wurst, they have some unique offerings such as butter chicken and bison.  The dessert was excellent, a not-too-sweet gooey chocolate cake with sour cherries and yogurt.  The hipster staff was really friendly, but my impression on this trip was that most Canadians are really friendly!

I found Cartems Donuterie also on Eater.  Originally a pop-up, in 2013 Cartems made the successful transition to a brick-and-mortar storefront in downtown Vancouver with a beautiful, inviting space.  They have some really unique flavors.  I really liked the Honey Parmesan – a vanilla cake donut topped with honey, grated parmesan cheese, and ground black pepper.  I grew up eating Apple Crumb and Apple Spice donuts from Dunkin, so I had to try Cartems Apple Pie Stuffie, a delicious yeasted donut with a chunky apple pie filling.  Cartems serves really good freshly ground, drip brew coffee.  At $3 per donut, Cartem’s is triple the price of Tim Horton’s (the ubiquitous Canadian donut chain) but so much better.

Miku is a slick Japanese restaurant on the waterfront near Canada Place.  Miku, and it’s sister restaurant Minaya in Yaletown, offers a $28 Zen bento box lunch, which includes five pieces of sushi and four small dishes.  Miku specializes in “aburi” style of sushi that is lightly seared.  Their sushi rice was very delicate and each piece was well executed, especially their signature salmon aburi oshi sushi, made with pressed British Colombia wild sockeye salmon, jalapeño, and “Miku” sauce.  The small dishes were also well done; most memorable was the fried prawn, almost like a fritter with a delicious batter.  Miku is a good choice in a refined setting along the waterfront.   Tourist tip: after lunch take the Seabus from Waterfront Station to North Vancouver to get great views of downtown.  Then take the bus to Lynn Canyon or Capilano suspension bridge and hike in the lush Pacific Northwest rainforest.

What are the some of the ways that you find out about the local food scene where you are visiting?

Bestie – website here

Cartem Donuterie – website here

Miku – website here

Café du Monde and the French Market (New Orleans, LA)


Café Du Monde is the classic New Orleans institution for beignets and coffee.  It is open 24 hours a day in the French Market area adjacent to the French Quarter.  One can buy the beignets at a little take out window, but to get the full experience one should sit at one of the café tables to leisurely sip on coffee while enjoying the delicious, airy, freshly prepared beignets, buried under a mound of powdered sugar.  They sell some popular souvenir items, including coffee mugs, beignet mix, and coffee at a slightly lower price than at some of the nearby souvenir shops.  Everything is cash only.

The French Market has a large farmer’s market selling all sorts of foodstuffs and a flea market.  Southern Candymakers sells supposedly Bon Appetit magazine’s #1 praline.  Try a free sample to decide for yourself (it was pretty good, even though I am not a big fan of pralines in general).  Coop’s Place (found through Yelp) is a dive bar that also serves a full menu of New Orleans food.  Their gumbo (thick and flavorful with shrimp, crab, and oyster) and fried chicken (spicy, much better than Popeye’s) were outstanding, but the rest of the items I had on the sampler platter (shrimp etouffee, jambalaya, red beans and rice) were just OK in my opinion.

Café du Monde website here

Southern Candymakers website here

Coops’ Place website here

Restaurant Review: Cochon Butcher (New Orleans, LA)


Cochon Butcher is a self-titled “swine” bar that serves sandwiches and small plates featuring their house-made charcuterie.  This place was truly outstanding and my favorite in New Orleans.  I went there four days in a row for lunch, since it is located only two blocks away from the Ernest Morial Convention Center, but I would seek it out as a destination even if not attending a convention.  Every sandwich I tried was delicious.  I loved that everything was house-made, including pickles and potato chips.  The muffaletta featured a selection of tasty charcuterie, melted cheese, and olive salad on a toasted bun.  Le Pig Mac – two all pork patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese, on a sesame seed bun, featuring their pork sausage.  The Buckboard Bacon Melt – a ton of house-made bacon.  The Cubano – the Cochon take on the classic.  Pastrami Duck Sliders, a grilled cheese sandwich with brioche toast and duck pastrami.  They also serve small plates, including an incredible pancetta mac and cheese, a boudin blanc sausage, a pork sausage stuffed with rice and served with mustard and pickles, and marinated Brussels sprouts.  There are rotating sides, including cole slaw and cucumber salad.  They also make a lot of sweet treats, including slightly underbaked cookies (I liked their white chocolate macademia nut and PB & J cookies) and a bacon praline, their version of the ubiquitous New Orleans candy.  They also serve beer and wine and sell their house-cured meats, hot sauce, pickles, and t-shirts to take home.  Butcher gets packed during lunchtime, especially when there is a convention, but the line moves pretty quickly.  There is a small seating area inside as well as outside.  Butcher is actually an off-shoot of the full-service restaurant Cochon a couple of doors down, which I didn’t try but would expect to be delicious as well.  Highly, highly recommended.

Cochon Butcher – link to website here.

