Sunday, July 30, 2006

Epicuriousity Killed the Cat

I have a love-hate relationship the upturned gourmet noses of Berkeley residents. In Berkeley, I love that I can buy the freshest and best organic produce in California. However, I can do without the "uppidy" nature of some of the foodies or food servers.

Last month, as my friend and I strolled through the streets of Berkeley, we decided on a whim to sample the various restaurants the foodie-complex known as Epicurious Garden. Epicurious Garden is a commercial center that is home to gourmet take-out restaurants, a wine bar, a cooking school, and a tea house. In addition, nestled within the complex is a lovely, airy, garden area with simple wood benches, trees with wispy, willowy branches swaying to and fro in the Bay Area wind, and a flowing man-made stream that bubbles and gurgles into a gentle waterfall.

Our first stop was the Taste Wine Bar and Restaurant. Although we arrived during the weekend lunch hour, the restaurant looked like a barren wasteland with empty tables and an oily macaroni and cheese sitting forlornly in the display case under the glowing heat lamps. In terms of décor, of note was the sizeable cylindrical pipe that nearly extended to the ceiling with spouts that concentrically surrounding the pipe. From the pipe flowed their wine bar selections, but it wasn't being used when we strolled in. As we were admiring the interior décor, one of the bored chefs peered out of the kitchen, looked at us, and scornfully made a remark about the casual dress we were wearing. Thankfully, we chose to ignore him.

Hey man, you need all the business you can get, don’t alienate potential customers with your attitude problem.

Because the server and the chef-guy were acting up, we decided not to eat a full lunch there, but to only sample a few of the menu items. We ordered an appetizer and a side dish.

First was the side dish of fontina bread. When the dish arrived, I was impressed by the artistic presentation. The presentation of the bread reminded me of staggered Lincoln Logs or fallen Jenga blocks that protruded and jutted outward forebodingly from the center of the plate. The bread was covered in a melted sheet of fontina cheese that stretched off into wisps when you crunched off bites of the crumbly, crusty bread. The bread was so saturated with butter, that it refracted golden light through its translucent edges. It was a glorified, upscale version of cheese bread from Sizzlers, indeed.

Second was the appetizer of crab cakes. We ordered Maine peeky toe crab cakes which came with segments of ruby red grapefruit, cara cara orange, and lime that had been hand-carved away from the bitter pith and stringy citrus fibers. The segments were plumped and bursting with sweet citrus juice as if they were little water balloons.

The soft threads of crab within the crab cakes weren’t comparable to the marshmallow-sized chunks of crab at Faidley's, but they were relatively moist and tender. The crab dish included a decorative salad of frissee leaves that spiraled and twirled into gnarled strands and jiggly cubes of chilled mint gelatin that were plopped randomly across the rectangular plate. The interesting flavor of the gelatin was admittedly refreshing.

Given that we had just sampled an appetizer and side dish at Taste and were not yet full, our next stop was the take-out restaurant,
Socca Oven, which was also within the Epicurious Garden center. There, we ordered a socca pizza with a crust made from a pressed paste of ground chickpeas. The socca crust was the thickness of a baked matzo cracker and was moist enough to reveal a rustic, gritty texture. The tiny beads of ground chickpeas and the coarse consistency of crushed meal mirrored the consistency of morning grits or polenta. Crisp blackened patches of the crust were charred from red flames that had danced and licked at the socca's surface.

From the way the open kitchen was structured, we were allowed to watch the socca-assembly process. The server layered the socca with v-shaped strips of braised Mediterranean fennel, which had the fibrous texture of celery and the essence of licorice and anise. The cook used a restaurant-style squeeze bottle to squirt an interlaced design of sauce onto the surface of the socca and dotted the socca with bay scallops that gleamed like pearls as they perched atop the chickpea crust. The scallops were chewy and rotund, and permeated with the fishy essence of the sea.

Overall, the food at Epicurious Garden was okay, but I was pretty miffed with the way that my friend and I were received. So in concluding, I feel that Taste left a bad taste in my mouth, and was overpriced for their haughty swagger and the "I'm-too-good-for-tee-shirt wearers" parade they put on.

Because there is no picture of the socca or cheese bread, here, I included additional photos of my friend's outing to Taste including a hamburger (or as I call it, a "lamburger") with lamb bred at Niman Ranch with Acme baguette bread, New York white cheddar, Spanish onions; thinly-julienned pomme frites with a small dish of thousand island dressing; and an allegedly "tasteless" salade nicoise (also from Taste).

Friday, July 28, 2006

Jasmine in the Bellagio

Appearance and food. The two never seem to correlate.

