Friday, January 27, 2006

Eating on the job

I feel like there is a big gap for easy, packed lunches for adults to eat at work that still needs to be filled by the grocery market. They have crappy lunch things for kids, but they are pretty gross.

Yesterday for lunch, I had this:

Annie Chun's Udon Soup

I have to say, it was pretty good. I got it on sale, so it was about $2.50. The prep method involves some hot water and a microwave, both of which I have access to at work, so it's perfectly convenient. It's shelf-stable, so there is no problem with getting it and letting it sit around a while until I feel like eating it.

However, since I also have bowls at work, I can use regular udon packs (with soup), which only set me back by about $2-3 per pack of three with the same prep method! I just didn't think to try to make them at work before. But it's perfectly plausible. I'll have to add them to my collection of work foods.

I also have little packets of microwaveable, single serving rice (not that crap Uncle Ben's), single serving seasoned & toasted seaweed, instant miso soup, cans of pop-top tuna, cans of soup, kosher salt, a pepper grinder, good extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Fiber One cereal, instant oatmeal, a small cutting board, two knives, and a vegetable peeler at work. The peeler is for when I buy hard cheeses to put on top of my salads or in my sandwiches. I shop a few times a month for salad or sandwich supplies, with some fruits thrown in. Having these things around me gives me a lot more option for lunch than the paltry establishments around my work and gives me a healthier option than is generally available for lunch.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Vik's Chaat Corner

Saturday morning, we headed out to Vik's Chaat Corner in Berkeley. We had heard great things about this fun warehouse full of Indian street foods, served cafeteria-style.

We arrived around... 12:30pm on Saturday, found good parking as it is in a warehouse district, and proceeded to stare at their food listings trying to figure out what we want to get. We had not had the benefit of looking up the menu with photos beforehand, so we took a shot in the dark.

We ended up with:

Bhel Puri $3.50

Lamb Baida Roti $5.50


Samosa Cholle $3.50

The samosas were some of the best I've ever had, with a pungent, kick-y curry spice in the potatoes. The "cholle" (I think this refers to the garbanzo curry that comes with the dish) was pretty good -- not remarkable, but pretty good.

The lamb baida roti was REALLY good. It had a minced & spiced lamb filling in the flattened bread -- pretty straightforward, and pretty damn good. It was a pretty thin layer of filling, not like a bursting burrito if that is what you are expecting (so don't). I would eat this again and again. Compared to some of the other dishes there, $5.50 seems a little on the pricy side, but I'd say it was well-worth it.

The bhel puri was the only bomb. We didn't know what to expect and chose it semi-randomly. It was a cold dish with little puffed rice kernels, and I was expecting neither the cold nor the puffed rice-ness (ok, not a word) of it. Oh well. Live and learn.

Seppo and I plan to go back again this weekend, except with a couple of friends so that we can try a bigger variety of dishes. Tasty!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

What I Expect.

I eat all sorts of things.

When I cook at home, I expect to either have a nice, simple meal, learn something, have a good time preparing the meal, for it to be cheaper than most restaurants, and for it to be healthy, and/or tasty.

When I eat, for <$20, I expect that the food will be relatively simple, but good. I'm thinking a good burrito, a nice burger, sushi from Geta - something along those lines. Your sort of standard walk in & eat, or take out sort of food. Sustenance, not art, but still pleasureable.

$20-40 sort of holds a slightly higher standard. Aperto, Cuvae - nice restaurants. Generally nicer stuff than I can make, without careful, iterative improvements on a recipe I know well. I'd say there are maybe three or four dishes I could put together that might, with more practice, be worthy of this sort of menu, and they're generally things I could only cook on the weekend. Still, what I expect out of a meal like this is the high end of what I think I can do. Flavors might be something I'd expect, but done well. Aperto, Cuvae, and Angelfish, my three favorite restaurants in this category, do that, and also periodically surprise me with something that's quite brilliant.

$40+, and what I want is an *experience*. When we ate at Morimoto, which was ~$100/per, what we got was an extraordinary balance of flavor. Combinations I wouldn't expect, but were harmonious, in a way that felt completely natural, even if unexpected. That's my yardstick for "fine dining" - that perfect, harmonious balance of flavor - something that has been, and will continue to be for some time, out of my personal reach. This is not something I understand how to do at home, and could likely not replicate it, even given a relatively precise recipe. This is the sort of thing that a talented chef is required to make, and to understand to get right. When I'm looking at $40+ per person, what I *expect* is something that I can marvel at, and wonder how the chef managed to pull that off.

