Category Archives: Restaurants

Fast food in Saigon: Wrap & Roll

This is my first time back to Saigon since 2004. Massive construction around district 1 lets me know that the economy is booming.

wrap_roll_sign

Nowhere is this more evident than in the gastronomic sector. Beyond embracing international fast food chains like KFC, Burger King and Jollie Bee; Vietnamese entrepreneurs have taken intrinsically Vietnamese dishes and built up small fast food chains around them. I’ve spotted chains for cơm (rice +), bánh mi (baguette sandwiches) and bánh cuốn (sometimes described as enchilada-esque).

sauce

Bánh cuốn, being one of my favorite VN dishes, I visited Wrap & Roll’s Hai Bà Trưng location in district 1. Described as the Vietnamese enchilada, bánh cuốn is rice gluten, made into sheets and rolled with meat and vegetables, typically with pork and mushrooms.

banh cuon

Because I haven’t eaten bánh cuốn in a long time (2 years), I’m not sure this is best in its class (in fact I doubt it). But as far as fast food goes, it was delicious. Though leeks, soy sauce and chili paste are available accompaniments, I decided that nước mấm was enough. Pork floss and dried onion garnished the dish, adding necessary salt and onion flavor. Served warm with nước mấm accenting the pork and mushrooms and made to order (bánh cuốn has to be made to order, or it would be crunchy, think of pre-made scrambled eggs) it was a deal at just under $2 USD.

seaweed_taro_dessert

For dessert I had the che with taro, seaweed and coconut milk. In the Bay Area, we usually eat our che cold, but it was served warm. No mind, it was just the sweet I need to cap off the savory bánh cuốn.

Go away, baby!

I consider myself a bit of a Asian noodle soup connoisseur. I could eat a bowl of noodle soup every day, and probably not tire of it, as long as the origin of the cuisine varied. Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Burmese, Chinese… I never met a well prepared bowl of noodle soup of any Asian cuisine that I didn’t like. Whenever the components are available, I like to squirt a couple circles of sriracha, a few dollops of chili paste, a dash of chili oil and two or three pickled jalapeno slices.

Recently, I returned to an old favorite of mine, Vien Huong, in Oakland Chinatown. A friend of my then-boyfriend introduced us to it in 1994. It’s one of those bare bones, hole in the wall places that seat different parties at the same large table in order to get customers in and out as quickly as possible. You have to order quickly and clearly, or else you’ll earn a scowl and the possibility of not being served again. Early on, they used the practice of dumping hot tea on the table to wipe it down, though I haven’t seen them do this in a while. Also, if you can’t use chopsticks, you have to request a fork. Charming, I know, but these kinds of places have their virtues – the food is cheap and quick. Look to the line outside the door, and it’s a sure sign that the food is also tasty.

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Bakesale Betty’s

Fried Chicken Sandwich

The above sandwich is Bakesale Betty’s fried chicken sandwich. In our household, it is a sandwich categorized as “legendary.” Nothing beats it. We just kick ourselves for not discovering Bakesale Betty’s and her fried chicken sandwich sooner.

Just look at the picture–that’s absolute food porn!

Let’s look at it from another angle:

Fried Chicken Sandwich

See the layers? The buttermilk drenched fried chicken breast? The tangy spicy cole slaw? The wonderful Acme torpedo roll? It all adds up to a series of heavenly bites. Much has been made of the sandwich’s nearly 1,000 calorie total, but it is worth every calorie. Just eat a light dinner and/or take a walk. Or eat half a sandwich. Nothing good in life is free, right?

(and a note: they often sell out of sandwiches everyday by 2pm, so do not dawdle).