Think about it. It is impossible to look refined while craning your neck sideways as you tilt the oily contents of beef taco and its crumbling tortilla shell into your open mouth.

For me, the worst is when one of my supervisors unexpectedly pops his or her head into my office when I am hunched over my desk scarfing down my lunch. To make matters worse, the only time that he or she happens to "
drop by," my desk is littered with soiled and crumpled paper napkins, greasy wax paper, and I have a dribble of curry running down my chin. Or black rice in my teeth.

I have found this "appearance versus food" dichotomy especially prevalent in Las Vegas. In Vegas, it is hard not to care about your appearance when you are flanked with wafer-thin, super-svelte cocktail waitresses. But how can a passionate eater resist the temptation of Vegas?

Last month, when I made my annual trek to Las Vegas, I was ready to indulge in the temptation.

My first Las Vegas temptation? The Dishes Buffet at the Treasure Island, where I dined on a buffet of shimmering buttered clams, refreshing mango salsa, and orzo with feta marinated in a fruity extra-virgin olive oil.

My favorite Las Vegas temptation? Jasmine at the Bellagio, an upscale Chinese restaurant with a view of the gushing, geyser-like fountain show in front of the Bellagio.

At Jasmine, we started with four classic Chinese appetizers. The first was a chilled jellyfish starter made with toothsome jellyfish that had the combined texture of gelatinous aspic, softened cartilage, and tenderized gristle.

The second was braised slices of Australian abalone served in an oyster sauce reduction. Abalone slices are almost like high-quality chicken breast cold cuts straight from the delicatessen, but have more of a sinewy snap and seafood essence.

Third, we dined on whole curls of spotted prawns that had been chilled and served with a delicate soy dipping sauce that was lightly flavored with stringy sprigs of cilantro. Once the crackly shell was peeled away, a fountain of pristine seafood broth spewed forth and I eagerly slurped it up and nibbled on the crunchy and tender prawn meat inside.

Fourth, we sampled the Imperial Peking duckling with the crispy, seasoned, and bronzed skin glistening from the juices and melting white fat. The duck had been roasted on an open flame and basted in its own juices. Each of us at the table were provided with carved slices of steaming hot duck wrapped in a paper-thin envelope of delicate mu shu pancakes. The warmness of the duck and the pancakes contrasted perfectly with the cooling matchstick juliennes of scallions and cucumber inside the mu shu wrap.

The main dishes included giant Alaskan clams that were seasoned in a rice wine broth and garnished with a nest of fresh cilantro,

Australian crystal crab that was coated with a cornstarch batter and fried with sun-dried chili flakes, chopped shallots, crushed garlic, and sliced ringlets of green chili peppers that somehow penetrated their fiery essence through the thick calcium shell of the crab and permeated the meat inside;

Long beans that were served in a fermented black bean sauce; and

A plump Maine lobster that had been poached in a light seafood sauce and garnished with fresh leaves of zesty cilantro. The lobster had been cracked and chopped into large hunks that were splayed across the serving dish.

At the end of the night, we were satiated to the extreme, but we still had room for dessert.

The first dessert of the evening was sparrow's nest, which is the tender nest of a swallow bird (or a swiftlet). Swallows actually do not use dried grass or twigs to make their nests, but rather regurgitate or spit out strands of saliva which congeal and solidify into strands for their nests. The nest was served in a hollowed papaya shell, and tasted like stringy, slippery mung bean noodles in a warm rock sugar syrup. With each bite of the dessert, I scraped my spoon against the fruit shell so that I could taste and contrast the mildness of the softened papaya with the refined flavor of the bird's nest tendrils.

We followed up our classic Chinese dessert with an Americanized dessert sampler which included: 1) a decedent chocolate volcano cake served with a rotund mound of soft white chocolate gelato, 2) a quadruple serving of super-creamy crème bruleé, with flavors including blueberry, passionfruit, citrus, and vanilla--each crème bruleé had its own hardened, glass-like, burnt caramel crust, and 3) a sampling of Pacific island passion chiboust cream, caramelized Tahitian bananas, a fluffy spoonful of tropical cake topped with a pineapple chutney, and a crisp butter cookie that was artistically arched over the atmosphere of the plate.

As my family and I ended our meal, we returned to the classic dichotomy of "
appearance and food." As I waddled with my over-full belly and my skin-tight (but a few hours ago, baggy) clothes that were literally burst at the seams, I realized that I wasn't on the "appearance" side.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Working Eater Series: Simple Stir-Fries

My most common working eater meal is "the stir-fry." I'd say if I eat at home for the whole week, I will 9 times out of 10 be eating stir-fried vegetables.