Which brings me to the main point, really:

Rubicon, for ~$45/per, did that. The pork belly was perfectly done, slightly smoked, giving it a just-barely-hamlike flavor, though it retained a very characteristically "pork" flavor independent of the ham. The skin was crisp, the meat was tender, and all the side dishes worked together in various combinations to create a wide palette of flavor to draw from. The pork went beautifully with a thin polenta. It could be accentuated by the dried fruit compote that accompanied it, giving it a subtle sweetness that echoed the sweetness of the pork. The slightly bitter, slightly sweet green that sat to the right provided balance, and contrast that worked beautifully.

The dessert was a nougat glace, which I can't really explain. It was like a nutty icecream, with bits of pistachio and dried cherry, but it was dryer than any ice cream I'd ever had. It was served over grapefruit slices that had been marinating in some sort of carbonated , fruity liquid, that also served as a sauce for the nougat. I suppose that was the glace. It was quite unlike anything I've ever had before - the bubbly, fruity liquid melded beautifully with the creamy nougat, and the contrast between the creamy and very bright pop of the liquid was completely unique. Ok, maybe not - it was like a fruity root beer float like thing, but again, what it had was that sense of harmony, that I imagine would be very hard to replicate.

La Suite, on the other hand, was largely a run-of-the-mill meal. The starter, a pate, with some warm toast, mustard, and cornichons, was good, but nothing I'd write home about. I've had better pate. The mustard was good, and it worked well together, but the ratio of toast to pate was a little bizarre, and I ended up using a number of pieces of bread from the basket to finish off the pate. If I had finished the pate with the amount of bread they'd given me, the ratio of pate to bread would have been pretty extreme.

The main dish was beef cheek, with some vegetables, served over mashed potatoes with what appeared to be some sort of red wine sauce. The vegetables, straight off, were perfect. Absolutely perfectly done. The cheek, on the other hand, was tender to the point of absurdity, and lacking any real beefy punch. It was good, but the lack of textual contrast between the beef, and the mashed potato was a little disappointing, and I expected more of a beefy flavor. Maybe that's what the cheek is supposed to be, but I found it less appealing than it could have been. The sauce was also overpowering, and very hard to eat without a spoonful of mashed potatoes. That is, the beef, on its own, was overpowered by the sauce, and needed to the potato to cut the saltiness of the whole thing.

I don't mean to sound like it was a bad meal - it wasn't - but instead of the $40+ category, it's squarely in the low end of the $20+ category. I've had many superior meals at Aperto. Not to mention that the service was absolute crap. The guy who came later to keep our water full was spectacular, and I'd have switched him with the main waiter, who was a condescending, brusque snot. We mused that if we'd had a more competant waiter, the whole experience would likely have left a very, very different perception in our minds. But fundamentally, the whole experience is what I'm looking for, when we're eating in that price range, and that man had no place at a fine dining establishment. Boy, do I sound snooty.

Still, Rubicon? For $50, yes. A fine meal, and one I would definitely try again, on some special occasion. La Suite? For $35, no. For $20, yes, but that's a pretty big difference.

La Suite

Tonight, Seppo, Seppo's mom, and I went to La Suite, as a part of the 5th Annual San Francisco Dine About Town event.

Here is the menu from the DAT website:

First Course
Soup of the day
Butter lettuce salad with mustard vinaigrette
Country pate style with cornichons, old fashioned mustard and croutons

Second Course
Oven roasted Monkfish with piperade, yukon gold potatoes, manila clams
Cassoulet with house made sausage, bacon, duck confit and cannelini beans
Slow-braised beef cheek daube with cipollini onions and cabernet wine sauce

Third Course
Pain perdu
Trio of chocolate
Apple tart with crème anglaise

The menu we were presented with was actually different. The second course options were the monkfish, beef cheek, and the "Cider-Brined Pork Tenderloin with Brussels Sprouts, Chestnuts, Pomegranate Glaze" from their regular menu.

The dessert options we were actually presented with were pain perdu, apple tart, and "Chocolate Fondant Cake with Red Currant Port Sauce".

Seppo's mom ordered the salad, monkfish, and apple tart. Seppo ordered the pate, beef cheek, and pain perdu. I ordered off the regular menu (after checking the prices to determine that there was only a small difference in the prix fixe menu), and got their "Bone Marrow Flan with Pepper Cress, and a Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette" and pork tenderloin, and didn't order dessert, with the unspoken intention of ordering from their famed cheese platter at the end.