And because the name of the place is “Bakesale Betty’s,” the fried chicken sandwich is not the only wonderful thing to devour there. There are numerous baked goods that top the charts, such as their chicken pot pie.

chicken pot pie

According to our household chicken pot pie aficionado and fan, it’s a tremendously yummy chicken pot pie. It has a wonderfully flaky crust. So flaky, that I’m going to try their pies. I’d have tried them by now, but I’m pacing myself. And quite honestly, I can never avoid the fried chicken sandwich, thus hindering my progress with pastry consumption.

My husband, not known for liking dessert, likes their sticky date pudding:

Bakesale Betty's sticky date pudding

Bakesale Betty’s is located on 51st and Telegraph avenues in Oakland–there is no sign on their store, but you’ll notice the line out the door. That’s how I noticed it at first (“What is that place? Everybody in the world is there everyday!”)

Don’t take as long as I did to check it out.  And oh, about that line?  It goes fairly quickly,Bakesale Betty’s has their process down very well…and they give out samples to those waiting in line.  I’m not talking little bites, either–but ENTIRE cookies.  When I’ve gone, I’ve seen them hand out ginger cookies, pecan cookies, and mega pieces of their wonderful lemon bars.

Plus, when you get to order, you’ll encounter the charming staff, some of whom will you address you by, “My love.”  You can never hear that phrase enough in life.  You’ll walk out with both your stomach and heart full.

Recipe for Bakesale Betty’s fried chicken sandwich follows after the jump…

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Joe’s Stone Crab

Joe's stone crab

Back when I was in South Beach Miami, I drove by Joe’s Stone Crab, and lamented the fact that I wasn’t able to stop by. I’d sure heard wonderful things about the restaurant, and about stone crabs, but it was not meant to be.

So while in Las Vegas, we were giddy when we saw a sign for Joe’s Stone Crab on a billboard. Oh–put that on our list of things to eat while in town! I did some quick research to confirm that it was indeed the same Joe’s Stone Crab, and that it was indeed stone crab season…and off we went to procure reservations. (The stone crabs are apparently shipped straight from Miami to Las Vegas, coddled in dry ice, but unfrozen for dining consumption–no telling what happens in the off-season. I’m guessing the crab is frozen and not as tasty). Consensus is that the stone crabs at the Las Vegas location are not as good as the ones in Miami, but that they are still quite delicious.

And ohhhh–they are so wonderful, whether or not you choose to dip them in Joe’s special house mustard.

Even though Joe’s does an excellent job of cracking the crab so that the meat is very accessible, do be careful–I still managed to slice my thumb. The shells of the crab are thick, and evidently quite sharp (it took quite awhile to get the bleeding under control). But nonetheless, I enjoyed my dinner! And the crab!

Dinner is a bit spendy (and crabs have high cholesterol)–so this isn’t fit for everyday dining, but it sure is a great treat. And what a thrill to get stone crabs a little closer to the West Coast.

p.s.  Needless to say, this isn’t locavore-friendly dining.

Beaune and Loiseau de Vignes: happy lunches in Burgundy

Loiseau de Vignes gougeres!

We were in Beaune, the capital of France’s Burgundy wine country, for a friend’s wedding…and from a foodie point of view, that meant we had dinner plans. But what to do for lunch? We were staying in the Hotel Le Cep, where I heard Bernard Morillon, a lauded Michelin rated restaurant, was housed. But when we arrived on a beautiful day in wine country, there was no such restaurant–instead, there was a sign that said “Bernard Loiseau” and beneath that “Loiseau de Vignes.” Apparently, there had been a change.

Not sure of this new development, and having arrived in town too late for lunch, we meandered through the ancient city center of Beaune, marveling at architecture hundreds of years older than anything in the United States, let alone California. We always tend to marvel at architecture in other countries for this very fact, before also admiring the particularities of French Belle Epoque, for instance, or English Edwardian. Or in Beaune’s case, architecture from the Middle Ages.