Making stir-fries is relatively intuitive, but as you can tell from the overall content of my blog, I love stating the obvious!

In this post, I'll give you tips that I employ on a regular basis, but I hope you learn at least one new tidbit of information.

There are no inflexible ground rules to making stir-fries. Well, maybe some. In this post, I am going to outline some of my "dos" and "don'ts" to putting together a quick stir-fry for an evening after work.

Tip #1: Always use fresh herbs. Don't be shy, but be experimental. Cilantro and basil are two commonly used herbs in Asian cuisine. I generally use cilantro for Chinese-themed stir-fries and basil for a Southeast-Asian or Thai kick. But also think about using mint, lemongrass, or freshly chopped ginger. For every stir-fry, chopped garlic and scallions or yellow onions are mandatory.

Tip #2: Although it is important to include a varied assortment of vegetables, remember which vegetables generally work together. An avocado and cucumber stir-fry might taste a little narley. When you are starting out (essentially, if you are a stir-fry virgin), first try the generic basics, like mushrooms. Also, a sub-tip about mushrooms. If you are wary of experimenting with a unique (and more-expensive) types of mushrooms like oyster mushrooms, then combine the "gourmet" mushrooms with plain, ole' button mushrooms, to extend the earthy taste (and the pocketbook). Remember to cook mushrooms earlier on in the game, so that they can release their excess liquid.

Tip #3: I know I've said this before, but I'll say it again. Always cut the vegetables that you will be using in your stir-fries into relatively uniform, bite-sized pieces. You want all of the same pieces of the vegetables to cook at the same rate. Even if they are different vegetables, I find it preferable to have bite-sized florets of broccoli alongside bite-sized slices of carrots. Of course, you can vary the size of certain vegetables based on their cooking time, but try to avoid the massive discrepancies in the "cut size" of the different vegetables.

Tip #4: Always begin by cooking the meat first, and then add the vegetables, unless of course, it is seafood. Then, you should add the seafood after the vegetables, but "when" exactly you'll add it will depend on the cook time. Always add the ingredients to the stir-fries in stages, because if you add them all at once, the temperature inside the skillet or wok will decrease and the liquid won't fully evaporate. You'll tend to get a mushier, sloppier stir-fry that way.

Tip #5: Finally, instead of serving your stir-fry on regular white rice, try a more nutritious alternative, like black rice (pictured below), brown rice, or wild rice.

Okay, now go and experiment! And also come back to let me know if you have any stir-fry tips that you'd like to share!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Working Eater Series: Taiwanese Oyster Omelet

Eggs are one of the easiest and quickest working eater foods out in the market today. There are no preservatives, no microwaves, and no can openers to deal with. Plus, kids generally like eggs too! You can't go wrong with them.

With that in mind, I want to share a newly-discovered working eater recipe for Taiwanese oyster omelets! (I learned how to make this for my beau, who loves oysters and Taiwanese food.) I was inspired to write up a recipe for this dish for the working eater series because of Elmo Monster's post on a Taiwanese restaurant that served this seafood omelet. It literally takes minutes to make, thus making for a wonderful main dish for a working eater.

Taiwanese Oyster Omelet
10 oz jar of refrigerated shucked oysters, drained and roughly chopped
1/4 cup powdered sweet potato starch
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp sweet chili sauce (can substitute 1 tbsp of sriracha thoroughly mixed with 1 tbsp of ketchup)
3 large eggs, scrambled
2 tbsp of vegetable oil (divided)
1 cup of cooked chrysanthemum greens, stir-fried with 2 cloves of chopped garlic (can substitute mustard greens or spinach for the chrysanthemum greens)

Combine the sweet potato starch, water, and oysters until thoroughly blended. Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in a wok or large skillet until shimmering, and pour the starch batter in the skillet and allow it to cook and set until it begins to turn translucent. Flip the sweet potato starch pancake until it becomes translucent throughout. (You may have to break the sticky pancake up into more manageable patches, and individually flip each patch.) The pancake should have a gluey texture, almost like mochi. Now, take the cooked pancake off the heat, and reserve.

Using the same pan (first, make sure that the surface is clean and unblemished with leftover potato starch bits), add the remaining tbsp of oil, and heat until shimmering. Swirl the scrambled egg mixture into the heated pan. Being careful not to break the egg omelet, heat it until it is set, and carefully flip it, using a wide-brimmed spatula if necessary.

There are two ways to serve the omelet. You can either spread the bed of greens and cooked potato starch mixture on one-half of the omelet (while it is still in the pan) and flip it onto a plate, or put the greens and potato starch mixture directly on the plate, and put the full, circular omelet on top. Either way, spread the hot sauce on the surface of the scrambled omelet, and enjoy!