We had a really odd time with the server. He was... odd. Rather abrupt and impatient, even though our reservations were at the ridiculously early hour of 5:30pm, and the restaurant was still quite empty when we arrived. He recommended various reds to Seppo's mom while not even looking at her, even though she asked for a white recommendation, and was quite flip when he finally gave her a white recommendation, just throwing out a name and not going to any trouble to describe its various qualities so that she may make a more informed judgment.

He spilled ice in front of me, which I normally am not that mindful of, but it was more that he didn't notice or care. For such a high-brow place, he felt really out of place. The people who were bussing the tables, as well as another server that was within view the entire night, were quite professional and pleasant. When Seppo's mom's wine came, he just dropped it on the table and walked off.

The bread and butter were very meh. The bread probably would have been ok, but the butter was just so hard. My bone marrow flan was quite tasty, especially with the lemon-y vinaigrette, which gave it a subtle bright note. It's a unique dish that I've never had anywhere else, and it was delicious, so I give them full credit for that. My pork tenderloin was also flavorful, moist, and had a smokey char around the edges. The sauce it was served in was tasty, if unremarkable. I can't say I could detect any real pomegranite flavor. It was served on a little bed of separated brussel sprout leaves and small chunks of smoked pancetta (I think). I didn't really notice the chestnuts either.

Seppo's mom's fish was really good: light, flakey, moist, tender, with a very subtle combinations of flavors that supported the fish well. She said that her sides were so over-salted that she found it difficult to eat. Her "salad" was literally something like six leaves of butter lettuce and a couple of pieces of sage (I think), with a little dressing on the side. The apple tart was perfect though, with a tender crust and apples that were not too sweet but had a pleasant amount of bite to them.

Seppo's beef cheeks were great, but Seppo felt that while it was tender and the vegetables were perfectly cooked, the flavors didn't really complement each other. The meat and sides simply existed on the same plate, with nothing much to do with each other. Seppo's pain perdu (which is bread pudding) was a perfect temperature. Seppo didn't like that it was very banana-y, but it was ok for me.

I didn't have a chance to ask for a selection of cheeses because our weird server just rushed us through and didn't give me a chance to ask for either that or a dessert menu. Arg. I was really looking forward to the cheese platter because, according to many different websites, this restaurant has one of the best selections of cheeses in the entire Bay Area. They also are known for their wine list, but you know how that went. Oh yeah, I checked the final check and it looks like he just recommended the cheapest wine by the glass. Seppo's mom said it was quite ordinary and not really a good choice. WTF, mister server?!?!

Anyway, I would not return. In my opinion, Seppo's starter and my starter were the best things we ate tonight, but they are not worth going back for.


Last night, Holly, Max, Amanda, Uyen, Charles, Seppo, and I went to Rubicon for January's Dine About Town. Uyen and I had chosen the restaurant earlier in the month because it was the most expensive and highest rated (in the standard rating systems) restaurant that was participating in the program this year. Hee hee, we are so mercenary.

Here is the menu from last night:

Dine About Town Menu

January 1 - 31, 2006

Our menus are chosen from the best ingredients the season has to offer. Chef Stuart Brioza and Pastry Chef Nicole Krasinski invite you to enjoy either our a la carte selections or the three course Dine About Town Menu we are offering for the month of January.

Dine About Town 2006

First Course
Choice of:
Grilled Calamari
Garlicky Salt Cod, Citrus Vinaigrette
Chestnut & Celery Root Soup
Duck Prosciutto & Gizzard Confit

Principal Dishes
Choice of:
Seared Hawaiian Tombo
Cipollini Onions, Assorted Mushrooms, Caramelized Garlic-Marjoram Broth
Smoked & Glazed Pork Belly
Soft Polenta, Dried Fruit Condiment, Braised Greens

Choice of:
Pistachio & Dried Cherry Nougat Glacé
Winter Fruits
Wild Anise Chocolate Mousse
Espresso Shortbread, Fleur de Sel Caramel

3 courses $31.95

I had the soup, followed by the tombo, finishing up with the chocolate mousse. The bread served with dinner was quite good, if unmemorable after the fact, but it was served with a particularly delicious butter. Yes, butter is butter, but once in a while, it is somehow much better: fresher, creamier, something. This time, it was something.

They served an amuse bouche after everyone had gotten seated and ordered food and various wines by the glass. I believe it was a tiny round mound of duck liver mouse, with a little blob of fig sauce in front of it, and the tiniest round of buttered toast stuck into the top of the liver. I really liked this.