Late in seeking lunch, we settled down at a crowded, nondescript brasserie full of European tourists and took our chances. I ordered a non-risky simple croque monsieur and the husband ordered a classic Burgundy dish.

escargot

Escargots. Otherwise known as snails, slathered in butter and cooked. He happily ate them, and he allowed me a taste. We were definitely in Burgundy, and this set off a food theme for the next day’s lunch. I was going to eat food indigenous to the wine region.

So the next day, having woken up late again (jet lag, jet lag!), we hurried out of our room, eyes on a clock that moved closer and closer to 2pm, closing time for all the “good restaurants” in town. No time to search for a place to eat–we looked at each other and thought, “Let’s try Loiseau de Vignes.”

Loiseau de Vignes for lunch

We checked out the menu, salivating at its classic mien–the rehearsal dinner had been replete with ornate cuisine. Standing there, our bodies a bit parched from the previous evening’s wine and still groggy from jetlag, we wanted nothing but simple and straightforward. The menu, a stark white reflecting the midday summer sun, and printed in equally stark block print, appealed to us in both its aesthetic and content. Simple and straightforward it was.

So we stepped in.

And commenced on a delicious lunch that helped lift the food of Burgundy in our eyes. This was–fabulous!

I have to admit, at this point, that I do not speak much French at all. In fact, I would say I could not speak French at all, if not for the words, “au revoir” and “bon jour” (I learned “bon soir” and “bon nuit” on this trip) and “merci.” Yes, it’s that bad. I know more culinary French than conversational French–but you see that that’s not such a high bar. (Thank goodness my hubby speaks a good amount of French–my pronunciation of the 5 phrase French phrases I knew, as well as French words on signs, drove him nuts).

So ordering was a delightful guessing game at times. What EXACTLY was my boeuf bourguignon on a bed of? What EXACTLY was my pate accompanied with? And what were the dishes I did overlook? Was I passing by something amazing in favor of dishes I could identify? It was a delightful escapade, at least at Loiseau de Vignes, where everything came out delicious…and simple…and straightforward. (Even the interior decor of the restaurant is carried on in that vein–medieval and unadorned stone walls, unadorned cutlery, white plates).

Our meal started off with the most gorgeous, hot out of the oven, poofy, gougeres. If you know about my one and only previous attempt to make gougeres, using a bad recipe out of Ruth Reichl’s otherwise brilliant book Garlic and Sapphires, then you know my ongoing fascination with perfect gougeres. Mine were such a miserable failure, that I am in utter admiration of perfect gougeres. Popping gougeres into my mouth, while peering at the menu at a table next to a window looking out over the hotel courtyard (complete with our friend the nervous bride in jeans and sweater pacing back and forth the morning of her wedding) was a wonderful start.

The hubby ordered a Millefeuille d’Aubergine:

vegetable mille feuille

He was kind enough to let me have a bite of this dish that was quite a display of eggplant–fried pieces of crispy eggplant, with creamy eggplant puree in between. How decadent.

Because I heard that Bernard Loiseau (this restaurant is in homage to him, no?) is a stickler for French classicism, and because I was in Burgundy and was on a mission to eat all that was classic to Burgundy, I decided to go for a pate, Boeuf Bourguignon, and a Grand Marnier souffle.

My pate en croute:
pate

I prefer foie gras pate (if you know me, you know this goes without saying)…but I rather enjoyed this!

But things got even better with the boeuf bourguignon. The day before, my hubby had ordered the same dish at the tourist-ridden brasserie, and he looked with envy at my plate of beef, so tender it fell apart, doused with an aromatic red wine sauce. Say it together, please: Mrmmmmmmm…..!
boeuf bourguignon

On a bed of pasta, mushrooms, and croutons. And yes, I did let my husband have some boeuf bourguignon.

He wasn’t starving, he was having a filet mignon de porc:
porc filet mignon

But the best was yet to come. We each ordered a grand marnier souffle–normally, if we’re both ordering the same dessert, we decide to share. Maybe we were starving, maybe we each just wanted a souffle to ourselves (I mean, really–isn’t it fun to take the first bite of a souffle? And who wants to fight over that privilege?)…but this time, we each ordered the souffle, which arrived like chiral images on our table.