The fluffy egg omelet is a perfect companion to the crunchy and wilted wisps of chrysanthemum greens, the sweet pungency of the fiery pepper sauce, the sticky potato starch pancake, and the tender and chewy morsels of oyster.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Oh, Those Summer Days!

Although it doesn't feel like it, we are already half-finished with the summer! (I dread the terrible feeling I have in the bottom of my stomach every time I think how summer is almost over.) But, unfortunately, it is true. School is starting again in a few weeks (they've already put back-to-school merchandise up in some of the local department stores), and the fruits and vegetables in season are just beginning to dwindle slightly in their plentiful numbers.

Now that summer is midway through, I want to share a way to extend it with two dishes that are very anti-fall and anti-winter because they celebrate the bounty and wealth that the summer has to bring.

The first dish is very easy. Just enjoy a simple (but lovely) bowl overflowing with seasonal summer fruit. One of my summer favorites are lychees, the delicious and juicy orbs that explode in your mouth with flavor and fragrance.

When I think of summer-time, I think of the brown paper bags that our family would distribute as seed-spitoons for the gnawed melon rinds, stone-fruit pits, stringy cherry stems, and limp spirals of multi-colored fruit peels. Lychees are the perfect example of what we used the seed spitoon for. You'll generate a lot of material for the compost pile when eating lychees. First, you must use your thumbs to peel off the scaly pink rind to reach the juicy, ivory-toned fruit flesh inside. Second, don't bite too hard, because you'll encounter another obstacle, the solid and onyx-colored pit.

The second dish is very easy: chilled, dill salmon. This is what I like to do: although you must first cloak the salmon in a blanket of fresh dill and bake it in the oven at 400 degrees, during the summer, the salmon must not be eaten when it is directly out of the oven, but must first be cooled at room temperature and then refrigerated overnight. After the chilling is over, then bring out the salmon.

I guarantee that there is something immensely appealling about eating chilled (oven-baked) salmon to cool off from the sweltering summer-time heat.

Now hurry! Go enjoy the summer (and sunshine-yellow watermelon) while it lasts!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Crazy Lazy Daze (and Days)

In celebration of me finishing my language course at the Adult School, I am going to post on the blog!

Disturbing Story of the Week: My friend and I were walking along one of the piers on the Embarcadero this afternoon, and we decided to walk to this little "immigrant fishing corner" that is hidden about a block away from the Ferry Building. As we walked by the immigrant fishermen and their catch, we saw medium-sized fishes that were about a foot in length and that looked pretty interesting with these weird psychadelic colors on their scales. (I don't know whether those colors had to do with the "super-fund" pollutants and toxic seepage in the Bay or what.) These fish were just plopped and strewn about on the sidewalk. They weren't even stored in a bucket or an insulated cooler. Just "splatted" on the bare concrete sidewalk.

My friend and I were looking at all the fish as we were strolling down the pier, when suddenly, we saw this tremendous sea creature the size of an adult leg. It was moving its jaw around slowly and had these huge bloody gashes in the sides of its spotted pale gray skin. My friend and I squealed in horror, and my friend asked the fisherman what kind of fish it was. As we were shuddering and shrieking like little girls, the elderly Chinese fisherman-guy grimaced at us like we were mental ward escapees and said, "Shark." He then jerked his hand around as if to tell us to get the heck outta there and quit bothering him.

I guess it's not that big of a deal, but I am just amazed that someone could catch a shark on all by their lonesome and not be worried of death or injury. Plus, the shark was in bad shape, and I felt sad for it. What compelled this guy to keep this battered and abused shark and not throw in back in the water, the world will never know.

Pretty disturbing. But, actually, it wasn't the most disturbing thing I saw that day. I also watched an Indie film (that was depressing to the point that it made me want commit suicide afterwards) and some random guy shooting a gun in the air. Freakin' creepy. I love San Francisco...

I know, I've been a lazy piece of crap lately in terms of updating my blog, but I've honestly been working on two posts that spiraled out of hand--I have five pages worth of text now that needs to be cut down. Till I cut those posts down to size, feast your eyes of some grainy cell phone shots of "oil sticks," or Chinese donut fried-fritters, a warm bowl of beef noodle soup, and chicken curry.