Restaurant Review: Restaurant August (New Orleans, LA)


Restaurant August is a French fine dining restaurant from Chef John Besh, located in New Orleans’ Central Business District.  They only serve lunch on Fridays, and in addition to their regular menu, they serve a 3-course prix fixe meal that is delicious and an outstanding bargain at $20.13.  There are two choices of appetizer, entrée, and dessert.  There was an amuse bouche of a roasted garlic custard, pumpkin, and pumpkin crumb served in an egg shell.  For the appetizer I had their house-made lardo-wrapped pate, served with brioche toast.  Duck rillete crusted drum (a saltwater fish popular in New Orleans) with Brussels sprouts choucroute and a creole mustard vinaigrette.  The meaty rillette and fish was nicely balanced by the choucroute (sauerkraut) and the vinaigrette.  The strawberry shortcake was an elegantly presented dessert featuring fresh strawberries, small triangles of shortcake, a key lime custard, vanilla ice cream, and Satsuma sorbet.  A nice, light, delicious dessert.  At the end of the meal, their was a gift of two delicious chocolate truffles.

The service is highly professional.  The main dining room is elegant.  Restaurant August is a really well-executed fine dining restaurant.  Highly recommended.  My second favorite place in New Orleans.

Restaurant August – link to website here

Classic New Orleans: Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s Restaurant


New Orleans has an incredible and distinctive regional food tradition.  The Creole and Cajun styles developed from many influences, initially French, but also Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and African that were adapted to local ingredients.  Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s Restaurant are two fine examples of classic New Orleans Creole cuisine.

I was excited to go to New Orleans, because this season of Top Chef was set in New Orleans.  I was especially excited to visit Commander’s Palace, since one of the episode challenge was to re-create some of the restaurant’s classic dishes, developed by chefs such as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.  Since it was on TV, I had to get the Shrimp and Tasso Henican appetizer.  Shrimp are stuffed with tasso (simply put, Cajun ham) and flash fried, served with pickled okra and a hot pepper jelly.  I thought this dish was a little bit too piquant, and probably should have chosen the more interesting and modern foie gras beignet.  The menu is divided into a la carte options, a tasting menu, and a three course prix fixe menu.  In addition to the shrimp and tasso dish, I had a prix fixe dinner.  For the soup course, I had demi-tasse portions of three soups, the turtle soup, gumbo, and shrimp bisque.  The turtle soup is a Commander’s classic.  It is made with turtle meat, along with veal and about 30 other ingredients and takes three days to make.  The soup is deep, rich, and complex, as is the gumbo.  My favorite of the three was the creamy shrimp bisque.  For the main course I had the Flounder “Haute Creole.”  It was well-cooked but not particularly memorable, and I couldn’t really tell how much crab stuffing was there.  The creole bread budding soufflé with bourbon vanilla sauce was my favorite part of the meal.  The top of the soufflé caramelizes nicely over a light soufflé underneath and rich bread pudding at the bottom.

The service very professional and attentive.  Commander’s Palace is located among many stately homes in the Garden District.  It is easily accessible by public transportation, a couple blocks away from the St. Charles street car.  It is also directly across from the Lafayette Cemetery, one of the City of New Orleans’ fascinating and spooky above-ground cemeteries, with crypts dating back to the early 19th century.  As an aside, I would recommend a tour to learn about the history of the city and cemeteries and the interesting funerary symbolism.  There are several in the city, which are also great for photographers.

Antoine’s Restaurant is located in the French Quarter and is the oldest continuously family-owned restaurant in the United States.  The modestly-sized exterior façade hides a huge maze of rooms decorated with New Orleans history.  I attended a group dinner where we shared several appetizers, vegetables, and desserts.  I have to say that I thought the dishes were well-executed, but nothing particularly stood out.  The trout pontrarchaine was good, a huge fillet of trout nicely cooked in butter and topped with a generous portion of lump crab meat.  The service was very friendly.

If one wants to seek out a classic New Orleans experience, I would probably recommend Commander’s over Antoine’s.  But my favorite place I tried in New Orleans was more down-scale (coming soon).

Commander’s Palace – link to website here

Antoine’s – link to website here

Restaurant Review: AQ (San Francisco, CA)


I really liked AQ, a fine dining restaurant in San Francisco run by Chef Mark Liberman that changes its menu as well as its decor each season.  The tasting menu is delicious, highlights local and seasonal ingredients, exhibits the chefs’ technical expertise (without being only about technique), and is not unreasonably priced (relative to other restaurants in San Francisco).  One outstanding dish among many was the rainbow trout, seared on one side to make the skin crispy while keeping the fillet perfectly cooked.  It was served with a smoked trout cream, potatoes, and a swiss chard “jam” with pickled swiss chard ribs.  Well-balanced and delicious. The braised root vegetable was really transformed by braising in red wine.  It is paired with a cassoulet of boar confit, beans, and a sweet prune jam.  The desserts are unique and creative, including a sorbet that tasted of pure apple and a dessert that straddled the line between sweet and savory, with thyme, olive oil, and olives.  One disappointment was the truffle supplement.  Three slices of shaved truffle that did not add much flavor or aroma to an otherwise great dish of black walnuts, wheat berries, and oats in an aromatic mushroom broth.  Service was very professional, and they even kindly sent out a complimentary chocolate birthday cake.  Chef Liberman was expediting at the pass in front of an open kitchen and brought over and explained several of the dishes and answered questions.  Overall an excellent meal in an elegant setting with outstanding service.  Definitely recommended.

On a side note, over the past several years, many menus are being written in a style where a dish is not described in terms of preparation but simply as a list of ingredients.  This style puts the focus on the ingredients and de-emphasizes technique, but often leaves the diner puzzled about what they are actually going to get when the food arrives.  I kind of want to know what I am going to get, but on the other hand some people like being surprised.

Link to AQ web site here.

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