They looked magnificent–even as I took this picture, it only deflated the slightest amount, holding its loft for the camera splendidly.

It was infused with grand marnier and vanilla beans were everywhere…and the ice cream accompaniment was a classic pairing. Oh, are you just not so jealous? You should be, we were in heaven!
grand marnier souffle

Lunch was a great deal at about 30 euros per person. The restaurant has an exceptional burgundy wine list–with a good selection of wines by the glass (something I find sorely missing in the U.S.)

I hear that the restaurant, just recently opened, was limited to guests of Hotel Le Cep until July 24th, when it opened to the public. By the time I got to Paris, where we had an internet connection again, I found very little information on Loiseau de Vignes–only word that it had a lot of promise, in the hands of Patrick Bertron, who was the late Loiseau’s second in command for 20 years, and Dominique Loiseau, Bernard Loiseau’s wife. I also hear that this is a bistro version of the restaurant Loiseau itself. All this, I read after the fact–which I think made our experience all the more unblemished and without prejudice.

We were just looking for a good simple meal. And we found one.

UK Montage

British cookbooks!

A few years ago, I went to England and practically starved (if not for afternoon tea and the fish and chips in between, I would literally have starved)–the good news was that I lost seven pounds during my four day stay. I came home and told my husband that “England is a miserable place!”

He didn’t believe me, being an Anglophile himself. “I’ll take you and you’ll love it.”

He was right. It is now one of my favorite places in the world, London one of my favorite cities that I have visited multiple times now. I love England–and not just for its culture and architecture and beautiful parks and its sights, either. I love England for its (get ready now) food. I think I now gain a few pounds when I visit London.

I thought I’d list a few of the food highlights of my visit…

cheese and onion pasty

Pasties! This delicious pastry/lunch-you-can-hold-in-your hand was a new discovery for me–found on a frantic search for lunch near the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center across the way from Westminster Abbey (talk about the incredible juxtaposition between a high tech conference and staring out the windows to an old historic church across the circle).

I loved them so much, we had pasties two days in a row for lunch–the first day, I fetched cheese and onion pasties at Stiles at Sutton Ground Market. The second day, I did a taste test, with Cornish pasties from Stiles, and cheese and onion pasties from West Cornwall Pasty Company further down the street. (Stiles won).

Now I am addicted to the suckers, and am secretly glad that no one makes pasties in the Bay Area. I did look up a few recipes and was horrified at the lard content–now I’m more than secretly glad that they aren’t as easily obtainable around here.

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F*cking good! (Restaurant Gordon Ramsay)

2nd course seared scallop

We went to Gordon Ramsay’s 3 Michelin star flagship restaurant on Royal Hospital Road–one of Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in the world. It consistently lands in the top 20, and in 2005 and 2004, it was one of the top 10 restaurants in the world, keeping good company with El Bulli, Fat Duck, French Laundry and Pierre Gagnaire.

Gordon Ramsay has a sort of cult status in Britain–he takes up considerable real estate in the cookbook section of Foyles bookstore, and his TV show, The F Word (haha, the very obvious play on his tendency to swear–a LOT) has a brilliant following. Plus, he has at least 9 restaurants in London alone; in a sense, Ramsay is the culinary beacon of England. He burns bright and sometimes, angry.

Americans may know him from his television show, “Hell’s Kitchen” and his new restaurant in New York.

We arrived at Restarant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road nearly 45 minutes early for our seating–usually, a bit of an awkward situation at restaurants. Our plans included sitting at the bar and waiting for our seat. At Gordon Ramsay? No problem. We were seated IMMEDIATELY, to our great delight.  (Later, during our chat with the staff, we found that the restaurant normally only does one seating a night, holding that table for one party).