My starter, the soup, was fantastic. When they brought it out and placed it in front of me, it smelled great. I am not sure what flavor combination I was expecting when I read the description, but the celery root was the baseline flavor in a creamy savory soup, with detectable amount of chestnut, and great little bites of duck prosciutto and gizzard. I think I loved biting into the gizzard the most. Who knew I would feel this way. I had initially though it was little chunks of mushroom because the texture was almost identical. The soup was garnished with garlic oil, which did not at any time overwhelm the other flavors, but gave a nice little boost whenever a bigger proportion of oil-to-soup was spooned up. I would have this soup again.

The tombo, supposedly a white tuna, was quite a disappointment. Whether it was or not, it felt totally overcooked and tasted it as well. It took a lot of effort to separate out bite-sized chunks with my fork and knife. It was dry in my mouth. It was kind of hard to chew. The flavor of the fish with the mushrooms was really well-matched though, which makes the over-cooking even more tragic. I liked the presentation in large bowl-plates that had a slight built-in angles to them that let the garlic-marjoram broth pool in the front for easy dipping and spooning access. I would never order this dish again. Ok, that's not true. I would order it again if I could see that someone else was getting it served perfectly cooked. But man, it was disappointing.

The chocolate mousse was probably one of the top two or three favorite versions of chocolate mousse I've ever had, and it was quite delicious and pleasant my mouth. But it was really just chocolate mousse, so I couldn't expect to be delightfully surprised by it or anything. The little blob of ice cream with an orange fragrance really played a great supporting role to the mousse though, a lighter tasting and feeling contrast to the richness of the mousse.

Seppo should really post about the pork belly, because in my eyes, it was clearly the star of the night. It was DAMN good.

I would go back to Rubicon again at any affordable opportunity. It's priced out of my range for non-special event dinners though. Perhaps I will return for another dine-about-town event or on Wednesdays for their special fixed price menu lunches.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

comfort foods for sick times

My childhood comfort foods (in particular, while I was sick) were:
  • kimchee jjigae (spicy kimchee stew)
  • dweji bulgogi (spicy pork)
  • rice porridge
  • miyuk gook (seaweed soup)
  • gom tang (ox tail soup)
It's weird how the food varies between extremely spicy and bland (thus easily digestible).

Nowadays, my easy go-to foods are
  • instant oatmeal
  • eggs (boiled, fried, etc)
  • instant miso soup
  • onigiri (rice balls with seaweed and usually some sort of filling)
The last one is due to the fact that two of the last four times I have been sick (or something like that), Seppo's mom has brought those over. Delicious.

What are your sick/comfort foods?

Friday, January 13, 2006

worst idea ever

Once in a while, during the process of cooking, I have A Truly Terrible Idea (tm). And once in a while, I find myself utterly unable to resist the temptation to follow up on that self-same idea.

Today, Seppo was sick so I cooked him some rice porridge during the day while working from home. After cooking his porridge, I thought to myself, wouldn't it be nice if I had some kimchee jjigae?

I looked around the fridge and found some kimchee I had been aging for just such a purpose. I had some extra firm tofu I had bought a week or two ago. Excellent. I found, to my delight, that there were a couple of rashers of bacon in the freezer, as well as some ham we had frozen from the holidays. In addition, I had some leftover frozen rice cakes that would go well in the stew, since I didn't feel like taking the time to cook rice. I had a little chicken broth leftover from Seppo's rice porridge. This would be the perfect storm of jjigae.

But as I was cooking, I thought to myself, "Hmm, that's really not enough bacon. I need more fat if this is gonna turn out right."

This is when I had the Truly Terrible Idea (tm).

I opened the fridge to find a nob of unsalted butter. I'm sure this jumped int my mind because last night, I watched some of Robert Rodriguez's "10 Minute Cooking School" on the Sin City dvd, in which he made some breakfast burritos, a part of which was making the tortillas from scratch using butter and lard.

I should have gone for the lard, or even Crisco. Or even oil. Seriously, these are all bad options, but none of them would have been as awful as the butter actually turned out to be.

Without the benefit of hindsight -- or, apparently, sanity -- I took the nob of butter and dropped the entire thing into my gently bubbling stew. I looked at it for a second and thought, "Hmm, I could fish out the butter before it melts all the way," then foolishly rejected that idea.

The stew turned out disgusting. Any reasonable person would have realized this was the only possible result.

I tried fishing out the solids from the liquid. It wasn't so bad that way, but any liquid was utterly buttery and gross. The worst thing was that I realized that in every other way, this was probably the best kimchee jjigae I had ever made. Sigh.

I actually tried dumping the liquid I had and re-adding water and some jjigae paste that comes in a jar. But even then, it was (and still remains, in a little container in my fridge) too buttery.


Thursday, January 05, 2006


Looking for a chill dive in SF to hang out in. Any suggestions?