I miss everyone, and hope to be posting again soon!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Happy Hour Hurricane

The local CBS channel up here in San Francisco has this early-evening program called Eye on the Bay. One recurring Eye on the Bay theme is "Cheap Eats," where the hosts point to places to find inexpensive, yet tasty food in the Bay Area. In each "Cheap Eats" episode they air, they dedicate airtime to "Happy Hour Deals" in the Bay Area. It is mildly pitiful (but also spellbinding) to watch the middle-aged hosts trek out in search of free or dirt-cheap food or drinks.

Two weeks ago, I decided to "one-up" the guys from Eye on the Bay, and do some Happy Hour exploration myself. All signs pointed to the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar in San Francisco's luxurious Fairmont Hotel
. My best friend and I hit the town with our purses in hand and one male companion in tow to celebrate her birthday.

The Tonga Room has its share of tacky "island" props. Timed thunder sporadically plays from the muffled 80's era speakers and little spurts of water rain down from a crooked sprinkler pipe into the milky-green indoor pool. (They call that a "tropical monsoon rainstorm.") The Tonga Room definitely features tropical kitsch in its purest, cheesiest, and most unadulterated form, but like the motto of McDonald's, "I'm lovin it."

I love that washed-out bands play live music on the island stage that is situated in the middle of the indoor pool. I love the bamboo stands and dried palm tree fans that adorn the walls and ceiling. Most of all, I love the sugary alcoholic drinks, made "purely" of sugar and alcohol.

The birthday girl and I started with their two-person lava bowl drink. From the menu, that drink sounded the most interesting.

Unfortunately, the lava bowl was saturated with so much booze concentrate that the evaporating chemical fumes stung and irritated my rapidly-watering eyes. The drink was comparable to a pleasant medley of rubbing alcohol + iodine + bleach + ammonia. One taste of the liquid lava juice and my tongue instantly recoiled from the acidic sting. Even the resident ex-bartender seated at our table remarked that the drink was "a little on the strong side."

Thankfully, the mai tais and tropical daquiris that we later ordered were pretty tame, and tasted like artful fruit juice mixes.

More amazing than the high levels of alcohol and sugar in the drinks, were the were minors freely roaming about in the bar. I ain't talkin' about Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton-aged teenie-boppers, I am talkin' about real minors. You know, "young people." I saw a five-year old boy prancing and skipping around in his swim clothes around the bar! That boy sure as heck didn't look like he was of drinking age.

Enough about the drinks and the people, let me get to the most important part of the evening, the food. The Tonga Room offers a $7.00 all-you-can-eat-appetizer-buffet during their Happy Hour. You'd be surprised how easily you can get your fill, but you'll have to make repeated visits to the buffet line to load up the tiny saucer-sized plates.

We dined on sugary slices of cool summer melon; "crispedy-crunchedy" deep-fried wontons and egg rolls; spongy, steamed Chinese buns filled with deep-red barbequed pork; and sticky pork ribs that had been basted in a sweetened soy sauce-based marinade. $7.00 for all-you-can-eat? Yea baby! The food was cheaper than the drinks!

Although we left the Tonga Room the moment Happy Hour ended, we continued to celebrate my friend's birthday throughout the night. We later made a pitstop at Marrakech Moroccan Restaurant where we ordered some drinks with wise-@$$ names (like "Camel's Ride" and "Morroccan Magic"), watched some belly dancing, and smoked a fruity-flavored hookah. But even with the engaging and entertaining atmosphere there, I couldn't get the peaceful island images of the Tonga Room out of my head. I admit, the faded carpeting and the weathered wood-carved tiki statues were in dire need of basic maintenance (or at least an update), but I was made truly "happy" by the Happy Hour at the Tonga Room. I can't explain, but the combination of dyed-tissue paper and toothpick umbrellas, slender plastic straws, and marashino cherries really satisfies.

Update: I thought my Happy Hour discovery was under wraps, but I this morning (August 3, 2006), I just found a recipe for the Tonga Room's mai tai on Food Network! I guess those guys from Food Network beat me to the punch, the spiked punch that is.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Being a Busy Bee

Wow, this past week has been really busy, but I'll get back into the posting groove soon. Let me just give you a quick glimpse of what is going on in my life: an acting lesson here, foreign language classes at the local adult school (and homework) there, and cooking weekly meals with church everywhere!

Cooking for church has been a lot more challenging than I originally anticipated. Get this, the budget is $50-$80 for 80-100 people! When I first heard the budget, I was floored into a stupor! I've been cooking for a few weeks now, and let me tell ya: I ain't very innovative. Fried rice and macaroni and Velveeta. But, I've made the budget twice, and cooked double the food than usual! And I'm proud of that!

I haven't taken many pictures of my cooking escapades, but here are some pictures of cheap potato dishes: curry potatoes and cheesy au gratin potatoes!

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