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Ad-Hoc

adhoc

Last Sunday, Zack and I picked up Anne and Ryan for an afternoon of wine tasting before having dinner at Ad-Hoc, Thomas Keller’s latest venture. Unfortunately, I rushed out of the house before grabbing the camera, so I have no pictures. BTW, if you ever want to take a trip out to Napa: Superbowl Sunday is a fantastic day for it! There’s no traffic and no crowds (we did miss out on the second half of the Puppy Bowl).

In case you haven’t heard about Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller purchased the space in anticipation of turning it into some kind of burger or sushi joint. In the interim, he decided to utilize the space and serve four course prix-fixe ($45) comfort food dinners family-style, but the concept became so popular that the formely ad hoc (pun intended- geddit?) restaurant will probably be permanent. Although I called the restaurant repeatedly and even left a voicemail message, I was never able to secure a reservation. We decided to go out there anyways, since Redd, Bistro Jeanty and Bouchon were right there (French Laundry was alluring, but you’ve got to save some serious dough and plan well in advance for that). When we arrived on Sunday shortly after 5, the restaurant was only about a third full, so seating wasn’t a problem. Although the food is not exactly cheap, the place is relatively informal (compared with the previously mentioned Yountville restaurants) – no tablecloths, and the servers wear Chuck Taylors and gas station attendant shirts. The servers do have that napkin fixation I’ve noticed at all other Keller restaurants… grabbing it and folding it as soon as you stand up from your chair.

Anyways, on to the food. Servings are pretty generous (I was so full that by the time dessert came, I could barely touch it, and wound up taking some food home) and I get the sense that the more people in you party, the more food you get. Also, it *is* a prix fixe – you don’t get a choice, so you eat whatever they serve you. It is comfort food though, so you don’t have to worry about getting stuff like tripe or sea urchin (that’s for French Laundry). I eat just about everything, so I didn’t find it to be a problem. Picky eaters, those with dietary restrictions and vegetarians might.

Our first course was New England style clam chowder. The broth was briny and flavorful, but not thick and heavy, studded generously with whole (shucked) manila clams and batons of pancetta instead of bacon. The potatoes were tender but didn’t dissolve into the soup, and shards of tarragon and scallion brightened up the soup. The tureen easily doled out 2-3 servings per person.

Our second (main) course was braised pork belly with seared day boat scallops on top of sauteed cabbage. We got about 2-3 rather large scallops each, with a chunk of pork belly. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was very rich, plus it came with a side of celery root with melted onions. The pork belly had a slightly pink tinge, with a brown cracklin skin that matched well with scallops that had been “kissed” one side with that perfect golden crust.

Our third course was shropshire blue cheese with fresh pecans and apples. The cheese made a sharp contrast against the richness of the other two dishes, but at this point, I was getting pretty full. I only wished they had given us more apple slices.

Our dessert was a chocolate silk tart with vanilla whipped cream and cream anglaise. I could barely touch it. The cookie crust was light and crisp, and the chocolate filling was creamy but not too rich and not too dark, but I think I only had two bites.

On our server’s suggestion, we drank a 2002 Vouvray Chenin Blanc ($40) with the meal, which was a nice accompaniment. Although we had a trunk full of wine, I didn’t find out what the corkage was. All in all, everybody agreed that it was a pretty good meal, and not a bad price for the quality and quantity of food.

Doug’s BBQ

doug's bbq

People get very religious about their BBQ, and as far as I know, the city of Berkeley is not even located in Texas or Missouri or The South, where I can only imagine people are Religious about their BBQ. Still, BBQ is a beloved food wherever you go–and in Berkeley and Oakland, there are quite a few barbecue places catering to The Craving: Flint’s and Everett & Jones come to most people’s minds. Our friends have recently called Bo’s Barbecue in Lafayette to our attention. They are all worthy barbecue sources.

But my preference? Doug’s BBQ.

My favorite place for BBQ is Doug’s, located on an indiscriminate corner of San Pablo, near the 580 Freeway in Emeryville. It is in such a busy and low key corner that I drove past this barbecue joint for years before stopping in a few years ago.

doug's bbq

The place is as spare inside as it is outside: Doug’s is take out only, there are no places to sit (except maybe on the concrete retaining wall), the inside could use a lot of refurbishing, and the scenery is wholly unglorious (you’re sitting underneath a very busy freeway). But the food’s good. And it’s glorious watching them fetch a slab of ribs or what have you out of the big brick oven inside right before they slather your barbecue in a gorgeous sauce.

Though they are the least popular of all his entrees according to reviews on Yelp, my hubby and I like Doug’s BBQ beef ribs–we’re just beef rib fans, a very rare sort of people. Doug’s brisket–something he’s well known for–is fabulous, too. I like his weird spicy spaghetti, and all his sides. Especially the beans–his beans are to die for.

ari's plate of doug's bbq ribs and sides

Isn’t it fabulous? My belly’s singing happy songs tonight.

Doug’s BBQ
3600 San Pablo Ave
Emeryville, CA 94608
(510) 655-9048

Sneaky Fennel & Short Ribs

lunch at Pearl

Christine and I had lunch at Pearl today. This was very thrilling for me on many levels: one, because I hadn’t seen Christine in almost two months and I missed her; and two, because ’til today, I had only experienced Pearl for dinner or cocktails (both wonderful, but always crowded). Apparently the secret is not out yet; there were only two tables filled the whole time we were there, including ours. The server was quite attentive although he admitted he was New; he didn’t know if we were sitting on new chairs or not. (they seemed different but maybe it was just the difference between night and day, ha)

We ordered three “small plates” but they were hardly miniscule: crab cakes; flatbread with vegetables (sweet potato, feta and spinach? greens?) and short ribs. The flatbread was like a very delicate, delicious pizza with sweet potato puree instead of tomato sauce. Different, but yummy.

lunch at Pearl

The crab cakes were small – about the size of a large scallop – but just a perfect bite or two. In between the crab cakes lay a small quantity of extremely beautiful saladish material. Some flat strands of delicate white stuff with pale green dots; I thought it might be shaved jicama (I love jicama) along with some mandarin slices. It was all very fresh and a little crunchy and citrusy and perfect along with the crab cake. Christine said, “Do you think it is fennel?” I shuddered. “No way!” I hate fennel. I hate anything even remotely licorice tasting. I don’t like black licorice or even red licorice Red Vines. Ugh. So I adamantly shook my head and denied that it could be fennel. Our server came by to see how everything was. “Delicious!” we said. “But what is this white stuff?” We picked up a strand and held it up with a fork. “Oh, that’s fennel,” he said.

What?!?

I had eaten fennel and liked it?! Christine laughed. “I really like fennel, but I don’t like this particular fennel,” she said. She had known it was fennel all along, the sneaky girl! But she hadn’t let on because she knew I would have flung it across the room if only I’d known. Here she got me to eat fennel. I even had another bite after I knew, and I still liked it, but I was able to detect a very faint licorice undertaste. It wasn’t half as awful as I’d feared.

But the best thing on the menu was by far the short ribs. It was a completely boneless rib and when I touched it with a fork, it all just fell apart into melty, tender strands. It was shockingly delicious; braised on the outside and like butter on the inside. I was absolutely swoony. Unfortunately, the potatoey things (I really do not think they were potatoes, but what else could they be? some kind of root veggie) were hard as a rock. The only false note.

We virtuously passed on dessert, which was a good thing. Little did I know that I was going to be ordered to haul my bottom up 90 stairs ten times, less than an hour after this meal, so it really is just as well we didn’t get dessert. But it was, overall, one of the most satisfying lunches I’ve had in eons.

Oh, and P.S. Christine took all the stunning photos.

lunch at Pearl